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Snapshot of Photography's Rise

Art review: 'An American Century' sketches the history of picture-taking and chronicles the emergence of photos as art.

September 05, 1996|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — In art museums and galleries today, photographs are everywhere you look. Given their ubiquity, it's easy to forget how recent photography's artistic prominence is. Camera images have been made for 157 years, but only during the last three decades did they edge their way into a position of centrality in artistic life.

That's quite a shift. You can see how it happened by looking at painting, however, which was happily occupying the artistic center when photography came knocking.

When Andy Warhol started to make his great Pop paintings in the 1960s, it was clear something big was afoot. Painting had long reigned supreme as Western art's highest achievement, but Warhol's were paintings of a different breed.

Using a printing process that relied on photo-based silk screens, Warhol was the first artist to take the modern media bull by the horns. Photographic still lifes of Coca-Cola bottles and photo portraits of Marilyn, Elvis and Liz were mass-produced by hand in his studio-cum-factory, simply using paint on canvas rather than silver oxides on chemically treated paper.

Suddenly, photographs were successfully masquerading as paintings. With considerable wit and an inescapable finality, Warhol insinuated them into the artistic medium that had held center stage since the Renaissance. The jig was up.

I couldn't help thinking about Warhol's eye-popping, head-spinning and, in retrospect, somehow inevitable photographic impersonation of painting while I was looking at "An American Century of Photography: From Dry Plate to Digital," which opened last week at the Museum of Photographic Arts here. Its 125 often remarkable black-and-white images date from as early as the 1880s, when new technologies began to transform the hitherto exotic and specialized tool called a camera into a portable, easy-to-use household object.

The pictures were gleaned from more than 2,600 that form the corporate collection of Kansas City, Mo.-based Hallmark Cards Inc. The greeting card company began to collect photographs in 1964. Coming just two years after Warhol made his first photo silk-screen paintings and right at the moment Pop art was exploding like a supernova in the popular American consciousness, the date seems noteworthy.

After all, as the show's beautifully produced catalog correctly maintains, in 1964 only a tiny handful of art museums was bothering to collect photographs. Corporate collections were next to nonexistent. Hallmark's pioneer holdings, which averaged about 40 acquisitions of photographs annually for the first 15 years, mushroomed to 130 a year by the 1980s.

So, "An American Century of Photography" is in one way a finely chosen if rather conventional historical sketch of photography made in the United States since the 1880s. But in another way, it's an illustrative chronicle of the institutional consecration of a hitherto unruly art.

You'll find any number of classic pictures. There's F. Holland Day's 1898 "I Thirst," an audacious self-portrait as a suffering Jesus, in which the artist harnesses the seemingly magical capacities of photography to tell a miracle tale. Alfred Stieglitz's "The Steerage" (1907) contrasts prosperous sea-goers on board ship with the poorer, dissatisfied or unsuccessful immigrants to America below deck, who are now returning to Europe. Imogen Cunningham's crisp close-up of a flower bud and leaves, "Amaryllis" (1933), gives a machine-like precision to fecund, erotic possibility.

There are many more famous pictures, but there is also a wide variety of images by lesser-known artists. The unusually gifted painter and sculptor Morton Schamberg died tragically young--he was just 37 when he succumbed to the brutal influenza epidemic of 1918--but his untitled picture of Philadelphia rooftops, made in the year before his death, is a breathtakingly sophisticated image of an urban environment that appears to have grown with the hard, organic logic and beauty of an exquisite crystal.

One of my favorites among the lesser-knowns is Ralph Steiner's untitled advertising picture (made around 1928) of a diagonal row of six alarm clocks, which splits four cleanly patterned rows of coffee cups down the middle. The clocks' hands tell of the passage of time from 7:45 to 8:10, while the lively rhythms of the coffee cups evoke the morning jangle of repetitive urban life. A thoroughly modern confluence of art and business is both subject and substance of this canny advertisement--an inescapable union that is itself reflected in the larger exhibition.

The Hallmark collection is, after all, in some ways as intriguing and revealing as the individual pictures within it. For, as perhaps the first such corporate collection in the United States and certainly one of the most significant, it stands as a primary document of how the medium of photography, once an art world stepchild, finally came to be thoroughly institutionalized during the last 30 years.

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