When Curator of Photography Tom Hinson uses the word "pioneer," he doesn't mean that these artists were primitives or that their work should be seen today as an archaic starting point for later achievements. These "adventurous artists," writes Hinson in an introductory wall text on display with the photographs, "hauled their cumbersome cameras and barely portable darkrooms into the parks of France, the rural countryside of England and the vast wilderness of the American West." The results were nevertheless commanding: These photographs combine precise description with a mastery of composition and light. Mid-19th-century artists were burdened by bulky equipment and long exposure times, but those limitations did not preclude them from achieving aesthetically powerful results.
The originality of many of these works lies in the way that they integrate the human figure in the landscape. The resulting photographs are neither portraits nor landscapes, but rather expressive hybrids that explore the relationship between nature and human life. Painters such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, around the same time, were pursuing such combinations in order to create historical landscapes. But photographers were firmly grounded in the present. Take a work on display called "The Miner's Bridge, on the Llugwy, North Wales" by Roger Fenton. This 1857 photograph shows a single figure on a shaky wooden bridge that is suspended between a rocky formation at right and an expansive wooded area at left. There is a stream strewn with sharp stones below, and the viewer wonders whether the figure will make it all the way across. The scene is constructed from elementals and evokes the "rocks, and stones and trees" of the William Wordsworth poem "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal." Far from the changes spawned by the Industrial Revolution, Fenton's lone figure is contending with more basic struggles. It's an extraordinary photograph -- both firmly of its time and yet also timeless.
There are riches among the pure landscapes, too. Although they don't include any human figures, they depict nature in a way that is full of personality, acutely aware of its textures and forms. Among the shots in this category, one can cite William Fox Talbot's 1845 work titled "Loch Katrine." A clever combination of triangles formed by a cliff at right and gently sloping mountainous curves elsewhere, along with some intricate foliage to counterbalance the primary shapes and lend textural variety, this image from a calotype negative is a striking achievement. It gives one pause to remember that, when Talbot created it, photography had been around for only six years. He was no tinkerer.
Also not to be missed is Eadweard Muybridge's "Valley of the Yosemite, From Rocky Ford." Muybridge shot this majestic American vista in 1872 when he was working on location as a landscape photographer on assignment from the U.S government. Albert Bierstadt tinkered with topographical features to heighten the poetic effect of his similarly themed paintings. Muybridge, by contrast, documents Yosemite Valley and achieves a rough-hewn grandeur that is very different from Bierstadt's more mystical version. Muybridge was one of the most fascinating American photographers of his generation. Shortly after taking this photograph, he started his now well-known studies of the human figure and animals in movement. This project, which would occupy him for the rest of his life (though he did take time out to kill a man who was having an affair with his wife), was undertaken to prove a bet -- that at one instant during its stride, a trotting horse has all four feet off the ground. His many innovations along these lines not only contributed to the development of photography, but also to the development of motion pictures. The museum has several Muybridges in its permanent collection (including some movement studies). Perhaps these will be displayed at a future date.
This new space (next to the museum café) was previously used to show new acquisitions. Those will now move to an area on the second level of the museum, just outside the Ancient and Islamic Galleries. Because of the light-sensitive nature of photography, Curator of Photography Hinson will rotate shows three times a year. For the viewing audience, this means that we will be able to see a lot more of the permanent collection.
Though there are only 20 photographs in this show, the variety is great and the quality is high. It is a fine start for the new first-floor photography gallery space, a skillful piece of curating by Hinson, and a confirmation of the museum's dedication to photography as a major art form.