The Best of Photography and Film, at J.B. Speed Museum
By Bob Perrin
As all photographers know, To see the work of a master is truly an inspiring event. I patiently waited three months to view this exhibit and it was worth every lingering minute of it. I've been back twice, and each time I've learned something new. Its a must see for any local photographer or historian.
The wealth of information in an original print is always striking but I have mixed feelings about some of the photographs presented. One such print is the famous, iconic photo taken in 1945 at Iwo Jima, Mt Suribachi of WWII soldiers planting an American flag. We all know the photograph, and its been memorialized many times over in many types of media including a bronze sculpture in the Capital, and to see an original print of it on display is very powerful but at the same time somewhat disapointing. Let me explain. The original print is just "too" real. It has technical flaws in it and is low in contrast, However the subject matter of the photo, even with its flaws, still takes your breath away.
The exhibit opens with an 1840's dagguerotype camera complete with a device for holding the subjects head still enough for the twenty minute exposure time required for a photograph. We've come a long way baby!. As you enter the exhibit you are greeted with Mathew Brady's small photograph of Abraham Lincoln. Its seems that photography was so new then, that the image of Lincoln played a large role in his election as President.
When I turned away from the picture a small girl walked up to it with a magnifying glass and closely studied it, as if to make some sort of new discovery, and in an instant, I remembered why I took to photography so easily. Its my sense of curiosity and wonder that has never let me down. I told the girls parents "Thats a Kodak moment"...They readily agreed.
Thoughout the exhibit there are glass cases with an array of antique cameras of the periods depicted in the prints. Chuck Rubin, a photo historian and collector, has many items displayed and has a wealth of information about them.
A little farther into the exhibit are some Civil War images of Gettysburg, and some images from Robert Capa's WWII war correspondent days. One in particular is the landing at Omaha beach with soldiers literally crawling ashore under fire. The Vietnam War images are particularly heartbreaking because I lived thru those images being broadcast sometimes in real time from across an ocean as I safely sat in front of my televison.
Harold Edgerton's technical genius with high speed photography is simply amazing. The famous photo of a bullet frozen in flight after piercing an apple has long been one of my favorites. There are a few of his others there as well, such as the milk drop crown etc.
For me personally, on a artistic level, The photographs of Manuel Alvarez Bravo stole the show. They are without equal and are some of the most technically perfect photographs I've ever seen. In particular his 1935 print titled "Portrait of the Eternal" is a study in highlight and shadow detail that has to be seen to be believed. I was kinda disapointed they didn't have more of his work, well, maybe I'll come across it somewhere else in the future.
A wonderful large portrait of Albert Einstien taken in 1948 with his hair combed and slicked back, hangs in a position of prominence as if to say "See, I clean up pretty good don't I ".
Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" and "Angel Bread Line" are displayed there and its easy to see why she is truly, an "Icon of American photography".
The works of Masters such as: Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen, Mary Ellen Mark, Henri Cartier Bresson, Gary Winogrand, and many others always stand the test of time and seeing their work up close is like drinking a fine wine.
Throughout the exhibit my emotions ran the gammut from extreme praise of these masters works, to the panic that I may never realize my lifetime dream of being among them, but still I pressed on.
One wall in the exhibit is dedicated to film stars long gone, the "Greats of Entertainment" from the silver screen. A guard told me a story about Johnny Wisemuller (the original "Tarzan") and how at eighty years old he was still beating on his chest and yelling "ahh ohh hee ohh hee ohh! for his visitors to the nursing home he was in. True to his character till the end.
As I said before, the show brings to the surface emotions that only truly great photographs can, and for me it was a very special treat to be able to see them all at one time. it was overwelming at times, but a must see.
Near the end of the exhibit is a lone photograph hanging on a bare wall, its depth of insight is almost impossible to describe. Its a photograph by Jeff Mermelstein of a park near the World Trade Center taken shortly after the buildings came down. The scene is eerily quiet and has almost a surrealistic feel to it.The park is totally filled with office papers and a kind of grey soot blankets everything, and in the dead center of the picture there is a man sitting peacefully on a park bench covered in soot working on a laptop computer. The moment I saw the photo I couldn't take my eyes off it and stood looking at it almost afraid to turn my back on it, but then I realized the figure was a lifelike statue of a man sitting on that bench covered in ash. What a great Photograph.... I personally believe, that when this photo is brought into the mainstream, in its own time, it will be one of a very elite few that will prove to be a reminder to modern civilization that we still have a lot to learn and it will earn its place in American history.
It seems kinda strange, but it was raining when I left the exhibit like it has just about every time I visit the Speed Museum. Its almost like a new beginning for me when I see great work. It gives me a new goal to work towards and capture the curiosity I love so much . For me there is no other way.
The Best of Film and Photography runs thru September 16 2007 at the J.B.Speed Museum.