Photographers weren‘t just heroes, they were legends, still quivering with energy from the spent days of Life magazine, which made photography an essential weekly glimpse of the world in many American households before its death at the hands of television. Henri Cartier-Bresson introduced the idea of the “decisive moment“ in capturing some split-second insight into the human soul. W. Eugene Smith taught that “depth of feeling is more important than depth of field“ in his Rembrantesque photo essays from battlefields or the backhills of Appalachia. Irving Penn captured the mystery of the self, isolating subjects such as the New Guinea mudmen or Paris fashion models before a portable backdrop he took all over the world. Jerry Uelsmann twisted nature into Dali-like hallucinations of space and time with multiple exposure darkroom techniques. Ansel Adams and Minor White explored the mysteries of the Zone system, turning black & white photos into a palette of tones glorifying the spirit of nature.
You can capture a glimpse of that glory at an exhibit appearing at the Dennos Museum Center through March 7: “The Thing Itself: Daguerreotype to Digital.“
“The Thing Itself“ includes all of the above-mentioned photographers and many more masters of the art, including Diane Arbus, Edward Weston, Minor White, Walker Evans, Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and many others.
Any one of the photographers at the Dennos might merit a full exhibition of their own, so what the Dennos provides is a gourmet‘s plate of appetizers, with a choice bite from each master of the art. The exhibit also reminds us of what has been irrevocably lost in the digital age: today‘s photographers can download the “decisive moment“ from the rolling stock of digital cameras, or recreate fantasy worlds at the helm of a computer equipped with Photoshop. There‘s no element of genius, insight or initiative involved compared to what the masters of the art created with sweat behind the viewfinder and under a darkroom‘s red glare using silver nitrates, Dektol and fixer.
Standing alone, “The Thing Itself: Daguerreotype to Digital,“ would be well worth any photographer‘s visit, but combined with an exhibit of the Hubbell Space Telescope photos and the rock music photography of Tom Wright, the current Dennos line-up is an absolute must for anyone who‘s ever been transfixed by the photographic arts.
-- by Robert Downes