Branner-Spangenberg Gallery’s “What Makes An Enduring Image” [October 6-November 12, 2017; opening reception 6:00-9:00 P.M., October 6] is a juried exhibit of some eighty photographs, compiled in a challenging present day when upwards of 1.7 trillion photographs are taken every year, close to 80% by phone and only about 13% by camera [Stephen Herman, “Photos, Photos Everywhere”, New York Times, July 29, 2015]. We live in a rapidly changing era in which photos are taken of virtually everything, from selfies to dinner plates to lease agreements and flat tires and languishing house plants, and the medium has become utilitarian and ubiquitous as water in its liquid state. How do we find the enduring images in all of this?
The term “photograph” was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on Greek words meaning “drawing with light”. The earliest challenge faced by inventors was how to keep the photographic image from being rapidly degraded by light. Nicephore Niepce’s 1826 “View from the Window at Le Gras”, a nondescript-looking image of a rooflike structure, is often credited as the earliest surviving image that met that challenge. In 1839 Daguerre captured the remarkably detailed view of “Boulevard du Temple”, a Paris street with the first known image of humans and a collection of urban buildings that conjure up images of Dickensian meals of gruel, Charles Baudelaire cavorting with Jeanne Duval, and hungry artistic characters out of “La Vie Boheme” figuring out how keep their landlord at bay.
For most of the nineteenth century, cameras were used for portraits of baleful, constipated-looking family members and other potentates, war scenes, and as the accoutrements of spiritualists. Landscape scenes were popular, and the early twentieth century saw the development of photography as a discrete art form, a handperson of science, and a method of recording memories in an increasing number of households. Color photography displaced black and white, and color copying machines made elegant-looking reproductions in a variety of sizes within reach of the masses. More recently, digital photography, smartphones, and the internet have resulted in a dizzying exponential jump to the nearest galaxy, metaphorically speaking.
Thus overwhelmed, where does this leave the photograph aspiring to relative grandeur? The exhibit at Branner-Spangenberg offers a multitude of answers: most of the photos are on archival media, and some use the elegant techniques that were widespread in the early days of photography (for example, the jewel-like miniature intaglio prints by Trudy Barnes, and the wet plate collodion image of cell phones by Muzi Rowe). A number of artists take advantage of black and white prints’ unique tonal values, conveying a stark, dramatic, almost noir feel even in subjects not themselves dramatic (Joyce Savre’s overhead views of farmlands in winter, Susan Honda Eady‘s picture of geoducks).
The search for compelling subject matter leads to diaphanous materials (Michael Belew’s “Shade”) or enormous flat expanses of society’s detritus (Sean Powell’s trio of images, suggesting a sort of bas-relief interpretation of abstract expressionism from the fifties). Landscapes are well-represented (John Lund, Kevin Bond, James Cooper, Michel Teresko; skyscape by Elizabeth Noerdlinger). Other photos are explicitly human-centric (Natalie Strand’s composite photos on aluminum, Mark Coggins’ “A Walk Along the Tombstones”, Lauri Panopoulos‘s powerful, almost spooky posing of dolls and amusement park objects, Diane Fenster‘s disorienting portraits, and Harlan Crowder‘s “Ghost Rider”).
Color photography is well represented in Mary Shisler‘s detailed flower images, Robin Mullery’s large, masterful “Abraded by Moonlight”, Colleen Sullivan’s intriguing trio of torsos, Scott Aimling‘s elegiac image of a lighthouse beyond a jetty (“Otura Seawall”), and Evan Knapp‘s pictures of what appear to be chemical ponds. Tony Williams‘s picture of Las Vegas, with its towering buildings and tiny figure at the lower right, is weirdly reminiscent of Alfred Bierstadt and the Hudson River school. Other artists rely on unconventional formats (Nora Raggio’s round image of flies) or more nontraditional materials (gold-colored “Alien Light” by Pamela Pitt, thick plexiglass by Norman Aragones).
All in all, photography as an art form is very much alive, free from the technical constraints that limited it at various times in the past, and well-represented in “What Makes An Enduring Image”. It’s a relief that the desire for excellence has not taken other hypothetical paths, such as contestants wielding their smartphones like six-shooters of the Old West, seeking to take the largest number of accurate photos of a subject in the least amount of time. Photographs that do not have an object but simply rely on the effect of chemical processes likewise occupy a relatively narrow niche. Untimately, photography as an art form will endure as a combination of subject matter and the human imagination.