In Focus: Recent Acquisitions in Photography
Through Dec. 30, 2012. New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., (860) 229-0257, nbmaa.org
For an institution that only began collecting photographs in 1999 — when the energetic Douglas Hyland was hired as director — the New Britain Museum of American Art has built up an impressive portfolio. This effort was dramatically enhanced by the gift in 2005 of the Helen Vibberts Photography Collection, which includes a cache of early photographic images (daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes, cartes de visite) that would be the envy of the Smithsonian and which opens a window on 19th-century regional history.
The cream of this entire photographic crop is now on view for the first time in In Focus: Recent Acquisitions in Photography, up through the end of the year in the spacious McKernan Gallery. The exhibition, which consists of 120 works spanning the 150-year history of photography, is filled with visual delights and some surprises, not the least of which is how the museum was able to gather such top-notch pieces in a genre that has been so thoroughly mined by other venues.
The earliest works are the exhibit's most haunting. For example, as you walk in the door, you're greeted by a double-sided display case of daguerreotypes and other early techniques dating to the 1840s that has the feel of a police lineup of the deceased, a sort of Wisconsin Death Trip relocated to Connecticut. Nearly all of the portrait-sitters are listed as "unknown" and all strike similar poses, even the little children, as if being sized for caskets. They are all, according to the curators, "descendants of prominent families that first settled this area." Nearby, a late-19th-century group shot of the staff of the New Britain Herald taken by an unknown photographer has the same funereal feel — exacerbated by the present-day decline in print journalism — like Edward Curtis's images of the "vanishing" Indian tribes around the same time.
Nelson Moore was another early pioneer in Connecticut photography, having set up the state's first daguerreotype studio in New Britain and another in Hartford. His "Moore's Upper Pond" has a painterly arrangement; not surprisingly, Moore was a landscape painter before picking up the newfangled camera. Wallace Nutting was another entrepreneur, the ur-Martha Stewart who capitalized on the craze for affordable wall décor and New England nostalgia with his "hand-colored" prints, the early-20th-century version of Photoshop. His saccharine "The Beckoning Road" from 1920 is a fairly representative work.
Branching out from here, "In Focus" is divided into documentary, landscapes, faces and figures, conceptualism and abstraction "and beyond." Plenty of famous names are included: Gertrude Kasebier, Dorothea Lange, Eadweard Muybridge, Lewis Hine, Raymond Smith, Arnold Newman, William Wegman and (yes) Linda McCartney. McCartney's "Go Veggie" is a compelling visual polemic against the mass slaughter of animals for meat eaters (oddly, her connection to photography's famous Eastman family goes unmentioned in the wall text).
Nonetheless, works by the lesser-known photographers, many from Connecticut, are the most stunning in the show. Peggy Crawford's haunting color images from the 1980s grippingly capture the daily plight of women in Yemen. Hartford's Christine Breslin is represented by a winter shot in Elizabeth Park, the rose trellises draped like zombies. Andrew Buck's large-format black and white shot of a quarry rock face in Meriden reveals the intricate geologic cracks in such detail that the patterns appear to be script in some untranslatable language. R.D. Smith's "Boat Building," a shot of the Phoenix Mutual Life building, makes it resemble a charcoal popsicle. And Roger Bruhn's New York City shot from 2004 is more complex than it first appears. One's first impulse is to laugh at the street scene, until you examine the layers of imagery it contains, starting at the bottom with the average dumpy people on a sidewalk, then the wall-mounted lineup of perfect supermodels in ads for slightly outdated fashion, and then above this, the surrounding buildings reflected in the mirrored side of a soulless modern rectangle that has become the visual building block of America's urban landscape.
Abstraction in photography, a seeming contradiction in terms, can be an acquired taste, but the best of that genre here is the extraordinary collaboration between New Britain's own Sol LeWitt and Sachiko Cho. This series of eight images showcases LeWitt's abstract creations, which can often seem cold by themselves but are warmed up by Cho's juxtaposed photogravures of objects in the "real world" that echo his patterns. If you stand back and take them all in at once, it's like breathing a pure hit of artistic oxygen.