Blue Greenberg: Dispelling the myth of the ‘innocent eye’

Apr. 11, 2013 @ 04:26 PM

“Light Sensitive: Photographic Works from North Carolina Collections,” Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, through May 12. “First Annual Will Grossman Memorial: Photo Competition,” Through This Lens, 303 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham, through May 4.

A butterfly with patterned wings, a bridge pier as a misty dream-like monolith and a coiled object floating in a watery landscape: These are what contemporary photographs look like and are part of two exhibits currently in Durham.
At the Nasher the exhibition includes more than 100 images drawn from both individual and institutional collections and spans the 174-year history of photography from early daguerreotypes to contemporary videos. At Through This Lens, 44 photographers submitted 108 images, taken in the Triangle, and competed for cash awards and a chance to hang their work in a fine commercial space. You may wonder why photography is again in focus in the Triangle but the medium is important; even The New York Times gave considerable space to two photography reviews in a recent edition.
The premise of the Nasher show, organized by guest curator Patricia Leighten, professor of art history and visual studies at Duke, and Sarah Schroth, Nasher Museum’s interim director and senior curator, is to dispel the myth that the camera is an “innocent eye” which transparently “records an image of the world.” The gallery guide continues: “The faith in this myth…has been useful in photographic journalism, courtrooms, television and the internet.” This exhibition deals with a critique of that myth and how the photographers shape our perception and invite us to see the world their way. Although neither show includes photographic journalism, the same myths apply. Witness Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising of the Flag at Iwo Jima,” 1945, set up a day after the invasion to get a more perfect composition.
Vera Lutter’s “Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn: June 26, 1996,” is an ethereal image of a pier of the Brooklyn Bridge, realized by turning a large room into a camera obscura with a pinhole to admit light. The light cast a life-size, upside down image on a large sheet of photographic paper hung on the opposite wall; with such a tiny hole the exposure can take as long as several weeks. Does anyone see the bridge like this? No. The photograph has become the essence of a giant bridge seen through the artist’s vision, not an image of reality.
In Anthony Goicolea’s “Guardian,” 2008, we see a vast snowy landscape with box-like apartments in the distance and chained dogs dotted across the foreground. The artist joined a number of negatives digitally to create this desolate ruin. If it were a painting we would accept it immediately as the artist’s surreal imagination, but it is a photograph with every feature realistically detailed, and we are confused and disturbed.
“Museo del Prado 5, Madrid, 2005” by Thomas Struth is a picture of a group of students, the girls in uniform plaid skirts and the boys in dark sweaters and pants, standing in front of Diego Velazquez’ masterpiece “Las Meninas” (The Maids of Honor), 1656. One girl, obviously not with the group, is looking at the painting; the students are looking down at their notebooks. The photograph is a picture of a picture and comments on museums, groups who go to museums and the notion of the sanctity of art.
This is a big show with work by some of the world’s most famous photographers including Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and Lee Friedlander and contemporary photographers who use the latest technology. The older photographs are archived with touchable negatives; the new work, in a few pixels on the artist’s computer. Photography is a wondrous art form and, although it seems easily accessible, the difference between most of our digital pictures and theirs is the trained aesthetic eye.
The competition at Through This Lens that honors Will Grossman turns out to be a five-year survey using many of the same available photographic tools but focuses just on scenes in the Triangle. Included are traditional film images, film and digital combinations, even a telephone shot. Roylee Duvall, director of Through This Lens, said about 20 percent of the top 20 finalists used film.
First-place winner Chris Ogdon’s digital “Serenity Overflowing” is a misty watery image of a floating spiral object; second-place winner Wojtek Wojdynski’s “Tree House” is a handmade palladium print of a small house with a tree growing out of it. On questioning we find out the mysterious spiral is part of a water system and the tree does not sprout from the house but is behind it. The two third-place winners are Meredith Fraser’s gelatin silver print of a girl whose gossamer shawl floats behind her and Bryce Lankard’s butterfly, caught on his phone camera.
This competition, the first in an annual event, was organized as a memorial to Will Grossman, a longtime Durham resident, a business man, a community activist and artist. He would have loved the idea of promoting art photography in the Triangle; encouraging art of all kinds was an obsession with him. Although the winners’ photographs could have been taken anywhere, many others are focused on easily recognizable local images like Dorton Arena, the seated Washington Duke cloaked in snow, several Durham Bulls’ signs, and a close-up of the larger-than-life dancer and musician Chuck Davis.
The Nasher exhibit includes famous photographers; the artists at Through This Lens are less well-known. All, however, have created images where reality is less important than the artist’s individual view. And the myth of the “innocent eye” continues.
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.