Focus on Photography: Works from 1950 to Today

Posted on January 01, 2009 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, winter 2009
Emily Shubert Burke, Assistant Curator, Special Projects

Focus on Photography marks the first survey of post-1950 works from the Hood Museum of Art's photography collection, in anticipation of and collaboration with this coming fall's landmark exhibition Modern and Contemporary Art at Dartmouth: Highlights from the Hood Museum of Art. It maps contemporary trends in the medium, here divided by two basic subject distinctions: portraiture and landscape. Within these groupings, works are arranged around prevalent themes that have dominated photography in the last fifty years. In addition, a selection of documentary and photojournalist works bridges the groupings, representing an important niche in the Hood's collections with images from Dmitri Baltermants, James Nachtwey, Dick Durrance, and Sebastião Salgado.

An examination of the changing character of landscape photography in the last half-century reveals a number of trends, most notably an obsession with the clash of man versus nature, abstract conceptions of the natural world around us, and the lure of the urban landscape. In crystal clear and brilliant color prints, Joel Sternfeld, Dartmouth Class of 1965, captures images of the American landscape at surreal moments: the aftermath of a devastating landslide, or the raging fire that disturbs the otherwise bucolic setting of McLean, Virginia (Pumpkins), December 1978. Stephen Shore's photographs, such as Broad Street, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1974, depict the commonplace scenes of American life, the suburban streets, box stores, and movie theaters that have become the new landscape of the everyday.

Exploring contemporary trends in portraiture, Focus on Photography concentrates on themes of adolescence, the negotiation of identity through self-portraiture, and the representation of social and cultural roles. Dwelling upon the same young girls in upstate New York in her series Treadwell, Andrea Modica creates images caught between a dream world and reality, fantastic scenes that hint at the narrative within. Nikki Lee uses her own body, adopting a particular style, dress, and mannerism in order to integrate into a particular community and thereby explore various subcultures and ethnic groups as well as their associated stereotypes. The Ohio Project (8), 1999, depicts Lee in a pink halter-top and rolled jean shorts, defiantly hanging out of the door of a trailer. Her clothes and setting mark Lee as an average working-class woman, yet the bleached-blonde tousled hair against her Korean face underscores how an otherwise familiar social identity can become strange or even comical.

Additionally, Focus on Photography traces the advances in technology that propel a number of artists, such as digital photography and computer manipulation, photogenics, extended exposure times, and camera obscura. Despite drastic changes to the processes and products of this medium, Focus on Photography in fact underscores how artists working today continue to appropriate or quote traditional subject matter, styles, and methods. Photographer Loretta Lux, who studied as a painter in her native Germany, has been creating what she calls "imaginary portraits" of children with the help of the computer program Adobe PhotoShop. Using the same processes as a painter—a central focus on planning and organizing the composition with regard to color and form—and stylistic qualities reminiscent of mannerist portraits by Agnolo Bronzino, Lux carefully controls and alters every aspect of the image, spending an average of three months to complete one photograph.

Focus on Photography further premieres a number of important new Hood acquisitions. On exhibit for the first time is Fiona Foley's powerful HHH #1 (2004), 2004, the Hood's first contemporary photograph by an indigenous Australian. With her striking depiction of a group of hooded figures, Foley proposes an alternative history for the uniform: the Hedonistic Honkey Haters, a secret society founded in 1965 in direct opposition to the Ku Klux Klan. Also on display for the first time, Hiroh Kikai's An Old Man with a Penetrating Gaze (wearing a face mask), 2001, exemplifies a distinctly personalized style of portraiture. Kikai's ability to capture his subject's essential character with an economy of photographic means is clearly evident in the hardwon individuality of his impromptu black-andwhite street portraits.

This exhibition presents a spectacular array of images representing the diversity of the Hood's photography collection on a number of levels: geographically (there are artists representing twelve nationalities), chronologically (almost six decades of work), and stylistically (through a variety of aesthetic and technical movements). Focus on Photography incorporates the most recent additions to the collection as well as images acquired during Walker Evans's stay as the first artist-in-residence in photography at Dartmouth in 1976. Offering a fresh look at post-1950 photography, Focus on Photography aims to open a year of exhibitions devoted to highlighting our diverse and exceptional modern and contemporary collections.

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Written January 01, 2009 by Kristin Swan