I had the chance to visit the National Gallery this weekend in DC and take a look at the two photography shows they currently have up. DC is one of my new favorite cities for museums, close to home and the museums are free. Top it off with some Ethiopian food after a day in the museums and you are golden. What else could you ask for?
The first of the two shows is In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes before the Digital Age. First of all, the title is rather confounding. Did they mean everything before 1990? Because that’s pretty much what the show was. Don’t get me wrong they had newer work than that, there was an Edward Burtynsky print, but in the end I thought it was a fairly vague title for a show. Needless to say there was some great work. It is always a pleasure to see photographs in person after spending so much time looking at work online. There is nothing like seeing work up close, printed on paper, and in all of its super-sized glory, especially when it comes to contemporary work like Burtynsky. Other highlights for me included Julia Margaret Cameron, Henry Fox Talbot, Anna Atkins, William Eggleston, and Ansel Adams. That’s right, Ansel Adams. They had two versions of Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, one printed in 1927, and the other in the 1980’s(?). It was interesting to see how much the printing styles had changed over the years as well as the quality of the paper and the print.
The other half of the photo exhibit was portraits by Robert Bergman. I recently talked about the hype surrounding Bergman and his photos and I wanted a chance to see the work for myself. I was not disappointed by the show. The work is quite excellent. Bergman works in 35mm which but from the looks of the images he does not work quickly. The portraits remind me more of work I have seen done in large format. The photos seem very methodical. They all have a very similar look to them. He seems to stick to a very prescribed set of rules when photographing. The work is very painterly and thought out. The lighting is beautiful in all of the images but almost to the point of redundancy and tends to get gimmicky in my opinion. When something is done really well and then done over and over again it cheapens the experience for me. However, most of us only get light like this in a photograph once in a while and Bergman does it over and over again which should attest to his skill.
In the end I left the gallery thinking about the show quite a lot. I will admit we made it to the photo section of the museum quite late and had to be ushered out like children by the barking of the guards. I did not get to spend nearly as much time with the photographs as I would have liked to. We spent way too much time in the The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works show, which I would also highly recommend. Having had a couple of days to think about the show, I think the work is excellent. National Gallery excellent? Maybe not. A few of the photos have stuck in my mind which is a sign of great photography in my book. But in the end I don’t think I would put Robert Bergman at the top of my list.
Good portraiture to me stands out in the fact that it tells me something about myself. No, it doesn’t tell me anything about the person in the photo other than the color of their eyes or what they are wearing, etc. A good portrait makes me ask questions about my own pre-conceived notions of who I am and how I see the world. Rineke Dijkstra’s work does that for me. So does early work by Katy Grannan and Shelby Lee Adams. The point is, I look for portrait work that changes how I see the world through my own eyes and not just images that only force me to view the world through someone else’s eyes. It is the reason I am not fascinated by portraits of famous individuals.
All in all a good show and I am glad I caught it before it came down on January 10th.