American photography developed 150 years apart – Civil War era and recent contemporary pieces – show the promise and diversity of the medium in two new exhibits that opened this week at the Getty Center’s J. Paul Getty Museum. “Paper Promises: Early American Photography” showcases early paper photos from the 1840s to 1860s and their then-nouveau value in chronicling events and moments in time. “Cut! Paper Play in Contemporary Photography” features efforts by six contemporary artists to creatively expand the role of paper in photography and how images are interpreted.
The historical pieces at the Getty offer stark remarkably crisp images from battlefields, Western mining areas, and sights previously unseen elsewhere. By contrast, many of the newer works take familiar images or subject matter and then distort how they are now seen.
Paper Promises Capturing Time
The exhibition offers a rare glimpse at early photographs and negatives alongside iconic images from the period. With today’s penchant for snapping every aspect of life and sharing it online, it is interesting to think back when people could only imagine what something looked like from written descriptions. The introduce and circulation of reproducible photography during the mid-19th century shaped public perceptions of America, the war, territorial expansion, historic events and other cultures. Never before could photos or images be widely distributed showing the aftermath of battles, President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, visiting dignitaries and how other parts of the country looked.
While already in use in Europe, negative-positive photographic practices were slow to catch on here. Americans had loved one-of-a-kind photos on glass, according to Mazie M. Harris, assistant curator, Department of Photographs at the Getty. She said, “They thought negatives were diabolical. They found seeing things inverted very troubling.”
Eventually, photographers marketed the idea of sharing reusable photos with others, albums, yearbooks and promotional materials. The exhibit includes a Harvard Class of 1852 yearbook, mining shots that were sent to potential investors, and 1861 photos that were the first entered as exhibits in a lawsuit.
As the disputes over states’ rights and American Indian rights intensified, photographers began depicting people and places in the news. Images from treaty negotiations are on view, including the initial Japanese delegation to the U.S. and some Upper Sioux who traveled to Washington, D.C., for talks. Paper photography versus more cumbersome shots on glass or daguerreotypes enabled photographers to travel with troops. The exhibit includes shots after battles like Vicksburg, Atlanta after General Sherman moved through, and celebrities of the era, such as Lincoln, Sherman and Frederick Douglas. Other highlights include shots of the Crystal Palace at first World’s Fair as well as how San Francisco and Broadway in New York looked during the period.
Due to the fragility of paper photos from the period, many of the works are rarely displayed,. Even so, some of the paper negatives still have rich tonality, while some have faded. Many images are displayed with protective covers that visitors need to lift. Some New York Historical Society negatives are presented with backlighting so they are easy to see but use LEDs that do not get warm like older bulbs.
Paper Play Cutting Images
“Cut! Paper Play in Contemporary Photography” shows how some artists do not just use paper for developing a photograph. They use paper as a medium to play with images. The exhibit includes pieces by Daniel Gordon, Matt Lipps, Thomas Demand, Soo Kim, Christiane Feser, and Christopher Russell.
The works here demonstrate a variety of approaches used to transform the images into objects with greater sculptural presence. Some create paper models with images. Others cut and layer photos to introduce tactile elements that make some three-dimensional. Gordon (American, born 1980), for example, culls images online. As seen in “Crescent Eyed Portrait (2012)”, he then cuts, pastes, and assembles images into three-dimensional sculptures that resemble works by Matisse or Cezanne. Lipps (American, born 1975), by contrast, inserts images into new contexts as in his piece “Models (2016).”
Kim (American, born South Korea, 1965) takes photos, then she experiments by cutting away items to change the interpretation. Her unusual pieces based on shots she took of Reykjavik, Taipei, and Panama City are on view.
Feser (German, born 1977) makes creative “photo objects” that are sculptural and appear different from dissimilar angles. Her eye-catching “Partition 31 (2015)” is an optical illusion of folded pieces that appear to be multi-sized cubes, but that depends on where the viewer stands.
The Getty exhibits reflecting the promises and uses of paper photography from the Civil War era and contemporary artists will be on view until May 27, 2018. They are likely to appeal to different audiences, but reflect the wide possibilities the photographic medium and creativity offer.
By Dyanne Weiss
Exhibit visit Feb. 26, 2018
Getty: Getty Museum Presents Cut! Paper Play in Contemporary Photography
Getty: Getty Museum Presents Rare Early American Photographs
Photos from top, courtesy of J.Paul Getty Museum:
- Attributed to Silas A. Holmes (American, 1820–1886) or attributed to Charles DeForest Fredricks (American, 1823–1894) Broadway, looking north from Broome Street, New York, about 1853–1855 Salted paper print, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 84.XM.351.8
- Jesse H. Whitehurst American, 1820–1875 Member of the First Japanese Diplomatic Mission to the United States, 1860 Salted paper print, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 84.XP.457.12
- Daniel Gordon American, born 1980 Crescent Eyed Portrait, 2012 Chromogenic print, Collection of Marilyn and Warren Silverberg Courtesy Daniel Gordon and M+B Gallery, Los Angeles © Daniel Gordon EX.2018.5.18