Another History of Photography
Milwaukee Art Museum
longest visit- Sunday, March 16
The main purpose of this exhibit, as reported in the title, is to give a history of photography. This was not meant to be a complete history, according to the plaque on the wall, but one limited to the photographs available to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Also, the exhibit was chosen to demonstrate the photography of people rather that places and things. Thirty-eight pictures were on exhibit, most of them black and white. The dates of the pictures ranged from the 1840's to the 1990's. (This is a short history as history goes.) The main objective of this history was to show how people react to and interact with a camera in various situations. This exhibit also tends to test the accuracy of a modern device that has deemed accurate by the masses. The pieces are identified by the sheet given out at the entrance to th exhibit, which includes artist, year, title, and who donated it.
Most of the photographs dealt with death in some way ( as most of the subjects are now dead), but three pictures dealt with death in the present. Ted Rozumalski's Lee Harvey Oswald (#11), 1963, shows the faces of a number of men, but Oswald is the one about to die. Most people who will ever see this photo will know this history. We know that Oswald is a short time away from being shot, and we wonder what his final thoughts must be, and how he got that scar on his face. Mostly, though, this black and white gets us to imagine death, as we are almost projected into the man who will die. The theme of death continues with the lifeless body of an unknown man who is hanging from a tree in Neal Ulevich's Rightest strikes lifeless body of student outside Thammasat University campus Wednesday morning in Bankok... (#23). This 1976 photo shows death, but it also shows reactions to death from onlookers. We can see for the split second of the picture what each person who was still alive might have been thinking. The rightist with the chair is demonstrating his anger, while the others each react, some with little facial expression at the time of the snapshot, and others with nervous-looking smiles. We can imagine the relief that the spectators must feel that they are not the lifeless body. The lifeless body is centered by the angry man and his chair to the left and a tree to the right. The tree is more alive than most trees next to this body. Eerily similar is Alexander Gardner's Dead Rebel Sharpshooter at Gettysburg from 1863. We see a dead soldier lying in a trench with his gun still leaning upright against the wall, as if ready to go on fighting without its human. We see the frailty of human life as it shrinks below an object that was used, ironically, to kill other humans. Not only does the weapon remain erect, but so do the rocks and soil of the trench. War pictures force us to imagine the thoughts of either or both sides, as well as the feelings of relatives. Here, however, we look for any indication of the thoughts of this lonely dead man, nothing but rock and soil to comfort him. We see his face, like in the other two pictures, and we look for some untold knowledge of death that these participants might have.
Larry Sultan's Untitled from his series Pictures from Home gives us an observation of what we might consider a typical elderly-American home. The first thing we notice is the old lady's lavender cow-girl blouse, which is shiny, and her big round belt buckle. We might infer that this picture is from out West or down South from her Western garb. We see the woman's face, and we imagine what she might be thinking as she stands up against a green wall. We can follow her thoughts to the old man who is seated and watching television with his balding gray head towards us. Now we get some cues for the age of the piece, as the old Zenith has knobs for tuning and an antenna (rather than cable), and audio cassettes litter the book-case it sits on. The man wears a bright Hawaiian shirt as he is engrossed by a baseball game on the tube. The Dodgers are playing. The player we see might be Kirk Gibson, and the game might be an important 1988 playoff or World Series game. We see that regardless of its importance to others, this game is defining the relationship of the two people in this photo. We see the man as she sees him, faceless or expressionless, without feelings. We also see her next to their white drapes, as he might see her, as a ghost of what she once was to him.
I enjoyed this exhibit as it gave a taste of art through photography, not of places or things , but of people. People are interacting with other people, places and things, to form ideas for the viewer. This is as much a short history of people as it is a short history of photography. Nearly any picture taken of any person would have fit into this exhibit, since we all have stories to tell with our faces, and, apparently, with our cameras.
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Another History of Photography