and chair, photography department,
Corcoran College of Art + Design, Washington DC
and art critic to the New York Times
, b. |
Boy Scout, ca. 1940
Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 inches
Museum Purchase, 1996.7.3
Image © the Artist
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At heart photography is about looking,
and looking is above all else a sign of
attraction. Photographers point their
cameras, viewers stop in their tracks,
collectors open their wallets and adorn
their walls, all because their eyes insist
on it. In this small grouping selected
from a trove of choice photographic
images held by the University of
Virginia Art Museum, attraction is the
essential and often explicit ingredient.
As these examples suggest, attraction
becomes beauty when it is reciprocated.
Some subjects openly court the
photographer’s gaze with their own
good looks, while others respond to
each other or themselves in situations
made for us, strangers they will never
know. Sometimes the photographer simply grabs us by the lapels and insists we see what he or she has seen, sharing an attention to beauty
that we, left to ourselves, might have missed. Many of these pictures are the result of great timing, and more than a few of ingenious sleight of
hand. If we find ourselves drawn to an individual image, like iron filings pulled by a powerful magnet, then we join the mutual admiration society they embody.
These photographs date from the very beginnings of photography to the current day, although the museum’s collection has its deepest strengths in the century just past. Celebrity, portraiture, and the human body are particularly intriguing territories within this time span. Works by Hans Belmer, Georges Hugnet, and Man Ray portray the Surrrealists’ interest in uncanny states of attraction, a tradition carried on more recently by Les Krims and Joel Peter Witkin. Pictures by Tina Barney, Nan Goldin, and Sally Mann speak in realistic terms about states of modern love, while Carrie Mae Weems and James Welling show us metaphoric and ambiguous signs of emotional meaning. In all these pictures, attraction is both a medium of the message and a message of the medium.