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About the Exhibition

June 13th, 2008 · 4 Comments

Andy Grundberg
guest curator
and chair, photography department,
Corcoran College of Art + Design, Washington DC
and art critic to the New York Times

Image Title
Jack Delano, b. 1914
Boy Scout, ca. 1940
Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 inches
Museum Purchase, 1996.7.3
Image © the Artist
See larger image >

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.

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Posted in: Look 3, Mutual Attraction

4 Responses to 'About the Exhibition'
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  • Interesting said:
    on June 14th, 2008 at 10:00 am

    The swath of photographical history that the exhibition covers is wide. It’s main theory is therefore intelligently supported.

  • Interesting said:
    on June 14th, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Witkin’s talk would have been more interesting if the moderator was not as visibly shocked by the artist’s colorful commentary. Although there was passing mention of his printing technique, it could have been better explicated with some help from Chadwick. As for underwater animals in trees it didn’t really work last year either.

  • stephen margulies said:
    on June 14th, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Andy Grundberg’s delight in photography was, I believe, the fully justifiable motivation in his selection of photographs from the fine collection of the University of Virginia Art Museum. Each image is one of the best in a first rate collection. Each compels looking, compels attention. Our present atmosphere of both left and right wing puritanism tries to make us feel guilty for delighting in looking. Whether beautiful or difficult, a photograph by a great photographer makes us feel grateful for the gift of the eyes. Mr. Grundberg’s approach is deliberately open ended. He gives us both the pleasure of immediate vital encounter with a photograph and the longer lasting enlessly nourishing chance that a rich image will sink further and further into our consciousness. In other words, Mr. Grundberg’s selection unites two seemingly opposed pleasures of looking: the delight in immediate encounter of a wonderful image and the deeper delight of thinking and feeling that we carry away. Great photographers are great because they rejoice in both the vital immediacy of our encounter with a bit of reality and the stranger world of our inner imagination, which can take what see in “the real world” and bring it closer and closer to our innermost strang soul. What could be more enticing, sadder, stranger and intriguing that the Phil Stern photograph of Marilyn Monroe on a Jack Benny talk show….two powerful personalities separated by an abyss of dark tone, Marilyn’s sparkling gown balanced by Jack Benny’s dark suit and liver spots. And yet they both have expressions of beautiful melancholy. And yet Marilyn is so beautiful and young! WE are more than ever bombarded with photographic images and that makes the achievement of great photographers more important than ever. They literally save our eyes from being drowned in inanity. They validate the holy gift of sight by allowing us to see images that have soul, the soul coming from a triple meeting…the meeting of the soul of reality with the soul of the selective and creative eye of the photographer and, finally, the soul of the viewer, who can spend a lifetime gaining nourishment from the infinite riches of a good photographic images. In other words…and I think this is inherent in Mr. Grundberg’s curatorship…we get the best of several worlds: the endless openendedness in meaning of reality, the photographer’s ability as a creative artist to respond to that openendedness and yet add soul to it…and the response of the view, who both adds her or his meaning to this marriage of art and chaos. Long live art and life, says, photography!

  • stephen margulies said:
    on June 18th, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    The exhibitions downtown, which have many exciting links to the exhibition at our Museum, are almost overwhelmingly powerful, at the same time raising many questions about the essential nature of photographer and the nature of the relationship between art and human strangeness and sorrow. This is a neverending dialogue. Can we make art out of ultimate misery? Can we make photography into the same kind of sublimely mutant art we find in the surrealist painters and poets? And yet how can we NOT do this. Far from being artificial, art is one of the most natural and unavoidable of human activities, no matter how philosophical problematic! How can we NOT let art sublimate or deliberately fail to sublimate human sorrow or weirdness. But for me the most beautiful and even magical show downtown were the prom photos of the great photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark. She is in the great tradition of Diane Arbus, meaning that she is drawn to the visually and psychologically striking nature of unusual human beings. But Arbus was far more interesting in the existential shock of meeting such people than of their inner nature or “souls.” For Mary Ellen Mark, human oddity is the sign of a profoundly interesting individual with an inner life. Her prom photos are extremely beautiful, with surfaces and textures that are radiant and with people who are sometimes suave and stylish and sometimes awkward and sometimes marginalized. But they are all curiously beautiful. I sincerely hope that it is practical for the Museum to acquire one, especially since some of the prom photos are set in Charlottesville. Mary Ellen Mark is a master of the glory of black and white photography and this is especially clear in her lovely images of interracial couples. Many of the teens in these images are surprizingly unconventional, not always pairing as one would expect. Mark uses clothing brilliantly as an element of tone and design and psychology. I would never have thought that prom photos could be great photography!