Clark shows antique photos

Wrapped up in campus life, it can be easy to forget about the outside world – including the art world found minutes away at the Clark Art Institute. While many students visit the museum to view specific exhibits for class assignments, smaller exhibitions at the Clark can sometimes go overlooked. The Clark is displaying a special exhibition of 19th century portrait photographs called “Facing the Lens.” The exhibit’s small size could easily cause it to go unnoticed, but its groundbreaking pieces demand a viewing.

“Facing the Lens” is designed to highlight the revolutionary change in portraiture that came about in the 19th century with the advent of photography. Set unassumingly in a gallery that acts almost as a conduit between larger exhibits of impressive, colorful paintings in gilded frames and commanding sculptures, the small scale of the photographs, framed simply in large, white mats with black frames, calls attention to the simplicity of the photographs themselves – but also draws the eye closer to see the complexity and detail that is provided by black and white photography.

One of the exhibit’s largest pieces, “Château de La Faloise, Late Morning,” taken by Edouard Baldus in 1856, exemplifies this contrast between light and dark by distantly photographing a wealthy family on the lawn of their home. It juxtaposes the blank, pale gray sky and darker grass with the elegantly attired family. Yet their expansive home and a tall pine tree dwarf the family, which dons billowing skirts, top hats and canes. The size disparity makes the family’s formality almost comical.

Other photographs are of more notable subjects, such as Gaspaud-Félix Tournachon’s photo “Portrait of Alexander Dumas” from 1854. Photographed formally in a commercial studio, the author’s severe demeanor differs widely from other more casual portraits on display in the exhibition, such as French photographer Charles Nègre’s “Lord Bougham and his Family at the Villa Elènore Louise, Cannes” from 1862. The photograph of a terrace filled with guests dressed in period attire illustrates the radically different lifestyle of the time; the photograph obscures the faces, allowing the subjects to be truly anonymous representatives of 19th century culture and fashion.

The advantages of black and white portraiture can be seen in the details, especially in the use of shadow. “Two Young Women in a Conservatory,” photographed by Roger Fenton in the 1850s, benefits from its lack of color. The photo of two young women in a flower-filled greenhouse would certainly be more aesthetically brilliant if captured in color – however, the lack thereof draws the eye to the simple beauty of the two girls’ pale faces. Blurred in ephemeral beauty, the photo recalls the appeal of Polaroid cameras to capture instantaneous moments in a skewed or vague color palette almost surrealistically, making the ordinary seem fantastic.

In addition to portraits to commemorate beauty or individuals’ appearances, the 19th century found another use for photography – as documentation of medical ailments. The photograph “Private Samuel Plummer (Necrosis of the Right Tibia Following Gun Fracture),” was taken 10 years after Plummer’s wounding at the battle of Mission Ridge in 1863 to document Civil War injuries for the Army Medical Museum.

One of my favorite works of the 14 on display does not appear to be a black and white photograph at all, as the photographer herself commented on its inscription. “The Kiss of Peace,” taken in 1869 by Julia Margaret Cameron, appears to be in sepia tones, although she assures her son-in-law, to whom the portrait is dedicated, that it is a “genuine untouched photograph.” The soft, blurred image of a shared kiss is reminiscent of an aging newsprint photograph in coloration and almost ethereal in its obscurity.

My other favorite portrait is of another unknown – “Master Jimmy Miller, Son of Professor Miller,” taken by David Octavius Hill in 1843. The photograph’s eponymous subject is a boy perhaps seven or eight years old dressed in full Scottish garb, standing in ridiculous sincerity next to a helmet from a suit of armor that sits on an intricately carved chair. The contrast of the subject’s stern face and his traditional attire makes for an intriguing and smile-inducing image that invites the viewer to wonder just how the photographer managed to get Master Jimmy to pose for such a photo.

Effectively capturing a moment in art history where portraiture was changed by the introduction of photography, the exhibition features photographs that remind us of a time when photography was a luxury, not a Facebook-induced hobby. “Facing the Lens” will be at the Clark until Jan. 13, 2008.