Light Sensitive includes over 100 works, from tiny early daguerreotypes to large-scale contemporary color prints and videos, and is drawn from twelve public and private North Carolina collections. The exhibition is structured to challenge the widespread notion of the photographic medium as a form of mere realism. Understanding of photographic media suffers from the long-standing myth that a camera is an ‘innocent eye’ that transparently records an image of the world as if through an open window. Some of the power of photography comes precisely from faith in this myth, a myth that has been extremely useful in photographic journalism, in courtrooms, on television and on the internet, despite a long history of visual alteration ranging from subtle artistic manipulation to deliberate propagandistic deceit. Though the camera is capable of recording images of the world in astonishing detail, a great variety of photographic tools and techniques can work to take ordinary features of a photograph—light and dark, shape and form, depth and space, size and scale, soft and sharp focus—and transform them into elements that alter our vision.
To emphasize how these aspects of the photographic medium operate, works from across the history of this medium and photography-based media are organized into the following sections, each highlighting the ability of artists to wield the camera as a social and aesthetic tool. Light Magic reveals alterations of light, and its consequences; Intensified Vision ranges through other transformative techniques, such as angle of vision, focus, color and distortions of scale; Metamorphosis presents even bolder manipulations such as long exposures, printing from several negatives and frankly fictional works; Emulations showcases artists’ open engagement with other media, including painting, printmaking, literature and film; and Constructed Identities,focused on portraiture, shows how photographers construct identity for their subjects, or how they convey the subtle ways their subjects are shaped by their society and circumstances. These sections raise questions about how artists use photography as an aesthetic medium, employing their sophisticated arsenal of techniques to persuade us of their unique perceptions.
Light Sensitive is co-organized by guest curator Patricia Leighten, Professor of Art History & Visual Studies at Duke, and Sarah Schroth, Nasher Museum’s Interim Director and Nancy Hanks Senior Curator.