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Modern & Contemporary Gallery

The Real and the Imagined: Selections from the Photography Collection

October 26, 2016 – May 28, 2017
Clarence John Laughlin, The Language of Light, 1952. Gelatin silver print. Collection of the Nasher Museum. Gift of James and Jane Finch.

The Nasher Museum presented Selections from the Photography Collection, as part of The Collection Galleries.

Photography is a deceptive medium. It has the ability to capture fleeting, candid moments with a supposed accuracy and precision that we take for granted. Photographs may also be infinitely manipulated, however, and have the potential to present imagery that is suspect in its veracity or utterly fantastical in nature. The Real and the Imagined was a selection of 23 photographs from the Nasher Museum’s collection spanning a century and a half and illustrating some of the ways in which photographers have documented, altered or completely invented their imagery. Some of the works included here have been modified or staged, while others are entirely unaltered. When seen together as a group, it becomes clear that it can often be difficult to distinguish between the real and the imagined image.

Many of the earliest photographers were heavily influenced by painting and created compositions that reflected this, such as Misses McCandlish by the Scottish duo David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Hill was formally trained as a landscape and portrait painter, realizing early on the artistic merits of photography. The pair’s portrait photographs are often highly composed and sometimes include costumes or props, seen here with the incorporation of the bucket in this photograph. Working in the late 19th century, British photographer Peter Henry Emerson also relied on composed scenes, but used soft focus, or slightly blurry imagery to capture the marshes of East Anglia in the series Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. His desire to emulate human vision in his photography led him to advocate for a soft focus approach, ironically rendering his work in a dream-like or surreal way.

In the 20th century, street photography, considered perhaps the most candid of genres, became increasingly popular as practitioners such as Frenchman Robert Doisneau sought to capture the fleeting moments of urban life. His scenes detail everything from a budding romance, the drudgery of work or odd chance encounters on the street – as in his 1949 photograph, L’innocent, in which a butcher shop patron momentarily contemplates the preserved head of a cow hanging outside. Likewise, Irish photographer Alan MacWeeny captures a horse at the moment it turned away from his lens to appear startlingly headless in White Horse. A disembodied human head appears elsewhere in MacWeeny’s The Head of Blessed Oliver Plunkett, a relic of the 17th-century Catholic martyr. All three of these works could be considered strictly documentary in nature, but their unexpected subjects lead us to question their veracity.

Landscape has provided an infinite range of subject matter for photographers and several approaches to the land are included here. Inspired by some of his better known modernist contemporaries and working against the backdrop of New Orleans architecture, photographer Clarence John Laughlin offers the beautiful and abstracted forms of sunlight against a lace curtain in The Language of Light. A similarly abstract view, this time from a bird’s-eye vantage point, is found in Marilyn Bridges’s White City, Kea, Greece. Known for her aerial photographs of natural and manufactured sites, Bridges captures a densely clustered and precariously sited Greek hillside town, forcing us to look closely in order to read the image.

Susan Harbage Page explores the liminal boundary between photography and the memories they elicit. Her photograph Recurrence, Venice, Italy is a timeless view of the Grand Canal in Venice, seen through the silhouetted forms of gondolas and their wooden mooring poles.

Two of the more recent works in the installation are also some of the most intimate. Pedro Lasch’s Desplazamiento de la memoria (Memory Shift) is from the artist’s Black Mirror series, in which pre-Columbian ceramic sculptures sit on pedestals and confront themselves and ghostly images of Spanish Baroque paintings emerge from the background. Conceived as a conceptual installation originally commissioned by the Nasher Museum in 2008 in which visitors were also reflected in the black mirrors, the artist described this series as making “impossible any clear separation between past-present,
artwork-viewer-environment, or the pre- and post-Columbian.”

Latoya Ruby Frazier’s Self-Portrait in Gramps’ Bedroom depicts the artist in her pajamas standing inside an empty and derelict bedroom. Part of Frazier’s Notion of Family series and one of the more enigmatic shown here, this work explores intimate familial relations in the context of the declining fortunes of her hometown of Braddock, PA. The photographs in this installation challenged the viewer to determine exactly what is happening in these scenes, ultimately leading us to ask the question, “Just what is real and what is imagined?”

— Marshall N. Price, Nancy Hanks Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

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