WILLIAMSTOWN — A photograph collapses time and space. It collapses time by taking the past and keeping it in the present. It collapses space by taking a there and keeping it here.
In an age of jet travel and the Web, we don’t appreciate much how a photograph collapses space. It’s collapsing time we care about. “Photography and Discovery,” at the Clark Art Institute, reminds us that during the medium’s first 70 years or so the appreciation was far likelier to work the other way. The show runs through Feb. 5.
The Clark is best known for its cherishable collection of paintings, prints, and sculpture. It began collecting photographs nearly two decades ago. Its holdings now include more than a thousand items. The focus has been on images from the 19th and early 20th centuries. That’s the period drawn on for “Photography and Discovery,” the museum’s first show extensively drawn from that collection. The 39 images on display range in date from 1844 to c. 1910.
That’s a broad span, though not necessarily as broad as the spatial one: Burma, India, Egypt, Paris, England, Venice, the Crimea, Rochester, N.Y., even the moon (seen from the Earth, of course). Before our eyes, we’re witnessing the foreign and exotic being made accessible as never before in human history.
Francis Frith’s view of the Pyramids, taken around 1860, shows how the camera can make the monumental seem almost casual. In the foreground, three individuals sit in the shade — and their donkey stands in it — while in the background loom those epic structures at Giza. Yes, the Pyramids had been painted before. But a painting or engraving announces its artificiality. An albumen print (the photographic method Frith used) does not. More than that, how many people could afford a painting — or a good engraving? Photography didn’t just collapse time and space. Comparatively, it collapsed cost, too.
Something didn’t have to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to qualify as foreign and exotic. Even as late as 1900, how many could afford to go to Paris, even the French, to see the Universal Exposition? Félix Thiollier’s camera allowed them to do so; and the Eiffel Tower seems fantastical and unreal as Frith’s Pyramids hardly do at all. Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull, seen in an 1885 portrait, were more alien to much of the rest of the world than anything by the banks of the Nile. That was no less true of Yosemite’s Bridal Veil Falls, in the mid 1860s, as documented by Carleton Watkins.
Watkins is among the several well-known photographers with work in the show. They include Roger Fenton, Gustave Le Gray, Peter Henry Emerson, Julia Margaret Camerson, Gertrude Käsebier, William Henry Jackson, Heinrich Kühn, and William Henry Fox Talbot. These photographers are English, French, American, Austrian, a reminder of what a decidedly international phenomenon photography quickly became.
The earliest photograph here is Fox Talbot’s “Articles of China,” from 1844. With almost-dazzling simplicity and directness, he presents a cabinet holding porcelain dinnerware and figurines. Genre is collapsing. What in an earlier age could be materials for a Dutch still life assume a documentary, even forensic aspect. As Fox Talbot wrote, “should a thief . . . purloin these treasures . . . the mute testimony of the picture [could] be produced against him in court.” Did he write those words proudly or facetiously? Perhaps both.
If Frith’s Pyramids seem very nearly matter of fact, then Charles Jones’s “Potato Majestic” does the reverse. Note the title. Jones monumentalizes the mundane. Taking nothing grander than a bowl of spuds, he doesn’t in any way disguise his subject’s homeliness while still managing to make them seem magnificent. Look quick, and you might think they came from the Clark’s sculpture collection. Ah, but collapsing differences among media would come later, a speciality of modern art, not photography.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND DISCOVERY
At Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, through Feb. 5. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.eduMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.