WELLESLEY — The 1970s was a pivotal decade for photography. There were landmark shows, such as “New Topographics,” at George Eastman House, and William Eggleston’s one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Color rapidly gained acceptance among fine art photographers. The price for photographs exploded. And chicken (or should it be egg?) to that explosion was the medium’s newfound respectability. One sign of this growing prestige was that an institution like Wellesley College, with a long history of excellence in teaching art history and an enviable permanent collection at its art museum, started collecting photographs.
“A Generous Medium: Photography at Wellesley 1972-2012” marks the 40th anniversary of that start with a generous-sized and vigorously conceived show. It runs through Dec. 12 at the college’s Davis Museum.
The photographs are arranged chronologically by acquisition rather than a usual-suspects approach of theme or artist or nationality or chronologically by creation. This unusual formula makes perfect sense in light of the show’s inspiration. It also does wonders for the serendipity factor. Bill Brandt’s famous photograph of two British maids, from the 1930s, hangs near an anonymous mid-19th-century ambrotype “Portrait of a Woman With a Broom.” William Henry Fox Talbot’s surpassingly beautiful “Oak Tree in Winter” is near two of Jem Southam’s two very different views of an arboreal England from 150 years later.
The selections were made by 65 contributors: Wellesley faculty, alumnae, patrons, Davis personnel past and present. The college has done well by photography. Among the contributors are Vicki Goldberg, class of ’58, one of America’s best writers on photography, and former Wellesley art history professor Eugenia Parry. who’s right up there, too. Maria Morris Hambourg, class of ’71, collaborated with John Szarkowski on the Museum of Modern Art’s monumental quartet of Atget shows in the 1980s and later became founding curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s only fitting that the show include the six portraits that make up Wendy Snyder MacNeil’s “The Art Department Tenured Faculty of Wellesley College,” from 1980-81 (Parry’s is one of them).
An extensive text from one of the contributors accompanies each photograph. Selections from the texts hang from the ceiling on scrims. They help domesticate a large exhibition space that’s otherwise somewhat intimidating. The pictures manage to hold their own. Sheer numbers help: There are some 140 images (the Davis collection includes roughly 3,000 photographs).
The show includes very well-known images here: Andre Kertesz’s “Satiric Dancer, Paris”; Danny Lyon’s two talismanic biker photographs, “Route 12, Wisconsin” and “Crossing the Ohio, Louisville”; Etienne Carjat’s portrait of Charles Baudelaire (which boasts the greatest, if not grimmest, stare in photography history?); Lee Friedlander’s picture of the Father Duffy statue in Times Square. There are just as many surprises: an Ansel Adams portrait; an Atget with actual people in it; an Eliot Porter Christmas card; a startling photomontage from the Argentine surrealist Grete Stern; and, of course, numerous examples from the ever-ubiquitous (and often intriguingly talented) “Unknown.”
By its nature, “A Generous Medium” doesn’t lend itself to themes emerging. Still, there is a certain French flavor — with several Atgets prominent, among them the first image in the show.
Implicit in the arranging of the show is a predominance of women, either as photographers or subjects. That’s as it should be, Wellesley being a women’s college. Among the photographers are Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, Marion Post Wolcott (the three picnicking ladies and their male friend in “Winter Visitors, Sarasota Beach, Florida,” look as stately as their Buick), Carrie Mae Weems, Nan Goldin, Helen Levitt (a rare chance to see one of her Mexican pictures), Susan Meiselas, Laura McPhee. Female subjects include Diana Ross, in an Andy Warhol Polaroid; Sarah Bernhardt , in a Nadar portrait; an Edward Weston nude of his future wife and longstanding muse, Charis Wilson.
Cindy Sherman counts as both creator and subject (her own muse, too). Her series “Untitled (Bus Riders),” from 1976, offers a fascinating glimpse of Sherman beginning, somewhat clumsily, to grapple with her abiding theme, the mutability of identity.
Perhaps the nicest touch in a show full of them is how the acquisitions from 2012 hang next to those from 1972. In that sense, “A Generous Medium,” like art, has neither beginning nor end. Lascaux can have the vividness of last night — or tomorrow. The oddest thing is how the writers’ names on the wall texts are in a larger type size than the photographers’ names or the image titles. This seems rather ungenerous toward the medium. In addition, the black borders around the texts are a bit distracting and make the labels rather look like invitations to a memorial service. It’s true that Roland Barthes argued that all photography is about death. But if this is an homage to his “Camera Lucida,” that’s taking things a bit too far.