Stillness is a condition of all photographs. As much as they may move a viewer, they never themselves move.
Still life, as a genre, takes that condition and makes it an operating principle. The five dozen or so photographs (and one drawing) in “The Stillness of Things: Photographs From the Lane Collection” are all versions of still life, some traditional, others less so. No question, the rumpled sheets and scattered hairpins in Imogen Cunningham’s “The Unmade Bed” (1957) are still. But evoking intimacy and personal revelation, they’re also very active. In that tension between stillness and action — throw in unexpectedness, too — the Cunningham is emblematic of this highly satisfying show.
“The Stillness of Things” runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through Feb. 27.
For unexpectedness, it’s hard to top Robert Heinecken’s “TV Dinner,” 1971. Heinecken was as much conceptual artist as photographer. The subject matter is certainly untraditional. But where the unexpectedness really comes in is that Heinecken printed the photograph on canvas and then wrapped the image around a real TV dinner tray. The dimensionality of the resulting object — and don’t forget that all analog photographs are objects — is even more striking than the yuckiness of what was clearly not a very memorable meal.
The collection assembled by the late William H. Lane and his wife, Saundra, is chiefly known for the richness of its American Modernist holdings. That means photographers of the middle third or so of the 20th century, such as Cunningham, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Charles Sheeler. Each is well represented here, with, respectively four photographs, eight, four, and eight (and the drawing is a Sheeler).
That’s more than a third of the show, but the rest of it ranges much further afield.
The earliest photograph is very early, William Henry Fox Talbot’s “Articles of China,” taken before 1844. The “articles” are various ceramic bowls, cups, and vessels arranged on shelves. In their solidity, variety, visual appeal, and, yes, stillness, the Fox Talbot rivals the Cunningham as a suitable emblem for the show.
The most recent are both from 2010: Olivia Parker’s hanging artichoke and Susan Paulsen’s “Armonk (bluebird).” They’re both in color. Nearly all the other photographs are in black and white. There are a few other images from the 21st century: five David Hilliard floral studies, vibrantly in color, 2006; Abelardo Morell’s “Pencil,” 2000, and “Wavy Book” (the title is deadpan accurate), 2001; and Adams Fuss’s “Butterfly,” a 2002 daguerreotype.
Fox Talbot was English. So’s Fuss, and their two pictures hang next to each other. In its own way, the Fuss is as mysterious, and alluring, as Cunningham’s bed. What makes the adjacency of the Fuss and Fox Talbot notable extends beyond their both being quite beautiful, the men’s shared nationality, and the fact that more than a century and a half separates the images. It’s that Fox Talbot used paper for his photographs, and his contemporary Louis Daguerre, who gave his name to the daguerreotype, used metal. They were, in effect, the cofounding fathers of photography, with Fox Talbot’s approach coming to dominate the medium (until digital came along). So in the proximity of these two images one finds an extremely concise history of photography. It’s an example of how shrewdly the MFA’s Karen Haas has hung the show.
Another is the recurrence of eggs as a motif — even if eggs themselves aren’t always in the (literal) picture. A pair of them appear in Adams’s “Still Life, San Francisco,” from around 1932, as does one in Weston’s “Double or Nothing — No Symbolism,” 1943. With their pleasing, familiar, and distinctive shape — a visual trifecta — eggs are a welcome addition to a picture, as in Josef Sudek’s “Still Life (Egg and Tea Cup),” from around 1970. That familiarity can make them superimpose themselves, so to speak, on other objects. That’s the case with Paul Caponigro’s “Two Pears,” from 1999; the namesake items are so pale that their curved shape looks positively ovate.
Then there are egg photos without actual eggs in them. Weston’s “Egg Slicer,” a 1930 marvel of Machine Age elegance, hangs next to the Adams (which includes an egg slicer of its own). And on an adjacent wall hang two Frederick Sommer studies of chicken entrails, from 1939. They’re not the prettiest sight, but their thematic pertinence is patent. As Samuel Butler famously suggested, “A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.”
The Sommer photographs are a reminder that the French term for still life is “nature morte”: literally, dead nature. “The Stillness of Things” includes several additional examples. The hardest to shake is Paulsen’s “Armonk,” with its dead bluebird under glass. Weston’s 1938 “Dead Rabbit, Arizona” renders the creature’s remains as something almost geological — or abstract. Three years later, Weston less directly confronted mortality, in “Girod Cemetery, New Orleans.” A set of memorial niches recalls the spatial arrangement in “Articles of China.” It’s another nicely understated Haas hanging.
As final example of such interrelationships, consider — chairs. There’s one in Liliane de Cock’s “Near Lone Pine, California,” from the ‘60s, and it hangs next to Wright Morris’s “Chair With Boots, Norfolk, Nebraska.” The latter’s near-rapturous austerity seems very far in spirit and style, not to mention kilometers, from the comme il faut elegance of Robert Frank’s “Chairs, Tuileries, Paris.” Frank took it in 1949, just two years after Morris took his photograph. And here we are, able to look at both, three-quarters of a century later. For all that photographs are inescapably still, their capacity to collapse time makes them uniquely kinetic.
THE STILLNESS OF THINGS: Photographs From the Lane Collection
At Museum of Fine Arts, 265 Huntington Ave., through Feb. 27. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.