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The rooms where it happened: A new MFA show looks at photographers’ studios

Abelardo Morell, "Light Bulb," 1991.©Abelardo Morell/Courtesy Bonni Benrubi Gallery, NYC * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts

The word “camera” comes from the Latin word for “chamber.” So “Creative Spaces: The Photographer’s Studio as Inspiration” might be seen as photography getting back to its roomy etymological roots. The show runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through April 28.

Photography doesn’t have to happen in a studio, of course. The arrival of lightweight cameras, fast film stock, and now digital saw to that. But when it does still take place there — when a studio is the room where a photograph happened — interesting and unexpected results can occur. Those qualities are evident throughout “Creative Spaces,” which has been curated by the MFA’s Karen Haas.


Paul Mpagi Sepuya, "Darkroom Mirror Study," 2017.© Paul Mpagi Sepuya * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts

Jesseca Ferguson is one of the 25 photographers with work in the show. “I have often wondered WHERE the studio is for me,” she writes. “Is it an actual location? A state of mind or attitude? An atmosphere? A home? A safe spot or stressful, challenging one?” Her answer: “All of the above, at different times.”

One might add to Ferguson’s list — and instances of each can be found throughout the show — laboratory, playroom, wonderland, escape hatch, workspace, even borrowed workspace.

Borrowed as in photographs taken in someone else’s studio. In a witty touch, Haas includes four examples. The situation gets even more complicated with Vik Muniz’s reworking of Hans Namuth’s famous photograph of Jackson Pollock at work in his (meaning Pollock’s) studio. Or there’s Duane Michals’s portrait of René Magritte taken in the painter’s studio. That photograph ups the hall-of-mirrors ante, as it has an actual mirror in it.

A mirror matters even more, although only its handiwork is visible, in Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s “Darkroom Mirror Study.” Here is “Creative Spaces” at its most basic, even elemental. “Study” shows a pair of hands encircling a camera on a tripod. It’s the photographer’s studio reduced to its essence. The lens staring back at the viewer could be the eye of God. So there’s another possible addition to Ferguson’s list: heaven.


Hiroshi Sugimoto, "Self Portrait, 1990."© Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts

The camera is the most important item in a studio. The photographer and photographs run it a close second. Hiroshi Sugimoto offers both in his “Self Portrait, 1990.” What a viewer likely notices first is that this is a peculiar sort of studio. It appears to be open to the sky, on a city rooftop. Then there’s the matter of Sugimoto’s attire, a lab coat (an argument for studio as laboratory). Pride of place goes to a Sugimoto photograph, placed front and center on an elaborately supported easel. It’s one of the photographer’s seascapes, which are blurred because of the long exposure time he uses. Notice that Sugimoto’s own face is blurred. The mutual blurring understatedly, and also rather marvelously, declares a visual bond between creator and creation.

One of the nicer touches in “Creative Spaces” comes courtesy of Haas’s hangings: the bonds between photos. The bunny-shaped cactus in Robert Cumming’s “Theatre for Two-Easy Analogies” (a pretty funny title) is close by Roger Ballen’s “Boxed Rabbit.” A man wearing a mask in a photograph from Irving Penn’s “Cuzco, Peru” series shares the same wall with a female model wearing sunglasses in a photograph from Shadi Ghadirian’s “Qajar” series. Each sitter’s eyes are concealed for a very different purpose. With Penn, the mask is being worn because the studio was cold. With Ghadirian, who’s Iranian, a statement is being made about what is and is not considered “appropriate” for females to wear.


Shadi Ghadirian, "Untitled, from "Qajar" series, 1998.© shadi ghadirian * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts

The Penn photograph has a further connection, with a different neighbor. It hangs next to the Michals portrait of Magritte, and both look rather . . . spooky. That spookiness contrasts with the emphatic illumination in another pairing. Constantin Brancusi’s studio wasn’t primarily for photographs, he being one of the last century’s greatest sculptors. Brancusi was rarely satisfied with how photographers documented his work. So he would on occasion himself document what he had created.

“Bird in Space” is a photograph of a version of that celebrated sculpture. This “Bird” is a bronze (other iterations are marble); and the way Brancusi has lit it it positively gleams. Whereas the namesake source of illumination in Abelardo Morell’s “Light Bulb” quite gloriously glows. The bulb is part of a demonstration Morell put together to show students the basic workings of a camera. The photograph might also be seen as a metaphor for that light bulb-going-off moment of inspiration in artistic creation.

It’s worth noting what a strong local representation “Creative Spaces” has. Beside Morell and Ferguson, Boston-area photographers include Rachel Perry (with a self-portrait in which fruit stickers loom delightfully large), Olivia Parker, the late John O’Reilly, Tara Sellios, the late Elsa Dorfman, and Tessa Frootko Gordon. Cig Harvey, from Maine, and Salvatore Mancini, from Rhode Island, extend the geographical boundaries a bit. Let’s include William Wegman, too: Born in Holyoke, he went to MassArt and summers in Maine.


One other local connection: Through Dec. 10, the Griffin Museum of Photography, in Winchester, has “Leaving Their Mark: Studio Practice — Chris Rauschenberg and Meggan Gould.” Studios aren’t just the place to be these days. They’re also the place to see.

CREATIVE SPACES: The Photographer’s Studio as Inspiration

At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through April 28. 627-267-9300, www.mfa.org

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.