SALEM -- Barbara Bosworth grew up in an Ohio town called Novelty. So much of the satisfaction offered by her new show at the Peabody Essex Museum, "Natural Histories: Photographs by Barbara Bosworth," comes from how utterly not-novel its constituent parts are. The show runs through May 27, 2013.
Bosworth has taught for many years at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Public higher education in Kentucky has basketball to boast of. Here we have the photography program at MassArt – and that would be no small boast even without MassArt's absence of rules infractions. Seriously, there's not a photography department in the country, private or public, that wouldn't cough up a lot of endowment for a faculty with photographers who've taught at MassArt over the past couple of decades: Bosworth, Nicholas Nixon, Abelardo Morell, Frank Gohlke, Laura McPhee.
It's a surprise to learn that this is Bosworth's first Boston-area show. "Natural Histories" is part of a mini-festival of major photography at the Peabody Essex. The large Jerry Uelsmann retrospective runs through July 15, and "Ansel Adams: At the Water's Edge" opens in June.
There's a danger Bosworth's show might get lost between two such high-profile operations. The exhibition is smallish, just 32 photographs. True, the pictures are large (the smallest are 20 inches by 24 inches, one is as big as 40 inches by 50 inches), but none are overbearing. It's a show that feels quiet, almost contemplative at times: personal without undue intimacy, friendly but not forward. There's something Midwestern about that combination.
Besides Bosworth's artistry, two things define "Natural Histories": family and light. That's where the lack of novelty comes in. What's more basic in human terms than family or in photographic terms than light? Yet Bosworth presents both in ways that are unexpected and often moving.
Family here is so extensive: great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, and let's not forget siblings and cousins. Instead of raucous moments around the dining-room table or overpopulated group portraits, Bosworth evokes family simply: her mother wearing a pair of slippers, the wedding band on her mother's hand and the one on her father's, a collection of shark teeth collected by children and arranged on a table, cousins clamdigging on the Cape.
The photographs were taken over the last two decades or so. The show extends into the 19th century with the inclusion of two dioramas made by Bosworth's great-grandfather. Natural history and family history coincide. So do art history and family history: The show has a pair of pastels by her grandfather (two boxes of the bird eggs he collected, too).
As for light, Boswell offers it in multiple and beguiling forms: a flashlight, shadows (the absence of light), fireflies, dappled light, reflected light (more specifically, reflected Christmas lights). Sometimes family and light come together. Bosworth's son holds a magnifying glass. Her father seems to be holding light itself in "Christmas Solar Eclipse in My Father's Hands."
Bosworth may be best known as a landscape photographer. In "Natural Histories" she can turn a backyard into an outpost of paradise and a driveway into a pathway to mystery. About a quarter of the photographs are in color, and the delicacy of Bosworth's colors in a picture like "Blue Pool at the Sycamore, Novelty" or "The Stream Below the House, Novelty" is a marvel.
The coincidence of landscape and family takes moving form in "My Mother's Grave, Novelty." The photograph consists of a clump of earth amid low grass. That's it: no headstone or marker or monument. The simplicity and lack of adornment are very eloquent. It's a reminder that death is a part of natural history, too.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org