Two New York shows offer states of collapse, courtesy of the camera
NEW YORK — Collapsing time, a camera captures a then that becomes a perpetual now. So it’s easy to overlook how it can collapse distance, too. In the early years of photography that capacity to collapse distance may have been even more important. “Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey” testifies to the powerful impact that the invention of photography had on the geography of the 19th-century imagination. The show runs through May 12 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A French aristocrat with a taste for art and architecture, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804-1892) took up photography soon after its invention. A thousand of his daguerreotypes survive. The daguerreotype, a polished metal plate that produces a highly detailed irreproducible image, was the chief photographic format in France for the first decade or two after the invention of photography by Louis Daguerre (hence the name).
About 120 daguerreotypes are in the Met show, along with watercolors, paintings, a modern reproduction of Daguerre’s first commercially available camera, and the special boxes where Girault stored his photographs — the actual boxes, made of lindenwood and iron, not reproductions. Unadorned, they are wondrous objects, so simple and functional they could be Minimalist sculptures.
Girault was an innovator within the technological innovation that was photography. The boxes are one example. Another is how he came up with six formats to vary the size and shape of his daguerreotypes. He also would mask the photographic plate in ways that allowed him to make two images on one plate, which he would later cut to make a pair of daguerreotypes. Considering the bulkiness of his equipment and extent of his travels that ability to double the number of images he took was no small thing.
From 1842 to 1845, Girault took his camera to Rome, Athens, Constantinople (as it then was), Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus, Baalbek, Aleppo. The show also includes daguerreotypes he took of Paris and his estate, in Langres, in northeastern France. In several instances, his Near Eastern photographs were the first taken of a site and/or the only ones to document how it once appeared.
Here is where the collapsing of distance comes in. To see Girault’s panoramic view of the Temple of Vesta, in Rome, was the next best thing to traveling there oneself, or his double view of the “Mosque of Sultan al-Hakim, Cairo.” The handsomeness and solidity of the images — Girault was an exacting craftsman as well as a technical innovator — give the subjects a presence beyond what one might expect from two dimensions presented on a piece of polished metal. Enhancing this sense of presence is the elaborate and attractive exhibition design. “Monumental Journey,” as physical space, manages to be at once subdued and sprawling — an unusual, and unusually welcome, combination.
A far different version of collapsing takes place in “The Extended Moment: Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada.” It runs through May 26 at the Morgan Library & Museum. The collapsing is visual.
In 1967, Canada’s became the first national gallery to begin actively collecting photographs. The adverb matters. The National Gallery in Washington accepted its first photographs in 1949 — a donation by Georgia O’Keeffe of some 1,300 photographs by her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz. Accepting differs from seeking out. It’s one thing not to look a gift horse in the mouth and quite another to build a stable and start baling hay. The National Gallery in Ottawa now has nearly 200,000 photographs in its collection. The one in Washington has some 16,000. That early start on “actively” has led to a lot of activity.
Although “The Extended Moment” consists of just 68 images, the show gives an exciting sense of how varied and rich the museum’s holdings are. Photographs on display range in date from a pair of daguerreotypes, c. 1845, to Zanele Muholi’s splendidly forthright self-portrait plus one, from 2014.
There are several very familiar images: Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” Frederick H. Evans’s “Wells Cathedral: Sea of Steps,” James Van Der Zee’s “Couple Wearing Raccoon Coats With a Cadillac.” There are multiple very familiar names (Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, August Sander, Edward Steicher) with less-familiar images.
None of those photographers is Canadian (though Muholi went to college in Toronto). Considerations of nationality in no way limit the collection. Certainly, there are Canadian photographers here: Edward Burtynsky, Larry Towell, Lynne Cohen (one of her marvelous disquietingly evacuated interiors). And it’s hard to get more Canadian than the subject of William Notman and Henry Sandham’s “The Terra Nova Snowshoe Club, Montreal.” The club members posed in 1875, but a title like that collapses Canadian past and Canadian present as effortlessly as does the rustle of a maple leaf.
The photographs have been arranged neither alphabetically nor chronologically, but resemblancely. No, that’s not a word, but it should be. One picture hangs next to another because they have a subject in common or share a visual similarity. That’s the form that collapsing takes here. Appearances supersede the usual categories used for hanging.
Lisette Model’s “Woman With Veil, San Francisco,” shows, yes, a woman so attired. One of Karl Blossfeldt’s classic plant studies shows, yes a plant. What connects them is pronounced verticality. Hands dominate Gustav Klutsis’s Soviet photo-collage “Let Us Fulfill the Plan of the Great Project.” A hand holds a woman’s high-heeled shoe in a Horst fashion photograph. Agit-prop and glossy glamour shake hands, as it were. There are many views of a horse in an Eadweard Muybridge motion study, and just one in Alison Rossiter’s “Goya.”
You get the idea. It may sound reductive. Doesn’t matter, since it looks great. Such hanging encourages viewers to look afresh — not unlike the way that those who first saw Girault’s photographs likely did, almost two centuries ago.
MONUMENTAL JOURNEY: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey
At Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York, through May 12. 212-535-7710, www.metmuseum.org
THE EXTENDED MOMENT: Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada
At Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., New York, through May 26. 212-685-0008, www.themorgan.org