Photography Exhibitions @Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

This month I happened to be in Kansas City, and having heard so much about the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, I couldn’t miss a chance to visit it.

After the acquisition of the famed Hallmark Photographic Collection in December 2005, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art became one of the premier museums in the world for photography. Since then the photography collection of the museum has extended to over 8,000 prints covering the medium’s entire history and primarily contains works of American artists with some international representation.

Two thirds of the Photography gallery is devoted to a historical survey of photography. The exhibition of works from the museum’s permanent collection is on view at all times, with new installations presented about three times a year (due to preservation reasons). The photographs are shown chronologically in five sections.

19th Century Daguerreotypes
Invented in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, the daguerreotype process, widely used in 1840-1860, produces a one-of-a-kind direct positive image characterized by extraordinary detail. Nearly every facet of American society from this period was recorded in daguerreotype: important events, occupational portraits, outdoor and city views, artistic and sometimes comedic subjects.

Gold Miners with Sluice, ca. 1850
Daguerreotype, quarter plate
© The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

– 19th Century Paper Photography
Negative/positive process on paper, introduced in the 1850s, made photography even more widely popular and useful than before. It became a truly amateur activity in the 1880s with the introduction of dry-plate negatives and handheld cameras like the Kodak.

Carleton E. Watkins, North America, 1829-1916
View from Camp Grove, Yosemite, 1861
Albumen print
© The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

My personal discovery here was French photographer Eugene Cuvelier, 1837-1900. The only albumen print of his, titled Fampoux, 1860, that was on view at this time immediately caught my eye and encouraged me to research more on his work. Many of Cuvelier’s images were made at the Forest of Fontainebleau near Barbizon in north-central France. Simple in composition, soft and delicate in tone range, his landscapes are calm and meditative. The work causes a viewer to spend more time in front of the print.

– 20th Century Early Movements
This part of the exhibition covers a period from 1900 until World War II, when different styles and approaches evolved, such as pictorialism, straight photography, modernist and social documentary movements.

The pictorialist movement is represented with the work of Clarence H. White, one of the leading figure of this style at the turn-of-the-century. There is also a stunning work of William Fraser, who made one of the earliest artistic night images using effects of snow and rain in New York City.

William A. Fraser, American, ca. 1840-1925
A Wet Night, Columbus Circle, ca. 1897-1898
Gelatin silver print
 © The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

The work of Edward Weston represents a purist style and an interest in form. Formal research continues in abstract work of László Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray. Modernist investigation of structures and geometric forms is shown in works of André Kertész, Charles Sheeler and Kurt Baasch.

Another personal discovery was Charles Sheeler, with his 1927 series at the Ford Motor Company plant outside Detroit – a study of fascinating forms of industrial architecture,…

Charles Sheeler, American, 1883-1965
Criss-Crossed Conveyors–Ford Plant, 1927
Gelatin silver print
© The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

…and an interesting work of Kurt Baasch who explored simple forms of New York City.

Kurt Baasch – Repetition, 1912

At this part of the exhibition, I also discovered Francis Blake, a scientist and an innovator in high-speed photography who designed a shutter that allowed him to take photographs with exposure times of 1/1000 to 1/2000 of a second. Read more.

The documentary movement of this period is illustrated with works of Lisette Model and Dorothea Lange.

– 20th Century Post-War Movements
This is a period in the history when ‘the photograph was understood as a metaphor for internal truth rather then a simple document of the external ones’ and photography started to receive the institutional acceptance as an art form. The period is presented with works of Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks, Harry Callahan, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.

– 20th/21thst Century Contemporary
The photography of this era is extremely diverse in techniques and approaches. The contemporary art world was transformed by photography and photography was influenced and became a part of the art world. This part of the exhibition is located in a larger room with a number of artists presented. I will mention the names of the artists whose work attracted me, even with only one photograph displayed.

Emmet Gowin’s photographs of his own family and natural landscapes immediately made me one of his fans. The subject matter and style perfectly fit my some of my latest interests in photography.

Emmet Gowin – Edith, 1971

I was also attracted to the work of Mike Sinclair, who documents ‘familiar places’ (landscapes of Kansas City area) and studies modern American mid-class social traditions.

The work of Sze Tsung Leong from the series Cities depicts urban areas – new kind of landscapes, ‘decaying and self renewing’.

And of course, I was happy to see the print of Alec Soth from his famous series Sleeping by the Mississippi. By the way, Alec Soth will speak about his work in a free public lecture sponsored by the Photography Society of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on March 3, 2012. I envy those of you who will be there!

Alec Soth – Herman’s bed, Kenner, Louisiana 2002

The Photographs of Brett Weston

The last room of the Photography gallery is devoted to small scale shows that change every three to four months. Currently the exhibition consists of Brett Weston’s photographs. The show contains thirty seven, rarely seen before works of Brett Weston.

Brett Weston, a son of the famous photographer Edward Weston, adopted the purist manner of his father. His photographs of water, paint, plants, rock walls, landscapes, buildings, trees and structures of the city celebrate ‘the beauty of abstraction’. The images, made with 8×10 inch and 11×14 inch cameras, have great detail. The quality of the prints is significant. The exhibition is on display through March 25, 2012 and definitely worth seeing! Read more.

All exhibitions in the Photography gallery are beautifully presented. The prints have interesting and informative descriptions and are very carefully lit. I could say the same about the entire museum from my brief excursion after my visit to the Photography gallery. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was a great discovery during my trip to Kansas City, and I highly recommend it to everyone!

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art website

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