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A new exhibit at the Lowe Art Museum features a rare image of the Taj Mahal photographed in 1855 by John Murray. The physician, who worked in India from 1833 to 1871, produced the 19th Century's finest visual record of Mughal architecture and historic sites around Agra, including the stunning panoramic view of the pleasure dome.
Murray's historic picture is part of "Through the Lens: Photography from the Permanent Collection," an exhibit featuring 100 photographs from more than a thousand of the Lowe's photographic holdings. Curated by the museum's associate director, Denise M. Gerson, the stunning collection spans the development of the art form from its earliest inception in the mid-1800s to the present day.
The exhibit ranges in genre from early travel and portraiture to landscape, international modernism, celebrity glamour, documentary, and contemporary works. To dramatize the show, the Lowe has re-created near the entrance a 19th-century photographer's studio, complete with dummies in period dress.
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Nearby, prints from the century of photography's birth include examples of early photographic processes, such as tintype, ambrotype, and daguerreotype. A striking portfolio of hand-pulled photogravures, created through an intaglio printmaking process, is part of a recent addition to the collection, titled The Golden Age of British Photography, which boasts Murray's famous shot of the Taj Mahal.
One of the more striking early works in the show is Eadweard Muybridge's composite image of a nude man shown from side and back views. Plate 9 (Male Walking), from his Animal Locomotion series, was taken by the British photographer using multiple cameras in 1887. He used thousands of analytical stop-action photographs to explore the human figure in motion and capture actions too rapid to be experienced by the naked eye.
Muybridge later invented the precursor to motion pictures: the zoopraxiscope, a projector that used a revolving wheel to sequentially display individual photos on a screen.
Another evocative image from the Lowe's early holdings is by Edward Sheriff Curtis, who from 1900 to 1930 devoted himself to documenting more than 80 North American Indian tribes; he amassed over 40,000 images during the time.
Curtis's At the Old Well of Acoma, taken in 1904, records two native women with clay pots collecting water from a canyon river. It was shot in New Mexico's Acoma Pueblo, considered the oldest continuously inhabited site in the United States.
Ray, a pioneering dadaist and surrealist, is represented by Noire et Blanche (1926), an iconic image in which the legendary photographer isolates the face of a model posed next to a stylized African mask.
Next to it, Kertész's Fork, Paris, 1928 is another symbolic image of the period. The Hungarian artist was known for his lean, abstract compositions that riffed on the traditional still life. Here Kertész takes a common kitchen utensil and casts it in an evocative light that offers fresh insight into how the medium quickly evolved.
Rodchenko's Aerial View of a Park (1929) offers an almost geometric perspective of a Russian park snapped from an overhead angle that juxtaposes vast empty spaces with teeming city life. A pioneer of the early Russian avant-garde, Rodchenko, an accomplished painter and sculptor, became a victim of Soviet repression later in his career.
The sprawling exhibit, which boasts works by the giants who elevated photography to an art form, offers astonishing examples of the scope and breadth of the Lowe's collection. Names such as Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott, and Manuel Alvarez Bravo seduce the viewer through images that sear into the brain.
Lange, who was best known for her work with the federal government's Farm Security Administration during the 1930s, captures the conditions of the Dust Bowl era with a shot of a postmistress at a clapboard post office in Utah. Alvarez Bravo, one of Mexico's greatest 20th-century artists, is represented by the powerful image of the bleeding body of a sugar mill worker who was shot and killed during a labor strike.
The Lowe's greatest-hits parade continues in the contemporary section of the exhibit, spinning with works by Vito Acconci, Sol LeWitt, William Wegman, Cindy Sherman, John Baldessari, and Gordon Matta-Clark — among the best-known figures of the late 20th Century.
One of the more controversial images of the time is Andres Serrano's Piss Discus, from the Fluids Series, in which a souvenir figurine of an iconic ancient Greek statue is submerged in urine. The image glows with a lurid amber hue more reminiscent of a painting than a photograph.
Two artists who deal with fantasy in their work are Sandy Skoglund and Gregory Crewdson. Skoglund, best known for creating and photographing bizarre, life-size installations that unmoor the spectator's sense of reality, jukes viewers out of their shoes with her quixotic Fox Games. In it, two dozen red polyester resin foxes pounce among diners in a drab gray restaurant, creating a scene that could have been cribbed from a Tim Burton nightmare.
Crewdson tackles the phenomenon of crop circles via Untitled (Robin with Ring of Eggs), in which he has crafted an elaborate tableau suggestive of an American Gothic landscape. A farmhouse stands in the background of his eerie bucolic setting while a handful of twittering birds broods over a mysterious circle of speckled eggs, hinting at nature gone awry.
Also on display, in the rear of the museum, is "Arnold Newman: Photographic Legacy." The exhibit includes dozens of the photographer's black-and-white portraits of some of the art world's seminal figures working in their studios. Newman, considered one of the greatest portrait photographers of his age, has created incredible studies of artists such as Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, and Jasper Johns at work. It's an impressive complement to the Lowe's sweeping history-of-photography exhibition.
For anyone seeking to immerse themselves in the evolution of a remarkable medium that has changed how we look at art, don't miss this eye-opening show.