Over the nearly two-hundred-year history of the photographic medium, artists have experimented with the process and the subjects they choose to record. In some instances, it seemed as if the medium chose the image: the daguerreotype encouraged portraiture, while cyanotype was an ideal choice for botanical studies, and the soft focus achieved by the platinum process was perfect for the Pictorialists. As processes and equipment became more and more sophisticated, so, too, did the artists working with the process, recognizing how imaginative they could be with their lens and taking full advantage of this freedom.
Surreal/Subjective looks at how photographic artists in the twentieth century contorted as well as perceived reality, so that the final images are both imaginative and cerebral, connecting to the viewer on different levels. Many of the images in this exhibition seem dragged directly from the artist’s psyche—bizarre, distorted, but usually with some grain of recognition left for viewers to grasp. But other images, while manipulated, seem strange and unfinished. We can imagine our dialogue with these works, and often can create internal narratives that explain the scenes we are seeing, making us a participant. This ability to connect viscerally is all-encompassing, spreading across all subjects, from landscape to portraiture to still life to abstraction.
Because of this, the images engage a range of our emotions; they can seem placid or argumentative—making us want to disagree with what our own eyes tell us we’re seeing—or haunting, connecting by a thin thread to our own thoughts and ideas. In some cases, the titles give us clues or suggestions, but often we are left to our own devices. Since the inception of the photographic process, the images have implied the replication of true facts as captured by the lens. But as more and more experimentation took place, the images became more abstract and, in some ways, more personal, causing the viewer to take more time to absorb the artist’s message. It has become a dialogue between the image and, ultimately, the viewer, as well as the artist, and a dialogue that combines the imaginations and experiences of both.
Our photography collection has grown by leaps and bounds in the past twenty years, and we are extremely grateful to our alumni and friends who have made this exhibition—and our photography collection—possible.
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs