The New York State Museum has mounted many strong exhibitions of photography over the decades, but none with the scope or ambition of Seeing Ourselves: Masterpieces of American Photography from George Eastman House Collection, which draws from the vast archive of the Rochester-based museum of film and photography, and has been touring for several years.
Part of the Bank of America Great Art Series that regularly brings in blockbuster shows (usually from New York City museums), Seeing Ourselves comprises more than 150 pictures - ranging from an anonymous 1845 Daguerreotype to a 2003 color digital print by Terry Evans - and is conceived as a comprehensive portrait of America since the invention of photography. The show is organized into five sections: American Masterpieces, American Faces, America at War, America the Beautiful, and American Families. Each section covers the full range of the time period, except America at War, which has nothing later than the Vietnam era.
Beginning with American Masterpieces, the show immediately plunges the viewer into a post-argument phase of photography as art, whether as fine art, commercial art or transcendent documentary. So iconic are the images in this first gallery that an avid student of the medium could stand in the middle of it, look at the pictures, and rattle off nearly every name: Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Nikolas Muray, Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange (her Migrant Mother is shown above at left), Lewis Hine, Barbara Kruger, Edward Weston and so on. While we may have seen these pictures before, it is a new and powerful experience to see them together, and it makes a clear statement that we are in the presence of a collection unlike any other. Though quality always beats quantity, the Eastman House has more than enough of both, with over 400,000 photographs in all.
After this potent set-up comes the section titled American Faces, and it also packs a punch, not just by offering a gripping series of portraits, but by including among them such unexpected examples as an FBI wanted poster for Angela Davis, a mug shot of a man accused of "selling liquor to an Indian," and a tiny half-length portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Mathew Brady (shown at right).
Everyone loves to see faces, and this part of the show won't let them down. Also bristling with humanity in all its forms is the section titled American Families, which comes last, and brings to mind the legendary 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibition and book The Family of Man, not just for its theme but also for its comprehensiveness.
Here the contemporary photographs in the section carry much of the burden - whereas the earlier examples tend toward the posed group portrait or amateur snapshot, many of the later works are produced by savvy practitioners highly aware of the symbolic and interpretive value of their images. Here, too, are the majority of the rather few color pictures in the exhibition, among them a ravishing interior by the California photographer Larry Sultan and a coolly neutral cataloguing of seemingly innocuous items confiscated at airports in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Landscape (or cityscape) is the dominant feature of the other two sections in the show. America at War is the weakest link in the chain. Though there are important and moving images in this section (Pentagon Demonstration, Washington, D.C., November 1967 by Benedict J. Fernandez, shown at left, is a good example) it somehow falls flat - possibly because it does not reach anywhere near the present, or perhaps because, after the Civil War, it leaves our shores behind. It is followed by the sections titled America the Beautiful and American Families (you know, the stuff we were fighting to defend - we certainly didn't go to war to protect our masterpieces!), which belies a slight whiff of propaganda going on.
Nevermind that, though - the pictures in America the Beautiful are too diverse, and too darn good, to be dragged down by such thoughts. Here we find some of the more creative approaches to picture-making that the show offers: an embroidered photo on fabric by Betty Hahn; a delicate platinum print of Albany's Capitol by Chatham-based Sandy Noyes; an aerial view by Marilyn Bridges of dunes that look more like a nude; and glittering cityscapes from the Photo-Secessionist period.
Altogether, Seeing Ourselves is an effective montage of American identity and history, but it is more effective as a tantalizing slice of the Eastman House's astonishing collection. Unlike many museum-generated exhibitions of photography, the individual pictures in this gathering are framed and presented in a great variety of ways, revealing the long and careful labor of assembling them into the collection in the first place. This non-homogenized presentation allows each object to retain its integrity so that the personality of each image is preserved rather than being subsumed by the overall theme of the exhibition.
By virtue of this approach, the show feels like not so much a unified presence as a gathering of individual wonders. That's what a collection is meant to be, and the greatness of the sum of these parts comes across mightily in this marvelous selection. Seeing Ourselves ends on May 9 (and then ends its tour) - be sure you don't miss it.