In a way, we’re all collectors – whether of shoes, baseball cards or furniture – but very few individuals cross over to the state where the pursuit of those objects of desire grows so strong that it creates a new persona, one whose heart’s work is to build or complete the collection, no matter what. Those few who become collectors in the true sense are driven by obsessions unique to themselves, but they often ultimately create something more universal – something the rest of us can relate to and benefit from.
Argyros has produced just that kind of a collection. With but a handful of notable pieces outside the medium of photography (including a marvelous Leigh Wen silkscreen and colorful lithographs by Alexander Calder and Frank Stella), this is a personalized compendium of images that range from Ansel Adams (his Dunes, Oceano is shown above) to Alex Webb, from the birth of the photographic medium in the form of Daguerreotypes to the latest digital processes. Argyros, largely by taking careful advantage of fundraising auctions at places such as the Center for Photography at Woodstock and Albany Center Gallery, has been able to turn a practiced eye and a limited budget into some considerable artistic treasure.
The show is crowded, almost cluttered, as would befit a presentation of the beloved contents of one’s attic, but it is also effectively organized into groups by PhotoCenter director and curator Katherine Wright.
The range of techniques is broad, while the subject matter hews toward the classical: still life, landscape, nude, portrait. In all these categories, there are outstanding examples by practitioners both famous and less well-known, including some of the most important shots of all time (Alexander Gardner’s last portrait of Abraham Lincoln, made just four days before the assassination, and Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, a much larger print of which once held the record for most expensive photograph ever sold) and a few that are anonymous, such as a tiny circular image from the original Kodak camera and a French curiosity in the form of a top-hatted nude posed outside a straw hut. These and others are reminiscent of what you might see in the permanent collection of a great museum such as New York City’s MoMA or Rochester’s George Eastman House.
But this collection is valuable not so much for providing a museum-like lesson in the history of photography as for its wonderful quirks. Many pieces use alternative media, not just those from archaic times, such as photogravure, Autochrome, or platinum and palladium, but also their modern equivalents in the form of archival pigment print, Cibachrome, or encaustic. Beyond that, a number of the works are variations on collage – clearly, Argyros enjoys the non-classical approach, too, and has not shied away from collecting experiments and even items salvaged from the darkroom trash bin (Eikoh Hosoe’s supremely elegant set of scraps, lovingly mounted, signed and dated, exemplify this least likely source of compelling art).
The rest are mainly gelatin silver prints (hence the show’s title), which for the era covered was the heart of all photographers’ formation, much as drawing was the foundation for all trained sculptors and painters before the era of conceptual art. For me, a lifelong photographer who logged the requisite 10,000 hours in the darkroom during the 1970s, it was soothingly nostalgic to see so many traditionally made prints – after all, it is becoming rather rare to see pictures not output digitally. But what counts most, as ever, is the image, and there are plenty of fine images here to be moved and enlightened by.
Among my favorites are a delightfully painterly black-and-white print of oysters by Lilo Raymond (shown at the top of this post); a fine double exposure of a rock and a cityscape by Barbara Morgan; Robert McCann’s extremely delicate Curtain of leaves (left); and a trio of self-portraits by the shape-shifting Arno Rafael Minkkinen.
Of the composite images, two by Jerry Uelsmann remind us why he is among the most popular gallery photographers ever, while two by Vincent Serbin have awakened me to a name I should have known before but didn’t. Meanwhile, Jesseca Ferguson’s pinhole constructions show that there are still new ways to beautifully do the same old things (one is shown at right).
The nude category might be the strongest here – outstanding examples include Edward Steichen’s 1906 Little Round Mirror, full of the spirit of its time; Lucien Clergue’s equally timely recent color double exposure (courtesy of Elizabeth Opalenik); Barbara DeGenevieve’s taboo-busting Four Graces (shown about the middle of this post); and Opalenik’s own Shower Embrace, quite simply one of the loveliest pieces in the show.
Also stunning as an image and as a print is a large 2008 color panorama from Colorado by John Eastcott and Yva Momatiuk (shown below) that brings a blend of old and new technologies – people have been making 360-degree views of Western landscapes since at least the late-19th century, but the habit of pinning up unframed inkjet prints is a much more recent phenomenon. The combination is compelling, as is this marvelous collection. It remains on view through June 14; an informative and skillfully designed catalog is available.