Visual Arts

Framing history: New exhibit at UK museum spans photography's evolution

Romance of Ambrose Bierce #3 
by Ralph Eugene Meatyard
Romance of Ambrose Bierce #3 
by Ralph Eugene Meatyard Courtesy Art Museum at the University of Kentucky

When Janie Welker, the curator at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, started putting together an exhibit based on the museum's photography collection, she found that she could do more than show what the museum has.

She says photography historian Mary Panzer came in to review the total collection and told her, "You can use this collection to look at the growth of photography in the 20th century and expanding into the 21st century."

That is just what she decided to do. She divided the exhibit, Wide Angle: American Photography, into sections, showing various forms of photography and their growth from the medium's earliest days to the digital era.

The exhibit opened Sunday and continues through April 27.

"In the early days, photographers were trying to imitate other artists, making more painterly work and trying to be taken seriously in the art world," Welker says.

After all, it wasn't until 1938 that New York's Museum of Modern Art showed its first exhibit of photographs by a single artist, Walker Evans' American Photographs.

"Later, there was this move away from photography apologizing for using a mechanical device to produce its images to really exploring the unique qualities of photography," Welker says.

One of the first walls of the Lexington museum's main gallery features portraits and figures of men, including James Baker Hall's photograph of author Wendell Berry holding a baby, David Hilliard's intricately stitched-together portrait of him and his father, and Hank Willis Thomas' And One, a commentary on modern sports marketing.

An accompanying wall shows varying views of female figure studies, including Ruth Bernhard's 1962 nude In the Box — Horizontal and Lili Almog's 2005 image of a nun, Outdoor Portrait #14.

One of the earliest images in the exhibit is the most local to the museum: Louis Mulligan's 1899 picture of a woman and child standing where the UK Fine Arts Building now sits. They look out across fields that are now the Chevy Chase neighborhood. It demonstrates photography's documentary power, Welker says.

The exhibit includes numerous masters of their forms: Evans and others noted for their work for the Farm Service Administration during the Great Depression, landscape master Ansel Adams, modernist Harry Callahan, abstract photographer Aaron Siskind, and pop artist Andy Warhol. There also are Central Kentucky luminaries including Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Robert C. May, a Lexington native and UK graduate who had a long local and international photography career and who taught at UK and was an active member of the Lexington Camera Club. His bequest to the UK museum has underwritten a regular photography exhibit and lecture series, and the museums' extensive collection.

"That is why I came here," says Welker, who started her career as a newspaper photographer and has an insatiable interest in photography. "I wanted to help build this collection and this series."

Regular attendees of the Robert C. May Photography Endowment Lecture Series and exhibits will recognize work by past participants in the series, including Almog, Hilliard, conceptual photographer Sandy Skoglund and landscape artist Mark Klett. Welker says the museum does not always buy images from series participants, "but it is one of the ways we have grown our collection."

The collection shows that even in the modern era of digital photography, photographers are working with various forms and formats — Abelardo Morell's tent camera image has to be seen live to be fully appreciated — much as painters work in various paints and surfaces.

Wide Angle, Welker says, is a statement that photography has fully come into its own.

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