Art review: “Snapshot”

In this era of Instagram and iPhoto, it is difficult to imagine a time when photography was a practice exclusively for professionals.

Photos courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art

The dawn of amateur photography in the late 19th century, following the invention of handheld cameras, is the subject of a special exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art this summer.

“Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard,” which runs through Sept. 2, contains photographic prints, paintings, lithographs and sketches from seven different artists who experimented in photography more than 100 years ago.

“Snapshot” was organized by the IMA in collaboration with the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The exhibit is unique in that the photographs from the professional-artists-turned-amateur-photographers were largely  never meant for publication.

Ellen Lee, Wood-Pulliam senior curator at the IMA, helped bring the exhibit to fruition. Although photography was an artistic medium at the time these artists were active, she said they did not think of their own photography as art.

She said the artists used photography as a means of experimenting with perspectives, cropping and light, which influenced their paintings and drawings.

The exhibit is, first and foremost, a historical presentation.

Visitors encounter short biographies of each artist and a large reproduction of the instruction manual for an early handheld Kodak before  they see any photos.

The proceeding rooms present a fairly dry but extremely interesting study of each artist and his work in photography.

If you are looking for beautiful paintings, there are a few.  “Noële and her mother” by Maurice Denis and George Breitner’s “Girl in Red Kimono” are a few standouts.

The exhibit is comprised mostly of photographs, however.

Of these photos, there are a few gems. Henri Rivière’s “A couple entering a public building” was my favorite, presenting a captivating sense of movement and activity despite being a still photo.

Denis’s portraits of his family were also highlights. The photographs exuded the warmth and tenderness of Denis behind the lens.

Lee spoke passionately about a series of photographs by Henri Evenepoel of his bedridden son, Charles.

“Evenepoel must have put the camera right up against the rails of the crib, and you get this very abstract composition,” she said.  “The pattern and the light on the iron crib against all these other textures, I think, is so beautiful and pretty modern. I like the way it gradually reveals itself.”

This is the mentality that a visitor to the exhibit must have in order to enjoy the photographs.

One will find nothing new when first looking at the pictures for content. There are family portraits, photos of city life and a few of buildings and construction that call to mind the work of contemporary photographer Scott Hocking.

One must instead look at the photos for composition.

This exhibit does a great job in explaining how amateur photography was revolutionary.

For example, I looked at a photo and saw a woman walking down the street. Alone, the photo was not new or intriguing. Guided by the placard nearby, though, I noticed the long shadows of the gentlemen in the background and the diamonds of light between the woman’s arms and her torso.

Visitors will find much to gain from this exhibit if they keep in mind that the focus is historical, and actively engage with the exhibit. Easily accessible beauty and walls of impressive oil paintings can be found in a different area of the museum.

Another tip for visiting: take a break.

The exhibit takes about an hour and a half to explore thoroughly. It is easy to become fatigued after using the magnifying glass to examine the small photographs and reading each of the information placards.

Walk around outside for a few minutes after the room on Bonnard to refresh yourself. Don’t worry, a ticket stub will get you back into the exhibit.

Tickets are $4 for the duration of the exhibit, and admission is free for IMA members as usual.

The exhibit is well worth the price of admission and fits in nicely with the IMA’s diverse permanent collection. An unengaged visitor will probably not get much out of it, though.

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