Writing this review for Brought To Light has been simmering on my back burner for too long. Since I finished reading the first volume of Janet Browne's beautifully written, "magisterial" biography of Darwin yesterday—Happy Birthday Charley—with the airwaves full of Darwiniana of all sorts, one of the PR/Tourist Board Darwin promotional tie-ins came from Johannesburg where the Beagle stopped on its return to Britain. While there, Darwin had long talks with Sir John Herschel, astronomer, grey eminence of 19th C. science in Britain, and crucial to the development of photography.
The exhibition and catalogue Brought To Light are organized around six topics: microscopes, telescopes, motion studies, electricity and magnetism, x-rays, and spirit photography. The last topic may strike the contemporary viewer as curiously unscientific (or, for almost half of the school boards in Texas and Kansas, it might be the only "scientific" topic), but every time period has ideas rooted in wish fulfillment rather than observation and data collection. Any number of good 19th C. scientists believed in phrenology as well as spirit worlds. (For an amusing account of this and other loopy topics in photo history, Bill Jay's Cyanide & Spirits (Nazraeli Press, 1991) is good fun.)
The four essays in the catalogue are helpful for any viewer who wants more than just the not-insignificant-pleasure of looking at these often beautiful, always amazing photographs. Photo histories tend to emphasize the long-standing wish of artists to have something like the photograph as an aid to drawing, but give short shrift to the desire of scientists for precise "copies" of nature. The mostly excellent essays by Keller, Tucker, and Gunning provide general and specific context for viewing the photographs. Maren Groning's essay is more specifically aimed at photo historians.
Brought To Light, edited by Corey Keller. Published by Yale University Press, 2008.
The reproductions in the catalogue are excellent, particularly the images that seem to be one-to-one with the originals. There is the usual caveat regarding reproductions of daguerreotypes. I would like to refer you to specific photographs in the catalogue, but alas, it is unpaginated. It also lacks an index. The baby blue ink for the footnotes of the essays is one way of insuring no one reads them. The color of the endpapers almost prevented me from opening the book: if I had not seen the exhibition, I would hardly bother with the catalogue.
I have been told that a number of viewers and readers of the catalogue have a positive view of the catalogue design. If this were an art monograph or a commercial publication, some of the design excess might be excusable, but I find the flaws of omission and commission unacceptable from a university press.
I think Brought To Light is an important, as well as beautiful, exhibit, and I am happy that an extensive catalogue exists; it is unfortunate the exhibit does not have a wider venue. It is more unfortunate that it does not have a catalogue that reflects the intelligence of the exhibit.
Brought To Light recently closed at SFMOMA. If you are fortunate enough to be in or close to Vienna between March 20 and June 6, make a detour and stop at the Albertina Museum to view one of the most satisfying, intelligent, and unexpectedly beautiful exhibitions of photographs I have seen in many a year. Kudos to Corey Keller, the curator, for a brilliant job and to the installers at SFMOMA for a clean, intelligent, invisible installation.
Richard Gordon is a photographer who lives in California. His photographs and artist's books are in museum and library special collections from sea to shining see. Four prints from his recently completed book project, American Surveillance, will be in SFMOMA's surveillance and voyeurism exhibit in 2009. He is one of five photographer's in the 'Camera as Subject Matter' travelling exhibition.