That dramatic century

| Bendigo Weekly | 08-Apr-2011 9.39

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DREAM JOB: Curator Tansy Curtiin.
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An opportunity to visit a huge archive of American photography led to the landmark exhibition about to open in Bendigo

Two weeks spent in one of the most important photography archives in the world was a dream come true for Bendigo Art Gallery curator Tansy Curtin.
“To be given the chance to curate an exhibition straight from their collection was an incredible opportunity, yet extremely daunting”, she says of the time she spent in Rochester, New York, at George Eastman House.
“We have done a number of international touring photographic exhibitions in the past and, although George Eastman House’s touring program is incredibly dynamic, I wanted to do an exhibition that highlights the depth and diversity of their outstanding collection.”
We’re talking about a collection of 400,000 images spanning the 20th century and what Ms Curtin calls “some of the dramatic moments that occurred in photography over this dynamic period”, so it might have been possible to be overwhelmed.
Ms Curtin kept her cool, and kept to her plan.
“Since this is the first exhibition to come entirely from George Eastman House, I wanted to create a very broad exhibition highlighting some of the iconic images of the 20th century,” she says.
“I also sought to show some of the key holdings in their collection, and in some cases, I chose lesser known works.”
The result of Ms Curtin’s patient fossicking goes on show next week at Bendigo Art Gallery.
American Dreams will display the work of 35 photographers, from the ground-breaking Photo-Secessionists of the first decade of the 20th century through to the auteur-photographers of the late 20th century such as Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Over the entire history hovers the figure of George Eastman, whose belief that photography would and should be embraced by the “unskilled amateur” revolutionised first the camera, then the uses of photography.
His Kodak No.1 made the snapshot possible.
“No longer was photography merely the realm of the wealthy elite or the professional,” Ms Curtin says.
“It had become a means of image-making readily available to the masses, and George Eastman had led the way in its democratisation.”
Some of the images Bendigo gallery-goers will see are familiar almost to the point of cliche, such as Lewis Wickes Hine’s 1920 photograph of a powerhouse mechanic, a man in a singlet wielding a large spanner in front of a shining steel machine.
This homo-erotic ode to the machine age may well be read very differently, in this post-industrial age, than it was in 1920, when the Depression was looming.
The haunting photographs from the 1930s of the American poor, such as Dorothea Lange’s migrant mother in California, are now almost chic, perhaps losing some of their original documentary punch over time.
That photograph, “celebrated for Lange’s sense of empathy for her sitter”, has become “one of the most recognisable images of the 20th century”, Ms Curtin says.
The curator talks about how that documentary period of social realism has developed into a style that, rather than depicting narratives of social injustice, focus on the everyday.
Street scenes and people captured as if arbitrarily (think Bill Henson, in his early moody streetscapes of faces in the crowd) invite the viewer to imagine the lives of the people thus captured on film.
While some of the photographs come with detailed information about when and how they were taken, and how they came to be in the George Eastman collection, others were acquired long after the original was taken, and so are less fully documented.
“Our passion for provenance and individual artwork history is a relatively new thing,” Ms Curtin says.
Her exhibition provides a mini-survey of some of the most influential names in photography, including Man Ray who experimented with not only subject-matter but also film processing.
Because photography is only 150 years old, and is changing rapidly all the time, she says it is often difficult to keep up.
“One of the key elements of American Dreams is tracing the style and subject-matter of photography in the 20th century,”
she says.
“Like all art forms, photography directly references contemporary social issues – whether it is the hardship of 1930s America, the sexual revolution of the 1980s or an exploration of modernist ideals in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Many of the images we consider to be iconic today are those which capture a sentiment specific to the time in which they were produced.”

American Dreams: 20th century photography from George Eastman House, at the Bendigo Art Gallery from April 16 to July 10.

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