LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles may mean movies to most people, but at the moment the town's major museums are overflowing with celluloid's predecessor, the photograph.
In a happy coincidence, nearly every major museum in town has a show examining some aspect of the still image, from its birth more than 160 years ago up to the present day. Like a giant Muybridge motion study photo, this close-up snapshot is an unprecedented opportunity to understand where photography came from and where it is going.
"Now that the era of the digital image is here, photography is going back to drawing and painting, which is where its roots are to begin with," says painter David Hockney, who also has used photography extensively.
The Getty Museum's 20th anniversary celebration of what most critics regard as the single most important assemblage of photographs in the world, particularly early works, provides a comprehensive backdrop for the city-wide dialogue. Compiled from some 100,000 images, "Photographers of Genius at the Getty" showcases the collection, which includes historical artifacts such as the enormous Mammoth Plate camera. In an age of cameras small as a grain of rice, this box that dwarfs a grown man is a reminder of how far technology has come.
The exhibition showcases 38 of the collection's most influential pioneers dating from the late 1830s to the late 1960s. To be included, the photographer had to be ahead of the times, says curator Weston Naef, "and have had a measurable impact beyond their own times." This last point is important, he says, "because photography is an art of sequence, with each one begetting another."
The show begins with the age of the daguerreotype as well as the first film negative. Some of the earliest images, such as the Cyanotype photogram of plant specimens (1842) and the salt print stylized portrait, "Mrs. Elizabeth (Johnstone) Hall" (1846) reveal both the scientific and artistic interests of the early inventors. As the show progresses, it's clear that these explorers were pushing the technical limits of this new medium as quickly as they could, and learned (or stole) from one another.
It's also clear that even the earliest practitioners regarded the new medium as a tool to manipulate visual reality, as well as record it. By the 1850s, new techniques such as the Calotype, which captured light more accurately, allowed photographers to be both more skillful and artistic. Camille Silvy's "Twilight," a composite albumen silver print from 1859 combining four separate shots to achieve both visual depth and a misty tone, could be an early Impressionist painting.
"What's interesting is to see the wide variety of minds that have put themselves to work in this medium," even from its earliest moments, says Gordon Baldwin, the Getty's associate curator of photographs. "It's also important to realize that this was not an accessible art form back then," he adds, gesturing to the Mammoth Plate camera which early photographers strapped to mules so they could navigate mountain ranges to take pictures. "They had to be really dedicated," he says.
As the 20th century broke, modernism and abstraction influences impact photography, laying the foundation for it to emerge as an art form on its own terms. The Getty showcases many classic images including Man Ray's "Violon d'Ingres," and Edward Weston's nudes.
The Hammer Museum's "The Last Picture Show" picks up the baton at a crucial turning point in the evolution of the still image. "This is the period of the transformation of photography to equal painting and sculpture as an art form," says curator Douglas Fogle. The show's subtitle, "Artists Using Photography" underlines the notion that during this period, the concept of idea over object sweeps through the art world. Mr. Fogle calls this the first exhibition of artists who consider themselves artists first, pointing to such works as Louise Lawler's "Untitled" (Why Pictures Now), Barbara Kruger's "Untitled" (You Are Not Yourself), and Charles Ray's "Plank Piece II."
This is ironic to a degree, says Fogle, in that many of the artists who were rebelling against the established art world during this period turned to photography precisely because it was not deemed fine art. "There was something liberating to the creative process, by virtue of the very fact that it wasn't valued by the museums and galleries," he says.
These artists set the stage for the photography of today, says the curator. They did not consider themselves photographers, rather photography was just another tool for their exploration. "This is why, and when, photography becomes no longer a truth-telling medium," says Fogle, "but simply art."