In what is its largest-ever photography exhibition — three of them, actually — and very likely the most comprehensive mounted anywhere on Long Island, the Nassau County Museum of Art devotes 10 galleries to images from photography’s infancy to prints by living artists collected by Long Islanders.
The iconic black-and-white landscapes capturing dramatic vistas of the American West greet visitors in the gallery just off the foyer with “Ansel Adams: Sight and Feeling.” Beginning in the adjoining gallery, “Light Works: 100 Years of Photos” traces the history of photography from Julia Margaret Cameron’s sepia-toned “Aurora: Goddess of Morning” of 1873 to Kim Ellen Kauffman’s archival pigment print, “Dispersal” (2000).
For a local perspective, head upstairs to “New Photos: Long Island Collects,” ranging from works by Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the few artists in this collection not still among the living, to the Island’s own self-photographing genius, Cindy Sherman, and animal-loving humorist photographer William Wegman. Almost everything to love in photography and your little dog, too.
Twenty-two photographs spanning most of Adams’ extraordinary career are from the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Institute of Arts collection bequeathed by William John Upjohn of Kalamazoo-based Upjohn Pharmaceuticals.
“He amassed a collection in a time before photography was considered fine art,” says Karla Niehus, interim curator of the institute. One of the earliest photographs in the Nassau show is of Vernal Falls in Yosemite Valley, shot in 1920, when Adams was 18. Much of his career was spent photographing Yosemite and other national parks.
“The quality of his prints remains unparalleled,” says Karl Willers, director of the Nassau museum. The secret sauce behind Adams’ vision, stunningly captured in black-and-white detail, is on display. It’s a camera like his, which looks old-fashioned, with flexible bellows that allow changes in angles and perspective. But the key is the large film size it accommodates, 8-by-10 inches, compared with the later 35mm — optimizing detail in the negative and final print. Another Yosemite image, a gnarly tree trunk foregrounding the sky-blue (we imagine) horizon at Tuolumne Meadows, 1941, epitomizes the genius of his meticulous process. Another, a rare portrait, is of Edward Weston, fellow photographer and co-founder of Group f/64, named for a photographic aperture, of course.
100 YEARS OF PHOTOS
A century — more in this case — pretty much covers the history of photography’s evolution from a tool of scientific observation to instant sharing of imagery. While smartphones and Instagrams are not part of this show — also from the Kalamazoo Institute collection — its progression anticipates the immediacy and intimacy to come.
An early adage, “the camera cannot lie,” made both scientific and societal uses of the medium relevant. Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 “Animal Locomotion: Man With Donkey” photographic studies still catch what the eye is too slow to see, while Dorothea Lange’s poignant Depression-era “Migrant Mother” bespeaks another adage: “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” Alfred Stieglitz’s 1907 “The Steerage” marks a turning point toward pictorial photography, imitating painting even in black and white.
Portraits, from Diane Arbus’ foggy “Flower Girl at a Wedding, Conn.” (1964) to Richard Avedon’s “Truman Capote” (1974), rivet our attention.
Color appears late, with the New Topographics school renouncing conventional notions of beauty and emotion, as in Richard Misrach’s stark “Moonrise, Pyramid Lake,” (1993).
LONG ISLAND COLLECTS
More than 25 collectors, including the Nassau museum, contributed to this exhibit covering the 1960s to the present. One of them, Harvey Manes of Old Westbury, contributed a pair of Cindy Sherman photos — both of herself, each unrecognizable from the other — and two more by Mapplethorpe, one a portrait of Isabella Rossellini of Bellport. (Mappelthorpe, the Floral Park native, died of AIDS in 1989.) “There’s something a little off,” about their photos, Manes says, meaning it as a compliment. “It shakes you up a bit.”
Other famous faces include Bob Dylan in Lloyd Harbor, John Lennon, Lou Reed with Laurie Anderson, and Paul McCartney visiting Willem de Kooning at his East Hampton studio.
In the Contemporary Gallery, Peter Beard’s “1 year old Gorilla in Rwanda, before the genocide” (1984, the genocide occurred 10 years later), hangs next to an ape skull. Meanwhile, Sebastião Salgado’s 2005 “Iceberg Antarctica” appears to be melting.
Cheer up by checking out John Baldesarri’s bright 2005 photo-construct “Person With Guitar” on your way out.