Exhibition: In the Darkroom / NGA

February 17th, 2010

Robert Adams

©Robert Adams

In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes Before the Digital Age
Co-curated by Sarah Kennel and Diane Waggoner
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
October 25, 2009 – March 14, 2010

Podcast interview with curator Sarah Kennel.

This is a must-see show. I have to admit that I spent most of my time reading the wall labels and text, but learned more from this exhibition than any history of photography class I ever took. It wasn’t until the second view of the exhibition that I was able to also focus on the subject matter of the photographs rather than just comparing and contrasting technique and process.

This is the way to learn about photographic processes. Co-curators Sarah Kennel and Diane Waggoner have concisely organized a chronological look at the different photographic techniques employed throughout the history of photography up until the digital age. Drawing from the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art the exhibition includes examples of photogenic drawings, tintypes, daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, collodion negatives, paper negatives, waxed paper negatives, gum dichromate over platinum prints, gum dichromate prints, palladium prints, bromoil transfer prints, platinum prints, carbon prints, salted paper prints, albumen prints, books that compare photogravure reproductions and offset lithography for printing photography books, Polaroids, dye transfer prints, and chromogenic color prints from some of the most well-known practitioners of the medium. I haven’t even named all the processes included in the exhibition. Can anyone explain a Woodburytype?

©William Henry Fox Talbot

©William Henry Fox Talbot

There are many gems in the exhibition. On view are two delicate and beautiful pieces by Henry Fox Talbot; “Lace,” a photogenic drawing, and “Oak Tree,” a salted paper print. There are four photographs of Alfred Stieglitz’s “The Terminal,” printed as a carbon print, two silver gelatin prints, and a photogravure, that reveal his photographic thoughts in playing with composition (through cropping the printed image) and in utilizing different printing processes.

The Terminal ©Alfred Stieglitz

The Terminal ©Alfred Stieglitz

I loved the gelatin silver print of “Summer Nights # 2” (see first photo of this post) by Robert Adams and Edward Steichen’s “Cover Design,” as a duotone. Ansel Adams is featured with two prints of “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome;” one printed in 1927 that is soft and delicate in tone, and the other printed in 1980 that is larger in size, of high contrast, and very dramatic, the printing style most associated with Ansel Adams. Richard Misrach’s “Dead Fish, Salton Sea, California” is included as an example of a chromogenic color print, also know as a traditional c-print, as well as Saul Leiter’s “Snow.” And homage is paid to the Polaroid, with a few examples of this no-longer produced film, such as a manipulated SX-70, and a 20”x24” Polaroid transfer.

Snow ©Saul Leiter

Snow ©Saul Leiter

I am already re-viewing the exhibition a third time, through the accompanying must-have catalog In the Darkroom: An Illustrated Guide to Photographic Processes before the Digital Age. It is an extremely useful reference for the breakdown and explanation of each photographic process.

UPDATE: There will be a free lecture with Sarah Kennel on Sunday, March 14 at 2pm at the National Gallery of Art, East Building Concourse Auditorium. A book signing will follow.

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