Princeton University Art Museum’s 2013 summer photography show underway

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.

During the academic year, exhibits at the Princeton University Art Museum are, well, academic. They relate to seminars, are accompanied by symposiums, and use the university’s vast scholarly resources.

This summer, the museum is exhibiting Shared Vision, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, from the world-renowned photography collection of Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla. Not to diminish the role the University Art Museum’s curators played in artfully pairing the works and creating themed sections, the exhibition has a relaxed summery feel.

The opening image is a wall-size day at the beach, with women in floppy hats and bikinis on the sun-drenched sand, men pushing strollers into a sea with the bobbing heads of swimmers, large rubber inflatables and awning-striped umbrellas. The washed out tonality of this painterly photograph conveys the harsh sunlight reflecting off the sand. Massimo Vitali, the Italian photojournalist and cinematographer, over exposes his scenes to simulate the experience of going from a dark room into intense sunlight.

His beach panoramas are like contemporary versions of the bathers painted by Cezanne and Matisse.

Just around the wall is another beach scene, “Coney Island, N.Y., July 9, 1993.” Here we see a girl who looks about 9 years old, her long red hair in a braid cascading alongside her chest. Speaking of that chest, it is bare – all she wears is a green skirt – and the girl looks older than the age girls normally don’t wear tops at the beach in our culture, particularly the culture of Coney Island. The girl looks quite annoyed in this work by Rineke Dijkstra. Coney Island’s heyday ended in the 1950s, and although there have been numerous attempts at a comeback, 1993 was not a halcyon year for the Brooklyn-based beach first settled by Dijkstra’s countrymen.

This was the era of photographers Cindy Sherman and Sally Mann, whose sensibility this large chromogenic print evokes. The girl could be a young Cindy Sherman, caught in the headlights of her own lens, or one of Sally Mann’s children, posing without clothing because Mommy said do it.

There is a work by Mann on a nearby wall, “Jessie at Five.” Here is the artist’s topless blond daughter, bejeweled with a strand of pearls and rhinestone earrings. Although the girl’s belly button is barely developed, she wears makeup and lipstick and the expression of a seductress.

And in another room there is a Cindy Sherman, from her Untitled Film Series, in which she models the part of an imaginary blond actress, the lonely starlet.

The beach theme continues with Raymond Depardon’s “Berck Beach, Nord Pas de Calais,” set with pastel-colored cabanas. The coats and jackets on the beach-goers suggest a season other than summer. This beach looks like one Maurice Prendergast might have painted at the turn of the 20th century. Kites that take the shapes of fish, stingray and insects fill the sky with merriment.

It is at the beach, where clothing is relaxed and sometimes optional, that many a teenager comes of age. One section of Shared Vision focuses on “Minor Matters: The photographs in this section rely on behavior, language and dress to signal the blurred boundaries between child, adolescent and adult… From innocence to mystery…”

In David Hilliard’s “He said, She Said,” we get a close-up view of the bare backs and shoulders of three adolescent boys, resting on their elbows on a wooden dock, a lazy moment in the sun. In the distance, two women – the boys’ mothers? their babysitters? – stand with feet immersed in the water, engaging in serious conversation. These boys, facing the water, face their future and adulthood. The photograph was made in 2005, so they are adults now.

Shared Vision is not all about the sexualization of young people. The section “In Visible Light” includes a Eugene Atget albumen print of a Parisian park in fall, being reclaimed by nature; Josef Sudek’s view of trees in fog; and Laura Gilpin’s “Bryce Canyon.”

A more contemporary – and much larger – landscape is Edward Burtynsky’s “Urban Renewal #1, Factory Construction, Outside Shenzhen, Guangdong Province.” Burtynsky is the photographer whose large-format industrial landscapes were the subject of Manufactured Landscapes, the 2006 documentary about land altered by human activity in China.

From a distance – and you have to see it from a distance, it’s that large – the viewer looks into an alley formed between two enormous structures made of bamboo. The alley is filled with mucky water and construction debris. The bamboo here is the scaffolding for a factory under construction. Even though Burtynsky points to the natural world vanishing in the face of the built world, he creates beauty.

The section titled “Form of Content” includes images that frame women’s limbs by Edward Weston, Andre Kertesz, Harry Callahan and Bill Brandt, abstractions that become seashells, optical distortions and unexpected juxtapositions. Men’s bodies don’t exactly get equal time, but Robert Mapplethorpe plays with a male silhouette that forms a kind of lotus.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Diane Arbus, Brassai, Lee Friedlander, Aaron Siskind, Imogen Cunningham, Bruce Davidson, Jerry Uelsmann, Berenice Abbott, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand – this show is filled with the best names in photography. Even the subjects are art world stars, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Henri Matisse. It wouldn’t be summer without a major photography exhibition at PUAM.

Shared Vision: The Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla Collection of Photography is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through September 15. 

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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