Discovering the Discoverer

Alice Burr: A California Pictorialist Rediscovered. At the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Shows through January 7, 2007.

Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott

It’s easy to miss amazing things around here, even when you’re looking right at them. Here’s one way to know when to pay attention: whenever you are standing in the Von Romberg Gallery at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, a chapel-like space that regularly contains quiet but remarkable shows. Alice Burr: A California Pictorialist Rediscovered is no exception. If you only stick your head in, you will think something like, “Oh, how sweet, an early lady photographer.” The prints will seem to be somewhat technically primitive. And you will have missed the entire show.

Burr_Tree_Study.jpgHere is what you will discover if you slow down and look and read. Most of the images are Bromoil prints, the product of an early 20th-century technological advance that offered photographers greater control than black-and-white silver prints. Bromoil is notoriously difficult to master, so we can assume that Burr more than knew what she was doing.

A close look will reveal that the prints are not grainy; instead they are printed on textured paper. This is certainly in keeping with the pictorialist aesthetic, but it is also in keeping with Burr’s own project of breaking down her representations. Consider “Black Trees,” for example. Here the artist, already working in black-and-white, reduces the number of shades on offer nearly to two, settling at last on three: the black of the trees, the light gray of the sky seen between them, and the nearly white passages that make the sky seem to glow. Over and over in these works Burr tests the limit of how little she can offer the viewer without abandoning her images entirely to abstraction. Even in a work like “Woman and Child,” Burr withholds as much as she can without allowing the subject to dissolve. In “The Fountain,” she gives us just enough so that by looking hard at the picture we can make a moonlit fountain appear.

Burr, quietly working in the darkroom her father built for her in San Francisco, began producing these images in 1910, and they are at least as ambitious as Picasso and Braque’s analytic cubism of roughly the same period. Indeed, because she was a photographer and could depend on the belief that she had “captured” an actual subject with her camera, she had space to push further into what would become arguably the strongest vein in 20th-century art.

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