Brought to Light: Revelatory Photographs in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art Collection features more than 60 works of recent acquisitions and institutional favorites that together emphasize a range of photographic practices, from gelatin silver to inkjet prints.
The artists included in the exhibition — Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Dawoud Bey, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Bevan Davies, Michael Disfarmer, Harold Edgerton, Anthony Hernandez, Barbara Kasten, Yevgeny Khaldei, Inge Morath, Gordon Parks, and Masao Yamamoto — were smartly selected. As a group they emphasize a wide range of technique and style spanning various time periods and geographic focuses. Considering Barbara Kasten’s contemporary work in the same room as Harold Edgerton’s time-based, technical studies reminds us of photography’s unceasing spirit of experimentation, while the persistent power of the glance is keenly felt in the works of legendary Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo and contemporary great Dawoud Bey.
Exhibition highlights include Michael Disfarmer’s studio portraits of fellow residents of Heber Springs, Arkansas, taken between 1930 and 1952. The series emphasizes the photographer’s skill at authentically capturing everyday individuals in a way that feels anything but posed. In one image, four teenage girls are seated, their youthfulness captured through shy smiles and flirtatious eyes. In another, a young man wearing a hat and knit cardigan is captured alone, his expression daydream-like as he peers through the camera. The photographs succeed because of their stark candidness, an ironic feat when taken inside a portrait studio.
The photographs of Inge Morath are irresistible. One of the first woman photographers on staff at the Magnum Photo Agency in Paris, Morath is known for her portraits capturing the human experience through subtle gestures and rich details. The four photographs on view, detailed with lace trimmings, wrinkles, and fur coats, emphasize her eye for deep contrasts and layered textures.
Anthony Hernandez’s large-scale color photographs are another treat. In this later work, the artist captures architectural structures that are typically overlooked to invite nuanced readings on the sociopolitical nature of built environments. Whether he is photographing someone waiting for the bus or an inconspicuous elevator shaft, Hernandez is a master of creating depth. The self-taught photographer from Los Angeles recently had a long-overdue retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, solidifying his place as one of the great photographic minds of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The exhibition undoubtedly delivers in the quality of work exhibited, leaving viewers wanting to see more from each artist. While the wall texts on each artist are certainly informative, displaying more photographs would have been preferred to the lengthy blurbs. Choosing only three photographs from Gordon Parks seems like an affront, but then again, SBMA may only have a few works by the artist in their collection. Indeed, the individual groupings that were given more than three or four nails in the wall — Disfarmer, Edgerton, Davies — feel most satisfying.
Brought to Light also feels slim on its inclusion of contemporary photographers who are challenging the medium’s definition. It would have been great to see someone more daring in the lineup — especially alongside so many important pioneers.
As SBMA continues to expand its photographic pursuits under the leadership of Charlie Wylie, this is where it can look to next. With approximately 8,000 photographs in the museum’s collection already, Brought to Light is a testament to the institution’s long interest in and support of the photographic medium. And once fully renovated, SBMA will feature permanent photography galleries for the first time in its history — an announcement all should applaud.
Brought to Light: Revelatory Photographs in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art Collection shows through April 22 at the S.B. Museum of Art (1130 State St.). Call 963-4364 or visit sbma.net.