I went on Wednesday to see two exhibits at the Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Gallery on Park Avenue. This is the premier gallery in New York City for anyone with an interest in early photography and alternative processes.
The first exhibit is devoted to the work of John Beasley Greene, an Egyptologist of American descent who died tragically young of tuberculosis at only age 24. The works on display consist of salt prints and waxed calotype negatives and date from the mid-1850's when the art of photography was still in its infancy. To us in the twenty-first century there's nothing at all remarkable about Greene's views of the pyramids and monuments of ancient Egypt. If anything, so familiar have these scenes become that they seem a bit hackneyed. To the majority of Greene's contemporaries, however, these photographs afforded them their first glimpse of the Mideast and they must have found the content startling indeed. After the passage of so many years, we can only imagine their reaction. Greene, who was a student of Gustave Le Gray, was an exceptionally talented photographer to have mastered his craft at so young an age. If he had lived longer, he would no doubt have been hailed as a master of the medium. As it is, he is almost forgotten now; but that should in no way lessen our respect for his achievement. A selection of his photographs is available on the Getty website and they are well worth studying.
Since the Kraus gallery specializes in early photography from the mid-nineteenth century, it's very unusual to find there an exhibit devoted to the work of a living artist. The exception, whose work is now currently on view, is Adam Fuss. Fuss is a British photographer who has made a name for himself by combining less commonly utilized techniques, such as pinhole photography, with unusual subject matter. The current show consists of several oversize daguerreotypes (Fuss claims they are the largest ever created, and I see no reason to doubt this) that portray in separate images snakes and figure models posed on a mattress. These make for quite striking images. The figure models are Afro-American women, one of whom is obviously pregnant, whose bodies have been covered in oil to give them a glossy appearance. In one image, the model's eyes are rendered as shining discs. The photographer explains his interest photographing this subject matter in an Artist's Statement:
"One key to decoding the rich symbolic figure of the snake is its continuously undulating wavelike form, which mirrors its dual negative and positive, masculine and feminine, natures. The snake is uncanny and inhabits two worlds. In my pictures, the gate to the other world is suggested by the mattress, which becomes the stage for a drama both universal and domestic. The snake arrives on this stage from the underworld. Other figures emerge, human in nature but a greater part snake."
Accompanying Fuss's own works is a selection of nineteenth century daguerreotypes that fall into two categories: female nudes and postmortem portraits. These are accompanied by an essay by Fuss in which he hypothesizes that pre-Raphaelite painting was largely inspired by the daguerreotype image but that this influence was never given due credit since photography was at the time not considered an art and therefore not a fit vehicle for artistic inspiration. It's a fascinating argument for art historians to ponder. But one need not ascribe to Fuss's theory in order to appreciate these images. Taken on their own, they are utterly compelling, especially the death portraits which strike the twenty-first century viewer as eerie and even shocking. Our modern sensibilities are too far removed from our ancestors' social customs and view of death to be able to easily accept them as keepsakes of a departed loved one. Instead, they strike us as inexpressibly morbid.
The John Beasely Green exhibit continues through December 2, 2016; and Adam Fuss exhibit continues through November 8, 2016.