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Stand Rock
© Nicholas Osborn 2006

The Innocent Eye?
Amateur Photographs from the 20th Century

February 10 - March 18, 2006

Carl Hammer Gallery
740 N Wells St
Chicago IL 60610
tel.: 312-266-8512
hours: Tue-Fri 11a-6p, Sat 11a-5p, or by appointment

With the near-total supremacy of digital photography, memories like this no longer exist. Magnetic media is ephemeral. It is physically vulnerable to erasure, easy deletion, and the built-in obsolescence of the computer development cycle; but more than that, the very attitudes toward mere digital files are not, and cannot be, the same as those held toward even a small physical snapshot. A computer 'folder' of digital files simply does not exist in the same way the family box of fifty-year-old photos does. So we are fortunate that for over one hundred years the dry gelatin emulsion served as the primary medium for photography. For, as the selections in The Innocent Eye? Amateur Photographs from the 20th Century reveal, these snapshots have not only survived the passage of time in their physical reality of emulsion adhered to mere paper -- they are also surprisingly durable in the freshness of their content. Fifty-two photographs dating from 1902 to the 1950s, curated by and from the collection of Nicholas Osborn, are on exhibition. All are amateur snapshots, generally black and white and in the index-card-sized format common to the medium. They are unexpectedly fascinating in their evocation of personality, time and place, and narrative. One wouldn't expect 'someone else's' old photographs to be compelling. And yet they are.

Personal photography was pioneered by American dry-plate manufacturer George Eastman in 1888. Prior to this, the practice itself was a cumbersome affair, long exposure times and the heaviness of the camera with its glass plate for each individual exposure requiring, most often, a studio sitting. Photography in the field was possible, but took a great deal of dedication to transport the equipment required, particularly the wet plates, which then had to be developed immediately on site. Almost since its inception, however, there had been a great public interest in photographs, particularly as portraits and mementos. In 1888 Eastman offered the Kodak box camera; a fascinated public took to it immediately. Pre-loaded with the new paper-backed dry gelatin emulsion film (also by Eastman), enough for one hundred exposures, all the user need do was point and shoot. Suddenly, anyone could own a camera; and, moreover, an eminently portable one. Cameras could and were taken everywhere, into the field, into the home, on picnic outings, recording the smallest minutiae that tickled the photographer's interest. The camera's eye began operating, as it most often does today, on a voyeuristic personal level: stopping time, capturing a moment, recording everything, from the most public group outings to private moments between photographer and subject that even friends and intimates would not see. Photography entered the hands of everyman. And everyman photographed, with gusto. Family and friends, outings and occasions, in images revelatory of an age, and of the interests of the 'average joe' behind the lens.

In an exhibition such as this one, curation is paramount. The images themselves are already set; the curator can only select or exclude, forming the group of stills into a larger body. Curator Nicholas Osborn's selections in The Innocent Eye? gather photographs filled with narrative, the drive to record personality, the amateur's interest in the unusual or the curious, and the presence of the camera in private settings. Most of these photos were originally moments in some now-anonymous personal life. What makes them so compelling? For one thing, taken as a whole, the images give evidence of a different America. The world these photographers lived in was fundamentally different, both on a gut level, and on the level of individual experience. Many of these photos commemorate a group occasion, the great gatherings of friends and family at camp or beach; they reveal the relaxed, gregarious warmth of the extended group, something we have lost in this day and age of both the cocooning that draws the family circle exclusively inwards, and mobility that scatters family members apart. Frank and open, filled with character, even the facial expressions are different. Other photos show a freedom and a boldness by modern standards remarkable. In Stand Rock, a young enthusiast leaps a six-foot gap between two high cliffs, while onlookers, probably family, stand admiringly by. The photographer has placed himself in an advantageous position out from the foot of the cliff, the better to catch the leap in silhouette, in what is clearly documentation of a planned feat. The leap is cleanly caught at its exact center point, evidence of either great skill, or great good fortune, of the photographer; the image is tidily composed, and most of all, is testimony to a more innocent, and less litiginous, time.

At the same time they give evidence of an America that no longer exists, the snapshots in The Innocent Eye? reveal it with immediacy, serving as a history of daily life more direct than factual information from history books, in part because we see individual people and can relate to individuals better than to an anonymous text. An actual photograph that an individual has preserved has an authority that a reproduction lacks. These are voyeuristic pleasures, the interest of peering into other lives, of seeing what they found valuable enough to record on film. Photography was new, exciting, important, innovative, and several of the images show even the amateur's instinct to record the unusual: an array of bullets, for example, casting shadows from their positions tightly lodged in a board; a mortar shell protruding from the trunk of a tree. Other snapshots are evidence of the camera and its presence in private life, recording scenes even the most intimate friends and family might never see. A bedroom serves as background, while a woman poses as a Betty Grable-style pinup, in swimsuit and heels, coyly glancing over her shoulder; a grinning tomboy by a stream, barefoot and bluejeans rolled, teasingly lifts her blouse; a middle-aged woman is photographed completely in the nude, as rife with skin texture as a Lucien Freud painting. That such images would be photographed at all is surprising for the time; the film would most likely have had to go through the hands of the local chemist to be developed, making one's 'private' photos not so private after all.

Digitization has forever changed the face of photography; not so much its voyeuristic aspects, which if anything are more invasive than ever, but the durability of such images and the likelihood that they will survive to enchant future generations as much as the photographs in this exhibition do us. The Innocent Eye? Amateur Photographs from the 20th Century is on exhibition through March 18, 2006. Early 20th-century amateur photography is a growing interest, more and more well-represented in publications and collections. The Innocent Eye? reminds us why. Fifty-two images, from the turn of the century to the 1950s, highlight the frank optimism of the early half of the century, the urge to record personality and sights of interest, the amateur's untutored yet innately skillful composition of image: all rendered, anonymously, in the simple medium of the snapshot.

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

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