I’ve loved photography since I got my first camera at 8 years old. It was a Kodak camera — a thin black point-and-shoot brick that used 110 film cartridges. I spent hours photographing everything around me: my dolls, my pets, my family.
I wanted to fix the world in my vision, and taking pictures was a natural way for me to express myself.
“Photography Is Art,” at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, explores the way photography has long been used as a vehicle for self-expression, albeit one that was not readily accepted by artistic circles.
Organized by senior photography curator John Rohrbach, who has been at the museum since 1992, the exhibition features a selection of images from the Carter’s permanent collection. It focuses on the efforts of American photographers, from the 1890s on, to have photography regarded as an art form. The show further emphasizes photography becoming an acceptable addition to museum collections, which didn’t begin in earnest until the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“During my career, major museums like the Getty and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art started collecting photography,” Rohrbach says. “These are amazing collections that we tend to take for granted have always been there. But there have been significant changes over the years, and this show reminds people of those changes.”
The show opens with an 1894 Parisian streetscape by renowned American photographer Alfred Stieglitz. At the time of Stieglitz’s image, the medium had been around for nearly 70 years, albeit predominantly in the hands of studio professionals.
Shortly before this photograph was made, Kodak introduced the first preloaded roll film camera. This invention changed everything, and photography became an accessible and relatively inexpensive pursuit for amateurs and hobbyists. While photography was already grappling with its underdog status within the art world, it now found itself further relegated to that of a mainstream device.
Stieglitz and his contemporaries worked tirelessly to have photography regarded as an art form, but one that needed to adhere to their specific vision. Referring to themselves as Pictorialists, these artists used soft focus, gauzy papers and printing techniques to highlight photography’s emotional capabilities, thereby placing it on par with painting.
By 1915, photographers had started to embrace the medium’s technical capabilities, shifting away from the rather myopic set of rules imposed by the Pictorialists. Artists like Paul Strand used the camera’s shrinking size as a way to inconspicuously take photos of street subjects.
Others, such as Edward Steichen, began to dabble in abstraction. West Coast artists like Ansel Adams developed systems of photographing and printing that purposefully used the camera’s ability to render a scene beyond what the eye could see.
From there, photography as a practice blew wide open. Cameras were more lightweight and available in various formats. Film was easier to manipulate and cheaper to shoot. The darkroom was a hotbed of new techniques. Experimentation was now the norm, and different ways of making and taking photographs were popping up from coast to coast.
Artists such as Minor White, Lee Friedlander and Aaron Siskind were approaching photography in wholly unique, emotive ways. White focused on the poetics of nature; Friedlander, the movement of people in the city; and Siskind, the visual language of urban wear and tear — sidewalk cracks, broken bricks and poster remnants. During this time, some photographers started working in color.
Carlotta Corpron is a lesser-known pioneer of this generation, one with a direct connection to Dallas-Fort Worth. A professor at Texas Woman’s University from the 1930s to the late 1960s, Corpron was associated with the Bauhaus movement and played a significant role in establishing photography in this region. The exhibition features A Walk in Fair Park, Dallas, one of her highly experimental “light drawings,” black-and-white abstractions she made by moving her camera around while the shutter was open.
Once photography was generally accepted as a viable artistic medium, collectors began to pay attention to much earlier works. Rohrbach addresses this shift in collecting strategies by circling back to the late 19th- and early 20th-century images of William Henry Jackson, Edward S. Curtis and Timothy H. O’Sullivan — photographers who documented the expansion of the American West and the disappearance of indigenous cultures.
Photographers who had been largely forgotten were now regarded as pioneers of the medium, their works not only serving as documents of the time but ones that underscored the complicated history of American expansionism.
The remainder of the exhibition is dedicated to photographs from the late 1970s on, demonstrating the depth and variety of subject matter, printing techniques and ideologies that expanded the medium as it has grown to become a fundamental component of daily life. Many of these images show the self-reflexivity of contemporary photography — how it grapples with its own history and its relationship to other mediums.
There’s a large-scale print from Richard Avedon’s seminal project “In the American West,” which was commissioned by the Carter and cemented Avedon’s role in popularizing the deadpan portrait aesthetic that would dominate the following decades.
Alex Prager’s Crowd #1 (Stan Douglas) is a fictionalized tableau, a mode of picture making that dates back to the earliest days of the medium — a step between the stage of a theater and the sound stage of a film set. Joel Sternfeld’s masterful Massachusetts landscape harks back to photography’s painterly roots and the romantic tradition of pastoral imagery.
The show ends with an image from Justine Kurland’s series “Girl Pictures,” one of my favorite photographs of the exhibition. Set against a concrete wall in a secluded area, five teenager navigate a shallow stream. Dressed in the grungy, tomboyish style of the late 1990s, they hold hands while gingerly stepping across rocks; they’re positively brimming with the tough-yet-tender emotionality of those transitional years.
As a former late ’90s teen myself, now the mother of two young daughters, I find an immediate kinship with the individuality of each woman and their intuitive interactions. It takes me back to my fondest memories of making pictures of myself, my family and, now, my children, and the endless possibilities contained within a single image.
“Photography Is Art” runs through Aug. 8 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Free. For more information, visit cartermuseum.org or call 817-738-1933.