First a piece of glass he coated / With collodion, and plunged it / In a bath of lunar caustic / Carefully dissolved in water / There he left it certain minutes.
This is from "Hiawatha's Photographing," Lewis Carroll's 1869 parody of the popular poem "The Song of Hiawatha." Carroll is describing the wet-plate process of photography, savoring its esoteric terms—its pyrro-gallic acid and glacial-acetic—while imagining Longfellow's Native American hero trying to shoot a portrait of an impossible family.
Carroll's travesty highlights the technical knowledge required to make photographs in his day. For us, things are much simpler. Painting and music remain specialized, but we are all photographers now, however shoddy. The medium's always-hazy status between documentary, vernacular and art is further vexed by the immense number of digital photos being produced.
This is the context of PHOTOVISION: SELECTIONS FROM A DECADE OF COLLECTING a fascinating, ambitious new show at UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum. The question of what is worth preserving was on the minds of curator Peter Nisbet and assistant Lauren Turner as they assembled their exhibit. The 167 photographs in it were selected from more than 500 the Ackland has collected over the past decade. Their provenances span three centuries; their formats run from daguerreotypes to digital. Their creators include pioneers Mathew Brady and Henry Fox Talbot, refiners Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol, and anonymous shutterbugs. Together, they compose a valedictory yet somewhat uneasy 175th birthday party for a medium whose artistic, technical and historical breadth can be obscured by our daily habit of throwaway image-making.
To impose order on the sprawl, the curators divided it into five sections. Try starting with "Process and Product," a survey of photographic techniques from 19th-century daguerreotypes to contemporary inkjet prints. The early photos demonstrate formats with names as evocative as their distinct looks: wet collodion and albumen, ambrotypes and tintypes. You'll see early color efforts, salted paper prints and lots of silver gelatin, which defined the oily look of black-and-white well into the 20th century. You'll learn about fotoescultura, a Mexican popular form of portraiture where hand-colored silver gelatin is mounted for a 3D effect, and pinhole photography, which is basically making long exposures in a small camera obscura.
Of course, sepia people and gray buildings can be more historically than visually compelling. But there's plenty of purely aesthetic punch. William Larson's "Figure in Motion" stretches a model to infinity with a rotating platform and a slit-scan exposure. Photomontage pioneer Barbara Morgan's "Hearst Over the People" symbolically portrays the media magnate as a black cloud of tentacles menacing the populace. Gary Schneider's "Retinas" also gives a horror-movie jolt, with branches growing like blood vessels from a pair of murderously staring moons.
Next, head to "Sacred Spaces," which focuses on depictions of religious sites, showing how lenses can vary from worshipful to colonial, reverent to critical. This section feels the slightest thematically—like a catchall for the museum's collection of such images. But there are some standouts among the ruins and churches.
An Avedon composition of evening prayers on the Ganges has a dramatic formal sweep, and one pauses at Burk Uzzle's portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. lying in state. David Stephenson's framing of the mosaic dome of a Hungarian synagogue fires off a palpable beam of sacred energy.
These two sections inclined toward photography's past cue up two others that jitter with its present anxieties. With its neurotic title, "Again and Again and Again" evokes the nightmarish undertones of endless duplication. Early photos capture temporal sequences, as in a proof sheet of a Disdéri carte-de-visite and an Eadweard Muybridge study of a pole vault. But photography couldn't cling to linear time for long, and its unraveling into conceptual realms is summarized in a series of Warhol Polaroids where portraits splinter into glimpses, fragments and details.
Photography's artifice also informs "Staging the Image," which draws awareness to our complicity in our own deception "in an age of imitation" (that's Carroll again). It's filled with candid illusions and false impressions of veracity. Stanley S. Wulc crafted elaborate artifacts to create an alternate universe where photography was available to Dutch still-life painters. Sandy Skoglund makes bronze leaves, painted blue, realistically float through a red office. Jerry N. Uelsmann constructs a perfectly credible if faintly surreal living room from different negatives. These photos, which cede tenuous objectivity to sheer fantasy and trickery, are some of the most arresting on view.
The curators take a chance with fifth section "Daisy Chain," where a ring of photos are connected by free associations written on a line running between them. The concept "streak of light" relates an abstract glyph by Barbara Morgan to a shooting star by Terry Matilsky, which pivots on "sky" into a Kenneth Johnson photo of an arm holding a snapshot against the sky. After transferring through links such as "panorama" and "maze-like," the sequence disappears down a "central vanishing point" that rhymes a Vatican corridor with a Bombay train station.
Purists might balk at the curator's whims supplanting the artists' intentions, but I found it to be a stimulating contrast to the thematic groups. The through-line is chaotic but has distinct moods. I especially liked the section where self-portraits with mandala shapes by Pamela Singh and Carl Van Vechten ecstatically merge with Berenice Abbott's concentric water rings on the axis of "halo" and "radiating."
PhotoVision also fans out through the museum, where supplementary photos are matched to works in galleries for African art, Asian art, Western painting and other collections. There's also a mini-exhibit centered on a 19th-century spirit photograph, a form that captures something essential about the photographic tension between technology and superstition. Indeed, this show is as close as you can get to the spirit of photography without getting some lunar caustic on your hands.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Panoramic Panic."