Hippolyte "Paul" Delaroche was a 19th-century French painter who specialized in historical scenes. His reputation, founded on razor-sharp accuracy and attention to detail, was undercut by his most famous statement. Upon seeing the world's first daguerreotype, he wrote, "From today, painting is dead!" The exclamation point drives home how wrong Delaroche was. Painting outlasted daguerreotype technology and today coexists peacefully — and sometimes dynamically — with the descended technology of photography.
Delaroche was, even at that early date, correct in recognizing what is most paradoxical about photography — that despite the camera's ability to capture scenes without an artist's intervention, the medium can be as creative, plastic or subjective as any other.
Thinking Photography: Five Decades at the Kansas City Art Institute, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, drives home photography's malleability with the forcefulness of an exclamation point at the end of a proclamation. Consisting of works by KCAI photography graduates, the exhibit appears to have been curated with a deep pleasure in the fundamental biases and unreliability of human agency.
Thomas Barrow, from the graduating class of 1963, addresses photography's subjectivity directly with a piece titled "f/t/s cancellation — frame." The artist negates a stark image of a demolished building and a surrounding empty lot with a hand-scratched X, as if denying the very moment when his finger pulsed on the shutter release. It scans like an angry denunciation of the idea that photography is an objective medium.
Barrow's twin pieces "K.C. House" and "K.C. Shrub" serve to highlight the technology that makes photochemical-imaging processes possible, something now largely taken for granted. In "K.C. House," the shadow of a spindly tree falls across the front of the title structure, and Barrow responds by printing the image twice on the same piece of photo paper, a doubling possible only through the mechanical techniques of modern photo processing. "K.C. Shrub," depicting a tumble of shrubbery on an embankment below a church, is similarly doubled. Barrow says to consider the camera and, by extension, the photographer, with all of his or her prejudices and inclinations. The camera has become practically invisible, so thoroughly has the medium of photography been absorbed into the cultural idiom.
Joe Deal's square-format monochrome photos, which capture backyards in Los Angeles suburbs, convey a specific, stylized lonesomeness. "Backyard, Diamond Bar, California" captures an impressive deck and swimming pool viewed from atop a hill, the yard surrounded by sand and scrub. In Deal's "Backyards, Diamond Bar, California," despite a wider vista of enclosed backyards, the focus is on one lot's concrete patio and lush grass lawn — as incongruous in L.A.'s semiarid microclimate as a pool of clear water. Isolation and Deal's conscious exclusion of the horizon pervade these images.
Deal shot his yards in 1980. The photographer, who died in June of this year, shifted his emphasis to different subjects later in his career. By 2005's "Sunlight and Shadow, Missouri Plateau," his emphasis was on the beauty of natural environments. Here, clouds cast a sweep of chiaroscuro shadows across a rolling plain of grasslands and houses in a work of contrasts and depth.
Nicole Cawlfield, KCAI class of 1997, uses the medium to make social statements with a distinctive sense of humor. She exhibits two subversive pinup images that undercut the form with commentary about body types. In "Thin Up, Girl, Aimee," her model stands on a doctor's scale while simultaneously preparing to eat a whole layer cake. "Thin Up, Girl, Self-Portrait" depicts the artist dressed as a 1940s housewife, talking on the phone and vacuuming while using one of those fat-jiggling machines that used to be standard at gyms. Entirely staged, Cawlfield's photos document a carefully constructed tableau, using the documentary function of photography to make something subjective, personal and funny.
Jamie Tuttle's "Peaches, Summer, 2006" is just about as ideal a confluence of medium, subject and personal vision as you might find at this exhibit. The vintage technique she favors, gelatin silver prints, involves exposing light to silver salts suspended in gelatin and then coated on a surface such as glass or photo paper. The complex processing results in notably rich tones and definition. In Tuttle's piece, a child's hand — her daughter's — reaches into a pool of water to extract a peach. The lushness of the shadows, reflections and textures mirrors the difficult technical process, and the sensitive portrayal of the subject speaks to a heightened and personal aesthetic. It's a piece without a hint of objectivity.