Vintage Prints on View in Delaware and Washington, DC

Writer and photography / Nancy Breslin

Some vintage “alt photo” prints are on view in the mid-Atlantic US this spring.

Gum print of John Sloan by Gertrude Kasebier
Gum print of John Sloan by Gertrude Kasebier

I’ve just been to two exhibits which feature some beautiful vintage versions of what we now call “alternative processes.”  The University of Delaware, which holds a large collection of work by Photo Secessionist Gertrude Käsebier, has a current exhibition titled “Gertrude Käsebier:  The Complexity of Light and Shade.”  The show includes a range of her styles and techniques, including studio portraits and more personally expressive work, mostly in platinum or gum.  Käsebier studied painting before venturing into photography in her early 40s, and this seems to show in her gum printing, which can stray far from a literal interpretation of the negative.    In this show I was particularly drawn to a quad of gum portraits of the painter John Sloan, in which she uses the same negative and same process to create very different prints, some very dark, some with notable brushwork.  The show continues through June 28 at the Old College Main Gallery.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, has a delightful new show up now called “Faking It:  Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.”  I had seen much of this work before, but it was interesting to think of the images in this context.  Steichen’s  platinum print with applied color, “The Pond – Moonrise,”  may have been making the most of his limited ability to deal with low exposure.  The fake clouds in many classic landscape photographs don’t detract from their beauty, but do underline the point that photography has long included manipulation.  Unlike some obviously composited prints on display, the exhibited version of Rejlander’s “Two Ways of Life,” a carbon print made from 30 negatives, looks flawless, probably due to the softness of the carbon process.

Steichen's The Pond - Moonrise
Steichen’s The Pond – Moonrise
The show includes some expressive double exposures, such as F. Holland Day’s platinum print “The Vision,” and also some trick photography such as “spirit” photos  (supposedly capturing the ghosts of loved ones) and an amusing array of shots of people holding or juggling their own heads.   Leaving “alt photo” behind, the show continues through surrealism, Weegee’s distortions and Soviet airbrushing to contemporary artists such as Jerry Uelsmann and Duane Michals.  The show continues through May 5..

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