Normally, art lovers sneer at the sound of a whisper in museums. While this policy of strict silence is normal in most art institutions, the new “Conversations” photography exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), which is on display until June 19, suggests a very different attitude toward artistic discussion. In fact, ‘conversations’ are encouraged, and are indeed the desired effect of the diverse and well-assembled collection of masterpieces.
Upon entering the first exhibit hall, one’s visual field is instantly filled with the vibrant colors and striking size of Thomas Struth’s “Audience 4,” a photograph which gives the viewer the impression of looking into a mirror. In this image, Struth depicts a group of people observing Michelangelo’s famous sculpture “David” in Florence’s Accademia Gallery. At first glance, it appears as though Struth was focusing on the crowd, rather than the work of art itself. But because of the camera’s angle, it becomes clear that the people in the photo are actually looking directly at the viewer, thus making the photograph’s beholder appear to be the true subject of the work.
Similarly intimate moments of observation are captured in other photographs throughout the exhibit. Most notable in this respect is Helen Levitt’s black and white image “New York,” which depicts three young children playing with masks on a tenement stoop in Manhattan. Levitt uses a right angle viewfinder in order to capture the candid moment without the children’s knowledge, yet the small girl’s mask appears to be staring directly at the camera. The mask may be looking at the camera but the young girl may not.. In this way, the photograph juxtaposes delicate, youthful innocence with the potential for secrecy and duplicity, a contrast which sparks further questions of perspective and intimacy.
The dynamic collection of over 100 photographs was assembled with careful consideration. Curators Anne Havinga and Karen Haas had access to the Bank of America collection, a significant corporate holding of photography, sculpture, textiles, and maps dating from the 18th century to the present.
The Bank of America collection traces its roots to the 1960s, when photography historians Beaumont and Nancy Newhall helped assemble the collection for The Exchange National Bank of Chicago, a former Bank of America institution. In doing so, the pair began a photography collection which would eventually contain samples of every major technological development occurring in the medium, from 19th-century salt prints to early 21st-century digital photos.
The exhibit features a broad array of photographic icons, boasting such names as Man Ray, Eugene Atget, and Irving Penn. Most compellingly, the works of these great masters are often paired with those by lesser known but equally skilled photographers. While the works of the major artists may be highly recognizable and pleasurable to view in their own right, the connections that emerge between the juxtaposed photographs are distinctive and purposeful, often offering to viewers a visual conversation starter.
One of the pairings emphasizes the strangeness in everyday life. William Eggleston’s colorful photograph of a tricycle entitled “Untitled, (Memphis)” is positioned next to Lee Friedlander’s black and white photo “T.V. in Hotel Room, Galax, Virginia,” which depicts a ghostlike child’s face on a television screen. Viewed side by side, these photographs call attention to the beautiful yet vaguely supernatural elements of everyday objects.
Landscapes and seascapes comprise a large portion of the exhibit, particularly the clever juxtaposition of “New York State” by Kenneth Josephson and “Seascape with Yacht and Tugboat, Normandy” by Gustave Le Gray. Le Gray’s photo, taken a decade earlier than Josephson’s, is an expansive and dramatic view of a boat on the ocean, but becomes even livelier when compared to Josephson’s version of an ocean view, which simply depicts his hand, holding a postcard of a boat. The presence of Josephson’s hand, a reminder of his role as the framer of the scene, emphasizes the power of photographers to inform the meaning of a place.
The “Conversations” exhibit is both fresh and familiar; iconic photographs are invigorated by their placement alongside less famous but no less powerful works. The exhibition does justice to its title, sparking dialogue among viewers. After the show at the MFA closes in June, this brilliant collection will depart for Europe—where the conversations, now in foreign tongues, will begin once more.