Photography and Galleries
In 1967, my wife Merle and I attended a retrospective exhibition of the works of photographer Dorothea Lange. The touring exhibition, created by the Museum of Modern Art, featured 75 of the 87 prints which comprised the original MOMA exhibition. It was presented at what was then the University of Alberta Art Gallery and Museum, located at 9021-112 Street in Edmonton, Alberta.
This was the first major exhibition of photography that I had ever seen, and it will likely be one of the most memorable of any art exhibition I will ever see.
Lange's photographs (including the iconic Migrant Mother, below) brought the depression and the 'dirty thirties' in the Great Plains and other parts of the USA to life. Since the dirty thirties also had a profound effect on the land and the people of the Canadian prairies, Lange’s images reflected my life as well the lives of millions of other people of The Great Plains. I cannot imagine that anyone looking at these photographs would not be affected by them.
Lange’s exhibition showed me what documentary photography was and could be. I realized, after seeing Lange’s work, that the photographs I had made in Golden Prairie, Saskatchewan, in 1955, were part of the documentary tradition. Much of my later work can also be described as documentary.
In his review of the Lange exhibition, Virgil Hammock, the Edmonton Journal’s art critic, said that the attendance at the exhibition would not likely be as high as it should be, since most people in Edmonton at that time did not think that photography was art. He felt that this would be unfortunate, since this exhibition was one of the most important bodies of work ever shown at the University Art Gallery.
Times have changed. In 1974, The Edmonton Art Gallery (now the Art Gallery of Alberta) created their first exhibition of photography entitled Photography Alberta ’74. Twelve photographers were represented by 58 prints. I was pleased to be one of those photographers. Exhibitions of photographs in major public galleries in Europe, North America and other parts of the world are now as common as those of other types of visual art. Photography has come of age – or perhaps we have.
Major museums no longer list the photographs in their collections on the basis of content, but rather will identify them, if possible, by the names of the artists who made them. Recently, in a New York Times article art critic Holland Cotter stated ‘But, of course, art itself has changed. It is no longer about things, hasn’t been for decades. Since the great surge of dematerialization introduced by conceptualism in the 1960s, art has been about, among other things, ideas, actions, sounds, performance, networks, communication.'
Exhibitions provide opportunities for viewing work, often in the context of other forms of art, discussions, reflections, and ideas. While we can learn about visual art online, seeing paintings, photographs and other forms of art in public and private galleries and museums can provide an intimacy and a learning experience that is unique.