Beyond Beauty: Photographs from the Duke University Special Collections Library
Nasher Museum of Art
Through Oct. 18

Several years ago I saw a billboard for Life magazine that read, “We don’t take sides. We take pictures.” This message struck me as preposterous. All images communicate a point of view, from the seemingly innocent snapshot to the digitally manipulated advertisement. I vowed then and there that someday I’d write about that misleading billboard in an art review.

Beyond Beauty, an exhibition of photography from the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University, now on view at the Nasher Museum, sets me up perfectly to revisit that offending sign. In the exhibition catalogue, Bridget Booher writes, “As we become an increasingly visual culture, the use and interpretation of images grows ever more important.” Indeed, “increasingly visual culture” is a polite understatement for our current state of visual affairs. We inhabit a cultural, political, technological environment in which our visual field is saturated with images that continually target us as the impressionable consumers we are.

Surely the antidote to this toxic overload is the rigorous interpretation of images. The more fluent we can become in the language of visually constructed meaning, the less likely we are to fall prey to its influence. I don’t believe we will ever be immune to the influence of the photographic image. But there is value in an informed mindfulness of its power.

At the outset, Beyond Beauty challenges our visual chops. Timothy O’Sullivan’s “Apache Lake No. 1” (1873) and “Apache Lake No. 2” (1873), subtle recapitulations of the same peaceful valley, are displayed side by side. The wall text invites us to analyze the compositional variations between the two images, a task often assigned to Duke students studying the history of photography. “Apache Lake No. 1” reveals the circular shape of the lake, awash in bright daylight. “No. 2” presents the lake in relative shadow. The entire lake is not visible, leaving its size and scale to the imagination of the viewer. In “No. 2” a majestic passage of cliffs along a mountain ridge comes into focus, as does a textured tree trunk that leans into the composition, visual elements that remain in the background in “No. 1.” It’s a rush to imagine the range, scope and infinite detail that viewers of this exhibition might discern in comparing these two photographs.

Tom Rankin, in his catalog introduction, is a little skeptical of an assertion by Garry Winogrand: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” Rankin calls it a “characteristic evasion,” but Winogrand’s statement strikes me as revelatory. He speaks to one of the most basic motivational forces that drives people to want to take pictures and for us to want to view them. When we look at an image, our instinct is to compare, reimagining the original subject against its photographic counterpart.

Rankin offers another key to looking at photographythe unshakeable presence of the photographer in every image and the inevitable experience of self-discovery in the photographs one has taken. Looking around the gallery space that holds Beyond Beauty, this assertion is everywhere, in work by photographers with indelible signatures. Works include Edward Curtis’ mythologized odes to Native America, Eugene Atget’s precise poetics of Parisian street life, Alfred Stieglitz’s pioneering efforts to elevate photography as an art form, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s galvanizing portraiture, Sally Mann’s unflinching nudes and the split-second mountain narratives contained in Rob Amberg’s enduring Sodom Laurel series.

As with any archival exhibition that presents a broad range of material, on any given day a different sampling of photos will grab us. For me, it was two North Carolina photographers. The first was Hugh Mangum, a Durham native whose studio portraits (listed as circa 1890-1922) reverberate profoundly the individual natures of his subjects. Of supreme interest are Mangum’s contact sheets, grids that form instant, inadvertent communities. The unintended by-product of these random grids is the compelling interrelatedness of the people in them, a study in the brilliant contrast of age, ethnicity, personal style and temperament.

The other must-see treasure is film footage shot by H. Lee Waters. Between 1936 and 1942, Waters took his movie camera on the road, filming communities throughout the Southeast and arranging screenings in local movie theaters. This was an ingenious innovation on Waters’ part, one that carried him financially through the Depression years. It was a simple notion: Most people had never seen themselves or their neighbors in a motion picture, and they would be willing to plunk down a few coins for the experience.

Beyond Beauty brings us Waters’ film “Kannapolis 1941.” Just a fraction of Waters’ vast archive, this clip depicts a visit to an African-American community. The film brings us close to people as they relate to Waters and his camera with warmth, a sense of pride and an overall buoyant sense of fun. In these moments, we experience the unseen Waters as much as we do his subjects. Waters stays with people long enough for us to see the emotions on their faces, often coaxed into relaxed, amused smiles. But he also captures the full range of human emotionwe see people who want nothing to do with him and his camera, registering glimpses of anger or simple indifference. In some ways, Waters’ project foreshadows Andy Warhol’s screen tests, which simply allowed people to be captured on film, and, as Winogrand says, doing so just to see how it turns out.

In the process of looking beyond the formal aesthetics of fine art and the content-driven imperatives of documentary photography, Beyond Beauty offers something beautiful indeed: the empowerment of viewers to question images.