Depth of Field: Expanding Perspectives in 20th Century and Contemporary Photography
UNC’s Ackland Art Museum
Through Dec. 31

Compare and contrast is the modus operandi of the Ackland Art Museum’s Depth of Field: Expanding Perspectives in 20th Century and Contemporary Photography.

Selections from well-known mid-century photographers are matched with more recent works. Drawing upon the Ackland’s permanent collection, co-curator Barbara Matilsky says the exhibition serves to “reveal unexpected relationships between different generations of artists,” as well as offer a sample of the museum’s extensive photographic acquisitions.

Occasionally, the pairings possibly overreach their objective: Julie Moos’ “Domestic (Bell and Beebe)”(2001), a vaguely Avedon-esqe studio work, is set alongside selections from Robert Frank’s iconic The Americans. While both photographers examine race in American society, the comparison seems somewhat trite since Frank and Moos approach the issue from such divergent perspectives. Such a tenuous thread seems inadequate to bind even a cursory exploration of race in photography. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to compare Frank to Frank; his later workintensely introspective and relatively unknownis a rich counterpoint to his Beat era explorations and could illuminate an imaginably more profound photographic dichotomy.

Better is the coupling of Minor White’s 1947-1971 Jupiter Portfolio (1975) with “Tree of Life” (1989), produced by husband and wife team Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin. Acknowledging the works share little in common aesthetically or thematically, the viewer is left to ponder what emotional element connects the photographs. While “Tree of Life” isn’t necessarily a brilliant work, in this context it may serve as a springboard toward a more satisfying understanding of White’s darkly beautiful and haunting universe.

In terms of revelatory impact, the exhibition’s triumph may be uniting Gary Schneider’s “Retinas” (1998) with examples of mid-century high-speed strobe photography by stop motion pioneer Harold Edgerton. While Edgerton’s fantastic images revel in a delicious kitsch, they appear positively modern compared to Schneider’s sepia toned blow-ups of the human retina, which at first glance appear to be proto-ray-o-grams created by some 19th-century cowboy/photon-wrangler. By choosing to give his contemporary studies such antiquated sepia treatment, Schneider invites the viewer to journey to a place where the future of identification technology meets the history of photographic stylization. When considering “Retinas” against Edgerton’s space-age retro cool (which precede “Retinas” by four decades), an earnest gallery crawler is apt to become briefly unstuck in time. Such moments expose the degree to which the last century was shaped by popular photography, and forebodes that the medium may be destined to continually recycle itself.

So we learn that what is old is new and what is new is oldagain. Witnessing the apparent vitality with which video installations increasingly encroach upon gallery space and how the animated GIF is taking over the Internet, one wonders if still photography will one day seem quaintly static. We might soon be facing a world with disposable video-cereal boxeslet us hope that photography’s frozen time-shard isn’t completely swamped by techno-whiz bang. As the exhibition notes of Depth of Field suggest, when comparing the grim landscapes of Robert Adams to Richard Misrach’s image of environmental mismanagement (or non-management), “photography continues to be the most potent art form for communicating the devastating effects of human activities on nature.” What is gleaned in the gallery should inform the eye that navigates our workaday world.