Exhibition spotlights the simultaneous rise of photographic and electrical experimentation
“The development of photography as both an art form and an ever-changing technology has been essential to modern experience since the mid-19th century,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “This exhibition explores how photographers have engaged with another key component of modern life—electrical power—both as a physical phenomenon and as a visual metaphor for energy and life-force in nature.”
The exhibition of thirty-nine photographs is part of the Museum’s In Focus series of exhibitions that showcase themes drawn from the Getty’s holdings of over 50,000 photographs. Adds Potts: “Previous exhibitions over the past nine years have looked at animals, trees, the nude, still life, architecture, and the work of single artists such as Ansel Adams. In Focus: Electric! may very well be one of the most surprising and creative explorations of our collection yet.”
The first section of the exhibition features images that convey photographers’ reactions when faced with the changes wrought by artificial illumination. A number of modernist artists pictured widespread access to electricity as a beacon of progress, and photographed fast-growing cities where electricity was prevalent and sometimes inescapable. On view will be photographs by Alfred Steiglitz (American, 1864-1946), André Kertész (Hungarian, 1894-1985), Andreas Feininger (American, 1906-1999), and others that capture shimmering streetlights at night in New York, Paris, and Stockholm. Such works are balanced by a 1984 photograph by Robert Adams (American, born 1937), which shows the encroachment of light pollution in a Colorado landscape.
In Focus: Electric! also examines photographers’ longstanding interest in changes to lightbulb designs. Lightbulbs are often emblems of innovation, as when the jolt of a great idea is symbolized by a glowing bulb above a character’s head. The increase in electrical innovation in the 20th century prompted many photographers of that era to document lighting they encountered, and the exhibition includes multiple approaches to photographing these familiar fixtures. In Light Bulbs (about 1938), Fred G. Korth (American, born Germany, 1902-1983) accentuated the seductive curves of a row of incandescent bulbs, while Květoslav Trojna (Czech, active 1929-30) took a more straightforward approach in his view of a lightbulb (about 1930), closely cropping the image to focus attention on a filament’s bright glow.
As important as electricity has become to the developing world, some artists have used photographs to warn of the consequences of such innovation. With cities overrun with cables crisscrossing the sky and persistent illumination fostering longer working hours and environmental concerns, several 20th-century photographers have concentrated on electrical infrastructures.
“This exhibition references both the positive and negative effects of electricity,” says Mazie Harris, assistant curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and curator of the exhibition. “An ennobling photograph by Lewis Hine (American, 1874-1940) of a man at work on a turbine in the 1920s is juxtaposed with a 1955 photograph by Gen Otsuka (Japenese, 1912-1992) that shows Mt. Fuji as a backdrop to the teeming electrical wires and heavy industry of Japan.”
Fifty years later, a tangled mass of cords and cables in Danwen Xing’s (Chinese, born 1967) disCONNEXION series (2005) calls attention to the industrial refuse or “e-waste” that is dumped in China, a hazard to public health and to the environment.
The exhibition also explores the relationship between photography and electrical experimentation. By the 1840s, electrical trials were being carried out by scientists engaged with photographic investigations, and some of their innovations, such as electronically generated flash photography, have continued to influence scientific discovery. A playful 1920 photograph by George Watson (American, 1892-1977) captures researchers in mid-air, jumping to test synchronized flash power. An 1893 photograph of the Electric Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition by an unknown maker showcases generators of all kinds alongside household appliances, hinting at the wonder many people felt when faced with the new machines and ideas enabled by electricity.
In Focus: Electric! is on view April 5-August 28, 2016 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center. The exhibition is curated by Mazie Harris, assistant curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Also on view will be Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints (February 9 – May 15, 2016), a drawings exhibition that offers a dark counterpoint with a display of works created using man-made charcoal, black chalk, and conté crayon.
The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that includes the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Foundation. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.
The J. Paul Getty Museum collects Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture and decorative arts to 1900, as well as photographs from around the world to the present day. The Museum's mission is to display and interpret its collections, and present important loan exhibitions and publications for the enjoyment and education of visitors locally and internationally. This is supported by an active program of research, conservation, and public programs that seek to deepen our knowledge of and connection to works of art.
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