Hood photo exhibit re-creates 1900 Paris exposition

by Alex Rich | 1/29/03 6:00am

Photography is by no means restricted to a single representation or interpretation of reality.

Instead, photographs gain much of their power from their ability to subtly engage their audience. Viewers feel inherently connected to images that at first merely appear to detail concrete reality but which instead depict a world begging to be studied more intensively in its historical context and re-examined with a discerning eye.

In a current exhibition titled "Ambassadors of Progress: American Women Photographers in Paris, 1900-1901," the Hood Museum of Art offers its visitors a thorough examination of the once-exhibited but now long-overlooked work of turn-of-the-century American women photographers.

The exhibition is juxtaposed with the Hood's other current photography show, "Carrie Mae Weems: The Hampton Project," in an effort to encourage new reflection on photography among museum visitors. The shows demonstrate that photographs need not be restricted to a singular historical contex.

"We are trying to present a kind of extended essay on photography and what it means. Anyone who wants to think about photography as a currency and to reflect on it as a medium can come to the museum and explore," Hood Museum director Derrick Cartwright said.

On the early end of the photographic spectrum covered by these shows, "Ambassadors of Progress" re-stages, a century later, a portion of the Universal Exposition of 1900 in Paris, in which the work of American women photographers took center stage and excited the art world.

The all-too-fleeting nature of that excitement lies at the heart of this show. Praised at the time of its exhibition in Paris, the work of these female photographers soon fell under the artistic radar, marking their initial success as momentary and leaving the works and most of the artists themselves ruefully forgotten in the process.

"Basically, the exhibition presents a group of photographs that were literally in a box in the Library of Congress and not studied in a hundred years," Cartwright said.

Cartwright conceived of the exhibition while serving as the Director of the Musee D'Art Americain in Giverny, France. Seeing in the history of the Paris Exposition and the understudied work of American women photographers a great potential for an exhibition, Cartwright initiated the long overdue resurrection of these artists' work.

Eventually manifesting itself as a traveling transatlantic exhibition, "Ambassadors of Progress" restores these photographers to their neglected place in the history of 20th-century art by placing them in the context of the Paris Exposition and by literally restoring their long-locked-up works. Photography played a big role at the original Exposition. A leading female photographer of the time, Frances Benjamin Johnston, selected 30 American women photographers to send their work to Paris, and their work did not disappoint.

Now, 100 years after the Exposition, "Ambassadors of Progress" tries once again to evoke the full experience of viewing these photographs, The show arranges the exhibition in a dense format indicative of the period and appends to the visual images the biographical backgrounds of the women who produced them.

"We wanted to recuperate these artists, many of whom were basically forgotten by scholars. We had a snapshot of their careers at one moment, but did they go on to bigger things?" Cartwright asked.

For many of these women, the biographical records are scant. In such cases, the artists' photographs become more than just works of art, offering limited but helpful starting points from which to learn more about these wo-men's lives. For Zaida Ben-Yusuf, for instance, the historic importance of the fig-ures she photographed, such as American writer William Dean Howells, suggests the relative access she had to prestigious clientele, although her own dates of birth and death remain unknown.

Thus, in addition to reconstituting the Paris Exposition and reviving the works of these women from their century-long slumber, the exhibition also raises intriguing questions about these artists' roles in the history of American art. Surely, the stylistic innovation and the subject matter of their photographs proved veritable sensations when they were initially displayed in Paris.

Some photographers, like Mathilde Weil, pushed the conventions of photography through the asymmetrical mounting of her images and her use of Japanese-like monograms for her inscribed signature.

"This was a time when women photographers were risking a lot by making strong statements," Cartwright said. Needless to say, the Exposition itself proved a chance of a lifetime for these women.

Better-known American artists such as Alfred Stieglitz refused to participate in the fair, apparently insulted by the organizers' distinguishing photography as its own medium and their intent to display it separately from other art, such as painting.

Ironically, it was the boycott by photographers like Stieglitz that afforded the opportunity for the women of "Ambassadors" to have their all-too-transient moment in the critical limelight.

"American women photographers were so far ahead artistically. They stole the show," Cartwright said.

So what happened? That the early success these works enjoyed was followed by such striking erasure from scholarly attention seems difficult to rationalize. This complexity fosters the exhibition's larger concern as to why, unlike their male contemporaries, these photographers have been mostly ignored by scholars ever since their heyday in Paris.

"What can we learn 100 years later about the state of photography and about these women in particular? What was it that made Gertrude Stanton Kasebier last and others vanish from art historical consciousness?" Cartwright asked, referring to one better-known woman photographer whose photographs are considered icons of American art.

"Ambassadors of Progress," invites viewers' more expansive reflection on women's photography and its place in the history of art.

The exhibit reminds viewers, too, that photographs subsist far beyond their immediate historical moments. "Ambassadors of Progress" urges its visitors to ponder what these turn-of-the-century women's photographs can still offer us and what their protracted omission from artistic memory says about the way we reflect upon photography today.