Wall to wall
A scholarly exhibition brings a long-forgotten photographer into the present
In an era when photos are snapped and shared by the billions and much of human interaction takes place over WiFi, I sometimes wonder whether there’s much reason to look at art photography in a gallery anymore when it often looks so good online. For a few years now, I’ve been on the brink of concluding that a visit to a gallery to see a photo exhibition could start to feel irrelevant to anyone besides diehard photography fans.
But Nevada Museum of Art curator Ann Wolfe has thought this all through carefully, and just as U2 made giant stadiums feel like they’re the right size for a concert, Wolfe and her colleagues have made the museum feel like the right context for photography with the scholarly exhibition Anne Brigman: A Visionary in Modern Photography. There are no giant LED video screens or laser shows like at a U2 show. There’s nothing flashy at all, in fact. But, where a museum’s resources could have been easily used to protect the rarity of a body of artwork or keep it on a pedestal, in this show, those resources are put to work making a long-forgotten artist from a distant time seem relatable. And in the midst of #MeToo and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the artist’s subject matter of choice—women’s bodies—rings more than just relatable. While the images look antique, the more I dove in, the more threads I found that felt downright current.
An adventurer at heart
You’re not a philistine if you haven’t heard of Anne Brigman. She was widely published in her day, but she’s only now getting her due from art historians. She was born in 1869 and raised in Hawaii. At 24, she married a Danish sea captain. She took up photography in 1901, at age 32. That year, a magazine ad for a Kodak camera was more likely to depict a woman than a man, and the ad copy was likely to focus on how simple the cameras were to use.
For much of her life, Brigman lived in Oakland, so that she and her husband could be near a major shipping port. She often joined him on long ocean voyages.
In one sense, Brigman’s work looks a lot like other photos taken at the time, when America had one foot in the reserved Victorian era and one foot in the bolder modern era. She shot soft-focus portraits of hard-edged men looking head-on at the camera and pictures of women in studios wearing theatrical costumes of all kinds, their glances often averted. Her specialty, though, was nudes in rugged landscapes, including the nearby Sierra. She was often her own model and played with comparisons between the female form and nature, posing with gnarled tree trunks or aside rocky cliffs.
These weren’t unusual subjects at the time, but it was unusual that a woman would be behind the camera. While domestic photography was wildly popular among women—and while Kodak advised women to shoot photos of their kids, gardens and day trips—the childless Brigman went much further afield, in both location and subject matter.
“She was actually injured at sea,” Wolfe explained in an interview. “She fell into a hull, and her left breast was severed. Not only was she taking these photographs of herself, but she was taking photographs of herself as a wounded woman.” That, Wolfe said, was unheard of at the time.
Brigman published photos, poems and articles in popular magazines and newspapers such as Camera Craft and the San Francisco Call. She often wrote about freedom and its importance to women. Her words and images encapsulated the feeling of the human soul and brain set free by a perfect day adventuring in the mountains with camera in hand. In one poem, she wrote, “I turned full force to the medium at hand and the beloved thing gave to me a power and abandon that I could not have had otherwise.”
For a while, Brigman was included in the esteemed pool of photographers whose work was shown in the New York gallery owned by Alfred Stieglitz, a giant of art photography at the time and an influential gallerist. Stieglitz only showed Brigman’s nudes—not her many studio shots, portraits or photos of landscapes without figures—and he likened artistic worth to its erotic potential. According to Wolfe’s wall text for the exhibition, Brigman saw her nudes through a different lens. To her, they told “a story of personal feminist struggle.”
Stieglitz stopped championing Brigman’s work and sought other female artists whose work better fit his erotic imagination. He began representing Georgia O’Keefe, whom he later married.
This story, Wolfe pointed out, is a good example of how canons are formed. They can be based as easily on arbitrary calls or personal tastes as artistic merit.
“It’s a perfect example of how women are forgotten,” said Wolfe. “She’s forgotten for the next 50 years.”
Back in the spotlight
This is where Wolfe comes in, and this is where it makes sense to tell Brigman’s story in a museum instead of on Instagram.
For starters, Wolfe undertook a dogged approach to unearth Brigman’s images and stories. This is the kind of thing for which you need major institutional backing.
“I spent time with all the original material in London,” Wolfe said. … “The George Eastman collection in Rochester [New York] has a lot of her negatives, and so a lot of her negatives that had never been published—or probably seen by anyone—we’ve reproduced, because it gives you an insight into her working process.”
For the exhibition, the NMA borrowed about 70 prints from George Eastman, around 15 pieces that the Metropolitan Museum of Art long ago acquired from Stieglitz, and many materials from the Oakland Museum.
“A lot of the writings between Brigman and Stieglitz went to the Beinecke Library at Yale, so I was there, too,” said Wolfe, adding that, for the first time, all of Brigman’s writings have been reproduced.
This whole story could be told just fine in a book. In the show’s 400-page catalog and online, the pictures look pretty good. And to be fair to anyone who likes Instagram as a storytelling medium, Brigman’s images do reproduce well on a screen, which is good, because this exhibition, as extensive as it is, is not slated to travel, as some major NMA-originated exhibitions do.
“These exhibitions that have loans from multiple places are extremely complex to organize, so it’s unlikely it’ll ever be together again,” Wolfe explained.
But here’s why it works really well in the museum. For diehard photography fans, there’s nothing like the texture of an early-20th-century platinum print in person. For everyone else, Wolfe has carefully excerpted just enough of the giant catalog’s scholarship, stories and biographical context to make Brigman relatable. I imagine that, to curators, the goal must often be to try to offer a variety of entry points into an artist’s work and life, and in this display, it really works.