In the history of photography, there is B.K. and A.K. Before Kodak was an era when photography was the domain of professionals, or at least those who could deal with the tripod, plates, emulsions and other chemicals involved in a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. The After Kodak period begins circa 1888, when a point-and-shoot camera became widely available to those with even modest resources. As Kodak put in its first user-friendly instruction manual: "You press the button, we do the rest."
Professional painters and printmakers were not immune to the lure of the Kodak; many used it in the same way we use an iPhone, capturing scenes of city life, family gatherings and buxom babes in boudoirs. Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, which opens at the Indianapolis Museum of Art Friday, brings together photographs by seven of those artists, alongside the paintings and prints for which they are best known.
A collaboration between curators at the IMA, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. - and based on an idea originated by independent curator Elizabeth Easton - Snapshot offers an exceedingly rare glimpse at the role which photography played in each artist's work.
When I caught up on Friday with Ellen Lee, the IMA's Wood-Pulliam senior curator and the museum's point person on the show, she was on a rush inspired by both Mountain Dew and adrenaline. Paintings were arriving from Washington, D.C., via courier, and other last-minute adjustments were taking place. Our wide-ranging conversation began on a general note, as she recalled when she was asked in 2007 to be involved with the project.
"I thought the idea of being able to compare their paintings with their photographs would be revelatory," Lee said. "They never exhibited these photographs during their lifetimes. I don't think they were hiding anything; they just considered them personal. They used them and they had an influence on their art, but I don't think they considered them works of art."
Lee could only give me a glimpse of the exhibition, but it was enough to impress. The front wall of the gallery, the first thing viewers see when they turn the corner, is a wall-size blow-up of a self-portrait by the Belgian painter and photographer Henri Evenepoel, who is likely unfamiliar to American audiences, largely because of his early death at age 27. In the photo, Evenepoel is seen holding the Kodak camera - a small, leather-covered box without an eyesight - at chest level, looking into a three-way mirror. Like other photos in the show, the self-portrait seems ahead of its time, uncentered and perspectival in a way that wouldn't become popular until the arrival of cubism and other experiments in fragmentation.
The Evenepoel photo emphasizes that the exhibition is, in part, made up of candid shots; I joked with Lee that a terrible title for the show could've been Candid Camera. Moving beyond that front wall, the first gallery sets up the dramatis personae for the exhibition, while highlighting the themes that their photography shares - namely, according to Lee, "the attraction of the modern city," the nude and the everyday role played by point-and-shoot photography.
Snapshot includes work by four members of a progressive Parisian group known as Nabis (or "prophet") - Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Félix Vallotton and Maurice Denis - who encouraged each other in their experiments in the new medium. Three other artists unaffiliated with the group - Parisian designer Henri Rivière, Dutch artist George Brietner and Evenepoel - were included in the show because they engaged with photography in a similar way.
While none of the artists in the show intended to exhibit their photography, Lee maintains it remains of more than historical significance. "The interesting thing about this is that these artists were professionals as painters or printmakers, but they were sort of amateurs when it came to photography. But of course they were artists, so I would maintain that you get some really interesting photographs that are more interesting than the average guy's."
Most of the artists in Snapshot were interested in the camera as a means, rather than an end. "The majority of these artists were not interested in the technical part of it, in terms of how the camera works or developing prints. As one of the essayists in the catalogue points out, they were more interested in the photograph after they'd made it, so that as artists they could transfer that to their paintings or prints. It wasn't so much about creating something technically; it was about having another visual source. They thought, this is a great toy, a great tool and I'm going to work with what it tells me. That's what artists are always about."
Still, some artists were interested in new technologies, notably Henri Rivière, about whom Lee wrote an essay for the exhibition's catalogue. A printmaker who taught himself to create Japanese-style woodblocks, Rivière started his career in a nightclub, Chat Noir, where he edited a journal and designed shadow plays.
Rivière's series of photos of the Eiffel Tower, taken before its construction was completed, fills the final gallery in the exhibition. "It was such a neat thing that he got to go up the Eiffel Tower; I called it the best photo op in Paris, and it all goes back to the Chat Noir. Gustave Eiffel was a friend of the guy who ran the cabaret. Eiffel knew the tower was controversial, so he had what was a press preview, basically. They were told they could climb the tower with him. Rivière says in his memoir that we were told to travel at our own risk and to 'beware of falling bolts.' There's another proof that it had to have been an easy to carry camera."
Lee classifies Rivière's photos of the tower under two categories: those with "amazingly modern angles" and those of the workmen still hacking away at the tower. They'll be exhibited alongside a series of prints of the tower that Riviere made years later titled Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower, in a playful nod toward Hokusai's prints of Mount Fuji. Rivière borrows from his photos for several of the prints, sometimes exactly matching the composition of a given photo.
"These photographs have such a startling modernity to them; to me, they look so abstract that they could've been taken in the '40s by Rodchenko or Moholy-Nagy," Lee said of Rivière's work. "They had the most modern sense, so I though it was kind of fun to end the show with those."