She stands in profile with one arm lifted, pointing toward his forehead, and he closes his eyes against the light. These are not the well-known poker faces of daguerrotypes. Their expressions are fluent, feeling, and the light touches their skin like the glow in a pre-Raphaelite painting. They look alive.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits surprised her contemporaries. In the mid-1800s, when photography was new, she became one of the first women to experiment with it. A photographer in the early 1800s worked half in an artist studio and half in a chemistry lab, coating plates and exposing them to light over long hours.
She developed a large body of work, and when she died it was forgotten for most of a century. This month her ‘Vivian and Merlin’ is coming to light again in an exploration of photography’s early years.
Jay Clarke, Manton curator of prints, drawings and photographs, will gather images from London to Yosemite to the Sphinx in ‘Photography and Discovery,’ an exhibit in the new Works on Paper Gallery, one of two new spaces opening at the Clark Art Institute in November, when the museum will reveal the last phase of its 10-year renovation.
Along with the auditorium and the two new galleries, the newly redesigned Manton Center will offer an expanded bookshop, a quiet common space with a low-key coffee bar and a study room where visitors may ask to see any work in the collection — anyone in the Berkshires can come in and order a Rembrandt, Clarke said.
It also holds the museum’s library of 270,000 books, one of the few museum libraries left in the country with entirely open stacks.
The Manton Center will open Nov. 12 and 13 with a weekend of events, including talks with architect Annabelle Selldorf and the Clark’s new director, Olivier Meslay, who will speak about his plans for the museum’s future — and a gala concert by Cuban-born jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer Arturo Sandoval.
Sandoval is an Emmy- and 10-time Grammy winner, and the Clark has reached out to him inspired by a program on Nov. 1, ‘Art after Democracy,’ when Cuban-born artist Tania Bruguera will join five artists and scholars in a panel on art and politics, said director of communications Victoria Saltzman.
Graduate students and scholars-in-residence are already bringing their work into the Center’s quiet, naturally lit common area, to read to read in nooks and comfortable chairs of dark wood and dove-grey wool.
“We’re returning this space to the communion of people who think about art and like to talk about it,” Saltzman said.
The central gathering point is open two stories up to a skylight in rippling curves. On the second story, tall shelves display American photographer and filmmaker Allan Sekula’s library of 15,000 books.
These are books he read and used, Saltzman said — bright, varied and gently worn with years of handling. She welcomed the messy liveliness of it all.
“These are discordant books,” she said. “It’s not a room full of leather-bound volumes. … It’s fascinating to get an artist’s entire collection of books,all the sorts of things he was influenced by — ‘War without Heroes,’ Mexico, Sam Walton’s autobiography — a mind trying to soak in so much.”
The expanded bookshop will carry art books, she said, but, like museum’s shop here before the renovations, it will stretch that theme from novels, biographies and children’s stories to travel writing on The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul — a real museum based on a novel by Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish novelist and winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Around the central atrium, the building has transformed, Saltzman said. Many changes seem subtle, almost undetectable, that have involved substantial reconfiguring.
The Clark has re-balanced the acoustics in the auditorium and stripped away years of varnish on the stage to reveal the original golden-brown teak boards.
They have brought the building up to full compliance with state requirements for accessibility and safety, she said. They have put in a new lift to the auditorium, slightly leveled the pitch of the floor and added six accessible seats. To ensure enough space for free movement, they have set all the bookshelves in the library less than an inch farther apart, and this change throughout the room rippled outward to move whole shelves onto the floor below.
Other changes are as clear as the jazz and classical concerts, London National Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD returning to the auditorium.
The Manton Gallery of British Art will gather well-known works from the collection, from J.M.W. Turner’s “Rockets and Blue Lights” to John Constable’s “Malvern Hall,” Clarke said. And the new Works on Paper gallery space will allow the museum to show work from its collection that has rarely appeared before. Works on paper are sensitive to the sun, and they can only be shown for short stretches of time, to preserve them.
To have a gallery space dedicated to these works, where she can rotate exhibits, fills Clarke with light.
She has curated ‘Photography and Discovery’ from some 1,000 photographs in a collection of more than 6,000 prints, drawings and other works, as an exploration into the first 70 years of photography as an artform.
The show stretches back to Henry Fox Talbot, one of the earliest pioneers in the field. Talbot invented a salted paper process, she explained.
He wetted ordinary paper in salt water and dried it, then coated it with silver nitrate, which created a surface that would darken slowly under light. With sunlight or a camera lens he could form an image in time.
As Louis Daguerre was inventing the daguerrotype in France, Talbot was working with paper negatives in England. Light passing through one sheet to print on another
gives his images a hazy quality, Clarke said: “Daguerrotypes are crisp mirror images.”
She has grouped the show thematically around people, places and things. Photography helped people discover the world in a new way, she said, from armchair travel to experimental and abstracted imagery.
Here, early photographers carried their heavy equipment from the American West and Yosemite to the Pyramids.
They experimented with still lifes: “The easiest way to capture images early on, with long exposure, was to be sure they didn’t move.”
The Clark’s photography collection began with her predecessor, Jim Gantz, she said, and with the museum’s support he and she have oriented it to the permanent collection of British, French and European painting and sculpture from the 1840s to the 1920s and to the Clark’s other holdings. Over time it has expanded from well-known names, like Francis Frith in the Nile valley, to lesser known, unconventional and significant artists.
Gertrude Käsebier, raised in the Colorado territory, developed her career in New York at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design; she photographed Lakota performers in the city, work now preserved at the National Museum of American History, and she knew and worked with leading photographers and artists of the time, including Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen; she photographed Auguste Rodin, who was internationally celebrated in her lifetime as he is today; the Clark has several of his works in the permanent collection.
“Käsebier was very independent of her husband,” Clarke said. “Photography was her way of getting away from him, in some ways. She was part of a male world — like printmaking, photography was seen as messy, dirty, working with chemicals in a dark room.”
It was also more difficult for women to sell their work, she said: It was ‘unseemly’ to walk up to a dealer or to hold a show of their photographs, and they could only approach collectors through friends or curators at museums.
Here, in a friendly place, they are seeing the light again.
This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer; my thanks to Fred Daley. In the photo at the top, the Manton Center at the Clark Art Institute will reopen Nov. 12 and 13 with a renovated auditorium, study center, library, bookstore and coffee bar. Photo by Tucker Bair, courtesy of Clark Art Institute.