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Take Five: Size matters in upcoming photography exhibit, curator says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2012 - What do you do with a treasure trove of huge photographs, many over five feet long, and one wider than 10 feet? When you're curator Eric Lutz of the St. Louis Art Museum, you comb the world for more and create "An Orchestrated Vision: The Theater of Contemporary Photography," opening Feb. 19.

Several years of thought went into Lutz's vision for hanging the museum's collection on a theatrical hook, using themes of built environments and the conflation of fact and fiction.

Half of the 43 works by 36 artists are from the museum's collection, including four large pieces from the estate of the late Sen. Thomas Eagleton. The other half were discovered in a wide range of locations including India, China, New York and Houston. Most were taken in the 21st century, none is more than 20 years old.

Lutz talked with the Beacon about the exhibit's examination of contemporary practices in photography including the idea of stepping inside a new world.

How is this exhibit like a theatrical event?

Lutz: The emphasis in photography these days is on what happens behind the camera, on varying theme settings, on the photographer controlling every sort of element of the picture, and directing, almost like a film director from behind the camera.

That sounds a little like the work of Cindy Sherman.

Lutz: Cindy Sherman is not in the show but I would say she's one of the primary influences upon a lot of the artists working today. But photography is getting bigger and bigger, and some early Cindy Sherman's works look small in comparison.

Most of the works in this show are a good five feet wide, and this really encourages you to visually enter into the space of the image in a way you couldn't before, when photography was a more intimate art form; it was small, and you held it in your hands. Now, you sort of step back and almost experience it in the same way as when you go to the theater.

Size is a substantial issue that I talk a lot about in the show, that has given photographers a new way to think about and use the medium of photography. But size, in and of itself, isn't what defines the show. We actually have one piece that's 12 inches by 12 inches; it's the most darling little thing you've ever seen in your life.

Most of the images are more old-school in that they're not manipulated after the fact. Is it obvious which ones are and which are not?

Lutz: No. What makes this show so fun is that you don't really know what you're looking at, and it encourages you to stop and think about it.

These photographers want to be really physically involved in the construction of their pictures. They're not interested in sitting in their offices and digitally fidgeting with an image on their computer.

In "Atomic Love," Sandy Skoglund literally did a room-size installation with mannequins and props, and she hot-glued tens of thousands of raisins and then took a picture. So the photograph become the final document, but it literally started off as a piece of sculpture.

It took a long time. If you were living in New York back in the early '90s, you would have seen all these full-page advertisements by Skoglund asking people to help her; it was extremely labor-intensive. She probably would have preferred to do it digitally if she could have. Adobe Photoshop came out in the early '90s but it was pretty primitive at that time.

Anne Hardy is like Sandy Skoglund in that she does these room-sized environments and everything that's in them she's consciously put there. You have to sort of figure out who might be occupying this space and what might they be doing. It's like someone left the room and you're asking, "What's going on here?" They don't really have an answer and they don't really make sense but they are so fun and so engaging, visually.

The Georges Rousse is also all done by hand. This image is an abandoned bottle factory in France. He's using plywood and white paint to make these sort of interventions and adding on to the original architecture, creating these optical illusions, essentially that are only perceptible from one point of view. The perfect circle in that image is only available from that particular vantage point. The tension between the idealized space inside the circle almost seems to exist in another realm.

What kind of equipment is being used, for the most part?

Lutz: It's interesting; these 19-century, large-format view cameras that produce eight-by-ten inch negatives have come back into vogue because you need so much information to fill these surfaces. They were invented for taking pictures of architecture or landscapes but now they're showing their usefulness in a whole new way.

Sometimes photographers actually still use the older cameras or they use replicas. They operate in basically the same way, so the technology hasn't really changed. The only thing that's essentially changed is that sometimes instead of using film they put a digital backing on the camera. It has the same lens and the same bellows but the image is actually captured digitally rather than on film. It's a real blending of new and old technologies.

What else about this exhibit is something St. Louisans have never before experienced?

Lutz:I think this is a pretty ambitious exhibition for both presenting the scale of things and also trying to be as international as possible, looking at a range of works of people who are interested in the same theme but pursuing different avenues of it from throughout the world. I can't think of another exhibition like this where you get this range of material.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.