Archaeology photography: Can you dig it?

January 28, 2010

Wait, is that a bare ass? Because those cheeks look like they could crush chestnuts. Color me jealous. (Max Blodgett)

The Lucille and Richard Spagnuolo Gallery is trying to shed its perception as the odd room you might glance at while swiping your GoCard on the way into the LXR courtyard. The banners outside of Walsh announcing its new exhibition, The Creative Photograph in Archaeology, seem to herald the transformation of the space from an afterthought into a legitimate showcase of artistic works. And bringing in a high-quality, engaging photography exhibit doesn’t hurt, either.

Lining the walls of the gallery are 40 prints of equal size, and an immediately recognizable subject: the archeological ruins of Athens. The purpose of the exhibit is not to simply appreciate the Acropolis, but instead to trace the evolution of the purpose of photography. The world-renowned photographers that contributed to this exhibit came from Scotland, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Germany, and the U.S., but Athens was chosen as the subject because it was the only place they had all photographed. Organized chronologically, the exhibit highlights how the innovations in individual photographers’ techniques highlight different conceptions of the same subject.

The earliest photographs, such as James Robertson’s “The Temple of Olympian Zeus from the SW, 1853-54,” taken with some of the first photographic technology, were intended to serve primarily as explanatory images for those who had never seen Athens before. As you move through the exhibit, selected photographs explore the inside of the ruins and capture aesthetically intriguing details and hidden corners. The evolution showcased in the exhibit demonstrates how photographers adapted to the proliferation of standard, landscape shots of the temples.

Wait, is that a bare ass? Because those cheeks look like they could crush chestnuts. Color me jealous. (Max Blodgett)

The Creative Photograph in Archaeology also showcases the relationship between archaeological sites and their visitors. In the 1890s, Anton Silberhuber took photographs of a group of tourists he’d brought to Greece. His shots of the same Temple of Olympian Zeus with a bunch of handlebar-mustached men standing in a row—wearing top hats and holding canes­—provides a fascinating contrast to the earlier photographs.

Many of the most notable works included in the exhibit come from the influential Swiss photographer Frederic Boissonnas. In his prints, the ruins fade into the background while more contemporary subjects take the focus, like a sheepherder or the Illisuss River flanked by telegraph lines on its banks. Boissonnas’ talent for drawing the eye to incredibly detailed and beautifully lit foregrounds—while leaving a tiny outline of the Acropolis as a mark of place in the background—show that photographers of the early twentieth century began to put their personal mark on the places they photographed through a creative composition and intense attention to the effects of light and shadow.

Boissonas’ contemporary, Walter Hege, focused on capturing the statues inhabiting the temples. In one image, he manages makes the caryatids of one ruin look like women truly tasked with supporting the whole structure, by photographing them close-up from above, with dramatic shadows and a steep drop to the bottom of the temple as a backdrop. Compared to the earliest photographs in the exhibit, where the statue-columns would have been seen only from the ground as part of an image of the entire structure, the later prints show the creative ways in which modern photographers re imagine iconic subjects.

Though small in scale, the Spagnuolo Gallery has thankfully added a thoughtful and professional addition to Georgetown’s nascent arts scene. Let’s hope the exhibit is only the beginning for Georgetown’s growing art scene. In time, the gallery will evolve into a space for both immaculate presentation and more challenging, provocative works of art.

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