Special exhibit offers ‘9 Perspectives’ on photography

Penn owns an extensive collection of art—6,000 works collected over the past 250 years—that includes paintings, furniture, decorative arts, works on paper, sculpture, and photography.

Some of it can be found inside buildings and in the open spaces around the main campus, the New Bolton Center, and the Morris Arboretum. But most of the art gets put on display only now and then. 

Currently, the Arthur Ross Gallery is presenting a special exhibition titled “9 Perspectives on a Photography Collection,” showcasing a select group of photographs from the more than 800 prints in Penn’s collection.

It is, essentially, nine shows-within-a-show. That is how the exhibition’s chief curator, Gabriel Martinez, a senior lecturer in photography in the Department of Fine Arts, describes it. 

Invited by Lynn Marsden-Atlass, director of the Arthur Ross Gallery and university curator, to curate the exhibition, Martinez made the most of the opportunity. Not only did he view, digitize, and inventory more than 800 photographs, but he decided to invite eight of his photography faculty colleagues to help him put the show together. Thus, the title “9 Perspectives.”

Every Tuesday for a entire year, Martinez and Heather Gibson, the university collections manager, reviewed the photographs in the collection, made digital images of them, and documented information about each shot.

“I figured, two birds/one stone,” Martinez explains. “Since I was asked to curate the exhibition, it was also a perfect opportunity to see all the photos and create a really solid digital inventory of the collection.”

The variety of images in the collection is vast, he says. Most are traditionally sized silver gelatin prints. “There is everything from Victorian era photos to a portfolio of [avant garde fashion photographer] Helmut Newton. The bulk of the works range from the 1940s to the early 1990s.”

The wide range of styles in the collection is what prompted Martinez to ask his colleagues to be co-curators. “I knew each of them would bring a unique interpretation of the collection to the table,” he says. 

The eight co-curators are: Michael Bryant, photojournalism lecturer and staff photographer at the Philadelphia Inquirer; Nancy Davenport, assistant professor of fine arts; photography lecturers Jamie Diamond, Anna Neighbor, Karen Rodewald, Sarah Stolfa, and Tony Ward; and senior photography lecturer Brent Wahl.

Their selections draw from their individual artistic leanings as well as their teaching practices, Martinez says.

Stolfa, for example, selected a series of stark and disturbing 1970s-era images called “Tulsa” from Larry Clark, a photographer and director of the movie, “Kids.” The “Tulsa” series depicts a group of teenage drug addicts. In the exhibition catalog, Stolfa states, “A picture’s ability to transform a specific detail in the world into allegory is what I love most about photography.” She adds that, “the children in our schools are in a constant state of fear and violence. Feels like nothing has changed since ‘Tulsa.’”

Rodewald elected to highlight the work of self-taught Philadelphia photographer Louis Faurer, who took pictures of New York and Philly street life during and after World War II, including pictures depicting the culture of beat poetry and bebop jazz.

Diamond chose to showcase group portraiture, describing it as a “cornerstone” in the medium of photography, highlighting “a group of people linked by a shared commonality or intention.”

For his show-within-a-show, Martinez turned to work by the U.S. Naval Aviation Photographic Unit led by the celebrated photographer Edward Steichen. This team of photographers was asked to create images of World War II for promotional purposes. Martinez says he finds the photos compelling and asks viewers to contemplate what recent images have served the same purpose.

“I am reminded of George W. Bush aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 as he delivered his infamous ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech,” Martinez states in the exhibition catalog.

As part of the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 27, the gallery is also featuring a series of artist talks with acclaimed photographers.

On Nov. 28 at 5:30 p.m., Larry Fink will speak, who, among other accomplishments, was commissioned by Vanity Fair to cover the 2008 political campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain.

And on Dec. 7 at 5 p.m., the gallery will screen the documentary film “The Fighting Lady,” directed by Edward Steichen, chronicling life aboard the World War II aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Yorktown. The film features intense battle footage, shot with cameras mounted directly on board fighter planes.

Martinez calls the more than 90 photos in the exhibition “gems” that are rarely put on public display.

“These are meticulously preserved pieces,” says Martinez, “not to be missed.”

For more information about the exhibition or the artist talks, call the Arthur Ross Gallery at 215-898-3617 or email arg@pobox.upenn.edu.

Originally published on November 15, 2012