Picture Imperfect

This traveling exhibit of photos from the National Archives works well as history, but not as art

The introduction posted at the beginning of "Picturing the Century: One Hundred Years of Photography from the National Archives," now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, asserts: "Photographs are time machines. They allow us to look back in history, freeze a moment in time, and imagine ourselves as part of the past."

I'm not so sure about that. Rather than time machines, maybe photographs are more like windows that let us glimpse those moments frozen in time. And rather than allow us to "imagine ourselves as part of the past," perhaps photographs, especially very old ones, reemphasize the distance between then and now.

At least, that's what I got from this traveling exhibition of mostly black-and-white photographs, drawn from the millions in the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration. The oldest images seem almost like snapshots from another world. Two quotes from Susan Sontag's landmark 1977 book, On Photography, come to mind: "Photographs are valued because they give information. They tell one what there is; they make an inventory," and "A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading."

Lewis Hine's Steamfitter (1920) stands out in this show
Lewis Hine's Steamfitter (1920) stands out in this show

Details

On display through April 28. Call 954-921-3274.
Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood

The show is organized chronologically and broken down into six thematic sections. The works of six photographers are highlighted in separate sections. More on those later. The first grouping, "A New Century," gives us such slices of early 20th-century history as a shot of the first Wright Brothers flight in North Carolina in 1903 and a four-panel view of the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In 1913 -- Trying out the new assembly line, taken in Detroit, we see an emblem of the early days of American car culture. (Most of the photos have titles taken from their archival captions; in many cases, the pictures were shot anonymously.)

A stiffly formal portrait of a Hawaiian mother and her five offspring, Lee Wai She and Children (1913), is oddly poignant, possibly because the people in it seem somehow familiar and alien at the same time. Despite the formality of the carefully posed bodies, there is an intimacy that can be conveyed only through photography. Sontag again: "In the normal rhetoric of the photographic portrait, facing the camera signifies solemnity, frankness, the disclosure of the subject's essence." Even a more casual shot by M.A. Crosby, The Sam McCall family of Wilcox County, Ala. (1910), has much the same effect.

"The Great War and the New Era" includes images from World War I: an American base hospital in France, a group of women working on the home front, soldiers at an Army camp in New Jersey. "The Great Depression and the New Deal" plunges us into a chronicle of decline and rebound. There's a haunting picture by Arnold Eagle and David Robbins called One-third of a Nation (1938), which portrays an obviously impoverished old woman standing outside a shop window that displays an elegantly dressed mannequin.

World War II is chronicled in "A World in Flames," which contains something of a surprise. Among the mostly generic shots is a 1943 portrait of some pilots, taken by none other than "Commander Edward J. Steichen" -- yes, the great photographer in a lesser-known incarnation as a military man. The section also includes a somber 1944 image of shrouded bodies of sailors about to be buried at sea and a grim shot of a heap of wedding rings accumulated by the Nazis.

The "Postwar America" grouping -- the show's smallest -- takes us from the late 1940s through the 1950s and into the early 1960s. A 1956 picture by Abbey Rowe shows the young David Eisenhower at his birthday party, surrounded by a group that includes his father and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. The exhibition's first color photo is one from 1963 by Robert L. Knudsen of JFK and John Kennedy Jr. in a boat on a beach at Newport, Rhode Island.

The show culminates in "Century's End," which gradually nudges us into more contemporary times. The turbulent late 1960s -- Vietnam, the Apollo program -- give way to the 1970s, including one especially memorable image: Richard Nixon departs from the White House before Gerald Ford was sworn in as President (1974), by Oliver F. Atkins. The photographer is just inside the plane, looking out at Nixon and Ford, with Pat Nixon giving Betty Ford a goodbye kiss and the Nixon daughters and their husbands approaching in the rear.

Near the end of this section is an extraordinary shot of six First Ladies gathered for 1994's A Tribute to America's First Ladies. Photographer Barbara Kinney has somehow caught the women in a candid moment: Nancy Reagan looking bored and detached, Hillary Clinton whispering something to Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter smiling benignly, and Betty Ford rapt in conversation with Barbara Bush. Talk about layers of subtext!

With few exceptions, the photographs in "Picturing America" -- there are more than a hundred -- are of interest more as historical documents than as art. (Here I disagree with one of Sontag's opinions: "Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.") And most of those exceptions are by the photographers whose works are grouped together in individual sections interspersed throughout the show, each called "Portfolio," followed by the photographer's name.

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