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By John Thomason
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By Andrea Richard
If you're going to hang an exhibition on a gimmick, make it a really good one. Fortunately, that's the case with "A to Z: 26 Great Photographs From the Norton Collection," a terrific little show now on view.
The idea is to take a whirlwind tour of the Norton Museum of Art's permanent collection of photography from the 20th and 21st centuries, with each letter of the alphabet represented by a photo by an artist whose last name begins with that letter. The show is even hung in alphabetical order, beginning with Ansel Adams and ending with George S. Zimbel.
There's no pretense that what we get is a representative sampling of the Norton's photography holdings, which are substantial. The emphasis, instead, is on a strategic selection based on largely arbitrary criteria. It's an inexpensive way to assemble a show in lean times, and as the Norton's curators have demonstrated again and again, they're experts at this kind of thing.
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The intro points out that the entire enterprise can become something of a coin toss. Who's to say, for instance, whether the letter A should be represented by Berenice Abbott or Ansel Adams or Diane Arbus? I'm betting Richard Avedon was eliminated simply because the museum hosted a knockout retrospective of his work just last year. Beyond such factors, the whole show more or less hangs on a creative whim.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, when the results are this bracing. Gelatin silver prints hang next to color images. Large-scale works rub shoulders with snapshots. Anything goes, as long as the photographs sing.
I'm glad Adams won out. What better way to start a show than his Fern Spring, Dusk, from the early 1960s? Like much of the great man's work, this is a surprisingly small-scale piece that packs a wallop, a simple image of a tiny waterfall, with the movement of the water captured as a silky blur.
It's accompanied by wall text that includes a tidbit from the photographer's biography in which family and friends urged the young Adams — an aspiring musician — to stick with the piano. "The camera cannot express the human soul," Adams was told. His response: "Well, the only answer I had to that was 'Well, I don't think the camera can, but maybe the photographer could.' "
The substantial wall text next to each photograph is another shrewd touch. Along with short bios of the artists, we get anecdotes such as the Adams one, excerpts from interviews, pithy quotes, bits of theory — whatever it takes to throw the photographs themselves into sharper focus and provide them with a little welcome cultural context.
Such context is essential when we get to someone like Thomas Demand, a German photographer whose work the Norton has previously championed. Demand's specialty is re-creating tableaux from existing sources, such as news photos, then photographing them himself, so that what we see is pure artifice. Here, for example, we get Landing (2006), a detailed representation of an episode in which a visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge tripped and tumbled down a marble staircase, smashing a trio of early 18th-century Asian vases along the way. Demand's large-scale reconstruction of the aftermath is all luxurious marble and pottery shards, getting at the messy reality of the incident.
Some of the big names in the field are here: André Kertész, a realist represented by Arm in Ventilator (1937), an exercise in pure surrealism; Arnold Newman, whose Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, an American Place, NYC (1944) is perhaps the show's most famous image; and Gordon Parks, who weighs in with his own American Gothic (1942), a racially charged variation on the iconic Grant Wood painting.
At some point, assembling the exhibition probably became something of a game, especially when it came to such challenging letters as X (Xiaoze Xie), U (Jerry Uelsmann), V (Roman Vishniac), and Y (Shizuka Yokomizo). The Norton admittedly bent the rules a little with Q (the Chinese photographer Chen Qiulin, who technically should represent C).
I'm just glad the show includes La Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas, Juchitán, México (1979). Graciela Iturbide's "Our Lady of the Iguanas" — an enigmatic portrait of a stoic-looking woman with several large lizards on her head — is one of the great images of photographic surrealism, and the Norton is fortunate to have a print in its collection.
The capricious organizing principle of "A to Z" ultimately has its limitations. It's easy to start wondering how Cindy Sherman (especially the shot included here) could possibly trump, say, August Sander or Edward Steichen or Alfred Stieglitz or Paul Strand. From there, it's a short mental leap to missing Gregory Crewdson or longing for a Mapplethorpe or a Warhol.
But to engage in such nitpicking is to miss the point, which is to have a playful romp through the Norton's impressive permanent collection. This charming trifle of an exhibition puts aside all aesthetic agendas in favor of fun, making it one of the most satisfying shows of the season.