Light in Cowtown

How a crawl through Dallas galleries prompted some very strange nightmares

Fairly or not, the show suggests that the documentary impulse has been one of the two most important motifs in photography's 150-year history and has taken many forms. To the left of the initial gallery space is "The Extended View," a long, rectangular room hung with long rectangular photographs, panoramic views of American land- and cityscapes. From there, visitors can wander into "Photography as Personal Expression," the room that will feel most familiar to the average museumgoer. It is here that the second motif emerges. Adorned with masterpieces by photographers as disparate as Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans and Nell Dorr, this section suggests that, by the mid-20th century, the primary function of photography had become expression, as artists began showing how they felt about subjects and manipulating viewers to feel the same. Other rooms contain sections on particular photographers whose archives the Carter has acquired, including Laura Gilpin and Eliot Porter.

At least one type of contemporary photography is conspicuous by its absence: the photographic record of the Art Event. Art is increasingly something that takes place outside museum walls, or is temporarily installed, or wastes away. The Museum has become art's Evidence Room, and the photograph the only record of the impermanent art in vogue. Increasingly, these records of Art Events function less like the photographs displayed on the Carter's second floor and more like Carter's beloved Remingtons and Russells--as little bits of propaganda, as promotional pieces for lost moments that may or may not have existed, as arguments for writing history a certain way.

Skeet McAuley's "Navajo Window Washer, Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona," from 1984
Skeet McAuley's "Navajo Window Washer, Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona," from 1984

Details

runs through August 11 at the Amon Carter Museum. Call 817-738-1933.

Part of the difference between the Carter's collection of photography and its collection of Western art lies in the choice of what history to record. It is here that the Carter's photography collection is decidedly old-fashioned. Unlike many contemporary collections, the Carter's selections are un-self-conscious, focused outwardly rather than on the mechanics of art and illusion. The Carter exhibition suggests that photography has come full circle, used to recording the brief existence of precious little creations much as it did in 1850, when the infant mortality rates soared. In this regard, the show hints at the bathetic nature of much contemporary art. If every life is art and everyone an artist, art is by definition banal. By way of contrast, the artistic values embodied in Carter's selections are downright outré: grandeur, a hankering to speak to the ages, to transcend mortal limits.

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