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Photography’s art history laid bare

LONDON: Photography’s artistic roots are laid bare in a new show that brings historical paintings, early photographs and contemporary pictures together in a new show at Britain’s National Gallery.

“Seduced by Art: Photography Past & Present” explores how photographers from the medium’s earliest beginnings to the present day stand on the shoulders of artistic predecessors stretching back to ancient Greece.

“They had no history. They had no template,” curator Hope Kingsley told Reuters on a tour of the show, “so where would they go to find their direction?”

The exhibition, organized into genres such as portraiture, still life and landscape, shows how photographers from the earliest daguerreotypes imitated classical works, employed allegory and eclipsed the painted portraiture they initially aped, gradually establishing their medium as an art form.

Paintings such as Thomas Gainsborough’s “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews” and Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet’s giant “Battle of Jemappes” share a show with 19th-century photographic pioneers such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Oscar Gustav Rejlander as well as photographers and photojournalists from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Gainsborough’s late 18th-century portrait of “Mr and Mrs Andrews,” depicting landed gentry, is contrasted with Martin Parr’s photograph of a proud young 1990s British couple in their first home and Tina Barney’s “The Ancestor,” a 21st-century photograph of a European aristocrat in his family pile beneath an aged painting of a distant ancestor.

Still Life gets explosive with Ori Gersht’s “Blow Up.” Gersht recreated the bouquet of Ignace-Henri-Theodore Fantin-Latour’s 19th-century still life “The Rosy Wealth of June,” hanging nearby. Then he froze the flowers with dry ice, attached explosives to them and took photos while they exploded.

The resulting picture, blown up to several times its size on a black background, creates a dynamic “still life” image, which demonstrates photography’s greater mastery of action.

Vernet’s spectacular tableaux of the Battle of Jemappes, teeming with horses, soldiers and wounded on a battlefield covered with smoke, hangs above former photo-journalist Luc Delahaye’s 2001 photograph showing the aftermath of a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan, where the vista is similar but the battlefield empty save for smoke from the bombs.

The show includes almost 90 photographs alongside selected paintings from the National Gallery’s collection.

Key photographs come from the Wilson Centre for Photography, with loans from Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Media Museum in Bradford, Fundaci? La Caixa in Spain, and direct from the photographers themselves.

‘Seduced by Art: Photography Past & Present’ runs at the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square until January.

 

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