Photography in 3-D: A MoMA Show Reveals a Surprisingly Symbiotic Relationship

The pioneers of photography discovered one thing almost immediately: Statues make ideal models. Because they never twitched, much less moved, during long shutter exposures, a bust of Patroclus or a Roman portrait hung in the British Museum allowed early masters of the medium, like William Henry Fox Talbot in 1846 and Roger Fenton a decade later, to render light, space and viewpoints without exasperating sitters. In 1844, Talbot wrote, “Statues, busts, and other specimens of sculpture, are generally well represented by the Photographic Art.”

Curator Roxanna Marcoci, in “The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today,” an exhibition that opened Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, sets out to prove exactly that. Ms. Marcoci has brought together more than 300 prints, publications and other items by 100 artists that illuminate, in 10 distinct categories, what Talbot was talking about.

The exhibition offers a refreshingly unconventional presentation and breaks some conventions, if not rules, along the way. For starters, this history of art dispenses with a chronological approach. Though the exhibition spans 170 years, it doesn’t proceed from A to Z. It wanders far afield, digressing often. Some sections treat general themes, such as photography’s early days; others hone in on specific topics, including the way both Auguste Rodin and Constantine Brancusi used cameras to clarify how their bronze and marble statues should best be perceived.

Approaching prints by a trio of wayfarers active in different eras as cultural and political icons-Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander and David Goldblatt-sheds new light on their impressive bodies of work. There’s even a look at sculpture in the expanded field-that is, Earth art by the likes of Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Richard Long. Through unconventional and mixed-media prints, the viewer gets a better grasp on how, as Ms. Marcoci puts it, “sculpture no longer had to be a permanent three-dimensional object” because of the advent of photography. Much as they would with three-dimensional art, the visitor regards the exhibition’s engaging subject from a variety of angles. As a result, this show fundamentally alters the way we respond to photographs of sculpture. 

“Original Copy” (which is accompanied by a terrific reference book of a catalog) argues that photography changed not only the course of art history but how the art that predated it was perceived. Previously, visual information regarding antiquity and the Old Masters was transmitted through hand-drawn graphics that would occasionally omit salient details. Art history became a more viable area of interest, more popular, essentially, when the acuity of the camera lens provided details that were all but invisible to the naked eye. The equipment involved was heavy and cumbersome, yet someone like Charles Negre could make, as early as about 1853, views of the gargoyles of Notre Dame that allowed Victor Hugo’s readers to see, close up, the haunts of the novelist’s hunchback.

Taken over the course of several years, Eugene Atget’s haunting scenes of a park in Saint-Cloud that is peppered with decorative objects remind the viewer time doesn’t stand still. Seasons change. In his photographs of sculptures at Versailles, the sun is always moving. We see that shadows engender sensations as evocative as Proust’s madeleine.

In an exhibition that melds the distant past with the present, small prints with large, black-and-white images with ones in color, well-known photographers with many that are less familiar or downright unknown, the visitor is constantly intrigued, itching to learn more, wanting to return to MoMA for another look, and above all, astonished to discover that sculpture and photography have had such a symbiotic relationship for more than a century and a half. Photography in 3-D: A MoMA Show Reveals a Surprisingly Symbiotic Relationship