Galleries: Flash photographs illuminate; a women's quartet

"I Thought I Saw Liz Taylor and Bob Mitchum in the Backroom of the Commercial," by Graham Smith, in a 2008 print from a 1984 negative, is in a collection of flash photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to Aug. 3.
"I Thought I Saw Liz Taylor and Bob Mitchum in the Backroom of the Commercial," by Graham Smith, in a 2008 print from a 1984 negative, is in a collection of flash photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to Aug. 3.
Posted: June 09, 2014

Mention flash photography and most people cite Weegee's shocking and seemingly prescient tabloid assaults of the 1930s and 1940s, or Andy Warhol's friendlier Polaroid documents of his social encounters several decades later.

But, as the Philadelphia Museum of Art's "Artificial Light: Flash Photography in the Twentieth Century" reminds us, most of the 20th-century photographers we know about have used the flash or strobe light at one time or another, in some cases exclusively. The 69 prints that project assistant curator Amanda Bock has culled from the museum's collection offer proof of the ubiquity of the flash; they also emphasize the multiple diverse effects photographers have been able to achieve through its use.

Berenice Abbott, famed as the documenter of New York's architecture in the 1930s, used the flash in her later scientific experiments for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Physical Science Study Committee. Her steeply vertical photograph The Pendulum (1958-61) capturing the periodic motion of a pendulum, oddly resembles a Futurist drawing.

Harold Edgerton, the MIT professor, inventor of the stroboscope, and experimental photographer who assisted Abbott in her scientific work, documented the movements of fast-traveling objects and people with a series of quick flashes from his stroboscope, as in his amazing Tumblers (1940), showing the succession of movements of two acrobats as if viewed in slow motion.

Nighttime festivities have always been the province of the flash, so it's not surprising to find party scenes of every stripe. What's notable is the preponderance of work in black-and-white, as all newspaper photos of parties once were. Larry Fink's black-and-white photograph of students at a costume party at the Parsons School of Design in 1972 is riveting, not least for the ghoulishly made-up young woman (or man) at the center of his picture.

Two women of a certain age, one shown from the back, the other facing forward, were photographed by William Earle Williams in 1981 in an image that catches the kind of intimate moment usually unnoticed at parties, though we suspect (as Williams no doubt did) that these two are trading catty observations.

Warhol, for whom photography was one of several chosen media, is the only one in this show to document parties in color, presumably with the hope of later adapting his photographic images to prints or paintings. Mounted together in a grid, his color Polaroids have the effect of humanizing the celebrities and socialites they portray. His subjects are caught having private fun, never as the flawless creatures they're assumed to be.

Several photographers use the flash's intrusive nature to assert or underscore the presence of the photographer. This is particularly true of Mark Cohen, whose close-up photo of girls on a bus shows the flash's blinding white reflection against the window. The girls are smiling, but the reflection looks like an explosion of glass in one girl's face.

William Eggleston's color shot of a grimy jacket hanging above a child's crib in a dingy room seems to be letting us in on something we don't want to know about his family home in Mississippi. The three drunken characters sitting in a bar in Graham Smith's hilariously titled, rather mean-spirited I Thought I Saw Liz Taylor and Bob Mitchum in the Back Room of the Commercial are clearly incapable of hiding from his lens, if they are even aware of his presence. In his Self-Portrait With Mannequins, Hollywood, Weegee (Arthur Fellig) succeeds in putting himself front and center in a bizarre scene that might otherwise have passed as one of his journalistic works.

It's impossible not to wonder about the relationships Diane Arbus struck up with her subjects, never more so than in her haunting group portrait Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room on 100th Street, New York City, which intimates a level of trust rarely seen in photographs. Sarah Stolfa, the youngest photographer in the show, elicits a similar sense of confidence from her barpatron subjects.

Speaking of portraiture, in the age of guileless selfies it's a relief to see Richard Avedon's enormous, wonderfully crisp portrait of the writer Cyril Connolly from 1973, shot under strobe lights against a white backdrop, excluding all natural light and extraneous detail. A slightly raised eyebrow, a wisp of errant hair, and a well-cut dark suit say it all.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (Wednesdays and Fridays to 8:45 p.m.). 215-763-8100 or Through Aug. 3.

To infinity, and beyond

Mount Airy Contemporary Art's latest show, "Overflow," gathers the efforts of four women who are friends and who also share an interest in projecting a sense of infinite space in their works.

Melissa Marks conjures infinite space through gestural abstract drawings and paintings that suggest real forces of nature, such as hurricanes and lava flows; Eve Mantell's small, intricate cut-paper sculptures appear to mesh with the space around them.

Though they're not remotely lavish or decorative, Martha Lewis' crumpled and painted paper sculptures, each called a "Brane," possess shell- and rocklike (and one supposes, brainlike) open forms that call to mind Dale Chihuly's glass sculptures.

Laura Watts is the control freak of the four - in a good way. Her delicate, beautiful painted networks of watercolor on paper, from the series "Radar Locations," appear to drift in outer space.

Mount Airy Contemporary, 25 W. Mt. Airy Ave., by appointment. 267-270-2787 or Through Saturday.

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