There is a technical reason for this: Paintings love light, lots of it, especially when it comes from the sun. Light, especially sunlight, is the enemy of the photograph.
But there’s another reason: To old-school Americanist curators, photographs and paintings don’t belong together. They are separate, unrelated things. Some Americanists — many? — even consider photographs to be lesser things than paintings. (Though how anyone can think that after seeing umpteen groaningly providential Frederic Edwin Churches is beyond me.)
Over the last thirty years or so that hierarchical differentiation has substantially dissolved when it comes to modern and contemporary art. Americanists are a last bastion.
This hang, on view now at the Yale University Art Gallery in a kind of pre-re-opening slice-of-the-American-collection presentation, illustrates why mixing photo and painting should be a more common practice (when technically possible). On the left is Albert Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail (c. 1873). It’s a routine Bierstadt: Find view, open up the middle of the painting, stick a tree to one side of center, put the light source (somewhat impossibly) in the center-background of the painting, and voila.
YUAG’s hang of it next to an Eadweard Muybridge and two Carleton Watkins pictures makes sense: All are of Yosemite, a site of artistic discovery that Charles Leander Weed ‘discovered,’ and that Watkins popularized. Better yet: In 1867 Bierstadt purchased a set of Watkins’s Yosemite views. Five years later, on a rare visit to New York, Watkins met Albert Bierstadt’s brother Edward, who taught the Californian the albertype photo-reproduction process. (Long story short: It’s how early postcards were made.) Watkins tested out the new process on some of Albert’s drawings.
One of the Watkinses to the right of YUAG’s Bierstadt is The Three Brothers (ca. 1865-66, above right). It features the same rock formation that’s in the center-left of the big Bierstadt. YUAG’s hang gives us an opportunity to compare the two artists’ quite different approaches: Bierstadt is interested in creating a scene, in idealizing it in a way that to 21st-century eyes seems far-fetched. Watkins shows us what’s there, and composes it masterfully.
Here’s hoping this kind of installation becomes more commonplace in the coming years.
Related: A few years ago MOCA did a full-building collection hung lots of photographs next to paintings, sculpture, everything. I thought that approach was useful and mighty revealing about post-war art history.