Old photographs are so inherently interesting that there's little point in trying to justify them as artworks. "The University Collects," a show of 110 photographs from the University of California's collections, doesn't bother. Though the images are installed at UC Irvine's Fine Arts Gallery (to Feb. 6), they present themselves as social, historical or scientific documents.
In this context--with several straightforward examples of visual information for every piece of pure poetry--even the art tends to look like documentation. Barbara Morgan's famous 1938-39 image of William Randolph Hearst's face sprouting octopus tentacles that threaten to strangle society reads more as a political statement than a brilliant example of photographic surrealism.
Walker Evans' touching image of a bleak kitchen corner, cheered by floral wallpaper and paintings, appears to be evidence of rural life in the '30s, though it is really about subtler textures of nesting. Edward Weston's stunning "Shell With Slender Spike" and Imogen Cunningham's sexy bloom called "Tower of Jewels" illuminate pioneering efforts to transmogrify nature into abstract form by cropping and enlarging, but here the ravishing pictures slide into natural science.
Will Connell's spare, linear composition of eyeglasses is a knowing comment on visual phenomena and the camera's ability to freeze ephemeral perception, yet here it joins forces with more scientific experimentation. A wild duck printed on a man's shirt in Robert Frank's 1956 photo is the only hint of nature in this dreary view of a Chicago street, but instead of focusing on that, we search the rest of the picture for details that fix it in time.
Sacrilegious as it may sound to purists, there's nothing wrong with this turnabout. In the face of so many efforts to make everything look like art, it's actually rather refreshing to see art as multifaceted history. Part of the reason for exhibitions is to present material in a new context: in this case, 20 million images hoarded for various reasons over more than a century by a statewide network of institutions.
Curator Sheryl Conkelton, working with the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside, had the overwhelming task of selecting photographs for the show. No doubt she could have come up with a thousand different versions; the exhibition she settled on reflects the university's range of disciplines and suggests that photographers have been concerned with every phase of human endeavor.
Her selections more or less track the history of photography from daguerreotype portraits in velvet-lined cases to Jim Pomeroy's "High Technology Stocks and Bonds," a humorous play on words referring both to finance and forms of punishment. But the proliferation--and not the progress--of photography is the central message. In the field of science, we see pictures of Pavlov's dogs, smallpox vaccine and the behavior of sea anemones. University history is recorded in pastoral views of UC Berkeley and UCLA's brand new Royce Hall (reflected in what appears to be a lake but is probably a flooded campus). Patches of American history appear in romantic interpretations of landscape and native citizens.
Photographs of Greta Garbo in a scene from "Romance" and Theda Bara as Cleopatra provide glimpses of Hollywood fantasy, while Dorothea Lange reminds us of the Great Depression's stark reality and Ansel Adams puts painful memories of the Japanese detention camp at Manzanar in sharp focus.
In short, there's at least one image to capture everyone's attention in this eclectic sampling. The show is all over the place, but then so are the university's collections. If anyone ever puts them in order, the result might constitute a fairly complete survey of the ways photography has assumed a central role in our perceptions of history.