The frontispiece photo for the J. Paul Getty Museum's current exhibition, "Experimental Photography: The Painter Photographer," is appropriate: a small vintage photo called "The Infant Photography Giving Painting an Additional Paint Brush." Created about 1856 by the British Victorian painter Oscar Gustave Rejlander, the photograph stages a nude infant, amid classical busts, handing an allegorical brush to an artist.
This picture hints at the intrigue and experimental promise that photography was to hold for painters and the artistic avant-garde in general. America's academy-busting Ash Can School of painting was attracted to photography's immediacy and ability to capture candid life, while the ultra-modern Bauhaus in Germany stressed a marriage between art and the methods and materials of industry.
This fascinating show (through Sept. 17) indicates that once painters (and architects and designers) discovered photography, they did not simply use the medium to ape the look of painting as the Pictorialists had stressed. These painters-turned-photographers had a healthy respect for the medium's special identity. Even when photographs were used as studies for paintings--such as Thomas Eakins' beautifully frolicking "Eakins Pupils at the Site for 'Swimming Hole' " (1883)--or as dramatically lit documents of finished sculptures by Henry Moore or Constantin Brancusi, they have the formal and technical wherewithal to stand as art in their own right.
The most famous painter to take up the camera was Edgar Degas who, with failing eyesight in the late 1800s, began to use the camera as well as the pencil to record portraits of friends and investigate the interaction of light moving over the human form. "After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Back," a bromide print from 1898, strikes us as a wholly contemporary Edward Weston image in the way that it abstracts the model's body into an anonymous, sensual study of tone and texture. Always drawn to the theatrical light of his paintings, Degas pulls his sitter's illuminated face and hands out of moody darkness in "Louise Halevy by Lamplight" (circa 1895). The same sensitive realism was carried into the 20th Century in works like Ben Shahn's poignant 1935 photo of displaced farmers.
If the camera could record reality, it could also distort and redefine it. Abstract artist Lazlo Moholy Nagy, who in the '20s was instrumental in pushing photography's acceptance as a viable tool in modern art and aesthetics, was among the first to use light moving over sensitized photo paper to produce "cameraless" photography. In "The Mirror" (1921), he uses light moving over shapes to make a constructivist arrangement of discs and planes floating in space. Rene Magritte flattens depth in a surreal shot, replacing a man's head with a checkerboard, and Man Ray uses complex light effects to create an eerie, X-ray nude.
The camera opened new doors for Expressionistic self-portraiture. German artist Oskar Schlemmer made a 1925 self-portrait using superimposed negatives that present him as a specter haunting studio and desk. A whimsical, self-portrait series by Andy Warhol taken at a photo booth captures a boyish charm missing from the media persona.
Some of the most interesting photos are those created by artists who worked in fields other than painting. Italian film maker Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia translated the motion and mechanistic power of Futurist art to photography, and the stalwart architectural hand of Frank Lloyd Wright is absent in two photos of lyrical, blossoming trees.
It's tough to stand out in such good company, but the exquisite photos of architecture and quiet Americana interiors by Precisionist painter Charles Sheeler do just that.