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Past Exhibitions


Kay Bell Reynal (1905 - 1977)
Two Models with Sunshields, 1948
Gelatin silver print
Purchased with funds provided by the Hearst Foundation 77.232

Sublime Light: A Survey of American Photographs from the Permanent Collection

June 2—August 19, 2012

Focus Gallery

This exhibition gathers more than fifty masterful and iconic images from SAMA’s holdings of photography and strives to illustrate the breadth and vitality of the medium over the last one and one-half centuries. Although the first fixed image was recorded in 1826, artists were exploring the possibilities of recording light-generated images as early as the Renaissance using an optical device called the camera obscura. It consisted of a darkened room or box with a hole in one side; light rays from an external scene passed through the small hole in one wall to form an image on the opposite wall, long enough to be traced on paper. Over time, this camera evolved through technological advances, diminished in size, and eventually became the modern portable camera.

A selection of historic photographic images from SAMA’s vault, dating from the mid to late nineteenth century by largely unknown photographers or studios, offers a rare glimpse into the early years of fixing image to plate or paper.  Early photographs, rather precious and diminutive in size, are usually stiffly posed portraits or landscape subjects. The images are documentary in nature, or try to emulate still-life or landscape paintings of the day. Examples include the daguerreotype (one-of-a-kind photographic image on copper plate, a “direct positive”) and the ambrotype (one-of-a-kind image on glass, colored by hand). Further technological improvements of tintypes and albumen print processes were inexpensive to produce, making photographs accessible and popular collectibles for many Americans. 

As early as the 1890s through the twentieth century, photographers pushed the technical boundaries of the medium itself while exploring its expressive and creative potential, propelling the medium to fine-art status. This exhibition features some of America’s most accomplished and celebrated photographers, such as Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Elliot Elisofon, Dorothea Lange, Barbara Morgan, Irving Penn, Kay Bell Reynal, W. Eugene Smith, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, George Tice, Edward Weston, Minor White and James Van Der Zee. Subjects range from cityscapes, industry, and rural landscapes to portraits, figures, and still-lifes— all are imbued with elegance and poignancy, as well as sublime beauty.

Into the information- and image-rich digital age of our current century, SAMA’s collection continues to grow to include innovative and compelling works in the medium of photography. As artists continue to embrace, experiment with and exploit the latest digital equipment and materials toward artistic ends, the boundaries of photography are ever expanding. Examples of digitally manipulated photographs or images exploring the use of new technologies are featured in works by David Halliday, Geoff Winningham, Juan Miguel Ramos and Maggie Taylor.