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Through the Plain Camera

Gallery: Through the Plain Camera

Small and shapely pleasures in contemporary photography

Through the Plain Camera: Small and Shapely Pleasures in Contemporary Photography

In 1967 the Museum of Modern Art in New York unveiled a revolutionary show, New Documents, which heralded the arrival of a new photographic style, one that prized ordinary subjects captured in a snapshot-like fashion. The exhibition, which featured the works of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand, was organized by the late John Szarkowski, a man whose 2007 New York Times obituary called him “a curator who almost single-handedly elevated photography’s status in the last half-century to that of a fine art.” Szarkowski was moved by the intimacy and personal exploration of a new generation of photographic artists, writing in the text that accompanied New Documents that “(t)heir aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.” Today, almost 45 years after he wrote those words, their influence can still be felt.

Through the Plain Camera: Small and Shapely Pleasures in Contemporary Photography, which runs at Haverford’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery October 21 through December 11, gathers together some of the young voices in contemporary photography who are working from and grappling with Szarkowski’s legacy. In the show’s 36 images, we see intimate, unposed moments seemingly snapped from the daily lives of the photographers: a stain on a sofa, a bar of soap left on the sink, a perfectly wrapped package of Chinese noodle soup. These casually captured, private moments—most of which are devoid of human subjects—feel at once deeply personal and specific to the lives of the artists and yet also broadly universal and relatable to the viewers. They are lively and expressive, but also enigmatic.

Curated by Sarah Kaufman ’03 and Rebecca Robertson BMC ’00, both former students of Professor of Fine Arts William Earle Williams, Through the Plain Camera celebrates photographers who take pictures that describe and yet transcend everyday experience, suggesting something about the specific interior lives of these artists. Inspired by Szarkowsky’s writing, Kaufman and Robertson have gathered unconstructed, unmanipulated images, which represent direct photographic interaction with the world as it is, so that we may all look at their commonplace subjects with new eyes. “There are different kinds of responses that you can have looking at the world around you,” says Kaufman, who is a visiting assistant professor of art at Ursinus College. “I would hope that people looking at the show could take it back with them and start to think about what kinds of meanings their own experience can have.”

Through the Plain Camera features the work of five photographers: Jessica Backhaus, Elizabeth Fleming, Vita Litvak, Christian Patterson and Shen Wei. The eight pieces by German-born, Paris-educated New York/Berlin resident Backhaus capture brief moments in time in which a cup of coffee has been spilled or a can has just been crushed. The 10 photos of household minutiae—dust bunnies under a bed, a broken lightbulb—by New Jersey-based Fleming are carefully culled from two series, “Strange Happenings” and “Life is a Series of Small Moments.” The six shots by Moldovan-born Litvak, who graduated from Haverford in 2002, bring the mostly domestic show outside with her photos of trees, stone hedges and exterior walls of buildings. The five richly detailed shots by Brooklyn-based Patterson are all drawn from the same series, “Concrete Fiction,” in which transient moments in man-made spaces—a glimpse at a stage floor or a van window—are more notable for their evocative color and pattern than for their subjects. And the seven photos by Wei were all taken during a return trip to his Chinese homeland after years of living in New York and included in his recent show and book, Chinese Sentiment. They capture quiet, private moments of Chinese life in a palette of cool grays and other muted colors.

The opening reception for Through the Plain Camera will take place Friday, October 21, from 5:30 p.m.–7:30 p.m. in the Gallery. The show’s gallery talk will be held Tuesday, October 25, at 4:30 p.m.

Overseen by the John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center and located in Whitehead Campus Center, the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery is open Monday-Friday 11 a.m.–5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 12–5 p.m., and Wednesdays until 8 p.m. For more information, contact Matthew Seamus Callinan, Campus Exhibitions Coordinator, at (610) 896-1287 or

Haverford College is located at 370 Lancaster Avenue, Haverford, PA, 19041

The Climbing Stone, by Peter Rockwell '58, is located outside Magill Library.

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