In Bennington and beyond
Photo exhibit focuses on concepts of time, space
BENNINGTON, Vt. - Senses specialize, or at least they seem to when it comes to space and time. Sound can have an uncanny ability to collapse duration. Think, for example, of what happens when you hear a pop song you haven’t listened to for many years. Smell has a similar capacity to induce time travel. So does taste, a subject about which Marcel Proust had something to say.
In contrast, sight locates us spatially. Our eyes are what put us, quite literally, in our place. This relationship between vision and location underlies “The Quality of Place: Photography, Space and Specificity,’’ which runs at the Bennington Museum through Aug. 30.
The show consists of more than 80 photographs, as well as three dozen stereographs, 21 postcards, and a family album. As the variety of visual items indicates, “The Quality of Place’’ takes an eclectic approach to its subject. There is, for instance, the matter of the show’s title. It refers, in effect, to the quality of two places: Bennington and environs, and everywhere else. The everywhere else includes Egypt, Yosemite, Greece, Uzbekistan, and New York City.
The images of Greater Bennington were taken almost entirely by local photographers in the 19th century and first two-thirds of the 20th. Some of the photographers were quite good - Frederick D. Burt, for one; Clara Sipprell, for another - though only one is well known. That would be a nonlocal, Lewis Hine, with a 1909 picture of a mill building. The everywhere-else photographers include three who are even better known than Hine: Ansel Adams and Lee Friedlander (each with six images) and Alfred Stieglitz (with eight).
Just as “The Quality of Place’’ is divided geographically, so is it - inevitably - divided artistically. Putting a vintage postcard or stereograph nearby Stieglitz’s “The Steerage,’’ say, is like putting a tennis neophyte on the same court with Roger Federer. Not that art is innately competitive - but it is innately comparative.
The Stieglitz, Friedlander, and Adams photographs, when viewed in this context, can’t help but seem more about who than where. Yet as whos go, those three are hard to beat. Their marquee value is likely to draw viewers to the show - as Burt, Sipprell, and such are not - so they’re a welcome presence. For if the beyond-Bennington photographs express sense of place in a generalized, superimposed-thesis way, the local ones very much demonstrate how richly the quality of a specific place can be communicated.
The clean, light-filled lines of Sipprell’s “Interior of the Old First Church, Loft’’ have a you-are-there specificity that manages both to record the inside of a particular building in Vermont, and a set of associations summoned up by the state’s name. Something similar can be said of Burt’s “Robinson House Door’’ or “Main Street, Pageant Week, August 1911.’’ The latter has the additional virtue of reminding us of the camera’s intrinsic attachment to time. Photography can be about place. It’s always about time. Even as the eye glories in space, photography (denied the capacity to render a third dimension) replaces it with time. Every photograph connects the present with a discrete moment in the past.
Viewers of the exhibition should note the presence in an adjacent gallery of the only surviving Martin-Wasp automobile. This Vermont-made 1925 touring car is a beautiful object in its own right. As much sculpture as means of transportation, it must have been a glorious way to travel from one location to another, with a quality of place all its own.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.