Have camera, will travel
In Chicago, work by many artists who have gone 'Far From Home'
CHICAGO -- From the beginning, photography has had travel as a major genre. The photographer acted as proxy, taking viewers where they could not otherwise go. It's easy to forget how important this once was, now that nearly everyone has easy access to travel, and nearly everyone who travels packs a camera (preferably, digital). I think, therefore I am? I travel, therefore I snap.
Some of the great chapters in photographic history have come from journeys: Timothy O'Sullivan out West, Edward Weston in Mexico, Henri-Cartier Bresson in Spain, Walker Evans in the South, Robert Frank on the road, Diane Arbus through the looking glass.
Three of those trips -- Weston's, Cartier-Bresson's, and Frank's -- figure in "Far from Home: Photography, Travel, and Inspiration," which runs at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 6. Also in the show is work from Evans (Cuba), Irving Penn and Aaron Siskind (Peru), Joel Meyerowitz and Harry Callahan (France), Joel Sternfeld (Italy), and Linda Connor (India). All the pictures are from the Art Institute's permanent collection. It's an impressive show of curatorial force.
A crucial distinction hinges on that final word in the show's title, "inspiration." Cartier-Bresson, for example, traveled pretty much everywhere during his astonishing career. Usually, though, it was on assignment. The trip to Spain, which came when he was just starting out and which did so much to form his aesthetic, was on his own nickel. Traveling to get inspiration is very different from traveling to gather documentation. Travel photography is primarily about where : particular places. Journalistic assignments are primarily about what : events or people at a particular time in particular places.
In the end, of course, it's the artist's vision that matters most. Photographers photograph what they see, and they see what interests them -- and ignore what doesn't. Penn's Peru is all about people, Siskind's all about walls. There's nary an Ande to be seen. Those choices reflect the thrust of each man's work: Penn the superlative portraitist, Siskind the master abstractionist of structural exteriors. As the latter wrote in 1973: "You are making the pictures only partly in terms of the places you're in . . . You're making pictures that are a continuation of the kind of picture you were making before."
The Peru Siskinds -- gnarly, blunt, high-contrast, fiercely direct -- are like Siskinds from New York or Chicago. Every wall he shoots, regardless of locale, is so particular as to become, through his camera's intervention, effectively universal.
With Penn, his Indian subjects could have come here rather than he gone there. They're all shot in the same studio setting, which might as easily be Connecticut as Cuzco. It's the people who signify -- their clothes, their faces -- rather than the place.
Penn isn't the only photographer drawn to people. The elegant gentleman in Evans' s "Untitled (Citizen in Downtown Havana) " could be the father of Ibrahim Ferrer , from "The Buena Vista Social Club ," and the workman in his "Coal Loader, Havana " has a magnificent, primeval face every bit as memorable as those of Penn's Peruvians or that of Diego Rivera , in Weston's portrait (included here). As a manual laborer, Evans' s coal loader can also be seen to connect with the selection of Cartier-Bresson's -- all defined in some way way by the prominence, and elegance, of displayed hands.
Meyerowitz is drawn to people, too, but always as a function of place. His France is very French. The fact his pictures are in color contributes to the effect, enhancing their vividness and particularity. The vendor's crimson boutonniere in "Strawberry Seller, Rue de Buci, Paris, France " mirrors the color of her delectable wares. Less attractively, but no less strikingly, a meaty bulge of neck dominates the behind-the-back view we get in "Man on the Champs-Elysee, Paris, France. "
Sternfeld is the one other photographer in the show whose pictures are in color. Shot in the Roman Campagna in 1990, they remind us that travel takes place in time as well as space. A water tower peeks out beneath the arch of an ancient aqueduct. Young people park alongside a 2d-century tomb for romantic trysts. A surviving fragment of Roman wall looks like the cover of "Who's Next. "
"Far from Home" is very much a curator's show, and in the best sense: the assembling of the visual parts matters almost as much as the parts themselves. The pictures are divided up by photographer, with each hung in imaginative relation to the others. On one side of Meyerowitz is Frank (his friend and inspiration), on the other Sternfeld (his fellow colorist). Connor triangulates with her onetime teachers, Siskind and Callahan. Penn and Siskind are adjacent. The mighty procession of urinals in Frank's "Men's Room, Railway Station, Memphis, Tennessee" could be the Sorcerer's Apprentice offspring of Weston's lustrous "Washbowl" and "Excusado" which face it across the gallery.
The subtlest touch of all is numerical. There are three-score-and-six photographs in the show, a reminder of America's most famous highway, which happens to start in front of the Art Institute, at the intersection of Adams Street and Michigan Avenue. For once, here's a show that cries out for an audio guide, just to hear Nat Cole sing, "Get your pics on Route 66."
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.