Photographers of Genius: Now at the Getty Center

Photographers of Genius, the Getty Center's exhibition on the early years of photography, shows vivid portraits of American life during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Avid photographers and art lovers alike will find these photographs enchanting, both for their intriguing reflections on this hobby-turned-art as well as for the exploration of expression through photos.

This exhibit now includes work from the first known photographer to document Greece and North Africa (Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey), some of the first instances of social documentation with a camera (David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson), and very early photographs of everyday Parisian life (Hippolyte Bayard). Visitors can get a taste of early tools of photography, from a large mammoth plate camera weighing a few hundred pounds, to stereoscopes used to view three dimensional images. Also on display: works by a forefather of moving pictures, Eadweard J. Muybridge, who used 24 twin-lens cameras to show that, yes, a horse does have all 4 legs in the air while running.

Carleton E. Watkins. Negative 1867; print: 1881-1885

"Photographers of Genius" carries an eclectic mix of artists who paved the way for social change while retaining a personal vision for their art. Their works here were more likely to be groundbreaking in the world of politics than recognized within popular culture, yet they are still visually stunning. Carleton Watkins documents Yosemite and the American West, as in "Multnomah Falls, Columbia River, Oregon" (left). Watkins' photos were among the first seen of the West, and later used by a senator to convince Congress and Abraham Lincoln to restrict development of the Yosemite. Stirring photos from Lewis Hine, who worked for the 1907-chartered National Child Labor Committee, show children at work in cotton mills, newspapers, and canneries. By a few years later, several states had implemented laws limiting the workday for children. And Dorothea Lange's "Human Erosion," subject of some promotion for the exhibition, shows the plight of starvation for a migrant mother and her two children during the Depression. Lange's photos were later used to convince the federal government to send food to migrants in the area.

Man Ray. 1924

Although today Photoshop trivializes the manipulation of a subject's form, the early years of photography involved playing on abstract ideas through old-fashioned methods: with paint, costumes, and lighting effects. For example, Man Ray painted two shapes violin-like holes on the nude back of his model, Kiki of Montparnasse, for "Le Violon d'Ingres" (right), a French idiom meaning "hobby" - an identification he perhaps made with his muse. In André Kertész's "Underwater Swimmer", a diver's body appears headless due to reflecting light. Kertész, a Hungarian immigrant to New York, would often photograph common images that took on uncommon forms or views, several examples of which are on view in this exhibition. Perhaps more amusing than abstract, Roger Fenton composed a fake Turkish set complete with turbans for "Pasha and Bayad're" (left). This photograph had passed as a genuine take of a dancing Turkish woman and officers, despite the fake beards.

Roger Fenton. 1858

The Getty Center did not forget to honor Alfred Steiglitz, a founder of the Photo-Secessionist movement that worked to have photography recognized as a museum-quality art, bringing this exhibition to full circle. Each artist featured generally brought about change in the art of photography, and influenced the visual representation made by many subsequent artists. These photographers of genius are on display until July 25, 2004. For hours and more information, visit

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