The photography exhibition Capturing the Moment at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) recalls a bygone era, before images became ubiquitous in American life and anyone with a phone could be a photographer.
The 77 photographs in the show date from 1929 to the 1990s and cover a range of subjects, from wars in Europe and Vietnam to the Civil Rights era, the Harlem Renaissance New York, Paris in the 1950s, the Dust Bowl, and American motorcycle gangs. The images in the exhibition, which opens Friday, Feb. 22, are the first glimpse of the bequest of native San Antonian Marie Brenner and her husband, Ernest Pomerantz, who last year donated their collection of 850 photographs to the museum.
The Brenner and Pomerantz collection joins other recent gifts of photographs to the museum, making SAMA a “juggernaut” in the world of photography, said Katie Luber, SAMA director.
“This exhibition is transformative for us,” she said, taking the museum “from being a place that didn’t have a hugely strong collection of American and international photography, to being one that does. … We have a new direction to go forward.”
Citing the strength of the collection, with such famous images as Dorothea Lange’s 1936 Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California and Ansel Adams’s Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite of 1960, Assistant Curator Lana Meador said, “We certainly want to continue to build on what’s been given to us, and augment it with artists that may not be represented.” Meador co-curated the exhibition with Suzanne Weaver, curator of modern and contemporary art.
Any Instagram or Facebook viewer could easily see 77 photos during a quick app check-in, but Capturing the Moment invites a lingering view, and a consideration of the changing role of photography in contemporary life.
Once, only intrepid war photographers risked their lives capturing images of live conflict, but now any citizen in a battle zone can send images around the world in an instant. Lesser-known Russian photographer Dmitri Baltermants is represented in the show by a striking 1968 image from Vietnam of a prisoner threatened by soldiers, guns at the ready, as well as battle images from World War II. And whereas today’s mass demonstrations are seen from all angles through social media posts by protesters, the many small actions of the early Civil Rights movement might have gone unrecorded but for the camera of Danny Lyon, a noted New York street photographer who went on to document a wide swath of American life.
At its introduction in 1924, the handheld Leica 35-millimeter camera was as revolutionary as today’s iPhone was for making photography an accessible art form. The innovative miniature version of bulkier view and twin-lens reflex cameras allowed street photography and photojournalism to come into their own as speedier, more nimble ways of making on-the-spot images, as noted by Meador.
The best images show “the world unfolding in front of you,” Weaver said, and evoke the moments before and after the images were taken. Weaver and Meador cited Henri Cartier-Bresson, notable for his “shoot-from-the-hip” street photography techniques, as a prime example.
Much of the collection on view would once have been considered photojournalism, more appropriate to newspapers, television, and magazines than art museums. But the rise of photography as an art form in the 1960s and ’70s demonstrated the ability of photographers to consider aesthetics as well as information as a purpose of their work, aptly demonstrated by the films of Lyon, three of which are also on view to complement his still work.
Those short films, along with Joey Goes to Wigstock, a 1992 film by Leonard Freed, and Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment of 1973, were added by Weaver and Meador to complement the still images in the show, in part because many of the featured photographers also made films.
“I thought it would work well, because there’s such a relationship between photography and film,” Weaver said.
Several public events and programs during the run of the exhibition will offer educational opportunities, including a lecture Saturday, Feb. 23, at 2 p.m. by Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator emerita of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. An educator workshop on Saturday, March 23, titled “Picture That: Social Commentary Through Photography,” will focus on the role of photography in fomenting social change.
Artist Henry Horenstein, represented in the exhibition by photographs of the Andy Warhol fashionable Factory scene in 1970s New York and a video documenting Austin’s famous Broken Spoke dance hall, will give a talk Tuesday, April 9, at 6:30 p.m.
Those interested in learning the 20th century techniques of film photography can sign up for a hands-on workshop with David Salinas March 30-31.
More information on the exhibition, which runs through May 12, and the educational programs, is available on the SAMA website.