The National Gallery of Art’s “A Subtle Beauty: Platinum Photographs from the Collection” is the second exhibition of platinum prints in D.C. this year, and the one that’s infinitely softer-edged.
“Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson” (on view at the National Museum of the American Indian through Jan. 5) is driven by an effort to avenge political injury: the 19th-century use of platinum prints to document Native Americans as they were being battled to near-extinction.
The smaller NGA exhibit, by contrast, is largely devoid of politics or ideology. Rather, it’s all about the fuzzy glories of platinum metal embedded in the fibers of photographic paper, mainly in works produced between the 1880s and the 1920s.
To its credit, the NGA has found a surprising degree of visual diversity in its archives. As expected, there are some fine examples of gauzy pictorialism: Gertrude Käsebier’s image of frilly-dressed young girls; Frederick H. Evans’ famed portrait of British illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley; Edward Steichen’s portrait of a pensive Auguste Rodin; and Heinrich Kühn’s moody photograph of Walther Kühn. Alvin Langdon Coburn, meanwhile, dabbles in near-pointillism in his aerial view of London Bridge.
But the exhibit also includes some forward-looking aesthetics. One image by Alfred Stieglitz features a crisp portrayal of a snow-covered tree, while another by Stieglitz (bottom) documents New York City buildings at night. In an example of how tight-knit this circle of turn-of-the-century photographers was, Käsebier produced a bold portrait of Stieglitz (second from bottom) in which she used a brush to selectively apply developing solution to the paper.
Karl Struss, for his part, added mercury to the chemistry to produce a strong sepia hue in his landscape at Columbia University, while Paul Strand produced an abstract image of Maine driftwood.
The two standouts are among the least well-known of the photographers. One, Edith R. Wilson (not Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, despite the incorrect birth and death dates cited by the museum), photographed an African-American woman and three young children (top), a relatively unusual subject at the time (1922), and hauntingly beautiful.
The other notable image (second from top) is by Harry C. Rubincam, a mid-career convert to photography. It’s of a backlit, fancily dressed circus performer jumping above a galloping, white horse—-a photograph whose split-second action offers dynamic contrast to the brooding material elsewhere in the exhibit.
Through Jan. 4, 2015, at the National Gallery of Art, 4th and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. Mon–Sat 10–5, Sun 11–6.