The Phillips Collection’s exhibition “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard” has been in the works for a while, but its timing today couldn’t be more poignant. Just as Kodak is declaring bankruptcy, the exhibition reminds us how the invention of Kodak’s handheld camera in 1888 allowed late 19th century painters to harness the new amateur photographic technology to shape and inspire their work. Not all the artists in the show are household names, and their skills as photographers vary more widely than the quality of their more traditional artworks on display, with some images undercut by overexposure or humdrum subject matter. Meanwhile, don’t expect every photograph to pair up thematically with the painting or drawing hanging next to it; many of the pairings bear no obvious connection. That said, the exhibit offers a number of pleasures: a series of tiny yet impressively detailed silver-gelatin prints by Pierre Bonnard; Maurice Denis’ portrait of his three daughters, framed by dramatically diagonal shafts of light (below); George Hendrik Breitner’s image of three girls walking, presaging Garry Winogrand’s street photography by almost a century; Henri Evenepoel’s enigmatic photograph of his son sleeping in a crib; and Edouard Vuillard’s impressive photographic studies for a wall-sized, five-panel screen of a city park as seen from a balcony. But the works of Henri Riviere are the ones that steal the show. In one body of work, Riviere documented the construction of the Eiffel Tower (above), first in photographs and then in lithographs; both were done in a pleasing style that’s at once Asian-influenced and proto-modernist. Even more striking, though understatedly, are Riviere’s cyanotypes—-photographs made with the same process that produces architectural blueprints. The cyanotypes show unexpectedly fine grain, and they capture light and shadow gorgeously. In “Man Walking in a Rocky Landscape,” for instance, Riviere harmoniously pairs a dark landform with a puffy white cloud, and that’s not even mentioning the compellingly tiny human figure climbing the rocks. This image, along with the others by Riviere, provides evidence that at least one traditional artist was fully at home with the new photographic technologies of his day.
The exhibition runs 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday. to May 6 at the Phillips Collection.