Gathering Clouds. A History of Photography Through Clouds — Bruno Chalifour

[Winter 2021]

By Bruno Chalifour

After months of a world pandemic, being surrounded by clouds may sound like a reprieve: fluffy, light, ethereal, and flying higher than the contemporary political discourse in the United States, clouds may provide temporary solace in our dark, sometimes ignorant, times. The exhibition Gathering Clouds, Photographs from the Nineteenth Century and Today at the George Eastman Museum1 (GEM) proposes such a pause. Programmed before we ever heard of COVID-19, it is set in the museum’s two major galleries and in a smaller third one entirely dedicated to a twenty-seven-minute video loop of contemporary clouds by Berndnaut Smilde. Gathering Clouds, as its subtitle, Photographs from the Nineteenth Century and Today, implies, is divided into two distinct sections. Each one occupies its own gallery. The first deals with how photographers solved the technical issue of rendering clouds over a landscape in the nineteenth century; the orthochromatic nature of the medium did not allow a single correct exposure for both subjects (ground and sky), and photographers were often forced to expose two separate plates (one for the ground and one for the sky) and combine them in the darkroom into one print. The process allowed more control over the final image than masking the sky while exposing the ground. Sometimes photographers, many of whom had been trained as painters, simply drew or painted the clouds in. After a historical, well-illustrated, and educational first section, the second main gallery displays a core of twenty-four Equivalents (photographs of cloudy skies taken by Alfred Stieglitz from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s as expressions of his psyche) surrounded by a compilation of works by contemporary artists. By comparison with the first section, this latter display seems meant more for entertainment than education, although it is not without a few aesthetic rewards.

Gallery 1: “Photographs from the Nineteenth Century.” The curator of the exhibition, Heather Shannon, is a specialist in nineteenth-century American photography (the subject of her doctoral dissertation in 2017). Except for an introductory fifty-four-minute video by Penelope Umbrico of 218 details of skies cropped out of nineteenth-century prints (with all their grain and scratches) from the GEM’s collection, all works shown in the first gallery are historical photographs by the likes of Muybridge, Watkins, Jackson, Vroman, Bourne, P. H. Hillers, Emerson, and H. P. Robinson, most drawn from the museum’s rich archive.

See the magazine for the complete article and more images: Ciel variable 116 – LANDSCAPES AS MIRRORS