Weekender

‘Seeing America’ exhibit presents pre-digital view of United States

Eliot Porter’s “Mountains in Clouds with Mountain Ash, Jump-off Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, October 11, 1967,” is a dye-transfer print on display at the Palmer Museum’s “Seeing America: Photographs From the Permanent Collection” exhibit.
Eliot Porter’s “Mountains in Clouds with Mountain Ash, Jump-off Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, October 11, 1967,” is a dye-transfer print on display at the Palmer Museum’s “Seeing America: Photographs From the Permanent Collection” exhibit. Photo provided

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Penn State’s Palmer Museum of Art could serve as a massive library consisting solely of dictionaries. “Seeing America: Photographs from the Permanent Collection” highlights the diverse places, faces and ideas that comprise the uniqueness and spirit of the United States. The show features the works of a who’s who of historically significant photographers and provides a perfect opportunity to view the country from someone else’s lens.

“The Palmer is certainly committed to showing photography when we can,” said “Seeing America” curator Joyce Robinson. “This particular exhibition was organized in conjunction with the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts’ presentation of ‘First Person: Seeing America.’ This narrated performance features the internationally known Ensemble Galilei and is set against the backdrop of projected photographic images from the Civil War through the Great Depression.”

In the same vein as the museum’s other summer show, “Mining the Store,” “Seeing America” defines itself using pieces that document the past.

“One thing that makes it unique, even though negative-based photographs by nature are ‘multiples,’ is that the works are all from the permanent collection of the Palmer,” Robinson said. “We have contemporary photographs on view in our upstairs galleries that tell a very different story, about the fictive, even theatrical, possibilities of the medium. The images in ‘Seeing America’ are historical photographs dating roughly from the 1860s through the end of the 20th century.”

While the photographs of featured artists including William Henry Jackson, Berenice Abbott and Lewis Hine are spectacular in their own right, “Seeing America” also examines a time when real effort was put into taking and developing a picture. Today, anyone with a Nikon hanging their neck can fancy themselves a “digital photographer.”

“In this age in which we are surrounded, even bombarded, by digital images that have no physical presence, visitors will have the chance to experience vintage photographs captured on film or even glass negatives, printed in darkrooms using processes — silver gelatin, platinum, dye-transfer — that may be unfamiliar to many, particularly younger, viewers,” Robinson said. “The photographs in this exhibition, all pre-digital, are simulacra, or likenesses, of people and places seen, images captured, framed, mediated by individual photographers.”

“Seeing America” is able to give an unparalleled firsthand visual account of what life was like for the generations that carved this country, what they saw and how they were molded.

“The photographs on view graphically attest to the geographical diversity of the United States as well as to the remarkable range of inhabitants who call this land home,” Robinson said.

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