JEREMY D. BONFIGLIO | Tribune Staff Writer
Bring a magnifying glass and you can find them. The water droplets on the grass in Mike Smith’s landscape shot in the hills near Elizabethton, Tenn. A woman looking out an illuminated window in Andrew Moore’s image of an Old Havana neighborhood at dusk.
The irony is that such tiny detail can be found in the largest of photographic mediums.
“Big Shots: Large-Format Photographs From the Permanent Collection,” a new exhibition at the University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art, is an inspired examination of the pristine clarity in this immense art form.
The show includes 21 photographs of varying size (from 10 by 8 inches to 40 by 50 inches) in an eclectic range of technique and style that not only illustrate the development of the medium, but also offer a template of how large-format images should be presented.
“Vedado Azul,” a 40-by-50-inch color print of Old Havana, Cuba, by American photographer Andrew Moore, is a highlight of “Big Shots: Large-Format Photographs From the Permanent Collection,” which runs through March 12 at the University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art.
Enlarging photographs was not common practice in the 19th century. Instead, prints were made by placing the negative directly in contact with photographic paper. The result: Both negative and image remained the same size.
To overcome this limitation, many photographers turned to sizable cameras and lenses that would make unusually large negatives.
Most early large-format equipment was used to document cultures and landscapes. “Big Shots” offers several examples of such 19th century work, including a rare high-contrast black-and-white print of a Maya temple by French explorer Désiré Charnay, and a striking view of Yosemite Valley by California photographer Eadweard Muybridge.
By the 20th century, better enlargers, lenses and film made it easier to increase print size. The bulk of the work in “Big Shots” shows how photographers embraced that technology in a variety of ways.
Jeffrey Becom’s two large prints from a graveyard in Guatemala, for example, were made from 35 mm color slide film. Mike Smith used a panoramic camera for his lush Tennessee landscape, while Milton Rogovin created large-format images by uniting several smaller ones, as in his black-and-white triptych portraits of the same young man taken in 1973, ‘85 and ‘92.
One of the largest (40 by 50 inches) and most poignant images in the exhibition is Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s chromogenic color print, “Shipbreaking No. 33.”
Burtynsky has been compared to Ansel Adams in his use of the large-format camera to project elegant, detailed and classically composed landscape photographs. Unlike the pristine wilderness of the American West that Adams so aptly captured, Burtynsky focuses on natural places transformed by industrialization.
One such image, taken on the tidal mudflats of Bangladesh in 2001, shows a tower of rusted metal resembling a piece of contemporary sculpture protruding from the earth. It’s the aftermath of hundreds of workers who dismantle beached oil tankers for spare parts and scrap metal. Burtynsky’s “Shipbreaking No. 33” captures what remained.
Andrew Moore’s “Vedado Azul,” a type-c or common color photograph taken in 2000 in Havana, offers a similar vision. Moore’s image of the Old Havana neighborhood at dusk has an eerie quality largely due to the noticeable absence of the town’s inhabitants. The only sign of life in this 40-by-50-inch image are the lights of the city. Mercury, tungsta and fluorescent lights are set off by the dimly lit tropical sky.
It’s no coincidence that the two latest and largest images also may be the best in this collection.
The technology in the current market has made it much easier to routinely produce photographs in sizes unimaginable even a few years ago.
Although this exhibition shows that supersizing such images is not a recent phenomenon, it keenly emphasizes the growing pursuit of large-format photography and what it can yield when it’s at its very best.
Staff Writer Jeremy D. Bonfiglio:
“Big Shots: Large-Format Photographs From the Permanent Collection” continues through March 12 at the University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, call (574) 631-5466, or visit the Web site http://www.nd.edu/~sniteart
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