'Influencers' of another time have their say in new exhibit at Clark Art Institute
WILLIAMSTOWN — In the mid-19th century, artists and photographers were the "influencers" of their day, providing images of distant lands and exotic locations to the masses.
Paintings and photographs of foreign locales granted the average person access to places only the privileged could afford to visit and inspired travel, even if only to a nearby destination.
A new exhibit at the Clark Art Institute, "Travels on Paper," opening Saturday, examines the power and influence of images centuries before social media influencers began flooding our Instagram feeds with photographs of exotic destinations.
"Travel is something that people have been doing for a long time," said Anne Leonard, Manton curator of prints, drawings, and photographs. "Tourism, as we think of it, is something that is a little bit more modern but it still has its own history. In the 19th century, some of the impulses were the same, to travel, to make images and to share those images. I think those impulses are not so different from the ones that are driving, say Instagram, today; just the methods and the materials are different."
Today, both photography and travel are far easier and more accessible, she said, noting that artists and photographers would not only have to have the financial wherewithal to travel to distant locations, but also the ability to endure the dangers (physical and political) that came with of touring these remote areas. In addition, photographers, who endured long exposure times, carried all of their equipment with them — including everything necessary to create and develop photographic prints.
"They had to carry their dark rooms on their backs," Leonard said. "The photographic plates — they were wet plates, so they had to develop them right away or they'd lose the image. There's kind of a whole process behind these images, that's hard to appreciate now. But when we do remember that, we appreciate it even more, especially when [the photographers] get to even more complicated and remote locations."
Beginning with imagery of domestic travels primarily created as souvenirs and gifts, the exhibit explores how, after the advent of photography, images of travel destinations expanded, both in subject and location.
That shift, is clearly seen, when viewing of Jean-Honore Fragonard's "The Hermit's Court in the Colosseum," a red chalk drawing the artist made while studying at the French Academy in Rome in 1758, and the nearby photograph of Robert Marcpherson, of the same location in 1857.
"Just about a century later, we have Macpherson, one of the important photographers [of this time], setting up a studio in Rome in the late 1850s, completely catering to a tourist market," she said. "This is a big shift from a drawing that's totally for personal use, made more for practice or maybe incorporated in some painting design down the line. [Macpherson's photos] are images made for sale and catering to tourists, especially British tourists to Rome want to take home."
Macpherson's images, "Colosseum, Rome," and "Arch of Constantine," by today's standards, Leonard said, are typical tourist fare — landmarks that people still want to see when visiting Rome. But, she said, at the time, those images were not as common as they are today, considering the long exposure times and efforts put in to capturing those images.
When Europeans became interested in Orientalist art — images of the East, specifically the Middle East and Asia, created by Western artists — photographers and artists traveled to these places to bring back images. Those images, although created from real life, often presented visions of the Middle East that matched the preconceived images of their European benefactors.
Jules-Joseph-Augustin Laurens, a French artist, traveled extensively in Turkey and Persia (present day Iran), sending home hundreds of drawings and etchings. His best known work, "Under the Walls of Teheran," featuring a resting caravan with a camel of exaggerated height, was printed for the Societe des Aquafortistes, and became a collectible print.
Others created stylized photographs, such as Robert Fenton's "Orientalist Study," were composed in European studios. Fenton's photographs, a series called "Orientalist Suite," were made in his London studio, his subjects were friends and models, and the props were borrowed pieces collected around the Middle East by friends and neighbors.
Even those photographs, captured in the Middle East and appearing to be candid shots of people on the street, Leonard said, had to be posed because of the photographic process.
While artists were offering up drawings and etchings of landscapes that reflected classical and stylized views of exotic locations, so too, were photographers who were editing images to fit their personal perspectives of the locations they were visiting.
John La Farge's images, watercolors from a journey to the South Seas, which brought him to places like Hawaii and Samoa, present the islands' indigenous populations in a context that is paradisaical and unspoiled by colonization. But, Leonard said, in letters La Farge sent home, there is a sense that he was disturbed by how Westerners had taken over and corrupted the lives of the indigenous people.
This type of intentional editing is seen again in John Murray's photograph, "Nainital,View of the Lake Through the Trees," in which the Himalayan lake of Naini is framed in such a way that the site appears serene and untouched. Murray, wanting to capture the spiritual site as it had been, framed the photo is such a way as to hide that Nainital was now a British resort town.
Those editing practices, which help inspire desire to travel to these beautiful locations, are not much different than those done today.
"That's what we try to show — that there's always these continuities that bring us right up today, and at the same time, that there are other aspects that are just different," Leonard said.
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