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SILVER ANNIVERSARY
by N.F. Karlins
 
You can still come to the party!

"Silver Anniversary: 25 Photographs, 1835-1914" has been extended until Dec. 18, 2009. Celebrating 25 years in business for the Hans P. Kraus, Jr. gallery, the show is a collection of masterpieces, rarities and technical one-offs.

"Silver Anniversary" covers a lot of ground. It runs from the pioneers of photography (around 1835-1845), through photography’s "golden age" in the 1850s and 1860s, and up to the Pictorialists, culminating with a breathtaking print by Alvin Langdon Coburn, Wings! from 1914, a small gem.

Wings! deserves its exclamation point for capturing an early biplane framed against cloudy sky. Fragile in appearance and not perfectly level in the print, the plane projects a human-like feeling of concentration and willfulness. WWI had just broken out and the Boston-born Coburn, who had moved to Britain, made this print as part of a series devoted to ships and fledgling airplanes that were part of the war effort. It certainly expresses a stalwart England.

You can still feel the exhilaration of the pilot aloft in this rickety contraption, probably a Grahame-White Boxkite with an engine cranking away behind the pilot, according to the catalogue. Such information is one reason you may want to consider buying Sun Pictures, #19, the latest of the gallery’s publications, especially if you can’t see the show in person.

If you can visit, I’m sure you’ll be mesmerized by an image included in William Henry Fox Talbot’s landmark book The Pencil of Nature. It had only one calotype (the first multiple paper print process) with people in it, and the salt print here is a spectacular example of that composition, The Ladder (1844), replete with rich tonal variations. Contemporary viewers might have immediately thought of Dutch genre painting, but today’s viewers are more likely to be caught up in the details of dress and architecture in this still crisp image.

With the help of a magnifying glass, my eyes were crawling around Firmin-Eugène Le Dien & Gustav Le Gray’s The Roman Forum, towards the Capitol Hill (1852-54) with an array of ancient monuments matched by an array of contemporary laundry drying over every part of a fence "protecting" them.

Then Hans Kraus came over and discussed the photograph, answering a question still forming in my head. How did the photographer(s) get that flatness in the print? Answer: a long lens. He also pointed out a date on the façade of one of the buildings that I’d missed. No wonder he’s been successful for 25 years.

I could barely tear myself away from Julia Margaret Cameron’s Stella -- study of Mrs. Herbert Duckworth from 1867, less a photograph than an apparition. The artist’s goddaughter (and the future mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) was a frequent model for Cameron, but never appears as otherworldly as here. The way her head floats in the print, the delicate, windblown hair that borders her face, and her penetrating gaze, peering straight at the viewer, combine to bring that viewer face-to-face with a shade or perhaps a saint.

Alfred Stieglitz is represented by an unusually large carbon print of his famous image Winter -- Fifth Avenue (1893), with its slush-covered streets with horsecars. It was made with a hand camera, a hint of the democratization of photography that is still being played out today.

But he also appears as the subject of a fierce, brooding portrait from 1902 by Iowa-born, New York-based Gertrude Käsebier, whose portraits he championed in the first issue of Camera Work. This masterpiece, printed on Fabriano paper by Käsebier, illustrates why many collectors, both private and public, are turning to Kraus and other specialists in early photography for pictures before they disappear from the market -- and we’re left with only our digital snaps.

"Silver Anniversary: 25 Photographs, 1835-1914" Oct. 14-Dec. 18, 2009, at Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs, 962 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028


N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.