“Paper Promises: Early American Photography” Now on Display at The Getty

Today we seem to take photography for granted thanks to the advent of smart phones. At least I know I do. When I was young pictures were something special. Film was expensive, cameras even more so, so it was important to capture just the right image. Photographs were treasures and most people would say they were the first item they’d want to save in case of an emergency. Now, I couldn’t even tell you the last time I printed a physical photograph. They’re all on my phone – easily shot and easily deleted. Currently, on view at The Getty is Paper Promises: Early American Photography which covers an era when the new innovation of photography was very important, indeed.

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a preview of the exhibition led by its curator Mazie Harris. On display are numerous 19th century American paper photographs featuring a wide range of subject matter from portraits to landscapes to battle scenes and more.

Paper Promises is a comprehensive overview of the myriad ways photography was used at the dawn of paper imagery. Prior to paper images had often been produced on glass or metal and were considered precious objects. The introduction of paper negatives and images allowed for a wider distribution of pictures and served a myriad of purposes.

Oso House; Carleton Watkins (American, 1829 – 1916); California, Mariposa County, United States, North America; 1859 to 1860; Salted paper print; 33.2 × 41.3 cm (13 1/16 × 16 1/4 in.); 84.XM.171.34

For instance, pictures could be used to lure people to new, exciting places. The above image of  the Oso House in Mariposa County, CA may have been used to entice people to come out west. Or it could have been used in a court of law as photographic evidence – something that could never have been done before. Land disputes and property rights could now be resolved with a simple picture.

But that’s just one example.With the dawn of paper photography portraits of famous figures could be easily distributed and even traded from person to person like baseball cards. Images of foreign dignitaries  could be used to introduce people to new places and culture and images of the war wounded could be used as evidence of the horrors of the Civil War. With the dawn of paper photography a whole new world opened up to 19th century Americans.

Complimenting Paper Promises: Early American Photography is the  exhibit Cut: Paper Play in Contemporary Photography curated by Virginia Heckert. Whereas Paper Promises shows the variety of uses for early paper pictures Cut! show the innovative ways the process is used today in the digital age.

The works of  six contemporary artists, including Daniel Gordon, Matt Lipps and Soo Kim (shown above) are featured and they are as diverse as they are innovative. For instance, in the work of Soo Kim, photographs of international locations such as Reykjavik and Taipei are layered and precisely cut to form a multi-dimension vibrant piece out of a static piece of paper. The result is something truly beautiful and unique.

Paper Promises: Early American Photography and Cut! Paper Play in Contemporary Photography are on display until May 27, 2018 and are definitely worth seeking out. Interesting and insightful they offer physical proof of the enduring power of paper photography during this digital age.

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