"Brought to Light" is an apt name for the Crocker Art Museum's current show of photographs from the collection. Most of these images have not been seen for a decade and some have never been seen at all.
Curated by Diana Daniels, the exhibition showcases the history and artistic development of contemporary photography. Really, it's a survey of photographic explorations from the 19th through the 21st centuries. Along the way, it reveals the two major trends in photography since its inception: the photograph as document and the photograph as art object.
Both tendencies come together in the earliest photo in the show, Thomas Annan's picture of one of the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, taken in 1868. While it preserves for history a mid-19th century neighborhood, its warm tones, careful composition and atmospheric quality move it into the realm of art. Similarly Peter Henry Emerson's "The Gladdon-Cutter's Return," showing a man gathering reeds for thatching, gives us a document that is lushly romantic in its tenor.
Moving into the 20th century, Lewis Wickes Hine gives us a documentary view of laborers at a cotton mill in 1914. The title of the work tells us that these touchingly young laborers work under good conditions, but those 1914 conditions probably would not be what we think of as good conditions now, and his image led to changes in the national child labor laws.
The show includes some of the biggest names in 20th century photography, among them Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Weston gives us a smiling portrait of Diego Rivera shot from below so that he seems a kind of giant. Adams is represented by one of his most famous photos, "Monolith: the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite, California," taken in 1927. Daniels points out that it is the first time that Adams used a dark red filter to give the image a dark sky and to highlight the crispness of the striations on Half Dome's face.
A couple of rare photos by Marion Post Wolcott document migrant farm workers in Florida in 1939 and, in a scene right out of "The Help," a pair of African American maids with a white toddler in a stroller.
Yousuf Karsh gives us a wonderfully rich photo of Pablo Picasso with one of his ceramic creations, a vase with a female figure painted on it. James A. Woodson offers a charming image of Ansel Adams with his hands up to frame a photo and Irving Penn creates an almost 19th century-looking image of a street photographer in the 1950s.
Moving into the 1960s, Lee Friedlander is represented by one of his famous street photos, artless in its composition but fascinating in its complexity. David Stephenson and Lewis Baltz turn to topographical imagery in their depictions of land use in the Southwest.
Moving into the 21st century, Daniel Kasser, who teaches at the University of the Pacific, offers a surreal image of a giant industrial object against a thunderous sky. It was made by blowing up a small picture of a wheel-like form and placing it against an image of a big sky.
Equally prepossessing is Lewis deSoto's staged image "The Restoration," which places a vintage car in a garage made to resemble a Vermeer painting. It is presented in a light box, which gives it depth and luminosity.
The show concludes with Bruce Temuchin Brown's rich experimental photo of legendary Northern California art collector Rene di Rosa in silver halide printed on a copper plate. He has scratched the plate to create the feeling of a worn and abraded surface bearing a ghost photo of his subject.
Interestingly, the show is arranged to move from the most recent images in the front room to the oldest in the back room of the works on paper gallery so that you move back through time. It's an interesting way to highlight the historical progress of the imagery while putting the larger and more colorful images in the forefront.
BROUGHT TO LIGHT
What: Masterworks of photography from the Crocker Art Museum collection
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays through Sept. 3
Cost: $10 general, $8 seniors, military and college students, $5 ages 7-17, free for members and children 6 and under. Every third Sunday of the month is "Pay What You Wish Sunday."
Information: (916) 808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org