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Freeze Frame

Capturing images in the museum’s new photo collection


We all have our art collections, just like museums do. My collection, and probably yours, includes photographs.

Before going to see the Missoula Museum of the Arts new photography acquisitions I re-read “The Image-World,” excerpted from Susan Sontag’s On(and included in A Susan Sontag Reader). I thought that when writing about the museum’s exhibit I might be able to rely on a few pullable Sontag quotes, such as, “A photograph is able to usurp reality ... because it is not only an interpretation of the real, it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.”

What the Sontag piece made me do was look around my own living room. What do I have displayed on my walls and why? What do you have displayed on your walls and why? How did we come up with our choices?

I have a rotating collection that includes two swirly abstract paintings (that were acquired serendipitously from beloved female relatives), as well as a number of photographs of other relatives and of my children. But the key pieces, the ones that seem to stay put in the permanent collection are these:

• two black-and-white photographs of faces of Buddha statues;

• a black-on-white drawing of an ox led by a toga-wearing handler, copied in exact detail from an image on a Greek vase;

• a close-up photograph of a section of a door of a wat in Thailand, the subject being a god or demon pushing a chariot and looking backwards (in the same manner as the Greek ox-herd);

• a wood-block print of steel-band musicians, copied by the artist from a photograph on a record jacket.

I realized in taking this inventory that the things I most like to put on my walls do not fall into the categories Sontag identified in her l977 essay. They are not depictive images, like landscape paintings, but neither are they straight replications, like, say, landscape photographs. And they don’t, I don’t think, participate in the more complicated extension/ acquisition/ replication/ obliteration/ surrogate possession relationships with reality that she outlines. They don’t, in fact—or at least in my mind—participate in reality much, not directly. Because what I seem to be most inclined to have on my wall (and what makes me, I believe, a thoroughly postmodern Millie) are not images of reality at all. They are images of images.

These prize pieces are not interpretations of the real, they are interpretations of interpretations; neither are they traces stenciled off the real—like a footprint or a death mask—they are traces of traces. This is the kind of art that, for some reason, I find vivid, full-blown and exciting. It’s why I like Sondheim (and went twice to Into the Woods). Sondheim’s musicals are as much about musicals as they are about life. Which somehow brings them back right around to reality, it seems to me, compared to the productions we consider more traditional, full of that lovely and fabricated crooning.

Sontag’s essay concludes that we have reached a depressed “de-Platonized ... understanding of reality, [one which makes] it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals.” This reality that Sontag is—or was—trying to protect in On Photography, writes Joan Acocella in a recent New Yorker profile, is nothing less than “the world itself, our reactions to which are being dulled, [Sontag] warns.” But I would argue that the world is being restored, reality is returning now, here at the end of the millennium, in this images-of-images art, with its traces-of-traces sensibility. Reality, it seems to me, is, strangely, both protected and resurrected when we work our art upon a work of art.

Do you suppose we’re experiencing a resacralization of the art of old and sacred times (to twist Sontag’s own words)—the art in which “an image was taken to participate in the reality of the object depicted”? Well... er... I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think something else is going on. Which I don’t understand. But I think it’s grand.

My favorite pieces in the museum’s new photography acquisitions are Kristi Hager’s “Veil” and “Veil 4.” (Where are veils 2 and 3?) Hager states that she is trying to hash out a way to make photography and painting work together. H. Rafael Chacon, Associate Professor of Art History and Criticism at the UM, writes in the notes that accompany the exhibit that these works “demonstrate the redemptive capacity of photography as an artform. [Hager’s] images evoke elements from our photographic past: the expansive sky, the teepee poles, the lace curtains drying in the wind, and even the abstract cropping of modernist composition. These elements, although from seemingly different traditions, cohere in her photographs and they remind us that there is a place for all under the Montana sky.”

New Photography in the Collection is now on display in the Second Floor Gallery of the Art Museum of Missoula at 335 N. Pattee. A roundtable discussion will be held Tuesday, April 4 at 7 p.m., with an opening reception Friday, April 7 from 5 to 8 p.m. Call 728-0447.

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