News Column

Photo exhibition resonates through time

July 20, 2014

By Teri Greene, Montgomery Advertiser, Ala.

July 20--Forty summers ago, photographer Raymond Smith set out with two twin-lens cameras to capture everyday American life in black and white, spending three months taking about a roll of film a day -- of street corner preachers, farm workers' families, kids on sidewalks, the girl in the Fotomat booth, denizens of rural Alabama on porches and in yards -- of just about anyone he encountered.

The exhibition "In Time We Shall Know Ourselves," showcasing 52 of the photos Smith took in the summer of 1974, continues through Sept. 21 at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Though a few of the photos have been exhibited in galleries or included in art journals through the years, this is the first time a large group of them has been shown together.

The exhibition, organized by the MMFA, follows the publication of Smith's new book of the same title, part of publisher Peter Hastings Falk's "Rediscovered Masters" series (www.rediscoveredmasters.com). The book includes essays by Richard H. King and Alexander Nemerov.

Smith was a Yale graduate student with a passion for photography who had just had his first exhibition at a prestigious gallery in New Haven. He'd studied under the renowned American photographer Walker Evans, whose work he revered, and was also influenced by Robert Frank, the famed photographer whose 1958 book "The Americans" gave a candid, eye-opening glimpse of life in the 1950s.

He set out with an eye toward doing for the 1970s what Frank had done for the 1950s, hitting the road with a friend from New Haven in a run-down Volkswagen topped with a load of camping gear, carrying about $300 cash. His sole intent was to take photos every day, as he made his way to his destination, California. Along the way, he captured poignant, candid portraits of people he encountered, who expressed their emotions without words -- echoing the vernacular photographic style of Evans and Frank, but making a statement of his own.

"Every photograph was an experience, because I was limited in how much money I had," Smith said, "so whenever I photographed a person it was usually the only photograph I took of that person. I had so much emotionally invested in it, but financially I was at this point -- if I knew I got the picture, that was it.

"I always stepped back and waited until that person was ready. I didn't want them reacting to me or mugging or posing. I wanted that sense of self."

The VW finally died in the Midwest and, with his journey cut short, Smith took a train back to New Haven. But in three months he had traversed more than half the country, mostly in the South, returning with about 750 shots, nearly all of them one-takes of his subjects.

Perhaps oddly, even as a younger man Smith knew it would take a while for the book and exhibition to come together. That it may take decades, even. But it was going to be something worth the wait.

"I knew I had to go back to school in the fall, so I spent that whole summer photographing, and I knew within a week I had something," Smith said at a recent reception at MMFA. "I knew that if it was published -- if it was 30, 40 years later -- I knew someday it would happen. And here it is.

"There were so many things going on in photography at that time," he said of the mid-'70s. "It was kind of a watershed period -- all the great photographers were still alive and working, and there were all these new photographers coming up -- but I knew that there was something more to my work, that it would last. And if it lasted, if it looked as good to me 30 years from then, yes, it would happen. I never doubted that."

He had no way of knowing that the digital onslaught to come would render his work even more momentous.

In the intervening years, he's been the proprietor of R.W. Smith Bookseller in New Haven, which specializes in rare and out-of-print reference material on American art and photography. But that summer trip he took as a young man has never left his mind, and to this day he's kept the diary of that journey, documenting every photograph he took and the names of the people in them.

Also jotted down in the diary are the words he read one day on a hand-painted roadside sign in Mississippi.

"It said, 'In time we shall know ourselves, even as also we ourselves are known.' I'm not a photographer of signs or letters, so I wanted to write that down in my diary. It's actually the only thing in that diary that's not a picture. It was a humble sign painter who wrote that."

He noted that the phrase was a variation of a passage from I Corinthians 13: "For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."

"I thought that fit so perfectly with what I was trying to do, because that sign-painter changed the 'I' to 'we,' " Smith said. "There's something spiritual about my work, so that's why I chose that for the title of my book."

For the exhibition, Smith sought out MMFA curator of art Michael Panhorst, who noted the artistic sensibilities Smith shared with Walker Evans and Robert Frank. But he knew Smith's work had a power all its own.

Panhorst noted that for the seminal book "The Americans," Frank (who was bankrolled by a Guggenheim grant) took nearly two years to shoot tens of thousands of photos, only 82 of which appeared in the book. By contrast, Smith (with a few hundred bucks and some camping gear) took only 750 exposures, shot over a few months, with 52 powerful images selected for publication and exhibition.

"That really is a significant achievement," he said.

WANT TO GO?

WHAT: "In Time We Shall Know Ourselves," photography by Raymond Smith

WHEN: Through Sept. 21; hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday; and 12-5 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1 Museum Drive in Blount Cultural Park

ADMISSION: Free; donations are welcome

INFORMATION:www.mmfa.org

Also at MMFA

Through Sept. 21, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts celebrates the grand finale of its 25th anniversary in Blount Cultural Park with an exhibition devoted to the origins of its American art collection with "Origins: The First Twenty-Five Years of the MMFA Collection."

The museum was founded in 1930 as an art/local history museum, with original holdings representing the flowering of the local art scene under Wetumpka painter Kelly Fitzpatrick as well as important examples of American historical painting in the collection given by Margaret K. Freer. The Freer bequest included works by such important painters as William Merritt Chase and Frank Duvenaeck. Other early acquisitions featured will include art by Anne Goldthwaite and Zelda Fitzgerald. From the day it opened its doors, the MMFA has played a central role in the nurturing of appreciation for fine art in the Montgomery community.

Source: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (mmfa.org)

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(c)2014 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)

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Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)


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