Love frequently inspires visual or performance art but more rarely defines an entire exhibition. That's the case with "Yours Truly: Privately Collected Photographs" at Carnegie Museum of Art. The show is a valentine from a son to his parents, but also a present from a group of collectors to all who enjoy viewing fine photography and/or time tripping.
Both complementary and tangential to the appreciation of the images is the dedication of the exhibition by William T. Hillman to his parents, Pittsburgh philanthropists Elsie and Henry Hillman, on the occasion of their forthcoming 67th wedding anniversary.
"The passion we felt! The peace we feel. Who were we then? Where and when? Who am I now? Only yours, truly," concludes the short poem, written by the younger Mr. Hillman, that introduces the exhibition.
The introductory panel is hung outside the gallery, and there is no wall text within. Photographs are numbered, and a handout provides pertinent information. This was planned by William Hillman, who was involved throughout the exhibition process. "He said to me more than once, 'I want this to be an emotional experience, not a didactic one,' " said Linda Benedict-Jones, museum curator of photography.
"I think he achieved that in a variety of ways," she said. "First and foremost is the selection of images of personal moments, private moments, intimate moments, people embracing, people showing affection. Another way he achieved it was not to include any writing on the wall. He wants the audience to look. To look at the photograph and to learn and to feel, to sense that moment, and also to appreciate that photographic print."
People snuggle and kiss in front of a drugstore, on Coney Island, in a movie theater, at an outdoor concert, and in Madison, Wis. The scenes are romantic, as with the young man of Robert Frank's "Paris 1949 New Year," who holds a tulip behind his back as he looks across a crowd to a woman he's apparently meeting, and lusty, as in the quaint, from today's perspective, circa 1932 Brassai image "Couple allonge dans une 'maison d'illusion' " ("Supine Couple in a 'House of Illusion' "), a brothel interior.
But there is more than carnal attraction.
The younger Mr. Hillman, who is in his late 50s, had been thinking about the exhibition for some time, and at the beginning most images were of couples kissing. "He concluded he wanted to show more of the ambience, more of the kind of support for that love. So the show broadened as time went on," said Ms. Benedict-Jones, who served as project manager rather than in her usual curatorial role.
That broadening includes imagery of flowers, playing children and landscape including a serene French allee. A mother and daughter portrait at Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, combines tenderness, form and flesh. Bill Brandt's 1937 "Northumbria Miner at Evening Meal" is still covered with coal dust as he dines, his wife seated beside him without place setting and ready to serve, in contrast to the top-hatted fellow watching fireworks at the race course in Brassai's "Nuits de Longchamps" ("Nights at Longchamps)" of the same year.
O. Winston Link's 1950s imagery conjures nostalgia six decades later as a couple stand in a gingerbread-ornamented station watching the "last steam-powered passenger train" pass by. A steam engine chugs alongside a drive-in with an airplane image on the screen as a young couple cuddle in a convertible in his "Hotshot Eastbound, Drive-in, With Image on Screen." Three photographs for Harper's Bazaar by famed fashion photographer Lillian Bassman are elegant, including the circa 1947 one of model "Margy Cato" with sweeping white gown covering half the picture frame.
Besides selecting images and contacting other lenders, Mr. Hillman oversaw the exhibition installation from lighting to sequencing work on the walls. "Professionalism is very important to him as it is to Carnegie Museum of Art, so we were of one mind," Ms. Benedict-Jones said.
One sequence alternates Berenice Abbott's modernist images of New York City in the 1930s, full of progressive, even futuristic, promise, with circa 1944 Alfred Eisenstaedt images of soldiers kissing loved ones goodbye at Pennsylvania Station, New York, before returning to war, the ultimate betrayal of that promise.
Other photographs reference the history of visual imagery, such as Imogen Cunningham's "Magnolia Blossom" of 1925, which is contemporary with Georgia O'Keeffe's early floral paintings and postdates Martin Johnson Heade's many 19th-century magnolias. Heade referred to his lush flowers as reclining odalisques, but O'Keeffe denied the sexual connotations critics saw in her works.
The exhibition comprises 80 vintage prints, 46 from Mr. Hillman's private collection and promised as gifts to Carnegie Museum of Art. The others are from anonymous private collections. Visitors move from the most current works, of the early 1990s and 2002, through the mist of memory to the mid-19th century. Most are gelatin silver prints with a few albumen prints.
Some of the photographers have not been previously exhibited at The Carnegie (although regular readers will recognize some of the photographers from exhibitions held at Silver Eye Center for Photography when Ms. Benedict-Jones was executive director of that organization).
The promised gifts are by 28 artists, 17 of whom are not represented in the museum's collection. Mr. Hillman earlier promised seven other works to The Carnegie in connection with the exhibition "Impressionism in a New Light: From Monet to Stieglitz," which the museum presented last year.
Ms. Benedict-Jones said the museum's association with Mr. Hillman is fortunate in many ways. "We're lucky he's from Pittsburgh. He lives in New York but feels a certain dedication to Pittsburgh. Another factor is he's been collecting photographs for decades. He is a pioneer in photography collecting. He acquired things before they were considered as masterpieces. He started before others got there, and he was savvy and smart about what to collect."
Carnegie Museum of Art has stepped up its commitment to photography in recent years. Director Lynn Zelevansky, who took the helm in 2009, holds a bachelor's degree in photography from Pratt Institute. In 2008, Ms. Benedict-Jones was hired as the first curator of the newly established photography department.
"I think we're really beginning to see the museum collection is, thanks to this kind of support, being transformed from a preliminary collection, with its strengths certainly. But there are gaps in the collection. Some of that is being attended to with these gifts from William T. Hillman. The gifts are significant and a number of the photographers are not in the collection at all," Ms. Benedict-Jones said. Mr. Hillman's gifts include "key figures, people of seminal importance in the evolution of the medium."
A surprise at the end of the exhibition is the actual front page of the Dec. 1, 2012, New York Times with only one picture above the fold. A soldier returned from deployment is greeting his wife and 14-month- old daughter in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Mr. Hillman writes that his parents, in the longevity of their commitment, "continue to show us all what 'yours truly' really means. True love is eternal."
The photographers in this exhibition illustrate an ongoing interest in love, the heart of the human condition, in all of its manifestations, and their profession's evident commitment to recording it.
Chinese activist speaks
A Chinese activist will show secretly shot videos about dissidents in China from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Thomas Merton Center, 5129 Penn Ave., Garfield.
Afterward, Mr. Nima, the name he goes by for security concerns, will discuss Chinese human rights violations and the possibilities for transformation within the country. One of his subjects is Liu Xia, the wife of incarcerated literary critic, writer, professor, human rights activist and Noble Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Information: 412-361-3022.
New art center
Masterpiece Center for the Arts, 800 Lincoln Highway, North Versailles, is holding a grand public opening from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and Feb. 2 and 3. Registration will be held for classes and workshops and teaching artists will be present.
Art and supplies will be for sale, there will be door prizes and light refreshments will be served. Information: 412-888-6188.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925. First Published January 23, 2013 5:00 AM