This is the most comprehensive survey of photography in Chicago’s recent past. A massive exhibition involving several galleries and more than 250 images, it nevertheless represents only a fraction of the enormous bequest from longtime Hyde Park residents Betty and Lester Guttman. Their taste was quirky and vast. Curators Laura Letinsky and Jessica Moss have performed a Herculean task in making sense of the images, grouping them into thematic clusters—nature and the built environment, experimentation, documentary, portraiture and celebrity. The exhibition begins at the dawn of the medium with Fox Talbot and extends to the point when photography becomes synonymous with contemporary art with the likes of Carrie Mae Weems. Chicago photographers are well represented here, but there are also important international images from every period.
Perhaps to hang as many works as possible, the curators chose not to include wall labels of any kind. Viewers must use a gallery booklet to identify each photograph. This provides a chance to authentically react to a picture before learning of its maker, title and date. Stand before classics you’ve never before seen in person (mine was Man Ray’s “Tristan Tzara,” showing him on a ladder before a giant female nude), and find your own should-be classics (mine was Jack Jaffe’s “The Night of Martin Luther King Assassination, Gary, IN,”). The Guttmans’ living room is literally and lovingly recreated within the exhibition. Their beloved opera music bathes the books and furniture, including a flat file (they collected with its dimensions in mind). Be sure to open its drawers; there are gems and intriguing pairings inside. Accompanying the show is an elegant and informative catalogue. With its superb reproductions, useful timeline, and scholarly treatment throughout, the book goes well beyond the limits of this exhibition.
Considering their dedication to photography, the Smart has gained a reputation as one of Chicago’s premier venues for the medium. And in the current political climate, it’s good to be reminded of the depth and diversity of human experience documented in the Guttmans’ photographs. With only weeks left in 2016, make sure this show is on your bucket list for the year. (Mark Pohlad)
Through December 30 at the Smart Museum of Art, 5550 South Greenwood