American history sits for a portrait in a photo show at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. | Art Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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American history sits for a portrait in a photo show at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art.

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Image conscious: "Three Girls" (1940), by Andreas Feininger. Image courtesy of George Eastman House.
  • Image conscious: "Three Girls" (1940), by Andreas Feininger. Image courtesy of George Eastman House.

Picturing What Matters, on view at the Westmoreland Museum of Art, is a selection of 128 photographs representing the illustrious history of photography and of America. This traveling exhibition, organized by the George Eastman House Museum, consists of work by 108 photographers dating from photography's inception, in the early 1840s. As a response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the plethora of images that followed, Eastman staff were inspired to revisit their collection with questions in mind about what we value, as individuals and as a society.

The photographs are exhibited chronologically within six thematic groups: Legacy, Glimpses, Icons, Workers, Family and The Road. So much of American history has been documented in photographs; these groupings encourage viewers to consider this history, good and bad, and to draw conclusions about America's place in the world today.

The first grouping, "Legacy," contains numerous Daguerreotypes, with their ghostly, almost holographic effect. Because of light reflecting from their mirror-like surfaces, viewers must move ever so slightly in order to see the images -- reminding us, so succinctly, of the fleetingness of the lives thus recorded. Adding to the preciousness of the images, these portraits are unique, as Daguerreotypes cannot be easily copied.

One mesmerizing picture, taken by M.A. Root circa 1850 and titled "Small Girl Standing on Table," portrays a young girl, inexplicably located on a tabletop and wearing a fancy party dress. The Lilliputian photograph has been delicately hand-painted with blue accents. The image is slightly over one inch high -- suggesting, perhaps, an impecunious family, as Daguerreotypes were expensive (the standard-sized plate was 6½ by 8½ inches). Many of the images in this section record early settlers, Western expansion and figures in American history, including Abraham Lincoln, photographed in 1860.

"Glimpses" presents bits of American culture that could be recorded only by the quick eye of the camera. Aaron Siskind's "Savoy Dancers" (c.1937), from his "Harlem Document" series, is a gelatin-silver print of two dancers captured, unknowingly, in the ecstasy of the moment. The exhibition's most humorous photo is a candid image by Joel Meyerowitz titled "Man Carrying Large Poodle" (1965): A man walking by a storefront with the sign "John's Gifts" carries, on his hip, as one might a child, a mammoth white standard poodle.

"Family" includes wonderful images like "Man With Baby," part of Larry Clark's Tulsa series from the 1960s: A young man lies on a bed smoking, seemingly unaware of an out-of-place infant lying horizontally on the bed. In "The Road," photographs like those by Timothy O'Sullivan represent the American landscape; meanwhile, Art Sinsabaugh's image of Chicago highways, and Elaine Mayes's photo of a Greyhound bus reflected in the Great Salt Lake, emphasize the overwhelming human presence in that landscape.

"Icons" contains some of the most famous images in American history. Included is one of Dorothea Lange's best-known photographs, "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA." This gelatin-silver print was taken in 1936 for the Farm Security Administration, a federal agency that hired photographers to document the Great Depression. The photograph of astronaut James Irwin saluting during the Apollo 15 moonwalk, taken by astronaut David R. Scott, hangs near the equally well-known image, by Lewis W. Hine, of the Empire State Building at night, taken in 1931.

Highlights of "Workers," meanwhile, include Hine's image of the high-wire acrobatics of builders, including "Icarus on Empire State Building" (1931), in which a construction worker balances high above New York City on an taut but insubstantial diagonal cable. Margaret Bourke-White's "Steel Liner, Fort Peck Dam, Montana" (1936) shows silhouetted workers standing inside a piece of stories-high spoked pipe that dwarves them, making them seem eerily insignificant.

Thus, "Workers" and "Icons," especially, contain images of the enormous accomplishments of America, as well as of unglamorous labor, and suffering. We see a land of plenty and of want, where industrial achievement and individual expression flourish alongside the straitened choices forced by economic deprivation. The Eastman collection encourages a careful, and perhaps self-critical, look at how American became what it is today.

Picturing What Matters continues through June 3. Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 221 North Main St., Greensburg. 724-837-1500 or www.wmuseumaa.org

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