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VisionQuest

An exhibition celebrates 50 years of the photography magazine Aperture with a dazzling range of images that illustrate its emphasis on photos as art.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published February 19, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG -- Little can be said specifically and much generally about "Photography Past/Forward: Aperture at 50" at the Museum of Fine Arts. This wonderful, sprawling exhibition celebrates the half-century anniversary of a journal that has explored every interpretation and use of the medium, from straightforward photojournalism to avant-garde art.

If you are not a serious photography junkie, you might not have heard of Aperture. It publishes only four issues per year, and you won't find it on most newsstands. But it has exerted enormous critical influence and conferred prestige on its contributors over the years.

With 156 images by almost as many photographers, the show has no focus (pardon the pun) except to act as a big roundup, or, as organizers said, a reunion.

Aperture was founded in 1952 by Ansel Adams, Minor White, Dorothea Lange, Barbara Morgan and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, "a humble photography journal with the life expectancy of a hamster, and not a particularly healthy one,'' writes R. H. Cravens in the catalog.

Aperture, named by Adams, was not so much humble as modest, due to financial restraints. Its credo, stated in the first issue, was to communicate with "serious photographers and creative people everywhere, whether professional, amateur or student."

White, its unpaid editor for years, set high standards from the beginning, cajoling work from top photographers and writers, who also worked for free. Early on he editorialized that "if experiencing a photograph cannot be done with some of the abandon of a boy riding a bicycle or children wading in the gutters after a rain, there is no reason to experience photographs."

Photography in the 1950s was still considered by many to be a recording medium rather than an art form. It was certainly appreciated as an important component of fledgling periodicals such as Life. Aperture made the case for a photograph's value as standalone art rather than an illustration for a story.

White, suffering burnout, decided in the early 1960s he couldn't keep Aperture going. Money was a constant problem, and White had little time for his own photographic work.

Michael Hoffman, an energetic enthusiast of the medium who had studied with White, offered to keep publishing it. Hoffman led Aperture from 1963 until his death in 2001. He and philanthropist Shirley Burden, who saved Aperture from financial collapse more than once, are the people most responsible for its survival and spectacular revival as the most respected authority on photography in the world.

Now 54, Aperture seems on solid footing, with permanent offices, a large exhibition space in New York and a thriving book-publishing business that releases a roster of prestigious, glossy books each year.

The exhibition's organization is purposefully nonchronological, though it tries to suggest connections. For example, Ralph Gibson's hard-bitten drag queen vamps near Diane Arbus' Girl in Her Circus Costume and Ugo Mulas' photograph of artist Marcel Duchamp, who smokes a cigar and studies a photograph of himself playing chess with a nude woman. The thematic riff seems in this case to be the grand old soul of provocative irony paired with his spiritual inheritors.

The lack of a time line also makes more difficult grasping the medium's evolution and the debates that have played out over the decades - color versus black and white, darkroom versus digital, aesthetic versus societal themes.

But like the swellest parties, just about anyone who is, has been or will be anyone is here.

-- Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.