DETROIT – Sir John Herschel made important contributions to the nascent field of photography more than a century and a half ago, inventing a chemical process that allowed an image to be fixed onto photosensitive paper.
So it's fitting that the first work attendees will see at a new photo exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts is an 1867 portrait of the British scientist.
"People still feel that because a photograph's made with a machine, a camera, it's not like painting, it's not like sculpture," said museum associate curator Nancy Barr, who put together the exhibition. "It started out on an unsure footing. But people like (Julia Margaret) Cameron pushed for it to be an art, and other people did as well."
It was Cameron who took the famous Herschel portrait that kicks off the exhibit in Detroit that opens Wednesday.
She was a friend of the astronomer and chemist and requested he pose with his hair freshly washed but uncombed and him staring off-camera. She hoped to create a slightly unruly look that played up Herschel's intellectual genius. Cameron also used a long exposure time and left the lens out of focus to produce a soft, hazy effect.
"(Photography) was kind of an upper-class hobby for some," Barr said. "But (Cameron) took it very seriously. She got involved in exhibitions. She sold her work. She really felt photography was a new art form."
More than half a century after Cameron created her most notable works, Walker Evans emerged on the scene, and his work is given its own wall at the exhibit. Evans, a St. Louis native and self-proclaimed "maverick outsider," was the first photographer to have a solo exhibition at a major U.S. institution — the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Detroit museum said.
On display in Detroit are some of Evans' works that depict commonplace subjects such as crumbling buildings, advertisements and workers. One of his best-known images and more rare photos in the collection, "The Breakfast Room, Belle Grove Plantation, Louisiana" depicts the decayed interior of a plantation home.
The exhibition is organized chronologically and presents views of the many uses of early photography, including scientific and artistic study, documentation, portraits, landscape and still life. The images span the early 1840s to the 1940s.
Other highlights include classic works by photographic greats Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston.
The exhibition is free with museum admission and also includes a few extras.
Visitors can stop by the museum's art studio for a cyanotype (blueprint) workshop, where they will be able to create their own blue, ultraviolet-light-developed images. They also will be given the opportunity to gaze through a stereoviewer (think of it as a 19th century View-Master) and see a rare daguerreotype stereoview.
And in a first for a photographic exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, attendees will be invited to fill out a comment card and give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on what they've seen.
"We've never done this. It's kind of an experiment," Barr said. "There's a certain component who really don't feel that photography's legitimate as an art form. ... Some people may struggle with it."