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The Original Copy at MoMA

Lee Friedlander’s “Mount Rushmore”

For those too impatient to wait the 8 hours for exposure required by Joseph Niepce’s camera obscura, 1839 was a pretty exciting time. It was the year Louis Dageurre perfected his daguerreotype, which didn’t fade and needed less than 30 minutes for exposure. It’s also the starting point of MoMA’s upcoming exhibition “The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to today.” Don’t overlook that tiny preposition of. When the daguerreotype popularized photography, one of its very first subjects were sculptures. It satisfied a dual purpose. One, as sculptures were less mobile (if not entirely immobile) than paintings, sculptors needed their work  photographed so it could reach a wider audience. Second, sculptures made ideal subjects. 30 minutes may be a lot less than 8 hours, but it’s still a pretty long time to ask a person to pose without moving.

Edward Steichen’s “Balzac, the Silhouette”

The two mediums came together in perfect harmony. Rodin was among the first sculptors to embrace not only photographs of his completed sculptures, but photo documentation of his sculpting process. While there certainly are those photographers who took a more straightforward approach to shooting sculpture  (i.e. stand in front of a statue, point and shoot), artists like Edward Steichen proved that statuary can be as as figurative as a live human model, while Henri Cartier-Bresson and Lee Friedlander’s humorous photographs of America’s greatest monuments speak more to the experience of the viewer.

Though the organization of the exhibition is a bit unclear, the sheer range of work – daguerreotypes, cyanotypes, salted prints, albumen silver prints – and the breadth of subject matter – photographs of 19th century archeological digs to renowned artists from Man Ray and Max Ernst to Barbara Kruger and Bruce Nauman – makes it worthy of multiple visits.

“The Original Copy” at MoMA August 1 – November 1, 2010.