A View of One’s Own, on view through December 10th at the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania, presents a curious story told threefold: three women photographers: Esther Boise Van Deman, Georgina Masson and Jeannette Montgomery Barron each visit Rome for three different purposes in three different eras, produce three wholly different interpretations of the Eternal City in three different photographic media. The curation offers competing impulses of record-keeping, seduction, and stream-of-consciousness insights, which, at first glance, would seem to provide rich fodder for the exhibition. However, the execution of the show is fundamentally flawed in that for the most part, each artist is kept within her own view, so to speak: the photographs are presented in discrete chronological collections in the gallery space, which ultimately robs the viewer of the opportunity to evaluate just how each woman’s unique version of the same city responds to the others.
Exhibition Review by Deborah Krieger
Esther Boise Van Deman visited Rome in the first two decades of the twentieth century, documenting her archeological work at numerous dig sites; Georgina Masson captured glamorous views of Rome for a travel guide in the early years after World War 2; today, Jeannette Montgomery Barron snaps fleeting, seemingly spontaneous snippets of her own daily life as she moves through the city.
The entryway into the Arthur Ross Gallery, which displays one photograph from each artist, presents the kind of juxtaposition that would have made the show more complex; indeed, it is the most effective grouping of works. Alas, this promising introductory presentation ultimately feels like false advertising, as the rest of the show divides and separates Van Deman, Masson, and Barron into their own little pockets of space and time without really allowing them to act upon one another in a formal and/or thematic way.
Esther Boise Van Deman’s row of photographs, on the surface, represents the more clinical and scientific view of Rome. Her black and white albumen prints measure barely four by four inches, provoking an appropriately scientific response that nearly evokes looking through a microscope. Van Deman, an archeologist by training, made several trips to Rome to participate in digs and recovering of ancient sites and monuments; as a result, her photographs are mostly architectural shots with very little obvious human presence. However, this collection of photographs covers Van Deman’s visits from the early 1900s until 1925, and as such, does provide opportunities for a developing narrative to occur regarding what she chooses to document and commemorate.
Three of the last four works in Van Deman’s section, taken in the later years, do feature people in addition to their evidence and artifacts. In a particularly charming pairing, Viminal Hill is shown in two side-by-side photos—one of the excavation of the dig site, and one of a family standing in the shade on the same hill. In the first image, the only living force is the tiny grain-sized humans working in the center, as well as their pack animals lugging around wagons; it’s a literal pit, an absence created in Rome’s ground and foundations to find what remains of the people who lived there thousands of years ago. Viewed alongside the photograph of the contemporary family, who is very much alive, we can think of this dialogue as hinting at a change in how Van Deman came to conceptualize her work: the image of the family reminds us—and her—of the very real human lives being studied and sought after in the excavation depicted in the previous photograph.
Georgina Masson’s photographs from 1950-1965 demonstrate a wholly different strategy of engaging with the city. If Van Deman’s series of photographs presents a story of discovery and personal engagement, Masson’s images are outward-facing and extroverted. After all, during this time Masson also published an English-language guide to Rome which to this day is in print, so it follows that her photographs of the city are meant to entice, to inspire Americans to brave the journey and visit post-fascist Italy. Rome itself is presented at alluring, appealing angles in dramatic, glossy black and white. The major landmarks are present and accounted-for: the casino of Pius V in the Vatican City, the Villa Medici, et al.
However, several of Masson’s works do focus on people, though still in the service of tourism: photographs of a sidewalk cafe and a puppet show at the Villa Borghese allow the guidebook’s owner to place themselves in the Roman context, to imagine themselves in the midst of all that grandeur and splendor, just as the Romans themselves are in their own everyday lives. Of Masson’s photographs, one appears to have a little more personality than the rest: the image of the Villa Chigi is remarkable in that it establishes a singular point of view that feels very much individualized. Rather than an admiring shot taken face-on or from a low angle to create a sense of grandeur, the shot is almost off-kilter, facing downwards; it’s very clearly placed by a person walking in the garden of the Villa.
Jeannette Montgomery Barron’s contemporary photographs, shot on her iPhone, represent the most comprehensive section of the show, taking up the most physical space in the gallery. In contrast to Masson’s theatricality and Van Deman’s exactitude, Barron’s works are almost crafted to feel a little detached, a little blasé about the whole thing. Rain sloshes in a road; orange peels lie on a ledge of carved marble, awaiting inevitable decay; a tourist stand sells cheap miniature versions of David, which in the context of Masson’s entire contribution feels a little ironic. Masson said to come to Rome, and now Barron shows us what all of that tourism has wrought—endless kitschy copies of what people came to see being hawked on Rome’s eternal streets. Her works are all purposefully quotidian, with titles that indicate merely the date and time of the image and not the subject matter, because for Barron, who actually lives in Rome, the subject is not what matters, but rather when and how Barron saw it. Her photographs don’t have to fulfill the same purposes as Van Deman’s and Masson’s, because Rome is not a break from her humdrum everyday life—it is her humdrum everyday life, even if that humdrum life is spent in a city of Classical ruins and Renaissance masterpieces.
Ultimately, while there is an issue with how the photographers have been so rigidly kept apart from one another, as it stands A View of One's Own does allow for comparison, if in a way that feels almost like an afterthought. Perhaps the choice to display the works in this arrangement is meant to prevent the viewer from making comparisons that go beyond the formal, beyond the contrasting of certain visual motifs; after all, it’s certainly thematically juicy enough for three whole shows rather than the one.