Review: The National Gallery’s Extended Moment travels through time and space with the image

Two photographs, hung side by side in the first room of the exhibition Extended Moment at the National Gallery, dramatically demonstrate how the practice of photography has changed, even as the inspiration so often remains the same.

At left is a tiny daguerrotype created by Félix-Jacques Antoine Moulin around 1845, and barely as big as a typical smart phone screen is today. A woman looks intently into the lens, her body in a statuesque pose, nude but for a demurely placed scarf.

Next to it is a large black-and-white portrait of another nude woman, Agnes, a gelatin silver print made almost 170 years later by Richard Learoyd. The adjacent wall text explains that Moulin’s daguerrotype was intended to display his “mastery of the genre,” rather than anything internal about his model. Learoyd’s 2013 photograph, meanwhile, “took hours to stage in his room-sized camera, to convey ‘. . . the projection that people allow themselves.’”

Zhang Huan, To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond (Close Up), 1997, dye coupler print, 83 x 117 cm approx. Purchased 2011. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Courtesy Zhang Huan Studio. Photo: NGC

Different artists in different countries in different centuries, expressing different themes through equipment that is more different with every passing year. This is the subtext of Extended Moment: 50 Years of Collecting Photographs, a retrospective that spans the half-century of efforts of the Canadian Photography Institute at the National Gallery, and another century or so before: plus ça change . . .

How we see nature, for example, is seen through the lens of photographers decades apart. Gustave Le Gray’s Great Wave, Sète was made in 1857, composed from two negatives to heighten both the sky and the sea, and it seems an inquiry into the emerging technology itself, in both its limitations and its potential. In 1990, Thomas Joshua Cooper also stood by “the swelling sea,” off the rugged west coast of Scotland, to contemplate the isolated geography where great continents meets great oceans. Same subject, but most everything else about the images — how they were made, where, why — is different.

The exhibition is a treasure trove of such comparisons, of allusions to and echoes of other works of art, be they in this show or elsewhere. Herwig Kempinger’s composite photograph of clouds (in the show) brings to mind Gerhard Richter’s photorealistic paintings of clouds (not in the show), and, perhaps, the commonalties condense into questions about photorealism.

Lorraine Gilbert, Shaping the New Forest (detail), 1990, dye coupler print, image: 68 × 84.6 cm; object: 76 × 101.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Lorraine Gilbert. Photo: NGC

There’s a fascinating progression of family portraits, from August Sander’s early 20th-century image of a dour farming family, to Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 photo of a migrant mother and her children, to Lee Friedlander’s 1995 portrait of a family in Finland, naked, more bare even than the Scandinavian decor of the room they’re in. 

From inner space to outer space, our photographic view evolves, showing us what is out there, or something more familiar that appears new and otherworldly. Lewis M. Rutherfurd’s 1865 photograph of the moon must have seemed incredible to those who had seen nothing like it before — even today it remains a spectacular image, with its surface detail and darkened edge.

Spring Hurlbut’s 2016 photograph of what looks like a planet in the black emptiness of space, is in fact an arrangement of the cremated ashes of her late husband, the artist Arnaud Maggs. (In a brilliant bit of juxtaposition, next to Hurlbut’s memorial hangs Maggs’ own series of self-portraits, in which he incrementally fades out of the picture.)

Then there’s Edward Burtynsky’s field of pivot irrigation systems, which looks like a space-age diagram, something that could be etched into the side of a satellite and launched into the infinite unknown.

Robert Walker, Times Square, New York, 2009, chromogenic print, 126.6 × 86.2 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Robert Walker. Photo: Robert Walker

Extended Moment is full of moments of contemplation — Pascal Grandmaison’s sublimely simple portrait of a young man holding up a bare pane of glass; the fundamental physical wonder of Harold Edgerton’s “milk drop coronet”; the banal face of evil in Luc Delahaye’s scene of the trial of Slobodan Milosevic; the pastoral autochrome pastels of Heinrich Kühn’s 1907 picnic scene.

One print perhaps best exemplifies the changing nature of photography over the years. Michael Campeau arranged the tools of analog photography — film, dark room bulbs — into a sort of still life of constant change.

There’s another element of Extended Moment that isn’t obvious, though it must be acknowledged. The exhibition was curated by Ann Thomas, and it’s her last after 39 years with the National Gallery. How fitting that Thomas’s swan song is a testament to the art form’s restless evolution, even as c’est la même chose.

The Extended Moment continues to Sept. 16.

WHILE AT THE gallery, take a quick stroll into the Canadian and Indigenous rooms to see a small but pleasantly surprising array of Victorian photographs of  . . . pets.

It seems novel to see 19th-century photos of live animals, given the Victorian fascination for stuffed animals and dried insects, and a photographic sense of death that now seems magnificently macabre. These photographs, two dozen or so and full of life, feature Victorian humans — all so proper and prim — and cats and dogs that seem disinterested in the stringency of the age. The cats are playful, the dogs are loyal. It’s a view of Victorian times not often seen, a most cuddly link across the years.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.