When photographer Carroll T. Hartwell died last year he left 10,000 ghosts in the galleries and storage rooms of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Now some of those ghosts — about 50 of them — haunt the walls of an MIA gallery. They are photographs Hartwell collected for the museum over the near half-century he served as curator of photography.
The idea behind the “Masterpiece Photographs” exhibit was to tell the story of the museum’s collection of photographs — and to honor the long work of building that collection.
I humbly submit that you can’t really experience this exhibit in just one pass. It’ll take three passes — there are at least that many narratives here. Let me break it down.
First pass: Let the photographs freeze time — yours
If you don’t have at least a half-dozen awe-stops in this exhibit you are dead inside — or you might be. I’m not a doctor.
Here are three that stopped me — and I mean stopped like frozen for a minute, numb even.
“Red Jackson, Harlem Gang Leader,” Gordon Parks (1948)
You know what had happened in Red Jackson’s life just before this photo was taken? He had just seen the scarred corpse of a friend at a Harlem mortuary. Red looks like maybe he’s been sitting there for all of time. Like maybe he’s there right now.
“Lee Miller,” Man Ray (1930)
I know what you’re thinking: boobies. Wrong. Truth is I can’t look at the 23-year-old Lee Miller in this photograph without feeling a little sick inside. When Miller was just 7 she was raped by a family friend in Brooklyn — gonorrhea was among the terrible results. That same year she began posing naked for her father, an amateur photographer. The pain Miller must have carried into this portrait is the thing that makes me sick inside. This should be a beautiful portrait — and maybe it still is. I can’t see past the horror of it. Lee Miller is much more than her victimization, of course. Hers was an incredible life, and that’s in the portrait for me, too. You ought to see the photos she took during World War II at Normandy, in the trenches, and at the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. One, called “Revenge of Culture,” ought to be hung next to Man Ray’s portrait wherever it hangs. Curatorial justice we’ll call it.
“Wounded Female Civilian, South Vietnam,” Philip Jones Griffiths (1967)
More than a million civilians were wounded during the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. Here is one of them. We don’t know her name, though it is probably scrawled on that awful standard-issue tag tied to her wrist with three twists of fine metal wire. Incredibly, though we see here her blood-stained hands and blood-soaked shirt, she is invisible to us.
Second pass: Chemicals and paper
Have you ever seen an image appear on paper in a darkroom? The way the image emerges like a ghost from white. I’ve only seen the process once, and I’ve never viewed any photograph the same. When I see “Lee Miller” or “Red Jackson” or “Wounded Female Civilian” I can’t help but imagine the image emerging — that fantastically intimate moment between photographer and photograph.
It’s all paper and chemicals. And the MIA exhibit — organized chronologically — charts the evolution of methods. There’s calotype, cyanotype, salt printing, daguerreotype, albumen printing and more. You don’t need an art-history text to make sense of all of this. It’s all there for you if you read the little white tag.
Final pass: Carroll T. Hartwell, I thank you
The thing about this exhibit is what isn’t there. Roughly 9,950 photographs. For damn near every photograph there are dozens or hundreds more from just that photographer. The now-classic Alec Soth photo that ends the piece? There are more. The Richard Avedon portrait of Marilyn Monroe? Avedon was a favorite of Hartwell. The Gilles Peress shot from Iran? There are 500 Peress photos at the MIA.
Forgive me for getting supernatural again, but I propose you pause at the end of that final pass and utter the following — shout it if you must: Carroll T. Hartwell, I thank you.