From an intimate séance to a World War II battlefield and from a solar eclipse to the scaling of Mont Blanc, approximately fifty rarely seen photographic treasures provide a vivid and beautiful record of the world during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. Drawn from the renowned Gilman Paper Company Collection. As It Happened is an engaging display of photography's role in our collective understanding of the past. More than mere aide-mémoires, the works of art on view transport us to places and times that we otherwise could not know, making visible our past as it happened, and eternalizing instants that lie beneath the surface of recollection.
Photography's capacity to create a vivid and indelible picture of history was recognized early on. French critic Ernest Lacan noted presciently in 1856 that photography "records in turn the memorable events of our collective life on its magic slate, and each day it enriches the archives of history with some precious document." His comments were prompted by Édouard Baldus's "painfully eloquent" photographic reportage of the Rhône River floods—an exquisite panoramic example of which is included in "As It Happened."
Exploration and achievement were also written on that magic slate and are represented in the exhibition: Auguste-Rosalie Bisson and his party climbed Mont Blanc in 1864, lugging an enormous box camera, glass plate negatives, and bottles of photographic chemicals to document their ascent and the view from the summit; less triumphantly but more poignantly, Robert Peary recorded himself, his ship, and the icy northern landscape thirty years later during a failed attempt to reach the North Pole. William Mayfield caught Orville Wright at the controls of a Wright Model E in 1913, and Mieczyslaw Berman made a modernist collage in 1927 celebrating Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic crossing.
Some photographs in the exhibition evoke moments of struggle, tragedy, and war that have shaped our world. One image shows the Lincoln funeral train along the curved tracks of the Philadelphia train station as it bore the fallen president home to Illinois, while another, by Alexander Gardner, shows the Lincoln assassination conspirators under guard at the gallows, moments before their execution. Only in the twentieth century, with hand-held cameras and fast exposures, could photographers truly work in the midst of battle, and Robert Capa's Falling Loyalist Soldier (1936) is the iconic image of a soldier's sacrifice. Other photographs in the exhibition capture Hitler leaving the Landsberg Prison in 1924, Mussolini giving orders to the commander of the Fascist militia in 1931, and De Gaulle triumphantly re-entering a liberated Paris in 1944.
As It Happened celebrates modern man's pastimes and flights of fancy. The camera goes fox hunting in Italy and does the foxtrot in Russia, watches Nijinsky leap and accompanies Picasso to a costume ball. It makes palpable the twentieth century's passion for speed in Jacques-Henri Lartigue's The Grand Prix of the A.C.F., and in such photographs as Anton Bragaglia's Change of Position or Harold Edgerton's Drop of Milk, photography makes visible that which the eye itself cannot perceive.