By now, we’re used to museums partnering with the Google Art Project and sharing selections of their popular or less known collections online. However, this month a photography museum finally got into the mix, with the George Eastman House, the oldest photography museum in the world, offering an initial 50 images from its extensive collections online.
This first group includes some of the expected big photography names like Eadweard Muybridge, Edward S. Curtis, Dorothea Lange, and Alfred Stieglitz, but flipping through and zooming in (as the Google Art Project is so well-designed to do), brings some eclectic and unexpected images. I was drawn to French journalist Auguste Vacquerie’s photograph of “La main de Madame Hugo” (1853–54) of an arm stretched on a pattern of waves which I realized was fuzzy woodgrain, a surprisingly intimate glimpse of a person, possibly Léopoldine Hugo, the daughter of the French literature legend Victor Hugo who married Vacquerie’s brother Charles. British photographer Frederick H. Evans, who is better known for capturing the interiors of churches, also has a striking and delicate image, that of the beamed roof of an attic from 1896. I also loved Louis Ducos du Hauron’s “Still Life with Rooster” (1869–79), where the French innovator with color photography seems to have given himself a challenge by placing the vibrant feathers of a rooster and parakeet side-by-side, or at least that’s the best explanation I can posit on why he playfully posed the two birds in such a formal manner.
Yet while I always love an undiscovered curiosity, the horse walking with a bucket in its mouth by the very not obscure Muybridge and capturer of the 1930s iconic Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph of a “damaged child” in Elm Grove, Oklahoma, shown with a bruised eye against a Dust Bowl shack, are both striking. And sure, you’ve probably seen Arthur Rothstein’s 1936 “Dust Storm,” also in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, before, but now you can zoom up close on just how desolate the wind swept landscape is. It will be interesting to see what else the George Eastman House adds, as this group stretches from the 1840s to the 20th century with all the range of photography techniques contained within, and as the oldest photography museum they definitely have a wide grasp on just how the medium has changed in those years. And it seems, in that regard, fitting that they are the first photography museum on the Google Art Project, which is at its core one big experiment with using photography to bring to a wider public the world’s collections of art.