Brett Weston Untitled (Tree Bark).1969. Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 in. Gift from the Christian Keesee Collection, 2015 Bruce Museum Collection © The Brett Weston Archive

From Butterflies to Battleships: Selections from the Bruce Museum Photography Collection

June 22, 2019 - September 1, 2019

Beginning with the first forays into photographic practice in the nineteenth century, with Louis Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce in France and William Henry Fox Talbot in England, photographers, the public, and critics alike have argued as to the relative merit of the medium—is it a scientific or artistic process? A method for formal or conceptual exploration? Is a photograph fact or fiction? 

On view June 21 – September 1, 2019, From Butterflies to Battleships draws from the Bruce Museum Photography Collection to present a selection of work by four singular American photographers. The exhibition will showcase the tremendous diversity of directions taken in the twentieth century, whether employing the camera in a documentary mode to record details of insect development or to chronicle sweeping historical events, or experimenting with the technology to create abstract or composite images. 

Although renowned for her breathtaking photo essays for Fortune and LIFE magazines, in which she captured the glories of the industrial age, as well as the sorrow and suffering of economic and wartime disasters, Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) had a lifelong interest in the natural world. On view in From Butterflies to Battleships is a collection of insect portraits made in the 1930s in which butterflies and moths are hazily depicted in various stages of metamorphosis. A far cry from the epic scale of celebrated images like that of the Fort Peck Dam, these photographs show a surprisingly intimate and experimental side of Bourke-White’s oeuvre. 

First trained as a reporter, acclaimed photojournalist Carl Mydans (1906-2004) captured landmark events in the United States, Europe, and Asia over the course of 36 years as a staff photographer for LIFEmagazine. There he skillfully honed what would become his trademark, the ability to capture the enormous gravity of an event with a single image. The exhibition includes two iconic photographs from 1945, taken while on assignment during World War II with General Douglas MacArthur and his regiment. 

The son of pioneering photographer Edward Weston, Brett Weston (1911-1993) began taking pictures as a teenager while living in Mexico with his father. The young Weston displayed an extraordinary eye for subject and form from the start. Over time, Brett would reach beyond the modernist aesthetic championed by his father, to the brink of abstraction, as shown in a series of stunning photographs taken around 1970, in which natural elements such as sand, trees, and water are transformed into expressionistic compositions. 

Patrick Nagatani (1945-2017) was born in Chicago on August 19, 1945, 13 days after the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. As the son of Japanese immigrants who had relatives living outside of Hiroshima at the time, Nagatani would develop an enduring interest in the devastating consequences of nuclear technology. After moving to New Mexico in 1987, he found the discordant southwest landscape, with its Native American ancestral roots alongside an omnipresent nuclear weapons industry, ripe for investigation. Selected for this exhibition are a number of works from the resulting series, Nuclear Enchantment (1989-1993), a body of work centered on the environmental and spiritual fallout of nuclear science. 

From Butterflies to Battleships: Selections from the Bruce Museum Photography Collection is curated by Stephanie Guyet, Zvi Grunberg Fellow 2018-19. The Museum is grateful for exhibition support from The Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce Exhibition Fund and the Connecticut Office of the Arts.