Teaching “Eyes of a Nation”

One of the most thrilling parts of being an educator at MOPA is having the chance to teach out of the museum galleries. In leading groups through the current exhibition, Eyes of a Nation, I’ve encountered dozens of teachable moments with visitors from 4th grade to retirement, and have had the chance to pore over the photographs with a new set of eyes each time.

The exhibition features work from 100 years of American photography; from the medium’s early days to its recent masters.  It provokes conversations of civil rights,  shared memories,  adventure , play and beauty in a way that relies heavily on the viewers’ own perspective and experience to spark a dialogue.  

Among the most exciting images on display is Aaron Siskind’s New York 1, in which what appears to be a silhouette of the side of a building appears peppered symmetrically with bright dots of light. With further examination, one realizes that the image is actually taken during daylight and the points of light shining through the side of the building are in fact the heads of nails, securing tarpaper that is, in places, peeling. Siskind was a master printer and creating this image with enough delicacy to reveal that to an audience took a remarkable amount of talent and grace.

Also featured are several early Albumen prints, with emulsions made from egg whites, from photographers who most likely traversed the American West with a full darkroom in a covered wagon to record their imagery. Their photographs had to be processed while the emulsion was still wet and took more than a few hours to create one, with likely more hours of frustration than success.

In teaching, it is always fun to remind visitors that these images were not taken on iphones, that society was not always so inundated with visual imagery or that photography and photographs were not always so readily available for consumption. That fact alone makes most of the work displayed in Eyes of a Nation a celebration of unique objects, let alone iconic photographs, and of photographers over the years seeking out the many uses of their craft.