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Touching Images That Display an Artist's Own "Natural Histories" at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem

NOTE: This exhibition ended on May 27th, 2013
The East India Marine Hall at the Peabody Essex Museum
Last Thursday evening I was invited to attend a Press Preview Event for the latest exhibition in the Year of Photography at PEM in Salem, Massachusetts. Those of you who have been around the blog a bit know that the PEM is the Peabody Essex Museum - a wonderful place whose roots date to the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society, an organization of Salem captains and supercargoes who had sailed beyond either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn and brought back items to fulfill the society’s charter provision for the establishment of a “cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities" - or as we know it - a museum.

Those sea captains and supercargoes did both residents and any visitors to the city of Salem a major favor as the PEM is truly one of the North Shore's biggest jewels among the many that it can lay claim to and with new exhibits opening all the time, there's always plenty of reason to visit again and again. Heck, I'd visit again and again just to look at the windows in the East India Marine Hall and the figureheads that I still remember from a high school field trip long, long ago when I first came to Salem ...

... but once I can tear myself away from the room that was the original museum from that long ago visit, there is a lot to see and do including the new exhibition that I was there to see that evening.

The Year of Photography at PEM Exhibition features three separate exhibitions to make up the whole:  "The Mind's Eye: 50 Years of Photography by Jerry Uelsmann" which opened on February 11th, 2012 and is on view until July 15th, 2012; "Ansel Adams: At the Water's Edge" which will make its debut on June 9th, 2012 and run through October 8th, 2012; and "Natural Histories, Photographs by Barbara Bosworth" - the exhibition that I was there to see that evening which opened to the public on April 14th, 2012 and will be on view until May 27th, 2013.

Barbara Bosworth is an internationally-renowned, Boston-based photographer who was born in Novelty, Ohio outside of Cleveland and who has been a Professor of Photography at the Massachusetts College of Art since 1984. Her new exhibition at the PEM, "Natural Histories", includes over 35 color and black-and-white photographs along with a selection of bird eggs, drawings, and natural history dioramas that have been handed down through the artist's family. The images are of the artist's family and their interactions with the natural world as they capture moments of reflection and intimacy which speak to viewers of the every day moments of family and home that stay with us long after the moments themselves have passed.

Barbara's images are 'large-format' meaning that they were shot with a camera that uses large film producing very high resolution images with great detail; in Barbara's case she uses an 8 x 10 camera and film. Large format photography is a slower and often more contemplative photographic style that allows the photographer to change a photo's perspective and create special effects that would be impossible with a conventional fixed-plane, fixed-lens camera. As the exposures are a slow process, the camera is mounted on a tripod and subjects need to stand very still for a long period of time in order for the image to be made onto the negative which makes it ideal for landscapes but trickier when it comes to people! In the early days of photography, large format was all there was and it has produced many enduring and familiar images over the years as it continues to do so to this day.

Barbara Bosworth explains one of her images on Thursday evening as Phillip Prodger, the PEM's Exhibition Curator of Photography, looks on.
Naming the deep forest surrounding her family's home in Novelty as the earliest influence on her photography along with a large window that looked out onto that forest as the spot where she "started thinking of the world in rectangle", it was there in Ohio in a "house that was full of ghosts, of memories ..." that Barbara first began experimenting with capturing images on film. Many of the images on display in "Natural Histories" were taken in Novelty and are appearing for the first time in public serving as photographic time capsules that recall specific experiences which are deeply personal to Barbara.

"This is one of my favorite shows," said Phillip Prodger, exhibition curator and PEM's Curator of Photography. "It's a show about family but it's also a show about land, about place, about environment. It's powerful on the level of family but it brings other elements into play also. Deceptively simple ... these touching images explore the joy of youth and the wistfulness of aging, the nature of memory and the passage of time."

Barbara Bosworth (born 1953)Christmas Solar Eclipse in My Father's Hands, Sanibel, 2000Gelatin silver print©Barbara Bosworth
Barbara Bosworth (born 1953)Mom's Pink Slippers, Fort Myers, 2003Gelatin silver print©Barbara Bosworth
Barbara Bosworth (born 1953)Jeff Along the Bayou, Sanibel, 1994Gelatin silver print©Barbara Bosworth
Some of my favorite images in the exhibition were the panoramic images that Barbara creates using a unique method that combines multiple large-format negatives in a single print.  They intentionally aren't seamless which adds to the appeal of the scene and which draws the viewer's eye to areas that it might not otherwise go.

Barbara Bosworth(born 1953)Picking Wild Roses and Blackberries inthe Backyard, Novelty,1992Inkjet print©Barbara Bosworth
Barbara Bosworth(born 1953)My Cousins GatheringClams for Dinner, Wellfleet, 1994Inkjet print©Barbara Bosworth
Barbara Bosworth (born 1953)Blue Pool at the Sycamore, Novelty, 2008Color inkjet print©Barbara Bosworth
As someone who frequently holds a camera in my hands and loves to take pictures of trees and clouds, Barbara's images appealed to me on the level of being able to capture images that even though they might be considered "common" in nature, are images that not only hold a special place for herself as the photographer but for those who, as viewers, stand back and look at them recalling their own families, their own special moments in time, and those places and things that they hold dear in their hearts. The images aren't the stunning landscape vistas of Ansel Adams which make you gasp at their sheer beauty or the photo-montages of Jerry Uelsmann which make you smile at the whimsy or irony they contain but Barbara Bosworth's images are well worth viewing as they bring a sense of peace, a sense of connectedness if you will, as they portray the generational bonds that anchor us to home and family.

The artist speaks to a friend after the unveiling of her exhibition in the American Art Gallery at the PEM.
Located on the second level of the American Art Gallery on Level 2 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, "Natural Histories" is Barbara Bosworth's first solo show in the Boston area even though she has had major museum exhibitions across the country including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, the Princeton University Art Museum, and the Phoenix Art Museum.  Should you find yourself in Salem and visiting the PEM between now and May 27th, please take the time to view this wonderful exhibition that speaks of the simpler and most important things in life - family and home and the world around us.

Support for the exhibition is provided by the East India Marine Associates (EIMA) of the Peabody Essex Museum and sponsored in part by WBUR, Boston's NPR news station.  All images (with the exception of my own!) are credited to the Peabody Essex Museum.  For museum hours, directions and other visiting information please visit

Even though this exhibit has ended at the Peabody-Essex Museum, there is always something interesting to see at the North Shore's most wonderful museum! Visit yourself and check it out! 

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