“Shadows of a Fleeting World” at the Henry Art Gallery

Naturalistic, soft focus photos, photos intended to evoke emotions, photos with the aesthetics of paintings. Approximately 100 of these are at the Henry right now, and they offer a fascinating look at Seattle’s history as well as the artistry of their creators, mostly Japanese men, immigrants to the region.

In the 1920s they established the Seattle Camera Club devoted to pictorialism, or art photography. The group quickly opened its ranks to photographers male and female of any ethnicity. They were passionate about their work, and the members competed with one another, sponsored exhibitions, and exchanged photos with other camera clubs around the world.

No you won’t find work by Northwest photographers like Edward Curtis or Imogen Cunningham here. What you will find are images that compete with those done a decade earlier by the eastern pictorialists whose work often found its way into Alfred Stieglitz’s famous Fifth Avenue gallery 291. There are beautiful landscapes, carefully composed still lifes, powerful industrial scenes, but my favorites are the spectacular images of Pioneer Square, and the tantalizing nudes. In many of these works, the photographers’ subtle use of light and shadow and their careful compositions are equal to anything done by their more famous contemporaries.

As important as the exhibition’s artistic value, are the interesting insights into the cultural life of the city between the World Wars. It illuminates the important role played by Cornish College to enhance the arts in Seattle, and it documents the appearance here of celebrities like Pavlova.

These remarkable photos have been hidden away for far too long, some for 70 years, in the archives of the Special Collections section of the University’s Library. How lovely to see them now. They allow us to appreciate old Seattle in a bright new way.

Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, through May 8, 2011

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