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Lyin’ around: Charles Steinmetz on Monocyclic Rock in Thompson’s Lake, East Berne.

The Scientist at Play
By David Brickman

Fragile Works: The Steinmetz Photograph Collection 1892-1910
Schenectady Museum, through Aug. 15

Oakroom Artists Member Exhibition
Schenectady Museum, through Aug. 25

Here’s a little-known fact: The third-largest collection of photographic prints and negatives in the United States is held by the Schenectady Museum. Exceeded in size only by collections at the Chicago Historical Society and the Los Angeles Public Library, the 1.5 million-object collection in Schenectady is buoyed by tremendous holdings of material from more than a century of General Electric research projects.

Within that trove are contained the 1,700 glass-plate negatives collected by GE wizard Charles Steinmetz in his lifetime of amateur photography. The exhibition Fragile Works: The Steinmetz Photograph Collection 1892-1910 is drawn from the first of two phases of restoration and archiving of the Steinmetz collection; the second phase will deal primarily with the later years up to Steinmetz’s death in 1923.

An extraordinarily gifted scientist generally credited with making electricity practical, Steinmetz was also a fun-loving guy who documented a lifetime of hijinks and explorations with bulky 4-by-5-inch and 5-by-7-inch view cameras in the manner of many amateur photographers of his time. The results of that habit are historically interesting, entertaining, and occasionally insightful visual documents. While they are above average in terms of competency, this show hardly unveils a great undiscovered photographic talent. Still, the fact that their creator was a genius in his own right certainly adds to their interest.

And Steinmetz clearly led such an interesting life that there is plenty to delight in here. Organized in loose groups under the headings Life In Schenectady, Excursions, Fool the Eye, Outdoor Life and Family Man, the exhibition consists of modern 11-by-14-inch black-and-white prints made from the restored glass plates (an outfit called Museum Photographics in Rochester is handling the work) along with a handful of original 4-by-5-inch prints by Steinmetz and a few enlarged copies of original prints that had no negative available.

Some of the images, such as street scenes, are valuable simply as a record of how things looked at a particular time and place. Others evoke the times around the last turn of the century in special ways: Efforts at the creation of glider planes, group water sports in public settings, the first images of skiing in New York state (thanks to close Steinmetz colleagues Ernst and Eskil Berg of Sweden) and impressive picnic trips to the Helderberg escarpment (now Thacher Park) are all shown in loving detail.

Other subjects that recall the Victorian era include parlor parties, early bicycles (one of the best compositions on view, titled Canadian Girls, shows a family group Steinmetz encountered during a bicycle ride) and a skating party on the Erie Canal. The Fool the Eye section includes Steinmetz’s own efforts at popular photographic tricks of the day, such as double and triple exposures, multiple prints and stop-action photography.

Not surprisingly, many of these images resemble work by better-known practitioners of that era, including Alfred Stieglitz and the great French photographer of the leisure class at play, Jacques Henri Lartigue.

Stieglitz and his contemporaries Edward Steichen and Julia Margaret Cameron are also evoked in the body of work titled Family Man, in which Steinmetz pours his affection into portraits of a young family he legally adopted in 1906 (badly deformed from birth, Steinmetz never married). The portraits of Joseph Hayden and his wife and children, who lived with Steinmetz for 20 years, are perhaps the best work in this show—they are certainly the most affecting.

Also among the best pictures on view are some of those in the Outdoor Life section. Whether understood as landscapes or just as snapshots, they range from the silly to the sublime—Steinmetz posing improbably reclined on a small rock in the middle of a big lake; Hayden family members loading rocks into a canoe for shoring up a swimming-hole dam; floodwaters rushing into the Stockade.

Based on the excellent quality of these and other images in the show, it wouldn’t be a stretch to speculate that, had Steinmetz taken photography half as seriously as he took science, he might also have become one of the best artists in his generation.

There is a long and honored tradition of art clubs in the United States and Europe and, though it seems almost as much a thing of the past as Victorian photography, there is one such club still thriving in our region. Founded in 1956, the Oakroom Artists maintain a small membership by invitation only and sponsor regular in-depth exhibitions at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady, as well as an annual group show at one area museum or other.

This year’s collection of one piece each by 26 artists is at the Schenectady Museum, and it may seem a welcome addition to anyone frustrated by the very small selection of artists in this year’s Mohawk-Hudson Regional (at the University Art Museum). As it happens, one artist (Carolou Kristofik) is in both, but I imagine that many other Oakroom artists also submitted to the unusually tightly edited Regional.

And there are some real gems here. While it is difficult to draw any conclusions about an artist’s work from just one piece, some of the work in this selection is by artists we’ve seen elsewhere and often. On the whole, this group favors traditional media and subject matter over avant-garde experimentation—while a few of the pieces push the envelope, the strengths tend to be in the more tried-and-true methods of painting.

Among the best: Gail Kort’s oil on canvas Snow and yellow willow, a lushly rendered celebration of a snowy landscape and the dazzling sky above it; George Dirolf’s circular screen print Nest, in which unusual detail is lavished on a palette of browns and grays depicting a ball of dried vines; a watercolor by Maureen Saul, titled Mountain Stream, in which this highly skilled practitioner denotes the individual textures of trees, rocks and water using the full range from dense paint to pure white paper; and Time on the Verge of Collapse—Revisited by Margaret A. Foley, a mixed-media fabric piece with rich layerings and a challenging hybridization of stitchery and monoprinting.

Other standouts are oil paintings by Constance Dodge (an aerial view of a landscape in vibrant colors overlaid by snapshot-derived images), David Arsenault (a spooky moonlit sighting of the Malta Drive-In, sign glowing like a sentinel from the space-age) and Gary Shankman (a gentle, atmospheric neo-impressionist delight). The lone sculpture in the show, by Tom Schottman, is also worthy of attention, as his work always is.

A gallery tour of Fragile Works:The Steinmetz Photograph Collection 1892-1910 will be given by Schenectady Museum archivist Chris Hunter today (Thursday, July 31) at noon.

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