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The New Wave of Old Photography

By Timothy P. Cross

Untitled Photo
Untitled (The Plaza, New York), 2002, by Jerry Spagnoli. Unique whole plate daguerreotype from Photography's Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes.
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Nowadays, it sometimes seems that anyone can be a photographer. Sophisticated, affordable, one-click cameras and the growing popularity of digital photography, which doesn't even need processing, have made photography simple in a way unimaginable when Kodak introduced its revolutionary Brownie camera a generation ago.

In a direct counterpoint to this point-and-shoot revolution, a renegade group of contemporary photographers has turned to 19th-century processes - ambrotype, calotype, cyanotype, daguerreotype, orotone, photogram and tintype - as alternative ways of creating images. This trend in modern photography is chronicled in Photography's Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes, by Lyle Rexer '73. Featuring 120 color images and works by 60 artists, this is the only book to chart this worldwide photographic revival. The members of this avant-garde, including Adam Fuss, Sally Mann and Jayne Hinds Bidaut, are drawn to physical, hands-on facets of photography, and the diverse, idiosyncratic results that they produce.

Photography's Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes, by Lyle Rexer '73.

A former Rhodes Scholar from Columbia, Rexer lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and writes regularly about art and photography for The New York Times, Art in America, Art on Paper and Metropolis, among others. "I like to think I am following in the footsteps of the illustrious Michael Fried, now at Johns Hopkins, a pioneer in the criticism of abstract painting," says Rexer of his work. Rexer's other books include American Museum of Natural History: 125 Years of Expedition and Discovery (Harry N. Abrams, 1995). He also contributed a CCT cover story on the connections between Columbia and the American Museum of Natural History in New York (CCT, Spring 1996).

Rexer's work on the museum indirectly led to his photography project. "I was already thinking about 19th-century photography because of my book on the natural history museum," he says, when he walked into an exhibit of photographs made with antique methods in the Sarah Morthland Gallery in Chelsea, Manhattan. "I had to find out who was doing this stuff," he said. The process, which took three years, culminated in Photography's Antiquarian Avant-Garde.

An essay by Chuck Close and an interview with Sally Mann, two photographers at the forefront of the revival, supplement Rexer's text, which highlights the importance of the new/old movement for art and photography. A glossary helps explain the diverse, labor intensive methods that the artists use.

In conjunction with the book's publication, the Sarah Morthland Gallery hosted an exhibition of photographs by the artists represented in Rexler's book, including Mann, Bidaut, Ellen Carey, Anna Hammond, Sally Larsen, Luis Gonzalez Palma and Jerry Spagnoli. The exhibition ran from June 13 to August 10 and featured a book signing by Rexer.

Photography's Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes is published by Harry N. Abrams and sells for $49.95. For more information, visit

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