The Unique Story Behind Double Exposure at SAM

The essential works of legendary photographer, Edward S. Curtis, along with three contemporary artists exhibited together at Seattle Art Museum (SAM) are overshadowed by the poorly selected exhibit title: Double Exposure.

Before visiting the exhibit guests might presume that the show would feature photographic double exposure. Perhaps these double exposures could explore the historical images juxtaposed against current images or images of one culture against another.

The first indication that the exhibit might not feature double exposures is by the museum text posted at the entry of the exhibit, which states, in part: “Double Exposure examines cross-cultural encounters between (Curtis and those photographed)…the exhibition exposes the simultaneous yet different realities of the artist and his subjects…”

A fan of double exposure it was disappointing to find none inside. The incredibly talented work is hard to appreciate as visitors distracted by the museum's promises, wander asking themselves, where is the double exposure?

Worse, the exhibit also doesn’t do an adequate job communicating the “lingering shadow” it states is caused by Curtis and his “romanticized picture of Native identity.” Nor does it effectively communicate that which is featured on the website as an “opportunity to explore Indigenous identities from multiple, sometimes conflicting, viewpoints.” There seems to be no cultural double exposure either.

When departing the exhibit, LLTA asked a fellow visitor, “What did you think of the exhibit?” The received the response was, “I don’t understand why it’s called Double Exposure.”

Was that the intended impact?

The unique social story (SAM barely mentions online) is Beyond the Frame – To Be Native, which according to the Beyond the Fame website, “is a community-wide initiative revisiting the photographs of Edward S. Curtis and sparking conversations on Native identity, race and resilience, art and culture.” The initiative features artists and events throughout Seattle and the surrounding area. SAM did not spark a conversation nor cross-promote this initiative at their exhibit.

Down the street from SAM, the gallery Flury & Co. features work by Curtis as well. The vintage portfolio photogravures, vintage volume photogravures, vintage photographs, goldtones and copper plates did prompt a conversation about the artist, the art, the technique, and the subjects.

The copper plates are hard to look away from as if their subjects could step out of history and into the room. “Innocense - Umatilla,” even seems present in the poor-quality online photograph presented by the gallery. When I asked the gallerist why SAM wasn’t cross-promoting the exhibit at Flury & Co. she smiled politely and told me the story behind another copper plate.

Hopefully, the failure of Double Exposure to deliver on its promises does not detract too severely from the larger effort and message.

Visit Beyond the Frame exhibits around the region through Spring of 2019.