Smart phones and digital cameras make it possible for almost anybody to take a good picture, on purpose or by accident.
Gone are the days when shutters fly sparingly and each frame is composed painstakingly: The cost of developing film no longer is a worry. Also vanishing is the photo album that you can hold: Digital slide shows, scrapbooks and folders lessen the urgency (and desire) to make glossy or matted prints.
We gain immediate gratification from photos taken: Gone is the mystery about whether eyes are closed or heads are lopped off. Picture-perfect exposure is easier because of myriad online filters, screens and special effects that improve or manipulate an average (or poor) image long after it’s taken.
But when an exhibition of travel photos makes its way into an art museum, don’t presume that you’ll to see a collection of idyllic landscapes, multi-colorful cultures or exotic faces.
“The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip” is at Milwaukee Art Museum until April 22. A mix of vintage (circa 1950s) to modern-day photographers interpret the world as they see it, flaws, foibles and all.
The value of these grand snapshots of life are deeper than beauty or perfection.
Many of the 100 images, taken during road trips, seem extraordinary because of the way they capture the ordinary. The look of wind-blown hair during a ride in a truck bed feels universal. The billboard of a landscape rivals the beauty of the real landscape behind it.
We see an unfinished jigsaw puzzle on a train seat table, potholes in Oregon, the back of a beehive hairdo in a café booth, signs for a church fair and political candidate sharing the same lonely tree on a country road.
“Our country is made for long trips,” observes an artist statement with Stephen Shore of New York, one of 18 photographers whose works are shown. Wide expanses and rural confines might seem boring to the driver in search of a “wow” factor, but the keen eyes of these artists see and stop for more.
Shore was raised in New York City, where learning to drive by age 16 wasn’t a priority. Contributions to this photo show come from a visit with friends in Amarillo, Texas – cowboy country – which may well have seemed like a foreign land.
Lee Friedlander, born in 1934, reveals his obsession with monuments. Gary Winogrand, born in 1928, shot 550 rolls of 35mm film during a 14-state road trip in 1964. Ed Ruscha, born in 1937, was smitten with gas stations during an often-traveled route between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City.
A 1977 cross-country road trip was a way for Victor Burgin of Great Britain to find, confront, show and tell contradictions about our cultural complexities. Bernard Plossu, born in South Vietnam, found a trio of poodles looking through a rear windshield and shared that he loves hotels because “they’re places where you can leave everything behind.”
Expect a jumble of the plain, profound and playful. The team of Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs of Switzerland work digital magic to cluster French fries like grass blades at the edge of a cliff. In another shot, they extend the strip of a yellow no-passing lane from highway to washed-out gully.
Moods and execution vary wildly, but what ties the 18 photographers together, says Ariel Pate, the museum’s assistant curator of photography, “is that the car and the American road trip changed the way they took photographs.”
Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Dr., is closed on Monday. Admission is free on the first Thursday of each month, otherwise $19 (less for students and senior citizens). mam.org, 414-224-3200
Fifty images by National Geographic photographers are on display until May 27 at Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, 700 N. 12th St., Wausau. Museum admission is free.
“Rarely Seen: Photographs of the Extraordinary” is a mix of manmade and natural wonders from Patagonia to Wisconsin (an ice cave, as depicted by Ian Plant). Plant is a former lawyer who more than 20 years ago switched to full-time photography, specializing in wildlife and landscapes. ianplant.com
He is an artist-in-residence in Wausau on May 12-13, leading a gallery walk, photography class and talk about the stories behind his shots. Details about these events are online. lywam.org, 715-845-7010
Whitewater Arts Alliance presents an Invitational Photography Show that it calls a smorgasbord of photography, April 5-29.
Jazz music, photographer talks and the reception for a photography show start at 1 p.m. April 8 at the Cultural Arts Center Gallery, 402 W. Main St., Whitewater.
A workshop about taking photos happens 10 a.m. to noon April 14; image organization and processing is discussed 10 a.m. to noon April 21. Admission is free, but registration is advised. photowhitewaterarts.org, 262-472-0204
“Photographing Door County in Spring” is the emphasis of a May 13-19 class by Karen Alesch at The Clearing Folk School, 12171 Garrett Bay Rd., Ellison Bay. Sessions cover photo editing with Adobe Lightroom software and nature, landscape and macro photography. Expect to hike during some sessions.
The cost is $1,015 to $1,630, which includes tuition, lodging and most meals. The range reflects the range of accommodations. Commuters pay $600 for class tuition and seven meals. theclearing.org, 920-854-4088