Shin­ing light (not too bright) on art ex­hibits

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY SARAH L. KAUF­MAN sarah.kauf­man@wash­

Mu­seum light­ing can make art shine. But it also can make it suf­fer. “Any­time you light some­thing, you’re dam­ag­ing it,” says Alex Cooper, res­i­dent light­ing de­signer at the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Por­trait Gallery.

With the em­pa­thy and calm of a fam­ily doc­tor, Cooper, 40, man­ages this fine line be­tween en­hanc­ing and harm­ing ev­ery day. He’s typ­i­cally the last of the gallery’s spe­cial­ists to con­trib­ute to an ex­hi­bi­tion’s de­sign, but his re­spon­si­bil­ity is great: to il­lu­mi­nate the art while min­i­miz­ing fad­ing. He must bal­ance vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence against pro­tect­ing the works.

The Por­trait Gallery’s new Civil War ex­hibit, “Dark Fields of the Re­pub­lic: Alexan­der Gard­ner Pho­to­graphs 1859-1872,” crys­tal­lized the chal­lenge. Th­ese highly light-sen­si­tive pa­per pho­to­graphs have im­mea­sur­able cul­tural value and re­quire the low­est light pos­si­ble. Cooper faced a tricky ques­tion: When does the vis­i­tor’s eye per­ceive enough in­for­ma­tion to “get” what’s in the pic­ture? How much light do you need to un­der­stand all the de­tail?

The sub­jects of the pho­tos — wary sol­diers, dead sol­diers, stoic fam­i­lies, Con­fed­er­ate spies, would-be as­sas­sins, Abra­ham Lin­coln him­self — are tiny, ghostly. In his small-scale works, Gard­ner cap­tured the name­less, ex­pres­sive nu­ances of Amer­i­can faces in that ter­ri­ble time. If you spend a lit­tle time with them, you’re re­warded with rich de­tail and sur­prises. (There were so many dif­fer­ent ways men wore their hair, for in­stance. Even in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, some sported the wild fron­tiers­man look, oth­ers glossy curls.) So here, Cooper’s light­ing de­sign be­came an art of per­sua­sion. His goal was to use just enough light to coax vis­i­tors to peer closely, cre­at­ing an at­mos­phere where they’ll want to linger.

One of Gard­ner’s most con­se­quen­tial works is a cracked-plate im­age of Lin­coln, which is rarely dis­played. Taken dur­ing a photo ses­sion in 1865, it was the last for­mal por­trait of the pres­i­dent be­fore his as­sas­si­na­tion. The glass neg­a­tive frac­tured, and Gard­ner pulled only one print be­fore throw­ing away the plate. That print shows the crack omi­nously slic­ing across Lin­coln’s head. Be­low the crack, his face is deeply creviced with the stress of the war.

Yet de­spite the somber­ness of th­ese de­tails, Lin­coln seems warm and vi­brant, with a slight smile. Cooper doesn’t want to take credit for that — it’s not his aim to “ed­i­to­ri­al­ize” the art, he says. But it’s un­avoid­able: The can­dle­light ef­fect of Cooper’s light­ing de­sign in the room where the cracked-plate im­age hangs helps bring the slain pres­i­dent to life.

In an­other nearby por­trait, Lin­coln dotes on his school-age son, Tad. Tad was des­tined for an un­timely death, like his older broth­ers and fa­ther. Yet here are the two of them, ab­sorbed in the mo­ment, eyes merry un­der a soft over­head glow. It’s as though they’re shar­ing a se­cret. The shad­ows around you feel like a shroud, and you’re pulled in closer, drawn into that fa­ther-and-son world — its brief hap­pi­ness, its fate, its live­li­ness in Gard­ner’s hands, and in Cooper’s.

Luck­ily, Cooper says, sub­tle emo­tional tones such as th­ese are best served by soft light.

“It’s a very for­tu­nate in­ter­sec­tion of the con­tent suit­ing the tech­ni­cal con­ser­va­tion needs,” he says.

It is Cooper’s task to con­trol the rooms emo­tion­ally as well as tech­ni­cally. Light-sen­si­tive pieces that are brightly col­ored and feel en­er­getic re­quire a spe­cial touch. This was the case with a mid-cen­tury poster of “Sin­gin’ in the Rain” dis­played for the gallery’s 2013 “Danc­ing the Dream” ex­hibit. Al­though that show over­all had a bright, cel­e­bra­tory feel, it wasn’t pos­si­ble to bounce a lot of light off the vin­tage posters; that could has­ten fad­ing and de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. Cooper had to find other ways to in­ject light, con­sult­ing with the ex­hi­bi­tion de­signer on wall col­ors and the strate­gic place­ment of the more del­i­cate items in small rooms to en­hance their “vis­ual en­ergy.”

Cooper got his start in theater light­ing af­ter earn­ing a master’s de­gree in light­ing de­sign in 2003 from the Univer­sity of Mary­land — a rel­a­tively new de­gree at the time. The big dif­fer­ence be­tween theater and mu­seum work, he says, is that light­ing vis­ual art de­mands far more re­straint.

“You have to rein things in,” he says. He stays away from col­ored lights and mov­ing or pat­terned lights, tools a theater de­signer might use.

Light­ing in both the per­form­ing and vis­ual arts helps tell a story. And it’s the sto­ry­telling that con­tin­ues to fas­ci­nate Cooper. This was es­pe­cially true as he worked on the “Dark Fields” show.

“It was a huge rev­e­la­tion to me,” he says. “What got me was how in­cred­i­bly vivid the images were. You just don’t think of his­toric pho­tog­ra­phy as quite that vivid. It’s some­thing you ex­pect of mod­ern pho­to­jour­nal­ism.”

So how did Cooper thread that nee­dle of low light and lots of de­tail? Rich, dark wall col­ors — deep wine-red, gray­ish-pur­ple, stormy blue — help make the pho­tos pop. Your irises are ad­just­ing to the dark­ness as you en­ter the rooms from the brighter hall­way, and this also helps. The pho­tos ap­pear to glow.

Cooper also pon­dered how sin­gle and soli­tary he wanted the pic­tures to feel. Study­ing the walls a few weeks ago, as the show was be­ing hung, he won­dered aloud, “When you leave the room, do you imag­ine th­ese pic­tures talk­ing to each other?”

He wants ob­servers to con­nect with the men and women cap­tured so ex­pertly within th­ese small frames, to feel some­thing of their lives. What he hopes, he says, is that we travel through an era of time in th­ese small spa­ces. Whether he has achieved that, work­ing with in­vis­i­ble waves and thin air, only the vis­i­tor can judge. But seek­ing to sculpt some­thing as elu­sive as the art’s at­mos­phere, gen­tly and with care, is what drives him.

“Light cre­ates space and can cre­ate en­ergy; the char­ac­ter of light will shift from room to room, if I’ve done my job cor­rectly.

“This is what I love about ev­ery show,” Cooper con­tin­ues, his gaze trav­el­ing from the pho­to­graphs to the fix­tures over­head, gaug­ing the in­tan­gi­bles of small pools of light. “I’m learn­ing as I go.”

“Light cre­ates space and can cre­ate en­ergy; the char­ac­ter of light will shift from room to room, if I’ve done my job cor­rectly.”

Alex Cooper


For the Alexan­der Gard­ner ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, above, Alex Cooper, right, had to bal­ance art preser­va­tion with viewer ex­pe­ri­ence.

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