Welcome to the “Kentucky Renaissance,” a Celebration of the Lexington Camera Club

Photo: Van Deren Coke, Thou Shalt Not Steal, 1963. Gelatin silver print, 6 1/16 x 8 1/4 in. (15.4 x 21 cm). The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.

Throughout the twentieth century, camera clubs flourished in cities around the nation, bringing together people from all walks of life that shared a passion for photography. Long before digital democratized the form, photography availed itself to people who were keen to spend the time (and the money) it required to produce an image of substance and quality.

Also: See “Truman Capote’s Brooklyn” Through the Eyes of Photographer David Attie

In 1936, the Lexington Camera Club was established in Lexington, Kentucky, attracting doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who were deeply committed to developing their talents and exploring artistic possibilities. The club, which operated until 1974, brought in guests like Ansel Adams, one of the nation’s most esteemed landscape photographers, to speak about the medium to its members.

Robert C. May, Untitled [Fence, lanterns, and figures], 1968. Gelatin silver print, 6 1/16 x 6 in. (15.4 x 15.3 cm). Collection of the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.

Though populated by hobbyists, their outlook was sophisticated, bringing together the history of photography and contrasting it with movements in the contemporary world, keen to discover where their own work could go. Now a new exhibition celebrates the legacy of this small but influential group. Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community, 1954-1974, currently on view at the Cincinnati Museum of Art through January 1, 2017, features more than 150 photographs, books, prints, and other objects. Yale University Press has published the accompanying catalogue.

Kentucky Renaissance focuses on the influence of community on the group, exploring the relationships between photographers, artists, and writers to develop a distinguished point of view. The works selected share a sensibility that combines Southern culture with modern times. Capturing Kentucky’s dramatic landscape that has made it known as the Bluegrass State, members experimented with different techniques, such as multiple exposures and shooting deliberately out-of-focus to create a new way of perceiving their world.

Cranston Ritchie, Untitled [Bottle], ca. 1956–61. Gelatin silver print, 8 x 7 5/8 in. (20.3 x 19.4 cm). University of Louisville Libraries Special Collections.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972), the most esteemed artist affiliated with the group, was an optician when he joined in 1954. An autodidact, Meatyard’s approach has been described as improvisational, heaving been influenced by jazz music of the time. He revealed, “I want to get people to read stone, tree, so forth & so on through the construction of the picture, to lead them to these things exactly as if it were written out on a page. I think it can be done.” Indeed, his work pushes the boundaries of the visible world to lend a fresh perspective to our understanding of the way we live.

Kentucky Renaissance is the culmination of years of research by Cincinnati Art Museum Curator of Photography Brian Sholis, who created both the exhibition and the catalogue. Reaching beyond the realm of photography, Sholis connects the work to literature of the times. In addition to the works of Meatyard, Van Deren Coke, Robert c. May, James Baker Hall, and Cranston Richie, the exhibition includes work by writers Guy Davenport, Wendell Berry, and Thomas Merton, as well as regional publishing enterprises such as Jargon Society and Gnomon Press. Taken together, the exhibition reveals the ways in which the Lexington Camera Club created a regional flavor all its own, a uniquely American, wholly Southern take on mid-century modernity.

James Baker Hall, Untitled, ca. 1973. Gelatin silver print, 6 11/16 x 6 11/16 in. (17 x 17 cm). James Baker Hall Archive of Photographs and Films, Lexington.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.