, Salem, MA


May 14, 2009

Photography — a new wave at the PEM

SALEM — They look like photos from the dawn of surfing. Beachside. The surfers posing with their boards, staring solemnly at the camera, the ocean behind them dissolving into a kind of blurred daydream.

In fact, it's only the technique that's old — about as old as photography itself. But these 19th-century style tintypes by veteran photographer Joni Sternbach were taken only months ago, and they're part of a new Peabody Essex Museum exhibit called "Surfland."

Yet, they're more than that — representing the leading edge of a new wave at the museum, a department devoted to photography and capable of offering up to four distinct exhibits each year.

In an era of cutbacks and economies, the museum has hired a new curator of photography, Phillip Prodger, and for the first time will regularly offer the art of the photographic image. Future exhibits will draw on outside artists and the PEM's own astonishing collection of 850,000 prints, some among the earliest photos in existence.

The well-traveled Prodger, 41, was born in England but grew up in Rhode Island and went to high school in Hong Kong. With a doctorate from Cambridge, he also has degrees from Stanford and Williams College. His work assignments include stints at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the United Kingdom, the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, and the St. Louis Art Museum.

For all that, he considers himself a New Englander and now lives in Salem, declaring, "I feel very at home here." He makes a point of keeping both feet on the ground, avoiding jargon and pretension. He wants everyone to see the beauty of these images, which Sternbach obtained by setting up her equipment on Atlantic and Pacific beaches.

"It's important that art be accessible to as many people as possible," Prodger says, pointedly rejecting the notion that great art requires some elitist interpretation. "Artists make things to be seen and enjoyed."

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