CLEVELAND, Ohio — Visitors accustomed to seeing big, bold, up-to-the-minute artworks at the Transformer Station gallery in Ohio City may be taken aback by all the sepia flooding the walls this winter.
The gallery is awash in tintypes, daguerreotypes, albumen prints, and other forms of early photography, plus images made with everything from mid-century 35-millimeter film cameras to the latest digital devices.
The focus of this visual tsunami is an exhibition on photographs of violinists and their instruments.
Drawn from the holdings of Pittsburgh-based collector and Akron native Evan Mirapaul, the show plunges into a seemingly minor subject that turns out to be oceanic in its vastness.
With more than 250 photos hung frame to frame across entire walls, the Mirapaul exhibition is obsessively narrow but wildly broad. It’s an exercise in visual overload, a visual symphony in the minor key of an offbeat motif. It’s kooky, crazy, fantastic, and fun.
A onetime professional musician who served as an assistant principal second violin for the Pittsburgh Symphony and as co-founder of the New York-based Elements Quartet, Mirapaul fell into photography collecting after his father put him in contact with an Akron lawyer in 1989 who needed help assessing the value of an estate left behind by a pair of local musicians, Sam and Sylvia Spinak.
The Spinaks were passionate collectors of instruments, books, documents, and photographs, including a significant number of images of violinists. Mirapaul eventually determined that the collection had little value, although it intrigued him enough to acquire it through Summit County’s probate court.
Mirapaul sold the instruments, books, and documents, but kept sifting through the photos. His interest in photography deepened after he moved to New York in the 1990s. Eventually, through discussions with contacts at the International Center of Photography, he realized he could use the images of violinists from the Spinak estate as the core of something bigger he’d assemble on his own.
As Mirapaul discovered, the prevalence of pictures in which people have posed with a violin is huge, particularly from the mid 19th century to the middle 20th century. In effect, the exhibition, on view through Sunday, April 3, doubles as an outline of the history of photography largely through that period, from high to low, professional to amateur, and elite to the everyday.
Organized by Dan Leers, the curator of photography at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the show is making its debut at Transformer Station, which houses and exhibits the photography collection of Cleveland collectors Fred and Laura Bidwell and also doubles part-time as a branch of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
(The photo collection isn’t Mirapaul’s only cultural venture. He has also created Troy Hill Art Houses in Pittsburgh, a growing collection of private houses transformed by artists into works of art that can be viewed by appointment. Details are available at troyhillarthouses.com .)
One way to approach the photo exhibition is to seek images of famous violinists, including Fritz Kreisler, Isaac Stern, Jascha Heifetz, and Yehudi Menuhin. They’re all there, depicted in publicity photos, formal portraits, images in Life magazine, and photos plastered on Album covers.
Another approach is to seek out masterpieces by the world’s greatest photographers, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Andre Kertesz, Alfred Eisenstadt, Irving Penn, Yousuf Karsh, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, all sprinkled throughout the exhibition.
Cameron, for example, is represented by two prints of her 1868 portrait of Joseph Joachim, (1831-1907) the internationally renowned Hungarian violinist to whom Johannes Brahms dedicated his violin concerto in D major, Opus 77.
Kertesz, on the other hand, captured a famous image in 1921 of a blind Hungarian violinist dressed in tattered clothes who is guided by a boy across a dirt road in Abony, a small town near Budapest.
The violin, and the love of music, are what unite Cameron’s globetrotting virtuoso and the hollow-cheeked street musician in the Kertesz, who could be one of the bony wraiths in Picasso’s Blue Period paintings.
Such comparisons show how Mirapaul’s collection encompasses a cross-section of humanity reminiscent of the famous 1955 photography exhibition, “The Family of Man,” curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
But while the MOMA show highlighted photography as art produced by master practitioners, the Mirapaul collection owes much of its charm, humanism, and wit to vernacular works by photographers whose names are lost to history.
The exhibition revels in images produced by anonymous shooters for advertisements, and publicity stills from Hollywood films such as “Intermezzo,” (1939, Leslie Howard, Ingrid Bergman); and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” (1938, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche).
Also on view are hundreds of images by unidentified professional portrait photographers from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Among them is a large, hand-colored 1863 tintype of an unidentified Union soldier in his uniform, shown seated while holding his violin and bow in such a way that the bow and the fingerboard create perfectly parallel lines.
Another photo by an unidentified photographer captures a disheveled Albert Einstein, sitting at a music stand in a suit with his shirttails out while practicing with his violin.
The picture, taken after Einstein fled Nazi Germany and established himself at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, is a reminder that the world’s most famous physicist loved playing Mozart because, in his words, the music was “so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.”
But the show isn’t always so high-minded. It also includes an ad from a 1961 magazine featuring a scantily clad woman violinist who considers whether to accept a cigarette from a man whose hand intrudes from the lower-left corner of the shot, bearing smokes.
The ad copy suggestively asks, “Should a gentleman offer a Tiparillo to a violinist?” (“After all, if she likes the offer, she might start to play. No strings attached.”)
Instrument of transcendence
Throughout the show, regardless of context, the violin emerges as a symbol of status and aspiration that transcends race and class.
When he took a picture of three well-dressed Black children practicing violin in a Pittsburgh classroom Charles “Teenie” Harris, captured an image of normal, middle-class American striving.
But the violin may also function as a symbol of cultural imperialism, as indicated by images of Indian, Chinese, and Japanese violinists, who took up the instrument during the age of European colonization.
Even so, the violin exerted a reverse flow of influence from East to West. A wonderful series of photos from Japan document the influence of Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998), the Japanese violinist who invented a method of instruction and a teaching philosophy that became wildly popular around the world.
One of the show’s more memorable anonymous photos depicts hundreds of Japanese children lined up in a massive collective performance in 1968.
Given that the Mirapaul collection thins out as it reaches into more recent decades, the show may indicate that as a cultural icon, the violin may be losing some of its clout.
Mirapaul speculates in an interview printed in a flier accompanying the exhibition that the violin has been replaced by the electric guitar as a cultural totem.
But classical music, and the violin, seem unlikely to go away any time soon. As the exhibition suggests, the bond between humanity and the violin is deep. That relationship makes it likely that anyone who masters such a difficult instrument will want to pose for a photo with it now and far into the future.
What’s up: “In Concert: Photography and the Violin.”
Venue: Transformer Station.
Where: 1460 W. 29th St., Cleveland.
When: Through Sunday, April 3.
Admission: Free. Call 216-938-5429 or go to transformerstation.org.