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'He wanted an exhibit, not a funeral': Sam Noble Museum honors late photographer in 'Places of Power' exhibit

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Painted photograph

A painted photograph from the Places of Power: Painted Photographs of Sacred Landscapes by Corson Hirschfeld exhibit inside of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Oklahoma Museum of Natural History on Feb. 26.

The Sam Noble Museum’s latest exhibit is not only a display of late photographer Corson Hirschfeld’s work — it’s also a way to memorialize him. 

Tassie Hirschfeld, professor in the OU College of Anthropology and widow of Corson Hirschfeld, said this display is a way to remember him after he passed away last year. 

“Corson always said he wanted an exhibit, not a funeral, and having these out on display again is part of that,” Hirschfeld said.

The museum’s new exhibit is titled “Places of Power: Painted Photographs of Sacred Landscapes” and features Corson’s painted photographs of landmarks from around the world. Each piece tells the story of the adventure behind it through Hirschfeld’s hand-painted details on photographs he took of places such as Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and El Castillo.

The exhibit is separated into distinct categories by location on Earth, and each work has a description accompanying it detailing the exact location, the culture where the landmark originates and a bit of history on the piece.

Hirschfeld said the painted photographs are each the result of an individual journey that Corson went on.

“There was a physical journey of getting there but there was also an artistic journey of capturing an element or mood or spirit of that place and rendering it in the form of those painted photographs,” Hirschfeld said.

Hirschfeld said Corson’s pieces depict their subjects differently than they appear in nature today by eliminating modern-day elements of the scenery.

Places of Power exhibit

The Places of Power: Painted Photographs of Sacred Landscapes by Corson Hirschfeld exhibit inside of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Oklahoma Museum of Natural History on Feb. 26.

“(Corson) airbrushed out anything contemporary, such as power lines, because he wanted the location to look like it did to the people who created it,” Hirschfeld said.

Hirschfeld said what made the paintings special to Corson was different for each piece.

“Sometimes it was the adventure behind it and the journey he went on, but other times it was the level of technical mastery that was applied to the piece that made it special,” Hirschfeld said.

Hirschfeld said that Corson aimed for these paintings to be unique and have individual value while still serving a purpose as a collective exhibit.

“Each individual photograph represents a single journey, but when they’re all up together on the wall, which I had never seen before, suddenly all of the energy, the journeys, and the moods (are) sort of captured and refracting back and forth. … It creates a totally different energy,” Hirschfeld said.

There are 60 framed paintings in Corson’s series, but not all of them are featured in the Sam Noble Museum’s exhibit, Hirschfeld said.

“Not all of the paintings in the series make it to a frame,” Hirschfeld said. “There are about 25 paintings in the series that don’t have frames on them because Corson felt they weren't as good as the rest, or that they were not what he wanted.”

Tom Luczycki, head of exhibits for the Sam Noble Museum, said that he appreciates the exhibit for its use of technical mastery. 

“In this digital age, things that are shot on film are becoming increasingly rare. Not only were these shot on film, but then they were also hand-manipulated with the use of watercolor, pencils and inks to capture what Corson felt about the moment,” Luczycki said. “What the eye sees and what the camera sees are two different things, and he used these techniques to bring a better representation than what the camera alone could provide.”

Painted photograph

A painted photograph from the Places of Power: Painted Photographs of Sacred Landscapes by Corson Hirschfeld exhibit inside of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Oklahoma Museum of Natural History on Feb. 26.

Stod Rowe, friend of Corson and collector of the “Places of Power” pieces, said Corson made the places in the photos into the spectacle that we see in his artwork.

“The places of power in the photos are places of power because Corson thought it to be that way, and I love that,” Rowe said. “That's why no two paintings are the same. They each have their little bit of Corson magic that adds up to the whole exhibition.”

Rowe said the photographs in “Places of Power” are “classic Corson” and are “very ethereal, nothing taken for granted and nothing taken for chance.”

Hirschfeld said what made the paintings special to Corson was different for each piece. Sometimes it was the adventure behind it and the journey he went on, but other times it was the level of technical mastery that was applied to the piece that made it special.

The exhibit gives viewers a look into the ancient past along with a look into the technical past of photography. Hirschfeld said Corson’s work isn’t something that can be replicated these days.

“I think at one point he wanted to keep going with it but now with digital photography you can manipulate an image in minutes which would take him days,” Hirschfeld said. ”I think he mourned the loss of technical sophistication that came with photoshop, because all of his skills that he had developed became immediately accessible with software.”

The exhibit will be open at the Sam Noble Museum until March 28. More information about the paintings are available on Hirschfeld’s website, as well as in the Winter 2021 OKPAN Quarterly.

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