Three Ways of Seeing Rome

An exhibition at the Arthur Ross Gallery offers fresh perspectives on the Eternal City.

On one level, A View of One’s Own: Three Women Photographers in Rome chronicles the Eternal City during a hundred-year slice of its history, from the Belle Epoque to the present day. On another, it traces the emergence of photography as an independent medium and its evolution from documentary aid to mode of subjective expression, in this case by three distinctive women. The exhibition, organized by the American Academy of Rome, is on display at the Arthur Ross Gallery (its sole US venue) through December 10.

The women represent three successive generations: Esther Boise Van Deman (1862–1937), Georgina Masson (1912–1980), and Jeannette Montgomery Barron (born in 1956).

“What gave us the idea to unify these three photographers was Georgina Masson’s Companion Guide to Rome, first published in 1965,” explained Peter Benson Miller, the Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome, during the show’s opening on September 6. “It did not organize historical monuments and neighborhoods by historical period or style but in a series of walking tours … I think that intrepidness and her dedication to walking and seeing Rome on foot is very much what influenced our selection to help us understand the links between these three women.”

Esther Boise Van Deman

Esther Boise Van Deman

Van Deman was an American archaeologist from Ohio best known for establishing a method for dating Roman monuments. A self-taught photographer, she spent many days documenting the environs of Rome with a large-format camera to complement her architectural research.

Georgina Masson

Georgina Masson

Masson (born in India as Marion “Babs” Johnson to British parents) was a travel writer who spent the better part of her career in Rome, writing books about Italian villas, palaces, and gardens. Her mostly black-and-white photos, captured with a handheld Rolleiflex camera, were practical illustrations for her books.

Jeannette Montgomery Barron

Jeannette Montgomery Barron

Barron, the only one to make her living as a photographer, was a 2007 visiting artist at the American Academy, best known for her portraits of such New York artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and Willem Dafoe. Her photographs of modern Rome, taken on her iPhone, were not originally intended to be printed or published; they were, rather, a very intimate diary of her part-time home.

To broaden the scope, the Ross Gallery invited Penn students to submit photographs of Philadelphia for a sister exhibition titled A View of One’s Own: Student Photographs. Consisting of 10 works (with statements from the young photographers), these images can be viewed on a digital kiosk in the gallery and also on the Ross Gallery’s website.

“Rome is a palimpsest against which we measure our own time,” said Mark Robbins, president and CEO of the American Academy in Rome. “The way Rome gets interpreted by each period shows us very different things about this city but also about ourselves, about the way we think about history. And that’s the wonder of Rome. It really makes us confront contemporary life and makes us think differently about the future.”—NP

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