Hellen van Meene, Dutch, born 1972; Untitled #331, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2008; chromogenic print; 12 by 12 inches; collection of Sir Mark Fehrs Haukohl, Houston, Texas � Hellen van Meene

The large-format cameras developed in the 19th century may seem to be cumbersome antiques, no longer relevant in the digital age, but a new exhibition set to debut at the Saint Louis Art Museum showcases the relevance of this vintage equipment. “Many of these cameras were developed to capture broad landscapes, architectural studies or anything that required a lot of detail,” says Eric Lutz, associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs. “And now that we can print so much larger, we need to fill up these surfaces with a lot of detail, so these cameras are perfect, in a way. A lot of the photographers featured in the exhibition are using 19th century technology because nothing has been developed that works better.”

An Orchestrated Vision: The Theater of Contemporary Photography features 43 works by 36 artists, and many will be on display for the first time, Lutz notes. “And the ones from our collection, about half the show, haven’t been out in at least 10 years.”

Lutz says the word ‘contemporary’ is ambiguous when describing art. “You can use it different ways. Some people use ‘contemporary’ for anything that is post-World War II, but I’m using it to reference the last two decades, a period of time when photography really began to grow dramatically in scale.”

Scale is a key component of the exhibition, with most of the images at least 4 to 5 feet wide, and Lutz explains that the size alters the viewing experience. “On this scale, you can visually enter a picture and almost live within it, whereas if you have a little 8-by- 10 photograph, it’s a much more intimate viewing.” The scale of some of the works determines where they can be displayed and studied, he adds. “Most of this material you could not physically fit into a private home anymore, so it must be seen at a museum. Because you are part of an audience, it’s a very public experience of photography.”

The exhibition is presented in four themed sections, including ‘Portraiture and Performance,’ which Lutz believes might be the most familiar. “Some of the photographers used themselves in self-portraits, and some are engaged with filmmaking or TV production.”

Two smaller exhibitions, New Media Series—Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler: Single Wide and The First Act: Staged Photography Before 1980, complement The Theater of Contemporary Photography. The former, curated by Tricia Paik, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, features work by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, artists also represented in the featured exhibition. “It’s a video, but they call it a long photograph,” Lutz says. “It’s taken in a single take— there’s no editing or splicing; they really see the overlap between the two mediums.” The First Act, curated by Lutz, was created to provide a ‘prehistory’ for the large scale theme of The Theater of Contemporary Photography. “I chose 1980 because that’s the point at which photography is just starting to get remarkably bigger. And when you stand in the show you can actually look at the first image, which is from the 1850s. It’s this tiny little image, and from there everything just grow and grows.”

Lutz believes that photography is a great introduction to the art museum. “I don’t want people to be afraid of coming to see the show. Anyone can understand the idea of taking a picture—and everybody has a camera!”