Benton Museum of Art takes a critical look at “Devil’s Punch Bowl”

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On Wednesday afternoon, assistant curator and academic liaison of the William Benton Museum of Art Amanda Douberley hosted a virtual dialogue for a piece titled “Devil’s Punch Bowl” by Truman Ward Ingersoll.  This piece depicts a man with a rifle standing over an active volcano in Yellowstone National Park, one of Ingersoll’s favorite destinations. Photo provided by author.

On Wednesday afternoon, assistant curator and academic liaison of the William Benton Museum of Art Amanda Douberley hosted a virtual dialogue for a piece titled “Devil’s Punch Bowl” by Truman Ward Ingersoll.  

This piece depicts a man with a rifle standing over an active volcano in Yellowstone National Park, one of Ingersoll’s favorite destinations. He first visited Yellowstone in 1883 and then proceeded to create four photographic series there throughout the 1880’s. Yellowstone became the United State’s first national park in 1872.  

One of the best characteristics about this painting is its vagueness. There are many questions that can arise when looking at it. Douberley asked the audience what they believe the purpose of the man standing there is, while also giving her own input. 

“He could be part of a militia, he could be an explorer or he could also just be a friend of the photographer,” she said.  

She also asked what the painting would be like if the man was not standing there. Not knowing his purpose gives more ambiguity to the painting, and thus allows the audience to have a more personal interpretation. His placement right next to the volcano gives a sense of insignificance in comparison to that of nature. The active volcano has the power and authority in that specific moment; if it were to erupt, the man would be dead. If the man was not standing there, the audience would have less of an understanding of how truly powerful the volcano is.  

It seems as if Ingersoll purposefully cropped the photograph the way he did. The placement of the volcanoes in relation to the rest of the landscape fits the rule of thirds and allows the viewer to be much closer to the main part of the photograph: the volcanic holes.  

In 1862 Truman Ward Ingersoll was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he later kept producing his work. Many of his photographs include Yellowstone National Park. He specialized in stereoviews, which are when two almost identical images are viewed together through a lens and give the illusion of a three-dimensional picture. After creating 4,000 United States and world storyviews, Ingersoll died in 1922 in St. Paul.  

“Devil’s Punch Bowl” is part of the Benton’s exhibition, “The Human Epoch: Living in the Anthropocene,” which has works featured throughout the month of November and December. The next viewing will be on December 2 with a critical look at a piece titled “Coal Mine, Longport” by Joseph Pennell.  

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