Reflections on a people


Extraordinary photographs by an extraordinary woman are currently on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The exhibition, "Touching the Mekong: A Southeast Asian Sojourn," features more than 50 black and white photographs by Andrea Baldeck. The show runs through Aug. 30.

Baldeck traveled extensively in Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia and Laos in 2001 and 2002 to document the status of the region since the end of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. It should be noted that Baldeck is on the board of the museum and that the official notice of the show describes her work as focusing "on the enduring influence of ancient philosophies and religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism — on societies in transition, where currents of tradition and change are constantly reshaping the cultures of the Mekong River basin."

In an introductory essay for an accompanying book, Baldeck calls her art "a personal account of textured, nuanced, enigmatic moments in a fascinating world. To travel in Southeast Asia is to be humbled by its layers of history and humanity, and by the realization that in a lifetime one could barely scratch the surface of understanding. But what a rich and tantalizing surface," she writes.

Baldeck was born in rural western New York and has made her mark as a musician, physician and photographer. She studied music at Vassar (French horn and flute), medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and, in the early ’90s, returned to a childhood interest in photography. She went from the "operating room to the darkroom," her biography notes, and that’s literal, as she spent some 12 years in Philadelphia-area hospitals as an internist and anesthesiologist, and today she does all of her own developing and printing.

Baldeck owned her first camera, a box type, when she was 8 years old. She tells of imagining herself canoeing through the jungle to meet Albert Schweitzer. Years later she would serve as a volunteer doctor for Project Hope and the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti. There, ironically, she regained the interest in photography and that experience provided the content for her first book. As she says, "Camera and stethoscope occupied the same bag."

As if all this is not enough, Baldeck has climbed Kilimanjaro, visited the ancient temples of Angkor, wandered around Italy, trekked the Himalayas, crossed North Africa’s Atlas Mountains, published or contributed to a half-dozen books, "gardens seriously" and, along with her husband, the poet William Hollis, "haunts islands." In addition to the museum, she is on the board of the Settlement Music School and Vassar College. Baldeck often explores exotic places shooting pictures and then returns to the darkroom to print the results. In this same mode, Baldeck and her husband have tramped through the Tuscany hills, and at home attempt the "perfect risotto."

In addition to this exhibition, Baldeck has had a number of exhibitions in both commercial galleries and public art venues. Her work appears in private collections and in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Baldeck has shown her work at the Esther Klein Gallery, the Morris Arboretum, Vassar College, the Polk Museum of Art, Washington and Lee University, the Century Club in New York and the Gallery Holly Snapp in Venice. Her books include The Heart of Haiti, Talismanic, Venice a Personal View and the current Touching the Mekong.

Because of the breathtaking clarity and straightforwardness of her black and white photography, it is tempting to call Baldeck a photographer who is also a doctor and musician, instead of other possible combinations. Shooting documentary-style without clich� or sentimentality is not an easy job, and one slip can collapse the entire enterprise. It would appear that in this case, the end result comes directly from the convictions of the artist.

The Baldeck collection fits naturally into its surroundings, as the University of Pennsylvania Museum for more than 40 years has been a leader in excavation and laboratory research in Southeast Asian prehistoric archaeology. Two large screens in the exhibition gallery feature information about the university’s endeavors, including the ongoing Ban Chiang Project in Thailand.

For many folks with a lasting bitter taste in their mouths over the Vietnam War, this exhibition, with its elegance and simple beauty, can be a healthful tonic. This is art of the best kind — life-enhancing.

Touching the Mekong: A Southeast Asian Sojourn
Through Aug. 30
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
33rd and Spruce streets
Museum admission: $5 adults, $2.50 seniors and students, free for children 6 and under