Archive for September, 2018

30
Sep
18

Exhibition: ‘African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Part 1

Exhibition dates: 26th June – 8th October 2018

 

Unknown American makers and Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s) 'Studio Portraits' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American makers and Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s)
Studio Portraits
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver prints
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017

 

 

First of a two-part posting on these mostly 1940s living expressions of past but present people and the African American experience.

In one photograph, I just love the hearts on the pockets of the jeans of one of the young men. Wonderful style and a touching intimacy are evident in many of the images.

“The poignancy of these small photographs lies in the essential respect the camera offers its subjects, who sit for their portraits as an act of self-expression.”

More comment in part 2.

Marcus

.
Many thankx to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

This exhibition will present more than one hundred and fifty studio portraits of African Americans from the mid-twentieth century, part of an important recent acquisition by The Met. Produced by mostly unidentified makers, the photographs are a poignant, collective self portrait of the African American experience during the 1940s and 1950s – a time of war, middle-class growth, and seismic cultural change.

 

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print with hand colouring
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

“To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.”

“With the clear perception of things as they are, must stand the faithful rendering of things as they seem. The dead fact is nothing without the living expression.”

.
Frederick Douglass. “Pictures and Progress”

 

“True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”

.
Jeanette Winterson. “Art Objects,” in Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, 1996

 

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print with hand colouring
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print with hand colouring
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, on view June 26 through October 8, 2018, will present more than 150 studio portraits from the mid-20th century. The exhibition offers a seldom seen view of the African American experience in the United States during World War II and the following decade – a time of war, middle-class growth, and seismic cultural change. Part of an important acquisition made by The Met in 2015 and 2017, these photographs build on and expand the Museum’s strong holdings in portraiture from the beginning of photography in the 1840s to the present. The exhibition is made possible by the Alfred Stieglitz Society.

The portraits on view generally feature sitters in a frontal pose against a painted backdrop – soldiers and sailors model their uniforms, graduates wear their caps and gowns, lovers embrace, and new parents cradle their infants. Both photographers and subjects remain mostly unidentified.

In the wartime economy, photographic studios became hubs of activity for local and regional communities. Some studios were small and transient, others more established and identifiable, such as the Daisy Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Using waterproof direct positive paper rather than film, the studios were able to offer their clientele high quality, inexpensive portraits in a matter of minutes. The poignancy of these small photographs lies in the essential respect the camera offers its subjects, who sit for their portraits as an act of self-expression.

African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s is organised by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Joyce Frank Menschel Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs at The Met.

Press release from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

'The Billboard' December 4 , 1948 p. 72

 

The Billboard December 4 , 1948 p. 72

 

'Popular Photography' May 1948 p. 99

 

Popular Photography May 1948 p. 99

 

 

Direct positive paper is primarily suited for use in pinhole cameras where exposure and processing in conventional black and white photo chemistry achieves a unique positive print – without the need for a film negative or inter-negative. The paper can also be successfully used in other applications such as direct exposure in large format cameras or by cutting small sheets for exposure in LOMO type cameras.

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print with hand colouring
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

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21
Sep
18

Photographs: R. B. Talfor. ‘Photographic Views of the Red River Raft’ 1873

September 2018

 

Robert B. Talfor. Nitroglycerine works at station between Raft Nos. 26 and 27. Plate B of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Nitroglycerine works at station between Raft Nos. 26 and 27. Plate B of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

“In May Lieutenant Woodruff’s careful plans for using “tri-nitro-glycerine” to hasten the removal process, were put into operation and proved quite successful. It continued to be used on a half dozen of the rafts the last of May and through the month of June as the main channel of the river was widened.”

Hubert Humphreys. “Photographic Views of the Red River Raft, 1873,” p. 107

 

 

One of the great privileges of writing and researching for this website is the ability to pull disparate sources together from all over the world, so that the some of the most valuable information can be stored in one place – a kind of meta-posting, with informed comment, upon the context of place, time, identity and image. This is one such posting.

I had never known of these photographs before, nor of their photographer R.B. Talfor of whom I can find little information. I never knew the story of the Great Raft of the Red River, nor the heroism of Lieutenant Eugene A. Woodruff, in charge of the clearing operations, who sacrificed his life to look after others in the yellow fever epidemic in Shreveport in 1873. These stories deserve to be told, deserve a wider audience, for it is all we have left of this time and place.

The 113 photographic views, hand coloured albumen prints “are remarkable for both their historical narrative and aesthetic integrity.” They document not only the landscape but the lives of the crews working on the river. As Woodruff notes in his report of July 1, 1873, “With the view is a photographic map of the raft region, with location and axis of the camera for each view marked upon it and numbered to correspond with the number on the view. This album full of photographs, affording a complete and truthful panorama of the raft, will give a better idea of the nature of the work performed and of the character of the country than could be obtained form the most elaborate description.”

In other words, the photographs and accompanying map are a scientific and objective ordering of life and nature, “affording a complete and truthful panorama of the raft”, the nature of the work performed and the character of the country. Truth, panorama, nature, character. And yet, when you look at the whole series of photographs, they become something much more than just objective rendition.

Firstly, while Talfor maps out his “points of view” he resists, but for a few occasions, the 19th century axiom of placing a man in the landscape… to give the landscape scale by including a human figure. In their aesthetic integrity he lets the landscape speak for itself. But if you look at the sequencing of the plates in the album you observe that he alternates between photographs of open stretches of river taken in overcast / end of day light, and plates filled with a dark, mysterious, chthonic atmosphere, as though we the viewer are inhabiting a nightmarish underworld. Into this dark romanticism, this American Gothic, he throws great tree stumps being hauled out of the water, wind whipping through the trees (seen in the length of exposure of the images) and men with cable and plunger standing stock still in front of a tent full of NITROGLYCERIN! DANGER! KEEP AWAY!

Secondly, Talfor’s hand colouring of the photographs seems to add to this almost William Blake-esque, melancholy romanticism. While the light of the setting sun and its reflection over water add to the sublime nature of the scene, the clouds, in particular in plates such as XCVL and XXVI (note the tiny man among the logs), seem to roil in the sky, like mysterious wraiths of a shadowy atmosphere. It is as though Talfor was illustrating a poem of extreme complexity, not just an objective, social documentary enterprise of time and place, but a rendition of the light and darkness of nature as seen through the eyes of God. A transcendent liminality inhabits these images, one in which we cross the threshold into a transitional state between one world and the next, where the photographs proffer a ‘releasement toward things’ which, as Heidegger observes, grant us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way.

Marcus

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These images are published under fair use on a non-commercial basis for educational and research purposes only. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. The whole series can be see on the Swann Auction Galleries website.

 

 

“We stand at once within the realm of that which hides itself from us, and hides itself just in approaching us. That which shows itself and at the same time withdraws is the essential trait of what we call the mystery… Releasement towards things and openness to the mystery belong together. They grant us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way…”

.
MartinHeidegger. ‘Discourse on Thinking’. New York: Harper & Row, 1966, pp. 55-56

 

 

Photographic Views of the Red River Raft

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operation to remove obstacles from the Red River in Louisiana, 1873

113 hand coloured photographic views of the Red River made in April and May 1873, under the direction of C. W. Howell, U. S. Capt.; Corps of Engineers, and E. A. Woodruff, 1st Lieut. U. S. Corps of Engineers; to accompany the annual report on operations for the removal of the Raft; during the year ending June 30, 1873. The photographer was Robert B. Talfor. The portion of the Red River affected reached from Natchitoches Parish through north Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Hand-coloured albumen prints, the images measuring 7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm), mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border, some with Talfor’s credit and plate number in the negative, and each with his credit again, the series title, and a plate number (I-CVII and A-F) on mount recto.

Only three extant copies are known to exist, with one in the Louisiana State University Libraries (which also, apparently, houses Talfor’s “photographic outfit” and correspondence associated with the Talfor family) and the other at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

An extraordinary photographic record by the British-born Robert B. Talfor, who founded a photography studio in Greenport, New York in 1867. The pictures, which were shot in April and May 1873, are remarkable for both their historical narrative and aesthetic integrity. The photographs depict crews improving waterway navigation. But while these labourers were removing organic matter from the Red River to facilitate riverboat transport, the railroad industry was dominating the commercial landscape, dynamically shrinking geographic distances and improving transportation of goods.

Talfor’s career as a photographer apparently began during the Civil War, when he was a topographic engineer responsible for mapping battlefields. The transition to the Louisiana project is unclear but his prints capture the haunting beauty of the landscape and the pride of labourers.

Text from the Swann Auction Galleries website [Online] Cited 19 September 2018

 

 

Cover the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Cover the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor. U.S. Steamer Aid at work, Raft No. 5, bow view. Plate A of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
U.S. Steamer Aid at work, Raft No. 5, bow view. Plate A of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. The snagboat 'U.S. Aid'. Plate C of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
The snagboat U.S. Aid. Plate C of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate CI of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate CI of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate CII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate CII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate CVII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate CVII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate CVII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Plate CVII: Steamer Bryerly entering Red River through Sale & Murphy’s Canal

 

 

On May 16, 1873, R.B. Talfor photographed the R.T. Bryarly as she passed trough the channel opened by Lt. Eugene Woodruff’s crew. The R.T. Bryarly, on that day, became the first steamboat to enter the upper reaches of the Red River unhindered by the Great Raft at any point. For the next several months, until April 1874, the Corps of Engineers continued to work to ensure that the Raft would not re-form. The passage up the river by the the R.T. Bryarly, however, signalled that the work begun by Captain Shreve in 1833 had been successfully completed. The R.T. Bryarly sank at Pecan Point on the Red River on September 19, 1876. (Text from the book Red River Steamboats by Eric J. Brock, Gary Joiner. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1999, p. 22 [Online] Cited 17/09/2018)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate D of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate D of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. 'I.N. Kalbaugh' on the Red River. Plate E of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
I.N. Kalbaugh on the Red River. Plate D of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. 'I.N. Kalhaugh' on the Red River. Plate E of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Plate D: I.N. Kalbaugh on the Red River. Steamer Kalbaugh between Raft Nos. 47 and 48.

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate LIV of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate LIV of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate LXXXVII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate LXXXVII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Driftwood log jams obstructing the river in Louisiana before their elimination with the aid of nitroglycerine.

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate LXXXVIII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate LXXXVIII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Foot of Raft No. 2. Plate VII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate VII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Foot of Raft No. 2. One of the several shore work parties that were under the direction of the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers.

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate XCVL of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XCVL of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate XLV of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XLV of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate XLV of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Plate XIV

 

Robert B. Talfor. 'U.S. Aid', clearing logjam in the Red River, Louisiana. Plate XV of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
U.S. Aid, clearing logjam in the Red River, Louisiana. Plate XV of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

U.S. Steamer Aid at work. Raft No. 5, side view. Photograph showing the steam snag boat, US Aid, clearing logjam in the Red River, Louisiana

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate XXIII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XXIII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

 

Preparation for the work began in August, 1872. On November 25, “the small-pox infection being no longer feared,” the steamboat Aid, with two months provisions and two craneboats in tow, started up Red River. They had been outfitted and supplied in New Orleans. Shore parties had already been organized in Shreveport and work itself begun on December 1, a month before the arrival of the Aid. The details of this work, from the preparation in August to the opening of the upper river in May of the next year, are covered in the report dated July 1, 1873, from Lieutenant Woodruff to Captain Howell. The last page of this report included specific comments on the value of the previously discussed Photographic Views of Red River to Lieutenant Woodruff’s total report. The importance of these photographs in understand in the scope and nature of the raft removal is reflected in the following statement:

To accompany this I have prepared a series of photographic views showing every portion of the raft, parties at work, (etc). With the view is a photographic map of the raft region, with location and axis of the camera for each view marked upon it and numbered to correspond with the number on the view. This album full of photographs, affording a complete and truthful panorama of the raft, will give a better idea of the nature of the work performed and of the character of the country than could be obtained form the most elaborate description. [The map is in the Library of Congress]

.
Extract from Hubert Humphreys. “Photographic Views of the Red River Raft, 1873,” in Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1971) pp. 101-108 (16 pages with photographs)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Steam saws on flat, foot Raft No. 23. Plate L of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Steam saws on flat, foot Raft No. 23. Plate L of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate VI of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate VI of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Raft No. 4 partially removed. Plate X of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Raft No. 4 partially removed. Plate X of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Raft No. 4 partially removed. Crane boat at work [removing dead tree]

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate XVII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XVII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Crane boat at work

 

Robert B. Talfor Plate XXV of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XXV of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor Plate XXVI of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XXVI of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor Plate XXII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XXII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor Plate XXVIII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XXVIII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

 

Red River of the South

Red River map

 

Snagboat 'Helliopolis'

 

Schell and Hogan (illustration)
U.S. Snagboat ‘Helliopolis’
Nd
Engraving

 

 

The Heliopolis raised a one hundred and sixty foot tree in 1829, according to Captain Richard Delafield of the Corps of Engineers. By 1830 Shreve’s Snag Boats, or “Uncle Sam’s Tooth Pullers” as they were called, had improved navigation to the point that only one flatboat was lost on a snag during that year. During the 1830s Shreve set about cutting back trees on the banks of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to prevent the recurrence of snags.

 

Harpers Weekly Cover snagboat 2 Nov 1889

 

 

“One of Uncle Sam’s Tooth Pullers”

The snag boats operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were sometimes called “Uncle Sam’s Tooth Pullers,” referring to how the vessels extracted whole trees and logs that hindered navigation. U.S. Snag Boat No. 2 is shown pulling stumps from the river bottom.

From Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 2, 1889

 

Plan for Henry Shreve's snag boat. Patent No. 913, September 12, 1838

 

Plan for Henry Shreve’s snag boat. Patent No. 913, September 12, 1838

 

 

Shreveport, the Great Raft and Eugene Augustus Woodruff

Shreveport is located on the Red River in northwestern Louisiana, positioned on the first sustainable high ground in the river valley north of the old French settlement of Natchitoches. When the town as incorporated in 1839, it was, for a short period, the westernmost municipality in the United States. Four years prior to this, the settlement began as Shreve Town. Hugging a one-square-mile diamond-shaped bluff and plateau, Shreveport seemed an ideal place for a town. The northern edge of the plateau rested against Cross Bayou. The combined water frontage of the bayou and the Red River afforded the town ample room for commercial growth. However, a major obstacle stood in its way.

Captain Henry Miller Shreve, the man for whom Shreveport is named, received a contract from the U.S. Army to remove a gain logjam known as the “Great Raft.” Shrove was widely acclaimed as the most knowledgeable expert in raft removal… The upstream portion of the raft at times extended in Oklahoma. Since the Red River had many meandering curves, a straight-line mile might have as many as 3 river miles within it. At its largest, the raft closed over 400 miles of river. By the time Shreve examined it, in about 1830, the raft extended about 110 miles.

Shrove bought in large vessels that he modified for the job. Some of these ripped the jam apart with grappling hooks. Others rammed the raft to loosen individual trees. Some of the vessels were built by taking two steamboats and joining them side by side into a catamaran. The captain built a small sawmill on the common deck. The most famous of these hybrid snag boats, as they were called, were the Archimedes and the Heliopolis. His crews consisted of slave labor and Irish immigrants. The work was very difficult and extremely dangerous. …

Shreve’s efforts did not end the problem with the raft. Periodic work was needed to clear the river as the raft formed again. The Civil War interrupted this work, but by 1870, Congress had realised that the rived must be opened. Appropriations were again made, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent an engineering unit to deal with the issue. The team arrived in late 1871 under the command of First Lieutenant Eugene Augustus Woodruff. Woodruff, his brother, George, and their men set to work. They recorded their actions with maps and photographs. R.B. Talfor was the photographer assigned the duty of recording the work, and this may have been the first instance of an imbedded photographer assigned to a specific unit. Talfor and the Woodruff brothers took over one hundred images of the raft clearing. Today, their records remain the standard chronicle for a project of this type.

The unit’s primary snagboat was the U.S. Aid, a modern version of Henry Shreve’s Archimedes. This elegant stern-wheel vessel was the most advanced of its type in the late nineteenth century. Another technology used as a test bed for river clearing was the newly created explosive nitroglycerin. Because nitroglycerin was extremely dangerous to use and volatile to make, the nitroglycerin lab occasionally blew up – thankfully, with almost no casualties.

The Woodruffs found areas of clear water, appearing as a strong of lakes, and when the broke up the logs around them, the loosened trees and logs would sometimes form snags downstream. One of the unfortunate steamboats was the R.T. Bryarly, photographed by Talfor in 1873. Talker took his photograph from a recently cleared section of the rived. Piles of debris could clearly be seen on both banks as the steam picked its was up the river. The Bryarly plied the rived until September 19, 1876, when it hit a snag and was lost. The use of explosives and the improved snagboats finally conquered the river. …

… In mid-August 1873, an epidemic [of yellow fever] broke out it Shreveport. Everyone who could leave town did, and the population dwindled to about four thousand people before other towns sealed of the roads, railroads and streams to protect their residents. A quarter of the population who remained died within the first two weeks, and another 50 percent contracted yellow fever within the next six weeks. Most of the doctors and nurses died in the first month. …

In early September 1873, the army ordered its raft-clearing engineers out of the city, indicating that they should relocate farther south. Lieutenant Eugene Augustus Woodruff set his men, including his brother, George, to safety. He remained to help care for the residents of Shreveport. With most of the doctors dead or ill, Woodruff and six Roman Catholic priest ministered to the victims. By the end of September, all of these good men had died from yellow fever.

Gary D. Joiner and Ernie Roberson. Lost Shreveport: Vanishing Scenes from the Red River Valley. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010 [Online] Cited 17/10/2018

 

 

Unknown photographer. 'Lt. Eugene Woodruff' (age approx. 23) c. 1866

 

Unknown photographer
Lt. Eugene Woodruff (age approx. 23)
c. 1866
USMA Archives

 

 

Lt. Eugene A. Woodruff (1843-1873), Red River Hero, died age 31

“He died because too brave to abandon his post even in the face of a fearful pestilence and too humane to let his fellow beings perish without giving all the aid in his power to save them,” wrote Capt. Charles W. Howell, responsible for Corps of Engineers works in Louisiana, in 1873. “His name should be cherished, not only by his many personal friends,” he continued, “but by the Army, as one who lived purely, labored faithfully, and died in the path of duty.”

Captain Howell penned that tribute to his deputy, Lt. Eugene A. Woodruff, a young officer whom Howell sent from New Orleans to the Red River of Louisiana as supervisor of the project to clear the great log raft, a formidable obstruction to navigation. Henry M. Shreve first cleared the Red River raft in the 1830s, but the raft formed again during years of inadequate channel maintenance resulting from meager congressional appropriations and neglect during the Civil War.

Lieutenant Woodruff left his workboats and crew on the Red River in September 1873 to visit Shreveport and recruit a survey party. When he arrived, he found Shreveport in the grip of a yellow-fever epidemic. Fearing he might carry the disease to his workmen if he returned to camp, he elected to stay in Shreveport and tend to the sick. He volunteered his services to the Howard Association, a Louisiana disaster-relief charity, and traveled from house to house in his carriage, delivering food, medicine, and good cheer to the sick and dying. He contracted the disease himself and died in late September, “a martyr,” reported the Shreveport newspaper, “to the blessed cause of charity.”

“His conduct of the great work on which he was engaged at the time of his death,” said the New Orleans District Engineer, “will be a model for all similar undertakings and the completion of the work a monument to his memory.” Captain Howell assigned responsibility for finishing the job on the Red River to Assistant Engineer George Woodruff, brother of the lieutenant.

Woodruff’s selfless actions not only eased the suffering of Shreveport residents, but his decision to remain in the town no doubt lessened the threat to his crew. Spared from the disease, the engineers successfully broke through the raft, clearing the river for navigation on 27 November 1873. An Ohio River snagboat built the following year received the name E. A. Woodruff in recognition of the lieutenant’s sacrifice. The vessel served until 1925. More than a century later the people of Shreveport continue to honor the memory of Lieutenant Woodruff.

Text and image from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website

 

Unknown photographer. 'Untitled [Members of a Cavalry unit at Fort Grant, A.T. in 1876 showing the variety of both clothing and headgear in use by the Army in the mid-1870s]' 1876

 

Unknown photographer
Untitled [Members of a Cavalry unit at Fort Grant, A.T. in 1876 showing the variety of both clothing and headgear in use by the Army in the mid-1870s]
1876

 

 

Yellow fever

Yellow fever is a viral disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes. Yellow fever can lead to serious illness and even death. It is called ‘yellow fever’ because in serious cases, the skin turns yellow in colour. This is known as ‘jaundice’. Symptoms of yellow fever may take 3 to 6 days to appear. Some infections can be mild but most lead to serious illness characterised by two stages. In the first stage fever, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, headache and weakness occur. About 15 to 25 per cent of those with yellow fever progress to the second stage also known as the ‘toxic’ stage, of which half die within 10 to 14 days after onset of illness. Visible bleeding, jaundice, kidney and liver failure can occur during the second stage.

Although yellow fever is most prevalent in tropical-like climates, the northern United States were not exempted from the fever. The first outbreak in English-speaking North America occurred in New York City in 1668, and a serious one afflicted Philadelphia in 1793. English colonists in Philadelphia and the French in the Mississippi River Valley recorded major outbreaks in 1669, as well as those occurring later in the 18th and 19th centuries. The southern city of New Orleans was plagued with major epidemics during the 19th century, most notably in 1833 and 1853. Its residents called the disease “yellow jack”…

The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia, which was then the capital of the United States, resulted in the deaths of several thousand people, more than 9% of the population. The national government fled the city, including President George Washington. Additional yellow fever epidemics struck Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City in the 18th and 19th centuries, and traveled along steamboat routes from New Orleans. They caused some 100,000-150,000 deaths in total.

In 1853, Cloutierville, Louisiana, had a late-summer outbreak of yellow fever that quickly killed 68 of the 91 inhabitants. A local doctor concluded that some unspecified infectious agent had arrived in a package from New Orleans. 650 residents of Savannah, Georgia died from yellow fever in 1854. In 1858, St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina, suffered 308 yellow fever deaths, reducing the congregation by half. A ship carrying persons infected with the virus arrived in Hampton Roads in southeastern Virginia in June 1855. The disease spread quickly through the community, eventually killing over 3,000 people, mostly residents of Norfolk and Portsmouth. In 1873, Shreveport, Louisiana, lost almost a quarter of its population to yellow fever. In 1878, about 20,000 people died in a widespread epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley. That year, Memphis had an unusually large amount of rain, which led to an increase in the mosquito population. The result was a huge epidemic of yellow fever. The steamship John D. Porter took people fleeing Memphis northward in hopes of escaping the disease, but passengers were not allowed to disembark due to concerns of spreading yellow fever. The ship roamed the Mississippi River for the next two months before unloading her passengers. The last major U.S. outbreak was in 1905 in New Orleans.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Snag

In forest ecology, a snag refers to a standing, dead or dying tree, often missing a top or most of the smaller branches. In freshwater ecology it refers to trees, branches, and other pieces of naturally occurring wood found sunken in rivers and streams; it is also known as coarse woody debris. …

Maritime hazard

Also known as deadheads, partially submerged snags posed hazards to early riverboat navigation and commerce. If hit, snags punctured the wooden hulls used in the 19th century and early 20th century. Snags were, in fact, the most commonly encountered hazard, especially in the early years of steamboat travel. In the United States, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operated “snagboats” such as the W. T. Preston in the Puget Sound of Washington State and the Montgomery in the rivers of Alabama to pull out and clear snags. Starting in 1824, there were successful efforts to remove snags from the Mississippi and its tributaries. By 1835, a lieutenant reported to the Chief of Engineers that steamboat travel had become much safer, but by the mid-1840s the appropriations for snag removal dried up and snags re-accumulated until after the Civil War.

Text from the Wikipedia webiste

 

S.T. Blessing. 'New Orleans Levee' c. 1866-1870

 

S.T. Blessing
New Orleans Levee
c. 1866-1870
From a stereographic view, on wet or dry plate glass negative

 

 

Samuel Tobias Blessing (1830-1897) was a successful daguerreotypist, ambrotypist, photographer, daguerrean, and photographic stock dealer. He was active in La Grange, Texas in 1856, and Galveston, Texas 1856 c.-1861, and in New Orleans 1861-1890s. From 1856, Blessing partnered with Samuel Anderson, operating bi-state studios and stock depots in Trenton Street, Galverston, and at 120 Canal Street, New Orleans, moving to 137 Canal Street in 1856. Their partnership was dissolved in 1863. After the Civil War, Blessing turned his attention to making stereographs, publishing New Orleans in Stereoscope in 1866. Other stereographic series included Views of New Orleans & Vicinity, and Public Buildings in New Orleans.

Text and image from the Steamboat Times website

 

Unknown photographer. 'New Orleans Levee' c. 1867-1868

 

Unknown photographer
New Orleans Levee
c. 1867-1868
Wet plate negative on glass, or Tintype positive

 

 

Four boats in this New Orleans scene have been positively identified. They are from right to left, B.L. HODGE (No.2), MONSOON, ST. NICHOLAS, and CUBA. The remaining boats, also right to left, are not confirmed but may be the BART ABLE, GEORGE D. PALMER, and the FLICKER.

The B.L. HODGE No.2 was built in 1867, and the MONSOON was lost to a snag on the Red River on Dec. 21, 1868, heavily loaded with cotton. Therefore the photograph was taken sometime during 1867-1868. The PALMER was lost after hitting the Quincy bridge on Oct. 2, 1868, which would further narrow the timeframe for this scene.

Text and image from the Steamboat Times website

 

 

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14
Sep
18

Photographs: “Climbing into immortality” on the work of Lewis W. Hine (1874-1940)

September 2018

 

Lewis Hine. 'Jewel and Harold Walker, 6 and 5 years old, pick 20 to 25 pounds of cotton a day' 1916

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Jewel and Harold Walker, 6 and 5 years old, pick 20 to 25 pounds of cotton a day. Father said: “I promised em a little wagon if they’d pick steady, and now they have half a bagful in just a little while.”
Oct. 1916. Comanche County [Geronimo], Oklahoma

 

 

Climbing into immortality

In this posting we have a small selection of digitally cleaned images from one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, Lewis Hine.

Over roughly 30 years Hine, a trained sociologist, used his camera as an educational tool for social reform. He built an incredible body of work focusing mainly on photographs of the poor and underprivileged which captured the lives of immigrants, labourers and child workers in the early 1900’s. After an assignment photographing the building of the Empire State Building in 1930-31 work dropped off.

“By the late 1930’s he was just about out of work. Roy Stryker, head of the Farm Security Administration, thought he was difficult and past his prime and would not hire him. Assignments were scarce. In Hine’s last couple of years he was so broke that he lost his house, stopped photographing and applied for welfare. He died as destitute as anyone who ever sat for his lens.”1

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What a fate for one of the greatest photographers the world have ever known. To add insult to injury, “After his death, the Museum of Modern Art was offered his pictures but did not want them; George Eastman House in Rochester did.”1 More fool MoMa, for in Hine we have the quintessential social documentary modernist photographer, way ahead of his time, taking photographs of child labourers in the first decade of the 20th century. When you think that acknowledged pioneer of modernist photography, Alfred Stieglitz, was still taking Pictorialist photographs such as Excavating, New York (1911), The Ferry Boat (1910) and publishing The Terminal (1892) in Camera Work 36 in 1911… you begin to understand how revolutionary Hine’s stark, perfectly balanced, (sometimes flash) photographs really are, both in terms of their form and their function, that is, the advancement of social change.

In four words we might say: his work is faultless.

Hine’s work emerges out of the American romantic movement with its links to transcendentalism, literary realism and social reform, a movement which included the likes of essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and poet and humanist Walt Whitman. “A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature, and the belief that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, and they have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent,”2 while “literary realism attempts to represent familiar things as they are. Realist authors chose to depict everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of using a romanticised or similarly stylised presentation.”3

Hine pictures people and children just as they are, and believes in their innate goodness (as opposed to the hidden power of the body corporate, of industry and the machine). He incorporates both transcendentalism and realism in his works, in an attempt “to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions…”3 Hine gets down to the subject level of his children. There is no looking down on these people, he gets down to their level, he photographs them as human beings at the level of their incarceration. Whether it be large groups of Breaker Boys or groups of four he photographs at their height, imbuing these portraits with pathos and poignancy. To look into Hine’s camera is to see into the soul of these human beings, to feel their distress and hurt. Covered in coal dust the boys rarely smile, and many die in industrial accidents or from Black lung. The image Breaker #9, Hughestown Borough Pa. Coal Co. One of these is James Leonard, another is Stanley Rasmus. Pittston, Pa. (below) subconsciously reminds me of that famous image by Henry Bowers of Scott and his party standing at the South Pole, the party knowing that Roald Amundsen had beaten them to the pole, and that now they had the long, arduous trip back to the Terra Nova pulling heavy sleds. There is a resignation on their faces of their lot, much as Hine’s children stare grimly into the camera knowing that after the photograph has been taken, it will be more of the same. Again and again…

But here in these photographs their spirit is also unbowed. It is almost as though Hine is picturing the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. They live for eternity in these images which become, as Alexander Nemerov observes, “A kind of capsule containing the full flow of all we will ever be, and have been. To most, that capsule is almost always invisible, but not to Lewis Hine.” He sees clearly the plight of his people and has left us with photographs which record that plight, photographs which are poignant and profound. They transcend the time in which they were taken and are as relevant today as when they were taken, for we are all still children.

When I think about what photographs represent the first decade of the 20th century, it is Hine’s photographs, amongst others, to which I turn. Personal, objective but sensitive and transcendent, they engage us on an emotional level, human being to human being. These are personal stories – “She had regrets about not getting the education she had desired. She only got as far as the sixth grade. At that point, she started working full time. But she wanted an education, and really valued it, and it was a priority for her that we got a good education – whatever it took to send us to college” – embedded amongst the vast corporations of industry and the might of the machine, the black maw of the industrial revolution. It has taken many years for Hine’s art to ascend to iconic status, a gradual climb into immortality that the destitute condition at the time of his death would have seemingly precluded.

I then think of what photographs represent the first decade of the 21st century and the main event is, of course, the photographs from 9/11. In a century, the personal stories have been subsumed by a universal, industrial ego – the numbers of the dead, the faceless numbers; the velocity of the planes and their thrusting trajectory; the monolithic, corporate, phallic towers with their hidden workers; the war of territory, consumption, oil, power and religion that consumes the world; and the instantaneous “nature” of the transmission of images around the world, where everybody is a photographer, everything is “shot” from as many angles as possible (hoping that one version is the truth? fake news…), where everything is a spectacle to be recorded. There is no slow burn of recognition of the power of individual images, no gradual climb into immortality of the work of artists such as Lewis Hine. You are either dead, or you’re not.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Word count: 1,121

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Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

I Sit and Look Out

I SIT and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;
I see in low life the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;
I see the wife misused by her husband – I see the treacherous seducer of young women;
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love attempted to be hid – I see these sights on the earth;
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny – I see martyrs and prisoners;
I observe a famine at sea – I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d to preserve the lives of the rest;
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these – all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.

.
Walt Whitman. “I Sit and Look Out,” from Leaves of Grass 1892

 

“What is so amazing about photographs like this one is the particular poignancy of the moment… Two people are encountering one another in this happenstance way, yet the moment is deeply meaningful in how he manages to imagine a subject’s soul. The moment becomes almost metaphysical. A kind of capsule containing the full flow of all we will ever be, and have been. To most, that capsule is almost always invisible, but not to Lewis Hine.”

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Alexander Nemerov quoted in “Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine” on the Monovisions website

 

In the 1930s Hine took on small freelance projects but worried his images had fallen out of fashion. His reputation for difficulty, too, scared off potential employers. One former boss praised his talent but noted he was a “true artist type” who “requires some ‘waiting upon.'” Hine applied multiple times for a Farm Security Administration project documenting the impact of the Great Depression, but the head of the project felt he was too uncompromising. When Hine died in 1940, he was destitute and his home was in foreclosure. The photographer who had made a career of capturing the devastation and majesty of American labor couldn’t find work.

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Extract from Susie Allen. “Bodies of work,” in The University of Chicago Magazine – Spring/17

 

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Noon hour in the Ewen Breaker, Pennsylvania Coal Co.' Jan. 1911

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Noon hour in the Ewen Breaker, Pennsylvania Coal Co., South Pittston, Pennsylvania
January 1911
Library of Congress

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Pennsylvania coal breakers' 1911

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Pennsylvania coal breakers' 1911

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
View of the Ewen Breaker of the Pa. Coal Co. The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view. This dust penetrated the utmost recesses of the boy’s lungs. A kind of slave-driver sometimes stands over the boys, prodding or kicking them into obedience. S. Pittston, Pa.
10 January 1911
U.S. National Archives

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Group of Breaker Boys in #9 Breaker, Hughestown Borough, Pennsylvania Coal Co. Smallest boy is Angelo Ross' Jan. 1911

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Group of Breaker Boys in #9 Breaker, Hughestown Borough, Pennsylvania Coal Co. Smallest boy is Angelo Ross, Pittston, Pennsylvania
January 1911
Library of Congress

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker. S. Pittston, Pa.' January 1911

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker. S. Pittston, Pa.
January 1911
U.S. National Archives

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker. S. Pittston, Pa.' January 1911

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker. S. Pittston, Pa.
January 1911
U.S. National Archives

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Breaker #9, Hughestown Borough Pa. Coal Co. One of these is James Leonard, another is Stanley Rasmus. Pittston, Pa.' 16 January 1911

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Breaker #9, Hughestown Borough Pa. Coal Co. One of these is James Leonard, another is Stanley Rasmus. Pittston, Pa.
16 January 1911
U.S. National Archives

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Breaker boys. Smallest is Angelo Ross. Hughestown Borough Coal Co. Pittston, Pa.' 16 January 1911

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Breaker boys. Smallest is Angelo Ross. Hughestown Borough Coal Co. Pittston, Pa.
16 January 1911
U.S. National Archives

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Group of breaker boys. Smallest is Sam Belloma. Pittston, Pa.' 16 January 1911

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Group of breaker boys. Smallest is Sam Belloma. Pittston, Pa.
16 January 1911
U.S. National Archives

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Breaker boys of the Woodward Coal Mines, Kingston, Pa.' c. 1911

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Breaker boys of the Woodward Coal Mines, Kingston, Pa.
c. 1911

 

 

Breaker boy

breaker boy was a coal-mining worker in the United States and United Kingdom whose job was to separate impurities from coal by hand in a coal breaker. Although breaker boys were primarily children, elderly coal miners who could no longer work in the mines because of age, disease, or accident were also sometimes employed as breaker boys. The use of breaker boys began in the mid-1860s. Although public disapproval of the employment of children as breaker boys existed by the mid-1880s, the practice did not end until the 1920s. …

Use of breaker boys

Until about 1900, nearly all coal breaking facilities in the United States were labor-intensive. The removal of impurities was done by hand, usually by breaker boys between the ages of eight and 12 years old. The use of breaker boys began around 1866. For 10 hours a day, six days a week, breaker boys would sit on wooden seats, perched over the chutes and conveyor belts, picking slate and other impurities out of the coal. Breaker boys working on top of chutes or conveyor belts would stop the coal by pushing their boots into the stream of fuel flowing beneath them, briefly pick out the impurities, and then let the coal pass on to the next breaker boy for further processing. Others would divert coal into a horizontal chute at which they sat, then pick the coal clean before allowing the fuel to flow into “clean” coal bins.

The work performed by breaker boys was hazardous. Breaker boys were forced to work without gloves so that they could better handle the slick coal. The slate, however, was sharp, and breaker boys would often leave work with their fingers cut and bleeding. Breaker boys sometimes also had their fingers amputated by the rapidly moving conveyor belts. Others lost feet, hands, arms, and legs as they moved among the machinery and became caught under conveyor belts or in gears. Many were crushed to death, their bodies retrieved from the gears of the machinery by supervisors only at the end of the working day. Others were caught in the rush of coal, and crushed to death or smothered. Dry coal would kick up so much dust that breaker boys sometimes wore lamps on their heads to see, and asthma and black lung disease were common. Coal was often washed to remove impurities, which created sulfuric acid. The acid burned the hands of the breaker boys.

Public condemnation

Public condemnation of the use of breaker boys was so widespread that in 1885 Pennsylvania enacted a law forbidding the employment of anyone under the age of 12 from working in a coal breaker, but the law was poorly enforced; many employers forged proof-of-age documentation, and many families forged birth certificates or other documents so their children could support the family. Estimates of the number of breaker boys at work in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania vary widely, and official statistics are generally considered by historians to undercount the numbers significantly. One estimate had 20,000 breaker boys working in the state in 1880, 18,000 working in 1900, 13,133 working in 1902, and 24,000 working in 1907. Technological innovations in the 1890s and 1900s (such as mechanical and water separators designed to remove impurities from coal) dramatically lowered the need for breaker boys, but adoption of the new technology was slow.

By the 1910s, the use of breaker boys was dropping because of improvements in technology, stricter child labor laws, and the enactment of compulsory education laws. The practice of employing children in coal breakers largely ended by 1920 because of the efforts of the National Child Labor Committee, sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine, and the National Consumers League, all of whom educated the public about the practice and succeeded in obtaining passage of national child labor laws.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Black lung (Coalworker’s pneumoconiosis)

Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), also known as black lung disease or black lung, is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. It is common in coal miners and others who work with coal. It is similar to both silicosis from inhaling silica dust and to the long-term effects of tobacco smoking. Inhaled coal dust progressively builds up in the lungs and cannot be removed by the body; this leads to inflammation, fibrosis, and in worse cases, necrosis.

Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, severe state, develops after the initial, milder form of the disease known as anthracosis (anthrac – coal, carbon). This is often asymptomatic and is found to at least some extent in all urban dwellers due to air pollution. Prolonged exposure to large amounts of coal dust can result in more serious forms of the disease, simple coal workers’ pneumoconiosis and complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (or progressive massive fibrosis, or PMF). More commonly, workers exposed to coal dust develop industrial bronchitis, clinically defined as chronic bronchitis (i.e. productive cough for 3 months per year for at least 2 years) associated with workplace dust exposure. The incidence of industrial bronchitis varies with age, job, exposure, and smoking. In nonsmokers (who are less prone to develop bronchitis than smokers), studies of coal miners have shown a 16% to 17% incidence of industrial bronchitis. …

History

Black lung is actually a set of conditions and until the 1950s its dangers were not well understood. The prevailing view was that silicosis was very serious but it was solely caused by silica and not coal dust. The miners’ union, the United Mine Workers of America, realised that rapid mechanisation meant drills that produced much more dust, but under John L. Lewis they decided not to raise the black lung issue because it might impede the mechanisation that was producing higher productivity and higher wages. Union priorities were to maintain the viability of the long-fought-for welfare and retirement fund, which would be sustained by higher outputs of coal. After the death of Lewis, the union dropped its opposition to calling black lung a disease and realised the financial advantages of a fund for its disabled members.

Epidemiology

In 2013 CWP resulted in 25,000 deaths down from 29,000 deaths in 1990. Between 1970-1974, prevalence of CWP among US coal miners who had worked over 25 years was 32%; the same group saw a prevalence of 9% in 2005-2006. In Australia, CWP was considered to be eliminated in the 1970s due to strict hazard control measures. However, there has been a resurgence of CWP in Australia, with the first new cases being detected in May 2015.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Sadie Pfeifer' 1908

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Sadie Pfeifer, 48 inches high, has worked half a year. One of the many small children at work in Lancaster Cotton Mills
November 1908. Lancaster, South Carolina
Library of Congress

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Cora Lee Griffin, spinner in cotton mill, 12 years old, Whitnel, North Carolina' 1908

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Cora Lee Griffin, spinner in cotton mill, 12 years old, Whitnel, North Carolina
1908

“One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mfg. Co. N.C. She was 51 inches high. Had been in mill 1 year. Some at night. Runs 4 sides, 48 cents a day. When asked how old, she hesitated, then said “I don’t remember.” Then confidentially, “I’m not old enough to work, but I do just the same.” Out of 50 employees, ten children about her size.” – Hine’s original caption

“She had regrets about not getting the education she had desired. She only got as far as the sixth grade. At that point, she started working full time. But she wanted an education, and really valued it, and it was a priority for her that we got a good education – whatever it took to send us to college.” – Daughter of Cora Lee Griffin

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Noon hour in East Side factory district' 1912

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Noon hour in East Side factory district
1912

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Newsies, New York' 1906

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Newsies, New York
1906

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Nashville' 1912

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Nashville
1912

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Tenement family, Chicago' 1910

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Tenement family, Chicago
1910

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Artificial flowers, New York City' 1912

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Artificial flowers, New York City
1912

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Hot day on East Side, New York' c. 1908

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Hot day on East Side, New York
c. 1908

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Hull house beneficiary' 1910

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Hull house beneficiary
1910

 

 

Hull House was a settlement house in the United States that was co-founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Located on the Near West Side of Chicago, Illinois, Hull House (named after the original house’s first owner Charles Jerald Hull) opened to recently arrived European immigrants. By 1911, Hull House had grown to 13 buildings. In 1912 the Hull House complex was completed with the addition of a summer camp, the Bowen Country Club. With its innovative social, educational, and artistic programs, Hull House became the standard bearer for the movement that had grown, by 1920, to almost 500 settlement houses nationally…

Most of the Hull House buildings were demolished for the construction of the University of Illinois-Circle Campus in the mid-1960s. The Hull mansion and several subsequent acquisitions were continuously renovated to accommodate the changing demands of the association. The original building and one additional building (which has been moved 200 yards (182.9 m))survive today. (Text from the Wikipedia website)

 

V.O. Hammon Publishing Co. (publisher) 'The Hull House, Chicago' Early 20th century

 

V.O. Hammon Publishing Co. (publisher)
The Hull House, Chicago
Early 20th century
Postcard

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Italian steel-worker' 1909

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Italian steel-worker
1909

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Printer Ethical Culture School' 1905

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Printer Ethical Culture School
1905

 

 

Ellis Island

Ellis Island, in Upper New York Bay, was the gateway for over 12 million immigrants to the U.S. as the United States’ busiest immigrant inspection station for over 60 years from 1892 until 1954. Ellis Island was opened January 1, 1892. The island was greatly expanded with land reclamation between 1892 and 1934. Before that, the much smaller original island was the site of Fort Gibson and later a naval magazine. The island was made part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965 and has hosted a museum of immigration since 1990.

Immigrant inspection station

In the 35 years before Ellis Island opened, more than eight million immigrants arriving in New York City had been processed by officials at Castle Garden Immigration Depot in Lower Manhattan, just across the bay. The federal government assumed control of immigration on April 18, 1890, and Congress appropriated $75,000 to construct America’s first federal immigration station on Ellis Island. Artesian wells were dug, and fill material was hauled in from incoming ships’ ballast and from construction of New York City’s subway tunnels, which doubled the size of Ellis Island to over six acres. While the building was under construction, the Barge Office nearby at the Battery was used for immigrant processing…

The present main structure was designed in French Renaissance Revival style and built of red brick with limestone trim. After it opened on December 17, 1900, the facilities proved barely able to handle the flood of immigrants that arrived in the years before World War I. In 1913, writer Louis Adamic came to America from Slovenia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and described the night he and many other immigrants slept on bunk beds in a huge hall. Lacking a warm blanket, the young man “shivered, sleepless, all night, listening to snores” and dreams “in perhaps a dozen different languages”. The facility was so large that the dining room could seat 1,000 people. It is reported the island’s first immigrant to be processed through was a teenager named Annie Moore from County Cork in Ireland.

After its opening, Ellis Island was again expanded, and additional structures were built. By the time it closed on November 12, 1954, 12 million immigrants had been processed by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration. It is estimated that 10.5 million immigrants departed for points across the United States from the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, just across a narrow strait. Others would have used one of the other terminals along the North River (Hudson River) at that time. At first, the majority of immigrants arriving through the station were Northern and Western Europeans (Germany, France, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Great Britain, and the Scandinavian countries). Eventually, these groups of peoples slowed in the rates that they were coming in, and immigrants came in from Southern and Eastern Europe, including Jews. Many reasons these immigrants came to the United States included escaping political and economic oppression, as well as persecution, destitution, and violence. Other groups of peoples being processed through the station were Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks, Greeks, Syrians, Turks, and Armenians.

Primary inspection

Between 1905 and 1914, an average of one million immigrants per year arrived in the United States. Immigration officials reviewed about 5,000 immigrants per day during peak times at Ellis Island. Two-thirds of those individuals emigrated from eastern, southern and central Europe. The peak year for immigration at Ellis Island was 1907, with 1,004,756 immigrants processed. The all-time daily high occurred on April 17, 1907, when 11,747 immigrants arrived. After the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, which greatly restricted immigration and allowed processing at overseas embassies, the only immigrants to pass through the station were those who had problems with their immigration paperwork, displaced persons, and war refugees. Today, over 100 million Americans – about one-third to 40% of the population of the United States – can trace their ancestry to immigrants who arrived in America at Ellis Island before dispersing to points all over the country.

Generally, those immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. Arrivals were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried. It was important to the American government the new arrivals could support themselves and have money to get started. The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars ($600 in 2015 adjusted for inflation). Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island’s hospital facilities for long periods of time. More than 3,000 would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered “likely to become a public charge.” About 2% were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity. Ellis Island was sometimes known as “The Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island” because of those 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage. The Kissing Post is a wooden column outside the Registry Room, where new arrivals were greeted by their relatives and friends, typically with tears, hugs, and kisses.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Italian family on the ferry boat' 1905

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Italian family on the ferry boat
1905

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Patriarch at Ellis Island' 1905

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Patriarch at Ellis Island
1905

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Russian family at Ellis Island' 1905

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Russian family at Ellis Island
1905

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Italian family in the baggage room' 1905

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Italian family in the baggage room
1905

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Slavic immigrant at Ellis Island' 1907

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Slavic immigrant at Ellis Island
1907

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Mother and child Ellis Island' c. 1907

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Mother and child Ellis Island
c. 1907

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Climbing into America' 1908

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Climbing into America
1908

 

 

Lewis Hine

Documentary photography

In 1907, Hine became the staff photographer of the Russell Sage Foundation; he photographed life in the steel-making districts and people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the influential sociological study called The Pittsburgh Survey.

In 1908 Hine became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), leaving his teaching position. Over the next decade, Hine documented child labor, with focus on the use of child labor in the Carolina Piedmont, to aid the NCLC’s lobbying efforts to end the practice. In 1913, he documented child laborers among cotton mill workers with a series of Francis Galton’s composite portraits.

Hine’s work for the NCLC was often dangerous. As a photographer, he was frequently threatened with violence or even death by factory police and foremen. At the time, the immorality of child labor was meant to be hidden from the public. Photography was not only prohibited but also posed a serious threat to the industry. To gain entry to the mills, mines and factories, Hine was forced to assume many guises. At times he was a fire inspector, postcard vendor, bible salesman, or even an industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery.

During and after World War I, he photographed American Red Cross relief work in Europe. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Hine made a series of “work portraits,” which emphasised the human contribution to modern industry. In 1930, Hine was commissioned to document the construction of the Empire State Building. He photographed the workers in precarious positions while they secured the steel framework of the structure, taking many of the same risks that the workers endured. In order to obtain the best vantage points, Hine was swung out in a specially-designed basket 1,000 ft above Fifth Avenue.

During the Great Depression Hine again worked for the Red Cross, photographing drought relief in the American South, and for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), documenting life in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. He also served as chief photographer for the Works Progress Administration’s National Research Project, which studied changes in industry and their effect on employment. Hine was also a faculty member of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School.

Later life

In 1936, Hine was selected as the photographer for the National Research Project of the Works Projects Administration, but his work there was not completed.

The last years of his life were filled with professional struggles by loss of government and corporate patronage. Few people were interested in his work, past or present, and Hine lost his house and applied for welfare. He died on November 3, 1940 at Dobbs Ferry Hospital in Dobbs Ferry, New York, after an operation. He was 66 years old.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

LEWIS W. HINE (1874-1940) 'Worker on platform' 1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Worker on platform
1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Icarus, Empire State Building' 1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Icarus, Empire State Building
1930-31

 

Of the many photographs Hine took of the Empire State Building, this one became the popular favourite. Suspended in graceful sangfroid, the steelworker symbolises daring technical innovation of the sort Daedalus embodied in Greek legend. While Daedulus flew the middle course between sea and sky safely, his son Icarus flew too close to the sun and perished. The optimism of this image suggests that it was not Icarus’s folly but his youth and his ability to fly that prompted Hine’s title. (Text from The Met website)

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Empire State Building' 1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Empire State Building
1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Empire State Building' 1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Empire State Building
1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Empire State Building' 1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Girders and Workers, Empire State Building
1930-31

Same man middle above as in the image below.

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) 'Laborer on connector' 1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Laborer on connector
1930-31

 

LEWIS W. HINE (1874-1940) 'Workers on girder' 1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Workers on girder
1930-31

 

LEWIS W. HINE (1874-1940) 'Derrick and workers on girder' 1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Derrick and workers on girder
1930-31

 

LEWIS W. HINE (1874-1940) 'Silhouetted crane hook' 1930-31

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Silhouetted crane hook
1930-31

 

 

Empire State Building

The Empire State Building is a 102-story Art Deco skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon and completed in 1931, the building has a roof height of 1,250 feet (380 m) and stands a total of 1,454 feet (443.2 m) tall, including its antenna. Its name is derived from “Empire State”, the nickname of New York. As of 2017 the building is the 5th-tallest completed skyscraper in the United States and the 28th-tallest in the world. It is also the 6th-tallest freestanding structure in the Americas.

The site of the Empire State Building, located on the west side of Fifth Avenue between West 33rd and 34th Streets, was originally part of an early 18th century farm. In the late 1820s, it came into the possession of the prominent Astor family, with John Jacob Astor’s descendants building the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on the site in the 1890s. By the 1920s, the family had sold the outdated hotel and the site indirectly ended up under the ownership of Empire State Inc., a business venture that included businessman John J. Raskob and former New York governor Al Smith. The original design of the Empire State Building was for a 50-story office building. However, after fifteen revisions, the final design was for a 86-story 1,250-foot building, with an airship mast on top. This ensured it would be the world’s tallest building, beating the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street, two other Manhattan skyscrapers under construction at the time that were also vying for that distinction. …

The project involved more than 3,500 workers at its peak, including 3,439 on a single day, August 14, 1930. Many of the workers were Irish and Italian immigrants, with a sizeable minority of Mohawk ironworkers from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. According to official accounts, five workers died during the construction, although the New York Daily News gave reports of 14 deaths and a headline in the socialist magazine The New Masses spread unfounded rumours of up to 42 deaths. The Empire State Building cost $40,948,900 to build, including demolition of the Waldorf-Astoria (equivalent to $533,628,800 in 2016). This was lower than the $60 million budgeted for construction.

Lewis Hine captured many photographs of the construction, documenting not only the work itself but also providing insight into the daily life of workers in that era. Hine’s images were used extensively by the media to publish daily press releases. According to the writer Jim Rasenberger, Hine “climbed out onto the steel with the ironworkers and dangled from a derrick cable hundreds of feet above the city to capture, as no one ever had before (or has since), the dizzy work of building skyscrapers”. In Rasenberger’s words, Hine turned what might have been an assignment of “corporate flak” into “exhilarating art”. These images were later organised into their own collection. Onlookers were enraptured by the sheer height at which the steelworkers operated. New York magazine wrote of the steelworkers: “Like little spiders they toiled, spinning a fabric of steel against the sky”.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Lewis Hine with camera

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled [Lewis Hine with camera]
c. 1900-1910s

 

 

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07
Sep
18

Photographs: Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) ‘9 crime-scene photographs’ c. 1930s

September 2018

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

 

A group of 9 crime-scene photographs from the early part of Weegee’s career c. 1930s.

In 1935, Weegee (Arthur Fellig’s nickname, “a phonetic rendering of Ouija, because of his frequent, seemingly prescient arrivals at scenes only minutes after crimes, fires or other emergencies were reported to authorities”) struck out on his own to become a freelance photographer, selling his “hot off the press” images to the tabloid newspapers. His method was to get there fast, get there first, use his 4×5 Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16 at 1/200 of a second (usually using flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet), develop the photos, sell them and move on to the next spectacle… whether that be a murder, a society happening, or people’s reactions to an event.

What is interesting about these early photographs is what we can deduct about his photographic process and glean from the photographs themselves.

Firstly, the skeletal body (above). We can see that the body is resting on a tray in a boat that is tied to a pier (notice the tensioned rope top right). It has obviously been in the river quite a while because all the flesh has withered from the vine. A piece of metal wire is coiled near the hands, proposing that this person met foul play. The photographer stands on the bank and you can just imagine the conversation. You can imagine Weegee saying to the working men who were in the boat (there must have been two for the lid of the container, top left, is parallel to the body), “Do us a favour, lift the lid for a second.” He only had a second, his camera slanted 45 degrees down looking at the body, and he missed his focus point (or is it deliberate?) … the depth of field low, the focus is on the workers shoes and the skeletal body is out of focus. Does it matter? Not one bit.

Secondly, the lady with the shoe (below). In a seedy tenement house (a run-down and often overcrowded apartment house, especially in a poor section of a large city) we observe how Weegee approaches the body, photographing it from above, from opposing directions, using flash to illuminate the scene. In this case he contextualises the body… in a room, against a cheap vinyl patterned floor covering. A single suitcase sits with open locks on a small trestle table. An old cast iron bed (you know the ones, with metal springs) is framed to the right in front of a heavy iron radiator. In this first photograph the definitive focus is on the body, and its attitude at the point of destruction. The out flung arm, the bend of the knee, the ravaging of the breast. And how it is surrounded by a smashed plate and a discarded shoe.

Next he steps over the body and photographs it from the opposite direction. Here, the focus is not so much on the body, but how the body is placed within the space of the living (and the dead). This was a place of inhabitation, of habit, of cups of tea, of sitting at a table, of having sex in a bed. We note the mouldy walls, the knocked over ornament, the single, bleak standard lamp with trailing cord, the tray for tea, the bare, cheap table and chair to the right, and the bloodied pillow on the floor. This was a place of life, now departed.

Thirdly, and most interestingly in terms of Weegee’s photographic process, is the murder in the storeroom (below). It took me a while to work out what was going on here, and I have created a composite photograph of the three images to explain the photographic sequence.

I believe that Weegee took the central images first, using flash, reasonable depth of field, looking down on the victim. The body of a young man lies crammed into a small space, face down in an unnatural pose, table to the left, boxes at back and shelf to right. The flash has blown out the floorboards and objects to the right, but intensifies the bloodstains on the floor. Weegee has then stepped around the table to photograph the lower portion of the man’s body, one leg resting behind a step ladder, the other leg out of sight to the right of the Du Pont box. The curl of the man’s hand is particularly poignant. As in the second photograph of the women in the apartment, it is the placement of the body in the context of life and death that is so important in this photograph. The space of existence.

Finally, and this is where it gets really interesting, Weegee walks to where the foot of the step ladder must have been in the second photograph. He must have removed the ladder and photographed the foreshortened space, where we can just see the man’s head resting on the floor above the darkness of his jacket. The blue line in the composite photograph shows the opposite ends of this box (in the first and third images), with the table out of the picture to the right in the third photograph. This is fascinating stuff, to understand how Weegee intuitively approached a crime scene, how his eye saw so clearly and quickly what he needed to capture. The essence of a scene revealed to the photographer and the viewer in the blink of an eye. A series of decisive moments captured not on the fly, but in the mind.

Marcus

.
These digitally cleaned photographs are published under “fair use” for the purposes of academic research and critical commentary. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Compilation of three Weegee crime scene photographs (see below)

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Compilation of two Weegee crime scene photographs (see below)

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

 

Weegee was born Usher Fellig in Złoczów (now Zolochiv, Ukraine), near Lemberg in Austrian Galicia. His given name was changed to Arthur when he emigrated with his family to New York in 1909. There he took numerous odd jobs, including working as a street photographer of children on his pony and as an assistant to a commercial photographer. In 1924 he was hired as a darkroom technician by Acme Newspictures (later United Press International Photos). He left, however, in 1935 to become a freelance photographer. Describing his beginnings, Weegee stated:

In my particular case I didn’t wait ’til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself – freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.

He worked at night and competed with the police to be first at the scene of a crime, selling his photographs to tabloids and photographic agencies. His photographs, centered around Manhattan police headquarters, were soon published by the Herald TribuneWorld-TelegramDaily NewsNew York PostNew York Journal AmericanSun, and others.

In 1957, after developing diabetes, he moved in with Wilma Wilcox, a Quaker social worker whom he had known since the 1940s, and who cared for him and then cared for his work. He traveled extensively in Europe until 1968, working for the Daily Mirror and on a variety of photography, film, lecture, and book projects. On December 26, 1968, Weegee died in New York at the age of 69.

Photographic technique

Most of his notable photographs were taken with very basic press photographer equipment and methods of the era, a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16 at 1/200 of a second, with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet. He was a self-taught photographer with no formal photographic training. Weegee developed his photographs in a homemade darkroom in the rear of his car. This provided an instantaneous result to his work that emphasised the nature of the tabloid industry and gave the images a “hot off the press” feeling. While Fellig would shoot a variety of subjects and individuals, he also had a sense of what sold best:

Names make news. There’s a fight between a drunken couple on Third Avenue or Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, nobody cares. It’s just a barroom brawl. But if society has a fight in a Cadillac on Park Avenue and their names are in the Social Register, this makes news and the papers are interested in that.

Weegee is famously credited for answering “f/8 and be there” when asked about his photographic technique. Whether he actually said that or not, the saying has become standard advice in some photographic circles.

Some of Weegee’s photos, like the juxtaposition of society grandes dames in ermines and tiaras and a glowering street woman at the Metropolitan Opera (The Critic, 1943), were later revealed to have been staged.

Late 1930s to mid-1940s

In 1938, Fellig was the only New York newspaper reporter with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio. He maintained a complete darkroom in the trunk of his car, to expedite getting his free-lance product to the newspapers. Weegee worked mostly at nightclubs; he listened closely to broadcasts and often beat authorities to the scene.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968) 'Untitled [Crime scene]' c. 1930

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (1899-1968)
Untitled [Crime scene]
c. 1930s
Silver gelatin print

 

 

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01
Sep
18

Exhibition: ‘Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art’ at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Exhibition dates: 7th June – 9th September 2018

Curator: Márton Orosz

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Victor Vasarely. 'Feny' 1973

 

Victor Vasarely
Feny
1973
Acrylic on canvas
180 x 180 cm
Colección Carmen ThyssenBornemisza
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018
(from the Vega Structures section of the exhibition)

 

 

Optic geomancer

No comment is really necessary. You just have to look at the spirit and inventiveness of the art. A pioneer of light and colour, a genius of plastic grid and form, is at play here!

The installation photographs show just how optically magnetic these works are. How they are holistic, singular works which then play magnificently off each other when placed in close proximity. Like the fugues of J.S. Bach these optical illusions create dazzlingly beautiful, intricate and powerful works, an earthly divination of a ‘planetary folklore’.

As my good friend Elizabeth Gertsakis said of the work of Robert Hunter, “he had the mind of abstract divination for a music of the spheres, of any geometry.”

Visit the VR Microsite for a Virtual Reality walk through of the exhibition.

Marcus

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Many thankx to the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

From 7 June to 9 September 2018, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza will be presenting a monographic exhibition devoted to Victor Vasarely (Pécs, 1906 – Paris, 1997), the founding father of Op Art. Comprising works from the Vasarely Museum in Budapest, the Victor Vasarely Museum in Pécs, the Fondation Vasarely in Aix-en- Provence and prominent loans from private collections, the exhibition will aim to offer an overall vision of the life and work of this Hungarian painter whose best output was created in France. The exhibition includes works from all the principal phases of Vasarely’s career in order to present a chronological survey of his artistic evolution. Visitors will thus be able to appreciate the key role played by the artist in the development of geometrical post-war abstraction and to learn about the experiments based on his artistic principles and theoretical reflections which he undertook with the aim of bringing art and society closer together.

Victor Vasarely is a towering figure in the history of abstract geometric art. The results of his experiments with spatially ambiguous, optically dynamic structures and their effects on visual perception burst into public consciousness in the mid-1960s under the name of Op Art, launching a short-lived yet extraordinarily popular wave of fashion.

The exhibition is organised in eight chronological sections and an introductory space devoted to Vega Structures, one of the best-known and most emblematic series produced by Vasarely at the height of his career named after the brightest star in the northern hemisphere’s summer night sky.

 

 

1. Vega Structures

Inspired by contemporary news reports about mysterious signals received from distant galaxies, Vasarely named many of his works after stars and constellations. The Vega pictures rely on convex-concave distortions of a grid-like network, a sophisticated combination of the cube and the sphere, symbolically referring to the two-way motion of the light that emanates from pulsating stars, and to the functioning of condensing galaxies and the expanding universe. The common denominator in these works is Vasarely’s realisation that two dimensions can be expanded into three simply by deforming the basic grid, and that, depending on the degree of enlargement or reduction, the elements in the deformed grid can be transformed into rhombuses or ellipses.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Victor Vasarely. 'Nora-Dell' 1974-1979

 

Victor Vasarely
Nora-Dell
1974-1979
Silkscreen on paper
87 x 78 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Manipur–negativo' (Negative Manipur) 1971

 

Victor Vasarely
Manipur–negativo (Negative Manipur)
1971
Acrylic on canvas
156 x 130 cm
Colección privada. Cortesía
Fondation Vasarely
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

 

2. Graphic Period

Blessed with exceptional drawing ability, Vasarely studied the basics of graphic design at Műhely (Workshop) from 1929 to 1930. The private school in Budapest was run by Sándor Bortnyik, a painter and graphic designer who had connections with the Bauhaus in Weimar. Through Bortnyik, Vasarely began to take an interest in the formal problems of the kind of art in which composition is based on geometric principles, and as such he adopted Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich and László Moholy-Nagy as his spiritual masters. In the first period of the artist’s career, which lasted until 1939, the imagery had not yet broken away from the primary visual world, that is, it was not entirely abstract, but the paradoxical optical effects produced by his networks of lines and crosses already bore hints of the illusionistic spatiality to come.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing the works Man in motion. Study of Motion (The Man) 1943 (left) and Material Study-Wood 1939 (right)

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Man in motion. Study of Motion (The Man)' 1943

 

Victor Vasarely
Hombre en movimiento – Estudio del movimiento (El hombre)
Man in motion. Study of Motion (The Man)
1943
Tempera on plywood
117 x 132 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

 

3. Pre-Kinetic Studies and Naissances

In 1951, the Galerie Denise René in Paris held an exhibition titled Formes et couleurs murales (Mural Forms and Colours). It was at this time that the Hungarian-French artist first considered representing the spatial problems of his pictures on a more monumental scale. At this exhibition, Vasarely used photographic methods to blow up his earlier pen-and-ink drawings, which he then arranged in series covering entire walls. These compositions were later rechristened Naissances (Births). The new name came about when the artist swept the photographic negatives of the drawings over one another, and disquieting, randomly arranged patterns emerged. In is Oeuvres profondes cinétiques (deep kinetic works), first exhibited in 1955, which Vasarely created following the same method of image-making, structuring them out of superimposed sheets of glass, acrylic or transparent foil, the sense of spatiality was combined with actual three-dimensional depth. Exploiting the physical laws of refraction and reflection, he produced spatial collages in a constant state of flux generated by the interference of two abstract patterns projected over each other, which were brought alive as the viewer changed position.

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Cébras - Estudio precinético' (Zebras. Prekinetic Study) 1939

 

Victor Vasarely
Cébras – Estudio precinético (Zebras. Prekinetic Study)
1939
Tempera, pencil, colour and white chalk on paper
62 x 57 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Zebra' 1938-1960

 

Victor Vasarely
Zebra
1938-1960
Wooden wool tapestry
150 x 214 cm
Victor Vasarely Múzeum, Pécs
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Sophia-III' 1952

 

Victor Vasarely
Sophia-III
1952
Oil on canvas
132 x 200 cm
Victor Vasarely Múzeum, Pécs
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. ‘Naissances’ 1954-1960

 

Victor Vasarely
Naissances (del album “Hommage à J.S Bach”, suplemento 3)
Naissances (From the album Hommage à J.S. Bach, Supplement No.3)
1954-1960
Multiple. Silkscreen on glass
56 x 49.5 x 7.5 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

 

4. Belle-Isle / Crystal / Denfert

In 1947, while spending the summer on Belle Île, an island off the coast of Brittany, he discovered the internal geometry of nature. He took irregularly shaped glass tiles and pebbles polished by the ocean waves and stylised their abstract forms into ellipses. In 1948, he produced delicate pen-and-ink drawings that conjured up the strange meandering patterns of the hairline cracks that pervaded the ceramic tiles covering the Paris metro station named Denfert-Rochereau. From his sketches, which reveal a vivid imagination, he created evocative paintings composed with well unified colours. Those same years also saw the beginning of his Crystal period, which was inspired by the strict geometric structure of the stone houses in Gordes, a medieval town built on a cliff in the South of France. Vasarely strove to transpose reality into the two-dimensional plane with the help of the axonometric approach.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left, the works Lan 2, 1953; Amir (Rima) 1953; and Vessant, 1952

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Vessant' (Versant) 1952

 

Victor Vasarely
Vessant (Versant)
1952
Oil on plywood
150 x 190 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Amir (Rima)' 1953

 

Victor Vasarely
Amir (Rima)
1953
Oil on plywood
140 x 180 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

 

5. Black and White Period (Kineticism)

Inspired by Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist composition, Black and White (1915), which embodies the harmony of spirituality and is widely interpreted as the ‘end point’ of painting, Vasarely conceived of the picture titled Homage to Malevich. Its basic component, a square rotated about its axis so that it appears as a rhombus, became the starting point of his ‘kinetic’ works.

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Tlinko-F' 1956-1962

 

Victor Vasarely
Tlinko-F
1956-1962
Oil on canvas
145 x 145 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Gixeh' 1955-1962

 

Victor Vasarely
Gixeh
1955-1962
Oil on canvas
170 x 160 cm
Museo de Bellas Artes, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left, the works Doupla, 1970-1975; Kotzka, 1973-1976 and Gixeh, 1955-1962

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left, the works Nethe, 1964; Noorum, 1960-1977 and Tlinko-F, 1956-1962

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left, the works Afa III, 1957-1973 Nethe, 1964; Noorum,

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Noorum' 1960-1977

 

Victor Vasarely
Noorum
1960-1977
Acrylic on canvas
112 x 84 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left, the works Taymir II, 1956 and Afa III, 1957-1973

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Taymir II' 1956

 

Victor Vasarely
Taymir II
1956
Acrylic on canvas
135 x 120 cm
Victor Vasarely Múzeum, Pécs
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

 

6. Universal systems built from a plastic alphabet

Vasarely presented the results of his analytical research into the Plastic Unit at an exhibition held in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1963. His formula for this was built on the structural interplay of form and colour. He regarded colour-forms as the cells or molecules out of which the universe was made. ‘The form-color unit […] is to plasticity what the particle-wave is to nature’, he declared. In pictures based on the mutual association between forms and colours, he claimed to perceive a ‘grammar’ of visual language, with which a set of basic forms making up a composition could be arranged into a system similar to musical notation.

The plastic alphabet

The plastic alphabet is a kind of programmed language with an infinite number of form and colour variations. The basic unit of the alphabet is a coloured square containing smaller basic shapes like squares, triangles, circles and rectangles. Vasarely used these patterns and primary colours plus endless colour permutations as the duplicating and changing elements in his works. In each unit there was a number which determined its colour, tone, form and place in the whole.

Vasarely saw that his plastic alphabet, by enabling serial production, could open the way to countless applications. It could be used as the basis for planning houses and whole environments for cities: it offered countless permutations of form and colour, and the size of the basic unit could be changed or enlarged as required.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from centre to right, the works Villog, 1979; Zila, 1981 and Pavo II, 1979

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Pavo II' 1979

 

Victor Vasarely
Pavo II
1979
Acrylic on plywood
60 x 60 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left to right, the works Vonal-Fegn, 1968-1971; Helios, 1964 (multiple) and Villog, 1979

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left, Doupla, 1970-1975; Kotzka, 1973-1976 and Vonal-Fegn, 1968-1971

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left, Bi-Octans, 1979; Doupla, 1970-1975; Kotzka, 1973-1976; Vonal-Fegn, 1968-1971 and Helios, 1964 (multiple)

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Vonal-Fegn' 1968-1971

 

Victor Vasarely
Vonal-Fegn
1968-1971
Tapestry, cotton and wool
252 x 255 cm
Victor Vasarely Múzeum, Pécs
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Kotzka' 1973-1976

 

Victor Vasarely
Kotzka
1973-1976
Acrylic on canvas
130 x 130 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Doupla' 1970-1975

 

Victor Vasarely
Doupla
1970-1975
Acrylic on canvas
210 x 114 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left Dirac, 1978 and Bi-Octans, 1979

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Bi-Octans' 1979

 

Victor Vasarely
Bi-Octans
1979
Acrylic on canvas
180 x 180 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

 

7. Algorithms and Permutations

Vasarely first discussed the necessity for his works to be duplicated and disseminated widely in 1953. Then, in his Yellow Manifesto of 1955 he outlined his ideas on the possibilities of re-creation, multiplication and expansion. He believed that a basic set of corpuscular elements, by virtue of their multiplicability and permutability, could be transformed using a pre-selected algorithm into a virtually infinite number of different compositions. The programmations that would record the picture-composition process onto graph paper assumed that the colours, shades and forms making up each image could be notated numerically, and even fed into an electronic brain to be retrieved at any time. Although Vasarely himself had never worked with computers, his principles led logically to the possibility of creating images with such technology. As conceived by the artist, in future, employing codes of colour and form that were objectively defined using alphanumerical data, his compositions could be recreated at anytime, anywhere in the world, by anybody at all.

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Stri-Per' 1973-1974

 

Victor Vasarely
Stri-Per
1973-1974
Acrylic on canvas
76 x 76 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left Kekub, 1976-1978; Black Orion, 1970; Marsan-2, 1964-1974 and Eroed-Pre, 1978

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Eroed-Pre' 1978

 

Victor Vasarely
Eroed-Pre
1978
Acrylic on cardboard
52 x 52 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Marsan-2' 1964-1974

 

Victor Vasarely
Marsan-2
1964-1974
Acrylic on canvas
202 x 253 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Orion noir' 1970

 

Victor Vasarely
Orion noir (de la serie “Kanta”)
Black Orion (From the “Kanta” series)
1970
Polystyrene
100 x 105 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Zint-MC' 1960-1976

 

Victor Vasarely
Zint-MC
1960-1976
Acrylic on canvas
179 x 153 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left Yllus, 1978; V.P. 102, 1979; Trybox, 1979 and Toro, 1973-1974

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Yllus' 1978

 

Victor Vasarely
Yllus
1978
Acrylic on canvas
87 x 87 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Trybox' 1979

 

Victor Vasarely
Trybox
1979
Acrylic on canvas
192 x 218 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Toro' 1973-1974

 

Victor Vasarely
Toro (Bull)
1973-1974
Acrylic on canvas
175 x 175 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Stri-Oet' 1979

 

Victor Vasarely
Stri-Oet
Acrylic on canvas
211 x 191 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of the exhibition Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid showing from left Stri-Oet, 1979; Cheiyt-Stri-F, 1975; Peer-Rouge, 1977; Woo, 1972-1975; Kekub, 1976-1978 and Black Orion, 1970

 

 

8. Planetary Folklore

In the early 1960s, Vasarely put forward a proposal for the use of a universal visual language formulated in accordance with the principle of the Plastic Unit, which he called ‘planetary folklore’. He believed that regularly arranged and numbered, homogeneous colours and constant forms, of the kind that could be manufactured industrially, could have meaning attached to them. His intention was for the opportunity of aesthetic pleasure to become part of the everyday environment. As Vasarely argued, artworks not only belonged in museums and galleries, but were also needed in every single segment of urban life. His concept, which built on the ideas of Le Corbusier and Fernand Léger, and which proclaimed a synthesis of the different fields of the arts, was for the building blocks of the cities of the future to consist of mass-produced, monumental ‘plastic’ works that could be extended to any desired size, which would provide limitless possibilities of variation. The first of his architectural integrations was implemented in Venezuela in 1954, on the campus of the Central University of Caracas; this was followed by monumental ‘plastic’ installations on buildings in Bonn, Essen, Paris and Grenoble.

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Ferde' 1966-1974

 

Victor Vasarely
Ferde
1966-1974
Collage on cardboard
78 x 77 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Victor Vasarely. The Birth of Op Art' at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 

Installation view of (l-r):

Victor Vasarely
Estudio BR 14, serie “Pignons” Muros ciegos, Integraciones monumentales, Viviendas colectivas, Edificios grandes
Study BR 14. ‘Pignons’ Series: Blind Walls, Monumental Interations, Collective Dwellings, Large Buildings
1970
Mixed: Collage on board
75.8 x 81.8 cm
Fondation Vasarely, Aix-en- Provence
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

Victor Vasarely
Estudio BR 3, serie “Pignons” Muros ciegos, Integraciones monumentales, Viviendas colectivas, Edificios grandes
Study BR 3. ‘Pignons’ Series: Blind Walls, Monumental Interations, Collective Dwellings, Large Buildings
1970
Mixed: Collage on board
75.8 x 81.8 cm
Fondation Vasarely, Aix-en- Provence
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

 

9. Multiples

An important part of Vasarely’s art philosophy was his conscious refusal to discriminate between an individual work and its duplicate. He was convinced that an artwork came alive again when multiplied, and that the multiple was the most democratic form of art. His aim was to topple the elitist concept of owning unique and unrepeatable works by replacing it with the notion of making pictures for mass distribution. The artist experimented with the most diverse assortment of materials and techniques, from the most modern to the most ancient. Weaving workshops in Aubusson, following traditions dating back centuries, produced tapestries from his designs. Vasarely was also especially fond of the serigraph. His individually signed and numbered screen prints were commercially available on the art market, as were the multiple objects composed of individually handcoloured or industrially reproduced sheets mounted on wooden or metal backing materials.

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Kroa-MC' 1969

 

Victor Vasarely
Kroa-MC
1969
44 x 44 x 50 cm
Multiple. Metal, silk screen on metal
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Tridim- HH' 1972

 

Victor Vasarely
Tridim- HH
1972
Multiple. Acrylic on board
30 x 24 x 6 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Beryl-Positive' 1967

 

Victor Vasarely
Beryl-Positive
1967
Multiple, acrylic on plywood
36 x 36 x 4.5 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Ajedrez' (Chess Set) 1980

 

Victor Vasarely
Ajedrez (Chess Set)
1980
Plexiglass on acrylic board
70 x 70 x 15 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018

 

 

Vasarely and the ‘Op Art’ phenomenon

Márton Orosz

 

‘…here comes Op Art!’

Victor Vasarely, 18 April 1964

 

 

When the major exhibition titled The Responsive Eye opened at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1965, it made Optical Art famous almost overnight. The limelight was stolen by two Europeans: Josef Albers, who continued the legacy of the Bauhaus in his art, and Victor Vasarely. Both men were represented at the show with six works each. But whereas Albers, oft neglected by the critics, was turned into the black sheep of the movement by contemporary art history writing, for Vasarely, who was just reaching the peak of his career, the show served as a launch pad to fame.(…)

The scientific definition of Op Art came soon afterwards, with the first attempt made in 1967 by the German art historian, Max Imdahl. Imdahl interpreted the art of Victor Vasarely as deriving from the Orphism of Robert Delaunay, which ascribed meaning to colour, the Neo-Plasticism of Piet Mondrian, which rested on the symmetry of two-dimensional structures, and the Mechano-Faktura of Henryk Berlewi, which borrowed its aesthetic principles from the schematism of mechanical production. Vasarely, meanwhile, preferred to call his own invention Kineticism, and he was fully justified in doing so, because if we accept the contents of his art philosophical writings, published in chronological order under the title of Notes brutes, then the artist was the first person to consistently use this name for the movement. He coined the phrase ‘kinetic art’ in 1953, basing the term on the description of the movement of gases written by Nicolas Sadi Carnot, the nineteenth-century French engineer who developed thermodynamics. In the light of Vasarely’s consistency of thought, his wide-ranging knowledge and his enthusiasm for science, it would have been the logical outcome of his principles to classify his works under a style or movement of his own construction. Kineticism, however, was regarded by Vasarely as something more than a simple art movement. He not only referred to it in a formal sense, but also accorded it ethical, economic, social and philosophical functions. He believed it to be of greater significance than Cubism, and he was convinced the Kineticism offered, for the first time since the Renaissance, a synthesis of ‘the two creative expressions of man: the arts and the sciences’. The simultaneous representation of movement, space and time had already found expression in Constructivist art in the 1920s, but Vasarely’s Op Art was fundamentally different, in that it aimed to generate a spatial effect through the use of a two-dimensional surface by creating the illusion of motion in macro-time, whereby the image formed on the retina underwent virtual manipulation. Consequently, the name Op Art can be given to any artwork ‘that shifts during the spectator’s act of perception’. (…).

 

‘Optical’ paintings

(…) Vibrant surfaces created from patterns of geometric figures arranged according to a particular algorithm can be found among the mosaics of Antiquity. The first stage in the history of the autonomisation of retina-based art, however, came at the end of the nineteenth century with Pointillist painting, which relied on the scientific theory of the optical combination of colours, and with the so-called Divisionists, who strove to separate optical effects using an analytical method. Georges Seurat’s ‘optical painting’, however, remained firmly attached to the real spectacle. Primary shapes became a means of generating illusions with the arrival of non-objective, abstract art styles, especially Cubism. Optical games derived from periodic series of geometric elements were incorporated into the repertoire of applied photography in the second half of the 1920s. During his studies in Budapest, Vasarely may have come across such depictions, even in the printed press, such as the photograph of the Hollywood actress, Alice White, in a room of mirrors decorated with abstract patterns.

Yet optical illusion was not enough to bring about Op Art, which also needed the dynamism of kinetics. It became inseparable from the concept of the fourth dimension of motion-time, which tipped the static work out of its fixed position by involving the viewer and turning the eye into the active organ of sight. In this sense, Vasarely’s optical kineticism also posed the question of the dematerialisation of the artwork, for in his works, the actual spectacle is not present on the canvas at rest in front of us, but comes about through interacting with the work and is generated on the retina. Vasarely was never concerned with the type of mechanical movement that brought about the works of Jean Tinguely or Marcel Duchamp. The Hungarian artist’s planar kineticism was in this respect far more closely connected to visual research than to the approach of works that emphasise their industrial nature. (…)

 

Op Art as Algorithm

(…) When it came to the aesthetic and market values of artworks that existed in multiple copies, opinion was split even among the artists participating in the exhibition. In terms of form, the experiments into perception conducted by Vasarely and Bridget Riley, for example, had much in common, and yet their views on the democratisation and interdisciplinarity of art differed sharply. Unlike Riley, who always insisted on her paintings being one of a kind, Vasarely’s programme of art targeted a re-evaluation of the aesthetic of reproduced, duplicated objects. It was in this regard that Vasarely came closest to Pop Art and to its iconic exponent, Andy Warhol. In spite of this, Vasarely was not in thrall to Pop Art. He spoke appreciatively of its achievements, but he considered it to be a movement outside the realm of painting, a parody or caricature of its own times. Pop Art, meanwhile, suffered greatly from the fact that Op Art ultimately proved far more popular. ‘I am “pop” in the sense that I would like to be popular’, Vasarely wittily replied when one journalist pressed him on his personal position in Op Art, shortly after it had found fame as a fashion phenomenon. A few years later, at a reception held in the Galerie Spiegel in Cologne in September 1971, where a work by Vasarely hung on the wall beside Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude, an iconic piece from the rival movement, the Hungarian-born artist was asked his opinion of Pop Art. He could not refrain from commenting that the essence of Pop was exaggeration. He then cast a malicious glance at Wesselmann’s painting before declaring, ‘Art is not about painting gigantic pictures for billionaires’. When it was subsequently suggested that his democratic views were not compatible with the high prices commanded by his works, he replied, ‘The critics compare me to hippies who loathe money but who want to get around by hitchhiking. And at such times it is of no concern to them that they are travelling with the help of General Motors, Shell and other billionaire companies’.

There was, however, a whole group of Pop-Art fans who would never have dreamed of denigrating Kineticism. Warhol, for instance, began to follow Vasarely’s career after seeing his works at the opening of The Responsive Eye. He was present at the artist’s exhibition held in 1965 in the Pace Gallery in New York, and his admiration endured until 1984, when he attended Vasarely’s birthday party, arranged by Yoko Ono. It was probably on this occasion that Warhol was given a handkerchief signed by Vasarely, decorated with a pre-kinetic zebra composition, which the American artist preserved among his relics up until his death. We would find few artists in the twentieth century who achieved more in rethinking the aesthetic of the multiplied artwork than Vasarely and Warhol, so there is a striking contradiction in the fact that the only work by Vasarely in Warhol’s collection was a monochromatic oil painting, titled Onix (1966)107, which actually represented the counterpoint to the paradigm expressing the latent artistic opportunities in duplication (including the entire spectrum of vibrant and saturated colours). (…)

Extract from the catalogue

 

Victor Vasarely. 'Transparence-XIII' 1952

 

Victor Vasarely
Transparence-XIII
1952
Kinetic object, silkscreen on plastic foils mounted on plywood
40 x 33 cm
Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest
© Victor Vasarely, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018
(from the Belle-Isle / Crystal / Denfert section of the exhibition)

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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