Posts Tagged ‘1930s American documentary photography

22
Jan
21

Photographs: Walker Evans. ‘Subway portraits 1938-41’

January 2021

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

 

Unguarded moments

“Tell those friends with cameras for eyes”

 

It’s going to be really hot in Melbourne for the next few days so I won’t be able to get into the computer room to work – so a posting today, Friday 22 January, and the next one on Wednesday next week.

These iconic Walker Evans New York subway portraits of anonymous travellers (both physically and mentally) are remarkably unprepossessing. They just are. They exist. Taken with a hidden 35mm camera, they picture human beings in (allegedly) unposed, unguarded moments, unaware that they are being photographed. But un/aware in another sense – un/aware of their surroundings, the person opposite them, or the time, un/aware of their dreams – of past, present and future. Engrossed in reading, staring vacantly into space, deep in thoughtful repose, or possessing a sadness beyond belief, now, they impinge on our consciousness through their very facticity.

You could make up stories about their lives: the boy above in his postal cap(?), gay, nervous, lonely in the big city; the man with the spectacles staring down at his paper, an accountant, or a watchmaker, working all his life to support his family. The black man with his immaculate dress, coat, scarf and Fedora battling for his place in society; and the two woman together, polar opposites, she, clasping her bag, possibly an immigrant arrived through Ellis Island from Eastern Europe, and she, fur edged coat and steepling hat, severe, dour, rich, matronly.

Here they are, this panoply of archetypes, clothed in complete protection for spiritual warfare. Unguarded moments to the photographer they may be, but the mask is definitely not off. In my observation, human beings on public transport are always un/guarded, always protecting themselves from the stranger next to them, the unknown threat, or wandering off in daydreams to another time and place, absenting themselves so that only the shell, the husk, is left. Here and there, present but absent, absent but present, these creatures of the underground still roam the corridors of human consciousness.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
All photographs are used under fair use conditions for the purpose of educational research and informed comment. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

“Although the setting was public, he found that his subjects, unposed and lost in their thoughts, displayed a constantly shifting medley of moods and expressions-by turns curious, bored, amused, despondent, dreamy, and dyspeptic. “The guard is down and the mask is off,” he remarked. “Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.””

Anonymous text from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website [Online] Cited 22/01/2021

 

 

 

The Unguarded Moment  ~ The Church

 

So hard finding inspiration
I knew you’d find me crying
Tell those girls with rifles for minds
That their jokes don’t make me laugh
They only make me feel like dying
In an unguarded moment
So long, long between mirages
I knew you’d find me drinking
Tell those men with horses for hearts
That their jibes don’t make me bleed
They only make me feel like shrinking
In an unguarded moment
So deep, deep without a meaning
I knew you’d find me leaving
Tell those friends with cameras for eyes
That their hands don’t make me hang
They only make me feel like breathing
In an unguarded moment

 

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) '35mm negative strip of Subway Portraits' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
35mm negative strip of Subway Portraits
1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

 

As photographic technology advanced – cameras became more portable and film more sensitive to light, requiring shorter exposure times – people were no longer required to stay still for pictures. Walker Evans was among the photographers who capitalised on this flexibility. Between 1938 and 1941, he took his camera underground, where he photographed subway riders in New York City. “The guard is down and the mask is off,” he wrote, “even more than when in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors). People’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.” (Walker Evans, quoted in Belinda Rathbone. Walker Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995, 170-71)

In order to discreetly capture these candid Subway Portraits, Evans came up with an undercover method of taking photographs. He concealed his 35-millimeter Contax camera by painting its shiny chrome parts black and hiding it under his topcoat, with only its lens peeking out between two buttons. He rigged its shutter to a cable release, whose chord snaked down his sleeve and into the palm of his hand, which he kept buried in his pocket. For extra assurance, he asked his friend and fellow photographer Helen Levitt to join him on his subway shoots, believing that his activities would be less noticeable if he was accompanied by someone. With these methods, Evans managed to capture people immersed in conversation, reading, or seemingly lost in their own thoughts and moods. His subjects’ faces display a range of emotions. He also succeeded in accomplishing a difficult challenge in making truly unposed portraits.

Anonymous text from the MoMA website [Online] Cited 22/01/2021

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

 

Walker Evans’ book Many Are Called is a three-year photographic study of people on the New York subway. Using a camera hidden in his jacket and a cable release running down his sleeve, Evans snapped unsuspecting passengers while they traveled through the city. Evans said that these photographs were his “idea of what a portrait ought to be,” he wrote, “anonymous and documentary and a straightforward picture of mankind.” As photographic technology advanced – cameras became more portable and film more sensitive to light, requiring shorter exposure times – people were no longer required to pose for pictures. In an effort to capture candid images of people in public places, Walker Evans affixed a right angle viewfinder to his camera to make it look as if he was pointing it off to the side rather than directly at his subjects. For his Subway Portraits, he went even further and concealed his camera by painting its shiny chrome parts black and hiding it under his topcoat, with only its lens peeking out between two buttons. He rigged its shutter to a cable release, whose chord snaked down his sleeve and into the palm of his hand, which he kept buried in his pocket. As a result, these portraits show people in unguarded moments.

Text from ‘Seeing Through Photographs’ online course, Coursera, 2016.

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway Passengers, New York City' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway Passengers, New York City
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway Passengers, New York City' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway Passengers, New York City
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway Passengers, New York City' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway Passengers, New York City
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway Passengers, New York City' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway Passengers, New York City
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway portrait' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway portrait
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway Passengers, New York City' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway Passengers, New York City
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway Passengers, New York City' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway Passengers, New York City
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'Subway Passengers, New York City' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway Passengers, New York City
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'View Down Subway Car with Accordionist Performing in Aisle, New York City' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
View Down Subway Car with Accordionist Performing in Aisle, New York City
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) 'View Down Subway Car with Accordionist Performing in Aisle, New York City' 1938-1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
View Down Subway Car with Accordionist Performing in Aisle, New York City
1938-1941
Gelatin silver print
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Public domain

 

 

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25
Mar
20

Exhibition: ‘Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Exhibition dates: 9th February – 9th May 2020

MoMA has closed temporarily due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

#MuseumFromHome

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Six Tenant Farmers without Farms, Hardeman County, Texas' 1937, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Six Tenant Farmers without Farms, Hardeman County, Texas
1937, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
12 15/16 × 16 5/8″ (32.9 × 42.2 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

 

This image appeared in Land of the Free and later in Lange and Paul Taylor’s documentary photobook An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1941), where Lange cropped out the sixth, smaller man, perhaps to simplify the idea of strength and virility conveyed there.

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'A Half-Hour Later, Hardeman County, Texas' 1937, printed 1965

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
A Half-Hour Later, Hardeman County, Texas
1937, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
12 1/8 × 15 3/16″ (30.8 × 38.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

 

“All photographs – not only those that are so-called ‘documentary,’ … can be fortified by words.”

“And the assignment was… see what was really there. What does it look like, what does it feel like, what actually is the human condition.”

.
Dorothea Lange

 

“Lange took so many memorable photographs that it is challenging to shortlist them. One of the greatest is at the entrance to the MoMA show: “Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona” (1940). The farmworker’s hands are close to the lens of the camera. One hand is holding a wooden beam; it could be the implement of his impending crucifixion. The other hand, with its open palm and splayed fingers, covers his mouth. Unforgettably powerful, the photograph resembles self-portraits by Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele, who shared Lange’s interest in extremities – hands and feet, and also, wretched misery.”

.
Arthur Lubow

 

 

Closer and closer

While MoMA has closed temporarily due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, I believe it is important to document and write about those exhibitions that would have been running during this distressing time, as a form of social inclusion, social connection if you like, in the virtual world. I know that I am feeling particularly isolated at the moment, fighting off depression, with a lack of my usual routine and coffee with friends.

Great art always inspires, engages me, makes me feel and care about the world around me. In these photographs by that most excellent of photographers Dorothea Lange, of another desperate time, The Great Depression, we can feel her sincerity and intensity, that resolute gift of seeing the world clearly, despite the abject misery that surrounds her. Fast forward future, and we see the lines of the newly unemployed, desperate, penniless, snaking around the block of the social security buildings here in Australia, this very day.

Lange’s photographs don’t need words. Words are never enough.

The faces weary, furrowed, parched under baking sun, rutted like the land, Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas (1938). Dark eyes pierce the marrow, astringent lines, heavy eyebrows, mirror, set above, tight, tight mouth, Young Sharecropper, Macon County, Georgia (July 1937). I feel what, his pain? his sadness? his despair? Hands, arms, feet, form an important part of Lange’s visual armoury, arm/ory, amour. The hand to chin of Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (March 1936); the bony arms of Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle (June 1938); hand obscuring face, steely gaze, Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town, California (1938); weathered, beaten hands, beaten, Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona (November 1940). These extremities are expressions not just of her subjects, but of herself. A virtual self-portrait.

“One of the greatest is at the entrance to the MoMA show: “Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona” (1940). The farmworker’s hands are close to the lens of the camera. One hand is holding a wooden beam; it could be the implement of his impending crucifixion. The other hand, with its open palm and splayed fingers, covers his mouth. Unforgettably powerful, the photograph resembles self-portraits by Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele, who shared Lange’s interest in extremities – hands and feet, and also, wretched misery.” (Press release)

Lange “is a key link in a chain of photographic history. From Evans, she learned how to frame precise images of clapboard churches. But unlike Evans, who usually preferred to keep a distance and capture a building’s architectural integrity, Lange always wanted, as she said when describing how she made “Migrant Mother,” to move “closer and closer”.” Moving closer, her photographs possess an un/bridled intimacy with troubled creatures. Moving closer, seeing clearly. Closer and closer, till death, parts.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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

 

 

 

Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures MoMA exhibition

 

Dorothea Lange introduction

 

Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures introduction text

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020 with at right, Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona November 1940
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Lange San Francisco Streets

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

San Francisco Streets

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020 showing at left, White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco 1933
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco' 1933

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco
1933
Gelatin silver print
10 3/4 x 8 7/8″ (27.3 x 22.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Albert M. Bender

 

 

About this photograph, one of the first made outside her studio, Lange recalled, “I was just gathering my forces and that took a little bit because I wasn’t accustomed to jostling about in groups of tormented, depressed and angry men, with a camera.”

 

Lange Government Work

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

Government Work

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020 showing at fifth from left bottom, Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town, California 1938; at fourth from left top, Grayson, San Joaquin Valley, California 1938; and at fifth from left top, Ex-Slave with Long Memory, Alabama c. 1937
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town, California' 1938, printed c. 1958

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town, California
1938, printed c. 1958
Gelatin silver print
9 7/16 × 8″ (24 × 20.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Grayson, San Joaquin Valley, California' 1938, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Grayson, San Joaquin Valley, California
1938, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
10 3/8 x 16 15/16″ (26.3 x 43 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

 

Regarding this picture, Dorothea Lange’s field notes report: “Grayson was a migratory agricultural labourers’ shack town. It was during the season of the pea harvest. Late afternoon about 6 o’clock. Boys were playing baseball in the road that passes this building, which was used as a church. Otherwise, this corpse, lying at the church, was alone, unattended, and unexplained.” The full negative she made there represents not just this doorway but the entire whitewashed gabled façade. The concrete steps in front of the entrance and foundation blocks are visible. Apparently the form in the doorway was what drew Lange to the scene, however; it has been suggested that she later realised this central feature was important enough to carry the composition and proceeded to concentrate on the portion of the negative with the shallow portal holding the body. She published an even more severely cut-down version in the 1940 US Camera Annual. Bearing the title Doorstep Document, it eliminates the three plain boards that frame the doorway, making the depth of the threshold less evident and the wrapped figure and worn double doors more prominent and funereal.

It is not known why Lange identified the form as a corpse rather than a homeless person. Today we are more inclined to think the latter, since such scenes are common. The relaxed, uncovered pose of the feet indicates a voluntary reclining position. Lange was also some distance away when she made the exposure. One of the playing children may have suggested the corpse idea to test its shock value, and perhaps Lange adopted it for future propaganda purposes. Grayson was just a small town southwest of Modesto, and this church was probably one of the few places of refuge it offered.

It would seem peculiar for the feet of a dead person to be exposed. Here they represent the life, the personality, of this anonymous citizen. Always sensitive to the appearance and performance of others’ feet, due to her own deformity, Lange made hundreds of photographs on the theme. This one is among the most melancholy.

Judith Keller, Dorothea Lange, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002), 40. © 2002 J. Paul Getty Trust

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Ex-Slave with Long Memory, Alabama' c. 1937, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Ex-Slave with Long Memory, Alabama
c. 1937, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
15 3/16 × 11 15/16″ (38.5 × 30.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Lange 'Land of the Free'

Lange 'Land of the Free'

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Archibald Macleish (American, 1892-1982)
Land of the Free
1938
Letterpress open: 9 7/16 x 13 1/8″ (24 x 33.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York

Open at Lange’s Ditched, Stalled and Stranded, San Joaquin Valley, California February 1936

 

Lange Land of the Free

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

Land of the Free

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020 with at left, Ditched, Stalled and Stranded, San Joaquin Valley, California February 1936; and at centre, Six Tenant Farmers without Farms, Hardeman County, Texas 1937
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

Land of the Free and An American Exodus

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

 

FOR THE ENTIRE second half of Dorothea Lange’s life, a quotation from the English philosopher Francis Bacon floated in her peripheral vision: “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.” She pinned a printout of these words up on her darkroom door in 1933. It remained there until she died, at 70, in 1965 – three months before her first retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and three decades after she took the most iconic photograph in the medium’s history.

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California' March 1936

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California
March 1936
Gelatin silver print
11 1/8 x 8 9/16″ (28.3 x 21.8 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

 

The captions used to describe Migrant Mother are as varied as the publications in which they appeared: “A destitute mother, the type aided by the WPA.” “A worker in the ‘peach bowl.'” “Draggin’-around people.” “In a camp of migratory pea-pickers, San Luis Obispo County, California.” Even in ostensibly factual settings such as newspapers, government reports, or a museum cataloguing sheet, no fixed phrase or set of words was associated with the image until 1952, when it was published as Migrant Mother.

 

Lange Migrant Mother / Popular Photography

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

Migrant Mother / Popular Photography

Installation views of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020 with at left in the bottom photograph, Sunlit Oak c. 1957 (below)
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Sunlit Oak' c. 1957, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Sunlit Oak
c. 1957, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
30 7/8 × 41 1/8″ (78.4 × 104.5 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Kern County, California' 1938

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Kern County, California
1938
Gelatin silver print
12 7/16 x 12 1/2″ (31.6 x 31.7 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

Pictures of Words

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020 with at left, Western Addition, San Francisco, California 1951 (below); at fifth from left, Kern County, California 1938 (above); at third from right, Crossroads Store, North Carolina July 1939 (below)
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Western Addition, San Francisco, California' 1951, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Western Addition, San Francisco, California
1951, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
7 3/16 × 6″ (23.8 × 17.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Crossroads Store, North Carolina' July 1939, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Crossroads Store, North Carolina
July 1939, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
9 11/16 × 13 9/16″ (24.6 × 34.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas' 1938

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas
1938
Gelatin silver print
9 5/16 x 12 13/16″ (23.6 x 32.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

 

Lange and Taylor’s captions in An American Exodus consider the human impact of environmental crises. The one for this image reads, “Tractors replace not only mules but people. They cultivate to the very door of the houses of those whom they replace.”

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'The Road West, New Mexico' 1938, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
The Road West, New Mexico
1938, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
9 5/8 × 13 1/16″ (24.5 × 33.2 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

The image was memorialised later by Robert Frank

 

Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor. 'An American Exodus. A Record of Human Erosion' New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939

Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor. 'An American Exodus. A Record of Human Erosion' New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939

 

 

A seminal work in documentary studies, with powerful photographs of the Depression era made by the wife and husband team of Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor. They were hired by the Farm Security Administration to document the 300,000 strong, Depression era exodus from rural America, and the struggles these migrant workers overcame in search of basic necessities. The documentary photographer and social scientist’s goal was to “use the camera as a tool of research. Upon a tripod of photographs, captions, and text we rest themes evolved out of long observations in the field. We adhere to the standards of documentary photography as we have conceived them. Quotations which accompany photographs report what the persons photographed said, not what we think might be their unspoken thoughts.” p. 6.

Text from the Abe Books website [Online] Cited 24/02/2020

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle' June 1938, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle
June 1938, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
29 3/4 × 24″ (75.6 × 61 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

 

“IF YOU DIE, YOU’RE DEAD – THAT’S ALL”

When it was published in An American Exodus, this portrait was captioned “If you die, you’re dead—that’s all.” This line was taken from Lange’s field notes, which quote the woman at greater length: “‘We made good money a pullin’ bolls, when we could pull. But we’ve had no work since March. . . . You can’t get no relief here until you’ve lived here a year. This county’s a hard country. They won’t help bury you here. If you die, you’re dead, that’s all.’”

 

Lange 'An American Exodus'

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

An American Exodus

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020 with at left, Young Sharecropper, Macon County, Georgia July 1937; at second left top, The Road West, New Mexico 1938; at centre Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle June 1938; and second right, Jobless on the Edge of a Peafield, Imperial Valley, California February 1937
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Young Sharecropper, Macon County, Georgia' July 1937, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Young Sharecropper, Macon County, Georgia
July 1937, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
11 3/4 × 11 3/4″ (29.8 × 29.9 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Jobless on the Edge of a Peafield, Imperial Valley, California' February 1937, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Jobless on the Edge of a Peafield, Imperial Valley, California
February 1937, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
16 15/16 × 15 3/4″ (43 × 40.1 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor. 'An American Exodus. A Record of Human Erosion' New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939

Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor. 'An American Exodus. A Record of Human Erosion' New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939

 

Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor
An American Exodus. A Record of Human Erosion
New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939
First edition. Hardcover
Letterpress open: 10 1/4 x 15 3/8″ (26 x 39.1 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York

 

 

Empathy and Artistry: Rediscovering Dorothea Lange

John Szarkowski was about 13 when he saw an image by Dorothea Lange that “enormously impressed” him. After he had become the powerful director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, he would recall that he took it to be a “picture of the hard-faced old woman, looking out of the handsome oval window of the expensive automobile with her hand to her face as if the smell of the street was offending her, and I thought, ‘Isn’t that marvellous?’ That a photographer can pin that specimen to the board as some kind of exotic moth and show her there in her true colours.”

A quarter of a century after his initial encounter with the photo, working in 1965 with Lange on his first one-artist retrospective at MoMA, he read her full caption for “Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town, California,” and realised that the fancy car belonged to an undertaker and that the expression he took for haughtiness was grief.

The wry confession of his mistake, which Szarkowski made in 1982 to an interviewer, is not mentioned in “Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures,” which opened Sunday at MoMA. But it illustrates the curatorial theme: Lange’s pictures require verbal commentary to be read legibly.

Curiously, though, the strength of Lange’s photographs at MoMA undercuts the exhibition’s concept. With or without the support of words, Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), created some of the greatest images of the unsung struggles and overlooked realities of American life. Her most iconic photograph, which came to be called “Migrant Mother,” portrays a grave-faced woman in ragged clothing in Nipomo, Calif., in 1936, with two small children burying their faces against her shoulders, and a baby nestled in her lap. It is one of the most famous pictures of all time.

Yet Lange was not simply a Depression photographer. As this revelatory, heartening exhibition shows, she was an artist who made remarkable pictures throughout a career that spanned more than four decades. The photos she took in 1942 of interned Japanese-Americans (which the government suppressed until 1964) display state-administered cruelty with stone-cold clarity: One dignified man in a three-piece suit and overcoat is wearing a tag, like a steer, while disembodied white hands on either side examine and prod him. Her prescient photographs of environmental degradation portray the human cost of building a dam that flooded the Berryessa Valley near Napa. Her empathetic portraits of African-American field hands shine a light on a system of peonage that predated and outlasted the 1930s.

Nevertheless, her fame rests largely on the indelible images she made, starting in 1935, as an employee of the Resettlement Administration and its successor, the Farm Security Administration, both under the leadership of Roy Stryker. Lange endured a fractious relationship with Stryker, who seemed deeply discomfited by a strong-minded woman. He fired her in 1940, saying she was “uncooperative.” To his credit, however, he always acknowledged that “Migrant Mother” was the key image of the Depression.

Seeking a deeper understanding of the economic crisis, Lange and her collaborators in the field interviewed her subjects, and she incorporated their words into her captions. She was the first photographer to do that systematically. The show’s curator, Sarah Hermanson Meister, who drew from the museum’s collection of more than 500 Lange prints, includes many of the captions in the wall labels, in an installation that is patterned after Szarkowski’s 1966 Lange show. (The artist died of esophageal cancer before it opened.)

Lange took so many memorable photographs that it is challenging to shortlist them. One of the greatest is at the entrance to the MoMA show: “Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona” (1940). The farmworker’s hands are close to the lens of the camera. One hand is holding a wooden beam; it could be the implement of his impending crucifixion. The other hand, with its open palm and splayed fingers, covers his mouth. Unforgettably powerful, the photograph resembles self-portraits by Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele, who shared Lange’s interest in extremities – hands and feet, and also, wretched misery. …

Many wonderful Lange photographs are not overtly political. “Bad Trouble Over the Weekend” (1964) is a close-up of a woman’s hands folded over her face; one hand bears a wedding band and holds an unlit cigarette. (The subject was her daughter-in-law.) And Lange photographed multitrunked oaks with the same acuity as fingered hands.

The fame of “Migrant Mother” has cropped Lange’s reputation unfairly. She is a key link in a chain of photographic history. From Evans, she learned how to frame precise images of clapboard churches. But unlike Evans, who usually preferred to keep a distance and capture a building’s architectural integrity, Lange always wanted, as she said when describing how she made “Migrant Mother,” to move “closer and closer.” Her 1938 photograph, “Death in the Doorway, ” of a church entrance in the San Joaquin Valley reveals a blanketed corpse that someone, probably unable to afford a burial, has deposited. Evans would never have gone there.

In turn, Lange was revered by the documentary photographers who followed her. The greatest of them, Robert Frank, paid her direct homage in “The Americans,” shooting from the same vantage point the New Mexico highway that Lange had memorialized in “An American Exodus.”

But photography was heading off in a different direction. A year after his Lange exhibition, Mr. Szarkowski mounted “New Documents,” which introduced a younger generation of American photographers: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Speaking to me in 2003, he explained that these photographers were “rejecting Dorothea’s attitude” that “documentary photography was supposed to do some good” and instead using the camera “to explore their own experience and their own life and not to persuade somebody else what to do or what to work for.” That notion was hardly foreign to Lange. In a picture of a lame person, “Walking Wounded, Oakland” (1954), she found, as did the New Documents artists, a real-life subject that mirrored her own life.

One happy consequence of our dismal political moment is a rediscovery of Lange. In 2018, a major exhibition from her archive was staged at the Barbican Center in London and the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

Perhaps now younger photographers will be inspired to pick up her banner. The need is all too apparent. Where is the photographer of cleareyed empathy and consummate artistry to depict the disquiet, hopelessness and desperate fortitude that riddle the American body politic of today? Who will bring us our “Migrant Mother”?

Arthur Lubow. “Empathy and Artistry: Rediscovering Dorothea Lange,” on The New York Times website Feb. 13, 2020 [Online] Cited 24/03/2020.

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona' November 1940

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona
November 1940
Gelatin silver print
19 15/16 × 23 13/16″ (50.7 × 60.5 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Lange '12 Million Black Voices'

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Edwin Rosskam (American, 1903-1985)
Richard Wright (American, 1908-1960)
12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States
1941
Offset lithography open: 10 1/4 x 14 1/2″ (26 x 36.8 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art Library

 

Lange 12 Million Black Voices

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

12 Million Black Voices

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Richmond, California' 1942

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Richmond, California
1942
Gelatin silver print
9 ¾ x 7 11/16″ (24.7 x 19.5 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Richmond, California' 1942

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Richmond, California
1942, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
10 7/16 × 13 3/16″ (26.5 × 33.5 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

 

During World War II, at the height of antiJapanese sentiment, Lange documented an explicitly racist billboard advertising the Southern Pacific railroad company. Rather than portraying the billboard in isolation, she disrupted the frame with a handmade sign that seems to undermine the commodification of such political sentiments.

 

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020 with at second left top, One Nation Indivisible, San Francisco 1942 (below); and at second left bottom, Just About to Step into the Bus for the Assembly Center, San Francisco April 6, 1942 (below)
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'One Nation Indivisible, San Francisco' 1942

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
One Nation Indivisible, San Francisco
1942
Gelatin silver print
13 1/8 × 9 13/16″ (33.4 × 25 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Just About to Step into the Bus for the Assembly Center, San Francisco' April 6, 1942, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Just About to Step into the Bus for the Assembly Center, San Francisco
April 6, 1942, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
10 3/8 × 9 13/16″ (26.3 × 25 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

 

The Museum of Modern Art presents Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, the first major solo exhibition at the Museum of the photographer’s incisive work in over 50 years. On view from February 9 through May 9, 2020, Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures includes approximately 100 photographs drawn entirely from the Museum’s collection. The exhibition also uses archival materials such as correspondence, historical publications, and oral histories, as well as contemporary voices, to examine the ways in which words inflect our understanding of Lange’s pictures. These new perspectives and responses from artists, scholars, critics, and writers, including Julie Ault, Wendy Red Star, and Rebecca Solnit, provide fresh insight into Lange’s practice. Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures is organised by Sarah Meister, Curator, with River Bullock, Beaumont & Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, assisted by Madeline Weisburg, Modern Women’s Fund Twelve-Month Intern, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art.

Toward the end of her life, Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) remarked, “All photographs – not only those that are so-called ‘documentary,’ and every photograph really is documentary and belongs in some place, has a place in history – can be fortified by words.” Organised loosely chronologically and spanning her career, the exhibition groups iconic works together with lesser known photographs and traces their varied relationships to words: from early criticism on Lange’s photographs to her photo-essays published in LIFE magazine, and from the landmark photobook An American Exodus to her examination of the US criminal justice system. The exhibition also includes groundbreaking photographs of the 1930s – including Migrant Mother (1936) – that inspired pivotal public awareness of the lives of sharecroppers, displaced families, and migrant workers during the Great Depression. Through her photography and her words, Lange urged photographers to reconnect with the world – a call reflective of her own ethos and working method, which coupled an attention to aesthetics with a central concern for humanity.

“It seems both timely and urgent that we renew our attention to Lange’s extraordinary achievements,” said Sarah Meister. “Her concern for less fortunate and often overlooked individuals, and her success in using photography (and words) to address these inequities, encourages each of us to reflect on our own civic responsibilities. It reminds me of the unique role that art – and in particular photography – can play in imagining a more just society.”

The exhibition begins in 1933, when Lange, then a portrait photographer, first brought her camera outside into the streets of San Francisco. Lange’s increasing interest in the everyday experience of people she encountered eventually led her to work for government agencies, supporting their objective to raise public awareness and to provide aid to struggling farmers and those devastated by the Great Depression. During this time, Lange photographed her subjects and kept notes that formed the backbone of government reports; these and other archival materials will be represented alongside corresponding photographs throughout the exhibition. Lange’s commitment to social justice and her faith in the power of photography remained constant throughout her life, even when her politics did not align with those who were paying for her work. A central focus of the exhibition is An American Exodus, a 1939 collaboration between Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor, her husband and an agricultural economist. As an object and as an idea, An American Exodus highlights the voices of her subjects by pairing first-person quotations alongside their pictures. Later, Lange’s photographs continued to be useful in addressing marginalised histories and ongoing social concerns. Throughout her career as a photographer for the US Government and various popular magazines, Lange’s pictures were frequently syndicated and circulated outside of their original context. Lange’s photographs of the 1930s helped illustrate Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941), and her 1950s photographs of a public defender were used to illustrate Minimizing Racism in Jury Trials (1969), a law handbook published after Black Panther Huey P. Newton’s first trial during a time of great racial strife.

This collection-based exhibition would not be possible had it not been for Lange’s deep creative ties to the Museum during her lifetime. MoMA’s collection of Lange photographs was built over many decades and remains one of the definitive collections of her work. Her relationship to MoMA’s Department of Photography dates to her inclusion in its inaugural exhibition, in 1940 which was curated by the department’s director, Edward Steichen. Lange is a rare artist in that both Steichen and his successor, John Szarkowski, held her in equally high esteem. More than a generation after her first retrospective, organised by Szarkowski at MoMA in 1966, Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures uses both historical and contemporary words to encourage a more nuanced understanding of words and pictures in circulation.

Press release from MoMA website

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Richmond, California' 1942

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Richmond, California
1942
Gelatin silver print
7 3/8 x 6 5/8″ (18.8 x 16.9 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

The Family of Man and World War II

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020 with at left, Richmond, California 1942 (above)
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Café near Pinole, California' 1956, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Café near Pinole, California
1956, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
11 15/16 × 16 7/8″ (30.3 × 42.8 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
“Guilty, Your Honor,” Alameda County Courthouse, California
1955-57, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
17 1/16 × 14 15/16″ (43.3 × 37.9 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Lange Public Defender

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

Public Defender and Late Work

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'The Defendant, Alameda County Courthouse, California' 1957

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
The Defendant, Alameda County Courthouse, California
1957
Gelatin silver print
12 3/8 x 10 1/8″ (31.4 x 25.8 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'The Witness, Alameda County Courthouse, California' 1955-57, printed c. 1958

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
The Witness, Alameda County Courthouse, California
1955-57, printed c. 1958
Gelatin silver print
10 5/16 × 8 1/2″ (26.2 × 21.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist

 

Lange Late Work

 

Installation view of 'Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures', The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 - May 9, 2020

 

Late work

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020 with at left Man Stepping from Cable Car, San Francisco 1956, and at third left Walking Wounded, Oakland, 1954
© 2020 The Museum of Modern Art
Photo: John Wronn

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Walking Wounded, Oakland' 1954, printed c. 1958

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Walking Wounded, Oakland
1954, printed c. 1958
Gelatin silver print
7 1/2 × 9 1/2″ (19 × 24.2 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist

 

 

Lange’s choice of title for this image was almost certainly influenced by her own experience with disability. As a child she had contracted polio, which left her with a permanent limp. Toward the end of her life she reflected, “No one who hasn’t lived the life of a semi-cripple knows how much that means. I think it perhaps was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me. All those things at once. I’ve never gotten over it and I am aware of the force and the power of it.”

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Man Stepping from Cable Car, San Francisco' 1956

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Man Stepping from Cable Car, San Francisco
1956
Gelatin silver print
9 3/4 x 6 7/16″ (24.8 x 16.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Woman in Purdah, Upper Egypt' 1963, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Woman in Purdah, Upper Egypt
1963, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
12 7/16 × 15 15/16″ (31.6 × 40.5 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Bad Trouble Over the Weekend' 1964, printed 1965

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Bad Trouble Over the Weekend
1964, printed 1965
Gelatin silver print
7 3/16 × 5 3/4″ (18.2 × 14.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

 

 

Lange grappled extensively with the titles of the photographs included in her 1966 MoMA retrospective. In a letter to the curator, John Szarkowski, she wrote, “I propose also to caption each print separately, beyond time and place, sometimes with two or three words, sometimes with a quotation, sometimes with a brief commentary. This textual material I shall be working on for some time, on and of.” Rather than identify the subject of this photo as her daughter-in-law, Lange’s title extends the image’s affective reach.

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) '“Guilty, Your Honor,” Alameda County Courthouse, California' 1955-57, printed 1965

 

 

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29
Aug
12

Exhibition: ‘Weegee: Murder Is My Business’ at the International Center of Photography, New York

Exhibition dates: 20th January – 2nd September 2012

 

Weegee. 'Untitled [Anthony Esposito, booked on suspicion of killing a policeman, New York]' January 16, 1941

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Untitled [Anthony Esposito, booked on suspicion of killing a policeman, New York]
January 16, 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Weegee. 'The dead man's wife arrived...and then she collapsed' c. 1940

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
The dead man’s wife arrived… and then she collapsed
c. 1940
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Weegee. 'Girl jumped out of car, and was killed, on Park Ave.,' c. 1938

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Girl jumped out of car, and was killed, on Park Ave.,
c. 1938
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

 

“People are so wonderful that a photographer has only to wait for that breathless moment to capture what he wants on film… and when that split second of time is gone, it’s dead and can never be brought back.”

“For the pictures… I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I can’t explain, and I caught the New Yorkers with their masks off… not afraid to Laugh, Cry, or Make Love. What I felt I photographed, laughing and crying with them.”

.
Arthur Fellig (aka Weegee, 1899-1968)

 

“Weegee’s work is connected by an umbilical cord to darkness; his images emerged from Gotham City’s nocturnal penumbra, spectrally streaked by streetlights, lit brightly only where there was a human focus, a tabloid John Alton at work.

Weegee called it his “Rembrandt light” as he caught the human protagonists in the white glare of his photo flash, the scene otherwise enveloped in darkness. Weegee’s news pictures were never haphazard snapshots, albeit they were taken by a man who had happenstance and chance as his helpmates; he and his camera, with its flash, seem to have a fateful meeting with his human subjects; pictures seem perfectly arranged, and what we focus on is their human content. Weegee is the quintessential noir photographer.”

.
Mark Svetov. Life and Death (Mostly Death) in the Streets (2010) on American Suburb X website

 

 

If you want a good read about the life and times of Weegee then Mark Svetov’s Life and Death (Mostly Death) in the Streets (2010) on American Suburb X website is the way to go. I can’t really add much to this excellent piece of writing in terms of the history of the man and the social milieu in which he surrounded himself. What I can comment on are my personal feelings about his photographs.

Weegee’s photographs are no masterpiece of fine art printing, they are rough and direct, and I love them all the more for this quality. Their roughness – all sellotaped over, edges cut at odd angles, drawn and written on – only adds to their power and immediacy. If you can call photographs of dead bodies in the street vibrant and alive, then these photographs are just that. Svetov sees Weegee as the quintessential noir photographer; I see him not so much as that but as a sensitive, formalist photographer, a wonderful collagist and an artist who is a precursor to the pop art of the mid-late 1950s (think Warhol’s screen prints of the electric chair, or his mangled car crash series).

In the installation photographs of the exhibition Weegee: Murder Is My Business at the Photo League, New York (1941, see below) you get a sense of this master of assemblage, the animator and promoter (another pop trait!) at work. The large prints are casually pinned to the back board, surrounded by drawings of guns with smoke emanating from their barrels, cause of death certificates, photographs of Weegee himself “On the Spot”, Weegee’s press pass, newspaper clippings about the man and his work (including a photograph of his tiny bedroom) where Weegee “introduces” himself to his audience. The photographs flow around the room, from Faces, to Murder and Society. People are drawn into the aura of these photographs, you can see them leaning forward to take in every detail. They peer intently at the them trying to decipher every nuance of the narrative being told (the frequent hats lying about, the discarded pistols, the hand emerging from underneath the draped sheet).

As Svetov notes, Weegee’s news pictures were never haphazard snapshots, for they always seem perfectly arranged. Underneath the spontaneity and the humanism imparted by the artist is that fact that Weegee is a master of formalism. He knows exactly how to structure the picture plane as a classical pianist knows how to bring alive the themes of a Mozart sonata. Usually arriving before any other photographer because he lived opposite the police station and had a police radio in his car, Weegee “cased the joint” as I would put it, prowling quickly around the scene to get the best angle, the best shot before other photographers arrived or the scene was closed off by police. This instinctive framing only comes through having a good eye and training that eye so that what to shoot and how to crop the scene “in camera” becomes second nature.

Evidence of the formal structure implicit in Weegee’s photographs can be seen in my analysis of two photographs Line-Up for Night Court (ca. 1941, below) and Police officer and assistant removing body of Reception Hospital ambulance driver Morris Linker from East River, New York (August 24, 1943, below). In the first image the epicentre (or the enigma if you like) of the photograph is the dance of hands at the lower centre of the image, formed by two triangles and emphasised by two radial diagonals. The top points of the upper triangle are anchored by the men and women at both windows (see detail photographs), the patriarchal men in suit and tie at one window – a detective, a chief of police? – separated from the woman at another. Weegee’s splits this triangle with his frieze of faces showing the depths of human despair, despondency and ambivalence.

The second image has a much more complicated structure. In the first analysis we observe the different horizontal, vertical and diagonal planes as they march up the photograph. The “heart” of this image, where the yellow lines cross, is actually a point of absence. Look at the real photograph: it is the heart shaped empty space between the man’s outstretched hands that form the emotional centre of the image. In the second analysis we can simplify this down into a zigzagging line that passes directly through this point. To see this, to assess this and visualise the flowing movement in a split second is in any visual language outstanding. Weegee wasn’t averse to manipulating his images to achieve the desired result. The photograph Hold up man killed (November 24, 1941, below) shows his notations over the top of the image, the crop he envisaged and the words “Take out hat” and “Make sock black” so that he achieved the desired dynamic within the photograph.

Weegee was a master of flash and the use of foreshortening – to create atmosphere in the first instance and used as a visual entre into the photographs in the second. Sometimes he combines both. The policeman at left in Line-Up for Night Court is both out of focus and the highlights (his face) are blown out by the flash. Does this matter: not one iota, for the policeman “grounds” the whole left hand side of the image. Again, in Murder (c. 1940, below) the backside of the policeman is blown out by the flash but this only leads the eye of the viewer to the foreshortened body of the murder victim nestled in the crook of his knee and then onto the starkly lit pram, beyond. Finally, in Hold up man killed (November 24, 1941, below) the feet of the hold up man actually lead the viewer into the space between the two policeman’s shoes were the Surgeon from Gouverneur Hospital crouches over the body. Weegee also loved to weave detail into his images, so that even though the story is about human content, as Svetov observes, it is just as much about human materiality as well: notice the reflection of people in the car bonnet in At an East Side Murder (1943, below) at lower left and then the procession of worn shoes and the bagginess of the trousers – I didn’t realised they wore their trousers so baggy in the 1940s!

Svetlov sees Weegee’s photgraphs as containing an almost sacred squalor, a brash but anguished cry in an endless nightscape with nothing judgemental or distanced about them. I concur with the last part for Weegee was a man of the people whom he photographed. On the other points I am less sure: to me they are about light not darkness. They are about the aftermath of atrocity, of living, human beings dealing with death and its consequences. I see nothing sacred about this squalor. The photographs are about shining a light into darkness, the darkness that every human being must confront: the fact that we all have to die, somewhere, sometime, in the end.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

.
Many thankx to the International Center of Photography for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Weegee. 'Untitled [Installation view of "Weegee: Murder Is My Business" at the Photo League, New York]' 1941

Weegee. 'Untitled [Installation view of "Weegee: Murder Is My Business" at the Photo League, New York]' 1941

Weegee. 'Untitled [Installation view of "Weegee: Murder Is My Business" at the Photo League, New York]' 1941

Weegee. 'Untitled [Installation view of "Weegee: Murder Is My Business" at the Photo League, New York]' 1941

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Untitled [Installation view of “Weegee: Murder Is My Business” at the Photo League, New York]
1941
Silver gelatin photographs
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Text and captions from the original Murder Is My Business exhibition:

  • “Introducing Weegee”
  • “Due to an increase in MURDERS The Photo League presents 2nd Edition of “MURDER IS MY BUSNESS” by Weegee”
  • “Weegee Lives For His Work And Thinks Before Shooting” (newspaper headline on the “Weegee” board at left)
  • “This space reserved for the latest muders”
  • “MURDER Manhattan bloodbath”
  • “Arthur Fellig Photographer / Do not disturbe / Except in case of Fire, Murder or Snow Storm” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “Why did you kill your Sweetie”?  (caption underneath photograph)
  • “HUMAN BODY MINUS HEAD FOUND ON STREET” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “Cop & human head in package” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “Killed her husband after drinking brawl” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “Just a cheap murder” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “My man” (caption underneath photograph)
  • “Who done that” (caption underneath photograph)

 

 

“Weegee’s captions provided a visceral vernacular for the almost-sacred squalor of his imagery (see “Weegee’s Words” for a sampling). Taken together, they packed more than a mere punch; they were a brash but anguished cry in an endless nightscape. More than mere documents of a violent era, they also exuded a humanity that could only come from the photographer himself. There was nothing judgmental or distanced in Weegee’s work; he was the antithesis of the “slickers” who worked for glossy magazines. He remained a man essentially from the same New York working-class as the people he chose to photograph.”

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Mark Svetov. Life and Death (Mostly Death) in the Streets (2010) on American Suburb X website

 

 

Weegee. 'Untitled ["Ruth Snyder Murder" wax display, Eden Musée, Coney Island, New York]' ca. 1941

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Untitled [“Ruth Snyder Murder” wax display, Eden Musée, Coney Island, New York]
c. 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Unidentified Photographer. 'On the Spot' December 9, 1939

 

Unidentified Photographer
On the Spot
December 9, 1939
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Weegee. 'Line-Up for Night Court' c. 1941

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Line-Up for Night Court
c. 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Construction of the pictorial plane in 'Line-Up for Night Court'

 

Construction of the pictorial plane in Line-Up for Night Court

 

Weegee. 'Line-Up for Night Court' c. 1941 (detail)

Weegee. 'Line-Up for Night Court' c. 1941 (detail)

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Line-Up for Night Court (details)
c. 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Weegee. 'At an East Side Murder' 1943

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
At an East Side Murder
1943
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Weegee. 'At an East Side Murder' 1943 (detail).

Weegee. 'At an East Side Murder' 1943 (detail)

Weegee. 'At an East Side Murder' 1943 (detail)

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
At an East Side Murder (details)
1943
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Weegee. 'Untitled [Hats in a pool room, Mulberry Street, New York]' c. 1943

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Untitled [Hats in a pool room, Mulberry Street, New York]
c. 1943
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

 

Gangland murders, gruesome car crashes, and perilous tenement fires were for the photographer Weegee (1899-1968) the staples of his flashlit black-and-white work as a freelance photojournalist in the mid­-1930s. Such graphically dramatic and sometimes sensationalistic photographs of New York crimes and news events set the standard for what has since become known as tabloid journalism. In fact, for one intense decade, between 1935 and 1946, Weegee was perhaps the most relentlessly inventive figure in American photography. A surprising new exhibition at the International Center of Photography (1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street), titled Weegee: Murder Is My Business and organised by ICP Chief Curator Brian Wallis, will present some rare examples of Weegee’s most famous and iconic images, and will consider his early work in the context of its original presentation in historical newspapers and exhibitions, as well as Weegee’s own books and films.

Taking its title from Weegee’s self-curated exhibition at the Photo League in 1941, Murder Is My Business looks at the urban violence and mayhem that was the focus of his early work. As a freelance photographer at a time when New York City had at least eight daily newspapers and when wire services were just beginning to handle photos, Weegee was challenged to capture unique images of newsworthy events and distribute them quickly. He worked almost exclusively at night, setting out from his small apartment across from police headquarters when news of a new crime came chattering across his police-band radio receiver. Often arriving before the police themselves, Weegee carefully cased each scene to discover the best angle. Murders, he claimed, were the easiest to photograph because the subjects never moved or got temperamental.

Weegee’s rising career as a news photographer in the 1930s coincided with the heyday of Murder Inc., the Jewish gang from Brownsville who served as paid hitmen for The Syndicate, a confederation of mostly Italian crime bosses in New York. As a wave of governmental and legal crackdowns swept the city between 1935 and 1941, the rate of organised murders of small-time wiseguys and potential stool pigeons increased dramatically. Weegee often worked closely with the police but also befriended high-profile criminals like Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, and Legs Diamond. Weegee called himself the “official photographer for Murder Inc.” and claimed to have covered 5,000 murders, a count that is perhaps only slightly exaggerated. In asserting the true nature of his business, Weegee proudly displayed his check stub from LIFE magazine that paid him $35 for two murders, slightly more, he said, for the one that used more bullets.

Selling his photographs to a variety of New York newspapers in the 1930s, and later working as a stringer for the short-lived daily newspaper PM (1940-48), Weegee established a highly subjective approach to both photographs and texts that was distinctly different from that promoted in most dailies and picture magazines. Utilising other distribution venues, Weegee also wrote extensively (including his autobiographical Naked City, published in 1945) and organised his own exhibitions at the Photo League, the influential photographic organisation that promoted politically committed pictures, particularly of the working classes. In 1941, Weegee installed two back-to-back exhibitions in the League’s headquarters. This visibility helped promote Weegee’s growing reputation as a news photographer, and he began stamping his prints “Weegee the Famous.” The general acceptance of his punchy photographic style, which did not shy away from lower-class subjects and humanistic narratives, led to the acquisition of his work by the Museum of Modern Art and inclusion in two group shows there, in 1943 and 1945.

“Weegee has often been dismissed as an aberration or as a naive photographer, but he was in fact one of the most original and enterprising photojournalists of the 1930s and ’40s. His best photographs combine wit, daring, and surprisingly original points of view, particularly when considered in light of contemporaneous press photos and documentary photography. He favoured unabashedly low-culture or tabloid subjects and approaches, but his Depression-era New York photographs need to be considered seriously alongside other key documentarians of the thirties, such as Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Walker Evans, and Berenice Abbott,” said Wallis.

The exhibition will feature over 100 original photographs, drawn primarily from the comprehensive Weegee Archive of over 20,000 prints at ICP, as well as period newspapers, magazines, and films. It will also include partial reconstructions of Weegee’s studio and his Photo League exhibition. The four galleries will each feature a touch-screen monitor allowing visitors to explore further details regarding the images and artefacts in that room.

Press release from the ICP

 

Weegee. 'Untitled [Body of Dominick Didato, Elizabeth Street, New York]' August 7, 1936

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Untitled [Body of Dominick Didato, Elizabeth Street, New York]
August 7, 1936
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Weegee. 'Murder' c. 1940

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Murder
c. 1940
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Weegee. 'Untitled [Police officer and lodge member looking at blanket-covered body of woman trampled to death in excursion-ship stampede, New York]' August 18, 1941

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Untitled [Police officer and lodge member looking at blanket-covered body of woman trampled to death in excursion-ship stampede, New York]
August 18, 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Weegee. 'Hold up man killed' November 24, 1941

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Hold up man killed
November 24, 1941
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Weegee. 'Untitled [Police officer and assistant removing body of Reception Hospital ambulance driver Morris Linker from East River, New York]' August 24, 1943

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Untitled [Police officer and assistant removing body of Reception Hospital ambulance driver Morris Linker from East River, New York]
August 24, 1943
Silver gelatin photograph
© Weegee/International Center of Photography

 

Pictorial construction of Police officer and assistant removing body of Reception Hospital ambulance driver Morris

Pictorial construction of Police officer and assistant removing body of Reception Hospital ambulance driver Morris

 

Pictorial construction of Police officer and assistant removing body of Reception Hospital ambulance driver Morris

 

 

International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street
New York NY 10036
Phone: 212 857 0045

Opening hours:
Friday – Monday, Wednesday 11am – 7pm
Thursday 11am – 9pm
Tuesday closed

International Center of Photography website

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01
Jun
12

Exhibition: ‘Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964’ at the de Young Museum, San Francisco

Exhibition dates:  3rd March – 3rd June 2012

 

Arthur Tress. 'Untitled (Van Ness at Geary Boulevard)' 1964

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Untitled (Van Ness at Geary Boulevard)
1964
Printed 2010-11
Selenium-toned silver gelatin print
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
© 2012 Arthur Tress

 

 

These early figurative urbanscapes by Arthur Tress show the beginnings of his later Surrealist pictorial style (do a Google images search on Tress to see what I mean). From the Eggleston-esque tricycle in Untitled (Ocean Beach), the three spooky faces in Untitled (Coit Tower)* to the most prescient, the photograph Untitled (Legion of Honor Museum), there is a direct thematic link to the later, more famous 1970s work. What a beautiful and disturbing photograph Legion of Honor Museum is.

Marcus

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*Notice the low vantage point of the camera at knee level (as the photographer crouched down) that imparts a monumental, robo-human feel to the sculptures.

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

 

 

Arthur Tress. 'Untitled (City Hall)' 1964

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Untitled (City Hall)
1964
Printed 2010-11
Selenium-toned silver gelatin print
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
© 2012 Arthur Tress

 

Arthur Tress. 'Untitled (Coit Tower)' 1964

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Untitled (Coit Tower)
1964
Printed 2010-11
Selenium-toned silver gelatin print
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
© 2012 Arthur Tress

 

Arthur Tress. 'Untitled (Ocean Beach)' 1964

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Untitled (Ocean Beach)
1964
Printed 2010-11
Selenium-toned silver gelatin print
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
© 2012 Arthur Tress

 

Arthur Tress. 'Untitled (Fisherman's Wharf)' 1964

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Untitled (Fisherman’s Wharf)
1964
Printed 2010-11
Selenium-toned silver gelatin print
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
© 2012 Arthur Tress

 

 

In the summer of 1964, San Francisco was ground zero for a historic culture clash as the site of both the 28th Republican National Convention (the “Goldwater Convention”) and the launch of the Beatles’ first North American tour. The young photographer Arthur Tress arrived at this opportune moment in the city’s history and found himself in the midst of large-scale civil rights demonstrations and chaotic political pageantry. With a unique sensibility perfectly attuned to this quirky metropolis, he set about to capture the odd spectacle of San Francisco.

Over 70 photographs included in Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964 range from public gatherings to impromptu street portraits, views of the peculiar contents of shop windows and commercial signs. This is the first museum exhibition of a virtually unknown body of Tress’s early work. Curator James Ganz explains, “This exhibition offers an evocative time capsule of the City by the Bay and makes a fascinating contribution to the region’s rich photographic legacy.” The exhibition runs March 3 to June 3, 2012 at the de Young Museum.

The subject matter of Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964 breaks down into three broad categories: public gatherings, including civil rights and political rallies; portrait studies of San Franciscans; and views of shop windows, commercial signs and architectural fragments. Often these categories overlap. In photographing events such as the Auto Row demonstrations, Tress was interested in recording passive bystanders, as well as active participants. His candid images of spectators lining the streets of San Francisco, whether isolated or in groups, capture the distinctive fashions, expressions and body language of the era. The frequent incursions of commercial logos and signage add to the contemporary flavour of the photographs, effectively fixing time and place. The exhibition captures the flavour of San Francisco without featuring its most familiar monuments. Tress’s approach to the city was idiosyncratic, generally avoiding popular tourist sites such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown, while favouring mundane locales like laundromats and coffee shops. Ganz observes, “Tress is a photographer of people rather than landmarks. Given the option of pointing his lens at an attraction like Coit Tower or at a tourist observing the monument, he will always favour the human element over the architectural setting.”

 

Brief biography

Born in 1940, Arthur Tress was raised in Brooklyn and started experimenting with photography in his teens. After graduating from Bard College in 1962, Tress traveled internationally for four years as an ethnographic and documentary photographer. It was during this international tour that he spent the summer of 1964 in San Francisco focusing his lens on city life. Tress developed his San Francisco negatives in a communal darkroom in the Castro District and mounted two small exhibitions in North Bay galleries that summer. He went on to pursue a long and accomplished career in photography that continues to this day.

Press release from the de Young Museum website

 

Arthur Tress. 'Untitled (Legion of Honor Museum)' 1964

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Untitled (Legion of Honor Museum)
1964
Printed 2010-11
Selenium-toned silver gelatin print
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
© 2012 Arthur Tress

 

Arthur Tress. 'Untitled (Powell Street)' 1964

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Untitled (Powell Street)
1964
Printed 2010-11
Selenium-toned silver gelatin print
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
© 2012 Arthur Tress

 

Arthur Tress. 'Untitled (Union Square)' 1964

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Untitled (Union Square)
1964
Printed 2010-11
Selenium-toned silver gelatin print
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
© 2012 Arthur Tress

 

Arthur Tress. 'Untitled (City Hall)' 1964

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Untitled (City Hall)
1964
Printed 2010-11
Selenium-toned silver gelatin print
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
© 2012 Arthur Tress

 

Arthur Tress. 'Untitled (5th and Market)' 1964

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Untitled (5th and Market)
1964
Printed 2010-11
Selenium-toned silver gelatin print
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
© 2012 Arthur Tress

 

Arthur Tress. 'Untitled' 1964

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Untitled
1964
Printed 2010-11
Selenium-toned silver gelatin print
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
© 2012 Arthur Tress

 

 

The de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Sunday 9.30am – 5.15pm
Monday Closed

The de Young Museum website

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24
Apr
12

Exhibition: ‘Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Photographs’ at Jeu de Paume, Paris

Exhibition dates: 21st February – 29th April 2012

 

Berenice Abbott. 'New York Stock Exchange, New York City' 1933

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
New York Stock Exchange, New York City
1933
Gelatin silver print
24 x 19cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

 

It is not her portraits or the road trip photographs, nor her scientific work for which Berenice Abbott will be remembered. Firstly, she will always be remembered as the person who photographed Eugene Atget in 1927 just before he died and who bought the remainder of his negatives (after the French government had bought over 2,000 in 1920 and another 2,000 had been sold after his death). She then tirelessly promoted Atget’s work helping him gain international recognition until her sale of the archive to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. Secondly, she is remembered for her magnificent photographs of New York City and its urban environs, photographs that show the influence of Atget in their attention to detail and understanding of the placement of the camera, and imaging of old and new parts of the city (much as Atget had photographed old Paris before it was destroyed). However, these photographs are uniquely her own, with their modernist New Vision aesthetic, bold perspectives and use of deep chiaroscuro to enhance form within the photograph. Abbott’s best known project, Changing New York (1935-39) eventually consisted of 305 photographs that document the buildings of Manhattan, some of which are now destroyed. As the text on Wikipedia insightfully notes:

“Abbott’s project was primarily a sociological study imbedded within modernist aesthetic practices. She sought to create a broadly inclusive collection of photographs that together suggest a vital interaction between three aspects of urban life: the diverse people of the city; the places they live, work and play; and their daily activities. It was intended to empower people by making them realise that their environment was a consequence of their collective behaviour (and vice versa). Moreover, she avoided the merely pretty in favour of what she described as “fantastic” contrasts between the old and the new, and chose her camera angles and lenses to create compositions that either stabilised a subject (if she approved of it), or destabilised it (if she scorned it).”

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In the text below Gaëlle Morel observes, “Rather than the kind of nostalgic approach often brought to bear on a city’s landmarks and typical sites, this ensemble offers an exploration of the nature of modernity and focuses on the ways in which the past and future are temporarily linked together. Seeking to reinvent the forms and functions of photography in relation to the practice of documentary, Abbott sets out to capture the “disappearance of the moment” by juxtaposing motifs from a city subject to an unprecedented process of demolition and reconstruction.”

While Abbott’s photographs are definitely modernist in nature I believe that today they can also be seen as deeply nostalgic, emerging as they do in the period after the Great Depression when the economy was on the move again, a peaceful time before the oncoming armageddon of the Second World War, closely followed by the fear of nuclear annihilation and the threat of communist indoctrination. They are timeless portraits of a de/reconstructed city. The images seem to float in the air, breathe in the shadows. This is the disappearance of the moment into the enigma of past, present, future – where the photograph becomes eternal, where the best work of both Atget and Abbott resides.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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Many thankx to Jeu de Paume for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Treasury Building, New York City' 1933

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Treasury Building, New York City
1933
Gelatin silver print
51 x 40.5cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

 

Architecture

“The tempo of the city is not that of eternity, nor that of time, but that of the ephemeral. That is why recording it is so important, in both documentary and artistic terms.”

“All the photographs of New York took a long time to make, because the camera had to be carefully positioned. There is nothing fortuitous about these photographs.”

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The exhibition features a substantial collection from Abbott’s best known project, Changing New York (1935-39). Commissioned by the Roosevelt administration as part of its response to the nationwide economic crisis, Abbott saw this piece of work as both a way of documenting the City and as a personal work of art. Eighty of the 305 photographs taken by Abbott are on show here, along with various documents providing insight into the background of this major photographic undertaking, including posters and views of the exhibition organised by the Museum of the City of New York in 1937, sketches and historical notes made by the team of journalists working with Abbott on the project, and proofs and dummies of the layout made by the photographer before she started work.

Abbott homes in on the contrasts between old and new elements in the City’s structure. Her images alternate between a New Vision aesthetic, characterised by an emphasis on details and bold perspectives, and a more documentary style that is frontal and neutral. Rather than the kind of nostalgic approach often brought to bear on a city’s landmarks and typical sites, this ensemble offers an exploration of the nature of modernity and focuses on the ways in which the past and future are temporarily linked together. Seeking to reinvent the forms and functions of photography in relation to the practice of documentary, Abbott sets out to capture the “disappearance of the moment” by juxtaposing motifs from a city subject to an unprecedented process of demolition and reconstruction.

In 1938, hoping to take advantage of the fifty million visitors expected at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the publisher, E.P. Dutton, offered to bring out a selection of one hundred images from the project accompanied by a text by the renowned art critic Elizabeth McCausland, who also happened to be Abbott’s companion and staunch supporter. Going against the women’s original ideas for an art book, Dutton produced a more standard tourist guide, breaking the City down into a series of tours, from south to north and from the centre outwards. The text, too, was shorn of its poetic and pedagogical dimensions, leaving only informative entries about the buildings in the pictures.

In the exhibition, this set of architectural photographs is rounded out by a selection of pictures of vernacular architecture taken by Abbott during a journey in the southern states of the US in the 1930s and when she was travelling along Route 1 in the 1950s. Here, portraits of farmers and wooden houses alternate with pictures of streets and local events.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Triborough Bridge, East 125th Street Approach, New York City, June 29, 1937'

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Triborough Bridge, East 125th Street Approach, New York City, June 29, 1937
1937
Gelatin silver print
24.5 x 19cm
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Broadway to the Battery, New York City, May 4, 1938' 1938

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Broadway to the Battery, New York City, May 4, 1938
1938 
Gelatin silver print
17.5 x 24cm
Museum of the City of New York
Museum Purchase with funds from the Mrs. Elon Hooker Acquisition Fund
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Flat Iron Building, Broadway and Fifth Avenue, New York City' 1938

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Flat Iron Building, Broadway and Fifth Avenue, New York City
1938
Gelatin silver print
101.5 x 76 cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

 

Berenice Abbott Petit Journal

With over 120 photographs, plus a selection of books and documents never shown before, this is the first exhibition in France to cover the many different facets of the American photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), who is also famous for her international advocacy of Eugène Atget. She came to Paris in 1921 where she learnt her craft from Man Ray before opening her own studio and embarking on a successful career as a portraitist. Returning to New York City in 1929, she conceived what remains her best‑known project, Changing New York (1935-39). This was financed by the Works Progress Administration as part of its response to the economic crisis sweeping the country. The photographs she took in 1954 when travelling along the US East Coast on Route 1 (the exhibition presents a previously unseen selection of these images) reflect her ambition to represent the whole of what she called the “American scene.” Furthermore, in the 1950s, she also worked on a set of images for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) designed to illustrate the principles of mechanics and light for educational purposes.

A committed member of the avant‑garde from the early 1920s, and a staunch opponent of Pictorialism and the school of Alfred Stieglitz, Abbott spent the whole of her career exploring the limits and nature of documentary photography and photographic realism. This exhibition shows the rich array of her interests and conveys both the unity and diversity of her work.

 

Portraits

Berenice Abbott moved to New York City in the early 1920s and went about becoming a sculptor. Mixing in the bohemian circles of Greenwich Village, she met writers and artists such as Djuna Barnes, Sadakichi Hartmann and Marcel Duchamp. She also posed for Man Ray. Economic hardship at home and the allure of what then seemed the cultural Eldorado of Europe impelled several of these artists to try their luck in Paris, and Abbott herself joined this group of American expatriates in 1921.

In 1923 she became the assistant of Man Ray, who had opened a portrait studio shortly after his arrival in France in 1921. While a fair portion of the studio’s clients were American tourists, Abbott found herself at the heart of the avant-garde scene – especially that of the Surrealists. Between 1923 and 1926 she thus learnt about darkroom techniques and portrait photography while at the same time picking up a broader intellectual and artistic education. She produced her portraits in Man Ray’s studio before opening her own in 1926. Success soon followed. Her clientele was a mixture of French cultural figures and American expatriates, of bourgeois, bohemians and literary types. Her portraits were on occasion manifestly influenced by Surrealism, and more generally show an interest in masquerade, play and disguise, but sometimes even in their use of overprinting and distortion.

The female models express a kind of sexual ambiguity, notably by their masculine haircut or clothes, deliberately exuding a sense of uncertainty with regard to their identity. In composing her portraits, Abbott developed a distinctive aesthetic, far removed from the usual commercial conventions. The absence of a set, with the background usually no more than a plain wall, helped to focus on the sitter and their posture, the position of their body and their facial expression. The use of a tripod and long-focus lenses placed at eye-height allowed her to avoid distortions and thus heighten the physical presence of the models. In early 1929 Abbott left Paris for New York City. Back in America she continued with the same activities, opening a new portrait studio and taking part in exhibitions of modernist photography, while also promoting the work of Eugène Atget, having bought part of his estate in 1928.

 

New York City

In the early 1930s, Abbott set about her project for a great documentary portrait of the City of New York, but had no luck when she approached institutions such as the Museum of the City of New York and the New York Historical Society for funding. She assembled her first efforts in an album (eight pages of which are exhibited here) in order to convey the scale of her ambitious undertaking, and in 1934 exhibited her photographs of the City at the Museum of the City of New York in the hope of attracting sponsors. In 1935, support was at last forthcoming from the Federal Art Project, a programme set up to aid artists by the Works Progress Administration as part of the New Deal; she now had the support of a team of researchers who produced an information pack with text and drawings to accompany each image. Entitled Changing New York, she conceived this commission as both a vast documentary record of the City and a personal work of art. Eighty of the 305 photographs constituting this project have been selected for the exhibition. These are accompanied by documents – a poster, exhibition views, sketches and historical notes, proofs, pages from the preparatory album and original editions – that help to convey the concerns and ambitions behind this major photographic undertaking.

Abbott focused on the contrasts and links between old and new in the City’s structure. Her images alternate between a New Vision aesthetic, characterised by an emphasis on details and bold perspectives, and a more documentary style that is frontal and neutral. Rather than the kind of nostalgic approach often brought to bear on a city’s landmarks and typical sites, this ensemble offers an exploration of the nature of modernity and focuses on the ways in which the past and future are temporarily linked together. Seeking to reinvent the forms and functions of photography in relation to the practice of documentary, Abbott sets out to capture the “vanishing instant” by juxtaposing motifs from a city subject to an unprecedented process of demolition and reconstruction.

The upshot of all this work was the publication of a book, Changing New York, in 1939. But there was considerable tension between the publisher, whose concerns were commercial, and the photographer, with her artistic ambitions. In 1938, hoping to take advantage of the fifty million visitors expected at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the publishing house E.P. Dutton proposed to bring out a selection of one hundred images from the project accompanied by a text from the renowned art critic Elizabeth McCausland, who also happened to be Abbott’s companion and unfailing supporter. Straying far from the project originally envisaged by the two women, Dutton changed the presentation of the photographs and produced what was a standard tourist guide, breaking the City down into a series of tours, from south to north and from the centre outwards. The text, too, was shorn of its poetic and pedagogical dimensions, leaving only information about the buildings in the pictures.

 

The “American scene”

This set of architectural images is completed by a selection of vernacular photographs. In the summer of 1935, Berenice Abbott went on a road trip down to the Southern US in order to create a portrait of a rural world in crisis. Choosing the kind of documentary style that would be the hallmark of the photographic survey launched by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) that same year, she focused on the modest wooden houses and the farmers. Driving around these states with Elizabeth McCausland, Abbott took some two hundred photographs which the two women saw as part of an ambitious photographic portrait of America in book form, although in the end this was never published. A similar fate befell Abbott’s piece on the small towns and villages along Route 1, which she travelled in 1954. Covering approximately 6,500  kilometres as she followed this road along the East Coast of the US, she took some 2,400 photographs, taking in stalls, shops, portraits of farmers, diners and bars and dance halls. Her photography alternated between the documentary aesthetic and Street Photography. With Route 1, Abbott continued to pursue her ambition of representing the whole of the “American scene.”

 

Science

Abbott started photographing scientific phenomena in 1939. In 1944 she was recruited by the journal Science Illustrated, where she published some of her own pictures, as head of its photography department. Abbott took a committed, pedagogical approach, seeing her images as a vital bridge between modern science and the general public. In 1957, as a result of the anxiety about national science stirred by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik into outer space, at the height of the Cold War, the National Science Foundation set up a Physical Science Study Committee at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its role was to develop new textbooks for the teaching of science in schools and to use innovative photographs to illustrate the principles of quantum mechanics. Abbott was hired by MIT to produce photographs for the popularisation and teaching of the sciences. Using abstract forms to visually express complex mechanical concepts and invisible mechanical laws, she used black grounds to reveal principles such as gravity and light waves. The exhibition features a score of Abbott’s scientific and experimental images, as well as some of the books for which they were used. Harking back to the experiments of the avant-gardes, and in particular the Rayogram technique, she was able to produce visually attractive and surprising images that were also rich in discovery, thus combining documentary information with a sense of wonder.”

Text by Gaëlle Morel, curator of the exhibition, on the Jeu de Paume website

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York City, October 24, 1935' 1935

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York City, October 24, 1935
1935
Gelatin silver print
19 x 24.5cm
Museum of the City of New York
Gift of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Sunoco Station, Trenton, New Jersey' 1954

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Sunoco Station, Trenton, New Jersey
1954
Gelatin silver print
19 x 24.5cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Gunsmith and Police Department Headquarters, 6 Centre Market Place and 240 Centre Street, New York City, February 4, 1937' 1937

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Gunsmith and Police Department Headquarters, 6 Centre Market Place and 240 Centre Street, New York City, February 4, 1937
1937 
Gelatin silver print
19 x 24.5cm
Museum of the City of New York
Gift of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Happy's Refreshment Stand, Daytona Beach, Florida' 1954

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Happy’s Refreshment Stand, Daytona Beach, Florida
1954
Gelatin silver print
29.5 x 28cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Miner, Greenview, West Virginia' 1935

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Miner, Greenview, West Virginia
1935
Gelatin silver print
25 x 19 cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Dogs, chickens, cattle’ 1994-95

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