Posts Tagged ‘atmosphere

22
Aug
21

Exhibition: ‘Bill Brandt’ at the Fundación Mapfre, Madrid

Exhibition dates: 3rd June – 29th August 2021

Curator: Ramón Esparza (University of the Basque Country)

 

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'St. Paul's Cathedral in the moonlight' 1942

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
St. Paul’s Cathedral in the moonlight
1942
25.72 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Bill Brandt: master of photography, master of reinvention

“I’m 70% sure this was a reality not a dream”

In 12 years of writing this archive, this is the first chance I have had to assemble a posting and really think about the work of Bill Brandt, one of the most significant and inventive photographer of the 20th century. Brandt exhibitions are few and far between.

Son of a British father and German mother, Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg in 1904. As an adolescent he contracted tuberculosis and spent much of his youth in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. In 1927 he travelled to Vienna, “to see a lung specialist and then decided to stay and find work in a photography studio. There, in 1928, he met and made a successful portrait of the poet Ezra Pound, who subsequently introduced Brandt to the American-born, Paris-based photographer Man Ray. Brandt arrived in Paris to begin three months of study as an apprentice at the Man Ray Studio in 1929 … his work from this time shows the influence of André Kertész and Eugène Atget, as well as Man Ray and the Surrealists.”1

“For any young photographer at that time, Paris was the centre of the world. Those were the exciting early days when the French poets and surrealists recognised the possibilities of photography.” ~ Bill Brandt

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Having visited London in 1928, upon his return to London, in 1931, Brandt was well versed in the language of photographic modernism. In 1933 Brandt settled permanently in North London with his wife. With the rise of Nazism in Germany, Brandt Anglicised his name and disowned his German background and would claim he was born in South London. “He adopted Britain as his home and it became the subject of his greatest photographs.” Here is his first reinvention: the obfuscation of his German heritage, but he could not hide that heritage in his photographs.

As a photojournalist working for magazines such as News Chronicle, Weekly Illustrated, Lilliput, Harper’s Bazaar and Picture Post, Brandt documented all levels of British society. In his first book, The English at Home (1936), “comprising sixty-three photographs, Brandt traversed the country to make a pictorial survey of sorts, moving across the social classes, and between rural life and the urban city.”2 In the book Brandt pairs upper and lower class photographs across double page spreads, mixing joy (girl dancing in the street) with sobriety (the parlourmaids). As David Campany observes in his excellent writing on the artist, “There is nothing overtly angry or revolutionary in the generally restrained tone of Brandt’s book. However it was unusual in bringing different classes into one volume, leaving the viewer to reconcile the social contradictions and inequities.”3

“The extreme social contrast, during those years before the war, was, visually, very inspiring for me. I started by photographing in London, the West End, the suburbs, the slums.” ~ Bill Brandt

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The book was not a success. Much like Robert Frank’s The Americans (published in France in 1958), another book by an émigré photographing as an outsider a foreign country, the British did not understand the book and probably did not like the mirror that was being held up to their society – much as the Americans hated Frank’s book for the pointed insights its probing images revealed of their fractured society, which had never been shown to them before. Campany notes, “In the 1930s Brandt was drawn to the rituals and customs of daily life, with what he saw as the deeply unconscious ways people inhabit their social roles and class positions. For him, to photograph these minutiae was not simply to document but to estrange through a heightened sense of atmosphere, theatrical artifice and a dreamlike sensibility. As an outsider he seemed to see English behaviour as bordering on passive automatism.”4

In the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the photographs would have made the English feel very uncomfortable. Through their social commentary and poetic resonance, through their direct, modernist gaze and Surrealist dances (the women washing the blackened coal miner, a man sheltering in a coffin), Brandt squeezes (conflates?) documentary and art together, seeing the familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Through reinvention he recasts the very nature of his characters, finding out what else is essential in the photographs, challenging the viewer to understand the complexities of the image as it moves across time and from documentary to art. Often this left the viewer perplexed and grasping at the mystery, the unknown.

Other bodies of work and books followed. In 1937, Brandt visited the North of England for the first time, photographing the desperate plight of the poor scavenging for coal on the slag-heaps. In 1938 Brandt published A Night in London which was based on Paris de Nuit (1936) by Brassaï, photographing pubs, common lodging houses at night, theatres, Turkish baths, prisons and people in their bedrooms. By 1939, he was back in London, photographing the blackout and people sheltering from the Blitz in the London Underground.

“In 1939, at the beginning of the war, I was back in London photographing the blackout. The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since.”~ Bill Brandt

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And so it went, on through Literary Britain (1951) which combined brooding, atmospheric landscapes and photographs of William Wordsworth’s room at Dove Cottage, Shaw’s Corner, Glamis Castle from Macbeth, and the scene of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment at Reading Gaol opposite British poetry and prose; from the 1940s onwards, portraits of the notable and creative, made during the 1960s using a wide-angle lens; and perspectives on nudes made from 1944 onwards using a 1931 Kodak mahogany and brass camera with a wide-angle lens used by the police for crime scene records, which allowed him to see, he said, ‘like a mouse, a fish or a fly’.

“The nudes reveal Brandt’s intimate knowledge of the École de Paris – particularly Man Ray, Picasso, Matisse and Arp – together with his admiration for Henry Moore. He published Perspective of Nudes in 1961. It featured nudes in domestic interiors and studios, and on the beaches of East Sussex and northern and southern France. He used a Superwide Hasselblad for the beach photographs. In 1977-8 Brandt added further nudes, published in Nudes, 1945-80.”5

Through all of this there is the reinvention… reinvention of the portrait where the sitter is now part of the whole scenario (the surroundings), reinvention of the landscape where the landscape emerges from chthonic darkness, and reinvention of the nude where Brandt transplants Brassai’s Distortions into domestic interiors and exterior beaches – where the Surrealist, distorted, enigmatic fragment, like an ear or a big toe, comes to stand for the whole embedded in an alien landscape. Finally, there was the big reinvention in the 1960s, where Brandt began to reprint his earlier photojournalist images with a much harsher contrast (see various comparison images in this posting) in order to enhance their (Surrealist) art credentials and keep them relevant in an Abstract Expressionist, Pop Art world.

As David Campany states, “In the 1960s there were two major changes in his work and its reception. Both were related to his emerging position in art photography. He began to print his negatives much more harshly, sacrificing the mid-tones for more modish graphic blocks of black and white. The rich descriptive information in his negatives would be subsumed, even obliterated in his new aesthetic… While his latest photography was pursued more openly as art, notably his nudes (published as a book in 1960), his expressionism was released anew upon his earlier work. His books from the 1960s are printed with graphic extremes of black and white.”6

These are the images that are now famous, these graphic reinventions of the work and the Self. The reinvention of the old into the new. Through rethinking, recalculating and reimagining his old photographs and how they looked (“the way in which the artist interpreted a single negative had changed over time”), Brandt opened up his way of seeing and opened up new matter… ‘in rerum natura‘: in the nature of things; in the realm of actuality; in existence. Perhaps never before in the history of photography had the negative just been a step in the production of an ever changing image.

It was in the totality of this new work that his eloquent eye emerged. To me Brandt is like a Zen master. Whether it be socio-documentary, portrait, landscape or nude, it was his ability to focus on a particular subject at any one time – to concentrate on seeing subjects and ideas clearly – that became a hallmark of his later artistic creation. Through bodies of work that mix reality and dream the artist challenges straight photographic seeing in order for us to understand that enigmatic fragments can stand alone from each other while at the same time combining to make the whole. While A snicket in Halifax (1937, below) may not be present in Unemployed miner returning home from Jarrow (1937, below), it is when they combine that the circle is closed. It is in the entirety of his imaged (imagined) world, in the entirety of his vision, when all fragments combine, that Brandt emphasises that the whole of anything is greater than its parts.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Footnotes

  1. “Bill Brandt.” Introduction by Mitra Abbaspour, Associate Curator, Department of Photography, 2014 on the MoMA website Nd [Online] Cited 22/08/2021
  2. David Campany. “The Career of a Photographer, the Career of a Photograph – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document,” on the David Company website [Online] Cited 10/06/2021. First published in the Tate Liverpool exhibition catalogue ‘Making History: Art and documentary in Britain from 1929-Now’, 2006
  3. Ibid.,
  4. Ibid.,
  5. Anonymous. “Bill Brandt Biography,” archived from the original on the V&A website Nd [Online] Cited 22/08/2021
  6. Campany, op cit.,

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

 

Fundación MAPFRE is presenting the first retrospective in Spain on Bill Brandt (1904-1983), considered one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century. The exhibition brings together 186 photographs developed by Brandt himself who, over the course of five decades, made use of almost all the photographic genres: social documentary, portraiture, the nude and landscape.

 

 

“Each of Brandt’s well-known images aims for a tight formal organisation, its content given dramatic charge and dense psychological resonance. As documents they aim unapologetically to exceed visual description. In this sense what served him ill as a photojournalist was just what predisposed his images toward posterity via art. …

In the 1950s he continued to work professionally but concentrated on the more established genres of portraiture and landscape. In the 1960s there were two major changes in his work and its reception. Both were related to his emerging position in art photography. He began to print his negatives much more harshly, sacrificing the mid-tones for more modish graphic blocks of black and white. The rich descriptive information in his negatives would be subsumed, even obliterated in his new aesthetic. It was a technique that looked backward through German expressionist cinema to art photography’s Pictorialist preference for deep shadows and chiaroscuro, but it also connected with the emerging Pop sensibility.

While his latest photography was pursued more openly as art, notably his nudes (published as a book in 1960), his expressionism was released anew upon his earlier work. His books from the 1960s are printed with graphic extremes of black and white. …

The reprinting of Parlourmaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner was never too harsh. Brandt knew well that the force of this photograph resided in its details as much as its bold graphic organisation. Shadow of Light even improved on its past reproductions allowing new layers of meaning to emerge. …

While some meanings of Brandt’s photograph have been buried as the image has moved across time and from documentary to art, new meanings have come to the surface, meanings entirely dependent on art’s demand for superior qualities of reproduction.

As with many photographers who were discovered by a wider audience later in life, Brandt found himself regarded as a ‘figure from the past’ and as a contemporary artist at the same time. Layered on top of this was what looked like a shift from documentarist to artist. The reality, as always, was more complicated. At his best Brandt was a ‘documentary artist’ with all the paradoxes and interpretative difficulties that entails. There could never be any simple distinction between his artistry and his documentary description. The two are inextricable and give us no clear answers. And in the end these tensions are at the heart of his work and its success.”

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David Campany. Extract from “The Career of a Photographer, the Career of a Photograph – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document,” on the David Company website [Online] Cited 10/06/2021. First published in the Tate Liverpool exhibition catalogue ‘Making History: Art and documentary in Britain from 1929-Now’, 2006

 

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Death and the industrialist, Barcelona' 1932

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Death and the industrialist, Barcelona
1932
25.40 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

An apprentice in the studio of Man Ray and influenced in his origins by artists such as Brassaï, André Kertész or Eugène Atget, Bill Brandt (Hamburg, 1904 – London, 1983), one of the founders of modern photography, conceives the photographic language as a powerful means of contemplation and understanding of reality, but always from a primacy of aesthetic considerations over documentaries. Published in the press or in books, some of his photographs quickly became iconic pieces, indispensable to understanding mid-century English society.

His work also expresses a permanent attraction for the strange , for that which causes as much attraction as it is strange and causes unease. His aesthetics are thus close to the concept of “the sinister”, understood as something opposite to the idea of ​​the familiar, of the usual. This element will act as a plot line for a professional and artistic production that, at first, seems erratic and dispersed.

His late work shows a more experimental facet, a search for innovation through cropping and framing, present above all in nude images.

The exhibition brings together 186 photographs made by Bill Brandt himself, who throughout the almost five decades of his career did not stop addressing any of the great genres of the photographic discipline: social reporting, portraiture, nude and landscape .

The tour, divided into six sections (“First photographs”, “Up and down”, “Portraits”, “Described landscapes”, “Nudes” and “In Praise of imperfection”), tries to show how all these aspects – in the that identity and the concept of “the sinister” become protagonists – they come together in the work of this eclectic artist who was considered, above all, a flâneur, a “stroller” in terms similar to those of his admired Eugene Atget, whom he always considered one of his teachers. One hundred and eighty-six photographs that are complemented by writings, some of his cameras and various documentation (among which the interview he gave to the BBC shortly before his death stands out), as well as illustrated publications of the time. All thanks to the courtesy of the Bill Brandt Archive in London and the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York.

 

Four keys

Surrealist beginnings

After starting his foray into photography in Vienna, where he made the famous portrait of the poet Ezra Pound in 1928, Bill Brandt went to Paris to enter as an assistant, for a short period of time, in the studio of Man Ray, which prompted him to blend in with the surrealist atmosphere of the French capital, which will permeate all of his work from then on. This influence, together with that of his admiration for Eugène Atget, the photographer who documented “old Paris” and for whom Fundación MAPFRE also organised an exhibition in 2011, led to images where the disturbing was already making an appearance: street scenes and Parisian nights are some of the most frequent motifs in the artist’s images during this period.

 

Concealment of German heritage

Together with his partner and future wife, Eva Boros, he also made numerous trips to the Hungarian steppe, to his native Hamburg and to Spain, where they visited Madrid and Barcelona, ​​before moving to London in 1934. It was in this city when Brandt got rid of his German roots, eliminating all reference to them, a concealment due to the growing animosity towards Germany that followed the rise of Nazism. Brandt invented a British birth, creating an artistic corpus in which the United Kingdom that is at the core of his identity.

 

The portrait

After having made several portraits in the early days of his career, starting in the 1940s – a period in which he worked for magazines such as Picture Post, Liliput and Harper’s Bazaar – Bill Brandt approached this genre in a professional way. Some of the portraits represented a break with tradition, such as those that appeared in the aforementioned Lilliput in 1941, illustrating the article “Young Poets of Democracy”, which included some of the most representative faces of the writers and poets of the Auden Generation.

 

In Praise of Imperfection

In his introduction to Camera in London, the book on the British capital published in 1948, Bill Brandt noted: ‘I consider it essential that the photographer make his own copies and enlargements. The final effect of the image depends to a large extent on these operations, and only the photographer knows what he intends. For the artist, work in the laboratory was essential and, at the beginning of his career, he learned a whole range of artisan techniques: from magnification to enlargement, the use of brushes, scrapers or other tools.’ This manual retouching sometimes gave his photographs that somewhat crude aspect that can be associated with the aforementioned Freudian concept of the “unheimlich”: the sinister.

Text from the Fundación Mapfre website translated from the Spanish by Google Translate

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Bond Street hatter's show-case' 1934

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Bond Street hatter’s show-case
1934
30.48 x 23.50 cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Born Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in Hamburg in 1904 to a wealthy family of Russian origin, after a period living in Vienna and Paris Brandt decided to settle in London in 1934. Within the context of growing hostility to all things German due to the rise of Nazism, he attempted to erase all traces of his origins to the point of stating that he was British by nationality. This concealment and the creation of a new personality enveloped Brandt’s life in an aura of mystery and conflict that is directly reflected in his works.

This aspect combines with the photographer’s interest in psychoanalysis, which he underwent during his youth in Vienna. A few years earlier, in 1919, Sigmund Freud had published the essay Das Unheimliche in which he analysed this term, which is generally translated as “the uncanny” in the sense of something that produces unease. Almost all Brandt’s photographs, both the pre-war social documentary type and those from his subsequent more “artistic” phase, possess a powerful poetic charge as well as that very typical aura of strangeness and mystery in which, as in his own life, reality and fiction are always mixed.

The structure of the exhibition, which is divided into six sections, reveals how all these qualities – in which identity and the concept of “the uncanny” become the principal ones – blend together in the work of this eclectic artist. Above all Brandt was considered a flâneur or stroller in a way comparable to his admired Eugène Atget, whom he always considered one of his masters. The exhibition also reveals the relationship between Brandt’s images and Dada and Surrealism. This interest is reflected in clear references to psychoanalytical issues, expressed through increasingly sombre tones and an obsession with collecting found objects.

The exhibition is completed with a range of documentation, a number of Brandt’s cameras and examples of the illustrated press of the period that published some of his most iconic images. All this has been made possible courtesy of the Bill Brandt Archive in London and the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York.

Press release from the Fundación Mapfre website

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'East Durham coal-searchers' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
East Durham coal-searchers
1937
25.24 x 20.16cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

East Durham coal-searchers near Henworth, 1937. Coal searchers on slag heap searching for bits of coal 1940s.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Coal-Miner's Bath, Chester-le-Street, Durham' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Coal-Miner’s Bath, Chester-le-Street, Durham
1937
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Bill Brandt

Considered one of the most influential British photographers of the 20th century and one of the artists who, together with Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others, laid the foundations of modern photography, Bill Brandt’s oeuvre can be considered an eclectic one, reflecting a career of nearly five decades during which he encompassed almost all the photographic genres: social documentary, portraiture, the nude and landscape.

Born Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in Hamburg in 1904 to a wealthy family of Russian origin, after a period living in Vienna and Paris Brandt decided to settle in London in 1934. Within the context of growing hostility to all things German due to the rise of Nazism, he attempted to erase all traces of his origins to the point of stating that he was British by nationality. This concealment and the creation of a new personality enveloped Brandt’s life in an aura of mystery and conflict that was directly reflected in his work. His images aim to construct a vision of the country that he embraced as his own, although not of the real country but rather of the idea that he had created of it during his childhood through reading and from stories told by relatives.

Brandt had tuberculosis as a child and it was seemingly in the Swiss sanatoriums at Agra and Davos where his family sent him to convalesce that he first became interested in photography. After some years in Switzerland he moved to Vienna to undergo an innovative treatment for tuberculosis based on psychoanalysis. Imbued with a post-Romantic air, Brandt’s photography always seems to be located on the edge, provoking simultaneous attraction and rejection. It can be related to the concept of unheimlich, a term first used by Sigmund Freud in 1919. The adjective unheimlich – generally translated as “the uncanny”, “the sinister” or “the disturbing”, and which according to Eugenio Trías “constitutes the condition and limit of the beautiful” – is one of the characteristic traits that remains present throughout Brandt’s career. Psychoanalytical theories were among the fundamental pillars of Surrealism and their influence extended to the entire Parisian cultural scene in the 1930s. Brandt and his first partner, Eva Boros, moved to the French capital in 1930 where he worked as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio. It was at this point that he assimilated the ideas circulating in a city filled with young artists, many of them immigrants looking to make their way in the professional art world. His images of this initial period suggest a catalogue of psychoanalytical “themes”, clearly reflecting the influence of Surrealism on him even though he never actively participated in any of the historic avant-garde groups.

Almost all Brandt’s images, both the pre-war social documentary type and those from his subsequent more “artistic” phase, possess a powerful poetic charge as well as that very typical aura of strangeness and mystery in which, as in his own life, reality and fiction are always combined.

Bill Brandt died in London in 1983.

Ramón Esparza, curator

 

Early photographs

Following his apprenticeship as a photographer in Vienna, Brandt left for Paris in order to work for a brief period as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio, an activity that allowed him to move in the city’s Surrealist circles. Nonetheless, his photographs of this period are closer to those of his admired Eugène Atget. Brandt followed Atget, becoming a stroller or flâneur whose images of Parisian nightlife and street scenes anticipate his subsequent work and possess an already palpable sense of unease.

Brandt and his partner Eva Boros travelled on numerous occasions to the Hungarian steppes, to his native Hamburg and to Spain, where they visited Madrid and Barcelona among other cities and with the plan of spending their holidays in Majorca before moving to London in 1934. It was in London that Brandt shed his German origins and created a body of work in which the United Kingdom – a country marked by significant social inequality at that time – established itself as the core of his identity.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Dressmaker's dummy, Paris' 1929

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Dressmaker’s dummy, Paris
1929
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

During his years in Paris Brandt established connections with the Surrealist circle and with groups of photographers who aimed to make the camera both a means of expression and of earning a living. He never followed the principal trends and focused his attention on the daily life of the suburbs rather than on events of the day. Brandt’s photographs of this period reveal how he increasingly assimilated Surrealist concepts into his way of seeing. This dressmaker’s dummy found on the street is a metaphor for the idea of the double. Other images from these years, such as the hot air balloon flying over the skies of Paris, allow his early work to be seen as a type of catalogue of the principal themes of Surrealism.

 

Upstairs downstairs

The growing antipathy on the part of the British towards Nazi Germany meant that many immigrants who had arrived from the latter country changed their name. Brandt went even further than this as he completely concealed his origins and for more than twenty-five years passed himself off as a British citizen.

The 1930s was the decade of the great social protest movements and of strikes over working conditions following the 1929 financial crash. It was within this context that in 1936 Brandt published his first book, The English at Home, produced in a wide, album format. He employed a design particularly favoured by Central European graphic publications based on the combination of opposites in order to achieve a significant contrast between each pair of photographs. With these double-page spreads Brandt aimed to juxtapose two opposing social social classes, thus generating two parallel narrative discourses without mixing them together.

Following the outbreak of World War II Brandt started to work for the Ministry of Information. It was at this point that he produced two of his most famous series of images: his photographs of Londoners sleeping in Underground stations converted into improvised shelters; and his images of the city at ground level, showing a ghostly London lit only by the moon as protection against the air raids. Brandt abandoned the class differences that he had previously portrayed in favour of other types of scenes which denounced the effects of the war on the civilian population.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Couple in Peckham' 1936

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Couple in Peckham
1936
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

Following in the wake of Brassaï and the success of his book Paris de nuit (1932), Brandt began to elaborate his own version of London at night. To do this he made regular use of friends and relatives who posed for him to create the scene he wished to photograph. In this case the “accosted” woman is his sister-in-law Ester Brandt and the man in the hat is his brother Rolf. The image allows for different interpretations but the reference to the genre of crime thrillers or simply to prostitution is clear.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Unemployed miner returning home from Jarrow' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Unemployed miner returning home from Jarrow
1937
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

The 1930s were economically harsh and politically turbulent years in Europe. The 1929 financial crash led the United Kingdom to close its mines and steelworks, resulting in unemployment rising to more than 2.5 million people. Activities such as collecting pieces of coal from mining waste on the beach became a way of life for many families. Brandt’s photograph shows one of these former miners, exhausted after an unproductive day’s labour and pushing his bicycle loaded with a sack of coal, the result of his efforts.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner' 1936

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner
1933 printed later
23.81 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

This photograph was taken for a reportage published in Picture Post on 29 July 1939 with the title “The Perfect Parlourmaid” [but it never appeared in the Picture Post photo story of that name in July 1939]. Following his habitual practice, Brandt turned to his own family, in this case making use of his uncle Henry’s house. Pratt the parlourmaid waits in the dining room for the family members and their guests to be seated for dinner before starting to serve the food and attend the diners. This could be a classic image of social documentary photography except for the fact that Brandt very probably sat down at the table with the rest of the family after taking his shot. The image, however, reveals far more. The faces and poses of the two maids convey the difference between the gaze of the senior parlourmaid, which suggests both experience and assimilation of her social role, and that of her assistant, which seems to wander vaguely around the room.

 

“In his marvellous photograph the two house parlourmaids, prepared to wait at table, have eyes loaded like blunderbusses. Their starched caps and cuffs, their poker backs, mirror the terrible rectitude of learned attitudes. They have the same irritated loathing in defence of caste that shows in portraits of Evelyn Waugh.”

Mark Haworth-Booth cites Henderson in his introduction to the second edition of Brandt’s book Shadow of Light, Gordon Fraser, London 1977, p. 17.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner' 1933

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner
1933
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

“… Brandt’s parlourmaids image is unusual in that something of those social contrasts is at play within its frame and so the image doesn’t lend itself to juxtaposition in the same way.

We see a dressed dinner table of a well-to-do household and the attendant women. The head parlourmaid seems at first glance to express a stern resentment mixed with weariness and professional discipline, but there is a kind of blankness about her too. Her junior has the vacant expression of an adolescent, not yet able to grasp the social forces that will shape her, perhaps. A reading of the image made by the photographer Nigel Henderson is similar but more pointed:

“In his marvellous photograph the two house parlourmaids, prepared to wait at table, have eyes loaded like blunderbusses. Their starched caps and cuffs, their poker backs, mirror the terrible rectitude of learned attitudes. They have the same irritated loathing in defence of caste that shows in portraits of Evelyn Waugh.”

Rhetorically, this is an image of doubles and differences. Its economy of form and content forces us to see in opposites, tapping into and reinforcing a general understanding of the social structures of class and service. It is as barbed as The English at Home gets. There is nothing overtly angry or revolutionary in the generally restrained tone of Brandt’s book. However it was unusual in bringing different classes into one volume, leaving the viewer to reconcile the social contradictions and inequities.”

David Campany. Extract from “The Career of a Photographer, the Career of a Photograph – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document,” on the David Company website [Online] Cited 10/06/2021. First published in the Tate Liverpool exhibition catalogue Making History: Art and documentary in Britain from 1929-Now, 2006

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Sheltering in a Spitalfields crypt' 1940

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Sheltering in a Spitalfields crypt
1940
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

Isidore Ducasse, who used the grandiloquent nom de plume of “the Comte de Lautréamont” for his poetic output, wrote one of the most frequently quoted definitions of Surrealist beauty: “As beautiful as the chance meeting, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” Locating incongruence and transforming it into a work of art was one of Surrealism’s key strategies. By adding a dash of well-developed humour to this formula Brandt brought off the recipe with aplomb. At the height of the war, with German bombing raids nightly assailing a London whose inhabitants took shelter in the Underground and in basements, Bill Brandt photographed this man. Poor and working-class, to judge from his appearance, he is seen peacefully asleep in an open tomb in a crypt in clear defiance of death itself and of the terror it supposedly arouses.

 

Portraits

As a portraitist, a genre to which he devoted himself professionally from 1943, Bill Brandt considered that the photographer’s aim should be that of capturing a “suspended” moment rather than just the appearance: “I think a good portrait ought to tell something about a subject’s past and suggest something about their future”; in other words, achieving an image that asks questions and raises issues about both the sitter and the viewer. Some of Brandt’s portraits mark a break from tradition, such as the ones published in the magazine Lilliput in 1941 to accompany the article “Young Poets of Democracy”, which includes images of some of the leading names of the Auden generation.

Brandt subsequently began to distort the space in his portraits, for example Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London (1963). He also produced a new series of portraits of eyes of clearly Surrealist inspiration. The eyes of Henry Moore, Georges Braque and Antoni Tàpies are among the examples of gazes that transformed the way of seeing and representing the world.

 

“I always take portraits in my sitter’s own surroundings. I concentrate very much on the picture as a whole and leave the sitter rather to himself. I hardly talk and barely look at him.” ~ Bill Brandt

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London' 1963

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London
1963
25.40 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Brandt’s portraits evolved over time. Some mark a break with tradition, such as the images published in Lilliput in 1941 to accompany the article “Young Poets of Democracy”, which included some of the most famous faces of the writers and poets of the Auden generation. He subsequently began to distort the space in his images, as evident in Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London (1963), and also produced a new series of portraits of eyes of clearly Surrealist inspiration. The eyes of Henry Moore, Georges Braque and Antoni Tàpies are among the examples of gazes that transformed the way of seeing and representing the world.

One of several portraits of Francis Bacon by Brandt, here the photographer used the camera he had bought for his nudes on the beach. The notably wide angle lens, which produces a sense of space distorted in depth, and the chosen moment, just after sunset with the last light of day blending with the artificial light, give the scene a strange “atmosphere” (a term Brandt considered fundamental in his images). The familiar setting of an English park becomes disturbing with the dark sky, the curiously small and bent street light and Bacon, either indifferent or engaged, who turns his back on it all.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Henry Moore in his studio at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire' 1946

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Henry Moore in his studio at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire
1946
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

The friendship and professional relations between Bill Brandt and the sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth was a lifelong one and they frequently collaborated. Moore accompanied Brandt on his visits to the night shelters in the London Underground and drew while his friend took photographs. Their work is being exhibited at The Hepworth Wakefield in 2020. The mutual influence between the two artists is evident in this portrait of Moore alongside one of his sculptures. The biomorphic forms that Moore has created from the wood recall those of Brandt’s nudes.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Graham Greene in his flat, St James's Street, London' 1948

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Graham Greene in his flat, St James’s Street, London
1948
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

The writer Graham Greene appears in this photograph next to a window which gives onto the interior courtyard of his London flat. Brandt, however, transformed a view of a simple courtyard into a type of labyrinth of lines in which it is difficult to discern what belongs to the window, what to the triangular shape located immediately next to Greene and what to the construction in the background. This confusion, the repetition of triangles and the mixture of lines can be seen as mimicking the author’s complex plots in his novels, while the harsh light that illuminates his face, falling from the upper right downwards, imbues his figure with a theatrical aura of mystery.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Georges Braque' 1960

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Georges Braque
1960
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

The eye of…

In the early 1960s Brandt embarked on a photographic series in which he reduced the sitter’s face to a foreground shot of one of the eyes. The subjects photographed in this manner were some of the leading visual artists of the day: Ernst, Braque, Vasarely, Moore, Tàpies, Arp, Dubuffet and Giacometti. The series aims to make the viewer reflect on the role of the gaze in art. Once the imperative of resemblance is rejected, what makes a painting powerful and interesting is the artist’s gaze, the way he or she has to look at and represent reality, or simply to produce a visible reality that does not refer to any other, as in the case of Victor Vasarely and Jean Arp. The camera, that glass eye which reflected the world in the 20th century, is used here to depict the instrument through which artists have seen and interpreted that world. To be exact, however, it should be acknowledged that both the camera and the eye are mere tools and that the essence of the process takes place “further back”, in the mind.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Jean Dubuffet' 1960

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Jean Dubuffet
1960
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

This closely cropped eye belongs to the artist Jean Dubuffet. Brandt made ten photographs of notable visual artists; a few seem to have been taken at the same session as a published portrait, although none appear to be enlargements from other known works. They are striking departures from Brandt’s typical practice, mysterious despite their clarity of description, and they underscore the photographer’s experimental impulse, even late in his career. There is no record of their ever being published in a magazine.

MoMA gallery label from Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light, March 6 – August 12, 2013.

 

Landscapes described

Following his engagement with portraiture Brandt introduced landscape into his repertoire, thus encompassing all the categories traditionally considered to constitute the classic artistic genres. In his landscapes he aimed to introduce an atmosphere that connects with the viewer in order to provoke an emotional response from contemplation of the work. In this sense it would seem that Brandt did not merely aim to represent a place but to capture its very essence in a single image, as in Halifax; “Hail Hell & Halifax” (1937) and Cuckmere River (1963). When these landscapes started to include stone constructions such as tombs and crosses Brandt considered that he had achieved his aim: “Thus it was I found atmosphere to be the spell that charged the commonplace with beauty. … I only know it is a combination of elements … which reveals the subject as familiar and yet strange.”

It should be remembered that for Brandt the concept of landscape was deeply rooted in painting and the photographic tradition but also in literature. Literary Britain, which was published in 1951, makes this relationship clear. Brandt used images already published in other weekly magazines as well as photographs specially taken for this book, accompanying them with extracts from works by British authors.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) Halifax; 'Hail, Hell and Halifax' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Halifax; ‘Hail, Hell and Halifax’
1937
23.50 x 20.32cm
Bill Brandt Archive
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

In the social portrait that Brandt created of England in the 1930s the northern industrial cities made an inevitable appearance. Coal mining and steel production, both affected by a major crisis during this period, gave cities like Halifax and Newcastle a dark, sombre appearance which Brandt masterfully conveyed in his images. The photograph’s title refers to a verse from a popular 17th century poem by John Taylor: “From Hell, Hull and Halifax, Good Lord, deliver us!”, referring to the harshness of justice in those two cities.

 

The reputation of the great British documentary photographer Bill Brandt rests in large part on his capacity to manage the tension between black and white in a photograph. For Brandt, strong tonal contrast came to represent the social and cultural experience of Britain between the wars – a place of vast contrasts between rich and poor, worker and elite, urban and rural. But strong tonal contrast, and blackness in particular, carried other, more metaphysical associations. For Brandt, blackness represented the forces and mysteries at work in the world, a place of power and tragedy. Blackness in a photograph also introduced ‘a new beauty’ to the subject, one that intensified the visual and emotional experience of it.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Gull's nest, midsummer evening, Skye' 1947

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Gull’s nest, midsummer evening, Skye
1947
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

Brandt saw this gull’s nest on a sunny afternoon during his trip to photograph northern Scotland. The light was too flat so he decided to return later. This was close to the time of year of the midnight sun. As Brandt wrote: “When I approached the nest on an isolated outpost of rocks, an enormously large gull which had been sitting on the eggs flew off and circled low around my head, barking like a dog. It was windstill, the mountains of the Scottish mainland were reflected in the sea – the light was now just right for the picture.”

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, London' 1952

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, London
1952
22.86 x 19.37cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Nudes

In 1944 Brandt returned to the theme of the nude. For the artist, documentary photography had become a widely extended fashion while the old Great Britain with its marked class divisions was now something of the past. It should also be remembered that the nude is one of the traditional themes of painting and as such signals Brandt’s evolution from documentary photography to the social status of “artist”.

In the 1950s he visited the French Channel Coast beaches in order to make a series of portraits of the painter Georges Braque. Seeing those pebble beaches led to a change of direction and he started to photograph stones and parts of the female body as if they were stones themselves. He combined flesh and rock, heat and cold, hardness and softness in a single formal discourse.

The distortions are often so pronounced that the parts of the body have lost any reference point but they nonetheless produce sensations that are more poetic or profound. It may be that for Brandt these “fragments” of the human body in comparison or communion with natural forms represented primordial forms of some type through which we can perceive “the totality of the world”, as with the Urformen of the Gestalt School and its theory of perception.

Brandt’s nudes of the late 1970s bear no relation to his earlier ones. They transmit a certain sense of violence which reveals the alienation of an artist who no longer felt himself part of the world in which he lived.

 

“Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.” ~ Bill Brandt

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, Campden Hill, London' 1947

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, Campden Hill, London
1947
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

The Kodak camera that Brandt found in a second-hand shop near Covent Garden was designed to produce a clear image of an interior space without any major technical complications. It offered an unusual vision of the motif, creating a space that evokes a dreamlike mood. Most of Brandt’s photographs of nudes in interiors were taken with this old wooden camera which imbues the scene with a sensation of both beauty and disquiet. The repetition of specific visual elements such as windows, which are always in the background of the scene, half-open doors and different pieces of furniture, including the two chairs in this image, suggests issues such as absence, the desire to escape or a complex representation of desire stripped of the object (equivalent to reducing it to its most primary sense).

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, East Sussex coast' 1959

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, East Sussex coast
1959
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, East Sussex coast' 1977

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, East Sussex coast
1977
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

While walking on the Channel Coast beaches, Brandt’s attention was caught by the rounded forms of the rocks on the beach and their resemblance to some forms of the human body. This idea gave rise to his series of nudes photographed outdoors. For this project he abandoned his old Kodak plate camera in favour of a Hasselblad with a wide angle lens and his much used Rolleiflex. The formal interplay that he began to develop in this photograph is closely related to the constructivist nature of what the theoreticians of the Gestalt school (the German psychology movement which began to analyse the bases of human perception in the early 20th century) called Urformen or primordial forms. The combination of both elements, rock and flesh, hard and soft, produces a series of relationships that can be associated with Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture.

 

In Praise of Imperfection

In the introduction to Camera in London, his book on that city published in 1948, Brandt wrote: “I consider it essential that the photographer should do his own printing and enlarging. The final effect of the finished print depends so much on these operations. And only the photographer himself knows the effect he wants.”

For the artist, hands-on work in the photographic lab was essential for ensuring control over the final image, which in most cases was the stage prior to the publishing process when the image appeared in a book or magazine. At the outset of his career Brandt had learned a wide range of traditional techniques, including blow-up, enlarging and the use of brushes, scrapers and other tools.

These manual retouchings sometimes gave his photographs that rather crude look which can be associated with the above-mentioned Freudian concept of unheimlich or “sinister”. Many of them clearly show brushstrokes of black wash on the surface, for example At Charlie Brown’s, Limehouse (1946), displayed in this section of the exhibition.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'At Charlie Brown's, Limehouse' 1945/1946

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
At Charlie Brown’s, Limehouse
1945/1946
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'At Charlie Brown's, Limehouse' 1945/1946

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
At Charlie Brown’s, Limehouse
1945/1946
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

In the background of this image, taken in one of London’s East End pubs, is another one: a poster issued by the military Red Cross and referring to that organisation’s work on the battlefields during World War I. It is not known why, in the second version of the image, Brandt partly obscured the poster with black wash, the medium he most commonly used to retouch his photographs.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'A snicket in Halifax' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
A snicket in Halifax
1937
25.40 x 20.50cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'A snicket in Halifax' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
A snicket in Halifax
1937, printed later
25.40 x 20.50cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

In 1951 Brandt started to develop his photographs using a high contrast paper in order to obtain very dark and light zones in the same image. This led him to develop some of his best known images again, including A snicket in Halifax. In contrast to the earlier prints of that photograph, in which the details of the façade of the building on the left are perfectly visible, he now reinterpreted the image with the façade totally blackened and thus strongly contrasting with the glint on the ramp’s cobblestones while adding a plume of black smoke in the sky.

As early as 1997 Nigel Warburton, an art historian who has undertaken some of the best work on Brandt, questioned the concept of authenticity in this photograph in one of his texts, reflecting on the changes that Brandt had introduced in the prints of his images. Warburton asked which is the most “authentic”, emphasising the fact that the way in which the artist interpreted a single negative had changed over time and rejecting the idea that the simple distinction between what are known as “vintage” prints and later reprints resolves this issue.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, Vasterival, Normandy' 1954

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, Vasterival, Normandy
1954
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, Vasterival, Normandy' 1954

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, Vasterival, Normandy
1954
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

In contrast to photographic purists such as Edward Weston, Brandt had no objection to retouching his images, cropping them or reversing the negative in accordance with his preferences or to meet the requirements of its layout on the printed page. Here we see two versions of the same image with the negative flipped in the enlarger. This is not a unique case and there are other examples in the exhibition: Policeman in a dockland alley, Bermondsey was published in two versions, while Behind the restaurant is a photograph that was always printed in reverse, as evident from the lettering on the boxes.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Policeman in a Dockland Alley, Bermondsey' 1934

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Policeman in a Dockland Alley, Bermondsey
1934
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire' 1944-1945

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire
1944-1945
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

This photograph was included in Brandt’s book Literary Britain (1951) and he recalled how he visited the place various times in order to take it, considering it one of the settings that best conveyed the world of Emily Brontë’s works. The farm, now a ruin, is supposedly the place that inspired her novel Wuthering Heights.

For the painter David Hockney, a great admirer of Brandt, this was one of his favourite photographs but he was extremely disappointed to discover that it is in fact a composite image and that the storm filled clouds, which descend almost to the ground, were taken from another negative and added in the photography lab. The other photograph, taken from higher up on the hill, provides the reverse shot on a foggy winter day.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire' 1944-1945

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire
1944-1945
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Barmaid at the Crooked Billet, Tower Hill' March 1939

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Barmaid at the Crooked Billet, Tower Hill
March 1939
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

Bill Brandt employed a wide range of retouching techniques on his prints, which was common practice in analogue photography, in which tiny scratches on the negative or specks of dust that cannot be completely removed leave marks on the photographic paper. In addition, Brandt often attempted to conceal imperfections in the individuals or objects photographed. The most widely used materials for this were watercolour, Conté crayon and even lead pencil. Brandt, however, also frequently used a scraper and Indian ink.

In this photograph the outline of the barmaid’s face, her eye and eyebrows have been reinforced with a metal point to define the lines, while the use of watercolour and Conté crayon allows various imperfections in the area of the left arm to be concealed.

 

Bill Brandt

Born Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in Hamburg in 1904 to a wealthy family of Russian origin, after a period living in Vienna and Paris in 1934 Brandt decided to settle in London. Within the context of growing hostility to all things German due to the rise of Nazism, he attempted to erase all traces of his origins to the point of stating that he was British by nationality. This concealment and the creation of a new personality enveloped Brandt’s life in an aura of mystery and conflict that was directly reflected in his work. His images aim to construct a vision of the country that he embraced as his own, although not of the real country but rather of the idea that he had created of it during his childhood through reading and from stories told by relatives.

Brandt had tuberculosis as a child and it was seemingly in the Swiss sanatoriums at Agra and Davos where his family sent him to convalesce that he first became interested in photography and where he made many of his literary discoveries: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Kafka, Guy de Maupassant, Ernest Hemingway and Charles Dickens. After some years in Switzerland he moved to Vienna to undergo an innovative treatment for tuberculosis based on psychoanalysis. Imbued with a post-Romantic air, Brandt’s photographs always seems to be located on the edge, provoking simultaneous attraction and rejection.

As the exhibition’s curator Ramón Esparza has noted, they can be related to the concept of unheimlich, a term first used by Sigmund Freud in 1919. The adjective unheimlich – generally translated as “the uncanny”, “the sinister” or “the disturbing”, and which according to Eugenio Trías “constitutes the condition and limit of the beautiful” – is one of the characteristic traits that remains present throughout Brandt’s career. Psychoanalytical theories were one of the fundamental pillars of Surrealism and their influence extended to the entire Parisian cultural scene in the 1930s. Brandt and his first partner, Eva Boros, moved to the French capital in 1930 where he worked as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio. Without ever actively participating in any of the historic avant-garde movements, he undoubtedly assimilated the ideas that circulated in a city filled with young artists, many of them immigrants looking to make their way in the professional art world. Brandt’s images of this period suggest a catalogue of psychoanalytical “themes”, clearly reflecting the influence of Surrealism on him.

Almost all Brandt’s images, both the pre-war social documentary type and those from his subsequent more “artistic” phase, possess a powerful poetic charge as well as that very typical aura of strangeness and mystery in which, as in his own life, reality and fiction are always mixed.

 

The exhibition

Fundación MAPFRE is delighted to be presenting the first retrospective in Spain on Bill Brandt (Hamburg 1904 – London, 1983), considered one of the most influential British photographers of the 20th century. The exhibition, together with Paul Strand. Fundación MAPFRE Collections, inaugurates the KBr Fundación MAPFRE, our new Photography Centre in Barcelona.

The exhibition presents 186 photographs developed by Brandt himself who, over the course of nearly five decades of professional activity, encompassed almost all the principal photographic genres: reportage, portraiture, the nude and landscape, as noted by his biographer Paul Delany in Bill Brandt. A Life, 2004.

The structure of the exhibition, which is divided into six sections, reveals how all these qualities – in which identity and the concept of “the uncanny” become the principal ones – blend together in the work of this eclectic artist. Above all Brandt was considered a flâneur or stroller in a way comparable to his admired Eugène Atget, whom he always considered one of his masters.

 

The early photographs

After initiating his activities as a photographer in Vienna, where he produced the famous and widely praised portrait of the poet Ezra Pound in 1928, Bill Brandt left for Paris in order to work for a short period as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio. In the French capital Brandt encountered Surrealism, which would influence his work from that point onwards. Some of his images, such as Balloon flying over the northern suburbs of Paris (1929), can be related to the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, who considered a hot air balloon in a dream to be a symbol of the masculine. Brandt’s photographs of this period are also closely related to the earlier work of his admired Eugène Atget; like him, Brandt photographed street scenes and Parisian nightlife (images that precede his subsequent, better known work) in which the above-mentioned notion of the disturbing makes its appearance.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Evening in Kew Gardens' 1932

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Evening in Kew Gardens
1932
25.24 x 20.48cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Brandt and his partner Eva Boros (another of Man Ray’s students who had previously studied with André Kertész) travelled on numerous occasions to the Hungarian steppes, to his native Hamburg and to Spain, where they visited Madrid and Barcelona among other cities and with the plan of spending their holidays in Majorca before moving to London in 1934. It was at this point that Brandt shed his German origins, even to the point of inventing British nationality for himself and creating a body of work in which the United Kingdom – a country marked by significant social inequality at that time – established itself as the core of his identity.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

“Bill Brandt was a man who loved secrets, and needed them. The face he presented to the world was that of an English-born gentleman, someone who could easily blend in with the racegoers at Ascot whom he liked to photograph. [A] façade which he would defend with outright lies if he had to […]. Today, many people are eager to discover their roots and make an identity from them. Brandt did the exact opposite: he buried his true origins and presented himself as a completely different person from the one he had been, in reality, for the first twenty-five years of his life.”

Paul Delany starts his biography of Bill Brandt with these lines. According to that author, Brandt not only wanted to live in England but to become English, which was understandable in the context of the growing British antipathy to Nazi Germany and to the events that followed Hitler’s rise to power and the outbreak of World War II. In the London art world it was habitual practice for emigrants arriving from Germany to change their name. Among those who had done so were Stefan Lorant, a Hungarian who had been the editor-in-chief of the Münchner Illustrierte Presse, and two of his photographers, Hans Baumann and Kurt Hübschmann, who anglicised their names to Felix Man and Kurt Hutton, just as Brandt changed his first name to Bill.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'East End girl dancing the 'Lambeth Walk'' March 1939

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
East End girl dancing the ‘Lambeth Walk’
March 1939
22.86 x 19.68cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

In February 1936, two years after his arrival in London, Brandt published his first book, The English at Home. Despite their natural, spontaneous appearance, the scenes reproduced in the book were carefully prepared in advance. For this first book Brandt opted for a wide, album format and made use of one of the design formats most commonly employed in Central European graphic publications: the combination of opposites in order to create a significant contrast between each pair of photographs. Brandt aimed to juxtapose and counterbalance two different social classes on each double-page spread, developing two parallel narrative discourses but without mixing them together. We thus see family scenes of the upper classes out strolling or dining, followed by the same activities undertaken by working-class and mining families. Two years after the publication of The English at Home Brandt published A Night in London, which represents a type of replica of a work by Brassaï, one of the photographers he most admired, whose book Paris de nuit had appeared in France six years earlier. A Night in London can be seen as Brandt’s contribution to the photographic and cinematographic genre that some art historians have termed “the symphony of the metropolis.”

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Elephant & Castle Underground' 1940

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Elephant & Castle Underground
1940
25.72 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Elephant and Castle underground station during WWII. 1942. Deep underground at Elephant and Castle Underground station, Bill Brandt photographed many hundreds sleeping as they sought shelter from the Blitz overhead.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Brandt started to work for the Ministry of Information, producing two of his most celebrated series. The first comprises photographs of hundreds of Londoners sleeping in Underground stations converted into improvised shelters, while the second portrays the city on the surface; a ghostly London lit only by moonlight as a safety precaution due to the air raids. The United Kingdom had become a single country united against the enemy. Brandt abandoned the class differences that he had previously portrayed in favour of other types of scenes which denounced the effects of the war on the civilian population.

 

Portraits

While Brandt produced photographs on an independent basis that he would subsequently group together for his different books, much of his output appeared in publications and magazines such as Picture Post, as well as in Lilliput and in the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar, for which he started to work in 1943. It was at this point that he turned to portraiture as a professional activity. His first reference to his portraits, of which more than 400 are known, was published in Lilliput in 1948. In Brandt’s words: “André Breton once said that a portrait should not only be an image but an oracle one questions, and that the photographer’s aim should be a profound likeness, which physically and morally predicts the subject’s entire future. […] The photographer has to wait until something between dreaming and action occurs in the expression of a face.”

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Francis Bacon' c. 1951

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Francis Bacon
c. 1951
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Brandt’s portraits evolved over time. Some mark a break with tradition, such as the images published in Lilliput in 1941 to accompany the article “Young Poets of Democracy”, which included some of the most famous faces of the writers and poets of the Auden generation. He subsequently began to distort the space in his images, as evident in Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London (1963), and also produced a new series of portraits of eyes of clearly Surrealist inspiration. The eyes of Henry Moore, Georges Braque and Antoni Tàpies are among the examples of gazes that transformed the way of seeing and representing the world.

 

Landscape described

Following his focus on portraiture, Brandt introduced landscape into his repertoire, thus encompassing all the categories traditionally considered to constitute the classic artistic genres. In his landscapes he aimed to introduce an atmosphere – a term that for Brandt seems to involve an entire series of aesthetic references associated with both the pictorial and the literary traditions – which connects with the viewer in order to provoke an emotional response from contemplation of the image. In this sense it would seem that Brandt did not aim to merely represent a place but to capture its very essence in a single image, as in Halifax; “Hail Hell & Halifax” (1937) and Cuckmere River (1963). When these landscapes started to include stone constructions such as tombs and crosses Brandt considered that he had achieved his aim of capturing the atmosphere.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Cuckmere River' (Río Cuckmere) 1963

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Cuckmere River (Río Cuckmere)
1963
20 x 24.13cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

It should be remembered that for Brandt the concept of landscape was deeply rooted in painting and the photographic tradition but also in literature. Literary Britain, which was published in 1951, makes this relationship clear. Using images already published in other weekly magazines as well as photographs specially taken for this book, Brandt accompanied his photographs with extracts from works by British authors. It is here that an explanation of his somewhat imprecise concept of “atmosphere” can be found: the moment when the different elements that make up the landscape (nature, light, viewpoint, weather conditions) converge in an aesthetic canon rooted in a cultural tradition.

 

Nudes

When Brandt focused again on the theme of the nude in 1944 he seemed to feel the need to return to a more poetic type of image. For the artist, documentary photography had become a widely extended fashion while the old Great Britain with its marked class divisions was now something of the past. It should also be remembered that the nude is one of the traditional themes of painting and as such signals Brandt’s evolution from documentary photography to the social status of “artist”. For this transition he made use of an old plate camera with a lens that produced an effect of broad spatiality and depth, transforming the everyday space of a room into a dreamlike setting.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, Baie des Anges, France' 1959

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, Baie des Anges, France (Desnudo, Baie de Anges, Francia)
1959
25.24 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

In the 1950s Brandt visited the beaches of Normandy in order to make a series of portraits of the painter Georges Braque. Seeing those pebble beaches led to a change of direction and he started to photograph stones and parts of the female body as if they were stones themselves. He combined flesh and rock, heat and cold, hardness and softness in a single formal discourse. The distortions are often so pronounced that the parts of the body have lost any reference point but they nonetheless produce sensations that are more poetic or profound. It may be that for Brandt these “fragments” of the human body in comparison or communion with natural forms represented primordial forms of some type through which we can perceive “the totality of the world”, as with the Urformen of the Gestalt School and its theory of perception.

In the late 1970s Brandt again returned to the theme of the nude but these images bear no relation to his earlier ones. They transmit a certain sense of violence which reveals the alienation of an artist who no longer felt himself part of the world in which he lived.

 

In Praise of Imperfection

In the introduction to Camera in London, his book on that city published in 1948, Brandt wrote: “I consider it essential that the photographer should do his own printing and enlarging. The final effect of the finished print depends so much on these operations. And only the photographer himself knows the effect he wants.” Brandt was far more concerned than many other photographs with the actual developing of his analogue photographs. He considered working in the photographic lab to be essential and he could spend hours there in order to ensure complete control over the final image, which in most cases was the stage prior to the publishing process when the image appeared in a book or magazine. At the outset of his career he had learned a wide range of traditional techniques, including blow-up, enlarging and the use of brushes, scrapers and other tools, as can be seen in the works displayed in the case in this room, which include various prints of the same image retouched in different ways. These manual retouchings sometimes gave his photographs that rather crude look which can be seen in the context of the above-mentioned Freudian concept of unheimlich or “the uncanny”. A large number of these images clearly show brushstrokes of black wash on the surface. Another example is Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire of 1945, an image taken for Brandt’s book Literary Britain. It includes clear signs that the stormy sky which gives the landscape a more threatening appearance was added later in the lab.

 

The catalogue

The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition includes reproductions of all the works on display, in addition to a principal essay by the project’s curator, Ramón Esparza, doctor of Communication Sciences and professor of Audiovisual Communication at the Universidad del País Vasco, and another by Maud de la Forterie, doctor in Art History at the Sorbonne, whose doctoral thesis was devoted to the work of Bill Brandt. The catalogue also features an essay by Nigel Warburton on the artist, originally published in 1993 and revised for the present edition, and Bill Brandt’s text “A Statement” which was published in the magazine Album in March 1970.

 

 

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14
Feb
21

Exhibition: Gordon Parks and “The Atmosphere of Crime” at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Collection 1940s-1970s, Room 409
From ‘New art from wall to wall’ ongoing

 

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Shooting Victim in Cook County Morgue, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Shooting Victim in Cook County Morgue, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

 

As you can imagine, with the tragic situation of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic around the world at the moment, there are few photography exhibitions on view.

This selection of images comes from the collection 1940s-1970s at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in an ongoing display. Please note that not all Gordon Parks photographs shown here are on display, but I include them to give the viewer an overview, a greater understanding of the breadth of photographs included in Parks’ cinematic photo-essay.

Can you imagine the fortitude of this man: “born into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912. An itinerant labourer, he worked as a brothel pianist and railcar porter, among other jobs, before buying a camera at a pawnshop, training himself and becoming a photographer. He evolved into a modern-day Renaissance man, finding success as a film director, writer and composer.” “The first Black member of the Farm Security Administration’s storied photo corps; the first Black photographer for the U.S. Office of War Information; the first Black photographer for Vogue; the first Black staff photographer at the weekly magazine Life; and, years later, the first Black filmmaker to direct a motion picture (Shaft) for a major Hollywood studio.” As a photographer he learnt his craft shooting dresses for department stores, taking portraits of society women in Chicago, and studying “the Depression-era images of photographers like Dorothea Lange”. Before joining them as a member of the FSA.

This body of work is remarkable for its non-judgemental gaze, a felt response to a subject which was an assignment for LIFE magazine: an objective reporter with a subjective heart as Parks proclaimed, one who had a certain kind of empathy, “expressing things for people who can’t speak for themselves… the underdogs… in that way I speak for myself.” Park’s photographic strategy was to use colour (rare and expensive in those days), and to close in on detail. Rarely if at all are there any mid to long shots in the photo-essay, placing the photograph in a particular location, the exception being the Untitled street scene under the Chicago “L” (short for “elevated”) rapid transit system and the night-time shot of an illuminated Alcatraz Island – remote, forbidding, isolated.

Photographed with candour – using low depth of field, silhouette, chiaroscuro, natural light, low light, night photography, no blur, little flash and challenging perspective, aesthetically a mixture of Dorothea Lange, Weegee and the colour images of Saul Leiter – other intimate images in the series create an “atmosphere” of everyday life on the streets and in the prisons, capturing how the disenfranchised, the desperate and the destitute are controlled and processed by force. “Parks coaxed his camera to record reality so vividly and compellingly that it would allow Life’s readers to see the complexity of these chronically oversimplified situations.” In Raiding Detectives, Chicago, Illinois (1957) we see two detectives of Italian descent raiding a dingy run-down tenement, busting the door open unannounced, guns drawn. In the photograph underneath in the posting, taken inside the oh so red room with floral curtains, one of the detectives questions a black suspect smoking a cigarette, while on the table covered with newspapers sits a burning candle probably providing the only illumination. Cowering in the shadows is a black women, almost unnoticed until you really look at the photograph. This is what abject poverty looks like. In another photograph, Untitled, New York, New York (1957), black and white men emerge from a police van – about the only time black and white men would have sat together in the segregated society of the time (other than being in prison). Can you imagine the atmosphere inside the paddy wagon, the looks, the conversation or lack of it?

Parks’ beautiful photographs, for they are that, include challenging depictions of death, drug use and nonchalantly displayed items such as guns and knuckledusters. Violence and the outcomes of it are an ever present theme in Parks’ documentation of the policing and criminalisation of marginalised people and communities. The photographs are frequently heartbreaking, such as the scars on the legs of a Black American; or devastating, such as the photograph Knifing Victim I (1957). Park’s compresses the space of the action, attacking the nitty gritty of the mise en scène but with no rush to judgement, just telling it how it is. As Sebastian Smee so eloquently observes, “If all of this were mere history – a series of episodes confined to the past – it would be one thing. But Parks’s photographs are alive to the many ways in which crime in the 1950s was a continuation of this legacy [of slavery, of lynching]. Sixty years after he took these photographs, it’s difficult to deny the conclusion that today’s crime-related inequities, from mass incarceration to police brutality, are likewise an extension of this racist legacy.”

And so it goes, both for the marginalised in America and for Indigenous Australians. “According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in 2018 Black males accounted for 34% of the total male prison population, white males 29%, and Hispanic males 24%” (Wikipedia) while the percentage of US population that is black is 14%. “As of September 2019, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners represented 28% of the total adult prisoner population, while accounting for 3.3% of the general population.” (Wikipedia)

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. All photographs are used for the purposes of education and research under fair use conditions.

 

 

In 1957, Life staff photographer Gordon Parks traversed New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco capturing crime scenes, police precincts, and prisons for “The Atmosphere of Crime,” as his photo essay was titled when it appeared in the magazine. Rather than identify or label “the criminal,” Parks – a fierce advocate for civil rights and a firm believer in photography as a catalyst for change – documented the policing and criminalisation of marginalised people and communities.

Here, Parks’s series is presented in relation to a long history of picturing criminality. In the nineteenth century, mug shots relied on photography’s supposed objectivity as the basis of their value for identification and surveillance. In the twentieth, more sensational images of victims, raids, and arrests circulated in newspapers and tabloids. In contrast, Parks urges us to look beyond individual people and events, to consider the forces of state and police power that are inextricable from any history of crime – a lesson as essential now as ever.

Text from the MoMA website

 

 

“I’m an objective reporter with a subjective heart,” proclaimed Gordon Parks. “I can’t help but have a certain kind of empathy… It’s more or less expressing things for people who can’t speak for themselves… the underdogs… in that way I speak for myself.” For over half a century, from the 1940s to the 2000s, Gordon Parks captured American life with his powerful photographs. After getting his first camera at the age of 25, he used this “weapon of choice” to attack issues including racism, poverty, urban life, and injustice. He became the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine – an immensely influential platform in the golden age of photo-illustrated magazines that not only allowed his art to be seen by many but also brought a critical, nuanced and, importantly, a Black perspective to the stories and depictions that he shared. For a 1957 assignment, he crisscrossed the streets of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, producing vivid colour images addressing the perceived rise in crime in the US. This series, “The Atmosphere of Crime,” challenged stereotypical images of delinquency, drug use, and corruption.

.
Text from the Gordon Parks Foundation website

 

“I don’t know that there is any one thing called “the Black experience,” but the way ‘Life magazine’ used Gordon Parks’ photographs for me actually reinscribed some of those notions of Black pathology, such as a story about a gang member (who was actually a pretty normal young man) or extreme poverty and social disenfranchisement. Parks was a much more complex photographer than that, as we came to fully know after his death, but that’s how we came to know him through ‘Life magazine’.”

.
Dawoud Bey quoted in Gail O’Neill. “Q&A: How Dawoud Bey uses photography to amplify his voice in the world,” on the ‘ARTS ATL’ website November 6, 2020 [Online] Cited 01/03/2021

 

 

 

Sarah Meister, curator in the Department of Photography, looks at images from Gordon Parks’s 1957 photo essay “The Atmosphere of Crime” (1957) and is moved by the power (and, sadly, continued relevance) of his ability to confront “the great social evils of his time” with an “incredible artistic sensibility.”

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

 

Closing in on a known criminal on Chicago’s South Side, police in a scout car check tensely by radio with headquarters. City lights rainbow the storm-splattered windshield as the car approaches the hideout.

Text from LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957, p. 46.

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Raiding Detectives, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Raiding Detectives, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Drug Search, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Drug Search, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Drug Search, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Drug Search, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
13 3/4 × 21″ (35 × 53.3cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957 (detail)

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois (detail)
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
13 3/4 × 21″ (35 × 53.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Narcotics Addict, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Narcotics Addict, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, New York, New York' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, New York, New York
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
13 3/4 × 21″ (35 × 53.3cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'San Quentin, California' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
San Quentin, California
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled (Alcatraz Island), San Francisco, California' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled (Alcatraz Island), San Francisco, California
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

 

Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime 1957

Gordon Parks’ ethically complex depictions of crime in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, with previously unseen photographs.

When Life magazine asked Gordon Parks to illustrate a recurring series of articles on crime in the United States in 1957, he had already been a staff photographer for nearly a decade, the first African American to hold this position. Parks embarked on a six-week journey that took him and a reporter to the streets of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Unlike much of his prior work, the images made were in colour. The resulting eight-page photo-essay The Atmosphere of Crime was noteworthy not only for its bold aesthetic sophistication but also for how it challenged stereotypes about criminality then pervasive in the mainstream media. They provided a richly hued, cinematic portrayal of a largely hidden world: that of violence, police work and incarceration, seen with empathy and candour.

Parks rejected clichés of delinquency, drug use, and corruption, opting for a more nuanced view that reflected the social and economic factors tied to criminal behaviour and afforded a rare window into the working lives of those charged with preventing and prosecuting it. Transcending the romanticism of the gangster film, the suspense of the crime caper and the racially biased depictions of criminality then prevalent in American popular culture, Parks coaxed his camera to record reality so vividly and compellingly that it would allow Life‘s readers to see the complexity of these chronically oversimplified situations. The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 includes an expansive selection of never-before-published photographs from Parks’ original reportage.

Anonymous. “Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime 1957,” on the Exibart Street website [Online] Cited 07/02/2021

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Crime Suspect with Gun, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Crime Suspect with Gun, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Police Raid, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Police Raid, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, New York, New York' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, New York, New York
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, New York, New York' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, New York, New York
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 × 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Checking In Suspect, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Checking In Suspect, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Detectives Grilling a Suspect, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Detectives Grilling a Suspect, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Fingerprinting Addicts for Forging Prescription, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Fingerprinting Addicts for Forging Prescription, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Cops Bring In Knifing Victim, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Cops Bring In Knifing Victim, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
21 × 13 3/4″ (53.3 × 35cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

 

A sidewalk puddle reflects a common tragedy. A police van drives up to a Chicago hospital’s emergency door with a knifing victim. Tired attendants, once compassionate, sit idly by.

Text from LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Police Bring in Victim, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Police Bring in Victim, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, New York, New York' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, New York, New York
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
21 × 13 3/4″ (53.3 × 35cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, New York, New York' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, New York, New York
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

 

A prowl car halts in a New York street, a youth comes nervously to its side. “You clean?” the cop asks. “We’re watching you.”

Text from “The Atmosphere of Crime” photographed for LIFE by Gordon Parks. LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957, p. 50.

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Knifing Victim I, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Knifing Victim I, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Morgue Photos of Dope Peddler Killed by Cops, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Morgue Photos of Dope Peddler Killed by Cops, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, San Quentin, California' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, San Quentin, California [Pre-execution report]
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
17 15/16 × 11 7/8″ (45.6 × 30.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print
16 × 20″ (40.6 × 50.8 cm)
Gift of The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

 

The left hand of a man who knows the ropes nonchalantly dangles a cigaret through the bars of a Chicago prison. But the man’s right hand, grasping the bars below, betrays him: he is frustrated and locked in.

Text from LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957

 

 

MoMA acquires historic Gordon Parks series The Atmosphere of Crime

The photographs will go on view in the New York museum’s permanent collection galleries in May, along with a selection of works by other artists and a clip from the classic 1971 film Shaft

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has acquired a full set of photographs by Gordon Parks from The Atmosphere of Crime series, a photographic essay examining crime in America he created on assignment with Life magazine in 1957. Along with 55 modern colour inkjet prints created from Parks’s transparencies, selected and bought in consultation with the Gordon Parks Foundation, the foundation has gifted a vintage gelatin silver print that matches a work already in MoMA’s collection, given by the photographer in 1993. Around 15 pieces from the series will go on view in a dedicated gallery on the fourth floor in May, along with an excerpt from his classic 1971 film Shaft and works by other artists from the collection, as part of the next reinstallation of the permanent galleries.

The acquisition comes through years of conversations with the Gordon Parks Foundation, which has been organising in-depth exhibitions of the photographer’s work at major museums since his death in 2006. “When Sarah Meister [MoMA’s curator of photography] and I began speaking a few years ago about how the museum could make a major acquisition, it was about what body of work would really have the most impact to what’s going on in the current world,” says Peter Kunhardt, Jr, the foundation’s executive director. “And we both felt that The Atmosphere of Crime was so relevant, not only because so much hasn’t changed today in our criminal justice system and with police brutality and violence, but also because the work is in colour.”

Colour photography was prohibitively expensive to produce outside of commercial projects at the time Parks first shot the series, Meister explains, and only a selection of images from the series were printed in colour in Life. “The transparencies that Gordon Parks made have been held back for a number of years for the right institution to thoughtfully put together an exhibition and book,” Kunhardt adds. The catalogue, published by Steidl with essays by Meister, Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the art historian Nicole Fleetwood, who also wrote Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, includes all the images from the acquisition.

Extract from Helen Stoilas. “MoMA acquires historic Gordon Parks series The Atmosphere of Crime,” on The Art Newspaper website 11 February 2020 [Online] Cited 07/02/2021

 

Installation view of the Collection 1940s-1970s, Room 409: 'Gordon Parks and "The Atmosphere of Crime"' at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Installation view of the Collection 1940s-1970s, Room 409: 'Gordon Parks and "The Atmosphere of Crime"' at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Installation view of the Collection 1940s-1970s, Room 409: 'Gordon Parks and "The Atmosphere of Crime"' at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Installation view of the Collection 1940s-1970s, Room 409: 'Gordon Parks and "The Atmosphere of Crime"' at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Installation view of the Collection 1940s-1970s, Room 409: 'Gordon Parks and "The Atmosphere of Crime"' at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Installation view of the Collection 1940s-1970s, Room 409: 'Gordon Parks and "The Atmosphere of Crime"' at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

 

Installation views of the Collection 1940s-1970s, Room 409: Gordon Parks and “The Atmosphere of Crime” at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

 

 

None of these images is crude or cliched. A few, it’s true, are brutally direct, in the spirit of Robert Lowell (“Yet why not say what happened?”) or Walker Evans (“If the thing is there, why there it is.”). But others are oddly – and arrestingly – tentative. They’re optically blurred, obscured by visual impediments, as if filtered through the artist’s melancholy, his pity, his black-of-night bewilderment. Looking at them, you feel that something others might rush to – judgment, sentencing, finality – has been deliberately withheld. …

The presence of the word “atmosphere” in the title is apt. It captures both the cumulative impact of the imagery and the complexity of crime’s causes and effects. Park’s use of blur, his unexpected vantage points and his embrace of pooling darkness all elevate his feeling for complication and suffering over the usual simplistic story lines that crowd to the subject of crime. …

Between 1880 and 1950, lynchings were committed in open defiance of the law, terrorising a Black population that proceeded to escape to the ghettos of the North in massive numbers.

If all of this were mere history – a series of episodes confined to the past – it would be one thing. But Parks’s photographs are alive to the many ways in which crime in the 1950s was a continuation of this legacy. Sixty years after he took these photographs, it’s difficult to deny the conclusion that today’s crime-related inequities, from mass incarceration to police brutality, are likewise an extension of this racist legacy.

Big-city street crime has been in steady decline for three decades now. And yet the complexities and inequities of American crime still hinge on race and are still crudely narrated in the media.

Extract from Sebastian Smee. “With his camera, Gordon Parks humanized the Black people others saw as simply criminals,” on The Washington Post website August 5, 2020 [Online] Cited 07/02/2021

 

LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957

 

LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957 front cover

 

Robert Wallace. "Crime in the U.S." LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957, pp. 46-47.

 

Robert Wallace. “Crime in the U.S.” LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957, pp. 46-47. Photograph by Gordon Parks.

 

LIFE magazine 'Crime in the U.S.'

Robert Wallace. "Crime in the U.S." LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957

 

Robert Wallace. “Crime in the U.S.” LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957. Photographs by Gordon Parks.

 

 

Robert Wallace. “Crime in the U.S.” LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957, pp. 68-69.

 

 

“BANDIT’S ROOST” in New York’s Mulberry Street in 1890s housed Italians who, like most economically exploited immigrant groups, had a high incidence of crime. As Sellin explains, this dropped as they prospered.

Unattributed photograph by Jacob Riis (see below).

 

Jacob Riis (Danish-American, 1849-1914) 'Bandit's Roost at 59½ Mulberry Street' 1888

 

Jacob Riis (American, born Denmark 1849-1914)
Bandit’s Roost at 59½ Mulberry Street
1888
From How the Other Half Lives

 

This image is Bandit’s Roost at 59½ Mulberry Street, considered the most crime-ridden, dangerous part of New York City.

 

 

Jacob August Riis (1849-1914) was a Danish-American social reformer, “muckraking” journalist and social documentary photographer. He contributed significantly to the cause of urban reform in America at the turn of the twentieth century. He is known for using his photographic and journalistic talents to help the impoverished in New York City; those impoverished New Yorkers were the subject of most of his prolific writings and photography. He endorsed the implementation of “model tenements” in New York with the help of humanitarian Lawrence Veiller. Additionally, as one of the most famous proponents of the newly practicable casual photography, he is considered one of the fathers of photography due to his very early adoption of flash in photography.

While living in New York, Riis experienced poverty and became a police reporter writing about the quality of life in the slums. He attempted to alleviate the bad living conditions of poor people by exposing their living conditions to the middle and upper classes. …

 

Photography

Bandit’s Roost (1888) by Jacob Riis, from How the Other Half Lives. This image is Bandit’s Roost at 59½ Mulberry Street, considered the most crime-ridden, dangerous part of New York City. Riis had for some time been wondering how to show the squalor of which he wrote more vividly than his words could express. He tried sketching, but was incompetent at this. Camera lenses of the 1880s were slow as was the emulsion of photographic plates; photography thus did not seem to be of any use for reporting about conditions of life in dark interiors. In early 1887, however, Riis was startled to read that “a way had been discovered to take pictures by flashlight. The darkest corner might be photographed that way.” The German innovation, by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke, flash powder was a mixture of magnesium with potassium chlorate and some antimony sulfide for added stability; the powder was used in a pistol-like device that fired cartridges. This was the introduction of flash photography.

Recognising the potential of the flash, Riis informed a friend, Dr. John Nagle, chief of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the City Health Department who was also a keen amateur photographer. Nagle found two more photographer friends, Henry Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence, and the four of them began to photograph the slums. Their first report was published in the New York newspaper The Sun on February 12, 1888; it was an unsigned article by Riis which described its author as “an energetic gentleman, who combines in his person, though not in practice, the two dignities of deacon in a Long Island church and a police reporter in New York”. The “pictures of Gotham’s crime and misery by night and day” are described as “a foundation for a lecture called ‘The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York.’ to give at church and Sunday school exhibitions, and the like.” The article was illustrated by twelve line drawings based on the photographs.

Riis and his photographers were among the first Americans to use flash photography. Pistol lamps were dangerous and looked threatening, and would soon be replaced by another method for which Riis lit magnesium powder on a frying pan. The process involved removing the lens cap, igniting the flash powder and replacing the lens cap; the time taken to ignite the flash powder sometimes allowed a visible image blurring created by the flash.

Riis’s first team soon tired of the late hours, and Riis had to find other help. Both his assistants were lazy and one was dishonest, selling plates for which Riis had paid. Riis sued him in court successfully. Nagle suggested that Riis should become self-sufficient, so in January 1888 Riis paid $25 for a 4×5 box camera, plate holders, a tripod and equipment for developing and printing. He took the equipment to the potter’s field cemetery on Hart Island to practice, making two exposures. The result was seriously overexposed but successful.

For three years, Riis combined his own photographs with others commissioned of professionals, donations by amateurs and purchased lantern slides, all of which formed the basis for his photographic archive.

Because of the nighttime work, he was able to photograph the worst elements of the New York slums, the dark streets, tenement apartments, and “stale-beer” dives, and documented the hardships faced by the poor and criminal, especially in the vicinity of notorious Mulberry Street. …

 

Social attitudes

Riis’s concern for the poor and destitute often caused people to assume he disliked the rich. However, Riis showed no sign of discomfort among the affluent, often asking them for their support. Although seldom involved with party politics, Riis was sufficiently disgusted by the corruption of Tammany Hall to change from being an endorser of the Democratic Party to endorse the Republican Party. The period just before the Spanish-American War was difficult for Riis. He was approached by liberals who suspected that protests of alleged Spanish mistreatment of the Cubans was merely a ruse intended to provide a pretext for US expansionism; perhaps to avoid offending his friend Roosevelt, Riis refused the offer of good payment to investigate this and made nationalist statements.

Riis emphatically supported the spread of wealth to lower classes through improved social programs and philanthropy, but his personal opinion of the natural causes for poor immigrants’ situations tended to display the trappings of a racist ideology. Several chapters of How the Other Half Lives, for example, open with Riis’ observations of the economic and social situations of different ethnic and racial groups via indictments of their perceived natural flaws; often prejudices that may well have been informed by scientific racism.

 

Criticism

Riis’s sincerity for social reform has seldom been questioned, but critics have questioned his right to interfere with the lives and choices of others. His audience comprised middle-class reformers, and critics say that he had no love for the traditional lifestyles of the people he portrayed. Stange (1989) argues that Riis “recoiled from workers and working-class culture” and appealed primarily to the anxieties and fears of his middle-class audience. Swienty (2008) says, “Riis was quite impatient with most of his fellow immigrants; he was quick to judge and condemn those who failed to assimilate, and he did not refrain from expressing his contempt.” Gurock (1981) says Riis was insensitive to the needs and fears of East European Jewish immigrants who flooded into New York at this time.

Libertarian economist Thomas Sowell (2001) argues that immigrants during Riis’s time were typically willing to live in cramped, unpleasant circumstances as a deliberate short-term strategy that allowed them to save more than half their earnings to help family members come to America, with every intention of relocating to more comfortable lodgings eventually. Many tenement renters physically resisted the well-intentioned relocation efforts of reformers like Riis, states Sowell, because other lodgings were too costly to allow for the high rate of savings possible in the tenements. Moreover, according to Sowell, Riis’s own personal experiences were the rule rather than the exception during his era: like most immigrants and low-income persons, he lived in the tenements only temporarily before gradually earning more income and relocating to different lodgings.

Riis’s depictions of various ethnic groups can be harsh. In Riis’s books, according to some historians, “The Jews are nervous and inquisitive, the Orientals are sinister, the Italians are unsanitary.”

Riis was also criticised for his depiction of African Americans. He was said to portray them as falsely happy with their lives in the “slums” of New York City. This criticism didn’t come until much later after Riis had died. His writing was overlooked because his photography was so revolutionary in his early books.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

 

“The Atmosphere of Crime” photographed for LIFE by Gordon Parks. LIFE magazine, September 9, 1957, p. 50.

 

Gordon Parks' photo essay 'The Atmosphere of Crime' in 'Life Magazine', September 9, 1957

 

Gordon Parks’ photo essay “The Atmosphere of Crime” in Life Magazine, September 9, 1957, pp. 58-59.

 

 

Because this year marks the 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking 1971 film, “Shaft”; because two fine shows of his pioneering photojournalism are on view at the Jack Shainman galleries in Chelsea; because a suite from his influential 1957 series, “The Atmosphere of Crime,” is a highlight of “In and Around Harlem,” on view at the Museum of Modern Art; and because, somehow, despite the long shadow cast by a man widely considered the preeminent Black American photographer of the 20th century, he is too little known, the time seems right to revisit some elements of the remarkable life, style and undimmed relevance of Gordon Parks.

 

Last born of 15 children, he made a career of firsts

Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks in Fort Scott, Kansas, on Nov. 30, 1912, he attended segregated schools where he was prohibited from playing sports and was advised not to aim for college because higher education was pointless for people destined to be porters and maids.

Once, he was beaten up for walking with a light-skinned cousin. Once, he was tossed into the Marmaton River by three white boys fully aware that he could not swim. Once, he was thrown out of a brother-in-law’s house where he was sent to live after his mother’s death. This was in St. Paul, at Christmas. He rode a trolley all night to keep warm.

 

The road to fame had plenty of detours

At various points in his early years, Parks played the piano in a brothel, was a janitor in a flophouse and was a dining car waiter on the cross-country railroad. He survived these travails to become, following a route that was anything but direct, the first Black member of the Farm Security Administration’s storied photo corps; the first Black photographer for the U.S. Office of War Information; the first Black photographer for Vogue; the first Black staff photographer at the weekly magazine Life; and, years later, the first Black filmmaker to direct a motion picture for a major Hollywood studio. By the standards of a Jim Crow era, Parks’ perseverance rose to the level of the biblical.

 

He got his break shooting dresses

As passengers have done everywhere and always, those on the North Coast Limited between Chicago and Seattle tossed their onboard reading when they were done. Parks scavenged the well-thumbed magazines and, taking them home, discovered both the Depression-era images of photographers like Dorothea Lange and the exotic spheres depicted in Vogue.

He bought his first camera at a pawnshop in Seattle in 1937 and taught himself how to use it. Returning to the Minneapolis area where he had lived for a time, he scouted work shooting for local department stores. All except one rebuffed him.

This, as it happened, was Frank Murphy, the most fashionable boutique in the city, a shop with a running fountain, a resident parrot and a clientele that ran to women from the Pillsbury, Ordway and Dayton dynasties and who relied on the buyers there to supply them with things like “telephone dresses,” for those who considered it unseemly to take calls in dishabille.

By legend, it was the owner’s wife, Madeleine, who insisted that her husband hire the fledgling photographer despite his inexperience, for reasons never made clear. The bet paid off, though, since the images Parks produced promptly resulted in more work, a local exhibition and a telephone call from Marva Louis, then the wife of the world heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis, who encouraged him to relocate to Chicago, where he began taking portraits of society women. It was a career transit compressed in a sequence of events so implausible as to seem cinematic. Yet, for Parks, it was just a beginning.

“From the start, Parks knew how to make a beautiful picture,” photography critic Vince Aletti said. And it is true that, long after Parks established his reputation with unflinching photographic series on the civil rights movement, Harlem gangs, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, he continued to move easily between photojournalism and the fashion work for which he maintained a lifelong regard – and which, along with his access to elements of Black life largely invisible to white readers, was among the reasons he was hired in the first place by Life.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

 

Unknown photographer. 'Untitled (Pages from an album of mugshots)' 1870s-80s

 

Unknown photographer
Untitled (Pages from an album of mugshots)
1870s-80s
Albumen silver prints
Each 9 1/8 × 4 7/16″ (23.2 × 11.2cm)

 

Times Wide World Photos. "Ms. Ruth Snyder as She Looks Today" April 1927

 

Times Wide World Photos
“Ms. Ruth Snyder as She Looks Today”
April 1927
Gelatin silver print
9 7/8 × 7 1/2″ (25.1 × 19.1cm)
The New York Times Collection
© 2021 Times Wide World Photos

 

 

Ruth Brown Snyder (March 27, 1895 – January 12, 1928) was an American murderer. Her execution in the electric chair at New York’s Sing Sing Prison in 1928 for the murder of her husband, Albert Snyder, was recorded in a well-publicised photograph.

 

Associated Press. "Mob Foiled in Attempted Lynching" 1934

 

Associated Press
“Mob Foiled in Attempted Lynching”
1934
Gelatin silver print
6 1/2 × 8 3/8″ (16.5 × 21.3cm)
The New York Times Collection
© 2021 Associated Press

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968) 'Charles Sodokoff and Arthur Webber Use Their Top Hats to Hide Their Faces' 1942

 

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, 1899-1968)
Charles Sodokoff and Arthur Webber Use Their Top Hats to Hide Their Faces
1942
Gelatin silver print
10 5/16 × 13 3/16″ (26.2 × 33.5cm)
The Family of Man Fund
© 2021 Weegee/ICP/Getty Images

 

Associated Press, Roger Higgins. 'Ethel and Julius Rosenberg on Their Way to Jail in New York' March 29, 1951

 

Associated Press, Roger Higgins
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg on Their Way to Jail in New York
March 29, 1951
Gelatin silver print
6 1/2 × 8 7/16″ (16.5 × 21.4cm)
The New York Times Collection
© 2021 Associated Press

 

 

Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg were American citizens who were convicted of spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. The couple was accused of providing top-secret information about radar, sonar, jet propulsion engines, and valuable nuclear weapon designs; at that time the United States was the only country in the world with nuclear weapons. Convicted of espionage in 1951, they were executed by the federal government of the United States in 1953 in the Sing Sing correctional facility in Ossining, New York, becoming the first American civilians to be executed for such charges and the first to suffer that penalty during peacetime.

Other convicted co-conspirators were sentenced to prison, including Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass (who had made a plea agreement), Harry Gold, and Morton Sobell. Klaus Fuchs, a German scientist working in Los Alamos, was convicted in the United Kingdom.

For decades, the Rosenbergs’ sons (Michael and Robert Meeropol) and many other defenders maintained that Julius and Ethel were innocent of spying on their country and were victims of Cold War paranoia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, much information concerning them was declassified, including a trove of decoded Soviet cables (code-name: Venona), which detailed Julius’s role as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets. Ethel’s role was as an accessory who helped recruit her brother David into the spy ring and she worked in a secretarial manner typing up documents for her husband that were given to the Soviets. In 2008, the National Archives of the United States published most of the grand jury testimony related to the prosecution of the Rosenbergs.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) 'Black Maria, Oakland' 1957

 

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965)
Black Maria, Oakland
1957
Gelatin silver print
10 15/16 × 9 13/16″ (27.9 × 24.9cm)
Gift of the artist

 

Meyer Liebowitz (American, 1906-1976) / The New York Times. 'Umberto (Albert) Anastasia Shot to Death in Barber's Chair' October 25, 1957

 

Meyer Liebowitz (American, 1906-1976) / The New York Times
Umberto (Albert) Anastasia Shot to Death in Barber’s Chair
October 25, 1957
Gelatin silver print
7 5/8 × 8 7/16″ (19.4 × 21.4cm)
The New York Times Collection
© 2021 The New York Times

 

 

Umberto “Albert” Anastasia (1902-1957) was an Italian-American mobster, hitman, and crime boss. One of the founders of the modern American Mafia and a co-founder and later boss of the Murder, Inc. criminal collective, Anastasia eventually rose to the position of boss in what became the modern Gambino crime family. He was also in control of the New York waterfront for most of his criminal career, including the dockworker unions. He was murdered on October 25, 1957, on the orders of Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino; Gambino subsequently became boss of the family.

Anastasia was one of the most ruthless and feared organised crime figures in American history; his reputation earned him the nicknames “The One-Man Army”, “Mad Hatter” and “Lord High Executioner”. …

 

Assassination

On the morning of October 25, 1957, Anastasia entered the barber shop of the Park Sheraton Hotel, at 56th Street and 7th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Anastasia’s driver parked the car in an underground garage and then took a walk outside, leaving him unprotected. As Anastasia relaxed in the barber’s chair, two men – scarves covering their faces – rushed in, shoved the barber out of the way, and fired at Anastasia. After the first volley of bullets, Anastasia reportedly lunged at his killers. However, the stunned Anastasia had actually attacked the gunmen’s reflections in the wall mirror of the barber shop. The gunmen continued firing until Anastasia finally fell dead on the floor.

The Anastasia homicide generated a tremendous amount of public interest and sparked a high-profile police investigation. Per The New York Times journalist and Five Families author Selwyn Raab, “The vivid image of a helpless victim swathed in white towels was stamped in the public memory”. However, no one was charged in the case. Speculation on who killed Anastasia has centred on Profaci crime family mobster Joe Gallo, the Patriarca crime family of Providence, Rhode Island, and certain drug dealers within the Gambino family. Initially, the NYPD concluded that Anastasia’s homicide had been arranged by Genovese and Gambino and that it was carried out by a crew led by Gallo. At one point, Gallo boasted to an associate of his part in the hit, “You can just call the five of us the barbershop quintet”. Elsewhere, Genovese had traditionally strong ties to Patriarca boss Raymond L. S. Patriarca.

Anastasia’s funeral service was conducted at a Brooklyn funeral home; the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn had refused to sanction a church burial. Anastasia was interred in Green-Wood Cemetery in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn, attended by a handful of friends and relatives. It is marked “Anastasio”. In 1958, his family emigrated to Canada, and changed the name to “Anisio”.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Danny Lyon (American, b. 1942) 'Dominoes, Walls Unit, Texas' 1967-69

 

Danny Lyon (American, b. 1942)
Dominoes, Walls Unit, Texas
1967-69
Gelatin silver print
11 × 14″ (28 × 35.6cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James Hunter
© 2021 Danny Lyon

 

John Hubbard / Black Star Publishing Company. "Kennedy Car off Bridge to Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts" July 19, 1969

 

John Hubbard / Black Star Publishing Company
“Kennedy Car off Bridge to Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts”
July 19, 1969
Gelatin silver print
6 13/16 × 9 15/16″ (17.3 × 25.2cm)
The New York Times Collection
© 2021 John Hubbard/Black Star Publishing Co.

 

 

The Chappaquiddick incident (popularly known as Chappaquiddick) was a single-vehicle car crash that occurred on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts some time around midnight between Friday, July 18, and Saturday, July 19, 1969. The crash was caused by Senator Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy’s negligence and resulted in the death of his 28-year-old passenger Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped inside the vehicle.

Kennedy left a party on Chappaquiddick at 11:15 p.m. Friday, with Kopechne. He maintained his intent was to immediately take Kopechne to a ferry landing and return to Edgartown, but that he accidentally made a wrong turn onto a dirt road leading to a one-lane bridge. After his car skidded off the bridge into Poucha Pond, Kennedy swam free, and maintained he tried to rescue Kopechne from the submerged car, but he could not. Kopechne’s death could have happened any time between about 11:30 p.m. Friday and 1 a.m. Saturday, as an off-duty deputy sheriff maintained he saw a car matching Kennedy’s at 12:40 a.m. Kennedy left the scene and did not report the crash to police until after 10 a.m. Saturday. Meanwhile, a diver recovered Kopechne’s body from Kennedy’s car shortly before 9 a.m. Saturday.

At a July 25, 1969, court hearing, Kennedy pled guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended jail sentence. In a televised statement that same evening, he said his conduct immediately after the crash “made no sense to me at all”, and that he regarded his failure to report the crash immediately as “indefensible”. A January 5, 1970, judicial inquest concluded Kennedy and Kopechne did not intend to take the ferry, and that Kennedy intentionally turned toward the bridge, operating his vehicle negligently, if not recklessly, at too high a rate of speed for the hazard which the bridge posed in the dark. The judge stopped short of recommending charges, and a grand jury convened on April 6, 1970, returning no indictments. On May 27, 1970, a Registry of Motor Vehicles hearing resulted in Kennedy’s driver’s license being suspended for a total of sixteen months after the crash.

The Chappaquiddick incident became national news that influenced Kennedy’s decision not to run for President in 1972 and 1976, and it was said to have undermined his chances of ever becoming President. Kennedy ultimately decided to enter the 1980 Democratic Party presidential primaries, but earned only 37.6% of the vote and lost the nomination to incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Leonard Freed (American, 1929-2006) 'New York: Woman killed by her boyfriend at her place of employment' 1972

 

Leonard Freed (American, 1929-2006)
New York: Woman killed by her boyfriend at her place of employment
1972
Gelatin silver print
15 5/8 × 23 9/16″ (39.7 × 59.8cm)
Acquired through the generosity of Thomas L. Kempner, Jr.
© 2021 Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

 

 

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21
Sep
18

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

September 2018

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

Photographic Views of the Red River Raft

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Cover the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft 1873

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Plate XIV

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Crane boat at work

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Red River of the South

Red River map

 

Snagboat 'Helliopolis'

 

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

 

 

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

 

Harpers Weekly Cover snagboat 2 Nov 1889

 

 

“One of Uncle Sam’s Tooth Pullers”

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

From Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 2, 1889

 

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

 

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

 

 

Shreveport, the Great Raft and Eugene Augustus Woodruff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Yellow fever

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

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

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

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

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Snag

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

Maritime hazard

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

Text from the Wikipedia webiste

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

Text and image from the Steamboat Times website

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

Text and image from the Steamboat Times website

 

 

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13
Aug
17

Exhibition: ‘Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class’ at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Exhibition dates: 27th April to 13th August 2017

Curator: Dr Martin Engler, Head of the Collection of Contemporary Art, Städel Museum
Co-curator: Dr Jana Baumann, Städel Museum

Artists: Volker Döhne, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Tata Ronkholz, Thomas Ruff, Jörg Sasse, Thomas Struth and Petra Wunderlich

 

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015) 'Gutehoffnungshütte, Oberhausen, Ruhrgebiet' 1963

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015)
Gutehoffnungshütte, Oberhausen, Ruhrgebiet
1963
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
75.3 x 91.4 cm
Art Collection Deutsche Börse Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation
© Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015) 'Half-Timber Houses' 1959-61/1974

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015)
Half-Timber Houses
1959-61/1974
Silver gelatine print on baryta paper
152.4 x 112.5 cm
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher

 

 

The Bechers depict the half-timbered houses from the Siegerland in a sober and restrained fashion. The picture removes the buildings from their original context. One view follows the next. Thus the form of the single building becomes more important than its function. In the photographs the half-timbered houses become aesthetic objects with a sculptural character. Bernd and Hilla Becher do not present their images individually, but in a grid. Not the single photo is the work, but the total of the typology is.

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015) 'Half-Timber Houses' (detail) 1959-61/1974

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015)
Half-Timber Houses (detail)
1959-61/1974
Silver gelatine print on baryta paper
152.4 x 112.5 cm
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015) 'Half-Timber Houses' (detail) 1959-61/1974

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015)
Half-Timber Houses (detail)
1959-61/1974
Silver gelatine print on baryta paper
152.4 x 112.5 cm
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher

 

 

 

“What the teachings of Bernd and Hilla Becher sparked off – and their students developed further – is a new conception of the artwork according to which the boundaries between sculpture, painting and photography dissolve in terms of media and aesthetics alike. In other words, in the very moment in history when photography emancipated itself to become an independent medium, it sounded its own death knell.” (Press release)

WHAT ABSOLUTE RUBBISH – the second sentence, that is!

Just look at the photographs as pictures.

The Bechers and their students’ photographs might invoke a new concept of the pictorial but that does not mean the death of photography far from it. In fact, this conceptualisation opens up an expanded terrain of becoming for photography (continuing the theme of the last post on the work of Walker Evans). In this sense, the work of these artists is vital to an understanding of the place of photography within the observation, construction and taxonomy of contemporary culture and its pictorial representation.

Marcus

.
Many thankx to the Städel Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. For more information please see the interactive website.

 

One of the most radical changes in art’s relation to its aesthetic, media, and economic contexts is closely associated with the students of the first Becher Class at the Düsseldorf art academy – but even more so with the names of their teachers, Bernd and Hilla Becher. The exhibition brings together 200 major works, some in large format, by these important artists, as well as a selection of their early works.

 

 

Candida Höfer (*1944) 'Weidengasse Cologne VIII 1977' 1977 (2013)

 

Candida Höfer (*1944)
Weidengasse Cologne VIII 1977
1977 (2013)
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
42.6 x 36.7 cm
Loan from the artist
© Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

 

Volker Döhne (*1953) 'Untitled (Colourful)' 1979 (2014)

 

Volker Döhne (*1953)
Untitled (Colourful)
1979 (2014)
Colour print from colour transparency
37 x 47 cm
Private collection
© Volker Döhne, Krefeld 2017

 

Thomas Ruff (*1958) 'Interior 1 D' 1982

 

Thomas Ruff (*1958)
Interior 1 D
1982
Chromogenic colour print
47 x 57 cm
Loan from the artist
© Thomas Ruff; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

 

Andreas Gursky (*1955) 'Doorman, Passport Control' 1982 (2007)

 

Andreas Gursky (*1955)
Doorman, Passport Control
1982 (2007)
Inkjet print
43.2 x 52.5 cm
Loan from the artist / Courtesy Sprüth Magers
© Andreas Gursky / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017 / Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London

 

Axel Hütte (*1951) 'Moedling House' 1982-1984

 

Axel Hütte (*1951)
Moedling House
1982-1984
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
66 x 80 cm
Loan from the artist
© Axel Hütte

 

Petra Wunderlich (*1954) 'Fossa Degli Angeli, Italy' 1989

 

Petra Wunderlich (*1954)
Fossa Degli Angeli, Italy
1989
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
61 x 75,2 cm
Private collection
© Petra Wunderlich; VG Bild-Kunst 2017

 

 

From 27 April to 13 August 2017, the Städel Museum is staging a comprehensive survey on the Becher Class at the Düsseldorf art academy and the major paradigm shift in the medium of artistic photography with which the Bechers and their students are associated. With the aid of some 200 photographs by Volker Döhne, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Tata Ronkholz, Thomas Ruff, Jörg Sasse, Thomas Struth and Petra Wunderlich – a group of whom some enjoy international renown and others are due for rediscovery – the exhibition will examine the influence exerted by Bernd and Hilla Becher on their students at the Düsseldorf school. What unites the students’ works with those of their teachers? How do they differ? Is there really such a thing as the “Becher School” or is it ‘merely’ a matter of several highly successful photographers who happened to be studying at the ‘right place’ at an especially propitious moment in history? And how have those artists influenced our present conception of what a picture is? Taking the artist duo’s work as a point of departure, the exhibition “Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class” will acquaint viewers with the radical changes in the medium of artistic photography that became manifest in the works of the Becher pupils in the eighties and above all the nineties, and investigate the art-historical impact of this development up to the very present. It will feature major large-scale works as well as key early endeavours by the members of what is presumably the most influential generation of German photographers in the field of fine art.

The students of the first in a long line of Becher Classes at the Düsseldorfer art academy introduced elementary changes to contemporary art’s aesthetic, media and economic contexts. They not only contributed decisively to shaping international photography in the 1990s, but also fundamentally redefined the status and perception of artistic photography in general. Their works can be considered as one of the most self-confident emancipations of photography as art in the mediums history, while at the same time reflecting the (not merely digital) moment when the boundaries between the media dissolve.

“Bernd and Hilla Becher’s first – meanwhile world-famous – students played a tremendously important role in establishing photography as an expressive medium on a par with other art forms. The nine artists featured in our show occupy a realm where the distinction between painting and photography is no longer clear. The permeability of the boundary between the media is deliberate in their work, and in that respect they mirror one of the key focuses of the Städel Museum’s collection of contemporary art,” observes Städel director Dr Philipp Demandt. And exhibition curator Dr Martin Engler adds: “What the teachings of Bernd and Hilla Becher sparked off – and their students developed further – is a new conception of the artwork according to which the boundaries between sculpture, painting and photography dissolve in terms of media and aesthetics alike. In other words, in the very moment in history when photography emancipated itself to become an independent medium, it sounded its own death knell.”

The founding of a chair for artistic photography at the Düsseldorf art academy in 1976 provided perhaps the single most important impulse for a change in how the medium of photography was perceived. In close cooperation with his wife Hilla Becher, Bernd Becher held that chair until 1996. Even before their appointment to the Düsseldorf school, the Bechers had been taking pictures of historical industrial architecture, subscribing to a work concept that exceeded the scope of a common documentary approach in photography. They portrayed mining headframes, blast furnaces, gas tanks, water towers and other testimonies to a vanishing industrial culture – frontally, in central perspective, with fascinating depth of field, and where possible before the backdrop of a uniformly grey sky. They arranged the individual shots in grids to form large-scale tableaus they called typologies. The concern here was no longer merely the illustration of reality, but its perception. Reality could no longer be depicted singly, but only in a multiplicity of simultaneous images. From the formal aesthetic point of view, the staging of the pictorial subjects was now far more than documentary in nature. The affinity to minimal and concept art – evident in the rigour of the pictorial vocabulary, the industrial aesthetic and the new perception of a work in stages – is unmistakable.

Especially in their early work, the students of the first Becher Class explored their teachers’ artistic strategy with great intensity. Yet as they continued to pursue it in the nineties, they did so ever more independently, and in their own highly individual styles. With the aid of various strategies in terms of scale, presentation and motif, and not least of all with abstract pictorial inventions provoked by digital image techniques, they took the interpenetration of the mediums of painting and photography to an extreme. The result was a new concept of the picture that blurs aesthetic and media distinctions. “The dissolution of media boundaries, but also the use of technical innovations, are characteristic of the works of the first Becher Class. It is here that the impact of a changing media culture is felt,” explains Dr Jana Baumann, the co-curator of the exhibition.

A show devoted to such a complex phenomenon on the one hand, and such productive teaching activities on the other, must inevitably be limited in scope. “Photographs Become Pictures” concentrates deliberately on the students of the early years of the Becher Class, beginning with Höfer, Döhne, Hütte and Struth in 1976 and ending with the completion of Gursky’s and Sasse’s studies in 1987/1988. In retrospect, it is precisely in the heterogeneity of the first Becher Class – with its wide range of approaches that have influenced our present-day understanding of the pictorial image – that the success of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s teachings is evident.

Candida Höfer (b. 1944) is known above all for her pictures of public interiors such as libraries, universities, museums and waiting rooms. Nevertheless, the purely documentary aspect is ultimately of secondary importance to her, as is also true of her teachers. Particularly when she turned to colour photography, she began producing iconically clear shots of meaning-charged interiors extremely striking in their rigorous aesthetic. In composition, repetition and rhythm as well as the sculptural emphasis, Höfer’s formal staging of her interiors is reminiscent of the Becher typologies.

A distinct affinity to the typologies is also evident in early street shots by Thomas Struth (b. 1954), such as West Broadway, Tribeca, New York (1978) or Sommerstrasse, Düsseldorf (1980). He proceeded in a manner similar to his teachers, but broadened his spectrum of motifs. He is concerned in his work with cultural structures; in addition to streets he also depicts museums or religious cult sites and portrays families. With the aid of social and ethnological allusions he reveals orders and interrelationships, thus achieving a universal survey of human and their lifeworld in imagery.

Petra Wunderlich‘s (b. 1954) black-and-white series depict details of churches or quarries that the artist has introduced to a new, abstract compositional framework. By this method she reduces architecture visually to its stereometric tectonics in such a way that elementary architectonic forms unexpectedly emerge from the “broken” surfaces of nature. Wunderlich’s photographs, like those by the Bechers, can be read as sociological and historical testimonies.

The workgroups of Volker Döhne (b. 1953) closely resemble Bernd and Hilla Bechers’ typologies with regard to concept and motif alike. He developed series such as Small- Scale Iron Industry (1977/78) or Small Railway Bridges and Underpasses in the Bergisches and Märkisches Land (1979). With his experimental Colour (1979) series, he then emancipated himself from his teachers.

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997) was interested primarily in factory gates, shop windows, beverage kiosks and snack bars, which she photographed in the even light of grey days. Many aspects of these works are strongly reminiscent of the Becher photographs: the consistent placement of the subject at the pictorial centre, the unchanging size of the prints, but also the serial, typologically comparative approach.

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) is likewise deeply indebted to his teachers’ serial method, which we encounter in his work in ever-different formulations. His portraits as well as the strongly enlarged nocturnal shots of, in part, found material, convey his fundamentally sceptical attitude towards photography’s claim to truth and documentation. His persistent investigations of new pictorial sources and technologies are perhaps the most impressive demonstrations of the manner in which Ruff continues the approach of Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Axel Hütte‘s (b. 1951) early architectural details investigate social situations using a mode of photographic expression distinguished by distance and anonymity. Within this context, he devotes himself as much to spoiled landscapes as to supposedly untouched nature which nevertheless has always been formed by human intervention. A conspicuous aspect of his work is the strong reference to historical landscape painting, whose formal compositional principles he both copies and deconstructs. Whereas the Bechers directed their attention to the sculptural or conceptual potential of their pictures, Hütte focusses on painting as the leading medium of modern art.

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962) initially devoted himself to highly artificial and at the same time prosaic arrangements of petit-bourgeois domestic culture. His later “tableaus” represent a virtual antithesis to the reductive rigour of these early works. Using digital and analogue techniques alike, he began processing found pictures as well as images of his own making, in which context he blurred the distinction between painting and photograph beyond recognition.

Andreas Gursky‘s (b. 1955) early photographs are likewise characterised by a keen interest in everyday surroundings – the private as well as the public sphere, the context of work as well as leisure time. Like Sasse, he investigates the aesthetic boundary between photographic and painterly image production. By means of digital manipulations he uses to duplicate and mount the pictorial motif to the point of abstraction, he creates perplexing pictorial architectures that merge construction and reality in large-scale colour prints.

The development of the Becher Class shows how concept art’s expanding notion of the artwork led to a new concept of the pictorial including photography. What the teachers introduced in rudiments was taken by their students and the following generation of artists to a momentous change in the picturing of reality. The realisation that photography cannot reproduce reality impartially does not detract from the medium. On the contrary, it means an enhancement in terms of artistic potential. What is more, the lack of focus in the portrayal of reality – in the literal and figurative sense alike – enriches photography’s complexity. It is not least of digital changes that enables innovative pictorial invention. Yet the boundaries of the photographic image also became fluid in the development from individual work to typology and series, and from detail to overall image. The answer to all questions about the significance, classification, doctrine and conception of what we refer to as the “Becher School” can thus be found in an insight as simple as it is surprising: in the very moment in history when photography emancipated itself to become an independent medium, it sounded its own death knell.

Press release from the Städel Museum

 

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

At left, Axel Hütte (b. 1951) 15 artists USA (David McDermott, Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Peter McGough, David McDermott, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ross Bleckner) (detail) 1988 (2003)

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Candida Höfer (left) and Thomas Struth (*1954) Louvre 3, Paris 1989 1989 (2012) (right)

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Thomas Struth (*1954) Paradiese 09 Xi Shuang Banna, Provinz Yunnan, China, 1999

 

Thomas Struth (*1954) 'Paradiese 09' 1999

 

Thomas Struth (*1954)
Paradiese 09
Xi Shuang Banna, Provinz Yunnan, China, 1999

 

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) with House No. 1 I 1987 (right)

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Axel Hütte (*1951)

 

Axel Hütte (*1951) 'Castellina' 1992 (2015)

 

Axel Hütte (*1951)
Castellina
1992 (2015)
Chromogenic colour print
98.4 x 120.3 cm
DZ BANK Kunstsammlung © Axel Hütte

 

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Thomas Struth (*1954) The Consolandi Family, Mailand, 1996 (2014) (left)

 

Exhibition views “Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class”
Photo: Städel Museum

 

 

The Bechers

For their photographs Bernd and Hilla Becher are awarded the “Golden Lion” in the category of “sculpture” at the Venice Biennale in 1990. How is that possible? Surprisingly at the time there was no separate category for photography at the Biennale. But this is not the real reason. Already in 1969 the first larger exhibition of the Bechers is called “Anonymous Sculptures”, just like their first volume of photographs. The artists very consciously link the genres of photography and sculpture. This idea informs their entire oeuvre.

Bernd Becher and Hilla Wobeser begin to collaborate in 1959. At the time both study at the art academy Düsseldorf. Two years later they marry. During the following five decades the artist couple produces mostly tableaus of several parts – consisting of three, nine, twelve or more photos; they call them typologies. Their subjects are disused headstocks, furnaces, oil refineries, water reservoir towers, grain silos, gasometres or even half-timbered houses in former workers’ settlements – all of them testimonies of a declining industrial culture.

 

An Overall Concept

When Hilla and Bernd Becher presented their works at the Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1969, this coincided with an exhibition on US-American minimal art – a juxtaposition that was to prove programmatic. In 1972 the American sculptor Carl Andre mentioned the insightful connection of the Bechers’ works and the movements of minimal and conceptual art. This prominent, art-theoretical connection significantly contributed to the great international success of the Bechers. This is also why – especially in the USA – the two are considered concept artists more than photographers.

The Bechers’ method of working – ostensibly – is concerned with sobriety and anonymity, rigidity and objectivity. They work in series, where the whole and a part of this whole, total view and detail are balanced. Setting their photographs into the context of sculpture, they test the boundaries of the genres of photography and sculpture. Working and presenting their works in series, they move the photograph beyond the individual work: the viewer can never see everything at once; instead the eye oscillates between detail and general context.

The artist couple directs the attention to formal, creative aspects of the photographed edifices at the same time allowing them to disappear in the typology’s grid. The rigidity of their pictorial vocabulary and the interest in an industrial aesthetic evidences the close proximity of the Bechers’ creative work to minimal and concept art.

 

Photography in Germany

“In principle it [photography] was a fallow field, where nothing ‘noteworthy’ had taken place in the past fifty years. We saw us in the tradition of objective photography of the 1920s; Bernd and Hilla Becher were the first to reconnect to this. There was absolutely nothing that we could fight or needed to disengage with. We could start from scratch.” ~ Thomas Ruff

 

“New Objectivity” this was the motto of the 1920s – also in photography. It was no longer the pictorial language of painting, but precision, focus and truth to detail, characteristics of photography that had garnered the artists’ interest.

The photographer August Sander focused on the society of the Weimar Republic and created a typology: in 1925 his pictorial atlas People of the 20th Century, where he systematically assembled hundreds of portraits of stereotypes of people of the most diverse social backgrounds and occupations. All of his sitters are portrayed frontally, which makes the photographs comparable. Sander also engaged in the photography of landscapes, industrial sites and cities.

Two more representatives of the photography of New Objectivity are also worth mentioning here: Albert Renger-Patzsch recorded industrial buildings and machinery in a sober directness. Karl Blossfeldt adopted scientific standards and photographed plants – always before a neutral background, removed from their natural setting.

Bernd and Hilla Becher draw on these approaches and develop them in their works. With a few exemptions, photography was not considered an autonomous artistic medium in Germany. Still in the 1960s, photography in art predominantly served as a means of documentation of actions, happenings and performances. Yet painting and photography interact. The painter Gerhard Richter for example, used photos as templates for his paintings since the early 1960s. The Bechers in turn greatly contributed to the recognition of photography as autonomous artistic medium with their photographs.

 

The Becher Class: Adoption, Distinction

DÖHNE GURSKY HÖFER HÜTTE RONKHOLZ RUFF SASSE STRUTH WUNDERLICH

These are the students of the first Becher class. In 1976 Bernd Becher is appointed first professor for photography at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. In close cooperation with his wife Hilla he teaches there for twenty years. Their first students become artists, who will have a formative influence on photography in the 1980s and the 1990s internationally. The Becher students intensely study their teachers’ work. Especially in their early works comparable approaches develop: a distanced perspective, an interest in architecture and striving for technical precision.

The Bechers are preoccupied with an industrial architecture in decline, representative also of the social changes affecting the respective region. Taking this as a starting point, their students consider their direct surroundings and social contexts. They seek to identify systems of classification and in their photographs investigate the relationship of individual work and series. In the process the Becher students adopt their own positions. They discover new themes, techniques and creative strategies. Regardless of the distinctions they are indebted to the conceptual approach of their teachers, which they then developed in their individual ways.

In their teaching and their work Bernd and Hilla Becher explore a concept of the image, where medial and aesthetic distinctions of sculpture, painting and photography dissolve. Their students continue this work in very different ways. In the 1980s and 1990s their enquiries lead to a critical reflexion of the possibilities of representing reality. The lack of focus in the depiction of reality – literally and figuratively – represent an increase in artistic complexity. Innovative pictorial creations were now possible by way of digital intervention.

The borders of the photographic image blur at the stage between single work and typology and series. The alternation of perception, oscillating between detail and total image extend the possibilities of photography. The meaning of what is called “Becher school” can be summarised in a simple and surprising statement: at the historic moment, when photography becomes an independent medium, it also realises its potential and explores its limits. Photography reaches its limits, transgresses it and thus ultimately questions its existence.

 

Kiosks and Streets

The developments in American photography are also important to the Becher-students: Ed Ruscha, whose photos show everyday subjects, is one of their role models. In 1966 he creates Every Building on the Sunset Strip. With a simple handheld camera Ruscha photographs every building on the Los Angeles boulevard of that name; he presents his pictures in a fanfold or an artist’s book. This quickly reveals the serial principle behind the work. Volker Döhne’s approach in Reconstruction II is similar. He, too, documents the commercial architecture, largely determining the surrounding.

Ice cream parlour, garage, drug store, stationers, dwelling house, shoe shop – nicely aligned. Volker Döhne focuses on the urban space dominated by nondescript post war architecture and empty sites. Other than his American colleague Ed Ruscha, Döhne always positions his camera head-on in the same angle. Surprisingly this emphasises the buildings’ volume. Like his teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher he emphasises the three-dimensional, sculptural aspect of buildings and pursues a concept that he determined before he began to photograph.

The Bechers assemble identical, yet different photographs to a static tableau. Döhne on the other hand, required the viewer to move along the strip and proceed down the row of photographs. Above all the viewer must add together the photos of the Krefelder Straße by himself: the work forms as a result of the viewer’s active viewing and perception.

 

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953) 'Krefeld, Ostwall corner Rheinstraße, (Reconstruction II)' 1990 (1992)

Volker Döhne (b. 1953)
Krefeld, Ostwall corner Rheinstraße, (Reconstruction II)
1990 (1992)
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
47 × 37 cm
Private collection

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953) 'Krefeld, Rheinstraße 82 (Reconstruction II)' 1990 (1992)

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953)
Krefeld, Rheinstraße 82 (Reconstruction II)
1990 (1992)
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
47 × 37 cm
Private collection

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953) 'Krefeld, Rheinstraße 84 (Reconstruction II)' 1990 (1992)

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953)
Krefeld, Rheinstraße 84 (Reconstruction II)
1990 (1992)
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
47 × 37 cm
Private collection

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953) 'Krefeld, Rheinstraße 86 (Reconstruction II)' 1990 (1992)

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953)
Krefeld, Rheinstraße 86 (Reconstruction II)
1990 (1992)
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
47 × 37 cm
Private collection

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953) 'Krefeld, Rheinstraße 88 (Reconstruction II)' 1990 (1992)

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953)
Krefeld, Rheinstraße 88 (Reconstruction II)
1990 (1992)
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
47 × 37 cm
Private collection

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997) 'Beverage kiosk, Düsseldorf, Hermannstraße 31' 1978

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997)
Beverage kiosk, Düsseldorf, Hermannstraße 31
1978
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
41.2 x 51.2 cm
Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Köln/Dauerleihgabe der Sparkasse KölnBonn
© Tata Ronkholz, Nachlassverwaltung Van Ham Art Estate 2017

 

 

Cigarette and gumball machines are fixed to exterior walls. Advertising posters overlap. Beverages, magazines and sweets are visibly lined up behind glass. It is Tata Ronkholz’ serial presentation that enables the comparison of the kiosks and their study as a social phenomenon in urban contexts.

Kiosks are everyday meeting points and the setting for social life. At the same time their role fundamentally changed in the past decades. Ronkholz photographs kiosks as socially grown places. She positions them centrally in their architectural environment – people are absent. This is what the photos have in common with Becher-photographs. Like her teachers, Ronkholz is committed to the conservation and archiving of a changing urban culture.

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997) 'Dusseldorf, Sankt-Franziskusstraße 107' 1977

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997)
Dusseldorf, Sankt-Franziskusstraße 107
1977
Silver gelatin print on baryta paper
41.2 × 51.2 cm
Courtesy The Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne / Permanent Loan of the Sparkasse KölnBonn

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997) 'Without title' 1978

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997)
Without title
1978
Silver gelatin print on baryta paper
41.2 × 51.2 cm
Courtesy The Photographische Sammlung / SK Foundation Culture, Cologne / Dauerleihgabe der Sparkasse KölnBonn

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997) 'Düsseldorf, Germany, Konkordiastraße 85' 1978

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997)
Düsseldorf, Germany, Konkordiastraße 85
1978
Silver gelatin print on baryta paper
41.2 × 51.2 cm
Courtesy The Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne / Permanent Loan of the Sparkasse KölnBonn

 

 

PICTURE PARALLELS

Bernd and Hilla Bechers students are linked to the work of their teachers in many ways. And yet they devote themselves, in part, to new motifs, subjects, and picture formats during their studies. In addition to architecture, they also photograph interiors, simple everyday objects or people.

In the early 1980s the Becher-students Axel Hütte and Thomas Ruff turn to portrait photography practically at the same time. They capture their models with neutral facial expressions, generally head-on before a monochrome background. The extreme setting makes the individual recede while the surface of the background dominates. In the series the single faces turn into an interchangeable motif somewhere between person and typology.

 

From Near and Far

The directions of the persons’ gazes differs. Nothing distracts from their faces. The neutral background and the close details are reminiscent of giant passport photographs. One almost overlooks that some of the sitters are famous artists today.

Axel Hütte’s portraits with their conscious play with blurring and sharpness are irritating: some areas in the photo show up the slightest detail, while others are slightly blurred – a conscious reference to the Bechers’ works, characterised by their extreme depth of focus. When observing Hütte’s works from close-up the face becomes a surface of structures. If one wants to see it in focus, one needs to distance oneself. Thus the viewer is kept at bay and always in motion.

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951) '15 artists USA (David McDermott, Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Peter McGough, David McDermott, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ross Bleckner)' 1988 (2003)

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951)
15 artists USA (David McDermott, Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Peter McGough, David McDermott, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ross Bleckner)
1988 (2003)
Silver gelatin print on baryta paper
113 x 91 each cm
Loan from the artist

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951) '15 artists USA (David McDermott, Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Peter McGough, David McDermott, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ross Bleckner)' (detail) 1988 (2003)

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951)
15 artists USA (David McDermott, Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Peter McGough, David McDermott, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ross Bleckner) (detail)
1988 (2003)
Silver gelatin print on baryta paper
113 x 91 each cm
Loan from the artist

 

 

PICTURES GENERATION

Thomas Ruff explores the gap between reality and image. This is something he shares with the American artists of the so-called “Pictures Generation” from the 1970s and 1980s. This informal group of artists, among them Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Richard Prince, grew up with a flood of pictures in cinema, television and the print media. Their works show distrust for the media, as well as a fascination with it. The artists make use of existing images from film, advertising and art. They copy, quote and redesign this material – more subtly than the artists from American Pop Art in the 1960s. Instead of working with found images in print, collage or painting, the artists of the “Pictures Generation” make small interventions. By introducing minor changes or by producing a practically identical copy of an image they very consciously play with conventional ways of perception. In their works they draw attention to mechanisms of picture production and the methods of artificial construction of reality through pictures.

 

Photos of Faces

Like Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff does not believe in an image of human character. He is convinced that only the exterior reality – the appearance – can be represented. In this sense Ruff’s portraits are photos of faces that resemble expressionless surfaces. The monochrome background hides any hint at a recognisable location.

The face becomes a surface and thus resembles a projection screen for an advertising message. The serial juxtaposition turns the individual in Ruff’s photographs into a type that also represents a particular generation. The stereotypes communicated by mass media and the influence of images on individual and collective opinion-forming are being questioned.

 

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) 'Portrait (G. Benzenberg)' 1985

 

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958)
Portrait (G. Benzenberg)
1985
Chromogenic colour print
41 × 33 cm
Loan from the artist

 

 

“Looks good. Continue in colour.”

The bed, bath and living rooms, the kitchen unit and the furniture of the 1950s and 1970s, Thomas Ruff finds at the homes of relatives and friends in the Black Forest, where he comes from. Bernd and Hilla Becher preferably work in black and white. Ruff on the other hand starts experimenting with colour photography early on during his studies:

“At some point I started, making use of the colour practice, which I […] had developed, in my interiors, and I thought this looked better than in black and white photos. The colleagues said, you cannot do this. Then I also asked Bernd Becher and he said: “Looks good. Continue in colour.”

 

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) 'Interior 3 A' 1979

 

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958)
Interior 3 A
1979
Chromogenic paint removal
45.7 x 39.4 cm
Loan from the artist

 

 

A Question of Mise-en-Scène

The two clips on yellow ground look like two flies. The bright background emphasises the form of the represented objects. Their original function becomes secondary. The simple stationary objects become worthy of the photographer’s meticulous attention. Jörg Sasse uses and parodies the strategies of advertising photography, ever concerned with presenting an object as something special.

From the start, Sasse’s work shows a painterly tendency as well as a penchant for abstraction. This is also apparent in a sequence of still lives with reduced colour and shapes. In his early work Sasse is interested in his immediate environment. He seeks to capture the unusual in the everyday. This links his work with the typologies of his teachers. Other than they do, Sasse does not give titles to his works; instead he gives them random numbers. This allows him to remove the represented object even further from its original context without offering a new interpretation.

 

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962) 'ST-84-12-06' 1984

 

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962)
ST-84-12-06
1984
Chromogenic paint removal
18 × 24 cm
Art Collection Deutsche Börse, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation

 

 

Kitchen, Bath Room and Living Room

Almost in symmetry Jörg Sasse’s photo shows a light blue jug and a glass jug on two hobs. It belongs to a series, which Sasse dedicated to modest interiors between the post war years and the economic miracle. Sometimes the photos show individual objects, sometimes a combination of two or three objects. They capture details of tiles, furniture or floors.

They give the impression as if the objects were arranged by coincident or as if the inhabitants had left them behind like this. At the same time the scenes appear to be very artificial. Sasse transforms colour, shape and structure of the interior settings into individual, abstract compositions. He focuses on formal contrasts, sequences and similarities. According to the artist it is “not the preoccupation with interiors but with the picture.” The photographer is more interested in the painterly composition than in the representation of reality.

 

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962) 'W-84-02-13, Dusseldorf' 1984

 

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962)
W-84-02-13, Dusseldorf
1984
Chromogenic paint removal
57.2 × 67.6 cm
Courtesy Gallery Wilma Tolksdorf

 

 

Courtyards and Street Canyons

The artists Axel Hütte and Thomas Struth share an interest in urban non-spaces, indistinct streets or architectures.

In the 1980s modernist residential dwellings like the brutalist, square James Hammett House in London, become increasingly less popular and are turned into social housing. The raw concrete façade of the London block of flats spreads across almost the entire picture. The empty square in front of it is abandoned. There is no sign of inhabitants: a forbidding place.

Like Bernd and Hilla Becher in their pictures of industrial buildings, Axel Hütte emphasises the angular and unwieldy shapes of the architecture in his London series. From a distance the sad, functional façade appears to be an abstract pattern of rhythmically changing shades of grey, behind which the architecture recedes.

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951) 'James Hammett House' 1982-1984

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951)
James Hammett House
1982-1984
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
66 x 80 cm
Loan of the artist

 

 

In the Street

The row of houses on New York’s 21st Street seems never ending. Old houses and modern high rises alternate and form a sequence of textures and geometric forms rich in contrast. Thomas Struth was struck by the deep street canyons of the metropolis. He took his photos from the middle of the street, positioning the camera at eye-level – a method that resembles that of his teachers. It is an unusual perspective unfamiliar to both pedestrians and drivers.

Struth begins capturing urban spaces already when in Cologne and Düsseldorf. A stipend takes him to New York in 1978. His photographic approach offers a completely new view of the city’s urbanity and structure.

“I may very well stem from the legacy of documentary photography and do use its means and perspective, but my true concern exceeds this. […] To me the street is a space, where manifold influences and historical events convene and become apparent. The public space has a subconscious language, addressing us continuously.”

 

Thomas Struth (*1954) 'West 21st Street, Chelsea, New York' 1978 (1987)

 

Thomas Struth (*1954)
West 21st Street, Chelsea, New York
1978 (1987)
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
66 x 84 cm
DZ BANK art collection at the Städel Museum
© Thomas Struth

 

 

VARIETY

Landscapes, families, places of leisure, libraries, museums – the subjects of the Becher-students are equally as varied as their approach to photography. Their own positions develop more and more, while shared characteristics with their teachers’ oeuvre become apparent.

“Not the subject, but the representation of a landscape is what matters to me.” ~Axel Hütte

Almost two thirds of the picture are concealed by thick fog. The rocks in the foreground, however, are razor sharp. In Furka Axel Hütte plays with the contrast of diffusion and focussed parts of the picture. He explores landscape photography and thus consciously enters into competition with the genre of painting.

Foggy landscape is of great importance in the paintings of German Romanticism. This art movement, which began in the late 19th century, is characterised by mystic nature, where religious ideas are intertwined with subjective sentiment. Caspar David Friedrich is recognised as one of the most important representatives of Romanticist landscape painting. To him nature mirrored the human soul. In his painting Mountains in the Rising Fog, which he painted around 1835, the hills are veiled and only the outlines can be made out. In his photographs, Hütte refers to this tradition and employs similar techniques to guide the viewer’s gaze and to compose the picture. The landscape can be sensually grasped. The atmosphere and the subjective experience come to the fore. While his teachers sought the proximity to sculpture, Hütte’s work reflects the strategies of painting.

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951) 'Furka' 1994 (2012)

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951)
Furka
1994 (2012)
Chromogenic colour print
56.7 × 65.7 cm
DZ BANK Kunstsammlung

 

 

The Silence Beside the Storm

Andreas Gursky’s works are dedicated to traffic hubs, mass events, economic centres, transit zones or places of leisure. Gursky’s focus is always on the common denominator and questions the relationship of man with nature and society. The photograph Teneriffa, Swimming Pool shows a holiday resort from a bird’s eye perspective that makes the tiny holidaymakers almost disappear. The force of nature represented by the foaming sea is in stark contrast with the artificial silence of the adjacent pool.

Like his teachers, Gursky keeps a distance to his subject. But unlike them he does not work in series and concentrates on single works. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s compositions are always about one centrally positioned object. Gursky’s images on the other hand are rich in detail and the motives are spread across the picture plane in captivating sharpness – he plays with visual challenge.

 

Andreas Gursky (b. 1955) 'Teneriffa, Swimming Pool' 1987

 

Andreas Gursky (b. 1955)
Teneriffa, Swimming Pool
1987
Chromogenic colour print
104.5 × 127 cm
On loan from the artist / Courtesy Sprüth Magers

 

 

Own Vantage Points

Candida Höfer too, photographs public spaces. Her photographs follow the architecture of the buildings she finds. At the same time she chooses unusual positions for her camera and thus resists the symmetries or views prescribed by the spaces. Her photos defy architectural hierarchies and structures and thus communicate the spatial experience in a particular way.

Waiting Room Cologne III 1981 is an early example of Höfer’s artistic method. The furniture reaches diagonally into the space, a dynamic underscored by the pattern of the parquet flooring. The row of tables and chairs in the bottom corner is cut off by the edge. Instead of creating a balanced symmetrical composition, she works with alternative vantage points.

This allows Höfer to emphasize her personal view of the interior architecture. Concurrently she is enquiring how the architectural space is influenced by the way people use it in the course of time. The Waiting Room with Neo-Baroque décor dating from the second half of the 19th century forms a stark contrast to the simple furniture that is easily 100 years less old.

“By means of the print I then create my own space once again. It is not my intention to show the space in a manner as realistic as possible.”

 

Candida Höfer (b. 1944) 'Waiting Room Cologne III 1981' 1981

 

Candida Höfer (b. 1944)
Waiting Room Cologne III 1981
1981
Chromogenic colour print
155 × 155 cm
Art Collection Deutsche Börse, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation

 

 

Libraries as Brand

Above all Candida Höfer is famous for her large-scale interior views of libraries devoid of people. The workspaces in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris are lined up like books in libraries. The artist frequently focuses on places that preserve and order knowledge and culture. Apart from libraries she also worked on museums or operas. She is interested in how humans influence architecture through their culture. Her photos are always determined by a cool sobriety. This is what they have in common with the photographs of the Bechers. However, Höfer always works with the light and the space present in each situation. She strives to capture the atmosphere and aura of a space.

 

Candida Höfer (b. 1944) 'Bibliothèque Nationale de France Paris XIII 1998' 1998

 

Candida Höfer (b. 1944)
Bibliothèque Nationale de France Paris XIII 1998
1998
Chromogenic colour print
155 × 215 cm
Art Collection Deutsche Börse, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation

 

 

The Picture in the Picture

In his series Museum Photographs Thomas Struth focuses on imposing interior spaces such as the gallery at the Louvre in Paris – unlike Höfer, he always shows the visitors, too. They become a multifaceted continuation of the figures in the paintings on the wall. Through the photograph Struth establishes a connection of pictorial space and real space, the painterly and photographic space. Here, the formerly competing media painting and photography enter into a dialogue as equals.

Simultaneously the viewer is confronted with different levels of viewing: those who contemplate Struth’s photos inevitably also observe the visitors at the Louvre contemplating the art works there. Thus the artist prompts a reflection on how we deal with art and its history, with seeing and being seen. Struth does not influence the positions of the visitors in his Museum Photographs. He waits for situations that can serve as the basis of his compositions. Struth merely decides on the space and the visual angle he takes.

 

Thomas Struth (*1954) 'Louvre 3, Paris 1989' 1989 (2012)

 

Thomas Struth (*1954)
Louvre 3, Paris 1989
1989 (2012)
Chromogenic colour print
152.2 × 168.3 cm
DZ BANK Kunstsammlung im Städel Museum, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

 

 

Family Relations

The photo The Consolandi Family, Milano by Thomas Struth belongs to the series Family Portraits, which shows relationships that are complex and full of tension. The viewer is challenged to explore the connections of the family, reflected in subtle looks, mimics or posture.

The Family Portraits evolved from an unpublished project, which Struth and a friend of his, a psychoanalyst, pursued in the early 1980s. Patients were asked to submit a couple of photographs that were typical of their families, which Struth then combined in a portfolio. Drawing on this project, the photographer began to work with family portraits he took. He photographed people he knew in their homes. The individuals were asked to choose their position in a space that the artist had selected. Struth’s psychological interest in the family as a social fabric is evident. The order resembles a sociagram after all.

Like the Bechers’ works, Struth’s photographs are determined by an intrinsic dynamic full of tension. While his teachers work with industrial fields of force, he balances psychological energies. This results in an alternation of perception – the eye sways between single pictorial elements and the total composition.

 

Thomas Struth (*1954) 'The Consolandi Family, Milan 1996' 1996 (2014)

 

Thomas Struth (*1954)
The Consolandi Family, Milan 1996
1996 (2014)
Chromogenic colour print
178 × 214.2 cm
Art Collection Deutsche Börse, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation

 

 

PICTURE EDITING

In February 1982 the first great scandal about a digitally edited press picture occurs: for the title of the periodical National Geographic – actually indebted to scientific exactitude – the pyramids at Gizeh have been pushed closer together so they would fit the portrait format. This represents a fundamental shift in photo and media culture that also affects the work of the Becher students.

Ruff, Sasse and Gursky especially, develop their works digitally. This inevitably distances them from their teachers’ documentary approach more and more. The artists do not depict reality they create their own reality. This results in photographs that cannot be explained through analogue camera technology. The truth in the pictures is questioned, just like the viewer’s perception. In nascent form this approach is already present in the typologies created by the Bechers.

 

Digital interventions

This photo of an average residential block from 1987 marks a turning point in Thomas Ruff’s oeuvre. Things – namely a tree and a street sign – are missing. Ruff decided to have these details erased. He also retouched an opened skylight. This is one of the first digitally edited pictures in the circle of the Becher students. Ruff’s idea is to emphasise the symmetrical appearance and the hermetic quality of the building. Still, he is not really meddling with the picture’s structure of reality.

Ruff’s photos of the House Series confront the viewer with urban banality. The enormous scale of the works, measuring nearly 2 x 3 metres exaggerates the uneventfulness as a crucial characteristic of this architecture. From the 1980s the Becher students increasingly use large formats. They become a trademark of the group. Mostly presented with a wooden frame the artists elevate the photos to the level of paintings. Like the Bechers, Ruff worked in series, but no longer arranged his works in typologies. His series preserve the suspicion of a single image that might represent the world.

 

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) 'House No. 1 I' 1987

 

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958)
House No. 1 I
1987
Chromogenic colour print
179 × 278 cm
Loan from the artist

 

 

Giant Grid

In photos like Paris, Montparnasse Andreas Gursky enlarges the image to a monumental scale of over four metres in width. He, too, relies on digital editing. The frontal view of the residential block is presented in strictly right-angular lines. The building is so wide that it would be impossible to capture it in a single photo. Hence, Gursky used two photos and joined them on the computer.

From a distance, the geometrical grid of the building looks abstract. The skeleton structure of the block also means that the windows offer hundreds of single images. However, it is impossible to simultaneously perceive the detail as well as the overall structure. Gursky requires the viewer to constantly alternate his focus between close-up and distance.

“My pictures are always composed for two aspects […]. The smallest detail can be read from close up. From afar they are mega-signs.”

 

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

 

Exhibition view “Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class”
Photo: Städel Museum

 

Andreas Gursky (b. 1955) 'Paris, Montparnasse' 1993 (before 2003)

 

Andreas Gursky (b. 1955)
Paris, Montparnasse
1993 (before 2003)
Chromogenic colour print
207 × 422 cm
On loan from the artist / Courtesy Sprüth Magers

 

 

Pixel and Pixel and Pixel

Sasse’s work 1546 (1993) also plays with perception at the border of abstraction. The single pixels as a trace of the digital reworking are immediately visible. The realistic representation of a curtain is ruptured. Instead pixel and square colour fields become the focus, while the original sense of space is lost. The photo appears two-dimensional.

Sasse takes up a basic issue with the illusion of space that has a long art historic tradition. Already in early Renaissance the artist and scholar Leon Battista Alberti considers painting as a window to the world. He considered it important for an illusionist way of painting to conceal the two-dimensionality of the canvas. In his oeuvre Sasses draws on this issue. He questions photography and painting’s claim to realism and questions the possibility of pictorially representing reality at all.

 

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962) 1546, 1993 (centre) and Jörg Sasse (*1962) 7341, 1996 (right)

 

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962) '1546' 1993

 

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962)
1546
1993
Chromogenic colour print
137 × 200 cm
Private collection

 

Jörg Sasse (*1962) '7341' 1996

 

Jörg Sasse (*1962)
7341
1996
Chromogenic colour print
93 x 150 cm
DZ BANK art collection at the Städel Museum
© Jörg Sasse; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

 

 

Städel Museum
Schaumainkai 63
60596 Frankfurt

Opening hours:
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Wednesday and Thursday 10.00 am – 9.00 pm

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14
Aug
12

Exhibition: ‘Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA)

Exhibition dates: 28th July – 4th November 2012

 

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

 

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'Lime Hills #12801' 1986

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Lime Hills #12801
1986
Chromogenic print
11 13/16 in. x 14 15/16 in (30 cm x 38cm)
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photograph
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'Lime Hills #22916' 1988

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Lime Hills #22916
1988
Chromogenic print
11 13/16 in. x 14 15/16 in (30 cm x 38cm)
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'Lime Hills #23514' 1988

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Lime Hills #23514
1988
Chromogenic print
11 13/16 in. x 14 15/16 in (30 cm x 38cm)
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'Lime Hills #27403' 1989

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Lime Hills #27403
1989
Chromogenic print
11 13/16 in. x 14 15/16 in (30 cm x 38cm)
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'Lime Hills #29211' 1990

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Lime Hills #29211
1990
Chromogenic print
11 13/16 in. x 14 15/16 in (30 cm x 38cm)
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

 

Lime Hills (Quarry Series), 1986-1991

Each year nearly two hundred million tons of limestone – virtually the only natural resource in Japan – are cut to produce the cement necessary to build the nation’s many cities, as well as to make additives used in paper, medicine, and food products. Hatakeyama was drawn to this industrial subject from a young age; his first artistic explorations took the form of paintings of the cement factory that he passed each day as a child. For Lime Hills, his earliest photographic series, Hatakeyama returned to the area near his hometown on the northeastern coast of Japan to investigate the nearby limestone quarries and their corresponding factories. Over the next five years he broadened his scope to include mines throughout Japan, from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south. Reflecting on the physical connection between these sites and civilisation, the artist later noted: “If the concrete buildings and highways that stretch to the horizon are all made from limestone dug from the hills, and if they should all be ground to dust and this vast quantity of calcium carbonate returned to its precise points of origin, why then, with the last spoonful, the ridge lines of the hills would be restored to their original dimensions.”

These small-scale photographs offer visions of the excavated land that at first glance seem idyllic. Often shooting in the golden evening light with a large-format camera, Hatakeyama captured the sculptural contours of the processed earth, infusing it with the luminous glow seen in many Romantic landscape paintings of the nineteenth century. Yet the Romantic tradition, which highlighted the awesome terror of nature, is upended in Hatakeyama’s pictures, which instead uncover unexpected pleasures in the tamed and built environment, ultimately suggesting the artificiality of conventional notions of beauty.

Wall text from the exhibition

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'Sollac Méditerranée, Fos-sur-Mer, #06709' 2003

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Sollac Méditerranée, Fos-sur-Mer, #06709
2003
From the series Atmos
Chromogenic print
27 9/16 in. x 35 7/16 in (70 cm x 90cm)
Courtesy the artist
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'Sollac Méditerranée, Fos-sur-Mer, #06709' 2003

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Sollac Méditerranée, Fos-sur-Mer, #06709
2003
From the series Atmos
Chromogenic print
27 9/16 in. x 35 7/16 in (70 cm x 90cm)
Courtesy the artist
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

 

Atmos, 2003

In 2003 Hatakeyama was invited to the Camargue, near Fos-sur-Mer, France, to photograph the landscape surrounding a steel factory located on the eastern edge of the Rhône delta. He worked from two perspectives, shooting on the factory grounds as well as from the surrounding landscape, much of which is conserved as a nature park. His photographs contrast the idyllic serenity of the flat plains where the Rhône river meets the Mediterranean Sea with the dramatic clouds of steam – formed when the coke used in steel making is doused in cool water – that often rise above this terrain.

Upon discovering this impressive phenomenon the artist reflected: “The etymology of ‘atmosphere’ is the ancient Greek words for vapor (atmos) and sphere (sphaira). Once I learned this, the air that filled the Camargue and the steam from the factory seemed to fuse into one before my eyes. It no longer felt strange to see signs of humanity in the sky and the land, or to sense nature in the cloud of steam from the factory. And I began to feel that it would no longer be possible to draw a clear line at the border between nature and the artificial.” Through Hatakeyama’s lens, the factory seems at once tranquil and volatile, surrounded by the golden light, billowing pastel clouds, and thick atmosphere found in many early twentieth-century paintings of industrial sites. Like the Impressionists, who embraced modern life by finding their subjects in new technologies, Hatakeyama presents new landscapes that complicate the conventional boundaries between nature and industry.”

Wall text from the exhibition

 

 

From July 28 through November 4, 2012, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present the work of one of Japan’s most important contemporary photographers in the exhibition Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories. This will be the artist’s first solo exhibition in a U.S. museum and the first presentation of his work on the West Coast.

Organised by the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in association with SFMOMA, the exhibition gathers work spanning Naoya Hatakeyama’s entire career, including more than 100 photographs and two video installations, offering viewers new insight into the artist’s practice and place in the rich history of Japanese photography. The presentation at SFMOMA, the sole U.S. venue for this internationally traveling retrospective, is overseen by Lisa J. Sutcliffe, assistant curator of photography.

Hatakeyama is known for austere and beautiful large-scale color pictures that capture the extraordinary powers routinely deployed to shape nature to our will – and, in the case of his photographs made after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the equally powerful impact of natural forces on human activities. Whether photographing factories, quarries, mines, or tsunami-swept landscapes, Hatakeyama has developed a thorough and analytical method for observing the ways in which the human and natural worlds have both coexisted and clashed. “For the past 25 years Naoya Hatakeyama has made pictures that focus on the complicated relationship between man and nature,” says Sutcliffe. “Approaching his subjects from diverse perspectives and across time, he redefines the ways in which we visualize the natural world.”

Hatakeyama has long been interested in the relationship between human industry and the natural environment. His early series of photographs of limestone quarries, Lime Hills (1986-91), references the Romantic painterly tradition of the sublime, but links it to the relentless pursuit of raw materials for modern development. After observing that “the quarries and the cities are like negative and positive images of a single photograph,” Hatakeyama began to investigate urban centers built from limestone and concrete. In Underground (1999), he explores the pitch-black depths of Tokyo’s underbelly from the tunnels of the Shibuya River, revealing the ecosystems of the city’s sewer network that often go unseen. Nearly a decade later he returned to the subject, photographing the remnants of decaying limestone quarries underneath Paris in Ciel Tombé (2007).

Several of Hatakeyama’s photographic series capture scenes of destruction with calm precision. Contemplating the abandoned structures surrounding a disused coal mine, Zeche Westfalen I/II Ahlen (2003/2004) includes images of a German factory hall seemingly suspended in midair at the moment of its demolition. For the Blast series (2005), the photographer used a high-speed motor-driven camera to document explosions in an open-cast limestone mine, framing the instant of impact in a series of still photographs. The exhibition will present the U.S. debut of Twenty-Four Blasts (2011), a video installation of his still photographs from Blast that transforms these explosions into a found sculptural event.

Hatakeyama has applied his measured and unsentimental method of observation to landscapes in transition around the world. In the series Atmos (2003), his representations of tranquil French landscapes include steam clouds generated by steelworks. Also made in France, the series Terrils (2009-10) pictures the massive conical hills created by coal mining, documenting landscapes transformed by the human exploitation of natural resources. Considering a different type of human impact on the natural world, Hatakeyama observes the conquest of the Swiss Alps by tourism in Another Mountain (2005), invoking the sublime both through choice of subject matter and through the contrast in scale between man and nature.

The most recent series in the exhibition, Rikuzentakata (2011), records the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan. For Hatakeyama, the disaster struck very close to home: his hometown of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture was left in ruins, his mother was killed, and the house he grew up in was destroyed. Although these are some of the most personal photographs the artist has ever exhibited, they are remarkably unsentimental, displaying the same clarity and refinement that mark the rest of his work. The video installation Kesengawa (2002-10), named after the river that flows through Rikuzentakata, presents his personal photographs of the area made before the tsunami, creating a poignant dialogue with the 2011 series.

Press release from the SFMOMA website

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'A BIRD/Blast #130' 2006

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
A BIRD/Blast #130
2006
#7 from a series of 17 chromogenic prints
8 in. x 10 in (20.32 cm x 25.4cm)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, promised gift of Kurenboh
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'A BIRD/Blast #130' 2006

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
A BIRD/Blast #130
2006
#15 from a series of 17 chromogenic prints
8 in. x 10 in (20.32 cm x 25.4cm)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, promised gift of Kurenboh
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. Still from 'Twenty-Four Blasts' 2011

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Still from Twenty-Four Blasts
2011
HD video installation from a sequence of 35 mm film
Courtesy the artist
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

 

Blast, 1995
Zeche Westfalen I/II, Ahlen, 2003-2004

While photographing Japanese quarries and factories for Lime Hills, Hatakeyama became intrigued by the regular explosions designed to free limestone from the cliffs. He was interested in the violence and force of the blasts as well as in the engineers’ deep understanding of the “nature” of the rock. Working with these experts, he was able to calculate exactly how close he could place his remote controlled, motorised camera to the blast to capture the explosion in still frames. The striking large-scale photographs this method produced dramatise the tension between the slow geologic formation of the rocks and the split-second detonation that destroys them. Distilling his study to a series of frozen moments of intense scrutiny, Hatakeyama emphasises the volatile character of the blast, offering a perspective that cannot be seen by the naked eye. In the video projection Twenty-Four Blasts, presented in the next room, these explosions are set to motion, serving as documentation of the mining process while also reflecting an understanding of the blast as a sculptural event.

In Zeche Westfalen I/II, Ahlen, a series taken in Germany, Hatakeyama used a remote-controlled camera shutter to photograph the destruction of the Zeche Westfalen coal plant at the time of detonation. An industrial centre since the mid-nineteenth century, the area is experiencing new development as mines are destroyed to make way for commercial and residential growth. These pictures serve as a record of one such transition, trapping the building as it hovers in midair in the moments just before its destruction. Although photography is often used to capture an image of something before it is gone, these pictures reveal Hatakeyama’s interest in documenting destruction analytically and in real time, as a celebration of the future rather than an elegy to the past.

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'Underground #7109' 1999

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Underground #7109
1999
Chromogenic print
19 5/16 in. x 19 5/16 in (49 cm x 49cm)
Collection of Michael and Jeanne Klein
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'Underground #6302' 1999

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Underground #6302
1999
Chromogenic print
19 5/16 in. x 19 5/16 in (49 cm x 49cm)
Collection of Michael and Jeanne Klein
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'Underground #7001' 1999

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Underground #7001
1999
Chromogenic print
19 5/16 in. x 19 5/16 in (49 cm x 49cm)
Collection of Michael and Jeanne Klein
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

 

Underground, 1999 / Ciel Tombé, 2007

After photographing the limestone quarries around Japan, Hatakeyama realised that the urban fabric of Tokyo resembles a mirror image of the excavated earth when viewed from above. As he later wrote, “the quarries and the cities are like negative and positive images of a single photograph.” This revelation led him to photograph the city from great heights and, later, to document the tunnels snaking beneath it. The Shibuya River, diverted beneath Tokyo like a sewer, echoes the chambers Hatakeyama observed within the quarries, yet it is shrouded in darkness and mystery. His abstract and often theatrically lit pictures of the underground river, illuminated by a strobe at the centre of each composition, investigate the process of photographing complete darkness.

Long interested in exploring the subterranean landscapes of France, where limestone was quarried in the carrières below Paris beginning in the thirteenth century, Hatakeyama followed his Tokyo pictures with a Parisian series. For Ciel Tombé he photographed the tunnels beneath the Bois de Vincennes, a wooded park to the east of the city. The series title, which translates literally as “fallen sky,” is a term often used to describe the collapsed ceilings in Parisian underground tunnels. The resulting pictures, which share the dramatic lighting of his Shibuya River series, emphasise the fragility of a built environment exposed to the ravages of time. Hatakeyama has remarked that in these tunnels, “the sky has now become an ancient layer of earth permeating below the city [in which] we live.”

 

Naoya Hatakeyama. 'Noyelles-sous-Lens, #07729' 2009

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Noyelles-sous-Lens, #07729
2009
From the series Terrils
Chromogenic print
23 5/8 in. x 29 1/2 in (60 cm x 75cm)
Courtesy the artist
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958) 'Loos-en-Gohelle, #02607' 2009

 

Naoya Hatakeyama (Japan, b. 1958)
Loos-en-Gohelle, #02607
2009
From the series Terrils
Chromogenic print
23 5/8 in. x 29 1/2 in (60 cm x 75cm)
Courtesy the artist
© Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

 

 

Terrils, 2009-2010

During 2009 and 2010 Hatakeyama was a photographer in residence in the Nord-Pas de Calais, a region in northern France along the Belgian border. A historically contested area often in the path of wars between France and its neighbours, the Nord became a major centre for industry in the nineteenth century due to its wealth of coal mines, steel mills, and textile factories. Today the landscape is marked by terrils, slag heaps composed of waste products from the mining process, which in the context of the region’s current economic troubles serve as monumental reminders of a prosperous industrial past.

Hatakeyama’s photographs explore the terrain from different perspectives, with conical towers of slag looming in nearly every picture. While some of the pictures expose the burnt orange soil just beneath the earth’s surface, others soften the mining site with a wintry, atmospheric haze. By transforming this man-made wasteland to the point that the viewer can no longer determine its contours, Hatakeyama reveals a complex natural environment that incorporates human developments. According to the artist, “history is not simply a list of events, but a human narrative which weaves together time and memory. The interweaving of passing time and the memory of events creates the fabric where History appears as a pattern from which each individual perceives his own personal story.” In these pictures Hatakeyama maps the traces of one such story on the landscape through the conical forms of the mining deposits. These “hills” not only serve as reminders of the ways in which the land has been used but also evoke the long-established cultural role of mountains as mythological symbols.

Wall text from the exhibition

 

 

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

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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: ‘Orphans and small groups’ 1994-96 Part 2

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