Posts Tagged ‘signs

03
Sep
22

Exhibition: ‘Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow’ at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

Exhibition dates: 7th May – 9th October 2022

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) '"Fortune Teller" Sign. US 79 & 80, Greenwood, Louisiana' 1975

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
“Fortune Teller” Sign. US 79 & 80, Greenwood, Louisiana
1975
Gelatin silver print
15 5/8 × 19 9/16 inches (39.7 × 49.68cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

 

These photographs build on the lexicon of existing photographs of this type (Americurbana) from photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Minor White and Harry Callahan. As such they add to the pantheon of known images on a subject. Dow studied with not just Harry Callahan, but also Walker Evans and Minor White, and these are early images in the development of the artist, when he was starting to find his artistic signature.

In some of the first images such as Lott’s Grocery Store. US 11, Bessemer, Alabama (1968, below) we can see Dow’s indebtedness to his teacher, Walker Evans’ vision; in other later photographs (1972 onwards) we see Dow’s concentration on detail, so that the sign fills the frame. In these contextless, groundless photographs the signs become floating signs, floating signifiers, where interpretation is left wholly up to the viewer.

In this sense, Dow is developing a different artistic and visual language to describe the American vernacular… graphic, isolated, strong and more than slightly surreal images that creep into the imagination as if in a bad dream. The robotic head covered in neon; the bowling ball struck through with an arrow; the diver like a swooping fighter plane; the skeletal horse and rider; and the look of fear on the child’s face as he gets inoculated. Weird tales and gothic fiction.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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

 

Vivid, clear-sighted images of American vernacular signage and architecture encountered along old US highways showcase the early black-and-white work of the acclaimed photographer Jim Dow.

The American photographer Jim Dow (b. 1942) is renowned for photographs that depict the built environment – he first gained attention for his panoramic triptychs of baseball stadiums – and for his skill at conveying the “human ingenuity and spirit” that suffuse the spaces. This book is the first to focus on Dow’s early black-and-white pictures, featuring more than 60 photographs made between 1967 and 1977, a majority of which have never before been published. Indebted to the work of Walker Evans, a key mentor of Dow’s, these photographs depict time-worn signage taken from billboards, diners, gas stations, drive-ins, and other small businesses. While still recognisable as icons of commercial Americana, without their context Dow’s signs impart ambiguous messages, often situated between documentation and abstraction. Including a new essay by Dow that reveals his own perspective on the development of the work, Signs suggests how these formative years honed the artist’s sensibility and conceptual approach.

 

 

“Late in the fall of 1965, I met Walker Evans. I had no idea who he was or anything about his work. But his book ‘American Photographs’ completely changed the way I thought about photography. The pictures were descriptive, literate and distinct. They could be read slowly; information was packed into every square inch. They were intense but not dramatic. Rigorous in their making, they demanded attentive scrutiny. It was clear that I had a template for my education through a classic method: at first emulate, then lease the space and ultimately own the process, until taking pictures was no longer a re-enactment. …

I never travelled around the US to find myself. I went to find people, places and things I didn’t know about. Leaving familiar confines is an outward-facing process best done by car on older two- or three-lane roads, stopping, looking and listening every step of the way.”

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Jim Dow in the book Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow

 

 

 

Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow, with essays by Jim Dow and April M. Watson
Distributed for The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Lott's Grocery Store. US 11, Bessemer, Alabama' 1968

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Lott’s Grocery Store. US 11, Bessemer, Alabama
1968
Gelatin silver print
3 3/4 × 4 3/4 inches (9.53 × 12.07cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Abandoned Truck Stop. US 61/AR 150, near Number Nine, Arkansas' 1970

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Abandoned Truck Stop. US 61/AR 150, near Number Nine, Arkansas
1970
Gelatin silver print
7 15/16 × 9 11/16 inches (20.14 × 24.61cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Bowling Pin with Arrow. US 1, Branford, Connecticut' 1971

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Bowling Pin with Arrow. US 1, Branford, Connecticut
1971
Gelatin silver print
7 7/8 x 9 11/16 inches (19.99 × 24.61cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of Jim and Jacquie Dow

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Horse Painting on Sign, Ranch Entrance. US 87, Billings, Montana' 1972

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Horse Painting on Sign, Ranch Entrance. US 87, Billings, Montana
1972
Gelatin silver print
15 7/8 × 20 1/16 inches (40.31 × 50.95cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Curlicue Arrow Sign. US 2, near Wenatchee, Washington' 1972

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Curlicue Arrow Sign. US 2, near Wenatchee, Washington
1972
Gelatin silver print
7 15/16 × 9 5/8 inches (20.14 × 24.46cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Rear of Screen, Van Nuys Drive-In Theatre. Old US 101, Van Nuys, California' 1973

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Rear of Screen, Van Nuys Drive-In Theatre. Old US 101, Van Nuys, California
1973
Gelatin silver print
15 9/16 x 19 ½ inches (39.52 × 49.53cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Detail, Diving Lady Sign. Near US 19, Blairsville, Georgia' 1973

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Detail, Diving Lady Sign. Near US 19, Blairsville, Georgia
1973
Gelatin silver print
7 15/16 x 9 11/16 inches (20.14 × 24.61cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

 

For American photographer Jim Dow, a road trip was not just an excuse to travel from one place to another; it provided an opportunity to find inspiration in the unique structures lining old U. S. highways. Between 1967 and 1977, a decade marking the first ten years of his career, Dow traveled over 150,000 miles on multiple cross-country road trips, photographing vernacular architecture, signage, and commercial billboards that conveyed a unique sense of human spirit and industry. A new, free exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow, draws visitors into Dow’s fascination with the everyday structures that constitute the landscapes we inhabit.

“Although most of Dow’s subjects have long since disappeared, the impetus to make one’s mark on the land through an assertion of livelihood, values, and aspiration remains,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell CEO & Director of the Nelson-Atkins. “There will always be a desire to express individual agency and creativity, and Dow’s photographs remind us that as difficult as that may be, it remains vital for understanding ourselves and our community.”

Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow opens May 7 and features 62 black-and-white photographs from the early part of Dow’s career, as well as a small selection of recent colour photographs that extend the themes forged during his formative years.

“Dow travelled on back roads rather than the interstate system,” said April M. Watson, Senior Curator of Photography. “He always sought unusual or unique subjects that stood apart from the corporate chains that had begun to dominate the social landscape, often isolating specific details so they appear unmoored from their immediate surroundings.”

Born in 1942, Dow grew up in Belmont, Massachusetts and attended the Rhode Island School of Design. As an undergraduate, he majored in graphic design, and in his senior year, had the good fortune to take his introductory photography classes with renowned photographer Harry Callahan. Thanks to Callahan’s influence, Dow was able to continue graduate studies at RISD, completing his MFA in photography in 1968.

A meeting with Walker Evans while Dow was in graduate school made a profound impact on him. Dow found Evans’s sophisticated embrace of vernacular American subject matter and straightforward, descriptive application of the medium to be revelatory. Between 1969 and 1971, he worked closely with Evans when printing Evans’s work for a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the late 1960s, Dow began searching for his own subject matter, taking numerous road trips. Roadside diners, drive-in movie theatres, ice cream stands, burger joints, billboards, gas stations, and small-town, storefront murals all became part of Dow’s regular roster of subjects, as he refined his own artistic vision. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1973, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974 allowed Dow to continue his project.

This exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Dow and Watson, distributed by Yale University Press. Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow runs through Oct. 9, 2022.

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Trailer Park Sign. US 27, Red Bank, Tennessee' 1973

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Trailer Park Sign. US 27, Red Bank, Tennessee
1973
Gelatin silver print
7 7/8 × 9 11/16 inches (19.99 × 24.61cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Neon Cowboy Sign. US 66, Duarte, California' 1973

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Neon Cowboy Sign. US 66, Duarte, California
1973
Gelatin silver print
8 × 9 15/16 inches (20.32 × 25.22cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Lady Reclining on La-Z-Boy Sign. PA 61, Shamokin, Pennsylvania' 1973

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Lady Reclining on La-Z-Boy Sign. PA 61, Shamokin, Pennsylvania
1973
Gelatin silver print
8 × 9 15/16 inches (20.32 × 25.22cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Coffee At It's Best Sign. US 11, Pittston, Pennsylvania' 1973

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Coffee At It’s Best Sign. US 11, Pittston, Pennsylvania
1973
Gelatin silver print
8 x 9 15/16 inches
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) '"Heated Pool" Sign at Motel. US 99, Bakersfield, California' 1975

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
“Heated Pool” Sign at Motel. US 99, Bakersfield, California
1975
Gelatin silver print
7 11/16 × 9 11/16 inches (19.53 × 24.61cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Detail, Coy Getting on Inoculation Sign. US 20, Idaho Falls, Idaho' 1975

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Detail, Coy Getting on Inoculation Sign. US 20, Idaho Falls, Idaho
1975
Gelatin silver print
15 7/8 × 19 7/8 inches (40.31 × 50.47cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

 

“Jim was extremely fortunate to study with not just Harry Callahan, but also Walker Evans and Minor White; three of the most outstanding figures in photographic history, and all masters of black and white. His formal approach to his work obviously stems from their teaching, and in some ways, his love of “collecting culture” with his 8 x 10 view camera does as well. Like Evans and to some degree, Minor White, Jim is attracted to aspects of material culture which often speak to a fading history – that of small town America. He doesn’t seek out majestic or sublime subject matter, rather, he simply elevates the everyday. This characteristic of his work aligns him with other photographers working in colour in the 1970s and 80s, such as Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Joel Sternfeld who were all similarly enchanted with revealing the true textures of the world immediately around us and feeding our popular imaginations. And like his peers, Jim is indelibly part of the tried and true American tradition of hitting the road and traveling extensively to make his work. His wanderlust has led him throughout the country and he has amassed an impressive archive of the American vernacular in the process.”

Hannah Sloan, The Rose Gallery quoted in Aline Smithson. “Interview with Jim Dow: The Griffin Museum’s Focus Award recipient for Lifetime Achievement,” on the Lenscratch website October 24, 2014 [Online] Cited 31/08/2022

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Detail, School Crossing Sign. Albany, Georgia' 1975

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Detail, School Crossing Sign. Albany, Georgia
1975
Gelatin silver print
7 11/16 x 9 5/8 inches
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

 

When Dow took to the road, he always sought unusual or unique subjects that stood apart from the ever-increasing presence of corporate chains. Rather than focusing on the entirety of his subjects, he often isolated specific details of image and text so that they appear unmoored from their immediate surroundings. Roadside diners, drive-in movie theatres, ice cream stands, burger joints, billboards, gas stations and small-town, storefront murals all became part of Dow’s regular roster, as he refined his own artistic vision and organically developed categories of subject matter. …

More often than not, Dow’s subjects bear the marks of time’s passage, evident in the weather-worn surfaces, outdated clichés, and stereotyped imagery that prevailed in mid-20th-century American consumer culture but had begun to deteriorate in the shifting socioeconomic and political landscape of the early 1970s. It is this sense of things passing out of one time period and into another that permeates Dow’s photographs, which are less of a particular time than about the passage of time itself. Though most of the subjects Dow photographed have long since disappeared, the impetus to make one’s mark on the land through an assertion of livelihood, values and aspiration remains. In a nation where economic prosperity relies on a perpetual renewal of tastes, trends and styles, there will always be a desire to express individual agency and creativity. Dow’s photographs remind us that as difficult as that endeavour may be in an era of monopolised, corporate consumption, it remains vital for understanding our sense of self and community.

April M. Watson, Senior Curator, Photography. “Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow,” on the K C Studio website March 11, 2022 [Online] Cited 31/08/2022

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Papier-mâché Elephant. US 202, Gwynedd, Pennsylvania' 1977

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Papier-mâché Elephant. US 202, Gwynedd, Pennsylvania
1977
Gelatin silver print
7 15/16 × 9 7/8 inches (20.14 × 25.07cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942) 'Hardware Store Painting on Wall. Nashville, Tennessee' 1977

 

Jim Dow (American, b. 1942)
Hardware Store Painting on Wall. Nashville, Tennessee
1977
Gelatin silver print
15 15/16 × 19 7/8 inches (40.46 × 50.47cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

 

 

Jim Dow Trailer

 

'Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow' book cover

 

Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow book cover

 

 

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Kansas City, MO 64111

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Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays

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08
Aug
17

Exhibition: ‘Walker Evans’ at the Centre Pompidou, Paris

Exhibition dates: 26th April 2017 – 14th August 2017

Curator: Mnam/Cci, Clément Cheroux

 

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Stamped Tin Relic' 1929

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Stamped Tin Relic
1929
Gelatin silver print
23.3 x 28cm
Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Achat en 1996
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Centre Pompidou / Dist.RMN-GP

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Coney Island Beach' c. 1929

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Coney Island Beach
c. 1929
Gelatin silver print
22.5 x 31cm
The J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Los Angeles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

 

The un/ordinariness of ordinariness

What a pleasure.

I’ve never liked the term ‘”vernacular” photography’ because, for me, every time someone presses the shutter of the camera they have a purpose: to capture a scene, however accidental or incidental. That context may lie outside recognised networks of production and legitimation but it does not lie outside performance and ritual. As Catherine Lumby observes, what the promiscuous flow of the contemporary image culture opens up, “is an expanded and abstracted terrain of becoming… whereby images exceed, incorporate or reverse the values that are presumed to reside within them in a patriarchal social order.”1 Pace Evans.

His art of an alternate order, his vision of a terrain of becoming is so particular, so different it has entered the lexicon of America culture.

Marcus

 

Walker Evans: “The passionate quest to identify the fundamental features of American vernacular culture… the term “vernacular” designates those popular or informal forms of expression used by ordinary people for everyday purposes – essentially meaning all that falls outside art, outside the recognised networks of production and legitimation, and which in the US thus serves to define a specifically American culture. It is all the little details of the everyday environment that make for “Americanness”: wooden roadside shacks, the way a shopkeeper lays out his wares in the window, the silhouette of the Ford Model T, the pseudo-cursive typography of Coca-Cola signs. It is a crucial notion for the understanding of American culture.”

Text from press release

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Many thankx to the Centre Pompidou for allowing me to publish the artwork in the posting. Please click on the art work for a larger version of the image.

1. Lumby, Catharine. “Nothing Personal: Sex, Gender and Identity in The Media Age,” in Matthews, Jill (ed.,). Sex in Public: Australian Sexual Cultures. St. Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1997, pp. 14-15.

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Truck and Sign' 1928-1930

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Truck and Sign
1928-1930
Gelatin silver print
16.5 x 22.2cm
Collection particulière, San Francisco
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Fernando Maquieira, Cromotex

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'New York City Street Corner' 1929

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
New York City Street Corner
1929
Gelatin silver print
18.4 x 12.7cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Self-Portrait in Automated Photobooth' 1930

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Self-Portrait in Automated Photobooth
1930
Gelatin silver print
18.3 x 3.8cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist-RMN-GP/Image of the MMA

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Self-Portrait in Automated Photobooth' 1930 (detail)

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Self-Portrait in Automated Photobooth' 1930 (detail)

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Self-Portrait in Automated Photobooth (details)
1930
Gelatin silver print
18.3 x 3.8cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist-RMN-GP/Image of the MMA

 

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) was one of the most important of twentieth-century American photographers. His photographs of the Depression years of the 1930s, his assignments for Fortune magazine in the 1940s and 1950s, and his “documentary style” influenced generations of photographers and artists. His attention to everyday details and the commonplace urban scene did much to define the visual image of 20th-century American culture. Some of his photographs have become iconic.

Conceived as a retrospective of Evans’s work as a whole, the Centre Pompidou exhibition presents three hundred vintage prints in a novel and revelatory thematic organisation. It highlights the photographer’s recurrent concern with roadside buildings, window displays, signs, typography and faces, offering an opportunity to grasp what no doubt lies at the heart of Walker Evans’ work: the passionate quest to identify the fundamental features of American vernacular culture. In an interview of 1971, he explained the attraction as follows: “You don’t want your work to spring from art; you want it to commence from life, and that’s in the street now. I’m no longer comfortable in a museum. I don’t want to go to them, don’t want to be ‘taught’ anything, don’t want to see ‘accomplished’ art. I’m interested in what’s called vernacular. For example, finished, I mean educated, architecture doesn’t interest me, but I love to find American vernacular”.

In the English-speaking countries, and in America more notably, the term “vernacular” designates those popular or informal forms of expression used by ordinary people for everyday purposes – essentially meaning all that falls outside art, outside the recognised networks of production and legitimation, and which in the US thus serves to define a specifically American culture. It is all the little details of the everyday environment that make for “Americanness”: wooden roadside shacks, the way a shopkeeper lays out his wares in the window, the silhouette of the Ford Model T, the pseudo-cursive typography of Coca-Cola signs. It is a crucial notion for the understanding of American culture. It is to be found in the literature as early as the 19th century, but it is only in the late 1920s that it is first deployed in a systematic study of architecture. Its importance in American art would be theorised in the 1940s, by John Atlee Kouwenhoven, a professor of English with a particular interest in American studies who was close to Walker Evans himself.

After an introductory section that looks at Evans’s modernist beginnings, the exhibition introduces the subjects that would fascinate him throughout his career: the typography of signs, the composition of window displays, the frontages of little roadside businesses, and so on. It then goes on to show how Evans himself adopted the methods or visual forms of vernacular photography in becoming, for the time of an assignment, an architectural photographer, a catalogue photographer, an ambulant portrait photographer, while all the time explicitly maintaining the standpoint of an artist.

This exhibition is the first major museum retrospective of Evans’s work in France. Unprecedented in its ambition, it retraces the whole of his career, from his earliest photographs in the 1920s to the Polaroids of the 1970s, through more than 300 vintage prints drawn from the most important American institutions (among them the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) and also more than a dozen private collections. It also features a hundred or so other exhibits drawn from the post cards, enamel signs, print images and other graphic ephemera that Evans collected his whole life long.

Press release from the Centre Pompidou

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Westchester, New York, farmhouse' 1931

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Westchester, New York, farmhouse
1931
Gelatin silver print pasted on cardboard
18 x 22.1cm
Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris
© W. Evans Arch., The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Centre Pompidou / Dist. RMN-GP

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York' 1931

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York
1931
Gelatin silver print
18.73 x 16.19cm
Collection particulière, San Francisco
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Fernando Maquieira, Cromotex

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'License Photo Studio, New York' 1934

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
License Photo Studio, New York
1934
Gelatin silver print
27.9 x 21.6cm (image: 18.3 x 14.4cm)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Penny Picture Display, Savannah' 1936

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Penny Picture Display, Savannah
1936
Gelatin silver print
21.9 x 17.6cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York Gift of Willard Van Dyke
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © 2016. Digital Image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Joe's Auto Graveyard' 1936

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Joe’s Auto Graveyard
1936
Gelatin silver print
11.43 x 18.73cm
Collection particulière, San Francisco
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Ian Reeves

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Houses and Billboards in Atlanta' 1936

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Houses and Billboards in Atlanta
1936
Gelatin silver print
16.5 x 23.2cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © 2016. Digital Image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

 

 

Curator’s point of view

 

“You don’t want your work to spring from art; you want it to commence from life, and that’s in the street now. I’m no longer comfortable in a museum. I don’t want to go to them, don’t want to be ‘taught’ anything, don’t want to see ‘accomplished’ art. I’m interested in what’s called vernacular.”

.
Walker Evans, interviewed by Leslie Katz (1971)

 

Through more than 400 photographs and documents, this retrospective of the work of Walker Evans (1903-1975) explores the American photographer’s fascination with his country’s vernacular culture. Evans was one of the most important of twentieth-century American photographers. His photographs of the Depression years of the 1930s, his “documentary style” and his interest in American popular culture influenced generations of photographers and artists. Bringing together the best examples of his work, drawn from the most important private and public collections, the exhibition also accords a large place to the artefacts that Evans himself collected throughout his life, to offer a fresh approach to the work of one of the most significant figures in the history of photography.

Study of his images – from the very first photographs of the 1920s to the Polaroids of his last years – reveals a fascination with the utilitarian, the domestic and the local. This interest in popular forms and practices emerged very early, when he started to collect postcards as a teenager. More than ten thousand items he had gathered by the time of his death are now held by the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Other everyday objects from his personal collection – enamel signs, handbills and adverts – are exhibited here.

Walker Evans’s attraction to the vernacular finds expression, above all, in his choice of subjects: Victorian architecture, roadside buildings, shopfronts, cinema posters, placards, signs, etc. His pictures also feature the faces and bodies of ordinary people, whether victims of the Depression or anonymous passers-by. Something else “typically American” was the underside of progress. During the 1930s in particular, the American landscape was strewn with ruin and waste. Evans kept an eye on them ever after. Industrial waste, building debris, automobile carcases, wooden houses in ruins, Louisiana mansions fallen in the world, antiques, garbage, faded interiors, bare patches in exterior render: these were the other face of America. Just as much as the towering skyscraper or the gleaming motor car, all this was an element of the modern. This concern with decline and obsolescence gave the photographer a critical edge and reveals a profound fascination with the mechanisms of overproduction and consumption characteristic of the age.

Evans didn’t just collect the forms of the vernacular, he also borrowed its methods. In many of his images, he adopts the codes of applied photography: the shots in series, the frontality, the apparent objectivity. Waiting, camera in hand on the corner of the street or in the subway, he accumulated portraits of city-dwellers by the dozen, releasing his shutter with the mechanical regularity of a photo booth. Working like a post-card photographer or architectural photographer, Evans built up, in surprisingly systematic fashion, a catalogue of churches, doors, monuments and small-town main streets. Sculptures, wrought-iron chairs, household tools: all seem to have been selected for their unique qualities as objects. The repetitivity, the apparent objectivity and the absence of emphasis in these images are typical of commercial photographs produced to order. In 1935, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, asked Evans to photograph the six hundred sculptures of the exhibition of “African Negro Art”. The method he adopted was that of the catalogue photographer, rigorously avoiding dramatic effects by eliminating shadow; tightly framed and set against a neutral background, the pieces find a new elegance. The photographer would often have recourse to this regime in the years that followed, notably for a portfolio entitled “Beauties of the Common Tool”, published in Fortune magazine in July 1955. This adoption of the forms and procedures of non-artistic photography even as Evans laid claim to art prefigures – some decades in advance! – the practices of the conceptual artists of the 1960s.

Clément Chéroux
Julie Jones
in Code Couleur, No. 28, May – August 2017, pp. 14-17

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Shoeshine Stand Detail in Southern Town' 1936

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Shoeshine Stand Detail in Southern Town
1936
Gelatin silver print
14.5 x 17cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Anonymous Gift
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist-RMN-GP/Image of the MMA

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Negroes' Church, South Carolina' March 1936

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Negroes’ Church, South Carolina
March 1936, circulation April 1969
Gelatin silver print
25.2 x 20.2cm
Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa Acheté en 1969
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada, Ottawa

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Alabama Tenant Farmer Floyd Bourroughs' 1936

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Alabama Tenant Farmer Floyd Bourroughs
1936
Gelatin silver print
22.9 x 18.4cm
Collection particulière, San Francisco
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Fernando Maquieira, Cromotex

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale Country, Alabama' 1936

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale Country, Alabama
1936
Gelatin silver print
22.3 x 17.3cm
Collection particulière
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Collection particulière

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Subway Portrait' January 1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Subway Portrait
January 1941
Gelatin silver print
20.9 x 19.1cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington Gift of Kent and Marcia Minichiello, in Honour of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © National Gallery of Art, Washington

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Resort Photographer at Work' 1941

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Resort Photographer at Work
1941
Gelatin silver print, later print
15.9 x 22.4cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Anna Maria, Florida' October 1958

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Anna Maria, Florida
October 1958
Oil on fibreboard
40 × 50.2cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Walker Evans Archive, 1994
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image of the MMA

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Untitled, Detroit' 1946

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Untitled, Detroit
1946
Gelatin silver print
16 x 11.4cm
Fondation A.Stichting, Bruxelles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © Fondation A.Stichting, Bruxelles

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Tin Snips by J. Wiss and Sons Co., $1.85' 1955

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Tin Snips by J. Wiss and Sons Co., $1.85
1955
Gelatin silver print
25.2 x 20.3cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

 

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27
May
16

Exhibition: ‘Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World’ at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Exhibition dates: 19th February – 30th May 2016

 

Timothy H. O'Sullivan (American, b. Ireland, 1840-1882) 'Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, South Side of Inscription Rock' 1873

 

Timothy H. O’Sullivan (American, b. Ireland, 1840-1882)
Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, South Side of Inscription Rock
1873
From the album Geographical Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian
Albumen silver print
George Eastman Museum, purchase

 

 

In 1873 O’Sullivan joined Lieutenant George Wheeler’s Geographic Survey in New Mexico and Arizona. At El Morro, a sandstone promontory covered with ancient petroglyphs and historic-era inscriptions, the photographer singled out this handsomely lettered sentence to record and measure. It states: By this place passed Ensign Don Joseph de Payba Basconzelos, in the year in which he held the Council of the Kingdom at his expense, on the 18th of February, in the year 1726. Nearby, the rock record now bears another inscription that reads T. H. O’Sullivan.

 

 

This looks to be a fascinating exhibition. I wish I could see it.

While Sight Reading cuts across conventional historical and geographic divisions, with the exhibition being organised into nine “conversations” among diverse sets of works, we must always remember that these “themes” are not exclusory to each other. Photographs do cross nominally defined boundaries and themes (as defined by history and curators) so that they can become truly subversive works of art.

Photographs can form spaces called heterotopia, “a form of concept in human geography elaborated by philosopher Michel Foucault, to describe places and spaces that function in non-hegemonic conditions. These are spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental, such as the space of a phone call or the moment when you see yourself in the mirror… Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” (French: hétérotopie) to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye.”1

In photographs, there is always more than meets the eye. There is the association of the photograph to multiple places and spaces (the histories of that place and space); the imagination of the viewer and the memories they bring to any encounter with a photograph, which may change from time to time, from look to look, from viewing to viewing; and the transcendence of the photograph as it brings past time to present time as an intimation of future time. Past, present and future spacetime are conflated in the act of just looking, just being. Positioning this “‘annihilation of time and space’ as a particular moment in a dynamic cycle of rupture and recuperation enables a deliberate focus on the process of transition.”2 And that transition, Doreen Massey argues, ignores often-invisible contingencies that define spaces those relations that have an effect upon a space but are not visible within it.3

Photographs, then, form what Deleuze and Guattari call assemblages4, where the assemblage is “the processes by which various configurations of linked components function in an intersection with each other, a process that can be both productive and disruptive. Any such process invovles a territorialization; there is a double movement where something accumulates meanings (re-territorialization), but does so co-extensively with a de-territorialization where the same thing is disinvested of meanings. The organization of a territory is characterized by such a double movement … An assemblage is an extension of this process, and can be thought of as constituted by an intensification of these processes around a particular site through a multiplicity of intersections of such territorializations.”5 In other words, when looking at a photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot or Timothy H. O’Sullivan today, the meaning and interpretation of the photograph could be completely different to the reading of this photograph in the era it was taken. The photograph is a site of both de-territorialization and re-territorialization – it both gains and looses meaning at one and the same time, depending on who is looking at it, from what time and from what point of view.

Photographs propose that there are many heterotopias in the world, many transitions and intersections, many meanings lost and found, not only as spaces with several places of/for the affirmation of difference, but also as a means of escape from authoritarianism and repression. We must remember these ideas as we looking at the photographs in this exhibition.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Footnotes

  1. Heterotopia (space) on Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 27/05/2016.
  2. McQuire, Scott. The Media City. London: Sage Publications, 2008, p. 14.
  3. Massey, Doreen. Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 5 in Wood, Aylish. “Fresh Kill: Information technologies as sites of resistance,” in Munt, Sally (ed.,). Technospaces: Inside the New Media. London: Continuum, 2001, pp. 163-164.
  4. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolisand London: University of Minneapolis Press, 1987.
  5. Wood, Aylish. “Fresh Kill: Information technologies as sites of resistance,” in Munt, Sally (ed.,). Technospaces: Inside the New Media. London: Continuum, 2001, p.166

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Many thankx to the Morgan Library & Museum for allowing me to publish the text and photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

'Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World' exhibition sections

 

Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World exhibition sections

 

 

As its name declares, photography is a means of writing with light. Photographs both show and tell, and they speak an extraordinary range of dialects.

Beginning February 19 the Morgan Library & Museum explores the history of the medium as a lucid, literate – but not always literal – tool of persuasion in a new exhibition, Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World. A collaboration with the George Eastman Museum of Film and Photography, the show features more than eighty works from the 1840s to the present and reveals the many ways the camera can transmit not only the outward appearance of its subject but also narratives, arguments, and ideas. The show is on view through May 30.

Over the past 175 years, photography has been adopted by, and adapted to, countless fields of endeavour, from art to zoology and from fashion to warfare. Sight Reading features a broad range of material – pioneering x-rays and aerial views, artefacts of early photojournalism, and recent examples of conceptual art – organised into groupings that accentuate the variety and suppleness of photography as a procedure. In 1936, artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) defined “the  illiterate of the future” as someone “ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.” The JPEG and the “Send” button were decades away, but Moholy-Nagy was not the first observer to argue that photography belonged to the arts of commentary and persuasion. As the modes and motives of camera imagery have multiplied, viewers have continually learned new ways to read the information, and assess the argument, embodied in a photograph.

“Traditional narratives can be found throughout the Morgan’s collections, especially in its literary holdings,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan. “Sight Reading encourages us to use a critical eye to read and discover the stories that unfold through the camera lens and photography, a distinctly modern, visual language. We are thrilled to collaborate with the Eastman Museum, and together unravel a rich narrative, which exemplifies photography’s deep involvement in the stories of modern art, science, and the printed page.”

 

The exhibition

Sight Reading cuts across conventional historical and geographic divisions. Featuring work by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), John Heartfield (1891-1968), Lewis Hine (1874-1940), Harold Edgerton (1903-1990), John Baldessari (1931-2020), Sophie Calle (b. 1953), and Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931-2007; 1934-2015), among many others, the exhibition is organised into nine “conversations” among diverse sets of works.

 

I. The Camera Takes Stock

Photography’s practical functions include recording inventory, capturing data imperceptible to the human eye, and documenting historical events. In the first photographically illustrated publication, The Pencil of Nature (1845), William Henry Fox Talbot used his image Articles of China to demonstrate that “the whole cabinet of a … collector … might be depicted on paper in little more time than it would take him to make a written inventory describing it in the usual way.” Should the photographed collection suffer damage or theft, Talbot speculated, “the mute testimony of the picture … would certainly be evidence of a novel kind” before the law.

A century later, Harold Edgerton, an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used the pulsing light of a stroboscope to record states of matter too fleeting for the naked eye. Gun Toss, an undated image of a spinning pistol, is not a multiple exposure: the camera shutter opened and closed just once. But during that fraction of a second, seven bright flashes of light committed to film a seven-episode history of the gun’s trajectory through space.

 

William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800-1877) 'Articles of China' c. 1843, printed c. 1845

 

William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800-1877)
Articles of China
c. 1843, printed c. 1845
Salted paper print from calotype negative
Collection of Richard and Ronay Menschel

 

 

In The Pencil of Nature (1845), the first photographically illustrated publication, Talbot used Articles of China to demonstrate that “the whole cabinet of a … collector … might be depicted on paper in little more time than it would take him to make a written inventory describing it in the usual way.” Should the collection suffer damage or theft, Talbot added, “the mute testimony of the picture … would certainly be evidence of a novel kind” before the law.

 

Harold Edgerton (American, 1903-1990) 'Gun Toss' 1936-50

 

Harold Edgerton (American, 1903-1990)
Gun Toss
1936-50
Gelatin silver print
Collection of Richard and Ronay Menschel

 

 

Edgerton, an electrical engineer, used the rapidly pulsing light of a stroboscope to record states of matter too fleeting to be perceived by the naked eye. This image of a spinning pistol is not a multiple exposure: the camera shutter opened and closed just once. But during that fraction of a second, seven bright flashes of light committed to film a seven-episode history of the gun’s trajectory through space.

 

John Pfahl (American, b. 1939) 'Wave Theory I–V, Puna Coast, Hawaii, March 1978' 1978

 

John Pfahl (American, b. 1939)
Wave Theory I-V, Puna Coast, Hawaii, March 1978
1978
From the series Altered Landscapes
Chromogenic development (Ektacolor) process prints, 1993
George Eastman Museum, purchase

 

 

In this sequence, Pfahl twisted the conventions of photographic narrative into a perceptual puzzle. The numbered views appear to chronicle a single event: a wave breaking on the shore. Close inspection, however, reveals that the numeric caption in each scene is made of string laid on the rock in the foreground. The exposures, then, must have been made over a span of at least several minutes, not seconds – and in what order, one cannot say.

 

 

II. Crafting A Message

The camera is widely understood to be “truthful,” but what photographs “say” is a product of many procedures that follow the moment of exposure, including page layout, captioning, and cropping of the image. During World War I, military personnel learned to interpret the strange, abstract looking images of enemy territory made from airplanes. Their specialised training fundamentally altered the nature of wartime reconnaissance, even as the unusual perspective unique to aerial photography introduced a new dialect into the expanding corpus of modern visual language. An Example of an Annotated Photograph with Local Names of Trenches Inserted (1916), on view in the exhibition, shows that the tools of ground strategy soon included artificial bunkers and trenches, designed purely to fool eyes in the sky.

In László Moholy-Nagy’s photocollages of the late 1920s, figures cut out of the plates in massmarket magazines appear in new configurations to convey messages of the artist’s devising. Images such as Massenpsychose (Mass Psychosis) (1927) propose a new kind of visual literacy for the machine age. To contemporary eyes, Moholy’s collages seem to foreshadow cut-and-paste strategies that would later characterise the visual culture of cyberspace.

 

László Moholy-Nagy (American, b. Hungary, 1895-1946) 'Massenpsychose' (Mass Psychosis) 1927

 

László Moholy-Nagy (American born Hungary, 1895-1946)
Massenpsychose (Mass Psychosis)
1927
Collage, pencil, and ink
George Eastman Museum, Purchased with funds provided by Eastman Kodak Company

 

 

To make his photocollages of the late 1920s, Moholy-Nagy cut figures out of photographs and photomechanical reproductions and arranged them into new configurations that convey messages of his own devising. By extracting the images from their original context and placing them into relationships defined by drawn shapes and volumes, he suggested a new visual literacy for the modern world. In this world – one in which images course through mass culture at a psychotic pace – a two-dimensional anatomical drawing acquires sufficient volume to cast a man’s shadow and a circle of bathing beauties cues up for a pool sharp. To contemporary eyes, the language of Moholy-Nagy’s photo collages seems to foreshadow strategies common to the visual culture of cyberspace.

 

Unidentified maker. 'An Example of an Annotated Photograph with Local Names of Trenches Inserted' c. 1916

 

Unidentified maker
An Example of an Annotated Photograph with Local Names of Trenches Inserted
c. 1916
Gelatin silver print
George Eastman Museum

 

 

During World War I, aerial photography progressed from a promising technological experiment to a crucial strategic operation. As advances in optics and engineering improved the capabilities of cameras and aircraft, military personnel learned to identify topographic features and man-made structures in the images recorded from above. Such training fundamentally altered the significance and practice of wartime reconnaissance. At the same time, the unusual perspective unique to aerial photography introduced a new dialect into the expanding corpus of modern visual language.

 

PhotoMetric Corporation, 1942-74 'PhotoMetric Tailoring' c. 1942-48

 

PhotoMetric Corporation, 1942-74
PhotoMetric Tailoring
c. 1942-48
Gelatin silver prints
George Eastman Museum

 

 

In an effort to streamline the field of custom tailoring, textile entrepreneur Henry Booth devised a method for obtaining measurements by photographing customers with a special camera and angled mirrors. The system was said to be foolproof, making it possible for any sales clerk to operate it. The resulting slides were sent to the manufacturer along with the customer’s order. A tailor translated the images into physical measurements using a geometric calculator, and the company mailed the finished garment to the customer.

 

 

III. Photographs in Sequence

Photography’s debut in the late 1830s happened to coincide with the birth of the modern comic strip. Ultimately the narrative photo sequence would lead to the innovations that gave rise to cinema, another form of storytelling altogether. Exact contemporaries of one another, Eadweard J. Muybridge in the United States and Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) in France both employed cameras to dissect human movement. Muybridge used a bank of cameras positioned to record a subject as it moved, tripping wires attached to the shutters. The result was a sequence of “stop-action” photographs that isolated gestures not otherwise visible in real time. Beginning in 1882, Marey pursued motion studies with a markedly different approach. In the works for which he is best known, he exposed one photographic plate multiple times at fixed intervals, recording the arc of movement in a single image.

 

Étienne Jules Marey (French, 1830-1904) 'Chronophotographic study of man pole vaulting' c. 1890

 

Étienne Jules Marey (French, 1830-1904)
Chronophotographic study of man pole vaulting
c. 1890
Albumen silver print
George Eastman Museum, Exchange with Narodni Technical Museum

 

 

Exact contemporaries, Muybridge and Marey (the former in the United States, the latter in France) both employed cameras to dissect human movement. Muybridge used a bank of cameras positioned and timed to record a subject as it moved, tripping wires attached to the shutters. The result was a sequence of “stop-action” photographs that isolated gestures not otherwise visible in real time. Beginning in 1882, Marey took a markedly different approach. In the works for which he is best known – such as the image of the man pole-vaulting – he exposed a single photographic plate multiple times at fixed intervals, recording the arc of movement in a single image. In Marey’s chronophotograph of a man on a horse, the action reads from bottom to top. The convention of arranging sequential photographic images from left to right and top to bottom, on the model of written elements on a page, was not yet firmly established.

 

William N. Jennings (American, b. England, 1860-1946) 'Notebook pages with photographs of lightning' c. 1887

 

William N. Jennings (American, b. England, 1860-1946)
Notebook pages with photographs of lightning
c. 1887
Gelatin silver prints mounted onto bound notepad paper
George Eastman Museum, Gift of 3M Foundation; Ex-collection of Louis Walton Sipley

 

 

With his first successful photograph of a lightning bolt on 2 September 1882, Jennings dispelled the then widely held belief – especially among those in the graphic arts – that lightning traveled toward the earth in a regular zigzag pattern. Instead, his images revealed that lightning not only assumed an astonishing variety of forms but that it never took the shape that had come to define it in art.

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) 'Industriebauten' 1968

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) 'Industriebauten' 1968

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Industriebauten
1968
Gelatin silver prints in presentation box
George Eastman Museum, Purchase

 

 

The photographs in this portfolio were made only a few years into what would become the Bechers’ decades-long project of systematically documenting industrial architecture in Europe and the United States. The straightforward and rigidly consistent style of their work facilitates side-by-side comparison, revealing the singularity of structures that are typically understood to be generic.

 

 

IV. The Legible Object

Some photographs speak for themselves; others function as the amplifier for objects that can literally be read through the image. In her series Sorted Books, American artist Nina Katchadourian (b. 1968) composes statements by combining the titles of books drawn from the shelves of libraries and collections. Indian History for Young Folks, 2012, shows three books from the turn of the twentieth century that she found in the Delaware Art Museum’s M.G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings. The viewer’s eye silently provides punctuation: “Indian history for young folks: Our village; your national parks.” Though at first glance it appears merely to arrange words into legible order, Katchadourian’s oblique statement – half verbal, half visual – would be incomplete if divorced from the physical apparatus of the books themselves.

 

David Octavius Hill (Scottish, 1802-1870) Robert Adamson (Scottish, 1821-1848) 'The Artist and the Gravedigger (Denistoun Monument, Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh)' c. 1845

 

David Octavius Hill (Scottish, 1802-1870)
Robert Adamson (Scottish, 1821-1848)
The Artist and the Gravedigger (Denistoun Monument, Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh)
c. 1845
Salted paper print from calotype negative
George Eastman Museum, Gift of Alvin Langdon Coburn

 

 

Hill, his two nieces, and an unidentified man pose for the camera at the tomb of Robert Denistoun, a seventeenth-century Scottish ambassador. Contemplative poses helped the sitters hold still during the long exposure, even while turning them into sculptural extensions of the monument. Hill puts pen to paper, perhaps playing the part of a graveyard poet pondering mortality. Above him, the monument’s Latin inscription begins: “Behold, the world possesses nothing permanent!”

 

Robert Cumming (American, b. 1943) 'Submarine cross-section; feature film, "Gray Lady Down" - Stage #12, March 14, 1977' 1977

 

Robert Cumming (American, b. 1943)
Submarine cross-section; feature film, “Gray Lady Down” – Stage #12, March 14, 1977
1977
Inkjet print
George Eastman Museum, Gift of Nash Editions

 

 

In the Studio Still Lifes he photographed on the backlots of Universal Studios, Cumming sought to portray the mechanisms behind cinema vision “in their real as opposed to their screen contexts.” Admiring yet subversive, his documents use strategies native to the still camera – distance, point of view, and clear-eyed testimony – to translate Hollywood’s familiar illusions into worksites where “marble is plywood, stone is rubber, … rooms seldom have ceilings, and when the sun shines indoors, it casts a dozen shadows.”

 

Nina Katchadourian (American, b. 1968) 'Indian History for Young Folks' 2012

 

Nina Katchadourian (American, b. 1968)
Indian History for Young Folks
2012
From Once Upon a Time in Delaware / In Quest of the Perfect Book
Chromogenic print
The Morgan Library Museum, Purchase, Photography Collectors Committee

 

 

In her ongoing series Sorted Books, Katchadourian composes statements by combining the titles of books from a given library – in this case, the M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings at the Delaware Art Museum. Though her compositions are driven by the need to arrange words in a legible order, Katchadourian’s oblique jokes, poems, and koans would be incomplete if divorced from the cultural information conveyed by the physical books themselves.

 

 

V. The Photograph Decodes Nature

As early as 1840, one year after photography’s invention was announced, scientists sought to deploy it in their analysis of the physical world. Combining the camera with the microscope, microphotographs recorded biological minutiae, leading to discoveries that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to obtain by observing subjects in real time. Similarly, the development of X-ray technology in 1895 allowed scientists to see and understand living anatomy to an unprecedented degree. Such innovations not only expanded the boundaries of the visible world but also introduced graphic concepts that would have a profound impact on visual culture. In other ways, too, nature has been transformed in human understanding through the interpretive filter of the lens, as seen in Sight Reading in the telescopic moon views of astronomers Maurice Loewy (1833-1907) and Pierre Henri Puiseux (1855-1928) and in the spellbinding aerial abstractions of William Garnett (1916-2006).

 

William Garnett (American, 1916-2006) 'Animal Tracks on Dry Lake' 1955

 

William Garnett (American, 1916-2006)
Animal Tracks on Dry Lake
1955
Gelatin silver print
The Morgan Library & Museum, Purchased on the Charina Endowment Fund

 

 

After making films for the U.S. Signal Corps during World War II, Garnett used GI-Bill funding to earn a pilot’s license. By the early 1950s, he had the field of artistic aerial landscape virtually to himself. This print, showing the ephemeral traces of wildlife movement on a dry lake bed, appeared in Diogenes with a Camera IV (1956), one in a series of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art that highlighted the great variety of ways in which artists used photography to invent new forms of visual truth.

 

William Henry Jackson (American, 1843-1942) '"Tea Pot" Rock' 1870

 

William Henry Jackson (American, 1843-1942)
“Tea Pot” Rock
1870
Albumen silver print
George Eastman Museum, Purchase

 

 

Jackson made this photograph as a member of the survey team formed by Ferdinand V. Hayden to explore and document the territory now known as Yellowstone National Park. Hayden’s primary goal was to gather information about the area’s geological history, and Jackson’s photographs record with precision and clarity the accumulated layers of sediment that allow this natural landmark to be fit into a geological chronology. The human figure standing at the left of the composition provides information about the size of the rock, demonstrating that photographers have long recognised the difficulty of making accurate inferences about scale based on photographic images.

 

Dr. Josef Maria Eder (Austrian, 1855-1944) Eduard Valenta (Austrian, 1857-1937) 'Zwei Goldfische und ein Seefisch (Christiceps argentatus)' 1896

 

Dr Josef Maria Eder (Austrian, 1855-1944)
Eduard Valenta (Austrian, 1857-1937)
Zwei Goldfische und ein Seefisch (Christiceps argentatus)
1896
From the book Versuche über Photographie mittelst der Röntgen’schen Strahlen
Photogravure
George Eastman Museum, Gift of Eastman Kodak Company; Ex-collection of Josef Maria Eder

 

 

As early as 1840 – a year after photography’s invention was announced – scientists sought to deploy it in their analysis of the physical world. Combining the camera with the microscope, microphotographs recorded biological minutiae, leading to discoveries that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to obtain by observing subjects in real time. Similarly, the development of x-ray technology in 1895 allowed doctors to study living anatomy to an unprecedented degree. Such innovations not only expanded the boundaries of the visible world but also introduced graphic concepts that would have a profound impact on visual culture.

 

Dr James Deane (American, 1801-1858) 'Ichnographs from the Sandstone of Connecticut River' 1861

 

Dr James Deane (American, 1801-1858)
Ichnographs from the Sandstone of Connecticut River
1861
Book illustrated with 22 salted paper prints and 37 lithographs
George Eastman Museum, Gift of Alden Scott Boyer

 

 

These photographs, which depict traces of fossils discovered in a sandstone quarry, illustrate a book written by Massachusetts surgeon James Deane, who was the author of texts on medicine as well as natural history. Published posthumously using his notes and photographs as a guide, the volume is an early demonstration of photography’s potential as a tool of scientific investigation.

 

 

VI. The Photograph Decodes Culture

The photograph not only changed but to a great extent invented the modern notion of celebrity. Modern-age celebrities live apart from the general public, but their faces are more familiar than those of the neighbors next door. Since the mid-nineteenth century, viewers have come to “know” the famous through accumulated photographic sightings, which come in formats and contexts that vary as much as real-life encounters do. In four images that would have communicated instantly to their intended viewers in 1966, Jean-Pierre Ducatez (b. 1970) portrayed the Beatles through closeups of their mouths alone. The graphic shorthand employed by Jonathan Lewis in his series The Pixles is of a more recent variety, but he, too, relies on the visual familiarity conferred by tremendous celebrity. Each print in the series reproduces the iconic art of a Beatles album cover at life size (12 x 12 inches) but extremely low resolution (12 x 12 pixels). Like celebrities themselves, perhaps, the images look more familiar to the eye at a distance than close-up.

 

Unidentified maker. 'U. S. Grant' c. 1862

 

Unidentified maker
U. S. Grant
c. 1862
Albumen silver print
George Eastman Museum, Purchase

 

Timothy H. O'Sullivan (American, b. Ireland, 1840-1882) 'A Council of War at Massaponax Church, Va. 21st May, 1864. Gens. Grant and Meade, Asst. Sec. of War Dana, and Their Staff Officers' 1864

 

Timothy H. O’Sullivan (American born Ireland, 1840-1882)
A Council of War at Massaponax Church, Va. 21st May, 1864. Gens. Grant and Meade, Asst. Sec. of War Dana, and Their Staff Officers
1864
From the series Photographic Incidents of the War
Albumen silver print stereograph
George Eastman Museum, Gift of Albert Morton Turner

 

 

Modern celebrities live apart from the general public, yet their faces are more familiar than those of the neighbors next door. Since the mid-nineteenth century, viewers have come to “know” the famous through accumulated photographic sightings, which come in formats and contexts that vary as much as real-life encounters do. First as a Union hero in the American Civil War and later as president, Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) lived in the public imagination through news images, popular stereographs, campaign buttons, and ultimately the (photo-based) face on the $50 bill. Grant was even a subject for Francois Willème’s patented process for generating a sculpted likeness out of photographs made in the round – an early forerunner to the technology of 3-D printing.

 

Jonathan Lewis (British, b. 1970) 'Abbey Road' 2003

 

Jonathan Lewis (British, b. 1970)
Abbey Road
2003
From The Pixles
Inkjet print
George Eastman Museum, By exchange with the artist

 

Jonathan Lewis (British, b. 1970) 'Please Please Me' 2003

 

Jonathan Lewis (British, b. 1970)
Please Please Me
2003
From The Pixles
Inkjet print
George Eastman Museum, By exchange with the artist

 

Jonathan Lewis (British, b. 1970) 'Rubber Soul' 2003

 

Jonathan Lewis (British, b. 1970)
Rubber Soul
2003
From The Pixles
Inkjet print
George Eastman Museum, By exchange with the artist

 

 

Synecdoche is a poetic device in which a part stands in for the whole. (In the phrase “three sails set forth,” sails mean ships.) In four images that would have communicated instantly to their intended viewers in 1966, Ducatez portrayed the Beatles solely through close-ups of their mouths. The graphic shorthand Lewis employs in his series The Pixles is of a more recent variety, though he, too, relies on the visual familiarity conferred by tremendous celebrity. Each print in the series reproduces a Beatles album cover at life size (12 x 12 inches) but extremely low resolution (12 x 12 pixels).

 

 

VII. Meaning is on the Surface

Photographs are not just windows onto the world but pieces of paper, which can themselves be inscribed or otherwise altered in ways that enrich or amend their meaning. The group portrait Joint Meeting of the Railway Surgeons Association, Claypool Hotel, Indianapolis (1920) is contact printed, meaning that the negative was the same size as the print. After the portrait sitting, the photographer appears to have presented the developed film to the sixty-four sitters for signing during the three days they were assembled for their convention. The result is a document that unites two conventional signifiers of character: facial features and the autograph.

 

Gravelle Studio, Indianapolis (American, active 1920) 'Joint Meeting of the Railway Surgeons Association, Claypool Hotel, Indianapolis' 1920

 

Gravelle Studio, Indianapolis (American, active 1920)
Joint Meeting of the Railway Surgeons Association, Claypool Hotel, Indianapolis
1920
Gelatin silver print
The Morgan Library & Museum, Purchased as the gift of Peter J. Cohen

 

 

Panoramic group portraits such as this are made using a banquet camera, which admits light through a narrow vertical slit while rotating on its tripod. This image was contact printed, meaning the negative was the same size as the print. The photographer appears to have presented the developed film to the sixty-four sitters for signing during the three days they were assembled. The result is a document that unites two conventional signifiers of character: facial features and the autograph.

 

Keith Smith (American, b. 1938) 'Book 151' 1989

 

Keith Smith (American, b. 1938)
Book 151
1989
Bound book of gelatin silver prints, thread, and leather
Collection of Richard and Ronay Menschel

 

 

This unique object unites the arts of photography, quilting, and bookmaking. The composite image on each right-hand page appears to be made of prints cut apart and sewn together. In fact, Smith began by printing patchwork-inspired photomontages in the darkroom. He then stitched along many of the borders where abutting images meet, creating the illusion of a photographic crazy quilt.

 

 

VIII. Photography and the Page

News of the world took on a newly visual character in the 1880s, when the technology of the halftone screen made it practical, at last, to render photographs in ink on the printed page.

Among the earliest examples of photojournalism is Paul Nadar’s (1820-1910) “photographic interview” with Georges Ernest Boulanger, a once-powerful French politician. The article’s introduction explains that the photographs were printed alongside the text in order to provide evidence of the encounter and to illustrate Boulanger’s dynamic body language during the conversation.

 

Stephen Henry Horgan (American, 1854-1941) 'Shanty Town' April 1880

 

Stephen Henry Horgan (American, 1854-1941)
Shanty Town
April 1880
Photomechanical printing plate A Scene in Shantytown, New York, c. 1928
Lithograph
George Eastman Museum, Gift of 3M Foundation; Ex-collection of Louis Walton Sipley

 

Paul Nadar (French, 1856-1939) 'Interview with Georges Ernest Jean Marie Boulanger' 1889

 

Paul Nadar (French, 1856-1939)
Interview with Georges Ernest Jean Marie Boulanger
1889
Le Figaro, 23 November 1889
Photomechanical reproduction
George Eastman Museum, gift of Eastman Kodak Company; ex-collection Gabriel Cromer

 

 

Among the earliest examples of photojournalism is Nadar’s “photographic interview” with Georges Ernest Boulanger, a once-powerful French politician who had fallen out of public favour by the time this was published. The article’s introduction explains that the photographs were printed alongside the text in order to provide evidence of the encounter and to illustrate Boulanger’s body language during the conversation.

 

Lewis W. Hine (American, 1874–1940) 'Italian Family Looking for Lost Baggage, Ellis Island' 1905

 

Lewis W. Hine (American, 1874-1940)
Italian Family Looking for Lost Baggage, Ellis Island
1905
Ellis Island Group, 1905
Gelatin silver print
George Eastman Museum, Gift of Photo League Lewis Hine Memorial Committee

 

 

In an effort to counter American xenophobia in the early years of the twentieth century, Hine photographed immigrants as they arrived at Ellis Island, composing his images to stir sympathy and understanding among viewers. He understood the importance of disseminating his photographs and actively sought to publish them in newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets. The white outline in the photograph on the right instructs the designer and printer where to crop the image for a photomontage featuring figures from multiple portraits.

 

Claude Cahun (French, 1894-1954) 'La Poupée' (Puppet) 1936

 

Claude Cahun (French, 1894-1954)
La Poupée (Puppet)
1936
Gelatin silver print
Collection of Richard and Ronay Menschel

 

John Heartfield (German, 1891-1968) 'Hurrah, die Butter ist alle!' (Hooray, the Butter Is Finished!) 1935

 

John Heartfield (German, 1891-1968)
Hurrah, die Butter ist alle! (Hooray, the Butter Is Finished!)
1935
Rotogravure
George Eastman Museum, purchase

 

 

This is one of 237 photomontages that Heartfield created between 1930 and 1938 for the antifascist magazine Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Worker’s Pictorial Newspaper). It is a parody of the “Guns Before Butter” speech in which Hermann G.ring exhorted German citizens to sacrifice necessities in order to aid the nation’s rearmament. The text reads: “Iron ore has always made an empire strong; butter and lard have at most made a people fat.” Heartfield combined details from several photographs to conjure the image of a German family feasting on tools, machine parts, and a bicycle in a swastika-laden dining room, complete with a portrait of Hitler, a framed phrase from a popular Franco-Prussian war-era song, and a throw pillow bearing the likeness of recently deceased president Paul von Hindenburg.

 

Unidentified maker. 'Certificate of Marriage between Daniel W. Gibbs and Matilda B. Pierce' c. 1874

 

Unidentified maker
Certificate of Marriage between Daniel W. Gibbs and Matilda B. Pierce
c. 1874
Tintypes in prepared paper mount
George Eastman Museum, Purchase

 

 

Graphic cousins to one other, these wedding certificates are equipped with precut windows for photographs of the bride, groom, and officiant. The portraits, in partnership with the printed and inscribed text on the forms, contribute both to the documentary specificity of the certificates and to their value as sentimental souvenirs.

 

 

IX. Empire of Signs

The plethora of signs, symbols, and visual noise endemic to cities has attracted photographers since the medium’s invention. Their records of advertisers’ strident demands for attention, shopkeepers’ alluring displays, and the often dizzying architectural density of metropolitan life chronicle sights that are subject to change without notice. The photographer’s perspective on contemporary social life – whether it is anecdotal, as in John Thompson’s (1837-1921) Street Advertising from Street Life in London (1877), or haunting, as in Eugène Atget’s (1857-1927) Impasse des Bourdonnais (ca. 1908) – is embedded in each image.

 

John Thomson (Scottish, 1837-1921) 'Street Advertising' 1877

 

John Thomson (Scottish, 1837-1921)
Street Advertising
1877
From Street Life in London, 1877
Woodburytype
George Eastman Museum, Gift of Alden Scott Boyer

 

John Thomson (Scottish, 1837-1921) 'Street Advertising' 1877

 

Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927)
Impasse des Bourdonnais
c. 1908
Albumen silver print
George Eastman Museum, Purchase

 

Margaret Bourke-White (American, 1904-1971) 'At the Time of the Louisville Flood' 1937

 

Margaret Bourke-White (American, 1904-1971)
At the Time of the Louisville Flood
1937
Gelatin silver print
George Eastman Museum

 

 

The plethora of signs, symbols, and visual noise endemic to cities has attracted photographers since the medium’s invention. Their records of advertisers’ strident demands for attention, shopkeepers’ alluring displays, and the often dizzying architectural density of metropolitan life chronicle sights that are subject to change without notice. The photographer’s perspective on contemporary social life – whether it is ironic, as in Margaret Bourke-White’s image of a line of flood victims before a billboard advertising middle-class prosperity, or bemused, as in Ferenc Berko’s photograph of columns of oversized artificial teeth on the street – is embedded in each image.

 

Ferenc Berko (American, b. Hungary, 1916-2000) 'Rawalpindi, India' 1946

 

Ferenc Berko (American, b. Hungary, 1916-2000)
Rawalpindi, India
1946
Gelatin silver print
George Eastman House, Gift of Katharine Kuh

 

Aaron Siskind (American, 1903-1991) 'New York 6' 1951

 

Aaron Siskind (American, 1903-1991)
New York 6
1951
Gelatin silver print
The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Richard and Ronay Menschel

 

Alex Webb (American, b. 1952) 'India' 1981

 

Alex Webb (American, b. 1952)
India
1981
Chromogenic development print
George Eastman Museum, Purchased with funds from Charina Foundation

 

 

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street
New York, NY 10016-3405
Phone: (212) 685-0008

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Thursday, Saturday – Sunday: 10.30 am – 5 pm
Friday: 10.30am – 7pm
Closed Mondays

The Morgan Library & Museum website

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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, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor 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.

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Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Orphans and small groups’ 1994-96 Part 2

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