Posts Tagged ‘The Uncanny

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.

 

 

FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE – Instituto de Cultura
Paseo de Recoletos, 23
28004 Madrid, Spain
Phone: +34 915 81 61 00

Opening hours:
Monday (except holidays) from 2.00pm – 8.00pm
Tuesday to Saturday from 11.00am – 8.00pm
Sundays and holidays from 11.00am – 7.00pm

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07
May
17

Exhibition: ‘The Unsettled Lens’ at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art

Exhibition dates: 18th February – 14th May 2017

 

Not a great selection of media images… I would have liked to have seen more photographs from what is an interesting premise for an exhibition: the idea of the uncanny as a sense of displacement, as a difficulty in reconciling the familiar with the unknown.

The three haunting – to haunt, to be persistently and disturbingly present in (the mind) – images by Wyn Bullock are my favourites in the posting.

Marcus

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

 

 

Since the early twentieth-century, photographers have crafted images that hinge on the idea of the uncanny, a psychological phenomenon existing, according to psychoanalysis, at the intersection between the reassuring and the threatening, the familiar and the new. The photographs in this exhibition build subtle tensions based on the idea of the uncanny as a sense of displacement, as a difficulty in reconciling the familiar with the unknown. By converting nature into unrecognisable abstract impressions of reality, by intruding on moments of intimacy, by weaving enigmatic narratives, and by challenging notions of time and memory, these images elicit unsettling sensations and challenge our intellectual mastery of the new. This exhibition showcases new acquisitions in photography and photographs from the permanent collection, stretching from the early twentieth-century to the year 2000.

 

 

Edward J. Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879-1973) 'Moonrise, Mamaroneck, New York' 1904, printed 1981

 

Edward J. Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879-1973)
Moonrise, Mamaroneck, New York
1904, printed 1981
Photogravure
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Museum purchase with funds provided by Ms. Frances Kerr

 

William A. Garnett. 'Sand Bars, Colorado River, Near Needles, California' 1954

 

William A. Garnett (1916-2006)
Sand Bars, Colorado River, Near Needles, California
1954
Silver gelatin print
Oklahoma City Museum of Art

 

Elliott Erwitt (American, born France 1928) 'Cracked Glass with Boy, Colorado' 1955, printed 1980

 

Elliott Erwitt (American, born France 1928)
Cracked Glass with Boy, Colorado
1955, printed 1980
Gelatin silver print
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Gift of Raymond W. Merritt

 

Wynn Bullock (American, 1902–1975) 'Navigation Without Numbers' 1957

 

Wynn Bullock (American, 1902-1975)
Navigation Without Numbers
1957
Gelatin silver print
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas V. Duncan

 

 

In “Navigation Without Numbers,” photographer Wynn Bullock comments on life’s dualities and contradictions through imagery and textures: the soft, inviting bed and the rough, rugged walls; the bond of mother and child, and the exhaustion and isolation of motherhood; and the illuminated bodies set against the surrounding darkness. The book on the right shelf is a 1956 guide on how to pilot a ship without using mathematics. Its title, Navigation Without Numbers, recalls the hardship and confusion of navigating through the dark, disorienting waters of early motherhood.

 

Wynn Bullock (American, 1902–1975) 'Child in Forest' 1951

 

Wynn Bullock (American, 1902-1975)
Child in Forest
1951
Gelatin silver print
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas V. Duncan

 

Wynn Bullock (American, 1902-1975) 'Child on Forest Road' 1958, printed 1973

 

Wynn Bullock (American, 1902-1975)
Child on Forest Road
1958, printed 1973
Gelatin silver print
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Lent by Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas V. Duncan

 

 

“Child on Forest Road,” which features the artist’s daughter, brings together a series of dualities or oppositions in a single image: ancient forest and young child, soft flesh and rough wood, darkness and light, safe haven and vulnerability, communion with nature and seclusion. In so doing, Bullock reflects on his own attempt to relate to nature and to the strange world implied by Einstein’s newly theorized structure of the universe.

 

Ruth Bernhard (American, born Germany, 1905-2006) 'In the Box - Horizontal' 1962

 

Ruth Bernhard (American, born Germany, 1905-2006)
In the Box – Horizontal
1962
Gelatin silver print
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Museum purchase

 

Brett Weston (American, 1911-1993) 'Untitled [dead bird and sand]' 1967

 

Brett Weston (American, 1911-1993)
Untitled (dead bird and sand)
1967
Gelatin silver print
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Gift of the Christian Keesee Collection

 

Edward J. Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879-1973) 'Balzac, The Open Sky - 11 P.M.' 1908

 

Edward J. Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879-1973)
Balzac, The Open Sky – 11 P.M.
1908
Photogravure
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Museum purchase with funds provided by Ms. Frances Kerr

 

 

Edward Steichen, who shared similar artistic ambitions with Symbolist sculptor, Auguste Rodin, presented Rodin’s Balzac as barely decipherable and as an ominous silhouette in the shadows. In Steichen’s photograph, Balzac is a pensive man contemplating human nature and tragedy, a “Christ walking in the desert,” as Rodin himself admiringly described it. Both Rodin and Steichen chose Balzac as their subject due to the French writer’s similar interest in psychological introspection.

 

Ralph Gibson (American, b. 1939) 'Untitled (Woman with statue)' 1974, printed 1981

 

Ralph Gibson (American, b. 1939)
Untitled (Woman with statue)
1974, printed 1981
Gelatin silver print
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Gift of Carol and Ray Merritt

 

William A. Garnett (1916-2006) 'Two Trees on Hill with Shadow, Paso Robles, CA' 1974

 

William A. Garnett (1916-2006)
Two Trees on Hill with Shadow, Paso Robles, CA
1974
Silver gelatin print
Oklahoma City Museum of Art

 

Thomas Harding (American, 1911-2002) 'Barbed Wire and Tree' 1987

 

Thomas Harding (American, 1911-2002)
Barbed Wire and Tree
1987
Platinum print
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Museum purchase with funds provided by Mr. Jack Coleman

 

Zeke Berman (American, b. 1951) 'Untitled (Web 2)' 1988

 

Zeke Berman (American, b. 1951)
Untitled (Web 2)
1988
Gelatin silver print
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Museum purchase

 

 

In “Untitled,” New York sculptor and photographer Zeke Berman sets up a still life in the Dutch tradition – the artist presents a plane in foreshortened perspective, sumptuous fabric, and carefully balanced objects – only to dismantle it, and reduce it to a semi-abandoned stage. Spider webs act as memento mori (visual reminders of the finitude of life), while the objects, seemingly unrelated to each other and peculiarly positioned, function as deliberately enigmatic signs.

 

Stan Douglas (Canadian, b. 1960) 'Roof of the Ruskin Plant' 1992

 

Stan Douglas (Canadian, b. 1960)
Roof of the Ruskin Plant
1992
Chromogenic print
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Gift of the Christian Keesee Collection

 

 

Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Drive
Oklahoma City, OK 73102

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Saturday: 10 am – 5 pm
Thursday: 10 am – 9 pm
Sunday: noon – 5 pm
Closed: Monday and Major Holidays

Oklahoma City Museum of Art website

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12
Apr
15

Exhibition: ‘Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909-1949’ at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Exhibition dates: 13th December 2014 – 19th April 2015

Exhibition coincides with the culmination of the Thomas Walther Collection Project, a four-year research collaboration between MoMA’s curatorial and conservation staff

The Edward Steichen Photography Galleries, third floor

 

 

Unknown photographer. 'British 'Chute Jumpers' 1937

 

Unknown photographer
British ‘Chute Jumpers
1937
Gelatin silver print
5 15/16 x 6 15/16″ (15.1 x 17.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

 

OMG, OMG, OMG if we had tele-transportation to travel around the world, I would be at this exhibition in an instant. Please MoMA, fly me to New York so that I can do a proper review of the exhibition!

Not only are there photographs from well known artists that I have never seen before – for example, the brooding mass of Boat, San Francisco (1925) by Edward Weston with the name of the boat… wait for it… ‘DAYLIGHT’ – there are also outstanding photographs from artists that I have never heard of before.

There is so much to like in this monster posting, from the glorious choreography of British ‘Chute Jumpers (1937) to the muscular symmetry and abstraction of Rodchenko’s Dive (1934); from the absolutely stunning light and movement of Riefenstahl’s Nocturnal Start of Decathlon 1,500m Race (August 1936) to the ecstatic, ghost-like swimming in mud apparitions of Kate Steinitz’s Backstroke (1930) – an artist who I knew nothing about (Kate Steinitz was a German-American artist and art historian affiliated with the European Bauhaus and Dadaist movements in the early 20th century. She is best known for her collaborative work with the artist Kurt Schwitters, and, in later life, her scholarship on Leonardo da Vinci). Another artist to flee Germany in the mid-1930s to evade the persecution of the Nazis.

In fact, when you look through the checklist for this exhibition I look at the country of origin of the artist, and the date of their death. There are a lot of artists from Germany and France. Either they lived through the maelstrom of the Second World War and survived, escaped to America or England, or died during the war and their archive was lost (such as the artist Robert Petschow (German, 1888-1945). For some artists surviving the war was not enough either… trapped behind the Iron Curtain after repatriation, artists such as Edmund Kesting went unacknowledged in their lifetime. What a tough time it must have been. To have created this wonderful avant-garde art and then to have seen it dashed against the rocks of violence, prejudice and bigotry – firstly degenerate, then non-conforming to Communist ideals.

Out of the six sections of the exhibition (The Modern World, Purisms, Reinventing Photography, The Artist’s Life, Between Surrealism and Magic Realism, and Dynamics of the City) it would seem that the section ‘Reinventing Photography’ is the weakest – going from the checklist – with a lack of really memorable images for this section, hence only illustrated in this posting by one image. But this is a minor quibble. When you have images such as Anne W. Brigman’s A Study in Radiation (1924) or Edmund Kesting’s magnificent Glance to the Sun (Blick zur Sonne) (1928) who cares! I just want to see them all and soak up their atmosphere.

Marcus

PS. There is an excellent website titled Object: Photo to accompany the exhibition. It contains sections that map and compare photographs, connect and map artists’ lives along with many more images from the collection, conservation analysis and essays about the works. Well worth a look.

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Many thankx to the MoMA for allowing me to publish the photographs and text in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. All images © The Museum of Modern Art

Note: Images below correspond to their sections in the exhibition.

 

 

Gustav Klutsis. 'Postcard for the All Union Spartakiada Sporting Event' 1928

 

Gustav Klutsis (Latvian, 1895-1938)
Postcard for the All Union Spartakiada Sporting Event
1928
Offset lithograph
5 3/4 x 4 1/8″ (14.1 x 10.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

Gustav Klutsis. 'Postcard for the All Union Spartakiada Sporting Event' 1928

 

Gustav Klutsis (Latvian, 1895-1938)
Postcard for the All Union Spartakiada Sporting Event
1928
Offset lithograph
5 3/4 x 4 1/8″ (14.1 x 10.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

Gustav Klutsis. 'Postcard for the All Union Spartakiada Sporting Event' 1928

 

Gustav Klutsis (Latvian, 1895-1938)
Postcard for the All Union Spartakiada Sporting Event
1928
Offset lithograph
5 3/4 x 4 1/8″ (14.1 x 10.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

 

Gustav Klutsis (Latvian, 1895-1938)

Latvian painter, sculptor, graphic artist, designer and teacher, active in Russia. He was an important exponent of Russian Constructivism. He studied in Riga and Petrograd (now St Petersburg), but in the 1917 October Revolution joined the Latvian Rifle Regiment to defend the Bolshevik government; his sketches of Lenin and his fellow soldiers show Cubist influence. In 1918 he designed posters and decorations for the May Day celebrations and he entered the Free Art Studios (Svomas) in Moscow, where he studied with Malevich and Antoine Pevsner. Dynamic City (1919; Athens, George Costakis priv. col., see Rudenstine, no. 339) illustrates his adoption of the Suprematist style. In 1920 Klucis exhibited with Pevsner and Naum Gabo on Tver’skoy Boulevard in Moscow; in the same year Klucis joined the Communist Party. In 1920-21 he started experimenting with materials, making constructions from wood and paper that combined the geometry of Suprematism with a more Constructivist concern with actual volumes in space. In 1922 Klucis applied these experiments to utilitarian ends when he designed a series of agitprop stands based on various combinations of loudspeakers, speakers’ platforms, display units, film projectors and screens. He taught a course on colour in the Woodwork and Metalwork Faculty of the Vkhutemas (Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops) from 1924 to 1930, and in 1925 helped to organize the Soviet section at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. During the 1920s he became increasingly interested in photomontage, using it in such agitprop posters as ‘We will repay the coal debt to the country’ (1928; e.g. New York, MOMA). During the 1930s he worked on graphic and typographical design for periodicals and official publications. He was arrested and died during the purges in World War II.

From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press

 

Gustav Klutsis. 'Postcard for the All Union Spartakiada Sporting Event' 1928

 

Gustav Klutsis (Latvian, 1895-1938)
Postcard for the All Union Spartakiada Sporting Event
1928
Offset lithograph
5 3/4 x 4 1/8″ (14.1 x 10.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

 

Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909-1949, on view from December 13, 2014, to April 19, 2015, explores photography between the First and Second World Wars, when creative possibilities were never richer or more varied, and when photographers approached figuration, abstraction, and architecture with unmatched imaginative fervour. This vital moment is dramatically captured in the photographs that constitute the Thomas Walther Collection, a remarkable group of works presented together for the first time through nearly 300 photographs. Made on the street and in the studio, intended for avant-garde exhibitions or the printed page, these objects provide unique insight into the radical intentions of their creators. Iconic works by such towering figures as Berenice Abbott, Karl Blossfeldt, Alvin Langdon Coburn, El Lissitzky, Lucia Moholy, László Moholy-Nagy, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Paul Strand are featured alongside lesser-known treasures by more than 100 other practitioners. The exhibition is organised by Quentin Bajac, the Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography, and Sarah Hermanson Meister, Curator, Department of Photography, MoMA.

The exhibition coincides with Object: Photo. Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection 1909-1949, the result of a four-year collaborative project between the Museum’s departments of Photography and Conservation, with the participation of over two dozen leading international photography scholars and conservators, making it the most extensive effort to integrate conservation, curatorial, and scholarly research efforts on photography to date. That project is composed of multiple parts including a website that features a suite of digital-visualisation research tools that allow visitors to explore the collection, a hard-bound paper catalogue of the entire Thomas Walther collection, and an interdisciplinary symposium focusing on ways in which the digital age is changing our engagement with historic photographs.

Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909-1949, is organised thematically into six sections, suggesting networks between artists, regions, and objects, and highlighting the figures whose work Walther collected in depth, including André Kertész, Germaine Krull, Franz Roh, Willi Ruge, Maurice Tabard, Umbo, and Edward Weston. Enriched by key works in other mediums from MoMA’s collection, this exhibition presents the exhilarating story of a landmark chapter in photography’s history.”

Press release from the MoMA website

 

The Collection

In the 1920s and ’30s photography underwent a period of exploration, experimentation, technical innovation, and graphic discovery so dramatic that it generated repeated claims that the true age of discovery was not when photography was invented but when it came of age, in this era, as a dynamic, infinitely flexible, and easily transmissible medium. The Thomas Walther Collection concentrates on that second moment of growth. The Walther Collection’s 341 photographs by almost 150 artists, most of them European, together convey a period of collective innovation that is now celebrated as one of the major episodes of modern art.

 

The Project

Our research is based on the premise that photographs of this period were not born as disembodied images; they are physical things – discrete objects made by certain individuals at particular moments using specific techniques and materials. Shaped by its origin and creation, the photographic print harbours clues to its maker and making, to the causes it may have served, and to the treatment it has received, and these bits of information, gathered through close examination of the print, offer fresh perspectives on the history of the era. “Object: Photo” – the title of this study – reflects this approach.

In 2010, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave the Museum a grant to encourage deep scholarly study of the Walther Collection and to support publication of the results. Led by the Museum’s Departments of Photography and Conservation, the project elicited productive collaborations among scholars, curators, conservators, and scientists, who investigated all of the factors involved in the making, appearance, condition, and history of each of the 341 photographs in the collection. The broadening of narrow specialisations and the cross-fertilisation between fields heightened appreciation of the singularity of each object and of its position within the history of its moment. Creating new standards for the consideration of photographs as original objects and of photography as an art form of unusually rich historical dimensions, the project affords both experts and those less familiar with its history new avenues for the appreciation of the medium. The results of the project are presented in multiple parts: on the website, in a hard-bound paper catalogue of the entire Thomas Walther Collection (also titled Object: Photo), and through an interdisciplinary symposium focusing on the ways in which the digital age is changing our engagement with historic photographs.

 

Historical Context

The Walther Collection is particularly suited to such a study because its photographs are so various in technique, geography, genre, and materials as to make it a mine of diverse data. The revolutions in technology that made the photography of this period so flexible and responsive to the impulse of the operator threw open the field to all comers. The introduction of the handheld Leica
 in 1925 (a small camera using strips of 35mm motion-picture film), of enlargers to make positive prints from the Leica’s little negatives, and of easy-to-use photographic papers – each of these was respectively a watershed event. Immediately sensing the potential of these tools, artists began to explore the medium; without any specialised training, painters such as László Moholy-Nagy and Aleksandr Rodchenko could become photographers and teachers almost overnight. Excitedly and with an open sense of possibility, they freely experimented in the darkroom and in the studio, producing negative prints, collages and photomontages, photograms, solarisations, and combinations of these. Legions of serious amateurs also began to photograph, and manufacturers produced more types of cameras with different dimensions and capacities: besides the Leica, there was the Ermanox, which could function in low light, motion-picture cameras that could follow and stop action, and many varieties of medium- and larger-format cameras that could be adapted for easy transport. The industry responded to the expanding range of users and equipment with a bonanza of photographic papers in an assortment of textures, colours, and sizes. Multiple purposes also generated many kinds of prints: best for reproduction in books or newspapers were slick, ferrotyped glossies, unmounted and small enough to mail, while photographs for exhibition were generally larger and mounted to stiff boards. Made by practitioners ranging from amateurs to professional portraitists, journalists, illustrators, designers, critics, and artists of all stripes, the pictures in the Walther Collection are a true representation of the kaleidoscopic multiplicity of photography in this period of diversification.

Text from the MoMA website

 

Willi Ruge. 'Photo of Myself at the Moment of My Jump' (Selbstfoto im Moment des Abspringens) 1931

 

Willi Ruge (German, 1882-1961)
Photo of Myself at the Moment of My Jump (Selbstfoto im Moment des Abspringens)
1931
Gelatin silver print
5 9/16 × 8 1/16″ (14.2 × 20.4cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

Willi Ruge. 'With My Head Hanging Down before the Parachute Opened . . .' (Mit dem Kopf nach unten hängend, bei ungeöffnetem Fallschirm . . .) 1931

 

Willi Ruge (German, 1882-1961)
With My Head Hanging Down before the Parachute Opened . . .
(Mit dem Kopf nach unten hängend, bei ungeöffnetem Fallschirm . . .)
1931
Gelatin silver print
5 1/2 × 8″ (14 × 20.3cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

Willi Ruge. 'Seconds before Landing' (Sekunden vor der Landung) 1931

 

Willi Ruge (German, 1882-1961)
Seconds before Landing (Sekunden vor der Landung)
From the series I Photograph Myself during a Parachute Jump (Ich fotografiere mich beim Absturz mit dem Fallschirm)
1931
Gelatin silver print
8 1/16 × 5 9/16″ (20.4 × 14.1cm) (irreg.)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

Willi Ruge. 'Seconds before Landing' (Sekunden vor der Landung) 1931 (detail)

 

Willi Ruge (German, 1882-1961)
Seconds before Landing (Sekunden vor der Landung) (detail)
From the series I Photograph Myself during a Parachute Jump (Ich fotografiere mich beim Absturz mit dem Fallschirm)
1931
Gelatin silver print
8 1/16 × 5 9/16″ (20.4 × 14.1cm) (irreg.)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

Robert Petschow. 'Lines of Modern Industry: Cooling Tower' (Linien der modernen Industrie: Kühlturmanlage) 1920-29

 

Robert Petschow (German, 1888-1945)
Lines of Modern Industry: Cooling Tower (Linien der modernen Industrie: Kühlturmanlage)
1920-29
Gelatin silver print
3 3/8 × 4 1/2″ (8.5 × 11.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Albert Renger-Patzsch, by exchange

 

Robert Petschow. 'The Course of the Mulde with Sand Deposits in the Curves' (Der Lauf der Mulde mit Versandungen in den Windungen) 1920-33

 

Robert Petschow (German, 1888-1945)
The Course of the Mulde with Sand Deposits in the Curves (Der Lauf der Mulde mit Versandungen in den Windungen)
1920-33
Gelatin silver print
3 3/8 × 4 1/2″ (8.5 × 11.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Albert Renger-Patzsch, by exchange

 

 

Robert Petschow (German, 1888-1945)

Robert Petschow was studying in Danzig as a free balloon pilot in the West Prussian air force. During the First World War Petschow was a balloon observer with the rank of lieutenant in Poland, France and Belgium. Maybe it was the work of a balloon observer which led him to photography, in which he was worked freelance from 1920. His images appeared in the prestigious photographic yearbook The German photograph in which he was presented with photographers such as Karl Blossfeldt, Albert Renger-Patzsch Chargesheimer and Erich Salomon. The book Land of the Germans, which was published in 1931 by Robert Diesel and includes many photographs of Petschow went on to be published in four editions. In 1931 he journeyed with the airship LZ 127, the “Graf Zeppelin” to Egypt. He participated as an unofficial member of the crew to document the trip photographically. In 1936, at the age of 48 years, Petschow joined the rank of captain in the Air Force and ended his work as a senior editor at the daily newspaper The West, a position he held from 1930. For the following years, there is no information to Petschow.

Robert Petschow died at the age of 57 years on 17 October 1945 in Haldensleben after he had to leave his apartment in Berlin-Steglitz due to the war. He left there a picture archive with about 30,000 aerial photographs, which fell victim of the war. His contemporaries describe Petschow as a humorous person and a great raconteur.

Translated from the German Wikipedia website

 

Aleksandr Rodchenko. 'Dive' (Pryzhok v vodu) 1934

 

Aleksandr Rodchenko (Russian, 1891-1956)
Dive (Pryzhok v vodu)
1934
Gelatin silver print
11 11/16 x 9 3/8″ (29.7 x 23.8cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Shirley C. Burden, by exchange

 

Aleksandr Rodchenko. 'Dive' (Pryzhok v vodu) 1934

 

Aleksandr Rodchenko (Russian, 1891-1956)
Dive (Pryzhok v vodu)
1934
Gelatin silver print
11 3/4 × 9 5/16″ (29.9 × 23.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Shirley C. Burden, by exchange

 

Leni Riefenstahl. 'Nocturnal Start of Decathlon 1,500m Race' (Nächtlicher Start zum 1500-m-Lauf des Zehnkampfes) August 1936

 

Leni Riefenstahl (German, 1902-2003)
Nocturnal Start of Decathlon 1,500m Race
(Nächtlicher Start zum 1500-m-Lauf des Zehnkampfes)

August 1936
Gelatin silver print 9 5/16 x 11 3/4″ (23.7 x 29.8cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Abbott-Levy Collection funds, by exchange

 

Leni Riefenstahl. 'Untitled' 1936

 

Leni Riefenstahl (German, 1902-2003)
Untitled
1936
Gelatin silver print
9 3/16 x 11 5/8″ (23.4 x 29.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Abbott-Levy Collection funds, by exchange

 

Kate Steinitz 'Backstroke' (Rückenschwimmerinnen) 1930

 

Kate Steinitz (American, born Germany 1889-1975)
Backstroke (Rückenschwimmerinnen)
1930
Gelatin silver print
10 1/2 × 13 7/16″ (26.6 × 34.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

 

The Modern World

Even before the introduction of the handheld Leica camera in 1925, photographers were avidly exploring fresh perspectives, shaped by the unique experience of capturing the world through a lens and ideally suited to express the tenor of modern life in the wake of World War I. Looking up and down, these photographers found unfamiliar points of view that suggested a new, dynamic visual language freed from convention. Improvements in the light sensitivity of photographic films and papers meant that photographers could capture motion as never before. At the same time, technological advances in printing resulted in an explosion of opportunities for photographers to present their work to ever-widening audiences. From inexpensive weekly magazines to extravagantly produced journals, periodicals exploited the potential of photographs and imaginative layouts, not text, to tell stories. Among the photographers on view in this section are Martin Munkácsi (American, born Hungary, 1896-1963), Leni Riefenstahl (German, 1902-2003), Aleksandr Rodchenko (Russian, 1891-1956), and Willi Ruge (German, 1882-1961).

 

Anne W. Brigman (American, born Hawaii 1869-1950) 'A Study in Radiation' 1924

 

Anne W. Brigman (American, born Hawaii 1869-1950)
A Study in Radiation
1924
Gelatin silver print
7 11/16 × 9 3/4″ (19.6 × 24.8cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Mrs. B. S. Sexton and Mina Turner, by exchange

 

Bernard Shea Horne. 'Untitled' 1916-17

 

Bernard Shea Horne (American, 1867-1933)
Untitled
1916-17
Platinum print
8 1/16 × 6 1/8″ (20.5 × 15.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

Bernard Shea Horne. 'Design' 1916-17

 

Bernard Shea Horne (American, 1867-1933)
Design
1916-17
Platinum print
7 15/16 x 6 1/8″ (20.2 x 15.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

 

Bernard Shea Horne (American, 1867-1933)

Bernard Shea Horne was the son of Joseph Horne, who built a legendary department store in Pittsburgh. The younger Horne retired from the family business when he was in his thirties and moved to northern Virginia to pursue his interests in golf and photography. In 1916 he enrolled at the Clarence H. White School of Photography, in New York, and became friends with one of its teachers, the avant-garde painter Max Weber. Horne produced numerous Weber-inspired design exercises, which he compiled into albums of twenty Platinum prints each. The four prints in the Thomas Walther Collection belonged to an album that he gave to Weber.

In 1917 Horne was elected president of the White School’s alumni association, a post he retained until 1925. In 1918 instructor Paul L. Anderson left the school, and Horne took his place as teacher of the technique class, a job he held until 1926. That a middle-aged man of independent means commuted to the school several days a week from Princeton, New Jersey, where he then lived with his two sons, suggests Horne’s devotion to White and his Pictorialist aims. During these years, Horne played a major role in the White School’s activities. In 1920 he was given a one-person show in the exhibition room of the school’s new building, a show that the alumni bulletin described as “interesting and varied in subject and technique, rich in bromoils, strong in design.” Supportive of the practical applications of artistic photography, in 1920 White joined his school to other institutions, including the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Art Directors Club, to form The Art Center in New York. In 1926 Horne was given a one-person show at The Art Center, which marked the end of his active association with the school.

Abbaspour, Mitra, Lee Ann Daffner, and Maria Morris Hambourg

 

Jarislav Rössler. 'Untitled' 1924

 

Jarislav Rössler (Czech, 1902-1990)
Untitled
1924
Pigment print
9 1/16 × 9 1/16″ (23 × 23 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel

 

 

Jarislav Rössler (Czech, 1902-1990)

Jaroslav Rössler (1902-1990) was one of the Czech avant-garde photographers of the first half of the twentieth century whose work has only recently become known outside Eastern Europe. Czech photography in the twenties and thirties produced radical modernist works that incorporated principles of abstract art and constructivism; Jaroslav Rossler was one of the most important and distinctive artists of the period. He became known for his fusing of different styles, bringing together elements of Symbolism, Pictorialism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, New Objectivity, and abstract art. His photographs often reduced images to elementary lines and shapes that seemed to form a new reality; he would photograph simple objects against a stark background of black and white, or use long exposures to picture hazy cones and spheres of light. From 1927 to 1935 he lived and worked in Paris, producing work influenced by constructivism and new objectivity. He used the photographic techniques and compositional approaches of the avant-garde, including photograms, large details, diagonal composition, photomontage, and double exposures, and experimented with colour advertising photographs and still lifes produced with the carbro print process. After his return to Prague, he was relatively inactive until the late 1950s, when he reconnected with Czech artistic and photographic trends of that period, including informalism. This book documents each stage of Rossler’s career with a generous selection of duotone images, some of which have never been published before. The photographs are accompanied by texts by Vladimir Birgus, Jan Mlcoch, Robert Silverio, Karel Srp, and Matthew Witkovsky.

Text from the Amazon website

 

Manuel Álvarez Bravo. 'A Fish Called Sierra' (Un pez que llaman sierra) 1944

 

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002)
A Fish Called Sierra (Un pez que llaman sierra)
1944
Gelatin silver print
9 1/2 x 7 1/4″ (24.1 x 18.4cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection
Edward Steichen Estate and gift of Mrs. Flora S. Straus, by exchange

 

Manuel Alvarez Bravo. 'Somewhat Gay and Graceful' (Un poco alegre y graciosa) 1942

 

Manuel Alvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002)
Somewhat Gay and Graceful (Un poco alegre y graciosa)
1942
Gelatin silver print
6 5/8 × 9 1/2″ (16.9 × 24.2cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Grace M. Mayer Fund

 

Manuel Alvarez Bravo. 'Day of Glory' (Día de gloria) 1940s

 

Manuel Alvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002)
Day of Glory (Día de gloria)
1940s
Gelatin silver print
6 3/4 × 9 1/2″ (17.2 × 24.2cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Grace M. Mayer Fund

 

Edward Weston. 'Steel: Armco, Middletown, Ohio' October 1922

 

Edward Weston (American, 1886-1958)
Steel: Armco, Middletown, Ohio
October 1922
Palladium print
9 1/16 × 6 7/8″ (23 × 17.4cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

 

In Edward Weston’s journals, which he began on his trip to Ohio and New York in fall 1922, the artist wrote of the exhilaration he felt while photographing the “great plant and giant stacks of the American Rolling Mill Company” in Middletown, Ohio. He then went to see the great photographer and tastemaker Alfred Stieglitz. Were he still publishing the magazine Camera Work, Stieglitz told him, he would have reproduced some of Weston’s recent images in it, including, in particular, one of his smokestacks. The photograph’s clarity and the photographer’s frank awe at the beauty of the brute industrial subject seemed clear signs of advanced modernist tendencies.

In moving away from the soft focus and geometric stylisation of his recent images, such as Attic of 1921 (MoMA 1902.2001), Weston was discovering a more straightforward approach, one of considered confrontation with the facts of the larger world much like that of his close friend Johan Hagemeyer, who was photographing such modern subjects as smokestacks, telephone wires, and advertisements. Shortly before his trip east, Weston had met R. M. Schindler, the Austrian architect, and had been excited by his unapologetically spare, modern house and its implications for art and design. Weston was also reading avant-garde European art magazines full of images and essays extolling machines and construction. Stimulated by these currents, Weston saw that by the time he got to Ohio he was “ripe to change, was changing, yes changed.”

The visit to Armco was the critical pivot, the hinge between Weston’s Pictorialist past and his modernist future. It marked a clear leave-taking from his bohemian circle in Los Angeles and the first step toward the cosmopolitan connections he made in New York and in Mexico City, where he moved a few months later to live with the Italian actress and artist Tina Modotti. The Armco photographs went with him and became talismans of the sea change, emblematic works that decorated his studio in Mexico, along with a Japanese print and a print by Picasso. When he sent a representation of his best work to the Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart in 1929, one of the smokestacks was included.

In the midst of such transformation, Weston maintained tried-and-true darkroom procedures. He had used an enlarger in earlier years but had abandoned the technique because he felt that too much information was lost in the projection. Instead he increasingly favoured contact printing. To make the smokestack print, Weston enlarged his 3 ¼ by 4 ¼ inch (8.3 by 10.8 centimeter) original negative onto an 8 by 10 inch (20.3 by 25.4 centimeter) interpositive transparency, which he contact printed to a second sheet of film in the usual way, creating the final 8 by 10 inch negative. Weston was frugal; he was known to economise by purchasing platinum and palladium paper by the roll from Willis and Clements in England and trimming it to size. He exposed a sheet of palladium paper to the sun through the negative and, after processing the print, finished it by applying aqueous retouching media to any flaws. The fragile balance of the photograph’s chemistry, however, is evinced in a bubble-shaped area of cooler tonality hovering over the central stacks. The print was in Modotti’s possession at the time of her death in Mexico City, in 1942.

Lee Ann Daffner, Maria Morris Hambourg

 

Edward Weston. 'Boat, San Francisco' 1925

 

Edward Weston (American, 1886-1958)
Boat, San Francisco
1925
Gelatin silver print
9 5/16 x 7 9/16″ (23.7 x 19.2cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Grace M. Mayer Fund

 

Edward Weston (American, 1886-1958) 'Tina' January 30, 1924

 

Edward Weston (American, 1886-1958)
Tina
January 30, 1924
Gelatin silver print
9 1/16 x 6 7/8″ (23 x 17.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Grace M. Mayer Fund and The Fellows of Photography Fund, by exchange

 

Karl Blossfeldt (German, 1865-1932) 'Acanthus mollis' (Acanthus mollis [Akanthus, Bärenklau. Deckblätter, die Blüten sind entfernt, in 4facher Vergrößerung]) 1898-1928

 

Karl Blossfeldt (German, 1865-1932)
Acanthus mollis (Acanthus mollis [Akanthus, Bärenklau. Deckblätter, die Blüten sind entfernt, in 4facher Vergrößerung])
1898-1928
Gelatin silver print
11 3/4 × 9 3/8″ (29.8 × 23.8cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

 

Purisms

The question of whether photography ought to be considered a fine art was hotly contested from its invention in 1839 into the 20th century. Beginning in the 1890s, in an attempt to distinguish their efforts from hoards of Kodak-wielding amateurs and masses of professionals, “artistic” photographers referred to themselves as Pictorialists. They embraced soft focus and painstakingly wrought prints so as to emulate contemporary prints and drawings, and chose subjects that underscored the ethereal effects of their methods. Before long, however, most avant-garde photographers had come to celebrate precise and distinctly photographic qualities as virtues. On both sides of the Atlantic, photographers were making this transition from Pictorialism to modernism, while occasionally blurring the distinction. Exhibition prints could be made with precious platinum or palladium, or matte surfaces that mimicked those materials. Perhaps nowhere is this variety more clearly evidenced than in the work of Edward Weston, whose suite of prints in this section suggests the range of appearances achievable with unadulterated contact prints from his large-format negatives. Other photographers on view include Karl Blossfeldt (German, 1865-1932), Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002), Jaromír Funke (Czech, 1896-1945), Bernard Shea Horne (American, 1867-1933), and Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946).

 

Alvin Langdon Coburn (American, 1882-1966) 'Vortograph' 1916-17

 

Alvin Langdon Coburn (American, 1882-1966)
Vortograph
1916-17
Gelatin silver print
11 1/8 x 8 3/8″ (28.2 x 21.2cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Grace M. Mayer Fund

 

 

Vortograph

The intricate patterns of light and line in this photograph, and the cascading tiers of crystalline shapes, were generated through the use of a kaleidoscopic contraption invented by the American / British photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, a member of London’s Vorticist group. To refute the idea that photography, in its helplessly accurate capture of scenes in the real world, was antithetical to abstraction, Coburn devised for his camera lens an attachment made up of three mirrors, clamped together in a triangle, through which he photographed a variety of surfaces to produce the results in these images. The poet and Vorticist Ezra Pound coined the term “vortographs” to describe Coburn’s experiments. Although Pound went on to criticise these images as lesser expressions than Vorticist paintings, Coburn’s work would remain influential.

 

Reinventing Photography – Here Comes New Photographer 

In 1925, László Moholy-Nagy articulated an idea that became central to the New Vision movement: although photography had been invented 100 years earlier, it was only now being discovered by the avant-garde circles for all its aesthetic possibilities. As products of technological culture, with short histories and no connection to the old fine-art disciplines – which many contemporary artists considered discredited – photography and cinema were seen as truly modern instruments that offered the greatest potential for transforming visual habits. From the photogram to solarisation, from negative prints to double exposures, the New Vision photographers explored the medium in countless ways, rediscovering known techniques and inventing new ones. Echoing the cinematic experiments of the same period, this emerging photographic vocabulary was rapidly adopted by the advertising industry, which appreciated the visual efficiency of its bold simplicity. Florence Henri (Swiss, born America, 1893-1982), Edward Quigley (American, 1898-1977), Franz Roh (German, 1890-1965), Franciszka Themerson and Stefan Themerson (British, born Poland, 1907-1988 and 1910-1988), and František Vobecký (Czech, 1902-1991) are among the numerous photographers represented here.

 

André Kertész. 'Magda, Mme Beöthy, M. Beöthy, and Unknown Guest, Paris' 1926-29

 

André Kertész (American, born Hungary 1894-1985)
Magda, Mme Beöthy, M. Beöthy, and Unknown Guest, Paris
1926-29
Gelatin silver print
3 1/8 × 3 7/8″ (7.9 × 9.8cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

André Kertész. 'Mondrian's Glasses and Pipe' 1926

 

André Kertész (American, born Hungary 1894-1985)
Mondrian’s Glasses and Pipe
1926
Gelatin silver print
3 1/8 × 3 11/16″ (7.9 × 9.3cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Grace M. Mayer Fund

 

Unknown Photographer. 'White Party, Dessau' (Weißes Fest, Dessau) March 20, 1926

 

Unknown Photographer
White Party, Dessau (Weißes Fest, Dessau)
March 20, 1926
Gelatin silver print
3 x 1 15/16″ (7.6 x 5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Acquired through the generosity of Howard Stein

 

Iwao Yamawaki. 'Lunch (12-2 p.m.)' (Mittagessen [12-2 Uhr]) 1931

 

Iwao Yamawaki (Japanese, 1898-1987)
Lunch (12-2 p.m.) (Mittagessen [12-2 Uhr])
1931
Gelatin silver print
6 7/16 × 4 5/8″ (16.3 × 11.7cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Abbott-Levy Collection funds, by exchange

 

Gertrud Arndt. 'At the Masters' Houses' (An den Meisterhäusern) 1929-30

 

Gertrud Arndt (German, 1903-2000)
At the Masters’ Houses (An den Meisterhäusern)
1929-30
Gelatin silver print
8 7/8 x 6 1/4″ (22.6 x 15.8cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

 

Gertrud Arndt (German, 1903-2000)

Gertrud Arndt (née Hantschk; 20 September 1903 – 10 July 2000) was a photographer associated with the Bauhaus movement. She is remembered for her pioneering series of self-portraits from around 1930.

Arndt’s photography, forgotten until the 1980s, has been compared to that of her contemporaries Marta Astfalck-Vietz and Claude Cahun. Over the five years when she took an active interest in photography, she captured herself and her friends in various styles, costumes and settings in the series known as Masked Portraits. Writing for Berlin Art Link, Angela Connor describes the images as “ranging from severe to absurd to playful.” Today Arndt is considered to be a pioneer of female self-portraiture, long predating Cindy Sherman and Sophie Calle.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Iwao Yamawaki (Japanese, 1898-1987) 'Untitled' 1931

 

Iwao Yamawaki (Japanese, 1898-1987)
Untitled
1931
Gelatin silver print
8 11/16 x 6 1/2″ (22 x 16.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Abbott-Levy Collection funds, by exchange

 

Hajo Rose. 'Untitled (Self-Portrait)' 1931

 

Hajo Rose (German, 1910-1989)
Untitled (Self-Portrait)
1931
Gelatin silver print
9 7/16 × 7 1/16″ (23.9 × 17.9cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

 

Hajo Rose (German, 1910-1989)

‘Finally – a house made of steel and glass!’ This was the enthusiastic reaction of Hajo Rose (1910-1989) to the Bauhaus building in Dessau when he began his studies there in 1930. Rose promoted the methods of the Bauhaus throughout his lifetime: as a lecturer at universities in Amsterdam, Dresden and Leipzig, and also as an artist and photographer.

Hajo Rose experimented with a wide variety of materials and techniques. The photomontage of his self-portrait combined with the Dessau Bauhaus building (c. 1930), the surrealism of his photograph Seemannsbraut (Sailor’s Bride, 1934), and the textile print designs that he created with a typewriter (1932) are examples of the extraordinary creativity of this artist. He also contributed to an advertising campaign for the Jena Glass Company: the first heat-resistant household glassware stood for modern product design and is still regarded as a kitchen classic today.

Shortly before the Bauhaus was closed, Hajo Rose was one of the last students to receive his diploma. Subsequent periods in various cities shaped his biography, which is a special example of the migratory experience shared by many Bauhaus members after 1933. After one year as an assistant in the Berlin office of László Moholy-Nagy, Hajo Rose immigrated to The Netherlands together with Paul Guermonprez, a Bauhaus colleague, in 1934. He worked there as a commercial artist and taught at the Nieuwe Kunstschool in Amsterdam. At the 1937 World Exposition in Paris, he won an award for his poster ‘Amsterdam’. After the Second World War, Rose worked as a graphic designer, photographer and teacher in Dresden and Leipzig. He continued to advocate Bauhaus ideas in the GDR, even though the Bauhaus was regarded in East Germany as bourgeois and formalistic well into the 1960s. Rose resigned from the Socialist Unity Party (SED) – in spite of the loss of his teaching position as a consequence. From that time, he worked as one of the few freelance graphic designers in the GDR. Hajo Rose died at the age of 79 – shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

Edward Steichen (American, born Luxembourg 1879-1973) 'Gertrude Lawrence' 1928

 

Edward Steichen (American, born Luxembourg 1879-1973)
Gertrude Lawrence
1928
Gelatin silver print
9 7/16 × 7 9/16″ (24 × 19.2cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Edward Steichen Estate and gift of Mrs. Flora S. Straus, by exchange

 

 

The Artist’s Life

Photography is particularly well suited to capturing the distinctive nuances of the human face, and photographers delighted in and pushed the boundaries of portraiture throughout the 20th century. The Thomas Walther Collection features a great number of portraits of artists and self-portraits as varied as the individuals portrayed. Additionally, the collection conveys a free-spirited sense of community and daily life, highlighted here with photographs made by André Kertész and by students and faculty at the Bauhaus. When the Hungarian-born Kertész moved to Paris in 1925, he couldn’t afford to purchase photographic paper, so he would print on less expensive postcard stock. These prints, whose small scale requires that the viewer engage with them intimately, function as miniature windows into the lives of Kertész’s bohemian circle of friends. The group of photographs made at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s, before the medium was formally integrated into the school’s curriculum, similarly expresses friendships and everyday life captured and printed in an informal manner. Portraits by Claude Cahun (French, 1894-1954), Lotte Jacobi (American, born Germany, 1896-1990), Lucia Moholy (British, born Czechoslovakia, 1894-1989), Man Ray (American, 1890-1976), August Sander (German, 1876-1964) and Edward Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879-1973) are among the highlights of this gallery.

 

Aenne Biermann. 'Summer Swimming' (Sommerbad) 1925-30

 

Aenne Biermann (German, 1898-1933)
Summer Swimming (Sommerbad)
1925-30
Gelatin silver print
7 x 7 7/8″ (17.8 x 20cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Bequest of Ilse Bing, by exchange

 

 

Aenne Biermann (German, 1898-1933)

Aenne Biermann (March 8, 1898 – January 14, 1933), born Anna Sibilla Sternfeld, was a German photographer of Ashkenazi origin. She was one of the major proponents of New Objectivity, a significant art movement that developed in Germany in the 1920s.

Biermann was a self-taught photographer. Her first subjects were her two children, Helga and Gershon. The majority of Biermann’s photographs were shot between 1925 and 1933. Gradually she became one of the major proponents of New Objectivity, an important art movement in the Weimar Republic. Her work became internationally known in the late 1920s, when it was part of every major exhibition of German photography.

Major exhibitions of her work include the Munich Kunstkabinett, the Deutscher Werkbund and the exhibition of Folkwang Museum in 1929. Other important exhibitions include the exhibition entitled Das Lichtbild held in Munich in 1930 and the 1931 exhibition at the Palace of Fine Arts (French: Palais des Beaux Arts) in Brussels. Since 1992 the Museum of Gera has held an annual contest for the Aenne Biermann Prize for Contemporary German Photography, which is one of the most important events of its kind in Germany.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Helmar Lerski. 'Metamorphosis 601' (Metamorphose 601) 1936

 

Helmar Lerski (Swiss, born Germany 1871-1956)
Metamorphosis 601 (Metamorphose 601)
1936
Gelatin silver print
11 7/16 × 9 1/16″ (29 × 23cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. The Family of Man Fund

 

 

Helmar Lerski (Swiss, born Germany 1871-1956)

There can hardly be another name in the international history of photography whose work has been so frequently misunderstood and so controversially evaluated as that of Helmar Lerski (1871-1956). “In every human being there is everything; the question is only what the light falls on”. Guided by this conviction, Lerski took portraits that did not primarily strive for likeness but which left scope for the viewer’s imagination, thus laying himself open to the criticism of betraying the veracity of the photographic image.

… Lerski’s pictures were only partly in line with the maxims of the New Photography, and they questioned the validity of pure objectivity. The distinguishing characteristics of his portraits included a theatrical-expressionistic, sometimes dramatic use of lighting inspired by the silent film. Although his close-up photographs captured the essential features of a face – eyes, nose and mouth –, his primary concern was not individual appearance or superficial likeness but the deeper inner potential: he emphasised the changeability, the different faces of an individual. Lerski, who sympathised with the political left wing, thereby infiltrated the photography of types that was practised  (and not infrequently misused for racist purposes) by many of Lerski’s contemporaries.

… Helmar Lerski’s attitude was at its most radical in his work entitled Metamorphosis. This was completed within a few months at the beginning of 1936 in Palestine, to where Lerski and his second wife Anneliese had immigrated in 1932. In Verwandlungen durch Licht (this is the second title for this work), Lerski carried his theatrical talent to extremes. With the help of up to 16 mirrors and filters, he directed the natural light of the sun in constant new variations and refractions onto his model, the Bernese-born, at the time out-of-work structural draughtsman and light athlete Leo Uschatz. Thus he achieved, in a series of over 140 close-ups “hundreds of different faces, including that of a hero, a prophet, a peasant, a dying soldier, an old woman and a monk from one single original face” (Siegfried Kracauer). According to Lerski, these pictures were intended to provide proof “that the lens does not have to be objective, that the photographer can, with the help of light, work freely, characterise freely, according to his inner face.” Contrary to the conventional idea of the portrait as an expression of human identity, Lerski used the human face as a projection surface for the figures of his imagination. We are only just becoming aware of the modernity of this provocative series of photographs.

Peter Pfrunder
Fotostiftung Schweiz

 

Max Burchartz. 'Lotte (Eye)' (Lotte [Auge]) 1928

 

Max Burchartz (German, 1887-1961)
Lotte (Eye) (Lotte [Auge])
1928
Gelatin silver print
11 7/8 x 15 3/4″ (30.2 x 40cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Acquired through the generosity of Peter Norton

 

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. 'Anna Oderfeld, Zakopane' 1911-12

 

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Polish, 1885-1939)
Anna Oderfeld, Zakopane
1911-12
Gelatin silver print 6 11/16 × 4 3/4″ (17 × 12.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Mrs. Willard Helburn, by exchange

 

Edmund Kesting. 'Glance to the Sun' (Blick zur Sonne) 1928

 

Edmund Kesting (German, 1892-1970)
Glance to the Sun (Blick zur Sonne)
1928
Gelatin silver print
13 1/16 x 14 1/2″ (33.2 x 36.8cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

 

Edmund Kesting (German, 1892-1970)

Edmund Kesting (27 July 1892, Dresden – 21 October 1970, Birkenwerder) was a German photographer, painter and art professor. He studied until 1916 at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts before participating as a soldier in the First World War, upon returning his painting teachers were Richard Müller and Otto Gussmann and in 1919 he began to teach as a professor at the private school Der Weg. In 1923 he had his first exposition in the gallery Der Sturm in which he showed photograms. When Der Weg opened a new academy in Berlin in 1927, he moved to the capital.

He formed relations with other vanguardists in Berlin and practiced various experimental techniques such as solarisation, multiple images and photograms, for which reason twelve of his works were considered degenerate art by the Nazi regime and were prohibited. Among the artists with whom he interacted are Kurt Schwitters, László Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky and Alexander Archipenko. At the end of World War II he formed part of a Dresden artistic group known as Künstlergruppe der ruf – befreite Kunst (Call to an art in freedom) along with Karl von Appen, Helmut Schmidt-Kirstein and Christoph Hans, among others. In this city he made an experimental report named Dresdner Totentanz (Dance of death in Dresden) as a condemnation of the bombing of the city. In 1946 he was named a member of the Academy of Art in the city.

He participated in the controversy between socialist realism and formalism that took place in the German Democratic Republic, therefore his work was not realist and could not be shown in the country between 1949 and 1959. In 1955 he began to experiment with chemical painting, making photographs without the use of a camera and only with the use of chemical products such as the developer and the fixer and photographic paper, for which he made exposures to light using masks and templates. Between 1956 and 1967 he was a professor at the Academy of Cinema and Television of Potsdam.

His artistic work was not recognised by the authorities of the German Democratic Republic until 1980, ten years after his death.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Maurice Tabard. 'Am I Beautiful?' (Suis-je belle?) 1929

 

Maurice Tabard (French, 1897-1984)
Am I Beautiful? (Suis-je belle?)
1929
Gelatin silver print
9 5/16 × 6 15/16″ (23.6 × 17.7cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Shirley C. Burden, by exchange

 

 

Between Surrealism and Magic Realism

In the mid-1920s, European artistic movements ranging from Surrealism to New Objectivity moved away from a realist approach by highlighting the strange in the familiar or trying to reconcile dreams and reality. Echoes of these concerns, centred on the human figure, can be found in this gallery. Some photographers used anti-naturalistic methods – capturing hyperreal, close-up details; playing with scale; and rendering the body as landscape – to challenge the viewer’s perception. Others, in line with Sigmund Freud’s definition of “the uncanny” as an effect that results from the blurring of distinctions between the real and the fantastic, offered visual plays on life and the lifeless, the animate and the inanimate, confronting the human body with surrogates in the form of dolls, mannequins, and masks. Photographers influenced by Surrealism, such as Maurice Tabard, subjected the human figure to distortions and transformations by experimenting with photographic techniques either while capturing the image or while developing it in the darkroom. Additional photographers on view include Aenne Biermann (German, 1898-1933), Jacques-André Boiffard (French, 1902-1961), Max Burchartz (German, 1887-1961), Helmar Lerski (Swiss, 1871-1956), and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Polish, 1885-1939)

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Daily News Building, 220 East 42nd Street, Manhattan' November 21, 1935

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Daily News Building, 220 East 42nd Street, Manhattan
November 21, 1935
Gelatin silver print
9 5/8 × 7 1/2″ (24.4 × 19.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Abbott-Levy Collection funds, by exchange

 

Marjorie Content. 'Steamship Pipes, Paris' Winter 1931

 

Marjorie Content (American, 1895-1984)
Steamship Pipes, Paris
Winter 1931
Gelatin silver print
3 13/16 × 2 11/16″ (9.7 × 6.8cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Andreas Feininger, by exchange

 

 

Marjorie Content (American, 1895-1984)

Marjorie Content (1895-1984) was an American photographer active in modernist social and artistic circles. Her photographs were rarely published and never exhibited in her lifetime, but have become of interest to collectors and art historians. Her work has been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Chrysler Museum of Art; it has been the subject of several solo exhibitions. (Wikipedia)

Marjorie Content (1895-1984) was a modest and unpretentious photographer who kept her work largely to herself, never published or exhibited. Overshadowed by such close friends as Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, she was more comfortable as a muse and source of encouragement for others, including her fourth husband, poet Jean Toomer. This text presents her beautiful, varied photographs and provides a glimpse into her life. Her pictures portray a variety of images including: New York’s frenetic cityscape distilled to essential patterns and rhythms; the Southwestern light and heat along with the strength and dignity of the Taos pueblo culture; and cigarettes and other everyday items arranged in jewel-like compositions. The discovery of the quality and extent of her work is proof that an artist’s determination can surmount a lack of recognition in her lifetime.

Text from the Amazon website

 

Walker Evans. 'Votive Candles, New York City' 1929-30

 

Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975)
Votive Candles, New York City
1929-30
Gelatin silver print
8 1/2 x 6 15/16″ (21.6 x 17.7cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Willard Van Dyke and Mr. and Mrs. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., by exchange

 

Georgii Zimin. 'Untitled' 1926

 

Georgii Zimin (Russian, 1900-1985)
Untitled
1926
Gelatin silver print
3 11/16 x 3 1/4″ (9.4 x 8.3cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

 

Georgii Zimin (Russian, 1900-1985)

Georgii Zimin was born in Moscow in 1900, where he lived and worked for his entire life. Before the Russian Revolution he enrolled as a student at the Artistic-Industrial Stroganov Institute, known after 1918 as SVOMAS (Free state art studios). Zimin continued his studies at VKhUTEMAS (Higher state artistic and technical studios), which replaced SVOMAS in 1920. It was during his time at the school that he published the portfolio Skrjabin in Lukins Tanz (Scriabin in Lukin’s dance), in an edition of one hundred. This set of Cubo-Futurist lithographs from 1922 features costumed dancers in erotic poses, complementing a ballet choreographed by Lev Lukin. This work garnered Zimin acknowledgment by the Academy of Arts and Sciences and marked his affiliation with the Russian Art of Movement group. Throughout the 1920s he showed regularly at Art of Movement exhibitions at GAKhN (State academy for artistic sciences), in Moscow. Zimin also experimented with photography in the late 1920s and early 1930s, producing photograms akin to those made by László Moholy-Nagy and others at the time. Later in life, he served as Art Director of Exhibitions at the Department of Trade and held a post at the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition.

~ Ksenia Nouril

 

Umbo (Otto Umbehr) 'Mystery of the Street' (Mysterium der Strasse) 1928

 

Umbo (Otto Umbehr) (German, 1902-1980)
Mystery of the Street (Mysterium der Strasse)
1928
Gelatin silver print
11 7/16 x 9 1/4″ (29 x 23.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Shirley C. Burden, by exchange

 

 

Umbo (Otto Umbehr) (German, 1902-1980)

Trained at the Bauhaus under Johannes Itten, a master of expressivity, Berlin-based photographer Umbo (born Otto Umbehr) believed that intuition was the source of creativity. To this belief, he added Constructivist structural strategies absorbed from Theo Van Doesburg, El Lissitzky, and others in Berlin in the early twenties. Their influence is evident in this picture’s diagonal, abstract construction and its spatial disorientation. It is also classic Umbo, encapsulating his intuitive vision of the world as a resource of poetic, often funny, ironic, or dark bulletins from the social unconscious.

After he left the Bauhaus, Umbo worked as assistant to Walther Ruttmann on his film Berlin, Symphony of a Great City 1926. In 1928, photographing from his window either very early or very late in the day and either waiting for his “actors” to achieve a balanced composition or, perhaps, positioning them as a movie director would, Umbo exposed three negatives. He had an old 5 by 7 inch (12.7 by 17.8 centimeter) stand camera and a 9 by 12 centimeter (3 9/16 by 4 ¾ inch) Deckrullo Contessa-Nettle camera, but which he used for these overhead views is not known, as he lost all his prints and most negatives in the 1943 bombing of Berlin. The resulting images present a world in which the shadows take the active role. Umbo made the insubstantial rule the corporeal and the dark dominate the light through a simple but inspired inversion: he mounted the pictures upside down (note the signature in ink in the lower right).

In 1928-29, Umbo was a founding photographer at Dephot (Deutscher Photodienst), a seminal photography agency in Berlin dedicated to creating socially relevant and visually fascinating photoessays, an idea originated by Erich Solomon. Simon Guttmann, who directed the business, hired creative nonconformists, foremost among them the bohemian Umbo, who slept in the darkroom; Umbo in turn drew the brothers Lore Feininger and Lyonel Feininger to the agency, which soon also boasted Robert Capa and Felix H. Man. Dephot hired Dott, the best printer in Berlin, and it was he who made the large exhibition prints, such as this one, ordered by New York gallerist Julien Levy when he visited the agency in 1931. Umbo showed thirty-nine works, perhaps also printed by Dott, in the 1929 exhibition Film und Foto, and he put Guttmann in touch with the Berlin organizer of the show; accordingly, Dephot was the source for some images in the accompanying book, Es kommt der neue Fotograf! (Here comes the new photographer!). Levy introduced Umbo’s photographs to New York in Surréalisme (January 1932) and showcased them again at the Julien Levy Gallery, together with images by Herbert Bayer, Jacques-André Boiffard, Roger Parry, and Maurice Tabard, in his 1932 exhibition Modern European Photography.

Maria Morris Hambourg, Hanako Murata

 

Umbo (Otto Umbehr). 'Six at the Beach' (Sechs am Strand) 1930

 

Umbo (Otto Umbehr) (German, 1902-1980)
Six at the Beach (Sechs am Strand)
1930
Gelatin silver print
9 3/8 × 7 1/8″ (23.8 × 18.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Shirley C. Burden, by exchange

 

Alvin Langdon Coburn. 'The Octopus' 1909

 

Alvin Langdon Coburn (American, 1882-1966)
The Octopus
1909
Gelatin silver print
22 1/8 × 16 3/4″
(56.2 × 42.6cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

 

 

Dynamics of the City – Symphony of a Great City 

In his 1928 manifesto “The Paths of Contemporary Photography,” Aleksandr Rodchenko advocated for a new photographic vocabulary that would be more in step with the pace of modern urban life and the changes in perception it implied. Rodchenko was not alone in this quest: most of the avant-garde photographers of the 1920s and 1930s were city dwellers, striving to translate the novel and shocking experience of everyday life into photographic images. Equipped with newly invented handheld cameras, they used unusual vantage points and took photos as they moved, struggling to re-create the constant flux of images that confronted the pedestrian. Reflections in windows and vitrines, blurry images of quick motions, double exposures, and fragmentary views portray the visual cacophony of the metropolis. The work of Berenice Abbott (American, 1898- 1991), Alvin Langdon Coburn (American, 1882-1966), Germanie Krull (Dutch, born Germany, 1897-1985), Alexander Hackenschmied (Czech, 1907-2004), Umbo (German, 1902-1980), and Imre Kinszki (Hungarian, 1901-1945) is featured in this final gallery.

 

 

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17
Sep
13

Exhibition: ‘Lifelike’ at The Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas

Exhibition dates: 23rd June – 22nd September 2013

 

Daniel Douke. 'Ace' 1979

 

Daniel Douke (American, b. 1943)
Ace
1979
Acrylic on masonite
8 x 8 x 12 1/4 in.
Courtesy Minnesota Museum of American Art, Saint Paul

 

 

Life (like).

.
“For the French theorist Jean Baudrillard, this consciousness of construction finds its most powerful expression in the concept of hyperreality. To appreciate Baudrillard’s view, recall the treatment of literary deconstruction… Deconstruction therorists propose that words gain their meaning through their reference to other words; literary works gain their significance by the way they are related to other writings. Thus language does not derive its character from reality, but from other language. Now consider the media – newspapers, television, the movies, radio. For Baudrillard, media portrayals of the world are not driven by the way the world “is,” but by the steadily emerging histories of portrayal itself. As these histories unfold, each new lamination is influenced by the preceding, accounts are layered upon accounts, and reality is transformed into hyperreality. For example, Baudrillard asks, what is the reality of the “Holocaust”? One cannot deny that certain events took place, but as time goes on these events become subject to myriad re-presentations. Diaries become subject to redefinition by television and movies; biographies influence the writing of historical novels; narrated history is transformed into plays, and each “telling” lays the experiental groundwork for subsequent retellings. Realities accumulate, accentuate, interpenetrate, and ultimately create the world of hyperreality – itself in continuous evolution into the future. We feel we possess an intimate acquaintance of the events in themselves; they are sharply etched in our consciousness. For Baudrillard, however, this consciousness moves increasingly toward hyperreality.

And thus the culture opens to the possibility of selves as artifacts of hyperreality. As political events, health and illness, and world history slip from the realm of the concrete into the domain of representation, so a commitment to obdurate selves becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. What, after all, is the reality of our motives, intentions, thoughts, attitudes, and the like? …

As we find, the current texts of the self are built upon those of preceding eras, and they in turn upon more distant forms of discourse. In the end we have no way of “getting down to the self as it is.” And thus we edge toward the more unsettling question: On what grounds can we assume that beneath the layers of accumulated understandings there is, in fact, an obdurate “self” to be located? The object of understanding has been absorbed into the world of representations.”

Gergen, Kenneth. The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Harper Collins, 1991, pp.121-122.

.
Many thankx to The Blanton Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the artwork in this posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the art.

 

 

Evan Penny. '(Old) No One – in Particular #6, Series 2' 2005

 

Evan Penny (South African, b. 1953)
(Old) No One – in Particular #6, Series 2
2005
Silicone, pigment, hair, aluminium
40 x 32 x 7 1/2 in.
© Evan Penny
Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

 

Vija Celmins. 'Eraser' 1967

 

Vija Celmins (Latvian American, b. 1938)
Eraser
1967
Acrylic on balsa wood
6 5/8 x 20 x 3 1/8 in.
Collection Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA
Gift of Avco Financial Services, Newport Beach

 

Maurizio Cattelan. 'Untitled' 2001

 

Maurizio Cattelan (Italian, b. 1960)
Untitled
2001
Stainless steel, composition wood, electric motor, electric light, electric bell, computer
23 1/2 x 33 5/8 x 18 5/8 in.
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

 

Keith Edmier. 'Bremen Towne' 2008

 

Keith Edmier (American, b. 1967)
Bremen Towne
2008
Installation dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery

 

 

Bremen Towne was an idea I’d been thinking about prior to [my 2008] show at Bard College. It had been floating in my head for a number of years based on the sales brochure of my parents’ home I had obtained around 1999 off of eBay. It was just one of these things I had around… I didn’t really have the idea of constructing this house back then… As it turned out, the interior dimensions of my parents’ home from the original blueprints fit directly into one of the galleries at the museum. At that point I started considering it more as an art object, or as a sculpture more than an installation… The main visual references were family photographs, mostly taken during critical events or holidays or birthday parties. My process involved going through the photo album – everything. They were all pictures of people posing, so I started looking at the spaces [in the background]… I ended up buying the whole decade of both Sears and JCPenney catalogues up until that time, the early ’70s. Through that I was able to identify some products based on visual descriptions or in the family photographs… I initially went to a place that has all kinds of wallpapers and floorings from other periods, used a lot for movies and things like that. I heard they had thousands of wallpapers. It turned out I couldn’t find the exact wallpaper that was in the house. I guess at that point I started thinking it was more interesting for me to remake it, and to remake it more or less new. I wanted to represent the time element, the moment before the day of the family moving into the new house. It wasn’t supposed to look lived in.

I think I was initially interested in doing that to have some kind of separation from taking a real object that was loaded with personal history or some sentimental thing. It was a way of moving from a subjective to an objective position… [I was interested] in just thinking about the whole interior of the house itself as a cast, or this negative space. I thought about how the house is essentially the space that shapes us, that shapes oneself… I think that my reason to make it, or to make almost anything, went beyond just the visual aspects of it, or the idea of re-creating an illusion of the thing. I’ve always been more interested in a certain level of representation or pictorial literalness… I like words or descriptions like “actual” or “actual scale.” I like the idea of “what is real?”

Keith Edmier

Siri Engberg. “Unconventionally Real: Nine Artists Discuss Their Work in Lifelike,” on the Walker Art Center website Mar 1, 2012 [Online] Cited 20/12/2020

 

 

The exhibition Lifelike, on view at the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin June 23 to September 22, 2013, invites a close examination of artworks based on commonplace objects and situations, which are startlingly realistic, but often made of unusual materials in unexpected sizes.

Organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, this international, multigenerational group exhibition features 75 works from the 1960s to the present by leading figures in contemporary art, such as Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, James Casebere, Vija Celmins, Keith Edmier, Robert Gober, Ron Mueck, Mungo Thomson, and Ai Weiwei, and illuminates artists’ enduring fascination with realism.

Avoiding the flashiness embraced by 1960s Pop Artists and the slick urban scenes introduced at that time by the Photorealists, the contemporary artists in Lifelike investigate often overlooked items and moments as subject matter: a paper bag, an eraser, an apple core, a waiting roo, an afternoon nap. Favouring a handmade, labour intensive practice rather than technological enhancements, the works in the exhibition – including painting, sculpture, photography, drawing and video – transform the seemingly ordinary into something beguiling, loaded with narrative and metaphor.

The exhibition explores the many ways artists have pursued realism through a range of media. Some artists featured, such as Vija Celmins, Chuck Close, and Peter Rostovsky, paint from photographs, creating works that exhibit an astonishing degree of likeness and detail. Others work in sculpture often fashioning objects from materials that belie the pedestrian nature of the subject – Ai Weiwei’s jar of hundreds of sunflower seeds, hand painted on to cast porcelain, or Tom Friedman’s bee, made out of clay, plastic, and paint. In photography, artists including James Casebere and Isaac Layman play with the hyperreal, through fabricated scenes or clever layering of images. In video, artists including Thomas Demand and Jeon Joonho create moving images that at first seem familiar, but deceive us through sly use of animation.

Conspicuously absent in most of the works in Lifelike is a reliance on technological intervention. Instead, in seemingly inverse proportion to the ease of producing goods for the marketplace, many artists are slowing and complicating their own working methods, remaking banal things into objects of fixation and desire: Catherine Murphy’s details of textured fabric on the seat of a chair, or Ron Mueck’s strikingly “real” sculpture – down to the last hair and pore – of human subjects. Frequently these artists work from photographs, but just as often, their inspiration is the observed world, and the notion that a tangible, perhaps ephemeral object or moment can somehow be brought back to life æ reinterpreted through the artist’s hand as re-made readymades.

To address the nuances of this subject, the exhibition presents several key conceptual sections:

Common Objects gathers a group of late 1960s and early 1970s works that borrowed strategies from Pop, but rejected that movement’s brand-name emphasis in favour of conceptual, more process-oriented approaches to subject matter.

Another section presents the notion of  The Uncanny, which features work by a generation of artists in the 1980s and 1990s who inflected realism with a psychologically-laden, surreal sensibility, such as Robert Gober’s child-sized chair and flower-covered box of tissues, resting mysteriously atop a floor drain; or Charles Ray’s disarming photograph of himself as a mannequin.

A third section entitled Realism into Abstraction presents a range of works by artists such as Peter Rostovsky, Catherine Murphy and Tauba Auerbach, in which lushly painted surfaces such as velvet curtains, the seat of a chair, and other ordinary items are cropped in such a way that they resemble abstract paintings, their original sources difficult to discern.

Handmade Sleight of Hand, the fourth section, presents work by artists who make objects that are indistinguishable from their real-life counterparts, but made with the traditional techniques of painting, sculpture, or drawing. Highlights include Jud Nelson’s trash bag carved from Carrara marble and Susan Collis’s checkered plastic shopping bag painstakingly rendered in ballpoint pen on paper.

A fifth section, Special Effects: The Real as Spectacle, presents artists making work that engages an instant response – be it astonishment, fear, confusion, or delight – through their surprising size or unusual installation.

Press release from The Blanton Museum of Art website

 

Peter Rostovsky. 'Curtain' 2010

 

Peter Rostovsky (Russian)
Curtain
2010
Oil on linen
72 x 48 in.
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

What does it mean in Warholian fashion to “want to be a machine,” to long for a kind of inhumanity that has to be constantly performed and repeated? Is this not a radical disavowal of an all too human vulnerability? Can we not read in the mechanical appeals of photorealism a kind of excessive sentimentality, a naïve expressionism that uses the camera and the photograph as a shield against trauma?

And likewise in expressionism’s hyperbolic restatement of its humanity, is there not a silent concession to its opposite, a founding anxiety about inauthenticity, a mortal dread regarding the total triumph of simulation and technology?

However, it is important to stress that these are unfulfilled desires. No photorealist painting completely fools the viewer into the fact that it is machine-made; it entertains the fantasy, much like electronic music. And each autonomous artwork is only a temporary escape, a utopian space, “an orchid in the land of technology,” to borrow a phrase that Walter Benjamin applied to the illusion of reality in film.

What these two positions in fact represent are two negative theologies that stand as sentinels, forever pointing to and away from a traumatically unresolved subject position – a position of the never sufficiently technological, and the never completely human. They are both Romantic positions and should be read as such: as positions of longing and disavowal, not of identity.

Why would this be important to emphasise? Because it answers the familiar question asked to every painter painting photographs. It’s not about the ends, it’s about the means. It’s about the performance of painting that re-states the position, not the photo-like product that it yields. In other words, it’s about trying and failing to be a machine. Therein resides the futility and poetic nature of the practice. The failure marks the fragility and evanescence of the subject negatively, knowing that the alternative is to misname, to misrepresent, to conjure the opposite. This poetic is more latent, and seldom acknowledged in art that aspires toward indifference and inhumanity, but I hope that I have shown that every tin man has a heart, just like every photorealist hides an abstract painter.

Peter Rostovsky

Siri Engberg. “Unconventionally Real: Nine Artists Discuss Their Work in Lifelike,” on the Walker Art Center website Mar 1, 2012 [Online] Cited 20/12/2020

 

Matt Johnson. 'American Spirit' 2010

 

Matt Johnson (American, b. 1978)
American Spirit
2010
Paper, plastic, foam, paint, and magnets
1 x 3 1/2 x 2 1/4 in.
Edition of 3
Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
Photo credit: Joshua White
© Matt Johnson

 

Ron Mueck. 'Untitled (Seated Woman)' 1999

 

Ron Mueck (Australian, b. 1958)
Untitled (Seated Woman)
1999
Silicone, acrylic, polyurethane foam and fabric
25 1/4 x 17 x 16 1/2 in.
Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

 

Alex Hay. 'Paper Bag' 1968

 

Alex Hay (American, b. 1930)
Paper Bag
1968
Fiberglass, epoxy, paint, and paper
59 1/4 x 29 x 18 in.
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
© Alex Hay
Courtesy of the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., New York Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson

 

Jonathan Seliger. 'Heartland' 2010

 

Jonathan Seliger (American, b. 1955)
Heartland
2010
Enamel on bronze
103 x 29 x 29 in.
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY

 

Yoshihiro Suda. 'Weeds' 2008

 

Yoshihiro Suda (Japanese, b. 1969)
Weeds
2008
Painted on wood
Size varied according to site
© Yoshihiro Suda
Courtesy of Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo

 

 

The Blanton Museum of Art
200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Austin, TX 78712

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Friday 10am – 5pm
Saturday 11am – 5pm
Sunday 1pm-5pm

The Blanton Museum of Art 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, 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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