joi, 2 februarie 2012
Lewis Hine, American, 1874-1940
Lewis Hine, who was best known for his use of photography as a means to achieve social reform, was first a teacher of botany and nature studies at the
Hine's interest in social welfare and in reform movements led him in 1905 to begin his first documentary series; immigrants on
Hine's photographs were used to make lantern slides for lectures and to illustrate pamphlets, magazine articles, and exhibitions. Through his photographs, Hine was able to inspire social change. His photos documenting the horrid conditions under which children were employed, made real the plight of these children. This led to the passage of child labor laws. Not only did Hine document the horrors of work, he also depicted the dignity of labor. This is best seen in his photos of the construction of the
Picturing the immigrant
Introduction from Inventing
By Gabriella Ibieta and Miles Orvell
St. Martin's, 1996 (pp. 466-467)
The "foreignness" of the immigrant has often been exaggerated in drawings and cartoons carried by the popular press and in advertisements. . . . Such negative images of ethnic and racial minorities have created and reinforced barriers to social progress and integration. At the same time, however, the plight of the imigrants (who were crowded into tiny apartments; restricted, for all practical purposes, to the ghettos of the cities and forced to work for substandard wages) became of great concern to a group of reformers and progressive social critics around the turn of the century. These critics and reformers fought for better working conditions, better housing, and better education for American immigrants. One such reformer was the photographer Lewis Hine (1874-1940), who began photographing the immigrants on
Hine was born in
One of Hine's strongest interests was the immigrants who were coming through
Hine was working within a tradition of documentarypPhotography that had been established in the late 1880s by Jacob Riss, who also focused on social conditions on Mantattan's
Using a box-type 5 x 7 camera on a tripod, Hine provided photographic images to various social agencies and published his work as illustrations for articles in the reform journals of the day. He saw photography as a powerful force for the shaping of consciousness, relying on the viewer's belief in the reality of the subject while providing his own interpretation of that subject. The photographs included here were taken in the first decade of the twentieth century and were published in progressive and reform social survey magazines. They include images of
miercuri, 1 februarie 2012
Paul Strand's debut in photography coincided with the first stirrings of modernism in the visual arts in America. Born in New York in 1890, he attended both the class and club in photography taught by Hine at the Ethical Culture School in 1908. A visit to Stieglitz's 291 gallery arranged by Hine inspired Strand to explore the expressive possibilities of the medium, which until then he had considered a hobby. Although he was active for a brief period at the Camera Club of New York, whose darkrooms he continued to use for about 20 years, his ideas derived first from the circle around Stieglitz and then from the group that evolved around the Modern Gallery in 1915, including Sheeler and Schamberg. Strand's work, which was exhibited at 291, the Modem Gallery, and the Camera Club, gained prizes at the Wanamaker Photography exhibitions and was featured in the last two issues of Camera Work. From about 1915 on, he explored the visual problems that were to become fundamental to the modernist aesthetic as it evolved in both Europe and the United States. During the 1920s he mainly photographed urban sites, continued with the machine forms begun earlier, and turned his attention to nature, using 5 x 7 and 8 x 10 inch view cameras and making contact prints on platinum paper. In these works, acknowledged as seminal in the evolution of the New Objectivity, form and feeling are indivisible and intense. In addition, Strand's writings, beginning in 1917 with "Photography and the New God," set forth the necessity for the photographer to evolve an aesthetic based on the objective nature of reality and on the intrinsic capabilities of the large-format camera with sharp lens.
After service in the Army Medical Corps, where he was introduced to X-ray and other medical camera procedures, Strand collaborated with Sheeler on Manhatta, released as New York the Magnificent in 1921. Shortly afterward, he purchased an Akeley movie camera and began to work as a free-lance cinematographer, a career that he followed until the early 1930S when the industry for making news and short features was transferred from New York to the West Coast. Aware of the revolutionary social ideas being tested in Mexico through his visits to the Southwest, Strand sought the opportunity to make still photographs and to produce government-sponsored documentary films; Redes, or The Wave, released in 1934, depicted the economic problems confronting a fishing village near Vera Cruz. Following a futile attempt to assist the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein in the Soviet Union in 1935, Strand worked with Pare Lorentz on The Plough that Broke the Plains, following which he and other progressive filmmakers organized Frontier Films to produce a series of pro-labor and antiFascist movies. Their most ambitious production, Native Land, which evolved from a Congressional hearing into antilabor activities, was released in 1941 on the eve of the second World War, at which time its message was considered politically divisive.
Unable to finance filmmaking after World War II, Strand turned to the printed publication for a format that might integrate image and text in a matter akin to the cinema. Time in New England, a collaboration with Nancy Newhall, sought to evoke a sense of past and present through images of artifact and nature combined with quotations from the region's most lucid writers. Strand continued with enterprises of this nature after he moved to Europe in 1950, eventually producing La France de profil (A Profile of France) with Claude Roy (1952), Un Paese (A Village) with Cesare Zavattini (1955), and Tir a'Mhurain with Basil Davidson (1962), among other works. At his death in 1976, he had been photographing for nearly three-quarters of a century, gradually finding his ideal of beauty and decorum in nature and the simple life.
This is one of the finest and most potent small shows of anything, never mind photographs, that I have ever seen. But it bemuses me. My heart hangs back from it. The reason has to do with petrified meanings of the 20th century, notably the myth of something that we keep calling "modernism," as if we knew what we were talking about. The myth is fueled by oxymoronic feelings: drunk on clarity, for instance. During World War I in New York, Paul Strand nailed that sort of epochal delirium so authoritatively that one's first reaction to the work he made then may be to salute it like a flag.
Strand, in his 20s, gave photography specialized formal lexicons and professional attitudes keyed to a sense of the modern world as perfectly unprecedented and bound for intelligent glory. Like Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and other exemplary reinventors of their respective arts, he thereby released volcanic zest. Just try resisting the intellectual strength and visual excitement of the pictures in this show. But there is something increasingly alien and even a bit mad about the pictures, too, here at the century's wised-up end.
So-called modernism was a productive mental illness, perhaps, with heroic symptoms. (This would make so-called postmodernism a secondary malady, like a disease that a disease germ gets. I can't stand these puffy labels, which substitute for thought.) One symptom is a belief that by changing how the world is commonly seen, you change the world. You don't though. You only render yourself and your followers arrogantly impervious to inconvenient varieties of always uncontrollable, humbling fact. Modern art spewed self-crippling delusions, some fabulous.
Strand's early photographs still stun. The three justly most famous are Wall Street (1915) and White Fence and Blind (both 1916): object lessons in how to iconize the real. Pedestrians raked by morning light in a canyon of commerce, weathered wood dreaming of Plato down on the farm, and a sightless woman peddler trumpeting several kinds of visibility assert mighty capacities for photography. Each suggests that to see through a lens is to know, and that to know is to master essential reality. It can seem a simple step from such lucidity of vision to lucidity of action, taking the world in rational and enlightened, perhaps revolutionary hand.
Strand, a Jewish kid raised in a hothouse milieu of social and esthetic idealism (he went to Ethical Culture high school), began his career on a photographic scene dominated by the foggy loveliness of Pictorialism, as practiced by Edward Steichen and Clarence White. Met curator Maria Morris Hambourg, assisted by Laura Muir, has prefaced the Strand show with a wonderful selection of Pictorialist touchstones trumped at the end by Alfred Stieglitz's new-look talisman The Steerage -- the Demoiselles d'Avignon of photography. The terrific quality of those old-fashioned images retards a little the triumphalist flourish with which conquering "modernism" then makes its ritual grand entrance.
Pictorialism is underrated on a couple of counts. First, it acknowledged the subjectivity of all decisions in the photographic process. Second, it acknowledged the roots of subjective vision in conventions shared by painting and literature, among other mediums. Modern artists mystified these truths with fantasies of objectivity and originality. Appearing to transcend Pictorialism, Stieglitz and Strand really just replaced it with sharper-focus, subtler make-believe. To put it another way, they exalted hard exclusivity over soft inclusiveness, idealized masculine vigor over Victorian effeminacy.
It worked, picture after well-chosen picture -- in this show that moves from an impressionistic view of chickens in 1911 to a crisp 1917 composition of light and shadow in a city backyard hung with wash -- emits undying novelty. We see the piecemeal development of a bag of major formal and rhetorical tricks: high angles, diagonal ground planes, rhymings of substance and shadow, inside-out repoussoirs (framing elements in the background), giddy still-life close-ups imitating Cubism. Not that Strand was coldly tricky. The world interested him too much for that.
He set incredibly lofty standards for himself. A shot of his had to have just about everything in terms of formal rigor and inherent fascination to be worth printing, and his printing itself, commonly on platinum paper, crackles with sensitivity to nuances. The result almost always is something definitive -- as if each picture were the first and last in the world -- that happens to take as its subject a contingency of light and time. Charles Baudelaire's formula for beauty applies: the eternal plus the fleeting. But it applies excessively, I am surprised to feel.
Modern art at its best, such as here, can seem like one long demonstration project, reveling in sheer possibility. It shows that one may do this thing, and this and this, while continually postponing a sense of the reason for doing anything at all. It soars on utopian optimism, anticipating an explanatory, redemptive future. When the optimism has leaked away, such as now, that attitude becomes bizarre. Its cavalier dismissal of the past seems particularly foolish, as if on a warm day in winter one were to throw away one's overcoat.
One photograph in this show, new to me, gathers my mixed feelings into a complicated ecstasy: Twin Lakes, Connecticut (1916), a vertiginous shot of cloud-fretted sky with a corner of roofed porch intruding diagonally. You must see the original print, whose fine-grained registration of the sky is like a mathematical proof of the evanescent. If the spirit of the 20th century were to issue a souvenir brochure for time tourists, this image would be perfect for the cover. It is about drunkenness on clarity, or perhaps clarified drunkenness.
Humanly temporal architecture plus sublimely eternal sky divided by photography and multiplied by individual creative audacity equal a picture that reminds me of the title of Marshall Berman's book on modernity: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Strand took the sentiment a step farther, precipitating air into something solid. Yes, it was bonkers. Even as Strand innovated in busy New York, modern warfare was eviscerating European civilization. In 1917, America's entrance into the war traumatized him. Formerly a pacifist, he was soon in uniform. The experimental phase of his art was over, succeeded by less startling and more somber splendors until his death in 1976.
This show seems to me as catchy and sinister as old, wondrous martial music in a foredoomed cause. I won't march to it, but I'm damned if I can keep my toe from tapping.