Photography At the Fogg
Master Photographs in the Fogg Collection til December 6
Photography has long been alien to the Fogg's didactic galleries of art classics. Whether this embargo was nurtured by cautious skeptics of the photographic medium as an artistic medium--cautious guardians of academic certainty--or by myopic observers of artistic development, its repeal is apparent in the Fogg's first representative showing of their own photographic collections. Master Photographs asks its audience to view these works on a level of creative competence equal to that of the paintings lining neighboring walls, but not always with the same aesthetic semantics applied to painting.
The problematic nature of photography precludes an exhibition declaring a precise aesthetic, although some have been attempted (like Minor White's Being Without Clothes show last year at MIT). And although photography evades precise labeling as "art," "journalism," or just "information," this medium (in the words of critic Max Kozloff) "allows the most explicit record of the visual world we have, and can still evoke the widest and most contradictory interpretations. One needs no further proof of its modernity than that."
Its artistry is only one frame through which we can view photography's images. Up until about the 1920's, photography was not looked at as art. Not until last year did the Fogg publicly recognize photography as a significant part of the continuing development of modern art. Last spring's show of contemporary photographs was the first in their history.
Since two of the photographers currently presented were masters with a brush as well as with a camera, examining this show in terms of art leads to exciting comparisons. Ben Shahn and Charles Sheeler are more frequently categorized and recognized as painters. Sheeler's "Geranium Plant," a frequent model for his paintings, appears here in double imagery as physical object and as mottled dises of shadow on a wall. The light coming through a window streaks across the wall--reminiscent of his precise and geometrical paintings of abstract light patterns. "Pennsylvania Barn" also maintains the geometric quality--horizontal fences, wooden slats, bricks--set off by the almost human presence of tracks in a dirt road leading up the hill to the barn.
Ben Shahn, the other easel artist of the group, also deals with photography and painting in similar ways. In fact, the photo, "The Blind Accordian Player", taken in 1945, was unmistakably used for a painting that was also called "The Blind Accordian Player". In both Shahn has chosen the same angle, and we see Accordian, expressive hands, and face, with the top of the musician's head cut off--an influence of photographic framing, on painting.
Yet, more than his style, it is Shahn's choice of subject and statement that cut the same in both painting and photo; a social realist, influenced by the Cubists, he captures different planar levels in "Roadside Inns," "Destitute Ozark Residents," and "Cotton Pickers, Pulaski County, Arkansas." The young girls picking cotton carry their long white bags like wedding trains falling in curves down the foreground of the photo. These cotton workers are as much tied to their jobs as the black woman in "Relief Check, Scotts Run, West Virginia" is tied to a life on welfare. Leaning out the window in ragged shirt and skull cap, she stares right through the check she is holding, her problems far beyond the simplicity of this black and white picture.
Paul Strand's wide-eyed, Diego Rivera-like Mexicans stand in doorways and sit on doorsteps, as though sunstruck. Davis Pratt, acting curator of photographs at the Fogg, calls Strand "the greatest living American photographer," and the Fogg show has three examples of his sensitive portraiture.
The exhibit has more magic and youth in Mark Cohen's headless "Horseriders," a peculiar composition that frames coats and gloves of the riders while leaving out their faces. And with Dorothea Lange's young, white-frocked "Katherine Sloss," reading with open mouth and all ten fingers, childhood's imagination and curiosity are evoked.
The Frenchmen Etienne Carjat and Jean-Eugene-Auguste Atget capture the romanticism of rainy Parisian streets and of distinguished bearded gentlemen. Gertrude Kasebier explores the classic form of mother and child. And Alfred Stieglitz a papa in photographer and a great art lover, introduced the American public to Picasso, Matisse and others. His misty streets in "Glow of Night. N.Y.," and the rippling reflections of "Venetian Doorways," are nicely juxtaposed to point out staccato reflections in wet surfaces.
Perhaps the most striking and powerful photographer is the 24-year-old Danny Lyon, whose series called "Conversations with the Dead" creates a dialogue between prison inmates and the viewer. Neither barbed wire nor bars prevent our entering into a few moments of hard labor, heat exhaustion, or schizophrenia. The contrast of the spurs on a guard's boots with the nude buttocks of the prisoners leaves an unerasable after-image, as does the image of white bars cutting across the face of a cigarette-smoking inmate.
The show is tiny, and instead of really illustrating the Fogg's collection, it points out how little of a collection exists. Of the roughly 3,000 prints, 2,500 of them are by Ben Shahn, gifts of his widow. But luckily the Fogg's photo collection will be growing as a result of a $10,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to purchase photos by contemporary Americans. Hopefully, they will match the sum by July 31, 1972, to fill in some of the collection's gaps: there are no examples of surrealist works--collages, or photograms--nor are there many contemporary things.
It's about time the Fogg brought out some of the photos in its basement for critical viewing. But maybe they should have more of a collection before they gave us a sampling. As it is, there is very little to focus on.