The Art of Baring Humanity
WHILE THE Metropolitan Museum of New York has been digging up Greek vases from European collections, the Fogg has been unearthing photographs from Harvard's own department basements. From these unforeseen sources and with the aid of a $10,000 matching great from the National Endowment of the Arts for the purchase of contemporary American photographs. Davis Pratt, Curator of Photography at the Fogg, has put together handsome exhibition of 20th century photographic masters and innovators. On view until December 31, in Galleries II and III, Contemporary American Photographs dispels the notion that the photographer is any more limited by his tools than the fine artist; for the camera, recording reality becomes old-fashioned, an 18th century idea, compared to the experimental techniques--photo etchings intaglio prints, Polaroid material employed by many of these 33 Americans on exhibit.
The Fogg's early acceptance of photography as an art procured for it the first National Endowment Grant for photography. Such foresight is evidenced further by Pratt's selectors for its exhibition. Top billing is given to lesser-established artists, although a few 20th century masters, such as Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Diane Arbus. Berenice Abbott and Minor White have adequate representation for comparison.
Women seem to have a larger role in photography than they have had in the other contemporary arts, and their work is strong. Diane Arbus, whose retrospective is currently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, speaks with the power of social critic as poignant and shocking as the biting poetry of sylvia plath. Her portrait of identical twins stores at us not with the duality of nature's superior creation, but with the power to draw us into an interaction with their freak world; her portraits do not scare us away, but take us directly into a curious, unexamined world.
Younger women notables include Naomi Savage and Judy Deter Savage's "St. Brigid Passion Week becomes a spiral of hide and seek with a black robed, virgin-like bust appearing in whole and in cut sections against greyish-white rectangular backgrounds that overlap and revolve around the center. She takes a negative and pasts up a college of this repeated image. For her, this black shape becomes an icon, indestructible, despite efforts to cut it up and change its positions.
Judy Dater was another device to multiply her images: a mirror. In the same way that the Impressionist tradition would stand a girl at the her in front of a mirror, Dater articulates the elements of reflections by photographing a seated, nude girl leaning against a mirror. Whether prostitute or dance-hall girl, she appears in triplicate with her choler and black stockings. We see her, fine, bony features straight-on and in profile, her legs bent to the right and to the left--symmetrically reposed--and openly exposed in the upper righthand corner. An umbrella in the lower right of the photo encourages further connections to Degas dancers and promenades. Like Arbus, there is not the capturing of an instant but the participation and acceptance of the photographer in the environment: the girl gases directly and unremittingly into the camera.
Harry Callahan testifies to the photographer's involvement with the graphic arts. His "Multiple Exposure Tree" with fine-lined branches appears to be an ink sketch rather than a photograph; the circular motion, spontaneity and simplicity of coal black against white evoke the calligraphy and bold brush strokes of Japanese artists.
While the younger photographers us the Fogg exhibition have been concerned with experimentation and the development of photography through unusual techniques, the recognized masters hold onto more traditional theories of photography. Although some of these innovators have not matured in technique, their efforts expand our aesthetic consciousness of photography. Paul Strand, who has been photographing since 1915, advocates the use of straight photographic methods and proclaims the uniqueness of their objectivity, yet does not question the value of the other arts. He wrote in 1917:
"The existence of a medium, after all, is its absolute if, as an many seem to think. It needs one: and all comparison of potentialities is useless and irrelevant. Whether a watercolor is inferior to as oil, or whether a drawing, an etching or a photograph is not as important as either is inconsequent. To have to despite something in order to respect something is a sign of importance. Let us rather accept joyously and with gratitude everything through which the spirit of man seeks to an ever fuller and more intense self-realization."
IN THE CURRENT Retrospective Exhibition of Paul Strand--an exhibit of over 500 photos--at the Museum of Fine Arts till December 10, we can observe Strand's spirit of search. His efforts were directed toward finding the emotional significance of the object. For his early work in the 1920's he shot trees, gnarled driftwood, machines--close--ups of plants and rocks. His work with close-ups led Strand to explore the world of human portraits. At one polar, he experimented with the idea of photographing people when they were answers that they were in view of the camera. This he did by attaching a false loss to the side of his 3 1/4 in. reflex camera.
The most successful of these attempts is "Blind Women." (New York, 1916); Ironically her left eye looks sideways, away from the camera, while the other remains closed, the white just barely peeking out from between the lids. A white-painted sign with dark letters spelling "BLIND" hangs from her neck and stands out bold against her black-robed chest. The cold stone wall behind her head matches the grey strands of hair showing from beneath her black scarf; the wall's slate grey indifference intensifies her rejection from New York's burgeoning society--a society that has pinned a metal badge "Licensed Peddlar 2622" at her collar. Few photographers have achieved as powerful a moral statement as Strand has in the photo; the peddler's House has the time lousy shine as her one eye; a license is hardly as answer to her problems.
Many of Strand's earlier works are abstract, a style that he did not continue in his inter photography. "Abstraction, Bowls," (Connecticut, 1915) he claims to be just an experiment, but his awareness of their smooth, rolling contours can't be missed in his later handling of hats in "Hat Factory" (Luzzara Italy, 1953) (seen in the remarkable tow-violence retrospective monograph published by Aperture this year), and even in the Chiaroscuro of dark and light is such foreign architectural structures as "Gateway" (Rabat, Morocco, 1962).
His best abstract efforts are seen in "Wire Wheels," (1918) and in "Abstraction, Porch Shadows" (Connecticut, 1915) where the silts of light are only fully realized for their clarity and brightness in an original print like that of the MFA show; the book's print attempt cannot compare, although on the whole the quality of reproduction for this edition excels. The perch railing casts a row of dark stripes, a zebra-like image doubled by refraction onto a rounded object that protrudes from the righthand side of the picture. The distinctness of these evenly-spaced bars of dark and light anticipates the immaculate surface of hard-edge pointing in the 50s and 60s. His later "Basque Façade" (France 1951) shows an obxious knowledge of the work of artist Piet Mondrian who was painting clear-cut balanced grids scattered with blocks of solid in the 1920's.
It isn't clear in the porch shadows what art, if any, he may have seen to create such an interest in clean, abstract imagery, yet his association in these early times with such American artists as John Martin. Georgia O'Keefe, Charles Sheeler, and Marsden Hartley testifies to his following of this parallel art world and its influence is seen plainly in other works. The MFA has eloquently pointed out these connections with its juxtapositions of actual oils, drawings and sculpture by these artists. One of the most exciting comparisons is between Georgia O'Keefe's oil from 1953 at "Abiquiu Trees" and Strand's "Dunes near Abiquiu." (1931 that shows us how both artists were captured of the poetry of the New Mexican landscape. Her pink stand intensify the pastel puffiness of Strand's cumulus clouds blowing over the dunes. While Strand has emphasized the staccato patterns of vegetation almost mirroring the clouds above, O'Keffe isolates two trees and focuses on their branches and on their dominant relation to the environment, a closeup rather than a landscape. (O'Keefe was married to Alfred Stieglitz, the eminent photographer that greatly influenced both his wife and Strand.) Yet both works maintain the majestic space of the Southwest, a testimony to each artist's involvement with the people. "Ranchos of Taos Church," (1932) confirms this understanding of the Spanish civilization and furthers Strand's abstract theme is its illustration of curved butresses and noble masses of with adobe.
Mexico to which Strand devoted an entire portfolio in 1967, incorporates his most dramatic studies and most in-depth portraiture, Unequaled to any photo as the exhibition is "The Nets, Janitzio, Lake Patzcuaro" (Mexico `1933). Framing the glorious power of Tiepolo together with the social realism of Ben Shahs, Strand pictures a women on her knees spreading out fish to dry while the nets of the little fishing village, which are draped between wooden poles, from superimposed textures of romantic lace. From the upper lefthand corner, the clouds roll in, lighted by some heavenly power, fit for the play of cherubs. Unfortunately, the album cannot achieve a reproduction that equals the impact of the original; the MFA's print sets it apart--the tones image from billowy white to black shadows.
"The Nets" speaks to us as Strand's aesthetic-the power he places in objects, in the manmade as well as in the natural; man only orders what his needs designate and his power comes from the objects he creates. Strand's portraits don't show the potential of human endeavors, don't show the human struggle or achievement in survival; they point out the dignity of objects, whether mechanical or human, their capacity to deal with respective endowments. The few times he speaks beyond these points are when he deals with families or groups in society that transcend this individual impotence. "The Family" (Luzzara, Italy 1953) evokes complicated reality and emotions of deSica's film. The Bicycle Thief, as the barefobted man on the right with eyes downcast leans against his bicycle and the stone wall behind him. The elements of the picture are related more than abstractly; the members of the family stand or sit, gaze or turn their heads with an awareness of the others. "The Nets" at Patzcuaro derive from the same community awareness. The woman lays her fifth for more than one; the nets belong to a village that celebrates festivals to the gods, yet fishes for the village welfare.
The book does a better job of selecting Strand's more significant works, yet the retrospective at the MFA gives us a greater understanding of the total photographer--his triumphs and attempts. Strand captures a powerful image in front of his camera; there is no denial of the manner that stands in back.
MINOR WHITE examines the spiritual in photography by selecting works of 69 photographers for a show he has conceived on Octave of Prayer (on exhibit at the MIT Hayden Gallery until November 26). Where Strand has stressed the object, Minor White picks works that transcend the physical nature of the object. "Photography allows them (photographers) a consciousness of things, places and people, a union with certain visual, auditory and sensory events in the world. A union growing out of rapport or resonance makes the experience an event for them."
He often for contemplation Rosalind Moulton's "Abstraction" a stone-like mans Floating on water, reflected in many unusual geometric patterns on the surface below. It teams our thoughts into inquiries as to its substance and existence.
Those works that illustrate prayer most vividly for the viewer are the ones that make no explicit reference to religious inconography or to humans in the act of praying. As his previous show. Being Without Clothes, had nothing to do with nude or naked human beings, this exhibit draws attention away from dogmatic iconography to its extensive treatment of the spiritual. Implying such spirituality without specific religious symbols are such pictures as Ruth Breil's ecstatic photo of Yestushenko at a microphone or Minor White's own "Snowy Road" where car tracks in the snow evoke the presence of more than a motor vehicle. Where he has tried to group these works in categories of prayer, or use those symbols easily associated with the spiritual, he has restricted the creativity of the viewer's role. Yet as individual works, these photos provoke intense interaction with the viewer; one can find his own octave whether labeled prayer or not.
As these three shows demonstrate, photography has moved onto the walls previously reserved for the art elite. Where once its aesthetic value was imperceptible, it has now become the forerunner in audience attraction. Maybe photography will be the assimilating force for the arts that shatters Art's pedestal and bares humanity for all to see