at the Fog Art Museum through December 14
THE documentary photography of the 1930's minutely recording filthy faces and ragged clothes no longer shocks us. Hardened by color pictures of Vietnam and Appalachia. we often see the acceptance of suffering in the eyes of poverty-stricken people as almost an historical fact.
The tight thinness of a mother's face, prematurely aging, lacks the poetic power it initially possessed. Close-ups of every sort of face flourish in such quantity that interesting subject matter alone is not enough.
Our skeptical attitude toward the documentary affects the way we approach the exhibition of Ben Shahn photographs currently at the Fog Museum. Labels reading " Destitute Ozark Residents" underneath a group of these pictures may offend the contemporary social conscience, acquainted with the pathos of poverty. Shahn, one of the first to make this kind of photograph, tried to awaken a complacent audience to the horrors of the thirties.
In this exhibition at the Fog, the first major presentation of his photography, some of Shahn's pictures of unemployed workers in the Midwest describe more than just the individual's painful condition. A mother clasps her arms around her child and its doll, locking her dirty fingers together. The open neck of her frayed dress uncovers the bones of her chest. She speaks with a half smile, while her child's porcelain cheeks and fixed, black eyes make him more doll-like than his toy.
Like his photography, Ben Shahn's paintings, particularly the series on Sacco and Vanzetti, reveal his concern with social injustice. He stressed the social function of his art rather than its aesthetic value. Photography he regarded purely as a means of documentation. He shot prisons, bales of hay, store fronts and the tasteless side shows at the circus. Never acknowledging their artistic possibilities, he used his photographs as material for his painting. Photographs helped him recall details about the way people looked.
Though he underestimated the expressive element in photography, his eye would discover patterns in the world around him, composed by telephone poles or sharecroppers sitting on a porch. These compositions are most interesting to the modern viewer. His documentary honesty strengthens his more creative ventures with a spontancous naturalism. His scenes are not arranged like a still life.
In one print from 1934, two children on roller skates climb the stairs of a monumental building. The rhythm of the steps, lined up like stripes, joins the rhythm of the fluted columns rising before the facade, to carry the children upward.
His other observations of children in New York City form equally interesting pictures. Boys in black suits stand in the smooth white ground of a handball court-some playing, some waiting their turn. The court is silent though you can feel the slap of the ball against the hand, dangling outstretched, ready to play. The picture of boys in the city speaks in its starkness.
Shahn used this photograph as the basis for a painting, entitled "Handball." He also derived another work, "Vacant Lot." from a photograph he took of a boy hitting stones with a stick against a brick wall.
These pictures let the viewer perceive the hardness of the concrete handball court and the emptiness of the rubble-filled lot. Unlike records of desolate faces these more abstract photographs do not call for a calculated response. We must come close to the picture, search the indefinite spaces to discover our feelings toward it.
The Fog apparently chose Shahn for his nostalgic notes on America as well as his artistic excellence for this exhibition of photographs, their first to be presented in a long time. In spite of Shahn's intention merely to record his era, several of these documentary prints transcend this critical end and exemplify the best of his artistic vision.