Artful Blogger

ARTFUL BLOGGER: A visit to American Photographs 1900-1950 is kind of like a trip down memory lane

Arthur Leipzig Opening Night at the Opera, New York, 1945 Gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Copyright Arthur Leipzig/courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

By Paul Gessell

I know these people. We all know these people. At least we think we do. We have seen their faces time and time again, these being some of the most iconic photographic images of the 20th century.

And yet their familiarity does not breed contempt, the way the over-exposure of a painted portrait or a too familiar sculpture turn high art into kitsch. Does anybody still take the Mona Lisa seriously? Doesn’t everyone simply snigger at Michelangelo’s sculptured David?

But repeatedly viewed photographs are different. They do not lose their impact. We simply love them more each viewing.

And thus one can thoroughly enjoy a new National Gallery exhibition titled American Photographs 1900-1950. Think of it as a family reunion. Some of the most celebrated photographs of the last century are present: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, 1936; Imogen Cunningham’s portrait of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, 1931; Edward Steichen’s 1925 portrait of a wide-eyed young woman titled Sunburn; and Barbara Morgan’s 1940 anguished take on dancer Martha Graham.

These are some of the stars among the more than 130 photographs in the exhibition organized by the gallery’s chief curator of photographs, Ann Thomas. All the photographs are in the National Gallery’s collection, one of the best in the world.

Barbara Morgan Martha Graham, Letter to the World, "Kick," 1940, printed c. 1945. Gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Canada

The first photograph in the exhibition is a curious 1901 French picnic scene by Gertrude Kasebier titled Serbonne. The somewhat fuzzy picture is meant to resemble an Impressionist painting. Three women sit in a grassy park. A single male figure stands beside them. The scene pays homage to Edouard Manet’s famous painting Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe although all of Kasebier’s models are clothed. But there is also a nod to Impressionist master Claude Monet in that the features of most of the faces have vanished, just like in a Monet painting.

Back in 1901, photographers were attempting to have their work viewed with the same reverence as painting or sculpture. So, sometimes that meant trying to make photographs look like paintings. This staged Kasebier photograph even contains specific painterly props: The man is wearing a beret and an artist’s smock while one of the seated women holds a palette.

Fellow American photographer Clarence White was fascinated with classical Greek imagery. One of his photographs in the exhibition, Boys Wrestling, reveals a forest scene in which a group of boys appear to be frisky young gods communing with nature.

Walker Evans Citizen in Downtown Havana, 1933 Gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa gift of Phyllis Lambert, Montreal, 1982. Copyright Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As the years progressed, photographers stopped trying to be painters and forged their own identity. That is most noticeable in the 1930s, when American photographers turned to social commentary, showing the ravages of the Depression on the poor.

Later, in the post-war period, when science was supposed to be a cure for all ills, many photographers married their cameras to microscopes to show us aspects of the world never before seen by the human eye. Other photographers played with strobe effects or turned to other tricks to create totally unique images.

This exhibition is the fourth in a series staged by the National Gallery in recent years to showcase its magnificent photograph collection. More are to come.

American Photographs 1900-1950 continues at the National Gallery until April 1, 2012.