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Exhibition examines the impact of the most popular camera of the 20th century
Mexico City, 1941. Helen Levitt, American, 1913 - 2009. Gelatin silver print, Sheet: 6 3/16 x 8 15/16 inches (15.7 x 22.7 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, From the Collection of Dorothy Norman, 1968. © Estate of Helen Levitt.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- Through most of the twentieth century, the handheld 35mm roll-film camera—named for the size of the small film it used—was a ubiquitous and indispensible photographic tool. The camera’s compact design permitted easy concealment and nearly effortless transport, and its fast shutter speed enabled photographers to capture action as it unfolded. At the moment of roll film’s near obsolescence in the digital age, this exhibition presents a survey of 35mm photography and offers an examination of its characteristic look. On view are 66 photographs, beginning with street photographs by Andre Kertesz made in 1928 shortly after the 35mm camera became commercially available and concluding with work by contemporary artists who continue to use roll film. Highlights include work by early 35mm enthusiasts Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ilse Bing, now iconic pictures by Walker Evans and Robert Frank, the war photography of Robert Capa, 1960s street photography by Lee Friedlander and William Klein, and color work by Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark.

Henri Cartier-Bresson seized upon the 35mm camera’s immediacy and ability to replicate the chaos and drama of the modern world. The exhibition includes two of Cartier-Bresson’s 1930s street scenes: one of a man sleeping in a doorway in Mexico, the other of a cardinal blessing the faithful in Paris. Two additional photographs by Cartier-Bresson taken in the 1940s of the photographer Alfred Stieglitz in his New York gallery—one a small contact strip of four pictures, the other a 6 ¾ x 9 15/16” image enlargement of one of these frames—are demonstrative of the dramatic scaling up from the 35mm film negative to the finished print.

Also on view is one of Walker Evans’s New York City subway portraits(1938), for which he concealed a 35mm Contax camera under a topcoat, angled it towards unsuspecting passengers seated nearby, and operated the shutter using a cable that traveled from the camera down his sleeve into his hand. Working contrary to the longstanding tradition of posed portraiture, Evans photographs people unguarded and unposed, often engrossed in the newspaper, lost in thought, laughing, chatting, or watching fellow passengers.

The photographer Helen Levitt was Evans’s first test subject for his subway pictures. Like Evans, she took photographs surreptitiously, affixing a right-angle prism to her Leica lens that made it appear as if her camera were pointed 90 degrees away from the scene she actually wanted to capture. The exhibition includes Evans’ Mexico City (1941), which shows a person almost entirely enveloped in blankets, perhaps asleep, in a Mexico City street.

As a war photojournalist, Robert Capa captured some of the most brutal moments of the twentieth century: the Sino-Japanese War in China; the Spanish Civil War; the 1948 Arab-Israeli War; and years of conflict during World War II, most famously the D-Day slaughter at Omaha Beach. Included in the exhibition is Naples, Oct 2, 1943, taken the day after the arrival of the Allied forces, as mothers gather to grieve twenty schoolboys who died during the Four Days of Naples, a revolt against the Germans.

The 35mm format has a distinctive aesthetic dictated by its technical parameters. It has a limited depth of field, and the resulting differential focus visible in many of the pictures on view has come to be seen as one of 35mm’s most beautiful qualities. Enlarged, 35mm pictures reveal the grain of the film and lose detail, and the largest photographs on view in the exhibition—approximately 24 x 36”—represent the outer limit of what is possible with the format.

These limitations often dissuaded twentieth-century photographers from embracing the 35mm format. Accordingly, the exhibition features a small comparative section of work by photographers who shared the interests of 35mm photographers (including reportage and candid picture-making), but who preferred to use a larger camera. Among these are Slab Hollow, Vermont (1943), a photograph Paul Strand made with an 8 x 10“ view camera, and Cable Car, San Francisco (1956), an evocative image by Dorothea Lange of a woman’s crossed legs perched on the edge of a cable car taken with a medium-format Rolleiflex camera.

The exhibition is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 27, 2012.

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