On October 3, 2009, Icons of American Photography: A Century of Photographs from the Cleveland Museum of Art opens at The Frick Art Museum
. This exhibition is composed of fifty-nine photographs from Clevelands extraordinary collection that chronicle the evolution of photography in America from a scientific curiosity in the 1850s to one of the most potent forms of artistic expression of the twentieth century.
"Icons of American Photography" presents some of the best work by masters of the medium, like Mathew Brady, William Henry Jackson, Eadweard Muybridge, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Robert Frank, encompassing themes of portraiture, the Western landscape, Pictorialism, documentary photography, and abstraction.
The exhibition explores the technical developments of photography, starting with outstanding examples of daguerreotypesa sheet of copper coated with light sensitive silver. The daguerreotype gave way to salt, albumen, and then gelatin silver prints. Technologies improved to accommodate larger sizes, easy reproduction of multiple prints from a single negative, and commercially available negative film and print papers. As we move into an increasingly digitized twenty-first century, the lure of the photographers magic and the mysteries of making photographic images appear on paper is still strong.
"Icons of American Photography" presents a remarkable chronicle of American life seen through the cameras lens. The earliest days of photography saw a proliferation of portraitureintimately personal and honest in composition. A rare multiple-exposure daguerreotype by Albert Southworth (18111894) and Josiah Hawes (18081901) presents the sitter in variety of poses and expressions, while the formal portrait of Prosper M. Wetmore, 1857, by Civil War-era photographer Mathew Brady (18231896) is more typical of early portraiture. The carefully staged daguerreotype, Dead Child on a Sofa, c. 1855, is an outstanding example of the postmortem portrait. The high rate of infant mortality throughout the 1800s made this variety of portraiture common, satisfying the emotional need of the parents to have a lasting memory of their loved one.
Advances in photographic processes allowed for a range of expressive qualities that were exploited by photographers with an artistic flair. In a style known as Pictorialism, works such as Hamadryads, 1910, by Anne Brigman (18691950) imitated the subject matter of painting. In Greek mythology a hamadryad is a nymph whose life begins and ends with that of a specific tree. In this work, two nudes representing wood nymphs were carefully placed among the flowing forms of an isolated tree in the High Sierra. The platinum print method used by Brigman allowed for a detailed, yet warm and evocative result. Edward Steichens Rodin the Thinker, 1902, was created from two different negatives printed together using the carbon print process. This non-silver process provided a continuous and delicate tonal range. For even greater richness, these prints were often toned, producing dense, glossy areas in either black or warm brown.
During the late nineteenth century, the U.S. Congress commissioned photographers to document the American West. Photographs by Timothy OSullivan (18401882) and William Henry Jackson (18431942) are the most celebrated from among this era. The exhibition includes OSullivans East Humbolt Mountains, Utah, 1868, and Jacksons Mystic Lake, M.T., 1872, as well as Bridal Veil, Yosemite, c. 1866, by Carleton Watkins (18291916). Photographers carried large-format cameras with heavy glass negatives to precarious vantage points to create their sharply focused and detailed views. Decades later, Ansel Adams (19021984) carried on the intrepid tradition when he swerved to the side of the road and hauled his view camera to the roof of his car to make the famous image Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941.
Responding to the rapid growth of the twentieth century, many photographers shifted their attention from depictions of the natural world to the urban landscape. The power, energy, and romance of the city inspired varied approaches, from sweeping vistas to tight, close-up details and unusual camera angles. Margaret Bourke-White (19041971) established her reputation during the late 1920s by photographing industrial subjects in Cleveland. Her Terminal Tower, 1928, documents what was then the second tallest building in America. Berenice Abbots (1898 1991) New York, 1936, is one of many depictions of this vibrant metropolis. The human life of the city intrigued many photographers, including Helen Levitt (19132009) whose photographs of children are direct, unsentimental and artful; Weegee [Arthur Fellig] (18991968) who unflinchingly documented crime and accident scenes; and Gordon Parks (19122006) who chronicled the life of African Americans.
Exploiting the new medium, numerous photography projects were instituted as part of FDRs New Deal. The most legendary was that of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) run by Roy Stryker, who hired such important photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein. One of the most iconic images of the New Deal was Dust Storm, Cimarron County, 1936, by Arthur Rothstein (19151985). In the spring of 1936, Rothstein made hundreds of photographs in Cimarron County in the Oklahoma panhandle, one of the worst wind-eroded areas in the United States. Out of that body of work came this gripping, unforgettable image. Dorothea Langes (18951965) work chronicled the human toll wrought by hardship in Resident, Conway, Arkansas, 1938.
As an art form, photography kept in step with formalist modern styles and an increasing trend toward abstraction. Known for his precisionist paintings, Charles Sheelers (18831965) Bucks County Barn, 1915, features a geometric composition, sharp focus, and subtle tonal range. In Black and White Lilies III, c. 1928, Imogene Cunningham (18831976) combined the clarity and directness of Modernism with her long-held interest in botanical imagery. For two decades she created a remarkable group of close-up studies of plants and flowers that identified her as one of the most sophisticated and experimental photographers working in America.
Photographers such as Edward Weston (18861958) and Paul Strand (18901976) employed a straight-on clarity that highlighted the abstract design of everyday objects and the world around us. A completely abstract work by artist László Moholy-Nagy (18941946), untitled, 1939, is a photogram made by laying objects onto light-sensitive photographic paper and exposing it to light. The objects partially block the light to create an abstract design on the paper.
By 1960, photography had attained a prominent place not only among the fine arts, but in popular culture as well, ushering in a new era of image-based communication that has profoundly affected the arts as well as everyday life.
"Icons of American Photography: A Century of Photographs from the Cleveland Museum of Art" is organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art. The exhibition is curated by Tom Hinson, Curator of Photography.