Photography from the 20th Century: The Private Collection of Jin Hongwei

2015.05.23-07.22

 

Introduction

Curator, photographer and publisher, Edward Steichen once wrote that photography’s capacity to convey the spectrum of human emotion, the majesty of nature and the “wealth and confusion man has created” has made it “a major force in explaining man to man,” and decades later this is still one of its primary functions —to extend the capacity of the human eye. 

Chuck Close described it as the easiest medium to achieve a certain level of competency but “the hardest medium in which to have some sort of personal vision and to have a signature style.” “Photography from the 20th Century: The Private Collection of Jin Hongwei” addresses both concerns, from expanding our understanding of the world to simultaneously presenting a multifaceted collection of aesthetic approaches. This survey will take us through the breadth and depth of the medium from documentary and street photography, to portraiture, to landscape, to abstract, surreal and finally on to more conceptual work which challenges the position of photography within the realm of art and questions its role in society.

 

Photographers

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991)

One of the first female photographers of her time to gain recognition, Abbot was renowned not only for her portraiture but for her theories about architecture and society. In 1921, part of a small community of Americans living in Paris, Abbot apprenticed with Surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray (1890-1976), another American in Paris, and befriended French photographer Eugene Atget (1857-1927). Her portrait of Atget here was taken in the year of his death. Known in his lifetime as a flanneur, Atget’s work was recognized only in the final years of his life; he did not live to see the impact his work would have on the field of photography, nor how influential Abbott herself would be. Following Atget’s death in 1927, she returned to New York where, perhaps influenced by Atget, she embarked on an extensive survey of the people in the city and the places they resided. This documentary project titled Changing New York (1935-39) explored the ways in which the architecture of the built environment creates a framework for human behavior. Possibly drawing on a further influence of her Paris years, her mentor Man Ray, between 1939 and 1960, Abbot then went on to create a major body of science photographs.

 

Ansel Easton Adams (1902-1984)

A household name in photography, Ansel Adams is widely recognized for his extraordinary and often dramatic celebration of landscapes. His photographs are testament to the sublime qualities possessed by the natural world. Adams was a key member of the Sierra Club, an environmental protectionist group founded in 1892 in San Francisco. Its mission, "To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment”, is descriptive of Adams’ own view of the natural world. His means of “enlisting humanity” was achieved through his photographs. Also a founding member of the San Francisco-based f/64 group, Adams’ belief in pictorial purity was commensurate with his attitude towards the technical aspects of his art. He was co-creator, around 1939, of the Zone System, an idea concerned with control of image values that produced a technique for calculating optimum exposure to ensure that light and dark values were rendered as desired. This technical achievement underscores the successful visual impact of Adams’ dramatic, powerful landscapes.

 

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Awarded the honor of being “the most controversial” photographer by New York art critic Peter Schjeldahl, in her lifetime, Arbus earned both praise and scorn in equal amounts. Photography critic Susan Sontag criticized her work for its “lack of beauty”;American writer Norman Mailer once quipped that “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.” This, his response to an unfavorable portrait of himself taken by Arbus. Yet, exhibitions at the Venice Biennale and MoMA in 1972 were early evidence of her critical success. More than any other photographer, Arbus gave vision to marginalized populations, from those with physical deformities such as dwarfs and freaks, to those with unusual jobs such as those in the circus; and not least those of unusual sexual preferences, like dragqueens. “Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience,” she said. “Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life.” In Family Portrait she pursues the theme of deviance by searching out freakish elements in seemingly normal families.

 

Ruth Bernhard (1905-2006)

Though best known for her nudes, Ruth Bernhard honed her eye producing crisp, poignant still-lifes—images of egg slicers or Life Savers, where the subject of the photograph is not the object itself but, in an aesthetic that borrows from the German arts movement Bauhaus (1919-33), rather its shadow and aura. Bernhard moved to New York in 1927. In the 1930s, she met and was inspired by photographers Edward Weston (1886-1958) and Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), and by 1934 had begun photographing the nudes for which she would become known. Bernhard began shooting bodies while documenting the exhibition titled “Machine Life” at New York’s MoMA, which was held in 1934. Seeing one of the steel bowls on display, she had the idea to ask a friend to disrobe and climb inside. Whether still-life or female forms, Bernhard’s work claimed a reputation for being seductive and classical, her studied compositions featuring exquisite shading and depths.

 

Julie Blackmon (1966-)

For the hugely popular 2009 series entitled Domestic Vacations, Julie Blackmon took her inspiration from the 17th -century Dutch genre painter Jan Steen, or rather, from the Dutch phrase “a Jan Steen household”, which itself originates from impressions of the content of Steen’s painting, and is still used today to refer to a home in disarray, full of rowdy children and boisterous family gatherings. Though not always in a state of being boisterous, Blackmon’s photographs all feature children, playing alone or in groups, or in the midst of adult/child or parent child interaction. “We live in a culture where we are both child centered and self-obsessed,” she says. “The struggle between living in the moment versus escaping to another reality is intense since these two opposites strive to dominate.” The situations Blackmon depicts are always plausible, if fantastical at times, and she shoots them in a way that signals an element of staging. She takes great pains to maximize the sense of depth in her photographs, placing subjects at different distances within the picture plane. Often there can be as many as ten family members in her images a situation, which very much reflects her own childhood and experience of growing up in a large and rowdy family, as well as conveying the eternal tensions between the harmony and disarray of domestic life.

 

Bill Brandt (1904-1983)

Brandt gained recognition early in his career for documentary photographs of British society across all its many classes and of the dark hours of blackouts under the Blitz during WWII. What made Bill Brandt’s photography so distinctive is the way he “let myself be guided by this camera, and instead of photographing what I saw; I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.” Delighting in the natural distortions of the camera lends, Brandt’s work suggests a strong influence of surrealist photographers such as pioneering French photographer Eugene Atget (1857-1927). Brandt himself apprenticed with Surrealist artist-photographer Man Ray (1890-1976) in 1930. These experiences led to his stylized images of nudes as well as landscapes, which similarly make use of the drama of high contrast, leaving only a fine margin of grey tones between bold extremes of black and white forms.

 

Wynn Bullock (1902-1975)

Wynn Bullock saw light as “the most profound truth in the universe,” and believed that “everything is some form of radiant energy.” This philosophy, which reflected his interest in Taoism, emanates from his dreamlike photographs. The image Let There Be Light—a moon making a timid appearance through the clouds and illuminating the bend of a river—was one of the most popular images of Edward Steichen’s famous touring show “The Family of Man,” launched in 1955. Woman and Dog in Forest from 1953 is typical of Bullock’s oeuvre, which often features an unconscious figure lying in a state of slumber amongst natural surroundings. Often, too, the camera looking down from a high angle, giving the viewer an overview of the scene that is physical as well as literal. It was his view that “You can expand your reality by developing new ways of perceiving… Mysteries lie all around us, even in the most familiar things, waiting only to be perceived.”

 

Harry Callahan (1912-1999)

A young photographer from Detroit, Harry Callahan had a distinct aesthetic when it came to photographing nature. Where Ansel Adams tended towards grand vistas, Callahan looked for detail and repetition. His photographs typically took the form an abstract pattern filling up the picture plane, a fine filigree of tree branches, grasses or bushes. His oeuvre was the product of a regular daily routine which involved shooting his neighborhood—for which the New York Times dubbed him “master of the commonplace”—and then returning to his darkroom to process the film. Contrary to the time invested in daily work, Callahan’s annual output was small. Much more of his time was devoted to students of photography that he taught at Rhode Island School of Design to his retirement in 1977.

 

Cornell Capa (Kornél Friedmann) (1918-2008)

Brother to famed photojournalist Robert Capa, Cornell found his way into a job at the darkroom of Life before becoming a photojournalist in his own right. After Robert died in Indochina falling victim to a landmine accident in 1954, Cornell devoted his life to preserving the memory of other comrade-in-arms photojournalists who had died on the front lines in action. The list included German photographer Werner Bischof (1916-54), David Seymour, known as CHIM (1911-56), legendary photojournalist and co-founder of Magnum Photos, and American Fortune photographer Dan Weiner (1919-59). In this aim, in 1966, Cornell founded the Fund for Concerned Photographers and, in 1974, New York’s International Center for Photography (a museum, research center and school) as a home for the Fund. He was active in the political campaigns of Democratic senator Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Through his photographs, his observation shed light on the Peron Regime (1946-55) in Argentina, and the injustices of the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt in June 1967. These were just two of the events that would be included in the series titled The Concerned Photographer, which Cornell first published in 1968.

 

Robert Capa (Endre Friedmann) (1913-1954)

In the world of war photography, Robert Capa’s name is synonymous with a reckless brand of courage. A chronicler of five wars including the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), World War II, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the First Indochina War (1945-54), he lived by his motto: “If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough.” The photograph Death of a Loyalist Soldier taken in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War brought Capa both fame and controversy in equal amounts: fame followed its first publication in the Paris magazine Vu in 1937; controversy from 1975, when the British journalist Phillip Knightley questioned its authenticity in his book The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam; The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker. Following 30 years of debate, in 2002, in light of his own exhaustive research writer Richard Whelan claimed to have affirmed the photograph’s authenticity: “It is time,” he concluded, “to acclaim The Falling Soldier once again as an unquestioned masterpiece of photojournalism and as perhaps the greatest war photograph ever made.” Capa himself lived to see neither controversy nor its defense. His desire to get ever better photographs, in line with his motto brought him ever closer to the action. In 1954, as the First Indochina War was drawing to a close, he ventured ahead of the troops and was killed by a landmine.

 

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)

A leading photographer of the 20th century, Bresson is considered the godfather of photojournalism, not least for his role in founding the photographer-run agency Magnum. Through his lens, Bresson he saw the Spanish Civil War, WWII, India during the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, the fall of the Kuomintang in 1949 and the student up-risings in Paris in 1968. In this iconic work taken in the Dessau concentration camp, we see the seething rage of a people who have been living under the Nazi regime in confrontation with a Gestapo informer. In encapsulating an instant of drama which conveys the crux of the situation, the image exemplifies Bresson’s concept of the “decisive moment”; a spectacular photo in terms of balance and composition which would not exist if the shutter had snapped one second earlier or one second later.

 

Chuck Close (Charles Thomas Close) (1940-)

Throughout his career as an artist, Chuck Close has traversed back and forth between painting and photography. Though known for his photorealist biomorphic grid paintings, he has also produced, photographic and silk screen prints Daguerreotypes. Over the years, he regularly photographed the patrons of Max’ Kansas City a New York nightclub home to art world types, budding poets and musicians such as Philip Glass. In 1997, he produced a series called The Portraits Speak: Chuck Close in Conversation with 27 of His Subjects, which contained detailed and intimate interviews with a number of cultural figures who openly shared with Close not only their thoughts but many morsels of world gossip.

The project, however, takes on a separate meaning when we take into account Close’s battle with “face blindness”—a condition known as prosopagnosia which makes it impossible for him to remember faces. “I can remember things that are flat, which is why I use photography as the source for the paintings”, says close. Acting as set of larger-than-life flash-cards, Close’s portraits provide such detail, that a wrinkle becomes a canyon and a spot becomes a mountain.

 

Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976)

Imogen Cunnigham is perhaps one of the most qualified early photographers, having gained a degree in chemistry to assist her with developing and printing techniques. Beginning her career in the early 1900s, Cunningham held a first exhibition of her work in 1914, almost twenty years ahead of becoming a founding member in 1932 of the f/64 group in San Francisco. She would become best known for her nudes and for crisp, detailed images of flowers, which were representative of the group’s philosophy to “produce a sharply focused, finely detailed, lens-formed image” that would capture details that painting could not. In the early part of her career, shackled to the home by her responsibilities as a mother, Cunningham frequently focused on subject close to home. The 1957 photograph Unmade Bed shows her classic attention to shade, line and detail applied to her domestic surroundings. According to Cunningham, the photograph came about when her colleague Dorthea Lange gave her students an assignment to photograph something in their surroundings. She got out of bed, threw down her hairpins as an accent, and snapped this beautifully textured photo.

 

Judy Dater (1941-)

Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite is one of Judy Dater’s most well known images, used as the cover for Dater’s 1979 book Imogen Cunningham: A Portrait. Photographer Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), who Dater met in 1964, was one of many influential twentieth-century photographers whose portrait Dater made, but Cunningham, who became a great friend, had a particular influence on Dater’s work. Dater was a firm feminist and used photography to explore and challenge the image of women in popular culture. Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite contrasts the aged, practically-dressed Cunningham with the Aphrodite-like physique of model Twinka Thiebaud standing in front of the tree. Twinka’s pose is awkward, yet impish; this is the female as seductress, an image which Dater puts forward as awkward itself in the changing times, in particular of the changing status of women, when the photograph was taken in 1974. Dater produced several influential bodies of work that challenged stereotypes, and which belie the casual elegance that many of her portrait subjects see themselves as projecting. She describes herself as “a people watcher and an obsessive collector of the visage.”

 

Harold Eugene Edgerton (1903-1990)

Lovingly nicknamed “Flash Papa” by underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, Harold Edgerton’s major contribution to the medium is his work with flash photography and other technical devices applicable to the process. An electrical engineering professor at MIT, he helped develop the stroboscope, a cylindrical shaped instrument with holes in it, which emitted short sharp bursts of light that illuminated sights not normally possible for the human eye to see and enabled a camera to capture moving objects in frozen motion. One of his most famous examples is of a bullet slicing through an apple. Edgerton’s work was of great strategic importance to the Allies in World War II. The giant strobe he created, large enough to illuminate large patches of ocean, enabled the navy to identify the location of German U-boats, and provided military intelligence used to launch the Normandy D-Day Invasion. Using the Rapatronic (rapid action electronic shutter) camera he invented in the 1940s, which boasted an exposure time of as little as 2 micro-seconds, Edgerton was also involved with photographing the explosion of atomic tests.

 

William Eggleston (1939-)

William Eggleston is a pioneer of color photography. Almost prior to a controversial exhibition of his work titled “14 Pictures” at MoMA, New York, in 1976, color photography had never been the subject of a museum display. The exhibition was hailed by some as “the most hated show of the year”: Eggleston’s subjects were parking lots, gas stations and diners, all deemed mundane; his colors, today viewed as painterly in the saturated quality of their tones, were in that era deemed garish. Yet, Eggleston soon developed a following. The great photography critic John Szarkowski wrote that “As pictures, however, these seem to me perfect: irreducible surrogates for the experience they pretend to record … described here with clarity, fullness, and elegance.”

Eggleston soon earned respect from artists too for his ability to transform the devastatingly dull surroundings of Memphis into memorable color compositions. America painter Ed Ruscha (b.1937) coined the phrase “Eggleston World” to describe the photographer’s uncommon vision, with its rusted signs for Wonderbread, windswept small-town grocers or tightly packed freezer compartments that seem to voice an existential malaise. In 2010, a final seal of approval came when a digitally re-mastered print of Tricycle, which graced the cover of the 1976 MoMA catalogue, sold at auction for US $578,000.

 

Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995)

Over the eight decades of his career as a photojournalist in the US, Alfred Eisenstaedt was credited with almost one hundred covers on Life magazine. He was a pioneer of a new style of photojournalism which saw him nimbly wielding his unobtrusive 35 mm camera to capture candid moments in life – his iconic image, The Kiss in Times Square on V-J Day in 1945, was snapped when he happened upon a soldier waltzing through the crowd and kissing every woman who crossed his path, from young girls to middle-aged women and grandmothers. Eisie (as he was known by his friends) waited for the right moment and snapped the shutter. The results of his agility is further visible in photos he took of Goebbels during the 1933 League of Nations Conference, and in this photograph, Hitler at the funeral of Paul von Hindenburg taken in 1934. Hindenburg (1847-1934) had worked his way through the military to become Germany's President (1925-34). A year ahead of his death, in 1933, he appointed Hitler as Germany’s Chancellor; shortly after his passing, Hitler overthrew Germany’s constitutional government. The rest is history. Eisenstaedt moved to the US in 1935 to make a different kind of history in photography.

 

Elliot Erwitt (1928-)

Elliot Erwitt’s genius lies in his ability to sift through the mass of reality, and to alight upon glinting moments of whimsy. His ability to find interest in the ordinary helped him land his first big break in 1951 when, as part of the Young Photographers Contest, “Bed and Boredom”, a photo essay about the daily routine of a soldier’s life in the army, won him a prize and a chance to have his photos shown in Life magazine. Civilian life, he found, was equally amusing. For instance in Honfleur, France 1968, a child is shown wearing a Zoro mask innocently holding a cigarette in his mouth like a lollypop, meanwhile two women in the background, are nonchalantly enjoying a meal together. Umbrella Jump, 1989, is a more polished and complex version of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” photo, which features an image of a man holding an umbrella and seemingly straddling a puddle in mid air. In front of him a couple embraces beneath two umbrellas and figures placed at various intervals in the distance give the impression of depth. The play of rain on the giant puddle animates this scene while the Eifel Tower observes stoically from a distance.

 

Leonard Freed (1929-2006)

A child of working-class parents in New York, over the span of his career Leonard Freed took a strong interest in sociology, producing nuanced photographic portraits of New York communities. His seminal book Police Work, 1972-79, on the NYPD, is a comprehensive record of the full spectrum of the job from homicides, arrests and shootouts to lighter moments such as a police woman playing with children in the street. Freed’s aim was to show that the police were regular people doing a “job”, not the menacing, corrupt figures of popular imagination. His work on post-war Europe and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States is described as legendary, the latter resulting in the influential book Black in White America, first published in 1968. The book contrasts touching vignettes of daily life and tough depictions the struggles of Civil Rights Movement activists. Kate is taken from a more mellow series made between 2001 and 2006, featuring the eponymous figure a vital young yoga teacher. As one of the last major series made before Freed’s death, its celebration of life is poignant.

 

Andreas Bernhard Lyonel Feininger (1906-1999)

The son of expressionist painter Lyonel Charles Feininger, Andreas was naturally predisposed towards lines as the guiding principle of his photography. Through his career, which included two decades as a Life photographer 1943-62, he photographed architecture and landscape, and produced a volume of science photography. In addition to the cityscapes of New York, many of his striking images belong to the aesthetic complexity and elegance of the forms found in nature. His studies of bones and shells affirm his fascination with spirals, lines and repetition. Both the nature studies and the landscape compositions display great interest in creating a memorable graphic representation of the subject. One of Feininger’s most famous photograph employs this graphic approach typical of his work; The Photojournalist features Dennis Stock with a lens and viewfinder replacing his eyes.

 

Philippe Halsman (Filips Halsmans) (1906-1979)

Known as “the rapid, hurtling Halsman”, the Latvian photographer was renowned for the exuberance and wit of his photographs. His means of extracting the candid essence of the subject was by forcing them to jump in front of the camera. Halsman likened his technique “jumpology” to a kind of truth serum or Rorschach test that reveals something of the personality of the subject. Though his most famous images are of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, he also managed to convince President Richard Nixon and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to partake in his photographic gymnastics.

His most elaborate subject-in-motion photograph was Dalí Atomicus, of the Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1904-89). The act required a total of 28 takes to achieve the desired effect. The final photograph features the artist mid-air, with three flying cats, levitating furniture and the spray from a thrown bucket of water. Halsman worked with Dalí on many photographic collaborations, such as the moustache series as well asa number of magazine covers.

 

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)

Some of Lewis Hine’s most widely reproduced photographs are his images of the construction of the Empire State Building; the intrepid iron workers or “sky boys” who rode the steel beams into place with not so much as a safety harness. No image so clearly demonstrates the message of Hine’s work; the perilous nature of labor. Part photographer, part sociologist and part social activist, between 1908 and 1912, Hines worked for the National Child Labor Committee, established in 1904, dressing up as a fire marshal or a bible salesmen in order to sneak into some of America’s most shameful sweatshops—cotton mills, paper factories and glassworks—which were usually closely guarded by factory foremen. In the 1900s, as many as one in six children between the ages of five and ten was “gainfully employed” in an upswing in child labor since the 1880s: the number of children under the age of 15 who worked in industrial jobs for wages climbed from 1.5 million in 1890 to 2 million in 1910. Hine’s photographs brought these dark factories to light and the resulting public alarm helped pave the way for anti-child labor legislation.

 

David Hockney (1937-)

A key artist our times, David Hockney’s work has had as much impact in the field of photography as in painting. Raised by working class parents in the northern city of Bradford, Hockney studied at the Royal College of Art and by the 1960s, was a leading figure of the British pop art movement. In 1964, Hockney left England and moved to California, attracted by the city’s lifestyle and endless summer climate. There he became famous for his paintings of swimming pools, the cool “splash” of pristine clear waters, and the clean lines of modernist homes of the era. The paintings evidence a graphic quality, which represents an early phase of what would become Hockney’s obsession with perspective: a core element of illusion in artistic expression, which is key to his work with photography. Hockney’s experiments with photography began in the early 80s. While trying to document his living room with a Polaroid camera in preparation for a painting, he discovered the effect of assembling multiple photographs together. The result was a series of multi-perspective collages dubbed “joiners.” As he developed the technique, Hockney learned to move around the subject photographing it from different angles. The final works seem to reference the visual form of Cubist painting, inspired by attempts to see form and motion exemplified as much in Cezanne’s paintings of apples as Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912). Hockney’s photography most successfully illustrates the dynamics of human vision.

 

Horst P. Horst (1906-1999)

Though Horst worked as a fashion photographer most of his work would be just as at home in a museum as it would be in the pages of a fashion magazine. In a career that lasted sixty years from 1931 to 1991, Horst was one of the most influential image-makers of the twentieth century. The subject of his photographs, however, is invariably never the garment per se, but the form, the silhouette, the effect of the light and the bewitching attitude of the model. Horst’s style became recognized for his frequent cropping of the frames in which his models were placed, resulting in a study of legs protruding from the floor or a head popping out from a table. Part of the drama in his work can be attributed to his fascination with Greek statues, which he studied carefully to inspire the poses of his models. He further adopted surrealist elements in the use of props such as wax paper from which limbs magically emerge and his Tall Fashion series (1963) which features models raised on stilts or holding oversized props such as giant carnations.

 

Kim Joon (1966-)

The work of Kim Joon belongs to the rapidly developing field of digital imaging. The compositions at first seem to echo body painting as seen in the work of Annie Leibovitz, but are a composite image created by three-dimensional imaging software. First the artist creates 3D renderings on to which he grafts artificial “skins” both human and animal. To this he adds a final layer of patterns composed of brand logos and motifs found in Asian porcelain and painting. The result is a tangled nest of limbs and bodies, contours and patterns. The approach to creating a decorative surface references the art of tattooing. Kim became interested in tattoos when he joined the army, where the practice of being tattooed was common. For the artist, it represents an aestheticization of the body. The tattoo “symbolizes multi-layered composites of desire and will, emotion and action, pain and pleasure of self and other,” says Kim.

 

Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)

Karsh possessed the two essential talents of a great portrait photographer; a mastery of lighting and a personal vision. An Armenian, whose father sent him, age 13, away from genocide at the hands of the Turks, to make a new life in Ottawa, Karsh became one of the most successful portrait photographers of the twentieth century. Charming all, from politicians to celebrities, with his neat appearance, polite demeanor and foreign accent, he had an uncanny ability to elicit an emotional state in his subjects achieving portraits that told a greater story. His iconic 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill, with its signature scowl, hand on hip affirming the attitude of intense, impatient scrutiny, is one of the most reproduced images in history. During his career, Karsh clocked up an astonishing figure of over 15,000 sittings for portraits, leaving to posterity what is described as “an indelible artistic and historic record of the men and women who shaped the twentieth century.”

 

Tom Kelly, Sr. (1914-1984)

Tom Kelley moved to California in 1935 where he found work for the film studios. His job, to produce publicity shots for actors such as Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable, and political figures such as JFK, Eisenhower and FDR. In 1949, a young actress walked into his studio and asked Kelly to create a series of portraits. This now iconic image depicts Marilyn Munroe before she became famous, the ebullient young Norma Jean, before the tragic complexities of her later years in the spotlight. Here, against a plush velvet backdrop, she was perhaps at her most radiant. In 1953, Kelly sold an image from this same series to publisher Hugh Hefner who placed it in the inaugural issue of Playboy. The issue sold over 50,000 copies in three weeks and was instrumental in casting Monroe as an icon of female beauty.

 

Josef Koudelka (1938-)

Josef Koudelka’s photographs of Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 provided his first big break in photography. Smuggled out of Prague, the photographs were published in the Sunday Times under the initials P.P. These images earned the anonymous “Prague Photographer” the Robert Capa Gold Medal for courage. In 1970, Koudelka took flight to London, where he received a warm welcomed from Magnum photographers. His personal experiences led to a lifelong interest in the plight of stateless people, exampled in the 1975 series Gypsies, an extensive body of work created by following the Romani people across Europe to capture a way of life which was quickly disappearing, and Exiles 1988. In the words of Cornell Capa “Koudelka’s unsentimental, stark, brooding, intensely human imagery reflect his own spirit, the very essence of an exile who is at home wherever his wandering body finds haven in the night.” Koudelka is much published; a widely respected photographer of exceptional rep

 

Dorthea Lange (1895-1965)

Dorthea Lange’s poignant documentation of poverty and oppression in America of the

Depression Era made a firm impact on the medium of photography in the 20th century. In the 1930s, participating in a project initiated by the government’s Farm Securities Administration to investigate living conditions in California, Lange documented the spectacular implosion of the American dream and its human casualties. Taken between 1935 and 1939, her images of mass destitution, caused by devastating drought which forced families to abandon their farms in search of work, made Lange the foremost chronicler of the “Dust Bowl”, as the region thus came to be known. This iconic image was captured in a migrant camp outside of Nipomo, California. Florence Thomas Owens and her seven children survived on peas plucked from the fields and birds caught by the children. Lange’s photographs were instrumental in prompting government aid to be sent to migrant communities languishing in the camps.

 

Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986)

Jacque Henri Lartigue once declared that he didn’t like people who were boring or pessimistic. “I'm an optimist”, he said. This indefatigable spirit pervades his whole oeuvre. Lartigue is widely known as one of the most successful chroniclers of the Belle Epoque—a time which began in the 1870s and lasted until 1917 when France enjoyed enough political stability to enable a flourishing of arts. Relatively free of hardships, the population of France pursued the pleasures of life and Lartigue chronicled their various activities including the French Open, the Grand Prix and the pioneers of French aviation. Critic John Szarkowski described his photographs as possessing the “persuasive charm of a vanished world . . . the observations of a genius: fresh perceptions, poetically sensed and graphically fixed.” Lartigue is known for his evocative street photography, such as Zissou Rouzat, which features Lartigue’s brother floating in a pool with in an inner tube, dressed in a hat glasses and three piece suit. In this photograph, My Brother Zissou Gets His Glider Airborne, from 1910, we see Zissou engaged in rather a different act of levitation; this time poised to float on air.

 

Annie Leibovitz (1949-)

Seen as a photographer to the stars, Annie Leibovitz’s success lies in the distance she maintains from celebrity. Her ability to bring stars down to earth is the measure of her talent, seen where an actress like Demi Moore is persuaded to pose nude, the image of a man’s suit painted directly onto her body, or that of actress Meryl Streep, her face painted white, and with the actress pinching her skin as if it were a mask, and making subtle allusion to the dichotomy between actor and person. Leibovitz’s iconic photograph of Yoko Ono and John Lennon was an assignment for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in December 1980. In 2013, she recalled the making of this image: “I met John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York in the early part of my career. It was 1980, and he had just finished the album Double Fantasy with Yoko. I had seen the cover, which was both of them kissing. And I thought, Oh my gosh. This was the 1980s—romance was a little dead. And I was so moved by that kiss. So, for the photo I wanted to take, I imagined them somehow together. And it wasn't a stretch to imagine them with their clothes off, because they did it all the time. But what happened at the last minute was that Yoko didn't want to take her clothes off. So, we went ahead with the picture, and it was this very striking picture of Yoko clothed against a naked John.” Lennon’s death, only five hours later – he was shot outside the Dakota Building in New York walking home in the evening – casts this photo in a different light, a last kiss, a kiss goodbye.

 

Christopher Makos (1948-)

Photographer Christopher Makos is primarily known for his involvement in the art world. He was a regular visitor to Warhol’s factory and introduced the work of the then young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88; pictured) and Keith Haring (1958-90) to Andy Warhol. He frequently contributed to Warhol’s magazine Interview and even taught Warhol the ins and outs of the camera. His friendships allowed him a rare access to the larger-than-life personalities of the cultural scene and in 1977 he produced a compilation of these images in the book White Trash, which offered a comprehensive look at the punk subculture through individual portraits of music icons Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and David Bowie. We also see images of other cult figures such as film director, John Waters and his leading lady Divine. Much of the book is dedicated to the fashions of punk; the DIY aesthetic and the use of safety pins. Makos sees the book as being a testament to the human desire for self-expression, “It was about being different, being who you are, and that being ok”, says Makos.

 

Sally Mann (1951-)

Known for her photographs of her children, Sally Mann’s distinctive body of work captures the emotional journey from childhood to adulthood. She describes her vision as the “natural through the eyes of a mother” who has “seen her children in every state: happy, sad, playful, sick, bloodied, angry.” The children appear to live an Eden-like existence, full of innocence and, at times, the images have a surreal, staged quality that belies the naturalness with which they were observed. The often-candid quality of the scenes has made Mann’s work the subject of controversy. Mann has always involved the children in the selection of images, and the theme of her Immediate Family—the title of an early exhibition of these works—finds full meaning when considered together with other of her works, including the series Proud Flesh, intimate portraits of her husband, “exploring what it means to grow older, to let the sunshine fall voluptuously on a still-beautiful form, and to spend quiet afternoons together again. No phone, no kids, two fingers of bourbon, the smell of the ether, the two of us—still in love, still at work”. It is this very human quality that underscores Mann’s contribution to photography.

 

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989)

While most often associated with his depictions of erotic imagery, Robert Mapplethorpe was more interested in form than shock value. “I don’t like that particular word ‘shocking.’ I’m looking for the unexpected”, says the artist. “I was in a position to take those pictures (of the gay BDSM scene). I felt an obligation to do them”. Mapplethorpe’s approach to the body is often described as “classical” for their affinity with Greek statuary. Be they male or female, his choice of model always leant towards the muscular, for instance Derrick Cross or body builder Lisa Lyons. “The content of the work is often sufficiently erotic to be considered pornographic, even by the artist”, says critic Arthur Coleman Danto, “while the aesthetic of its presentation is … Dionysiac and Apollonian at once”.

 

Ray K. Metzker (1931-2014)

Canadian urban writer and activist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) often referred to the street-life of American cities as a ballet; Ray K. Metzker portrays it as a stage. Known for urban settings dramatized by high contrast lighting, Metzker transformed cast shadows into graphic elements of his photographs to form accidental patterns with which figures appear intertwined. Metzker’s images were created using a variety of methods including solarization, super-imposition and multiple exposures. He was a student of American photographer Aaron Siskind (1903-91) at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which was dubbed “the New Bauhaus” for the aesthetic promoted within its classrooms. While some of Metzker’s abstract compositions are formed by geometric shapes of architecture in his environment, other works however have a softer appearance as in the series Pictus Interruptus whereby blurry objects in the foreground create an intrusion into the picture plane forcing us to consider what is the real subject of these photographs.

 

László Moholy-Nagy (László Weisz) (1895-1946)

A painter and photographer working under the strong influence of the Constructivist and Bauhaus movements—himself a teacher at the Bauhaus—Moholy-Nagy was primarily interested in exploring fundamental principles of light and shadow in a technical and formal way. His work was the product of experiments conducted to discover new ways to create and manipulate light and shadow: Moholy-Nagy coined the term “New Vision” for his belief that photography could create a whole new way of seeing the outside world that the human eye could not. His “photograms” involved taking a sheet of photographic paper and placing objects directly on it while exposing it to light. These resulted in images of the imprint of a recognizable form in white or grey; just one of the experimental forms of photographic image-making Moholy-Nagy is credited with exploring.

 

Arnold Abner Newman (1918-2006)

Unusually camera shy, Henri Cartier-Bresson granted few people the opportunity to point a lens at him. Arnold Newman, was one of the few to whom he granted that privilege. A freelance photographer for Fortune, Life, and Newsweek magazines, Newman also gained access to some of the most influential personalities of his era; John F. Kennedy, Truman Capote, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, and Woody Allen. When photographing his subjects he always took pains to place them in their own surroundings and is widely credited as inventing the “environmental portraiture” technique, now a mainstay of portraiture. As example, Newman took several photographs of composers like Russian émigré Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and American Aaron Copland (1900-90), shown in relation to their instruments and sheafs of music upon which they were working. Newman also photographed the respected painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) on several occasions, always in side profile, seen here with her lover and husband the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), whom she met in 1916, married in 1924 and continued a passionate, at times, difficult relationship (from 1929 when O’Keeffe moved to New Mexico, one that was maintained miles apart), until Stieglitz’s death.

 

Ruth Orkin (1921-1985)

Daughter of a silent film star, at the age of 10, Ruth Orkin was given a 39-cent Univex camera. This marked the beginning of an adventurous life as a photographer, combined with Orkin’s second love, travel. Age 17, she bicycled and hitchhiked across America to see the World’s Fair, a journey that produced a series of photographs of rural and urban landscapes. In addition to her shots taken while travelling, she also spent much of her time in music halls photographing musicians. She was a regular at Tanglewood Music Center (the annual summer music academy in Lennox, Massachusetts) where she photographed names such as American composers Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) and Aaron Copland (1900-90), and Ukrainian émigré and leading twentieth-century violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001). In 1951, Life magazine sent Orkin on assignment to Europe where she met Ninalee Craig (Jinx) in Italy. In the spirit of celebrating the experience of women travelling alone, Orkin produced a full series of photographs of Jinx enjoying the sights of Italy. The most iconic of these is American Girl, Florence, which captures the spirit a spirited defense of freedom, despite the attention a girl alone inevitably drew.

 

 

Irving Penn (1917-2009)

Irving Penn was primarily known for fashion photography, portraits, and still lifes. The three genres share a common style in their minimal yet carefully compositions, orchestrated to articulate the abstract interplay of line and volume. His black and white prints are notable for the clean, crisp look that resulted from the deep contrast he employed. Penn consciously sought to insert fashion photography into the history of painting. "It has been helpful, in orientation," he wrote, "to think of myself, a contemporary fashion photographer, as stemming directly from painters of fashion back through the centuries." Irving Penn's notion of “a pictorial category involving fashion painters” may have been a personal conception but, as photography critic John Szarkowski wrote in 1984, “it did allow him to treat his own commercial activity with the free and disinterested attitude of the painter.” Further, whilst it may sound as if Penn sought to complicate an already challenging discipline, as Szarkowski continued, “Penn has never changed his first idea of portraiture; he has merely simplified what at first seemed almost irreducibly simple.”

 

Eliot Furness Porter (1901-1990)

In an era where black and white nature photography was standard, and a measure of aesthetic, Eliot Porter made substantial inroads for color nature photography. Against the prejudices of colleagues, he helped color gain access to fine art institutions. Though he was acquainted with West Coast photographers such as Ansel Adams and was involved with the environmental protectionist group, the Sierra Club, he photographed all over the US, spending much of his time in New England. He also traveled to farther destinations including Mexico, the Galápagos, East Africa and Antarctica. Originally trained as a biochemical researcher, Porter’s love of science spilled into his photography where he would methodically photograph the life cycles of spiders or mosquitoes. Here we see one of 12 dye-transfer prints from Porter’s series entitled The Seasons.

 

August Sander (1876-1964)

With his first contact with the medium working as an assistant to a photographer at a mining company, August Sander discovered a deep interest in photographing the working man. He earned his place in 20th century photography by applying his formidable skills at portraiture to a demographic that typically could not afford formal portraits: his first series, entitled Stamm-Mappe (a map of social groups), was a collection of portraits of farmers, full-length images of dignified country folk, dressed in their finest against rural backdrops. This was followed by studies of other social groups including skilled workers, lawyers, soldiers, bankers and intellectuals such as artists, musicians and poets. The positive spirit of these portrayals represents Sander’s personal philosophical theories of the “archetypal man” as the basis of society. His first book, The Face of Our Time, documenting this vision of society was published in 1929. The portrait of artist Heinrich Hoerle (1895-1936), a leading figure in the Dada and Constructivist movements in Cologne, taken in 1928, is one of those faces of the 1920s, as were other of his artist friends. Hoerle’s apartment was a meeting place for local artists in the 1910s and early 1920s, which included Surrealist Max Ernst (1891-1976), and others who freely criticized bourgeois German society and the rise of National Socialism. Sander made several images of Hoerle as well as of his friends and associates, but when Sander’s home was destroyed in an air raid in 1944, these images were amongst many others from the 1920s or 1930s that became very scarce.

 

Lawrence Schiller (1933-)

Perusing Lawrence Schiller’s portfolio is like looking through a yearbook of the 1960s. There are presidents—Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy—statesmen like Martin Luther King. There are outcasts and criminals like Lee Harvey Oswald and Gary Gilmore; sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren; entertainers Tippi Hedren, Alfred Hitchcock, Barbara Streisand, Robert Redford and the Jackson Five. There are even counter-culture figures such as Timothy Leary, and a body of work on LSD culture.

In addition to his role as photographer, Schiller has worked as an author and a filmmaker, but perhaps profited most from his relationship with Marilyn Monroe. She trusted him; enough to let him shoot her nude for the film Something’s Gotta Give (1962), although she handpicked which images would be used, cutting up those of Schiller’s negatives of which she disapproved.

 

Sam Shere (1905-1982)

A classic news photographer, Sam Shere covered many of the major political events of the time: Charles de Gaule’s visit to the US in 1945, Eisenhower and Patton in North Africa in 1945, as well as wartime images of GIs and tanks, people enjoying travel by train or the sand at Rockaway Beach in New York. Shere’s most famous image is that of the Hindenburg Disaster May 6, 1937. It was a routine assignment for a photographer, this one used to shooting more exciting things, but at 245m long, the Hindenburg was the largest airship to date, and would be carrying celebrity passengers who would disembark in New Jersey. As the German airship descended and attempted to dock, it ignited, taking less than 34 seconds to be engulfed in flames from the initial explosion. As the balloon convulsed, Shere grabbed his camera and started pressing the shutter, not wasting a precious second to raise the camera to his eye. The resulting photo, and a four-page spread in the New York Times made him instantly famous.

 

Cindy Sherman (Cynthia Morris Sherman) (1954-)

Cindy Sherman appears in all of her photographs. Since the mid-70s, she has conducted myriad explorations of the topic of female identity, meticulously creating disguises and scenarios, which question the dynamic of the male gaze. Some of the images reference specific paintings or the artistic style of well-known artists. Others represent re-enactions of the language of popular culture; films stills used to promote movies; photographs that illustrate magazine features; realities that by dint of being reenacted are made artifice. For Sherman, makeup is her paint, and her face the canvas she works on.

Sherman’s disguises are never seamless. She intends us to see every aspect of those elements that are brought to constructing each artifice: the exaggerated drama of the makeup, the edge of a wig, the material fabrication of the costume she wears and, on occasion, the prosthetic breasts that lie beneath. Ancestor (1985) demonstrates how complete the disguise can be, and yet, how easily we read through it. This is perhaps more disconcerting with Sherman’s Madonna (1975), which combines the mascara-laden lashes, moist cupid bow lips and kiss curls evocative of the 1920s, a time when women began to explore the boundaries of their sexuality, with the vestigial white drape of the Virgin Mary’s veil.

 

Jeanloup Sieff (1933-2000)

Jeanloup Sieff began his career as a fashion photographer in Paris in 1954, and in his career would be published in magazines such as Elle, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. From the mid-1950s, having joined the photo agency Magnum, he travelled widely on assignment, before moving to New York in 1961. Across the full range of his work, the style is consistent in the accent on form and contrasts – in juxtapositions of form and texture as much as between the simple, at times stark backgrounds and typical high-contrast lighting against which he placed his subjects. Sieff was influenced by filmmaking, in particular the languid sensuality of the French New Wave cinema; many of his photographs have the quality of a movie still, and subtle hint of underlying narrative.

 

Aaron Siskind (1903-1991)

Viewing Aaron Siskind’s work alongside the abstract expressionist painters who were his contemporaries, it is clear why he is often called a “painter’s photographer”. His details of peeling paint bear a remarkable similarity to the paintings of Franz Klein and Robert Motherwell, who were contemporaries at Black Mountain College. His images of rocks, though less painterly, are nonetheless more concerned with form than they are with accurate depiction. Critic Thomas B. Hesse describes his picture planes as “a place where things happen” where things decompose, push or meld together, “The question: ‘what was actually there’ becomes as important as ‘What did Monet’s lily pond really look like.’”

Like the expressionists, Siskind was concerned with using forms in his photographs as tools to express his own complex emotional states rather than to represent a pictorial reality.

 

Sandy Skoglund (1946-)

Sandy Skoglund’s images appear as the embodiment of “surreal photography”. They take inspiration from paintings produced within the surrealist movement, as well as fantasy worlds. Skoglund’s scenes are elaborately constructed by hand as a physical set, with painted furniture and clay animals. Photographic images are then combined and overlaid to create unsettling alternative universes. On the one hand, her works evoke common fears (war, chaos, and interpersonal strife), but on the other, the human indifference invoked here speaks to our troubled relationship with the natural environment, as evoked by the aloof stance of figures in the photograph Fox Games.

 

W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978)

A titan of photojournalism, W. Eugene Smith is known as the master of the photo essay: Smith’s 1948 photo essay titled Country Doctor, of Dr. Ernest Ceriani, based in a small Colorado town, is credited as the first modern "photo story". The core of his oeuvre is a visceral portrait of human tragedy in myriad forms. His work for Life magazine and other publications in the 1940s took him to the Pacific theater of WWII, specifically to Japan, where he captured the horrors of war. Not one to be afraid of difficult conditions, in 1954, Smith worked in Gabon, documenting the work of Nobel Peace laureate, Albert Schweitzer, who founded a hospital to treat diseases such as leprosy, malaria and elephantiasis for an essay he titled Man of Mercy. Some of his toughest images were taken in the 1970s in Minamata, Japan, where Chisso Corporation was discharging toxic waste into the marine ecosystem and slowly poisoning the population with what was known as Minamata disease. The photographs did their work in revealing a truth that Chisso Corporation preferred to conceal and affirming the work of this remarkably dedicated photographer.

 

Frederick Sommer (1905-1999)

While Ansel Adams frequently used the sky to silhouette majestic mountain forms, Frederick Sommer understood that the desert was a different sort of place. Instead of trying to tease out depth, he concentrated on its flat character, shooting grand swathes of scrubland with no horizon to emphasize the sense of infinite two-dimensionality. This attitude towards nature inspired a series focused on death, which featured decomposing mammals, their bodies slowly becoming one with the earth.

Later on in his career, instead of photographing what was in front of him, Sommer began to constructed abstract scenes using found objects or adding his own materials to create a graphic composition. He later began manipulating negatives by smearing paint between glass and cellophane, an effect the produced his work Paracelsus. The photograph seems to resemble a human torso. It borrows its title from the adopted name of a fifteen-century Swiss physician and alchemist, who was viewed as a revolutionary for insisting upon using observations of nature, rather than looking to ancient texts.

 

Edward Steichen (Éduard Jean Steichen) (1879-1973)

As one of the earliest and most influential photographers of the twentieth century, Edward Steichen saw the potential of the camera for non-figurative representation. He experimented with purposely blurring his images and applying color to the prints directly, as with his image The Pond–Moonlight, which was treated with light-sensitive gums.

Steichen also produced fashion photography and portraits working for Conde Nast and Vanity Fair. During WWII, he produced an extensive body of war photography. Most importantly for the field of photography in the twentieth century, Steichen enjoyed a 15-year tenure at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (1947-62), during which he conceived and oversaw the wildly-popular “Family of Man” exhibition. This featured over 500 photos selected from almost 2 million submitted by both professional photographers and amateurs. The exhibition, which was viewed by over 9 million people, featured images of birth, love, war and death. Cutting through the Cold War tensions of the time, the 1955 show tried to emphasize the common experience of man as exemplified by the text by poet Carl Sandburg, “I am! I have come through! I belong! I am a member of the Family”.

 

Bertram "Bert" Stern (1929-2013)

Bert Stern owes much of his fame to his involvement in what is known as “the last sitting”, a reference to the last photo shoot of the iconic actress Marilyn Monroe. Commissioned by Vogue in June 1962, this last sitting actually took place over the course of three different shoots, during which Stern became close to this woman who commanded awe in so many men. His own book, titled The Last Sitting, was not published until twenty years later in 1982. The several photographs in the book that feature a red “X” are those amongst the 2,500 frames shot that were censored by Monroe herself. Monroe died just six weeks later on August 5, 1962.

 

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)

Alfred Stieglitz created an important dialogue about photography that was essential in validating the medium as its own art form. Stieglitz was an active critic and commentator, as well as editor of lush photographic magazines Camera Notes, launched in July 1897, and the quarterly journal Camera Work, published from 1903 to 1917. He managed three galleries, including the renowned 291, named for its location at 291 Fifth Avenue, New York. Between 1905 and 1917, the gallery showed some of the most respected early twentieth-century photographers including Edward Steichen, as well as leading artists Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne and Marcel Duchamp. Stieglitz’ own cloud photographs, titled Equivalents are often cited as the first example of photography departing from purely figurative references. He is also known for composite portraits of his wife, the painter Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986), a series that includes over 300 prints. Stieglitz was visionary in considering her hands alone could constitute a portrait—an idea which may have been influenced by the particular focus of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, also one of the many artists whose works were displayed at 291.

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976)

Paul Strand was a student of American photographer Lewis Hine (1874-1940), who “instilled in Strand a deep sense of commitment to the social betterment of humankind”. It was Hine who took him, in 1907, to 291, the gallery run by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). The experience convinced Strand to become a photographer. Stieglitz became his mentor as Strand worked through Pictorialism to abstractions; a Modernist approach to shapes and lines, and an attempt to understand the new painting styles of artists like Cezanne and Picasso. Stieglitz, impressed with his aesthetic, promoted Strand’s works in the magazine Camera Work. He also explored movement in the city through a wide array of street portraits. It was said that “humanity is a constant in Strand’s work even when people are not”. This concern for humanity led Strand towards social documentary in the vein of Hine’s work. Here, he found a parallel interest in filmmaking, and in 1921 he shot the silent film Manhatta (with artist Charles Sheeler), described as “an invaluable portrait of early-twentieth-century New York City, as well as America’s first avant-garde film.” Strand went on to become a founder of the Photo League in 1936, which brought together an early group of socially-conscious photographers, and travelled widely before leaving New York in 1949 to live and work in France.

 

Hiroshi Sugimoto (1948-)

Throughout all his challenging and strikingly different bodies of work Hiroshi Sugimoto holds on to one clear goal: to force the viewer to look longer and harder at the images seems being the true subject of all his photographs. For instance, his Architecture Series from the 1990s takes iconic buildings such as the Guggenheim and the Empire State Building and renders them purposely blurry. The series Colors of Shadow 2009-10 depicts the interior of white-cube-like spaces in such a way that they masquerade as paintings. This visual trickery is most overt in the Diorama series begun in 1974 whereby Sugimoto photographed the contents of New York’s Natural History Museum, flattening the perspective so that what appears obviously fake in real life becomes surprisingly believable. Even Lightning Fields is not what it seems. Though one would guess it is a well-timed recording of a natural occurrence, it was in fact created using a Van de Graaff generator which administers a charge to a piece of photo sensitive paper laying on a metal table. The electricity creating a tangle of sparks bristling off in all directions.

 

Jerry Uelsmann (1934-)

Though Uelsmann’s work may look like the creations of a Photoshop genius, it is more apt to describe him a “master printer”. His photographs often employ as many as 12 enlargers at one time, each exposing a certain part of the print, before it is finally lowered into the developer tray. Despite the advent of digital photography, he asserts that his “creative process remains intrinsically linked to the alchemy of the darkroom.” What is remarkable about Uelsmann’s photomontages is that they came about in an era dominated by documentary photography or high realism in the style of Ansel Adams (1902-84) and the f/64 group (founded in 1932 in San Francisco)—a time when the photograph was sacrosanct, when the public still saw photographs as faithful testaments to reality. In an almost heretical move, Uelsmann created collages of surrealistic imagery which sought not to construct a readable narrative, but rather to open up the viewer’s mind to the existence of all things unfathomable.

 

Rund Van Empel (1958-)

Beginning his practice with physical photo collage, Rund van Empel soon graduated into the realm of digital photography, creating complex collages of multiple individual images. In his Office series he placed individuals against surrealistic backgrounds with wall-paper made out of nuts and bolts, plastic bottles, or garments—objects which imply the occupation of the subject. Dawn tackles notions of the innocence of childhood by placing the subject within a lush chroma-saturated setting of greenery and flowers. The vegetation is backlit so that it appears to glow, in contrast to the cool light that emanates from the child’s eyes. In spite of the seemingly utopian surroundings, the child’s expression is ambiguous. The face contains a trace of sadness and alienation, foreshadowing, perhaps the complex psychological state that approaches with adulthood.

 

Jeff Wall (Jeffrey Wall) (1946-)

One of the key figures of the Vancouver School, Wall is a pioneer of photoceptualism. Often produced on cibachrome transparencies, his works are dense with narrative content and references to the world of art history. Often cinematic and of staged appearance, Wall’s work highlights the seductive power of photography and its pretense to truth; in the artist’s one words, “prose poems”. In Rock Surface, Wall diverges from the narrative bent of his earlier work to embark on a new direction which finds him exploring mundane corners of the environment, those places which he deemed to be unoccupied by human habitation. These works also reflect Wall’s exploration of black and white photography following years of work with colour.

 

William Wegman (1943-)

With his quixotic images of Weimaraners in various disguises, William Wegman’s success lies in accomplishing the impossible; winning critical acclaim within the art world for a subject largely viewed as frivolous, that of “pet photography”. But Wegman’s images go beyond animal portraiture for the uncanny countenances of the Weimaraners seem to question what it is to be human. What should we make of a dog dressed in a high-collared embroidered jacket looking longingly at a tennis ball? Or clad in a bikini and blonde wig, its long snout poking out beneath the fringe? Both much and little, for Wegmen’s work is as much the subject of major art exhibitions as it is of children’s entertainment dating back to the debut of his second dog, Fay Ray, on the American children’s educational program Sesame Street in 1989.

 

Brett Weston (1911-1993)

The son of photographer Edward Weston, Brett Weston is often described as a youthful prodigy; his began an apprenticeship to his father at the age of 13, and had his first solo exhibition in San Francisco’s De Young Museum when he was just 21 years of age. Though availed of his father’s connections, by the end of his career, Brett Weston was one of the top ten photographers collected by American museums. His particular focus was nature, his observations of which resulted in exquisitely detailed landscapes, with luscious texture and finely-tuned grey scales: an affinity shared with f/64 photographers (his father being a founding member), with whom he was occasionally invited to exhibit. His style would evolve dramatically from the 1950s through to the 1980s, but he always remained faithful to the land close to where he lived: “l have found in this environment,” he said, “everything I could want to interpret about the world photographically.”

 

Edward Weston (1886-1958)

Like many artists in the San Francisco-based f/64 group founded in 1932, Edward Weston briefly flirted with Pictorialism before he arrived at his own unique aesthetic. Pictorialism wasn’t a specific style as such. Pictorialist photographers aimed to distinguish their images from straightforward documentation, so the subjects and compositions were given a sense of fantasy or dramatic effect to make the pictures more dynamic. These often juxtaposed human figures with landscape. The photographers also manipulated the chemical process in the way a painter would control their materials, this achieved a painter-like quality for the photographs. Weston’s photographs thus privileged a precision of line, tone and detail over an accurate representation of objects as he studied the forms of nature, in search of their inherent beauty. He produced many images of shells, green peppers, pumpkins and cabbage, his primary interest their curves, crevices and ridges, which led critics to speak of the erotic nature of his vegetal forms. Weston also produced a number of portraits, which captured the natural emotional state of the subject. Neil Sleeping possesses this kind of candor, the camera exuding parental warmth as it gases down on the rumpled figure of the boy.

 

The Curator

Charles Jin Hongwei

Starting his career as photo editor of Shanghai Pictorial, Mr. Charles Jin Hongwei left China to study in the US in 1989. In 1992 he earned a MFA from the Maryland Institute College ofArt beforesettling in Atlanta. In 2006, he began to collect works of 20th century photography. To this point, his collection contains over 1,600 works.

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