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American Modern: Abbott, Evans, Bourke-White

October 2, 2010 - January 2, 2011

 

The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is presenting American Modern: Abbott, Evans, Bourke-White, a special exhibition exploring the work of three of the foremost photographers of the twentieth-century and the golden age of documentary photography in America. American Modern will be on view through January 2, 2011. (right: Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Bread Store, 259 Bleecker Street, 1937, Gelatin silver print. Museum of the City of New York, 49.282.57.)

Featuring more than 140 photographs by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Margaret Bourke-White (1906-1971) and Walker Evans (1903-1975), American Modern was co-organized by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine. The exhibition is the result of a unique partnership between three curators: Jessica May and Sharon Corwin of the Carter and Colby, respectively, and Terri Weissman, assistant professor of art history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Together, the three curators present the works of these three artists as case studies of documentary photography during the Great Depression and demonstrate how three factors supported the development of documentary photography during this important period in American history: first, the expansion of mass media; second, a new attitude toward and acceptance of modern art in America; and third, government support for photography during the 1930s.

"This exhibition considers the work of three of the best-loved American photographers in a new light, which is very exciting," says curator Jessica May. "Abbott, Evans, and Bourke-White are undisputed masters of the medium of photography, but they have never been shown in relation to one another. This exhibition offers viewers an opportunity to see works together that have not been shown as such since the 1930s."

In addition to vintage photographs from over 20 public and private collections, the exhibition also features rare first-edition copies of select books and periodicals from the 1930s. American Modern, May says, "reminds us that documentary photography was very much a public genre-this was the first generation of photographers that truly anticipated that their work would be seen by a vast audience through magazines and books."

A scholarly catalogue, published by the University of California Press, accompanies the exhibition. The museum has also prepared a mobile tour of the exhibition, which will be available on the museum's website or on preloaded iTouch devices available for free loan from the Carter's Information Desk.

 

Wall panel texts from the exhibition

Introductory Text
 
As the United States and much of the modern world struggled with an economic depression that was inaugurated (symbolically at least) by massive drops in the U.S. stock market on October 24 and 29, 1929, and deepened through the following years, photographic activity flourished in America, and the genre of documentary emerged as a mode of understanding contemporary culture. While the nation's and the world's economies were severely tested, political systems were in flux, and Europe prepared again for war, Americans recognized in their own country a viable cultural heritage and sought to stabilize and document that heritage -- even to build upon it. Thus, the country's literary, artistic, and architectural traditions were subject not only to examination and revision, but also to expansion in the form of an explosion of popular literature, the founding of new art museums, and the establishment of New Deal government-funded arts programs. Moreover, advances in technology, production, and distribution transformed mass media in this country: Americans enjoyed popular movies, weekly picture magazines, and radio broadcasts in unprecedented numbers. Photography had an important new public role in American life -- during this decade millions more people than ever before saw photographs in books and magazines, at art museums and galleries, and in the context of official documentary records of the Great Depression. Photographs crossed the boundaries between public and private use, impersonal documentation and expressive creation, and popular visual culture and fine art.
 
American Modern examines the practice of documentary photography through the work of three of the most important photographers of the decade -- Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, and Margaret Bourke-White. Although they were not the decade's only documentary photographers, each contributed a fundamental, independent, and novel idea about documentary to the common pool of artistic practice: for Abbott, it was the notion that photography was a means of critical dialogue and communication; Evans thoroughly investigated the idea that photography has a unique and essential relationship to time; and Bourke-White developed a repertoire wherein documentary could fuse the logic and pageantry of modern industry with drama and the individual narratives of its subjects.
 
American Modern: Abbott, Evans, Bourke-White has been co-organized by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, and the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine. The exhibition and accompanying publication have been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
The Fort Worth presentation is supported in part by RBC Wealth Management. Promotional support is provided by the Star-Telegram, WFAA, and American Airlines.
 
 
 
Text Panels
 
Margaret Bourke-White and the Image of Industry
 
By the late 1920s, Margaret Bourke-White had secured a position as one of America's preeminent photographers of industry. Working sometimes on assignment and sometimes speculatively, Bourke-White actively sought to convey the scale of modern industrial production. She quickly settled on several important strategies, including borrowing lighting methods from the burgeoning Hollywood film industry; repeating images of consumer goods and the machines that produced them to suggest endless chains of production and abundance; and adopting the graphic dynamism and sharp angles associated with modern art to express energy and excitement. Her efforts were not unnoticed. Despite the onset of the Great Depression, Bourke-White was hired by advertisers, corporate executives, and magazine publishers to photograph at many of America's largest factories, including those of major auto manufacturers such as Chrysler and Ford.
 
Bourke-White's interest in the machines, products, and places of production brought her attention as a photographer, as did her glamorous self-fashioning. She was regularly photographed with her camera, and her own self-image tended to reinforce the sense of exuberance that characterized many of her early photographs of industry. She was so well-known that Henry R. Luce, the publisher of Fortune magazine, hired her in 1930 as a staff photographer for the debut issue of his prestigious business periodical. Bourke-White's was a somewhat unusual situation -- her professional success came at a moment when many American workers were feeling the economic sting of the Depression. After 1930, Bourke-White's photographs increasingly included working people, though they were often diminutive within the larger composition. The tiny workers in Bourke-White's industrial photographs may reflect her perception that workers ought to be represented within the context of industrial photography as well as her uncertainty about how to represent them appropriately. As the decade progressed, Bourke-White became more sure-footed and committed in her approach to working people as the subjects of her photographs.
 
 
Seeing the World, Telling Stories
 
In addition to photographing close to home, which for Abbott, Evans, and Bourke-White during the 1930s meant New York City, these photographers (and many of their peers) traveled far afield to document stories. Making important trips within the United States as well as abroad prompted Abbott, Evans, and Bourke-White to develop more sophisticated approaches of linking sequences of photographs together to create an overarching narrative -- one of the defining characteristics of documentary photography in the 1930s.
 
Abbott's major work of the decade, Changing New York, was a city project, but she spent the summer of 1935 traveling by car through much of the United States in preparation for a proposed (and unrealized) photo-book that addressed American life and culture. Bourke-White traveled to the Soviet Union in 1930, 1931, and 1932 in order to make photographs for American audiences. Although she was already a Fortune staff photographer, her editors feared she would not be able to get a visa and refused to pay for her trip. Ironically, the inconvenience of undertaking expensive travel without support gave Bourke-White freedom of ownership over the work and allowed her to distribute it as she liked. She eventually published two books and a short documentary film on the Soviet Union. Evans took several early assignments abroad, including a 1932 trip to Tahiti on a private yacht and a 1933 trip to Cuba for the Philadelphia publisher J. P. Lippincott to make photographs for the journalist Carelton Beals' book The Crime of Cuba (1933). Later in the decade, both Bourke-White and Evans traveled-like Abbott, mostly by car -- within the United States to work on extensive documentary projects.
 
 
Documentary Photography and the South: Projects and Assignments
 
Although the 1930s saw a profusion of documentary photography throughout the country, images of the American South are particularly resonant in public memory of the Depression. One of the most important and prolific public art projects of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal government was the Historical Division of the federal agency called the Resettlement Administration (RA), later named the Farm Security Administration. Its director, Roy Stryker, renamed Evans in 1935 to document the agency's work of building planned communities and relocating poor, rural farmers, as well as to make photographic records of the devastating effects of the Depression on sharecroppers in the South and migrant workers in the West and Midwest. Stryker tirelessly promoted the RA, and as a result of his efforts many Americans became familiar with RA photographs in magazines and newspapers, as well as via exhibitions.
 
Evans worked for the RA until late winter 1937. In the summer of 1936, however, he was furloughed from the agency to work on a project with the writer James Agee for Fortune. They traveled together to Hale County, Alabama, to make photographs of three sharecropper families. Fortune eventually dropped the project, but Agee and Evans published it as the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941.
 
Bourke-White's work for Fortune and Life took her to the Midwest and the South in 1934 (with Agee) and in 1937 to document environmental disasters. In 1936, she embarked on a project with the writer Erskine Caldwell that would be published as the book You Have Seen Their Faces (1937). Like Evans, Bourke-White was keenly attuned to the dramatic conditions that poor, rural farmers experienced during the Depression. Her approach to her subjects built on her previous experience with industrial subjects and dramatic compositions, but the photographs from her time in the South suggest that her focus by the mid-1930s had turned decidedly toward human subjects.
 
 
The Legacy of American Documentary
 
Signs and portraiture became increasingly crucial subject matter for documentary photography as the 1930s progressed and the Depression wore on. Both portraiture and public signs allowed photographers to make images that seemed simple and direct. Similarly, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the writer James Agee expressed the desire for his writing to transcend the act of representation and convey material facts. He wrote, "If I could, I'd do no writing here at all. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth."
 
By the end of the decade, the values of authenticity, accuracy, and evenhandedness that Abbott, Bourke-White, and Evans sought -- despite their radically different approaches -- had become values that were commonly associated with photography itself. Despite this remarkable achievement, the means for producing major documentary projects diminished toward the end of the Great Depression. By the end of the decade documentary had saturated public culture as the primary vehicle of description for a social transformation-the Depression-that was itself passing into history.
 
Abbott, Bourke-White, and Evans each saw their careers take a different path shortly thereafter. Abbott published Changing New York in 1939 and began making complicated and technically sophisticated photographs of scientific phenomena. In the 1940s, Bourke-White became one of the premier photojournalists of her generation, but she did not take on another explicitly documentary project in the same model as You Have Seen Their Faces. Finally, Evans had a major solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, American Photographs, in 1938 and then published, with Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The photographs were already five years old by the time the book came out, and Evans was deeply engaged with a project of making surreptitious photographs of subway riders in New York.
 
 
Walker Evans
The South as Subject
 
Just as Margaret Bourke-White made her mark as a photographer in northeastern factories and Berenice Abbott established herself professionally by photographing the transformation of New York City into a modern metropolis, Walker Evans forged his artistic legacy on location. From 1935 through 1937, he traveled through the American South photographing sharecroppers; antebellum architecture; and the streets, railroads, and shop fronts of small towns. These subjects were not obvious choices for the young photographer, who learned to photograph on the streets of New York and whose friends and supporters included many of that city's artistic and literary elite. Yet Evans was also interested in photographing the everyday aspects of American culture, and he was friendly with a number of writers and intellectuals from the South, including the critic James Agee. Although they were raised in the South, many of his friends relocated to New York City to be part of the publishing and modern art scene, and their perspectives on southern culture made a deep impact on Evans.
 
Evans traveled throughout the South on assignment for both public and private organizations. He primarily used an 8-by-10-inch view camera and worked very slowly. The resulting photographs crystallized the formal lessons he learned earlier in the decade: he strove for a direct and balanced composition, eschewed dramatic camera angles, and made sure that the ground glass of the camera was directly parallel to the subject. Perhaps Evans' most significant contribution to the history of documentary photography was to fuse the formal quality of straightforwardness as a means of organizing a photograph with the moral idea of straightforwardness as a form of truth.

 

Additional images

 

(above: Walker Evans (1903-1975), Posed Portraits, New York, 1932, Gelatin silver print. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne, 1962.169)

 

(above: Margaret Bourke-White (1906-1971), Delman Shoes, 1933, Gelatin silver print. © Estate of Margaret Bourke-White/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Margaret Bourke-White Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Library)

 

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