Friday, 8 June 2012

Family of Man

 PRINTED PERSPECTIVES: An Album for the Family of Man
 --first published in The Clearing House, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Oct., 1959)
(1)  “Photography in the Fine Arts,” Saturday Review, May 16, 1959. Also reprinted as catalogue for an exhibition held in the summer of 1959 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
(2)  The World is Young by Wayne Miller. New York: Ridge Press, 1958. 192 pages, $1.50.
(3)  “The Family of Man” created for the Museum of Modern Art by Edward Steichen, 1955. New York: Pocket Books, 1957. 50 cents.
(4)  Masters of Photography by Beaumont and Nancy Newhall. New York: George Branziller, Inc., 1958. 192 pages, $12.50.
(5)  “’De Lawd’ of Modern Photography” by Gilbert Millstein, New York Times Magazine, March 22, 1959.
(6)  “My Life in Photography” by Edward Steichen, Saturday Review, March 28, 1959.

“Photography is still, in spite of the positive developments of recent years, the most neglected as well as the most vital of the arts. Museums across the country still don’t care a damn about photographs, and most national, state, and municipal governments which ought to be concerned for archival reasons, care even less.”

That is the slightly miffed opinion of Bruce Downes, editor of Popular Photography. And while you can argue that Mr. Downes is ex parte on this matter, still he’s basically right about snobbishness toward the newer arts. It’s good to report, however, some recent events that should give the muse of photography (the offspring of Clio and Terpsichore?) solid footing on Mount Olympus.

One thing is the monumental volume on sixteen masters (or collaborators) of the new art written by the curator of the George Eastman House in Rochester and his wife (4). Most of the more than 150 great photographs are full folio size. The first six portfolios are by nineteenth century artists (David Octavius Hill and Robert Anderson; Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes; Nadar; Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan; Julia Margaret Cameron; and Peter Henry Emerson).

The rest did the bulk of their work in the twentieth century and a few are still living (Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Eugene Atget, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Erich Salomon, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Ansel Adams). The remarkable thing about the volume is how clearly it reveals the wide range of expressiveness already opened by photographers who are artists. Individual styles, great variety of subject matter, incessant searching for new possibilities in the camera characterize their work.

The second major break-through for photography as a fine art is the exhibition by the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The issue of the Saturday Review devoted to this exhibition (1) deserves the attention of every English, social studies, and art teacher. In that show fifty-five photographers are showing eighty-five examples of their work. Some of the photographers have complained that there should be fewer men and more of a single individual’s pictures, just as in the retrospectives of major painters. But that is a legitimate gripe that time and growing popular interest will take care of.

The easiest way for teachers of traditional subjects to extend their horizons to include this new and important art is through Edward Steichen, long-time director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. At eighty—see the birthday articles (5) and (6)—he is recognized as photography’s chief spiritual patron. And his brother-in-law, Carl Sandburg, wrote the prologue for Steichen’s most famous exhibit, “The Family of Man” (3). That prologue, in Sandburg’s familiar style, will suggest to teachers how to approach poetic statements in the photographic medium. 

Steichen’s protégé, Wayne Miller, has created an album about his own family of growing children in The World Is Young (2); its low cost ($1.50) represents a growing trend in which single subjects are exhaustively examined by a single photographer at a popular price. Photography is enormously useful to high-school teachers who use it imaginatively because it provides them with a powerful approach to the sometimes lazy and passive sensibilities of their “jaded” over-entertained students. The big picture magazines are of course full of pictures—good, bad and indifferent aesthetically—to illustrate the subject matter of the humanities curriculum. 

But we are asking for more than that; we are asking you to look at photography as more than a method of documenting contemporary reality. It is an art, deeply expressive, and capable of penetrating to important truths about the family of man. 

The books and articles listed here will break the ice for that kind of examination of photography qua art. And don’t forget that an effective way to increase respect for the artist is to try the medium’s complexity yourself: Ask your students to use the camera creatively in their own essays and reports.

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