My essay on the photographs Edward Steichen made for the Stehli Silks Corporation appears in Osmos 5 (Winter 2015). An excerpt:
As it steamed across the Atlantic one day in 1926, the Isle de France was the site of a chance encounter. Ruzzie Green, at the time an illustrator and designer, was on his way to Europe, perhaps to the Swiss headquarters of the Stehli Silks Corporation, where he served as art director. On deck he chanced upon Edward Steichen, the artist whose pictures were revolutionizing fashion photography. The two struck up a conversation, and, in short order, a deal: Steichen would contribute designs to Stehli’s popular “Americana” line of fabrics. The fruits of their collaboration, when released to the public the following spring, would prove to be not only a commercial success, but they would also draw together a remarkable number of aesthetic, social, and economic trends: celebrity, artistic abstraction, mass production and consumption, the creative appropriation of everyday consumer objects—in short, much of what we identify with modern American society and culture.
Green and Steichen’s meeting came at an auspicious moment. Historians of American culture, including Lizabeth Cohen and William Leach, have described the mid-1920s as an era of standardized production, mass consumption, corporate expansion, and increasingly influential advertising. America had emerged from the wreckage of World War I relatively unscathed and the stock market crash was still a few years away. Five-cent theaters featuring ethnic films were losing ground to the Hollywood system; mom-and-pop shops were being displaced by department stores and national chains. Recognizable brands were being promoted by familiar names and faces.
Stehli’s “Americana” line capitalized on these transformations, deploying celebrity name recognition to sell its mass-produced textiles. Green hired nearly one hundred prominent figures to create—or at least lend their names to—these patterns, which were sold by the yard for dressmaking and other domestic applications. Participants included Helen Wills, an eight-time Wimbledon champion, the cartoonist John Held, Jr., and the fashion desire Pierre Mourgue.
Green commissioned dozens of artists to create patterns for Stehli, but Steichen was the only photographers who contributed to the “Americana” line.
Published in Frieze 154 (April 2013). To learn more about the exhibition, click here.
We all admit that taking a picture is a subjective act; where to point the lens is a personal decision, and each step in the development of a print requires a photographer to make choices about how to proceed. Yet until recently, the general public has maintained faith in the objectivity and truthfulness of images: events were assumed to have happened as the camera recorded them. It is only with the widespread use of image-editing tools that scepticism toward toward photographs has permeated mainstream consciousness. We needed to be able to remake images ourselves before we assumed others had the same intentions and skills. One strength of curator Mia Fineman’s exhibition ‘Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop’ was the way it built upon this development by bringing before a large museum audience, for the first time, examples of photographic manipulation that span the entire history of the medium. Separated by a hallway from the concurrent exhibition ‘After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age’, ‘Faking It’ was instructive, and its chief lesson, repeatedly taught, was: ‘Don’t always believe what you see’.
For experts, this is not novel territory. Each generation’s photographic thinkers have acknowledged the history of photographic manipulation as they consider new developments in the medium. A few recent examples will suffice. In the 1960s, artist Robert Heinecken dubbed the art with which he sympathized ‘manipulative photography’, and noted, ‘various manipulative methods have been in existence and described in detail ever since the first photographic images were made’. In an article published in 1976, critic A.D. Coleman identified ‘an extensive tradition of directorial photography’ that encompasses nearly everything—‘studio work, still lifes and posed nudes, as well as formal portraiture—and stretches back to 1850. A decade later, curator Anne H. Hoy organized for New York’s International Center of Photography the exhibition ‘Fabrications: Staged, Altered, and Appropriated Photographs’, which surveyed art from the 1970s and 1980s but acknowledged earlier precedents in the accompanying catalogue.
Fineman’s achievement, however, extends beyond giving material form to various writers’ theses. In tracing the prehistory of Adobe Photoshop, she brought together photographs from fine art, advertising, politics, news and other realms to challenge the dominant view of photography held by many Modernists: that the greatest photograph is the truest photograph. Just over a century ago, Alfred Stieglitz repudiated the ‘artfully’ altered pictures he had championed in his magazines and at his New York gallery. In his own work, and in the rising generation of photographers he promoted, such as Paul Strand, he set forth a new emphasis on ‘straight’ photography that was influential for the remainder of the century. From Group f/64 out west to street photographers prowling big-city avenues, a belief in directness, clarity and spontaneity held sway over artists and public alike.
In presenting works in which ‘the final image is not identical to what the camera “saw”’, Fineman strung together a shadow history of the medium. In its early decades, photographers like Gustave Le Gray and Carleton Watkins attempted to overcome the limitations of their cameras, and ambitious men like Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson sought to replicate the narrative potential of allegorical paintings. The striving of artists was quickly accompanied by baser pursuits, as photographers repurposed techniques of manipulation to entertaining ends. The show includes generous selections of pictures of people who have apparently been decapitated; of figures who appear multiple times in the same frame; and of impossibly bounteous agricultural harvests. The persuasiveness of photographs was also embraced by those on both sides of political conflicts. Here we saw how those in power used images to shore up their regimes, and how those in opposition—from Ernest Eugène Appert, during the Paris Commune; to John Heartfield, during the 1930s; to Weegee, during the 1960s—crafted their visual rejoinders. A separate thread, centred on Surrealism, included artists who used the camera as a tool for realizing visionary inner worlds. Herbert Bayer, Dora Maar, Grete Stern and Jerry Uelsmann used collage techniques to create transporting scenes.
Many of these photographers and the movements forged by their efforts have been part of the medium’s canon for some time. But Fineman has done invaluable curatorial and scholarly spadework to bring them together and craft an encompassing frame for understanding their relatedness. This was that rare thing: an exhibition, at once useful and consistently entertaining, that deftly responded to contemporary concerns by weaving together strands of the past.
Several weeks ago I interviewed curator Okwui Enwezor about “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” an exhibition he organized with Rory Smith for the International Center of Photography in New York. The show remains on view through Sunday, January 6. We discussed the exhibition, the relationship between the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States, and about how this exhibition aligns with other shows he has presented in New York institutions. Click here to read the edited transcript.
My short essay “Cross Pollination” has been published in Early American, a monograph devoted to the series of the same name by photographer Sharon Core. The book is available now from Radius Books. Here is an excerpt, taken from the middle of the essay:
Like [Raphaelle] Peale’s paintings, Core’s photographs possess remarkable descriptive detail, which contrasts with their plain, indistinct environments. The objects of our attention rest on a ledge or table of indeterminate scale; the backdrops at times blend seamlessly into this horizontal surface. A gentle light suffuses each scene, often from one side of the image, its source unknowable. The compositions, too, are meant to be unobtrusive. Peale centered his objects, which are arranged in stately, pyramidal heaps. They are placed uncannily close to the viewer, the better to highlight their anatomical detail. These choices are partly unique to Peale, and partly a function of the time in which the paintings were made. In early nineteenth-century America, before the invention of photography, still lifes were not only objects of aesthetic delight, but also tools of instruction. They were a way of recording the country’s bounty, and of demonstrating to Americans the specific qualities of that bounty.
It took Core long hours to collect the items (both organic and inorganic) necessary to re-create Peale’s compositions….
Core will be signing copies of the book at Yancey Richardson Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, on Wednesday, November 28, from 6:00–8:00 PM.
This essay accompanies “The Permanent Way,” an exhibition I have organized for apexart. It opens Wednesday, June 6, with a reception from 6 to 8 PM, and runs through July 28, 2012.
July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroad. The law, in conjunction with the Homestead Act (passed just six weeks earlier), signaled the government’s commitment to westward expansion even as the union itself was imperiled by civil war. It provided thirty-year government bonds and extensive land grants to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies, which used these concessions to build over 1,700 miles of track. In May 1869, the two roads were joined at Promontory Summit, in the Utah Territory. Other transcontinentals followed soon thereafter.
Historians have long debated the economic and political value of these railroads. For Alfred Chandler, the growth of the railroad companies required an important “managerial revolution” that pointed the way to modern corporate capitalism. For Richard White, writing recently, the transcontinentals were thoughtlessly built ahead of demand, and the dramatic failures of these companies at the end of the nineteenth century unjustly imposed punitive costs on the public. All scholars of the railroads, however, agree that their amazing growth during the second half of the century fundamentally reshaped the American landscape. As White notes, “these railroads formed a lever that in less than a generation turned western North America on its axis so that what had largely moved north–south now moved east–west.”
The shift wasn’t only in the movement of goods, but also in the picture of America that its citizens carried in their minds. In recognition of the Pacific Railway Act’s anniversary, “The Permanent Way” considers the centrality of railroads to Americans’ understanding of the country’s landscape. Today, trains are a “natural” component of that picture, as essential as broad, grassy plains and mountain peaks in the distance.
That we take trains for granted was not always the case. Cultural historian Leo Marx’s important book The Machine In the Garden (1964) opens with the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoying the tranquil environs of Sleepy Hollow, near Concord, Massachusetts, in 1844. Hawthorne’s pastoral reverie is rudely interrupted:
But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive—the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace.
The smoke-belching engines were an unfamiliar incursion, and Marx catalogues the affronted responses of numerous writers upset by the recognition that railroads would permanently alter their environment. Yet by the time of the Pacific Railway Act, just two decades later, the railroads had become an integral element of American life, for better and for worse. Time and space collapsed as people were able to travel further, faster, than ever before, and places without benefit of direct connection were woven together in a mesh of steel. The costs of such convenience, we now recognize, were enormous: the lives of the railroads’ (often immigrant) construction crews; the livelihoods of those pushed aside by the entering wedge of westward expansion; the political ideals corrupted by back-room business negotiations; the savings erased when lines failed to materialize or collapsed. Yet there was no going back. In the eight years after the end of the Civil War, the mileage of operating railroad track more than doubled, to seventy thousand. As landscape writer John Stilgoe notes, “Emerson and his contemporaries knew the train and the railroad as novelties; subsequent generations were born into a world in which trains seemed as commonplace as spiderwebs.”
Photography was itself a new invention in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and as a technology it grew up alongside railroads—especially in America, where the first accurate representations of a given place were often made by photographers working on behalf of railroad expansion. Surveys of this vast, largely uncharted territory were commissioned by the government and by the railroad companies themselves, and sent photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson out into the field. Their images, widely distributed through government documents, news-media reproductions, and tourist publications, played an especially important role in refashioning the imagined American landscape.
This exhibition includes a small selection of such materials, encompassing railroad maps, lithographs taken from illustrated magazines, other prints, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century photo-postcards. From them, one can discover how quickly fresh observation gave way to visual convention. Axial views quickly become a stock-in-trade, whether depicting tracks receding to a single vanishing point in the distance or bisecting the frame parallel to the picture plane. So, too, one can repeatedly witness railroad engines, marvels of human ingenuity, overcoming adverse natural elements, as in the two nearly identical prints, from separate publications, depicting a train struggling through snowdrifts, its headlamp a beacon of progress.
Subsequent generations of photographers have walked the same trails, navigated the same canyons, forded the same rivers, and ascended to the same peaks as these men did during the “Era of Exploration.” They have also responded to the visual tropes inherited from earlier eras. The artists included in this exhibition are not exclusively engaged with depicting railroads, or even solely concerned with the American landscape. Nonetheless, at various points in their careers each has found the railroads—or their ruins—a subject worth exploring.
Of the five artists included in this exhibition, Mark Ruwedel, based in southern California, is most closely identified with railroads. His series “Westward the Course of Empire” (1994-2007) documents with taxonomic precision the remains of North American lines. In a gesture reminiscent of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruwedel exhibits small black-and-white photographs as grids arranged by type: trestle bridges, cuts through rock faces, tunnel mouths, paths through field and forest. The Bechers survey industrial plants, and Ruwedel’s adoption of their signature technique highlights the “industrial” nature of even the most rural Western outpost. Despite focusing upon abandoned rail infrastructure, his lens necessarily captures evidence of the land’s other uses, thereby demonstrating how the rails were but one human use of the landscape in an unending succession of uses. Even when the environment is seemingly pristine, as in the photographs by Jeff Brouws presented here, one can’t help but be aware of human incursion, of the fact that human places are necessarily palimpsests. Best known for his photographs of the signs, buildings, and infrastructure of vernacular and decaying American landscapes, Brouws’s images here are by contrast remarkably restrained. Working near his Dutchess County home in upstate New York, the artist sought out traces of the competing agricultural and dairy railroads that helped feed New York’s hungry mouths and slake its thirst. The resultant works show no evidence of this bustling industry save for their pathways, the quiet negative space an inversion of the sites’ former bustling activity.
The complexity depicted in these photographers’ landscapes can have economic, social, political, and cultural manifestations. In many of her photographs, Victoria Sambunaris manages to reveal several such entanglements at once. She seeks “phenomena that are ubiquitous and familiar to a particular region but are anomalous to an ordinary eye,” and often finds an elevated or distant vantage point from which to highlight incongruities. So it is with a photograph included in this exhibition.Untitled (VS-10-10), Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, NM, from her ongoing series “The Border,” depicts a rail line bending dramatically as it skirts the US-Mexico border. At this site, robbers from nearby Anapras, Mexico, had regularly thrown items onto the Union Pacific tracks to force the trains to stop, after which men would sieze the cargo and carry it directly across the border. The FBI organized a sting in 2000 that went awry, leaving two agents badly injured. The railroad still operates along this corridor, funneling millions of dollars worth of goods through dangerous borderland territory and highlighting, with each run, economic disparity and social tension.
Justine Kurland’s images often feature people who have oriented their lives to particular places. They become, frequently by choice, socially marginalized, interacting as much with like-minded communities as with the broader population. In her recent series “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” Kurland focuses upon the subculture of the nomadic hobo—as both romantic American myth and quotidian lived reality. In the unpopulated images from the series chosen for this exhibition, one can sense the landscape as these particular inhabitants view it, with trains accorded a central role.
James Welling’s railroad photographs, made two decades ago, are but one facet of a prismatic career that encompasses abstractions, architectural photography, and experiments with the properties of the medium. In this exhibition they offer the closest look at the infrastructure of working railroads, and by extension the trains themselves. The engines move through a space that Stilgoe dubs the “metropolitan corridor” to indicate both its technological sophistication and its sense of in-betweenness and linkage. In Welling’s documentary images, one can witness how the complexities described above are mirrored in an intricacy manifested along the route.
Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad, from roadbed to rails. Here it is shorthand for the epochal shift these railroads caused in our picture of America. This exhibition commemorates the momentous decision, taken 150 years ago, to commit to the railroads’ expansion, and reflects upon how even its greatest champions could not have predicted how transformative such a choice proved to be.
“The Permanent Way”
Organized by Brian Sholis
On view at apexart, 291 Church Street, New York, from June 6 – July 28, 2012
Opening reception: Wednesday, June 6, 6–8 PM
Featuring art by: Jeff Brouws, Justine Kurland, Mark Ruwedel, Victoria Sambunaris, James Welling
July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroads. This exhibition marks the occasion by bringing together American landscape photographs by living artists with archival material charting the expansion of railroads during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad. Here it is shorthand for how railroads dramatically reshaped Americans’ notion of the country’s landscape. Cultural historian Leo Marx related Nathaniel Hawthorne’s horror, in 1844, at the intrusion of smoke-belching locomotives into his beloved Sleepy Hollow. Yet by the time the Pacific Railway Act was passed two decades later, railroads were pervasive and inextricably woven into Americans’ lives. Even the most isolated rural residents were tethered to urban centers by the steel rails running through nearby fields. This ubiquity guaranteed for railroads a seemingly permanent place in the American unconscious. Ask someone today to describe an iconic American landscape and you’re likely to be told of fields stretching away to mountains at the horizon and a train passing through in the middle distance. This image was fixed in part by now-celebrated nineteenth-century photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson.
The photographers in this exhibition are not concerned exclusively with railroads, or even with American landscapes. Nonetheless, they are sensitive interpreters of their environment, and each has at some point noticed the continuing power and imaginative pull of railroads—or of their ruins. “The Permanent Way” uses an important anniversary to celebrate their work and to place it in a historical context.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker James Benning about Two Cabins(A.R.T. Press), his remarkable new artist’s book. As its title suggests, the publication documents two cabins Benning constructed on property he owns in California. One is an exact replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau built in the mid-1840s, memorialized in his book Walden. The other is an exact replica of the cabin Theodore Kaczynski built in the early 1980s, and is where he lived while creating mail bombs (as the Unabomber) and writing his extensive anti-technology treatise.
The interview is published in as-told-to format. Here is an excerpt:
I had bought a “turnkey” property in the mountains, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.
It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s.
Some of Zacks’s most entertaining passages chronicle Roosevelt’s after-midnight prowls along city streets, searching, often alongside a reporter for one of the city’s many dailies, for cops sleeping or drinking on the job. He would nearly pick a fight with those he found, then gleefully inform them just who they were arguing with and demand they appear at police headquarters early the next morning. Such episodes are retold with zest, and the book is unfailingly entertaining. Drawing upon courtroom and committee room minutes, as well as newspaper reports and his subjects’ voluminous correspondence, Zacks has crafted a popular narrative history of a pretty high order.
It enters a crowded field. There are not only many lengthy biographies of T.R., like the one by Edmund Morris, whose third and final volume, Colonel Roosevelt, arrived in late 2010, but also a steady flow of narrower studies, such as Hot Time in the Old Town(2010), about Roosevelt and the summer 1896 heat wave, or Honor in the Dust (2012), on Roosevelt’s place in American imperial expansion. Island of Vice dovetails with perennially popular studies of Gilded Age excess and crime, such as Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City (2007). It’s easy to see how such a book was published, sitting as it does at a busy intersection on the map of publishers’ desires: the Roosevelts, New York City, sex, and crime.
What broader developments Zacks hopes to explain, or what lessons he wishes readers to draw, are somewhat harder to discern.
To read the rest of the review, click here. New York magazine ran a feature on the book devised with Zacks’s help. This nugget of service journalism asks the all-important question, “Do You Live in a Former Brothel?”
The Weegee that’s surveyed in this entertaining exhibition is not only the man, an immigrant born Usher Fellig in Austria, but also the myth, who described himself as both “Weegee the Famous” and the “official photographer of Murder Inc.”
Curator Brian Wallis has crafted a show that demonstrates how and why Weegee became one of the best-known photojournalists in New York City from the mid-’30s through the ’40s. Operating out of a sparse room across the street from police headquarters, he made nightly forays into the streets in search of breaking news. He nearly always found it, returning with pictures of lifeless bodies sprawled out on sidewalks and the inquisitive bystanders and pained relatives who had witnessed the crimes.
Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.” The show is on view until April 15, an appropriate enough date given the prevalence in the galleries of tax assessments, land-sale auction handbills, and other ephemera related to the transfer of Manhattan real estate. The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated and informative catalogue, published by Columbia University Press (Amazon, Columbia).
The plan’s Cartesian rigor made it a machine for such frenzied growth, and the exhibition contains hundreds of artifacts that chart the city’s scramble uptown. There are surveyors’ maps and tools, land-sale auctioneers’ handbills, and ledgers documenting tax assessments. Numerous photographs reveal just how much labor went in to unifying the landscape: giant boulders had to be broken up and carted away; rolling hills had to be leveled; houses perched in the middle of planned roadways had to be torn down or carted to a new location.
At the exhibit’s center is one of the three original copies of the nearly nine-foot-long map of the Commissioners’ Plan, its size and detail a measure of the ambition it represented. Generations of canny politicians, imperious real-estate developers, and visionary architects have tried to implement changes or carve out exceptions to its rule, yet the Manhattan this map depicts is recognizable to us today: a somewhat claustrophobic, undifferentiated mass of right angles that cedes almost nothing to topography or the human need for variety.