Two Photography Exhibits Alter the Way We Look at Ourselves

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 18, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Two Photography Exhibits Alter the Way We Look at Ourselves

Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Photography was the prime new visual language of the 20th century and an important one in the 21st. This can be seen in two superb exhibits, a show of portraitist Arnold Newman's photographs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and a 160-year-survey of black photographers' work at the Anacostia Museum's center on the Mall.

At first glance, the exhibitions could not be more different. Mr. Newman, one of the greats of the genre, pioneered "environmental portraiture." He placed his subjects in settings that capture the essence of their work and personalities. His focus is so intense that it shows the depths of their souls.

Mr. Newman photographed some of the most celebrated people of the 1900s and, at age 83, is still working. He shot for Life, Look and Fortune and does work for the New Yorker and New York Times Magazine.

Among the 130 people pictured in Mr. Newman's retrospective, which starts in 1938, are the painters Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock, actor Woody Allen, convicted World War II war criminal and industrialist Alfred Krupp, composer-conductor Igor Stravinsky, President Reagan and painter-sculptor-printmaker Pablo Picasso. Others include the late fashion editor Diana Vreeland; Ann Frank's father, Otto; Robert Moses, former New York City planning czar; actress Marilyn Monroe; and photographer Ansel Adams.

* * *

Ordinary folks - except for civil rights leaders - were subjects for the 120 photographers who shot the 300 images of "Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present." The first pictures, from 1840 to 1940, suggest family photo albums. Births, marriages, school graduations and funerals are celebrated.

Race is not key issue in the photographs. Artist-scholar Robin Kelley writes in the exhibit catalog: "Most of the men and women responsible for visually documenting black America were simply not obsessed with race. After all, the people depicted in these photographs were not obsessed with race either."

They were "too busy loving, marrying, dancing, worshiping, dreaming, laughing, arguing, playing, working, dressing up, looking cool, raising children, organizing, performing magic, making poetry to be worried about what white folks thought about them," she writes.

"Reflections" is an epic undertaking remarkable for its size and quality. It begins with the earliest days of photography and the first great proponents of the technique. For example, Jules Lion (1810-1866) pioneered the making of daguerreotypes in New Orleans in 1840, three years after the invention of the technique by Jacques Mande Daguerre. Lion was one of the first photographers, black or white, to create daguerreotypes and left a handsome legacy of New Orleans' people and architecture through them.

Augustus Washington (1820-1875) achieved success by making daguerreotypes in Hartford, Conn., before migrating to Liberia. His father had been a slave. James Presely Ball (1825-1905), a black abolitionist, headed west and documented the emerging black middle class of Helena, Mont.

Daniel Freeman (1868-?) became a successful painter and society photographer in Washington while Arthur Bedou (1881-1966) chronicled the New Orleans jazz scene and life of educator Booker T. Washington.

There were others, of course, who pictured the pain and pleasure of blacks in the late 1800s. Mostly, it was the pleasure. Photographers such as Ball set up their studios to show subjects in romanticized and ideal settings.

Local photographer Addison N. Scurlock (1883-1964) did a handsome and humorous "Wedding Couple Portrait" in 1920. The tuxedoed groom sits in front, arrogantly engaging the viewer. The resigned-looking bride stands. Scurlock seems to be commenting on the future of the marriage.

Ball photographed a handsome young man in Helena all dressed up . The occasion may have been a high school graduation.

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