Exhibitions: The Great Melting Pot
Hilton, Tim, The Independent (London, England)
THE MUSEUM of Modern Art in New York, founded in 1929, collected photographs from its earliest days and in 1940 was the first museum to establish a curatorial department devoted to photography as an art form. "American Photography 1890-1965", a Moma exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, is a record of this prescience and its catalogue provides an interesting survey of attitudes toward photography in the 1940s.
A crucial issue then, as now, was the division between photography conceived as a part of modern fine art and photography as a means of mass communication. We learn of many disputes about the role of camerawork within Moma, and indeed the whole exhibition has an introspective flavour. This is not what we expected. One walks into the gallery looking for large, vivid and panoramic pictures of American life. Instead, the photographs appear small. They are often rather dark and are evidently the products of private experience. Hardly any are optimistic. There's no glamour, even when movie stars make an appearance. Technically, they are careful. Even the "experimental" art photographs are timid. The overall impression is of a sad, faraway country.
There's not enough of the crackle of the here-and-now. Perhaps that's because the show ends in 1965, which is far too early. A deeper reason may be that Moma was always concerned that photography should have its own dignity. Solemn people were encouraged and vulgarians excluded, or so I guess from the catalogue's account of Moma politics. On the broader cultural front, photography as presented in Edinburgh contrasts with American painting and sculpture of the period. It doesn't have the same openness, acceptance of risk, high ambition or desire for untramelled creation. There is no photographic equivalent of Abstract Expressionism: the art-artists and the art-photographers served different parts of the American psyche.
American photography's sister art is not painting but literature; and not so much poetry as prose. I'm thinking of novels about families in the South and West, the tales of immigrant homes in New York streets, documentary accounts of distant states and then all the touching evocations of adolescence. Everywhere in this show there are people coming to terms with their environment, and often the pictures call out for words. How literary Weegee's photograph becomes when we read its title, Brooklyn School Children See Gambler Murdered in Street; how much we desire …
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Publication information: Article title: Exhibitions: The Great Melting Pot. Contributors: Hilton, Tim - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: October 1, 1995. Page number: 26,27. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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