9 American e
America has produced some of the ﬁnest photographers of the 20th century. A new show of American photography at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art includes work by Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Irving Penn. Sally Kerr previews the show that has been selected from the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Was it the American pioneering spirit that was responsible for producing so many great photographers? Was it the sheer size of the country that allowed the production of such endlessly changing pictures and the recording of so many different histories? Whatever the reasons. American photography has changed the way that we look at the world.
Such a powerful new invention was fated to become a part of everyday life. yet it‘s still impossible to imagine the impact that photography had on the life of early 20th century American society. The first photographs of the American Civil War to reach home altered the image of war forever and laid down the parameters for the kind of hard-hitting photo- journalism that was to become associated with the Magnum agency over 80 years later.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York was the first an museum to establish a department specifically dedicated to the art of photography, in 1940. It boasts an enormous collection built up in only 50 years by big-name curators such as Beaumont Newhall and Edward Steichen and helped by many wealthy benefactors.
Looking at these images now, the personal as well as the public face of America resonates. In Aaron Siskind‘s Gloucester from 1944. a dirty work-glove, fingers curled into the palm. is ingrained with the gritty texture of manual labour; ln Henry Callahan's 1943 Detroit. superimposed images of a moving car are used to create in its own ghostly vision a metaphor for the city and its life. ‘Social conscience‘ photographers such as Jacob Riis. a leader of the tenement reform movement and Dorothea Lange (who worked with Walker Evans in Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration during the 19305) used their pictures as political tools. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother Nipomo California taken in 1936 and
As Amerlcan as Mom’s apple ple: 0. WInston llnk’s Hot Shot East Bound at lager, West Vlrglnla, 1956 (top); New York street
llte captured by police photographer Weegee: Brooklyn School Chlldren See Gambler Murdered In Street, 1941 (above)
Margaret Bourke-White‘s At the time of the Louiseville Flood taken a year later, have consequently become synonymous with Depression photography. widely used in magazines as diverse as Vogue and LIFE. The new breed of photo-journalist and fashion photographer. mirrored in the new shorthand of newspapers. meant that photographers like Arthur Weegee and Richard Avedon found their workster adopted wholesale after the Second World Looking at this impressive selection of American
3 photography. the viewer is reminded that it is not just
the camera's relationship to historical ‘reality' that gives these pictures their power but what they demand of us. These images demand that we get involved. that our eyes become the lens of the camera and we take away not just our own interpretation but a memory ofthe image itself. so powerful we feel part of it.
American Photography 18904965 is at The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 23 Sept—26 Nor.
84 The List 22 Sept-5 Oct 1995