Four Lives in Photography
October 29 - November 19, 2021
Manuel Álvarez Bravo
All four artists devoted their lives to photography as artists, teachers, mentors and curators. Each of them broke boundaries within their specific photographic genres that have influenced the medium of photography to this day.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo – (1902 – 1992)
Manuel Alvarez Bravo is most noted for his poetic images of Mexican people and places.
He was part of the artistic renaissance that occurred after the Mexican Revolution (1910–20). Although he was influenced by international developments, notably Surrealism, his art remained profoundly Mexican.
Born into a family of artists and writers, Álvarez Bravo grew up in an “atmosphere in which art was breathed.” He left school at age 13 and took a job as an office boy and then as a clerk in government offices in order to help his family during financially difficult times. His interest in literature and the arts prompted him to study these subjects at night school. After meeting German photographer Hugo Brehme in 1923, he purchased his first camera. He was largely self-taught, and other photographers played a major role in his development.
Through his friendship with Italian photographer Tina Modotti, Álvarez Bravo met the American photographer Edward Weston and many of the leading artists of the Mexican renaissance, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. He took over Modotti’s job as photographer for the magazine Mexican Folkways after her deportation. He had his first one-man show in 1932. That same year his interest in cinema was piqued when he worked as a cameraman on Sergey Eisenstein’s film Que Viva Mexico! (which was never completed) and was furthered when he met Paul Strand just as the latter was completing the film Redes in 1936. Like Strand’s film, Álvarez Bravo’s movie Tehuantepec (now lost) was based on a labour strike. But it was his still photography that made his reputation: he exhibited photographs regularly, and in 1935 he participated in a groundbreaking photo exhibition with the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and the American photographer Walker Evans at the avant-garde Julien Levy Gallery in New York City.
Early in his career he was influenced by abstract and Cubist art from Europe, so his work displays a strong sense of formal design. His interest in Mexican religious rituals such as the Day of the Dead introduced an element of the fantastic into his work, which gives his images the kind of hidden symbolism that is common in Surrealism. As in Surrealist art, things are not what they seem but suggest mysterious meanings. In 1997 he was the subject of a major retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Beaumont Newhall – (1908 – 1993)
Over the years, photography has been to me what a journal is to a writer — a record of things seen and experienced, moments in the flow of time, documents of significance to me, experiments in seeing. It has been important to me, as an historian of photography, to understand photography by photographing
– Beaumont Newhall
Beaumont Newhall is perhaps the first champion of the study of photography as art, and of its history.
One of Beaumont Newhall’s earliest recollections was putting his hands in the hypo bath of his mother’s darkroom trays to see how this strange smelling chemical tasted. Thus began a life in photography, as curator, historian and practitioner.
Newhall came to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as the librarian in the early 1930s. In 1937, the director, Alfred Barr, Jr., invited him to mount an exhibition: the first comprehensive retrospective of the 100 year-old art of photography. The illustrated exhibition catalog formed the basis of The History of Photography, which was the first volume to chronicle the medium’s development as an art form, not merely as a technical medium.
His personal photographic work was unveiled after his retirement from the museum world. Newhall’s photographs and writings chronicled his life and work throughout his extensive career as a photographic historian. He was greatly influenced by the German Expressionist movement, and his genius for composition is evident in his intimate portraits and architectural studies.
Ansel Adams, in his introduction to Newhall’s In Plain Sight, wrote, “Beaumont Newhall’s photographs express great breadth of vision and deep respect for his medium.” Newhall once said, “To me it is a constant source of wonder that the world becomes transformed through the finder of my camera.”
In his long career, Beaumont Newhall authored numerous articles and reviews of books about photography. In addition to History of Photography, he wrote Masters of Photography (with Nancy Newhall, The Daguerreotype in America, Frederick Evans, The Latent Image: The Discovery of Photography, and Focus: Memoirs of a Life in Photography. He also published a book of photographs, In Plain Sight: the Photographs of Beaumont Newhall (1983)
Beaumont Newhall’s archive is housed at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. We are so grateful for Beaumont’s mentoring of us as gallerists, photographers and curators.
Eliot Porter – (1902 – 1990)
“It appears highly desirable to order one’s life in accord with inner yearnings no matter how impractical they may seem, and not be bound to a false start by common consideration.”
– Eliot Porter
Eliot Porter broke through the myth of black & white photography being the only legitimate medium for “fine art” photography.
Porter is one of the rare photographers of the 20th century who mastered both black &white and color photography. Although he is more known for his color work, Porter worked seriously in black & white from 1937 through to 1961. Photographer, biologist, ecologist, author, ornithologist, Eliot Porter took up photography early in life. He received an M. D. degree in 1929, and taught biochemistry and biology at Harvard. Self-taught in photography, he perfected his technique, then exclusively black and white.
Porter was introduced to Alfred Stieglitz and in 1939 Stieglitz gave him an exhibition at his New York gallery, An American Place. This recognition brought Porter to a decision. He left his work at Harvard to follow his dream. Porter wrote, “It appears highly desirable to order one’s life in accord with inner yearnings no matter how impractical they may seem, and not be bound to a false start by common consideration.”
At that time Porter also began to explore working in color, which he found essential for the photography of birds in their habitat and natural scene. He mastered what is known technically as the dye-transfer process, which enabled him to make brilliant, full-color enlarged prints from color film exposed in his camera. Renowned for his pioneering work in color, he promoted the use of color photography from the 1940s until his death in 1990 a time when most serious photographers worked in black and white and color surprisingly was not accepted as an art form. Without the support of the art world, Porter never gave up his passion for color.
Porter’s work has been widely published and used as a powerful visual argument for nature conservation. He explored new ways of presenting the natural world and his artistic and technical contributions to bird and landscape photography and transformed these genres.
His early exhibits include an exhibition of his dye-transfer images of birds at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1943 and in 1959. The International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, showed “The Seasons”, a spectacular collection of color prints with quotations from the American philosopher, essayist and nature-lover, Henry David Thoreau. The exhibition was circulated throughout the country by the Smithsonian Institution, and formed the basis of Porter’s first book, In Wildness Is The Preservation of the World, the first large format color book published by the Sierra Club, in 1962. This book changed the way we look at nature and was pivotal in the growth and acceptance of color in the art world.
In 1980, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City held the first one man exhibit given to a living photographer working in color, Intimate Landscapes.
Porter’s archive is housed at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Eliot Porter died in l990 and we are grateful for the vision that he left us. His impact on the world of photography has been immense; he has taught whole generations of people a new way of seeing nature and man’s place in it.
Aaron Siskind – (1902 – 1991)
“It is true that many people have photographed material similar to Siskind’s walls (a testament to his influence), but Siskind’s photographs have never been surpassed for sheer presence, power and continuous experiential possibilities.”
– Carl Chiarenza
Influential as both a photographer and a teacher, Siskind made his first earnest attempts at photography in 1931/32. Moved by documentary photographs on display in New York City at the Film and Photo League (the forerunner of the Photo League), he joined the group and became active in the production of such projects as “Harlem Documentary” and “Portrait of a Tenement.” However, almost from the beginning a certain dissonance existed between the documentary and social-political goals of the League and Siskind’s emerging preoccupation with formal and esthetic concerns. Siskind, later recalled, “for some reason or other there was in me the desire to see the world clean and fresh and alive, as primitive things are clean and fresh and alive. The so-called documentary picture left me wanting something.”
In the early l940’s a major change took place in his work. Siskind left the league and thereafter worked in an increasingly abstract, personal and contemplative mode. He photographed organic objects – for example, – rocks – as flat shapes on the surface of the picture plane, rather than as objects with the pictorial illusion of possessing three dimensions. “For the first time in my life, subject matter, as such, had ceased to be of primary importance. Instead, I found myself involved in the relationships of these objects, so much so that these pictures turned out to be deeply moving and personal experiences.”
Siskind photographed walls, portions of signs, graffiti, peeling posters, and other objects; his primary interest was in the flat graphic messages that they contained. At first his most sympathetic audience consisted of abstract expressionist painters he knew, such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, who understood the problems of space, line, and planarity that he was addressing. But in time the new subject matter that Siskind delineated began to be explored by other photographers.
In l948 he met Harry Callahan, who brought him to The Institute of Design (the New Bauhaus) in Chicago in l950 to teach photography. Siskind became head of The Department of Photography at the Institute, and in 1963 he was one of the founding members of the Society for Photographic Education. From l97l – l976 he served as a faculty member at The Rhode Island School of Design.
The decisive shift in his work from the socially-oriented documentary form championed by the Film and Photo League to a highly modernistic belief in the photograph as “a new object to be contemplated for its own meaning and its own beauty” is one of the benchmarks in the evolution of mid-20th century art photography.