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VERNACULAR TO THE MASTERS
November 14, 2007 - January 28, 2008
Photography of the anonymous and the celebrated. Curated by Donald Lokuta, Robert Yoskowitz and Ricardo Viera.
Panel and Reception: Thursday, November 15 from 4:30-7:30 pm
by Ricardo Viera, LUAG Director, exhibition co-curator
The Lehigh University Art Galleries mission is visual literacy. This exhibition is a laboratory for our students and faculty, as well as for the community at large. The vernacular – anonymous – snapshot – found images – family albums – are all photographs of everyday life that have caught the attention of collectors over the past few years. It is a profound reminder that since its invention, the photographic image, by its mirror of authenticity, is the way we see and imagine things – real or not. We learn by looking and asking questions in order to see. It is as mysterious and challenging as taking the picture itself. From the time of the Industrial Revolution to the present day, the way in which we look at the world keeps changing.
While curating Donald Lokuta’s traveling exhibition photographs of “George Segal: An Intimate Portrait,” I discovered that in addition to being a creative photographer and professor of photography at Kean University, Union, New Jersey he is a passionate and avid collector of photography. We began a conversation about his extensive interest in historical, modern and vernacular photography, and he introduced me to his fellow collector Robert Yoskowitz, an historian and professor of fine art at Union College, New Jersey. I then had the opportunity to acquaint them with the Lehigh University teaching collection, which encompasses images ranging from the 19th century to contemporary photography. They shared with me their interest to present their two separate collections as a unit, as in their exhibit “Click! The Marvelous in American Vernacular Photography” at the New Jersey State Museum, Trenton in 2000.
After seeing some of the work in their impressive collections and discussing the possibility of an exhibition, I sought a different angle. The idea that emerged was to show selections from Lehigh’s photography collection and juxtapose some of our modern masters with vernacular photographs. These juxtapositions create an arena for visual dialogue, the play of visual metaphors and individual response. They present another way of seeing both collections, and in their respective essays, Lokuta and Yoskowitz discuss various positions and insights about the exhibition.
We are indebted to the co-curators for their generosity and interest in our mission and for joining us and for sharing their knowledge and experience. We also thank our curatorial team and all those participating in the exhibition, especially our staff and interns for the many tasks involved, from curatorship and preparation to installation.
ASSOCIATIONS & IMPRESSIONS
by Donald Lokuta, Co-curator
If you want to find out what is really on our minds, what is really important in our lives- open a family photo album.
Photographs exist because they are part of a human urge to record and preserve our past. But most important, they speak of a universal urge to create.
We feel a connection with these subjects, a feeling of kinship. We laugh at some phototographs and are genuinely moved by others. The scenes may remind us of our town- our family- we might imagine ourselves in the picture. And it could have been us behind the camera. And most likely, we have similar photographs in our own family albums.
These pictures remind us of ourselves- our life- our mortality- and the universality of these recorded moments. They are not merely documents of an anonymous life.
They are snapshots- visual mementos – just images of everyday life. But that is their charm- their magnetic attraction. In some of them there is the power to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and many can be aesthetically modern.
No matter that the snapshot could have been a mistake- an inadvertent double exposure or an unintended blur that caught our attention. Why didn’t the photographer discard it? Was it still a fair representation of the subject or did the photographer also recognize something in the chance creation?
We now live in a much more visually sophisticated world than our ancestors. Today, these photographs are released into the realm of modern art. Looking back upon past pictures though the radical eyes of today, we absorb and accept these photographs as a modern aesthetic experience.
Being vernacular assumes no pretensions of being made as fine art or having professional training as a photographer. But this does not preclude an aesthetic sensibility or an awareness of art by the maker. In many cases, vernacular photography is more revealing than the average studio portrait.
The vernacular photographs that were chosen are about our aesthetic sensibility– our time. And they reflect our notion of art.
The idea of selecting a photograph like an anonymous snapshot that was not intended as art could be problematic to some. But the history of art is full of such examples. African art, ancient Chinese ceramics and many examples of folk art were made for ritual, religious or utilitarian purposes. We consider many of these objects as important art and they adorn the galleries of the world’s great museums. The purpose for which it was made does not preclude it from being worthy of being admired as a work of art.
The great magnetic attraction of photography is that it can be used for whatever purpose one wishes.
Vernacular photography has been part of our world for some time. It is the closest many people will ever get to participating in the creative process. With the addition of every vernacular photograph, the visual diary of the human race continues. Vernacular photography is an on-going worldwide self-portrait.
Significant Others: Modern Masters and Vernacular Photographs from Lehigh University and Two Private Collections
By Robert Yoskowitz, co-curator
For CMY and MFY, and with gratitude to George Point
“One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things. “–Henry Miller
Today there is an enormous interest in “snapshot” or “vernacular” photography, a distinctive style unmediated by the artist/photographer’s awareness of formal aesthetics. But the appreciation of the form is decidedly not a 21st century phenomenon.
In the 1930s, the Julien Levy Gallery in New York exhibited “found” photos from the Paris Flea Market, referring to those images as “antigraphic,” or photographs not originally intended as art. John Szarkowski, curator of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, produced his seminal book , The Photographer’s Eye, in 1964 based on the eponymous exhibition. In it, Szarkowski explained photography’s unique qualities by placing established art photographers alongside the vernacular photographer, thus revealing their correspondent qualities.
With the imminent “death” of wet photography and its replacement by the digital image, there is a renewed awareness of the span of photography’s history and its ubiquitous contribution to our visual world.
The concept for this revelatory exhibition derives from our universal experiences filtered through photography, and what those images can mean as art. One of the key questions raised here is whether the snapshot or vernacular style springs from an esthetic equivalent to the modernity of the work of master photographers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? If so, what are the common photographic qualities that denote their similarities as an art form of expression, formalism, and function?
In which direction was the cross-pollination of modernity and vernacular photography achieved? By the seemingly effortlessness, accidental, and peculiarity of the snapshot, photomontage, painted photograph, or advertising image? Or, by the first half of the twentieth century, did the vernacular unconsciously absorb and adopt modernist strategies – or could the similarities simply be a matter of the zeitgeist?
This exhibition will not try to give a definitive answer to these questions, but rather to compare the two modes. Although the term ‘vernacular’ is usually viewed in the pejorative, to describe these photographs made by amateurs as lowbrow art would dismiss their power as commanding images. There is also the argument that the selection of these photographs was made because they shared a commonality with the formal properties of traditional artistic endeavor. That notion rings true. In today’s world of visual onslaught, one cannot help but make comparisons from the known, established photographer to the anonymous and back again – art imitates life imitates art. And it is that very fascination that attracts us to these anonymous pictures as worthy of a closer look.
Comparing two photographs, one by the master photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) Untitled (Doll with Crow, 1960s), and another by a William A. Smith (dates unknown) of Maine’s Child with Doll (1890s) having a doll placed prominently in the same field can reveal similarly strange results. Meatyard’s image was made about seventy-five years after Smith’s. Could Meatyard be aware of Smith’s work? Probably not. However, there has been a photographic tradition of children with “surrogate” siblings ranging in photography from children and dolls (and toys) to the surrealists – one thinks especially Hans Bellmer’s (1902-1975) photographic series of “Poupées” of the 1930s.
Meatyard’s photograph pushes the innocence of childhood to a disturbing drama. An image of a dead crow lying upon the doll’s feet, culminating with the power of resurrection in plastic lilies creates a surreal, macabre Pieta. Supplementing this peculiar picture, there is the element of the “marvelous,” where the surrealist Andre Breton’s (1896-1966) perception of convulsive beauty* is found in the elements of chance encounters.
Within Smith’s photograph there is also a sense of dread. The young girl seems to be anxious; her left hand is tense, where her surrogate’s is relaxed, opened. The doll is blonde and the girl’s hair is dark, and both have vacant stares. They are the same height. There is a sense of classicism and orderliness to the photograph, yet a fiction complete with a classical column and pastoral landscape is set within this illusionist, dreamy studio space. They are centered with a will toward mirroring that adds a sense of unease when the realization hits us that one is a doll. Where Meatyard’s photograph is sinister, Smith’s is uneasy. Both are disturbing.
Can an argument be made for the difference between master and vernacular photography in a Wölfflin-ian manner? Art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) commented that all pictures (for Wölfflin paintings) are indebted more to other pictures than they are to nature. Can the same be true of master and vernacular photography? Are photographs based upon previous photography, and upon other forms of image making? It seems reasonable to assume so.
But one could make a case that if enough vernacular images are produced that there is bound to be a “good” one; i.e., an image perceived as artful to the informed eye. Does that “success” have the formal qualities of known, historical art images? One could flip the argument and ask, for instance, about the photographer Garry Winogrand’s methodology of “shooting from the hip” hundreds and hundreds of negatives and editing them until he found the picture that worked within his visual vocabulary.
One can find a multiplicity of symbiotic relationships between “high” and “low” photography, for the photograph is merely a plane, mapped out by the edges of the frame, an art of veristic duplication and multiplication. By the same token they (the photographer / viewer) see the world via the photograph with the power of the eye seducing the mind and heart, of mystery and nostalgia, of melancholy and joy, and in the seemingly effortlessness in the pleasure of making and taking the image itself.
One of the conventions of pictorial modernism is its will towards flatness. With montage and collage, the flatness of the support material (the photographic paper) is inherently two dimensional. Its imagery in space is homogenized and seamless. By cutting and pasting those disparate images together and breaking that “seam” there becomes a denial of deep, pictorial space as in cubist pictures, where there is a spilling forward of visual information rather than a recession into space. The photographic image traditionally followed the laws of one-point perspective because of the medium’s monocular vision inherent to its application. However, by using multiple photographic “cuts” or “slices” adhered from one photographic plane to another, or by accidents in making the photograph (e.g.: double exposures, accidental cropping, etc.), an entirely new pictorial space emerges, a final picture – a fiction – made from images originally fashioned within different processes and times.
Both vernacular and modernist photographers occasionally employed the willful manipulation of the photographic surface itself by cutting and pasting, painting and lettering, to create a new fictive, but ingenuous space. Not long after the announcement of photography in 1839, there emerged a desire to alter photography’s mimetic condition. Whether by cutting up and pasting paper photographs from different sources (personal or published) or re-photographing the combined images the resulting tableaux would be to create an “irrational” picture.
Let us compare two more photographs created at nearly the same time, one made by an established artist, the other an artist unknown to us. The first, by John Gutmann (1905-1998) is Omen, 1934; the second picture is a photomontage Planes over Beach (1930s), by an anonymous, American photographer. Gutmann, born in Germany and impacted by the New German Photography between the wars used the technique, in this case, of “aiming” his camera up, skywards. By adjusting his camera to the sky, the field becomes flattened, holding only the silhouetted images of the planes and the cropped crowd down below. In this simulated silhouetted format, the implication is that of montage without the pasting. The pasting becomes more assertive and obvious in this photomontage in Planes over Beach. First, because of the radical shift in scale between plane, sky, and beach, and secondly, the complete and oblivious disregard by the beachgoers to the three enormous, propeller-whirling planes just over their heads. In Gutmann’s picture the cropped crowd is involved pictorially and to scale. But are they participating in the sighting of the three planes? They do not seem to be. One figure’s head/hat tilts slightly skywards, but the rest are seemingly indifferent to the objects above.
Is one image “better” esthetically than the other? No; though formally similar, these photographs are dialectically opposed. Are the pictures about the oncoming of war and an image of pleasure? Is it about examination or non-observation?
Both have an esthetic charge to them. Gutmann’s use of vertical, pictorial space, holds an ominous, yet romantic sky; formalism in the service of the social context of militarization. The anonymous image maker reveals pleasure in a dream-like, surreal manner. By shifting scales, the viewer believes that the beachgoers and pleasure craft occupying an incomprehensibly real space could actually exist, made possible by photographic “evidence.”
In some instances in this exhibition, “straight” photography emulates photomontage and trompe l’oeil painting by depicting their subject(s) parallel to the surface. For example, figures poking their heads through an opened page of a newspaper (”Headliners” or “Breaking News”) makes them appear floating or compressed to that surface. In other images, the background has been whitened out, leaving the remaining image floating and flattened in pure space. Art imitates art.
We tend to believe that collage and photomontage began with avant-garde photography of the early twentieth century. Artists as diverse as the avant-garde artists Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), El Lissitsky (1890-1941), and Hannah Hoch (1889-1978) lead the way to opening up this new variation into a type of “fictive” spatial reality. However, the practice of introducing disparate photographic and printed illustrational elements began almost as soon as paper photography was invented. This newly conceived photographic space gave us a variety of fresh ways of seeing in the confusing, anxiety-ridden, modern industrial world. They could be humorous (as many early photo collage and montages were) or angst-ridden as in the works of John Heartfield’s (1891-1968) anti-Nazi photomontages. They could compress time and space to simplify a narrative with just a few conjoined images.
Changing scale within the photographic field distorted and denied the once believable photographic space, transforming the once mimetic space into a surreal territory where anything was possible. Regarding rational scale in these photos, there is an affinity to folk (vernacular) painting and even Italian primitive painting of the quattrocento where scale is a dismissive element. But the most likely available source for the general public to see distortions on paper were ideas that came from a long line of illustrative, abstract perceptions, starting with comic caricature in the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century with artfully designed collages and advertising trade cards. With many of those images there was a willful enlargement of the head and distortions of the body. These concepts were now appropriated by manipulating photography.
The viewer of those photomontage images could be disturbed by the disruption in scale but would readily accept it, owing to the recognition of the known world via photography. Being a photographic space, it is assumed that verisimilitude reigns. This is the paradox; this new and odd pictorial photographic space disarms us. We are not prepared for the shock; the betrayal of our belief in the stability of the photographic image, and the breakdown of traditional photography’s mimetic qualities.
The affinity of the vernacular to the modern masters has at its root the same fundamental equipment; the camera. This is not the case with other art mediums. Photography has set ground rules that no other art form has, thereby opening up possibilities of image making to anyone who makes an exposure. It is not necessarily the mechanical aspect, but rather the perimeters set by the technology, and of course, the ‘eye’ of the photographer. Other traditional arts utilize technologies; the tools of painting and sculpture for example. Of course, photography could not exist without the camera, just as paintings cannot exist without pigment. But the conventions within painting or sculpture can be radically altered at any time. However, photographic boundaries are encoded; the cropping of the predetermined subject and the limited size of the negative. Beyond that, formalist properties can be applied to describing the photograph as in other art forms. For the rules of formal composition that are found only in photography are egalitarian for amateur or master. To validate both master and vernacular photography as the equivalent to one another is to acknowledge that both are resolved to a reflexive formalism present within all photography.
But can both master and vernacular photographer appropriate from one another? For the anonymous photographer, the photograph is a semi-private experience. It is the photographer (and possibly the subject) who has taken pleasure in the act, as well as the small group of relatives and/or friends who see the photographs. They were not originally meant for public exhibition. But can they be art? Yes, if certain criteria are met. As Michael Kimmelman points out “…by adding a layer of unanticipated meaning to the picture, suddenly elevates it from ordinary snapshot to art…that art is out there waiting to be captured, the only question being whether we are prepared to recognize it.” Conversely, exhibitions of photography in museums or galleries have a limited, but larger audience where the expectation of viewing a work of art is already present.
From the late nineteenth century to the present we have been inundated with photographic images. Acknowledged master photographers were well aware of snapshots and other visual stimuli since childhood. Some chose to explore this side of that vernacular aesthetic, while others assimilated its modernist tendencies. The vernacular photographer uses a somewhat different model. Aware of the variety modern life not in only photography outside the mainstream art world, but also in film and advertising imagery (which borrowed heavily from modernism in the twentieth century), the camera gave the anonymous photographer and their model(s) the freedom to “perform,” serving as a universal tool of aesthetic liberation.
Vernacular photography comes to us with its own unique baggage – its dark side – because the majority of these images have filtered down to our attention via the marketplace. Families break apart and die off, their trove of photographs scatter, to the final dispersal via the antique shop or flea market into the hands of complete strangers. It is with our “modern” eye that we recognize in these almost forgotten images the sense of their vitality, surreal quality, quirks, joy, and modernity.
1 For further information on the “antigraphic” see: Ware, Katherine and Peter Barberie, Dreaming in Black and White- Photography from the Julien Levy Gallery, Yale University Press, 2006, p.128.
2 Kimmelman, Michael. The Accidental Masterpieces: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, New York: Penguin Press, 2005, pp. 44-45.
*Convulsive Beauty was coined in1928 by Andre Breton (1896-1966), the “Pope” of surrealism. “Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all.” This was a transgressive version of beauty – in the sense that it revealed through psychological, unconscious conditions that would be revealed by an object or writing(s) and a desire for love.
GALLERY TALK: “Vernacular to the Masters”: Fall 2007