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A Staggering Revolution

A Staggering Revolution: A Cultural History of Thirties Photography

John Raeburn
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 424
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  • Book Info
    A Staggering Revolution
    Book Description:

    During the 1930s, the world of photography was unsettled, exciting, and boisterous. John Raeburn's A Staggering Revolution recreates the energy of the era by surveying photography's rich variety of innovation, exploring the aesthetic and cultural achievements of its leading figures, and mapping the paths their pictures blazed public's imagination. _x000B_While other studies of thirties photography have concentrated on the documentary work of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), no previous book has considered it alongside so many of the decade's other important photographic projects. A Staggering Revolution includes individual chapters on Edward Steichen's celebrity portraiture; Berenice Abbott's Changing New York project; the Photo League's ethnography of Harlem; and Edward Weston's western landscapes, made under the auspices of the first Guggenheim Fellowship awarded to a photographer. It also examines Margaret Bourke_White's industrial and documentary pictures, the collective undertakings by California's Group f.64, and the fashion magazine specialists, as well as the activities of the FSA and the Photo League. _x000B_Raeburn's expansive study explains how the democratic atmosphere of thirties photography nourished innovation and encouraged new heights of artistic achievement. It also produced the circumstances that permitted artful photography to become such a thriving public enterprise during the decade. A Staggering Revolution offers an illuminating analysis of the sociology of photography's art world and its galleries and exhibitions, but also demonstrates the importance of the novel venues created by impresarios and others that proved essential to photography's extraordinary dissemination. These new channels, including camera magazines and annuals, volumes of pictures enhanced by text, and omnibus exhibitions in unconventional spaces, greatly expanded photography's cultural visibility. They also made its enthusiastic audience larger and more heterogeneous than ever before - or since.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09219-0
    Subjects: Sociology, Art & Art History, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. A Calendar of Thirties Photography
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  6. 1 The Rebirth of Photography in the Thirties
    (pp. 1-18)

    Triumphantly concluding his 1940 survey of “photographic art” for theEncyclopedia Britannica,Edward Weston observed that the thirties had witnessed “a perceptible growth of interest in and understanding of photography as an art medium.” His experience encouraged that gratifying assessment. Ten years earlier his audience had been miniscule and mostly regional because no means existed to bring pictures like his before a broader viewership. He had not even exhibited in New York. But by 1940 hundreds of thousands had seen his work, in that year alone visitors to the Golden Gate International Exposition (the San Francisco World’s Fair) and the...

  7. 2 Disestablishing Stieglitz
    (pp. 19-29)

    Before a revitalized art world could coalesce, Alfred Stieglitz’s longstanding authority needed to be diminished. Leading that effort were two young photographers, Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans, and two recent Harvard undergraduates, Julien Levy and Lincoln Kirstein. Although they knew one another, theirs was not a group effort, and none except Evans at first saw himself or herself as confronting Stieglitz’s authority. Their initial aim was more innocent, to enlarge artistic photography’s purview. In order to achieve that, they put forward another model of photography’s development than the one Stieglitz represented and proposed as masters photographers he had not acknowledged....

  8. 3 Group f.64 and the Problem of California Photography
    (pp. 30-47)

    California in the early thirties seemed more remote than later in the century or even by the end of the decade after scheduled airline service bridged the continent and radio networks routinely broadcast live programming between the coasts. One emblem of the distance, physical and psychological, between East and West was the four days and three nights necessary to span it by train. For many eastern observers that made far-off California almost another country. In an essay written toward the end of the depression Edmund Wilson emphasized the state’s “strange spell of unreality,” which he believed made human experience there...

  9. 4 An Eastern Beachhead
    (pp. 48-60)

    Even as other venues were being developed to afford photography opportunities for reaching new audiences, galleries and museums continued to be important to revitalizing its art world for three reasons. First, they provided opportunities to recruit adherents among the professionals who ran them and also from their arts-minded audiences. Second, they stimulated the discursive activities of historicizing, explanation, and evaluation and thus served an educative mission. Third, and perhaps most important, because photography was still regarded as a parvenu it required cultural legitimation, and that could be most visibly won in spaces consecrated to Art.

    Edward Weston’s first New York...

  10. 5 Edward Steichen and Celebrity Photography
    (pp. 61-79)

    In 1929 Edward Steichen had been the Condé Nast magazines’ chief photographer for six years, but he was increasingly dissatisfied withVanity Fair’s presentation of his portraits, its most prominent monthly feature. The magazine’s design, he felt, was old-fashioned, stodgy, and incongruous with his style. A dull-gray mat often edged with a black border framed his pictures, giving them a heavy, vaguely Victorian look at odds with their sleek modernism. Dense captions in small type exacerbated the impression of ponderousness. This treatment violated more than esthetic congruity. As celebrities, his sitters depended on being perceived as modern, up to date,...

  11. 6 MoMA’s “Big Top” Show
    (pp. 80-92)

    In a 1923 talk Paul Strand lamented photographers’ ignorance of their history. He claimed only the back issues ofCamera Workpreserved it, and they lay unconsulted in Alfred Stieglitz’s archives. “Photographers have no other access to their tradition, to the experimental work of the past,” he said. In conflating the Photo-Secession with photography’s history Strand revealed his own myopia, but his point was unexceptionable. Ten years later, though, a more informed historical perspective had begun to take shape as such people as Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, and Lincoln Kirstein sketched in a rough outline of contemporary photography’s antecedents. But...

  12. 7 Camera Periodicals and the Popular Audience
    (pp. 93-113)

    Sensing in 1933 the rising tide of interest in photography, an energetic young entrepreneur named Thomas J. Maloney composed a piece on its “coming of age” that turned out to be the prospectus for a publication he would launch two years later, theU.S. Cameraannual. Photography had become the avatar of Currier and Ives in supplying visual art to a broad spectrum of Americans, he argued, and reproductions were the primary channel through which the best photographers reached viewers. His notions were antithetical to those to which artistic photography had traditionally subscribed, which on the model of the other...

  13. 8 Culture Morphology in Berenice Abbott’s New York
    (pp. 114-142)

    Although in the thirties Berenice Abbott occupied a prominent position in photography’s art world, recognition of her Changing New York project subsequently became muted, perhaps because none of her later activities over a long life (she died in 1991) matched its achievement but even more because its visibility was eclipsed by the installation of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) as the decade’s supreme expression of documentary practice. Abbott’s career has not precisely been neglected—she appears in all histories of twentieth-century photography—but neither has her New York work regained its initial standing nor has its exploration of the thirties’...

  14. 9 Farm Security Administration Photography and the Dilemmas of Art
    (pp. 143-166)

    Photographs by the Historical Section of the Resettlement and Farm Security Administrations are unquestionably the best known of the thirties. Several circumstances coalesced to give them such posthumous prominence. The sheer size and extraordinary scope of the Section’s archive—seventy-seven thousand prints and nearly twice as many negatives, along with the project’s deep coverage of the entire United States—make it indispensable for researchers, and a detailed index permits efficient access to pictures of specific subjects and locales. It is housed in the Library of Congress, which lends the prestige of one of the nation’s preeminent cultural institutions. And unlike...

  15. 10 Farm Security Administration Photography in the Aura of Art
    (pp. 167-193)

    When it was established in mid-1935 the Historical Section had the improvisatory air of many New Deal initiatives: get the thing up and running and then figure out what it ought to do. From the welter of responsibilities enumerated in its charter photography soon emerged as the only one it would pursue. Because the public appetite for photographs seemed unquenchable and of their reputation for transparency they promised to be a superior vehicle for publicizing the Resettlement Administration, which, whatever its other uncertainties, had been the Section’s raison d’être from the outset. Less settled were what the photographers ought to...

  16. 11 The Nation’s Newsstands
    (pp. 194-218)

    One of John Vachon’s strongest pictures in a 1938 survey of Omaha depicts a central city newsstand, its scores of magazines in serried ranks, a subject identical to Berenice Abbott’s inChanging New York.Besides wanting to illustrate contemporary preoccupations, both photographers were drawn to the formal potential of orderly repetition within difference and by the implicit reflexivity magazines’ covers offered, their glamour shots a contrast to documentary’s plain-speaking. Vachon’s and Abbott’s newsstands dramatized the thirties as effulgent with magazines, especially ones featuring photographs.¹

    Most pictures published by magazines aspired only to be timely and illustrative, but a significant minority...

  17. 12 The Photo League, Lewis Hine, and the Harlem Document
    (pp. 219-245)

    The Photo League occupied a seedy New York walk-up on East 21 st Street, where a cardboard sign directed visitors up a rickety stairway to its loft. So modest was it that the Works Progress Administration’sNew York City Guide,otherwise determined to call attention to the city’s cultural sites, failed to mention it while pointing out some inconspicuous neighbors, the residences of Ida Tarbell, Cecilia Beaux, and George Julian Zolnay. The League’s significance in photography’s art world, however, exceeded what this public obscurity might suggest, and in the late thirties it became a vibrant institution for teaching, debating, exhibiting,...

  18. 13 Seeing California with Edward Weston
    (pp. 246-275)

    Applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship in the autumn of 1936 Edward Weston described his “plan of work” in just two sentences: “I wish to continue an epic series of photographs of the West, begun about 1929; this will include a range from satires on advertising to ranch life, from beach kelp to mountains. The publication of the above seems assured.” His terseness was surprising inasmuch as no photographer had ever held a Guggenheim, and so was his jauntiness about publication which rested on the slender reed of a gallery’s scheme to underwrite it by soliciting subscribers. But he was confident...

  19. 14 Photography at High Tide
    (pp. 276-292)

    Beginning in 1935 a new kind of exhibition made artful photography accessible to unprecedented numbers of viewers. Polyglot extravaganzas composed of many hundreds and in one case thousands of exhibits, they attracted enormous crowds to spaces dissimilar to the galleries and museums where art is ordinarily displayed—in New York to Rockefeller Center and the giant exposition hall of the Grand Central Palace, to department stores and cultural institutions in provincial cities, and to the World’s Fair in San Francisco. Every year of the latter half of the thirties witnessed at least one huge show, most traveling to scores of...

  20. Afterword: “The Cultural Establishment of Photography”
    (pp. 293-302)

    Just two weeks after the Pageant closed, Ansel Adams hurried to New York to participate in inaugurating MoMA’s new Department of Photography and, with Beaumont Newhall, put together its first exhibition. Both opened on the last day of 1940. Plans for persuading the museum to establish the department had been percolating for nearly two years between Adams and David McAlpin, underwriter of the 1937 show and prepared to contribute again to set photography on a more permanent footing. By this date the trustees of MoMA no longer needed so much to be persuaded that photography deserved to be represented as...

  21. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 303-360)
  23. Index
    (pp. 361-370)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 371-372)