May 12, 2009

Modern Treasures puts gems of 20th century mass media photography on display

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera,” said the influential early photojournalist Dorothea Lange. Lange and her contemporaries may have taken most of their photographs for publication in newspapers, but the quality of their images drew attention to the art of photography itself. Drawing on the collections of Chicago collectors as well as the Museum’s own, the Art Institute’s new exhibit, Photography on Display: Modern Treasures, offers a good survey of early 20th-century photography as it evolved from a utilitarian medium to an art form.

The question of photography’s worthiness as an art form is still debated in academic circles. But prior to the middle of the 20th century, most of the art world—and the general public—considered photography a science, not an art. The Art Institute’s show groups photos into four categories: photographs from amateur photography salons, the collections of curators and art dealers who opened photography exhibits, photos from mass media publications, and informal experimentation. Each of these types helped build up credibility for photography as an art form from 1910 to 1950.

Perhaps the most interesting work on display is also the most recognizable: Joe Rosenthal’s shot of American soldiers raising the flag over Iwo Jima in 1945. One of the single most influential photographs ever taken, the famous image is presented along with three alternate versions sent out to all media outlets. These versions, along with the fact that Rosenthal first saw his own photograph in the newspaper, illustrate the importance of photojournalism during World War II and the 20th century as a whole.

Although the Iwo Jima photograph alone could make an interesting exhibit, some of the other works are worth studying. Photos by Soviet photographer Alexander Rodchenko show how the medium was used for propaganda purposes. In “Sports Parade, 1930,” Rodchenko presents a vision of Russian life under Soviet rule that is well organized and vibrant, drawing an implicit contrast with life under Tsarist rule. Robert Capa’s “Trotsky in Copenhagen” shows how photography has brought the public closer to world affairs and leaders in the news.

The exhibit traces the gradual branching out of photography from the newspaper page to the gallery wall. Gallery 291, the first American art gallery to display photography permanently, opened in New York in 1908. Founded by the influential photographer Alfred Stieglitz, 291 was a catalyst for introducing photography to the general public. Much of Stieglitz’s work is on display in Treasures, including his most famous photograph, “The Steerage.” Just as Rosenthal’s flag-raising photo helped bring war to the masses, “The Steerage” brought home to the American public the harsh conditions endured by immigrants coming to the U.S.

Treasures does not neglect avant-garde photography by famous artists like Man Ray. A highlight is Albert Renger-Patzsch’s “Untitled,” an image of the artist taking the picture using the reflection of a car mirror—a very innovative idea for the 1920s.

But the exhibit’s strength ultimately lies in its presentation of mass media images as art. In the 20th century, those images, like Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima photo, had the impact of masterpieces like “The Mona Lisa” on the public, and it is important to recognize their significance.