A Staggering Revolution: A Cultural History of Thirties Photography
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. 370 pp.; 24 b/w ills. $75.00
Among art historians, Beaumont Newhall's 1937 photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is usually understood as a watershed moment in the history of American photography. Certainly, there had been exhibitions of photographs before, as far back as the 1840s, just after the daguerreotype camera was first introduced in the United States. At their most public, these exhibitions appeared in conjunction with extravaganzas like world's fairs, or in the rented halls of enthusiastic camera clubs. To judge by the many installation photographs that document them, the various exposition and club displays usually followed the principle, in opposition to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's dictum, that more really is more. Floor-to-ceiling, edge-to-edge, even frame-on-frame, the pictures dazzled in their sheer glut, in their assortment of ever-changing media (daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes, cartes de visites, cabinet cards, bas-relief prints, albumen prints, sometimes all of them competing for attention at once), and in their vast array of subjects (celebrity portraits, distant landscapes, burgeoning city-scapes, architectural studies, genre scenes, war scenes, and on and on, seemingly without end). Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the many crowded displays provided a continuous, if sometimes dizzying, presentation of the field's developments and achievements. But to call them "exhibitions," at least from the Museum of Modern Art's point of view and in light of the use of the word in the late 1930s, was to mix the amateur's mushy apples with the connoisseur's sweet oranges. One yielded an unstrained, coarse beverage for the masses; the other promised a delicate and refreshing aperitif for the cognoscenti.
Coming a year after Alfred Barr's two omnibus shows, Cubism and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism, and several years after three blockbuster retrospectives, devoted respectively to Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Diego Rivera, Newhall's exhibition was an effort to put photography on the same serious museum footing that was until then reserved for great modernist painting. Making generous use of the expansive white gallery walls, blowing up some pictures to huge proportions, and clustering others in an arrangement made fashionable in European Bauhaus and Film and Foto exhibitions, Newhall gave to photography the kind of dynamic yet ennobled, sacral presentation that encouraged a refined aesthetic attention. He borrowed from Barr's examples in his overall conceptual organization as well, outlining distinct styles, naming great masters, and telling a story of technical change and formal progress. In effect, he gave to photography a usable "history," at least as it was understood in the advanced art world, and made the exhibition of photographs, at long last, a serious museum endeavor. Three years later, the Museum of Modern Art introduced its Department of Photography, the first of its kind in the country, and today, like nearly every other American museum, it continues to make the exhibition of photographs a regular feature of its offerings.
This is a well-known story. (1) But to judge by this new book by John Raeburn, a professor of American literature and American Studies at the University of Iowa, Newhall's 1937 exhibition did not launch a revolution in the public display and serious appreciation of photographs but rather was the beneficiary of a decade's worth of feverish activity and promotion among photographers and their energetic supporters, most of whom had very little to do with the Museum of Modern Art. The 1930s, he writes, "witnessed a fundamental transformation in [American] photographic culture--with a reinvigorated creative energy that inspired distinctive new bodies of work, an entrepreneurial bustle that made them public, and the cultivation of a new, much expanded audience" (pp. 16-17). In his book, Raeburn attempts to chart that transformation. He is interested in something closer to the tart mush for the masses than in the sweet juice for the discriminating. Or, better, he is interested in how that mush got squeezed into juice, how certain photographers and practices brought about the unique conditions for photography's ascent in popular taste and for a show like Newhall's to try to capitalize on and channel it. In this formulation, Newhall's show was not revolutionary for the field; the "staggering revolution" that Raeburn's title identifies happened almost everywhere else in the cultural landscape. The famed 1937 exhibition was conservative, even valedictory, because it assigned to photographs a more determinate place in culture, whereas in the previous seven or eight years, what had characterized photography-certainly, what had given it a sprawling and...