PRINT January 1966


“Contemporary Photographs from the George Eastman House Collection, 1900–1964” at the De Young Museum

The 124 photographs selected by Nathan Lyons to represent the range of contemporary photographic expression show clearly that we have today such a wonderfully malleable, plastic concept of the world that the imaginative photographer can mould and stretch and pommel reality into undreamed-of new dimensions. Lyons has in general selected the unexpected, sometimes Surrealistic, image rather than the image that isolates the commonplace object or experience to make us look at it with new eyes. People wear masks, and our minds must resolve the difference between masked and non-masked individual to be drawn into the photographer’s world. W. Eugene Smith shows us Pittsburgh steelworker, 1957, in safety goggles, a science fiction man, part human, part insect, a frightening symbol of determinism. Ralph Eugene Meatyard (Romance from Ambrose Bierce #3, 1962) shows us boys sitting on bleachers, wearing ghoulish Hallowe’en masks, and the contrast between the hideous mask and the casually-dressed boys is amusing, then blood-chilling. Space may surround people to tie them together, away from the world but at peace with each other––Tim Kantor’s poetic family in The people on the beach, Florida, 1957; or space may isolate each individual to make him a stranger to his fellows––Mario Giacomelli’s print from the “Scanno” series, 1963.

Lyons has divided the photographer’s domain into loosely-knit, often overlapping categories: man in his environment; portraits; landscape and nature; design and pure abstraction; buildings and their details; color; and he has—partly by his arrangement, partly by his allowing each photographer to speak through only one print—subordinated the photographer to the category. Some photographers, therefore, show completely atypical prints—(Edward Weston’s Neil made in 1922) and others show prints that have too often been shown before (Paul Strand’s overworked photograph of a blind woman made in 1915).

In selecting this handful of prints from the vast Eastman House collection, Lyons has, with rare understanding, avoided the pitfalls that have entrapped many other editors of comprehensive exhibits. His photographs are all complete within themselves; they are not fragments of ideas mercilessly plucked from context. He is acutely aware of the marriage of form and subject matter, so that he does not deluge us with prints that are shown only because they show exotic places or people in the news. Marc Riboud’s Camel market, 1956, might stand for any arrangement of figures in landscape. Robert Capa’s Leon Trotsky speaking in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1931 from Images of War, 1964, probes the mind of all dedicated men. Only William Klein’s Moscow, 1959, seems out of place. The print would certainly have been discarded if it had shown Grand Central Station.

A rather large number of the prints explore children and the world they live in, and Lyons has perceptively chosen prints to show us how children really look, what they think, how they feel. The children are never cute—although they may be charming—like Frederick Sommer’s Livia, 1948. Philip Jones Griffiths (Children in a South Wales village, 1962) shows us a boy’s intent, joyful expression as he hurls a rock into a discarded piano. John Max (Study of children, #2, 1962) shows us a defiant girl smoking. And Dorothea Lange’s Damaged child, ca. 1938 (perhaps the most memorable, disturbing print in the exhibit) glares at and through us from dark, sunken eyes.

As in the Museum of Modern Art show, “The American Landscape,” most landscape prints were made by photographers in the western United States. Minor White’s Pacific Ocean, from Song without Words, 1948, is an understated, dreamlike study of the sea at night. Away from the West, Art Sinsabaugh’s Midwest landscape, #46, 1961, with its long horizon crowded with trees and gravestones recalls the relative simplicity of life between two world wars; and Frederick Beckman (Untitled, 1963) shows us the surprisingly beautiful landscape of a parking lot at sunset.

Although Lyons has selected splendid prints to show that the design of the real world may be emphasized to create a more significant reality (Ray Metzger’s stark Man in boat, 1961; Ken Josephson’s untitled print, 1961, of people in shadow touched by spots of sunlight), his pure abstractions are generally insipid, predictable, and dull. There is no curiosity about the design of the submicroscopic world; no whimsical attempt to extend the range of the eye. There is only a plodding repetition of the usual rock forms, broken windows, and decaying wall—although one must remember that Aaron Siskind’s Jerome, Arizona, 1949, is a prototype of the subsequent thousands of close-ups of peeling paint. Joseph Jachna’s Head, 1964, is imaginative calligraphy, a little reminiscent of the paintings of Mark Tobey.

The exhibit points to the still uneasy rapprochement between black-and-white and color prints. The people at Eastman House have been unable to come to terms with color; one feels that they would be relieved if all the color prints in the world were to sink without trace to the bottom of the sea. Beaumont Newhall in his History of Photography dismisses color with a few scant pages; Lyons has selected only twelve color prints—roughly ten percent—for the current show. Whereas only a few of the black-and-white prints depend for their meaning on what used to be called “experimental” techniques—heightened contrast, multiple printing, and the like (for example Jerry Uelsman’s provocative Myth of the trees, 1963)—almost all the color prints are contrived (Scott Hyde’s multiple print, Don’t let money . . . , 1964; Dennis Stock’s untitled print, 1963, of brown grasses in and out of focus, with points of light; Thomas Nebbia’s Egrets in Acapulco, 1964, photographed in blue evening light). The rectangles of the real world which the camera may preserve are so often unsatisfying in color that the photographer feels compelled to change them.

––Margery Mann