New York

Wendell MacRae

Witkin Gallery

The WENDELL MacRAE show was a labor of love on Lee Witkin’s part. A forgotten commercial photographer who was busy in the ’30s, but hasn’t worked since the late ’40s, MacRae was discovered by Witkin a few years ago. The show was subsequently arranged as an homage, complete with a handsome 30-page catalogue and a gala opening which MacRae attended. Witkin’s enthusiasm for MacRae is hard to resist because there’s no taint of hype in it. (I doubt that Witkin expects ever to make money from MacRae’s work.) One would like to think that no matter how much status photography acquires in the art world, it will continue to be an unrestricted club in this way, one still capable of fellow feeling and generous tributes.

MacRae’s work is itself a very human document of the ’30s which deserves the appreciation Witkin’s show represents. His work is gregarious, and of a piece with the times in which it was made. He is valuable today as a spokesman for an era now past, rather than as one of those voices crying out in the wilderness which we associate with high art. Where an important artist is often somebody whose recognition is delayed by the originality and difficulty of his work, MacRae is a photographer for whom recognition and success came quickly, and then faded. Most professional photography has been done in the spirit in which MacRae did his, as an attempt to reflect the common outlook of the photographer’s own age. It would be a shame if we were to forget or disdain that fact just because we now value instead those rare photographers whose work somehow transcends their age.

A worker like MacRae deserves his due, deserves not to be forgotten. But it’s important not to get carried away by it all, either. In the opening sentence of the catalogue, Witkin speaks of MacRae’s “first-rate creativity.” This is pure hyperbole. Creativity was not MacRae’s long suit, and he’s certainly not first-rate. The very thing that makes MacRae’s work still worth looking at is its limitation, his inability to break out of a ’30s way of thinking. I suspect that this is why he quit photography in the ’40s. After having prospered throughout the previous decade, and even having been noted by Alfred Stieglitz in a pioneer show at the Julien Levy Gallery, MacRae simply went out of fashion. His major commissions indicate the centrality of his work to the period in which it was done. His longest-running assignment, from 1934 to 1941, was as photographer for a weekly published by Rockefeller Center, and one of the dazzlers of the Witkin show was a photograph of a luminescent white model of the center backlit by sunshine pouring through casement windows, beyond which construction of the center itself can be seen.

Rockefeller Center was the perfect subject for MacRae, whose treatment of all Art Deco subjects was imbued with what a reviewer of the day rightly called “full-blooded romanticism.” Art Deco is not only the subject, but the mode of MacRae’s work. Even when he photographed a nude holding flowers, she came out looking streamlined like the hood ornament on a car. Another commercial job well executed by MacRae was a study of the Burlington Zephyr. Although he had to shoot the assignment while the train was still under construction at the locomotive yards, his picture shows an elegant woman looking out the window of an observation car which we take to be in service already. Like the pictures made during the building of Rockefeller Center, this one has a certain quality of looking forward to the future. That’s what the romance of Art Deco was all about, and when the future didn’t work out as well as visionaries of the ’30s had anticipated, MacRae’s work began to seem dated.

In the last sentence of the Witkin catalogue, MacRae himself echoes the exaggerated estimate of his work in Witkin’s first sentence. Trying still to envision the future, and sounding much too much like a great artist who feels his moment has not yet come, he says, “I have the secret isolated joy of hoping that hundreds of years from now, people will be seeing the world through my eyes.” This is just what won’t happen. Even now, less than half a century after they were made, his pictures seem impossibly distant. Their fascination lies in how difficult it is for us to identify with them. How can people have imagined themselves in that way, we wonder. That the photographs raise that question is the source of both their delight and their value now.

MacRae himself, and other photographers like him, seem to us today figures of legend only. In self-portraits made in the late ’20s when he was just starting out, he appears in a poor-boy cap, a great, handsome, strapping lad who doesn’t seem real. He seems larger than life, as befits someone who grew up in Blue Earth, Minnesota as Paul Bunyan did, and who was born in Metropolis, Illinois, the city where, presumably, Superman was a reporter. In a reminiscence contributed to the Witkin catalogue by MacRae’s niece, who spent her own childhood in a house that her uncle shared with her parents, MacRae sounds as if he were, at the very least, the lead character in You Can’t Take It With You. All the essential facts of MacRae’s life were recorded for posterity a couple of years ago in that eminent scholarly journal History of Photography, which is exactly where MacRae belongs now. But it is not ultimately the facts which occasion salutes like that article, or like the Witkin show. It is MacRae’s embodiment of an ancient myth of the photographer.

The first photographs I ever took were of a piece of sculpture. It was Calder’s Guillotine for Eight, the stabile that was the centerpiece of the Guggenheim’s Calder retrospective in 1964–65. It knocked me out. It made me feel that all the mobiles were just rehearsals for the stabiles, which, instead of rotating while the viewer stood still, required the viewer to walk around or even under them. As this was done, the sculpture continuously reorganized itself. It seemed to become at least a dozen different sculptures—some massive and heavy, others spindly or soaring—and each sculpture contained a dozen different compositions, all in perfect balance and harmony no matter where you stood. This multiplicity was what I hoped to capture in my photographs, but they turned out to be only crude notes on Calder’s art. As I took them my mind blanked out the surroundings; but when I got the prints back, the irrelevant juxtapositions of bystanders and inappropriateness in the setting or lighting seemed to intrude horribly on the sculpture itself. The whole effect I had been after was lost. It was my first lesson in photography.

Sculpture might seem easy to photograph because the subject will supply its own beauty. But a corollary of the camera’s ability to render ugly things beautiful is that it can as quickly render beautiful things ugly. Even when the photographer tries to provide only the most neutral background, the result often makes the piece look the way a maimed limb does laid on black velvet for a medical photograph. The moral is that no background is neutral. In order to succeed, the photograph must try to be a work of art on as nearly equal terms with the sculpture as it can manage. Somehow it has to use the setting with as much imagination as the sculpture itself uses form. The difficulty of doing this is why so much photography of sculpture turns out to be disappointing.

Once in a while a photographer comes along who can hold his own with the sculptor. One who comes to mind—the only one—is Walker Evans’ protégé Jerry Thompson, who did a series of photographs of the sculptures of Mary Frank. The photographs depict the pieces outdoors on a lawn that seems to trail off into the wildness of woods in the distance. One piece made in sections is, I recall, laid out on the lawn as if it were something whole that had toppled over and broken apart. The implication that Frank’s sculptures are really shards, artifacts half reclaimed by nature rather than new-made work, is an appropriate, astute reflection on both her vision and the esthetics of a large part of modern art in general. Thompson’s success remains a rare phenomenon, though. Usually such photographs leave me feeling that the photographer wasn’t up to the sculpture, or even that no one could have done it justice except maybe the sculptor.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.