New York

“Visions of Liberty”

New-York Historical Society

Photography, or at least the mass-produced, mass-distributed halftone, has taken over many of the memorializing functions performed in earlier times by monumental sculpture—not destroying the aura of such public icons, as Walter Benjamin proposed, but replacing it with its own smudgy aura. This complicity between news photos and monuments has led to some curious chimeras that compound the two. The most obvious example is the Iwo Jima memorial in Washington, D.C., showing a group of marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi; this work is based on Joe Rosenthal’s heroically posed news photo, but any number of other news photos could easily be imagined transformed into bronze or marble. The reverse is also true: well-known public monuments provide particularly apt subjects for photographs. Lee Friedlander’s ironic juxtapositions of everyday banality and heroic statuary in The American Monument (1975) are the fullest expression of this in recent photography; Eugène Atget’s work provides an apt earlier example.

Understandably, given its location, this show of photographs of the Statue of Liberty did not try to examine the links between photography and sculpture, but instead traced the statue’s career as a public icon. A first section covered the years of its construction after being proposed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi as a gift in honor of the American Centennial of 1876. The photographs here—by many photographers, some anonymous—suggest that people of the time were as fascinated by the way the statue was being built (by Gustave Eiffel) as by the figure itself. These images, of workmen clambering among scaffolds over the flowing robes and monumental features of Liberty, emphasize that the statue is a Victorian blend of noble sentiment and the monumentality that industrial technology exults in.

By the turn of the century, though, the statue had been thoroughly denatured and had become the icon it was intended to be. The second section here, of photographs by Augustus Sherman, a little-known clerk at Ellis Island, suggests the patriotic mythology fostered to integrate immigrants into American society. Located only a few hundred yards from Ellis Island, the statue took on a central role in this process. But the solemn, determined immigrants in Sherman’s photographs seem very different from the “huddled masses” of Emma Lazarus’ poem, inscribed on the base of the statue in 1903.

Now, of course, the statue is thoroughly enshrined as an icon, and the third part of the show offered a variety of treatments of it by both news photographers and art photographers. Margaret Bourke-White, among others, emphasized its monumentality, by photographing up its skirts on its 50th anniversary, in 1936. In 1969 Bruce Davidson used it to counterpoint a New Jersey junkyard. Few of the photographers in this section are able to pierce the statue’s aura; instead their work—even that which tries to debunk it, like Friedlander’s photograph of a miniature Liberty in Wichita, Kansas, 1975—serves only to reinforce its status as icon. But Ruth Thorne-Thompson, in a 1978 photograph from her “Expedition Series,” takes a different tack. In this work cardboard cutouts of a man and the face of Liberty, from an anonymous photograph included elsewhere in the show, are made to seem monumental by being photographed in closeup, with a pinhole camera. Here the reference is not to the statue itself but to the earlier photograph; Thorne-Thompson revs up the icon machine another notch, and in so doing removes the image even further from its function as social symbol—while underlining its function as art-photography icon.

—Charles Hagen