New York

“America Worked. The 1950s Photographs of Dan Weiner”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

The photojournalist Dan Weiner had only a brief career: most of his work was done in the decade before he died, in 1959, at the age of 39. Nonetheless he achieved a wide reputation for his graceful photographs, which were made using the small, lightweight cameras that other postwar photojournalists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank employed to similarly insightful effect. Weiner’s photographs demonstrate his great ability to capture fleeting but telling expressions and gestures, and to reveal the underlying drama of everyday events.

Like W. Eugene Smith, who also achieved his greatest prominence in mass circulation magazines after the war, Weiner was mindful of the possibilities of the photoessay as a form. He produced many of his pictures on assignment for such magazines as Fortune and Collier’s, and in fact, the great majority of the photographs on view here were made for stories of this sort. As such they often seem tied to specific events or personalities—whatever the editors of the magazine had decided to feature that month. Weiner was able to give subjects that were standard for such magazines—executive portraits, say, or pictures of “typical” office scenes—both a formal beauty and an emotional depth. William Ewing, who organized this show and edited the accompanying book of Weiner’s work, recognized the need to anchor the photographs in some sort of sociological or narrative context, and in a sense has tried to assemble them into a new photoessay about American life in the ’50s. Ewing even provides some of the verbal paraphernalia of a magazine photo story, sprinkling a variety of captions and pseudocaptions around the walls and throughout the book. These include not only identifying captions, some apparently taken from the original photo stories, but also quotes from such well-known critiques of ’50s America as Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man, and David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd.

Taken out of the context of the stories with which they appeared, Weiner’s pictures can be recognized as masterful photographs; however, stripped of captions and other identifying information, they also become ungrounded, free-floating. For all of its ambitions as a social statement, the show never quite holds together as more than a kind of extended portfolio. However sharply seen and skillfully crafted, Weiner’s pictures remain essentially magazine illustrations, reflecting anonymous editors’ ideas of what makes a good story. Removed from an analytical context that might give depth to the details they record, the pictures come across as collections of curiosa, tourist shots of an exotic tribe. In some of these images, there is little sense of the real nature of the underlying social fabric behind the events depicted, and the people in these dramas seldom achieve life as individuals. Consequently, Weiner’s work remains a collection of brilliant fragments.

Charles Hagen