PHOTOGRAPHY CRITICISM | THEORY

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The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Hardcover, 9.5 x 12 in. / 416 pgs / 390 color.

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Catalog: FALL 2017 p. 40   

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THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK

Photography at MoMA: 1840 to 1920

Edited with text by Quentin Bajac, Lucy Gallun, Roxana Marcoci, Sarah Hermanson Meister. Text by Geoffrey Batchen, Michel Frizot, Shelley Rice, Bonnie Yochelson.

"Pierrot Surprised" (1854–55) by Adrien Tournachon (French, 1825–1903), is reproduced from 'Photography at MoMA: 1840 to 1920.'

Photography at MoMA: 1840 to 1920 is the final volume in a set of three books that together present a new and comprehensive history of photography through works in The Museum of Modern Art’s collection.

Illustrated with over 400 reproductions, the book charts the photographic medium from early examples in the 1840s through its participation in international art movements such as Pictorialism and modernism. An in-depth introduction is followed by eight chapters of full-color plates, each introduced by a short essay, offering a fresh lens through which to appreciate works of exceptional significance, surprise and influence, and encouraging creative new readings. Masterworks by photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Nadar, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Henry Fox Talbot, August Sander, Edward Steichen and Carleton Watkins appear alongside lesser-known gems and vernacular forms of photography.


Quentin Bajac is former Chief Curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Geoffrey Batchen is Professor of Art History, Classics, and Religious Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Michel Frizot is former Professor at the Ècole du Louvre, Paris, and editor of A New History of Photography (1998).

Lucy Gallun is Assistant Curator in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Sarah Hermanson Meister is Curator in the Department of Photography at The Museum of of Modern Art, New York.

Roxana Marcoci is Senior Curator in the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Shelley Rice is Arts Professor at New York University.

Bonnie Yochelson is an independent curator and art historian based in New York.

"Pierrot Surprised" (1854–55) by Adrien Tournachon (French, 1825–1903), is reproduced from 'Photography at MoMA: 1840 to 1920.'

Photography at MoMA: 1840 to 1920

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FROM THE BOOK
EXCERPT, "Experiences with Reality" by Quentin Bajac

Stieglitz had been enjoying a renewed popularity in the early 1920s. The man described by Imogen Cunningham as “the father of us all” was once again 
a mentor to a generation of photographers, artists,
 and critics… Stieglitz liked this role, although 
he admitted in a 1923 letter to his friend, the writer
 Paul Rosenfeld, that he was unsure “about being as much an artist as one of the leading spiritual forces of this country”; indeed, a few years later the critic Henry McBride would compare him to a religious leader. Stieglitz’s circle in the early 1920s was made up of artists and photographers (O’Keeffe, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand) as well as writers (Waldo Frank, William Carlos Williams), all of them striving enthusiastically and optimistically to define a new American identity and a new American art, unencumbered by the weight and traditions of old Europe—which the war had left depleted. An art in search of spirituality and transcendence in the materialistic, technological American society, with its personal dimension as
 its main feature: an art composed of intuition and experience of the real.

Experience: the term is essential to the American avant-garde of the period, whatever the medium. Stieglitz’s photographs of skies from the 1920s, he said, were the equivalents “of my most profound life experience.” Ten years later, in 1935, Ansel Adams could still write, for the text accompanying his first show at An American Place, “In this exhibit I have tried to present certain personal experiences with reality. I have made no attempt to symbolize, to intellectualize, or to abstract what I have seen or felt.” As a crucial element of American pragmatism and suggestive of a more attentive relationship to nature, experience proposed a connection with the real by way of observation and feeling rather than reflection and intellect; as Stieglitz would say of his sky photographs, “I do not think any longer, I just feel.” Such primacy of feeling would also lead him to title these works using musical terms, as he did with Songs of the Sky or Music—A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs, thus marking them as expressions of art that can do without words—an art before language.

This emphasis on experience by American artists was developing at a time when the central notion espoused by the European photographic avant-gardes was experimentation, from the Constructivists to the Dadaist and Surrealist movements; “experience photography” here versus “experimental photography” there. The opposition is no doubt a bit schematic, both because counterexamples exist (the German Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity] would frequently be compared to American photography of the same years) and because the two notions are not so reducibly dissimilar: many American photographers, Stieglitz chief among them, were working experimentally as well. Nevertheless, in the great modern and antipictorial project of searching for and identifying a pure photography, the vanguards in Europe and the United States followed different paths: the former—intellectual, objective, and messianic but also pedagogical and playful—investigating the medium in all its forms, especially the most composite and artificial (photomontage, photogram, solarization, double exposure, etc.); the latter was emotional, searching for truth via exact representation achieved in the most straightforward way possible, a strategy often expressed as respect for the subject. Modern American photography, called “straight” or “pure,” was marked by a certain puritanism: “pure” was understood in all senses of the term, literal (without tricks or manipulation) as well as figurative (true, that which does not lie). Ralph Steiner said as much of Strand: “For him there was something called Right and something called Wrong, and especially in photography they were poles apart. Like Stieglitz, he had no difficulty using that awesome word ‘truth.’”

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Unworking

UNWORKING

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Amuse-bouche: The Taste of Art

AMUSE-BOUCHE: THE TASTE OF ART

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A Progressive Bauhaus Legacy

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Edited by Wolfgang Thöner, Claudia Perren. Text by Wolfgang Thöner, Christin Müller-Wenzel.

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