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Facing America: Portraits of the People and the Land

on display through December, 2006


Facing America: Portraits of the People and the Land is a collection of photographs from the 1920s to the present. It offers a broad view of the art and history of American photography from the past century, and includes a combination of famous and little-known works.

The show is arranged into thematic groupings-landscapes, still lifes, and group and individual portraiture-which call attention to stylistic contrasts and similarities. Each section presents different viewpoints of the same themes and subjects, and their modification over time. Images vary from idyllic and glorified photographs of the land, to candid and unforgiving portraits of the people.

Photography is a seen as a unique medium in its various functions: it is a form of advertising, an artistic medium, a reliable news source, and important historic documentation. With those different roles presented and juxtaposed, the lines between them begin to blur.

The artists featured succeed in reflecting the constantly changing social and physical character of a nation. At times their works express upbeat and sentimental attitudes, and in other instances venture into the divisive flirtation with social taboos that mark the decades of the 20th century.

Photographs by Edward Steichen, Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, and Bernice Abbott taken in the 1930s and '40s reflect an attitude of optimism and unity. Their search for the dignity and beauty of humankind produced images that were embraced by many, and made photo magazines like Life and Fortune enormously popular. These early images are contrasted with photographs from later in the century by artists such as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Cindy Sherman that play on the falsity of the so-called American ideal.

Paralleling these changes in attitudes towards portraiture and genre scenes is a simultaneous shift in landscape photography-from magnificent, sprawling Western panoramas to harsher urban and industrial landscapes, such as those by photographers Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Joel Sternfeld.

Additionally, the increasing complexity of still life images has also evolved due to advancements in camera technology, diversifying its role as an artistic medium. This transformation from the classic and expressive still life scenes by Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, to the unconventional still lifes by artists Harold Edgerton, Eva Hesse, and Gabriel Orozco, is exemplified in Facing America.

A specific example of the evolving interpretations of a single theme can be seen in the industrial landscape. Consider Margaret Bourke-White's renowned industrial landscape scene of Smokestacks, Otis Steel Company (Cleveland, Ohio, 1928). The photographer, who was greatly inspired by the industrial landscape and its monumental, geometric shapes, has photographed the receding columns in an elegant fashion. The composition shows a row of enormous, identical stacks, which completely dominate the natural landscape and skyline. There is also evidence of their functional purpose, as the machines are emitting large clouds of smoke, and the tiny figures of workers can be seen in the foreground.

Magazines such as Time and Fortune printed Bourke-White's industrial photographs with accompanying news stories about the lives of the factory or construction workers and their families, as a way to present social issues from a humanitarian perspective. Editors' main purpose was to facilitate a positive portrayal of Americans as industrious and resourceful. Not only did these human-interest stories reflect the importance of industry to American society at the time, but they made images such as Smokestacks important photographic icons of this country.

Fast-forward 75 years to the work of contemporary photographer Arthur Aubry. His work re-investigates the subject of the industrial landscape, but in a very different way. In 2000, Aubry did a series in which he worked with a Cultural Resource team to document the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state. This site was used to produce the uranium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and functioned as a nuclear arsenal in later decades. A photograph from this series, WPPSS #5 Containment Vessel Interior, is displayed in the Facing America show. The artist reexamines the subject by taking a number of photos of the arsenal's interiors, a reversal in how these colossal objects were photographed before. Exploring places whose active lives have ended and have been abandoned, his photos are charged with disturbing normality, and the vacant structures subtly tell a very human story. Unlike Bourke-White, Aubry's images are always devoid of human presence, and the series is done in color (Cibachrome prints). The closely-cropped interiors present an obscured beauty in the dormant objects, worn and rusted with age.

The comparison between Bourke-White and Aubry is just one example of the interpretation and re-interpretation of photographic themes over the course of the past century. While this exhibition focuses on reoccurring American imagery, it also celebrates the constant transformation and profound effectiveness of these images.

This exhibition was curated by intern Nadiah Fellah (OC '06) with Stephen D. Borys, Curator of Western Art. It will remain on display through December, 2006.

(above: Arthur Aubry (American, b. 1960), WPPSS #5 Containment Vessel Interior SATSOP 26 April 2000, Cibachrome print)

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