Editor's note: The following essay from the catalogue for the exhibition Nancy Newhall: A Literacy of Images was reprinted in Resource Library on November 20, 2008 with permission of the Museum of Photographic Arts. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Museum of Photographic Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:


Nancy Newhall: A Literacy of Images


by Merry Foresta


At a moment when our relationship to photographic images and their meanings is being reconsidered and revised, it is useful to consider the life and career of Nancy Newhall, who played a crucial, though widely overlooked, role in an earlier transition in the reception of photographs. Born in New England in 1908 and trained as a painter, she became involved with the enterprise of photography in part because of her marriage to the medium's pioneering historian and curator, Beaumont Newhall. She went on, however, to forge her own, independent view of the medium as an art and as a powerful instrument of cultural persuasion. She possessed a ringside view of photography for three quarters of the twentieth century, (she died in 1976), and functioned both as a critical observer and as a partisan and proselytizer for many of the medium's aesthetic possibilities.

Nancy Newhall knew the important photographers of her time and the people who wrote about photography, most of whom she could consider friends. She was best known as a writer, but also, like her husband, took photographs of artistic value. Perhaps most important were her contributions as a curator and editor, through which she helped shape and expand the modern audience for photographs as an art. Our current awareness of a need for learning how to read and interpret photographs, and our understanding that photographs form a basic form of communication is, in large part, due to the efforts of Nancy Newhall.

Newhall's involvement with what today we would call visual literacy was largely shaped in the 1950s. In the early fall of 1951, Nancy and Beaumont traveled together to then remote Aspen, Colorado, to attend a conference to consider the state of photography. Organized by photographer Ferenc Berko with the encouragement and support of Walter Paepke, a Chicago industrialist and founder of the Aspen Institute, the ten-day conference was an unprecedented, mid-century gathering of many of photography's most active and influential practitioners. Forty distinguished amateur and professional photographers took part, including Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Laura Gilpin, Dorothea Lange, Eliot Porter, Frederick Sommer, and Minor White. There were representatives from advertising firms, photo agencies, and magazines. As active writers, historians, and curators, Nancy and Beaumont Newhall between them represented a major segment of the field.

The conference had a loosely defined purpose: to discover the importance and relevancy of photography in a post-World War II world. It was, in many ways, an opportunity to assess not only where photography was going, but also from where it had come. By the middle of the twentieth century, photography had become -- thanks to the rise of picture magazines and the ready reproducibility of images -- a more public art than Alfred Stieglitz could have ever predicted or imagined. Stieglitz's half-century battle to have photography recognized as a form of art had achieved results, though in areas and for reasons he might not have encouraged. While he had shaped a coherent, if narrowly defined, aesthetic for the medium from his lonely New York gallery perch, by his death in 1946, photography's presence could be felt in Chicago, San Francisco, and throughout the continent.

In many respects, it was Stieglitz's absence from the scene that occasioned a reconsideration of where photography was headed, and triggered the recognition of photography's budding role in the post-war culture. Increasingly, photography was being used in the service of wider interests. The photography projects supported by the Farm Security Administration, Works Progress Administration, and other government agencies during the 1930s and 1940s provided powerful examples of images in public service. Old arguments about whether or not photography was art were remote questions during times of economic depression and world war. By the time Nancy Newhall joined her colleagues in Aspen to discuss their mutual interests, photographic education was a dynamic new field, fueled by returning soldiers on the GI Bill, as well as by thousands of people who enjoyed a world awash in images of all shapes and sizes.

Although steeped in Stieglitz's belief in photography as an art of metaphoric expression, Nancy Newhall could also appreciate the uses of photographic reportage in illustrated magazines and how their captions helped provide them with meaning. Life and Look were read by millions of Americans every week, an audience that museums could only dream of. For the general public, the art of photography lay more with Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, W. Eugene Smith, and other magazine photographers than with photographer/artists like Harry Callahan, Clarence John Laughlin, and Frederick Sommer. The efficacy of the printed page and of the combination of words and pictures to deliver a message was apparent to Newhall (her own efforts were published in the pages of Arizona Highways) by the time she arrived at Aspen.

The institutional recognition of photography had changed as well. The Museum of Modern Art had created a department of photography before the war, appointing Beaumont Newhall as its founding director in 1940; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had begun a special department for photography even earlier in 1935, and the Art Institute of Chicago had begun collecting photography in 1949. But how museums treated photographs, and which photographs they exhibited, was also much discussed in 1951. Four years earlier, Edward Steichen had taken over the job of director of photography from the Newhalls (Nancy had admirably filled in for Beaumont during the war). The biggest of Steichen's exhibitions recognized photography's instrumental and cultural impacts but replaced the Newhalls' fine-arts agenda with one far more popular and propagandistic. Steichen's penchant for dramatic and democratically themed shows would culminate in 1955 with "The Family of Man," the most widely seen photography exhibition of all time.

At mid-century and mid-career, Nancy Newhall was immersed in both photography's past and its future. Initially, through the auspices of her husband and then through dint of her own determination and experience, she created a unique viewpoint based on inspiration, empathy, and a belief in the importance of her mission to communicate the art of photography to a wide audience. Along with Beaumont, she was that rarest of pre-World War II creatures, a photographic historian. Much of her most important early work was based on relationships with photographers. She spent nearly two years interviewing Alfred Stieglitz for a biography that was, unfortunately, never realized. At the Museum of Modern Art, she wrote the text for Photographs, 1915-1945, Paul Strand (1945) and The Photographs of Edward Weston (1946). Other projects with the latter two photographers would follow after she left the museum. Ansel Adams, whom she met in 1940, became an intimate friend and collaborator throughout her working life.

Not much is known about what was said or decided at the Aspen conference, but one clear consensus that emerged was the need for more commentary about photography. This led directly to the founding of Aperture magazine, which published its first issue in 1952. A quarterly journal devoted to photography, Aperture published original writing and reproduced photographs to the highest standard then available. It continues to be published today. With a mission, stated in every early issue, to communicate with "serious photographers and creative people everywhere," it was edited by photographer Minor White but largely conceptualized, at least for its first year, by Nancy Newhall.

It is not surprising that in her essay for the first issue of Aperture magazine, Newhall took on the subject of the caption. Sub-titled, "A Mutual Relation of Words and Photographs," she concludes her text with the following observation, delivered in the tone of a piece of advice: "A new language of images is apparently evolving, and with it a new use of words." She, perhaps more than any of her peers, understood that for photography to succeed as an art, it had to prove its relevancy as a mode of communication. In her essays for Aperture and other magazines, her concern was as much for photography's audience as for photography itself.

During the 1940s, Newhall also wrote essays on popular art and culture for small magazines and journals, in which she called for a society more attuned to art, and particularly to visual art. She was always more interested in a popular audience than an academic one. For example, in a 1940 essay, she explored the possibilities of the new medium of television for popularizing the visual arts and suggested techniques for teaching art and photography on camera, lending ideas for introducing "ways of motion to motionless things." If Stieglitz had earlier put forth the idea of equivalence between images and music, Newhall took that further; photography was capable of the abstract power of poetry.

In addition to achieving a reputation as a critic, Newhall virtually invented a new genre of photography book, one that paired descriptive photographs with allusive, literary excerpts from poems, letters, memoirs, sermons and the like. The first of these, Time in New England: Photographs by Paul Strand, was published a year before the Aspen conference, and must have made her something of a celebrity at the gathering. She used the same presentation strategy for the landmark This Is the American Earth, a collaboration with Ansel Adams that the Sierra Club published in 1960 to widespread acclaim. (The exhibition, "This Is the American Earth" followed in the footsteps of Steichen's 1955 exhibition and catalog of the same title, "The Family of Man,", which paid Newhall the dubious compliment of imitation by also using excerpts from poems, letters, etc., selected by poet Carl Sandburg.)

Today, her ideas regarding the vital interrelationship of words and pictures, and of the need for sophisticated interpretation of visual images, stand out for their passion as well as for their practicality. Her desire to discover and then describe for a wide audience the inner life of a photograph was established by her writing, as well as her own creative photographs. By the end of her career, she was dedicated to revealing the effect and importance of photography's role in every aspect of life. She declared the experience of photography two-fold: the making of images and the reading of images. In a world swinging speedily to communicate with pictures, the neglect of visual literacy was to her unacceptable. Rather, she put her faith in the strength of an imagined coterie of artist-photographers who would become articulate leaders, the spokespeople of what she hoped would become a visually literate civilization.

Photographs indeed, form a basis for our current cultural state of mediated experience. They do so in complex ways, extending the ideas of cultural education that Nancy Newhall and her generation sketched out over fifty years ago. As this look at Nancy Newhall's life and work suggests, we can use photographs and the ideas expressed about photography to understand our own cultural anxieties about technology, the rapidly changing business of images, the dispersion of cultural attitudes, and the development of new forms of mass education. By meeting Nancy again, we are able to witness a recent history of photography that embraced photography both as art and as education, and allow ourselves to entertain the possibility such a humanitarian endeavor once promised.

About the author

Merry Foresta has served as the Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative since its inception in 2000. Foresta joined the Smithsonian in 1977 as Assistant Curator for 20th Century Art at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now named the Smithsonian American Art Museum) and became the museum's first Curator of Photography in 1983. She has curated over 30 exhibitions on art and photography, including Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray; Photography of Invention: Pictures of the 1980s; Between Home and Heaven: Contemporary American Landscape Photography; Secrets of the Dark Chamber: The Art of the American Daguerreotype; and American Photographs: The First Century. As the inaugural project of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, Foresta authored At First Sight: Photography and the Smithsonian and supervised the launch of the first Smithsonian website devoted to photography.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 20, 2008, with permission of the Museum of Photographic Arts, which was granted to TFAO on November 11, 2008.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Lauren Turner of the Museum of Photographic Arts, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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