Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture In American Photography, 1940-1959
Appreciating MAM's new exhibit is worth the extra effort
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Coming after Milwaukee Art Museum’s visually imposing Warhol exhibit, Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture In American Photography, 1940-1959 seems like a quiet, thoughtful display, and it is. This is a smart exhibit, and because of that it requires a little work on the viewer’s part. You need to slow down, read the materials, and really look at the images. There are outstanding photos throughout, mostly in beautiful black and white, but without knowing the historical context or understanding the amount of technical skill it took to pull these images off with the technology of the time, they are simply that—nice photos. There’s nothing wrong with requiring viewers to learn and think—these are among art’s duties—but the exhibit does run the risk of being lost on people.
Today, anybody with a cheap digital camera and some basic software can manipulate a photograph and insert an expressive gesture onto it. In the ’40s, however, the act of moving from pure photojournalism to experimenting with snapshots—both behind the camera and in the darkroom—was bold and, in some cases, unnerving. It is during this time that photographers began to establish themselves as artists. The six photographers who are the focus of Street Seen—Lisette Model, Louis Faurer, Ted Croner, Saul Leiter, William Klein, and Robert Frank—play with light and shadow, unconventional angles, and blurriness to insert themselves and their creative visions into the images. Summing up this move from crisp photojournalism to expression is a quote on the wall from Croner: “They weren’t pictures of people. They were pictures of the way I felt.” Croner’s images are pictures of people, but there’s a deep, emotional sense to the grainy shots and shadows in the frame. It hadn’t been done before.
The exhibit is set up logically, starting out with examples of the era’s straightforward documentary and moving finally to experimental films produced by the photographers. The show’s curator, Lisa Hostetler, makes it plain: “As you move through the exhibit, the photographers become increasingly disobedient.” By violating the conventions, these photographers cemented the medium’s place as an art form. And by transforming the camera into an expressive tool, these artists left us not just a snapshot of the time, but an intimate look at the psychological and social landscape.