Thursday, October 28, 2010

Jeff Rosenheim Speaks. “Don’t Toss That Picture Album.”

By Richard Ediger


In the embarrassment of photographic riches that is Atlanta in October, enthusiasts were treated to an evening of deeply meaningful images, engrossing exposition, and enlightening personal experience. Jeff Rosenheim, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Department of Photographs, provided 90 minutes of insights on October 22 at Emory University. As this year’s ACP 12 Knowledge Series event, Atlanta Celebrates Photography  jointly with Jackson Fine Art sponsored an in-depth discussion by Mr. Rosenheim. He not only reviewed the history of the Metropolitan’s photography collection and the cultural significance of photography, but he also made a personal plea for the listeners to value those picture albums sitting on the top shelf of their spare bedrooms.

5000 Cartier Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana, September 2005
Robert Polidori, 2005 (2)
The evening began with a rather staggering series of color images captured by Robert Polidori three weeks After the Flood, as his 2006 exhibition at the Metropolitan was named. We have all seen image after image of the after effects of Hurricane Katrina on the lives, homes, and hearts of New Orleans. But somehow in that dark auditorium we benefited from the deeper look provided by Polidori and by Mr. Rosenheim’s poignant consideration of the images (1)

Jeff Rosenheim stated that Robert Polidori’s work, “...became a meditation on the fragility of contemporary life.” Somehow I don’t believe that the term fragility is in any way meant to portray frailty or meaninglessness. Rather it describes life as the preciousness of a Faberge egg, or as a dandelion ready to be dispersed by a warm gust of wind. The After the Flood images are, for Mr. Rosenheim, a prime example of the photographer’s role of witness. He questioned, “What do we ask of our great artists with a camera? What is the role of the camera and how do artists respond?” The answers are in the art of witnesses such as Robert Polidori.

Men’s Fashions
Eugéne Atget, 1925 (3)
The transition from the highly emotional images of New Orleans to the languid streets of Eugéne Atget’s Paris in the 1920’s was abrupt. Yet Jeff Rosenheim smoothed the way by pointing out that Atget, like Polidori, “...attempted to photograph the social facts of his time as he understood it...This is what I hold photographers working today to...to understand and report the social facts of our time.”

The Atget photograph shown during this discussion could be seen as simple entertainment. It is a prototypical example of the widely used genre of reflection. Yet it goes to greater depths when seen as an allegorical statement. It is, as Mr. Rosenheim states, “...a transparent lamination of the real and artificial, outdoor and indoor, fluid and static, shimmer and substance. It dissolves traditional boundaries between fact and imagination. That is what photography does so well.”

Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut
Paul Strand, 1916 (4)
Here we see one of the first truly abstract photographs, by Paul Strand in 1916. It is an altered scene with a tipped table placed to provide a pleasing play of light and shadow. Mr. Rosenheim points out that, “...it does not depend on recognizable imagery for its effect, but rather on the precise relations of forms within the frame.” Here, Strand is not “fooling the eye” such as Atget does in the previous image, but rather he leads the eye to patterns that, while they obviously exist, are not part of the way in which most casual observers typically see the world. Yet those of us who are artists, by either training or by innate sense, often do see our surroundings in the abstract way exemplified by Stand’s image. That, in essence, is what makes us artists.

Jeff Rosenheim described two years of curating and researching a seminal private collection that changed the way he looked at photographs, even after having previously worked with photography for many years. The Gilman Paper Company collection was filled with exceedingly rare 19th century photographs. This collection and the 1993 The Waking Dream exhibition derived from it, as Mr. Rosenheim stated,  “...was a game-changer for the Metropolitan and for the field of photography.” The museum spent the next decade and a half trying to acquire the collection of some 6000 photographs. Finally in 2007 the Gilman Collection became the jewel of the Metropolitan’s photographic crown.

Cape Horn near Celilo
Carleton E. Watkins, 1867 (5)
Of the many 19th century photographs subsequently displayed and discussed by Mr. Rosenheim, perhaps the one that speaks most strongly to modern photographic sensibilities is an albumen print by Carleton Watkins. This was captured on the Columbia River in 1967, a hundred miles upstream from Portland. The juxtaposition of light and dark, with strong positive and negative spaces, is certainly apparent. It could have come from the West Coast school of the mid-20th century rather than from a documentarian employed by a steamship company eighty years before. Like so many photographs however there may be more to it than meets the eye. The Metropolitan, in its web-based description of the image, states that, “...one might instead interpret the picture as a visual metaphor for Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States was destined to span the continent with its sovereignty.” This interpretation harkens back to Mr. Rosenheim’s premise that photography is the lamination between real and artificial. The real was the displacement of Native Peoples, and the artificial was the purported divine imperative to do so.

The next few minutes showed us the type of 1950’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s images so many of us saw in our parents’ photo albums: sisters, grandparents, neighbors, even the milkman. These images are, for Mr. Rosenheim, “a window into my childhood” for these were photographs captured by him beginning at age five. They are his witness of the social facts of his time. As an integral part of him as an individual, they are tangible memories of not so much of time that is past, but of time that formed what he is today. Mr. Rosenheim maintains that these photographic pieces of culture are crucial for teaching us from where we came. “I am sure that each of you have your own albums. They should never be thrown away. But when you decide you have to, call me…it is one of the most rich troves of cultural history that I know.” He went on to point out, perhaps somewhat wryly, that it is hard to collect someone’s Facebook page.

Of all the passions that Jeff Rosenheim has pursued, the one that has been his primary work as a curator is Walker Evans. Since the late 1970’s Mr. Rosenheim has dug deeply into the Walker Evans legacy. This journey has resulted in the publication of ten books on this prolific and wide-ranging photographer. The negatives, papers, and picture postcard collection of Walker Evans were acquired from his heirs in 1994. This acquisition, according to Mr. Rosenheim, is a “veritable American treasure...Evans did record the present as if it were the past...He photographed the American scene, I would argue, with the nuance of a poet though with the precision of a surgeon.”

Like Polidori today and Atget over a century before, Evans in the 1930’s communicated his land to anyone with the eyes to see it. Mr. Rosenheim states “he was one of the most original minds of the 20th century…The ideas he elaborated transcend their time and place...He had such an understanding of his culture and he got that from reading it on the street, by paying attention…by spending time out on the land.”

Barber Shop interior, Atlanta Georgia
Walker Evans, 1936 (6)
The Walker Evans image seen here was exposed in 1936 in Atlanta. Although there is not a soul visible in the photograph, it breathes life so vibrantly that anyone can feel its heartbeat. Go to the Metropolitan site that documents this photograph and use the zoom controls to explore the details of the barber shop. See the hat on the table, the bag that possibly contains the barber’s lunch, and read the newspaper headlines.  This is life.

My wife Jill relates that at the August meeting of Atlanta’s Women in Focus group Anna Skillman of Jackson Fine Art revealed what she values in a photograph. Among other things, she likes images that have people in them, or that say that they have people in them.  This Walker image says “people” to the same vast extent that Polidori’s New Orleans image does. Someone lives here. Not in the past tense but in the present, though nearly 75 years have passed since the Walker Evans image, and only a few in the case of Polidori.

Jeff Rosenheim capped off the evening with Diane Arbus. The Metropolitan has recently acquired her negatives, proof sheets, notebooks and ephemera. You can see years of study and research ahead for Mr. Rosenheim as he seeks to document the Arbus legacy as completely as he has for Walker Evans. Her artistry, he says, "...tells us who we are, how we people become who we want to be." This last statement could be the mantra for all who appreciate the fine art that is photography.


1.  All images in this article have been accessed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website in compliance with their Fair Use Terms and Conditions.
2.  Chromogenic print. Collection of the artist
3.  Silver Gelatin Print, printed 1956. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. David McAlpin Fund, 1956
4.  Silver-Platinum Print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987. Copyright 1997, Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive
5.  Albumen silver print from glass negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gilman Collection, Purchase. The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, 2005
6.  Film Negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Walker Evans Archive, 1994


Text other than direct quotations copyright Richard Ediger 2010

1 comment:

  1. Watch out for those windstorms on Twin Lakes up in Northwest Connecticut. In the Strand photograph, the photographer's vantage point and camera appear more radically tipped than even the table. Bravo!

    ReplyDelete