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modernist photography's narrative « Previous | |Next »
January 29, 2009

The conventional art historical narrative of art photography's passage from Pictorialism to modernism that has been handed down to us is a well known one.

HenrFstreetscene.jpg Florence Henri, Street scene with a woman, 1931, gelatin silver photograph

Two years after the 1913 Armory Show introduced modern French painting and sculpture (including Cubism) to the United States, Paul Strand made a series of close-up photographs that were crisply lit, dynamically composed and superficially abstract. Alfred Stieglitz, then America's arbiter of art photography, renounced the then-prevailing style of gauzy Pictorialism and announced that henceforth photography would be free of the shackles of painting.

Strand's pictures, published in 1917 in the last issue of Stieglitz's magazine Camera Work,' are held to have resulted in a new era in which photographers engaged the medium's unique properties and capabilities. According to Strand, photography's uniqueness rested on its ''absolute unqualified objectivity.'' The new style that emerged - unmanipulated, unsentimental and sharply focused - was given the label ''straight photography,'' and was held to be inherently and essentially photographic. Thus modernist photography was born. The key names are Stieglitz, Strand, Edward Weston, Walker Evans et al (including Paul Outerbridge, Ralph Steiner).

HenriFcomposition.jpg.png Florence Henri, Composition with ball and mirror, 1930

This form of modernism was picked up in Australia in the 1930s by Max Dupain with the modernist narrative written by Gael Newton.

Is this the only narrative? Are there others? What of constructivism, cubism, surrealism? What of the unusual vantage points, repetitive designs, abstractions, close-ups and cameraless images characterize this activity, which included such figures as Alexander Rodchenko in Russia and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer and Florence Henri in Germany.

HenriFnaturemorte.jpg Florence Henri, Nature morte, 1929, gelatin silver print

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in his text Photography is a Manipulation of Light emphasized not the objects the medium renders but the play of photography's light-sensitive values. He advocates "tricks," bird's eye and worm's eye views, oblique angles, the use of mirrors and transparent surfaces, cutting, pasting, and superimposition and the collapsed and over-layered imagery of urban life reflected in shop windows with their "superimpositions and penetrations."

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:25 AM | | Comments (1)


There is an account of Florence Henri and her work inAndrogyny and the Mirror: Photographs of Florence Henri, 1927-1938 by Melody Davis. The article is in the online journal Part 8, which is part of the PhD programme in Art History at Suny. The perspective is the female artist on the cusp of twentieth century modernity: she cannot see herself, yet she very much needs to. Davis adds:

Henri used the mirror as a metaphor for her desire and, by extension, for the confusing, ambiguous, fluid modern world. By yoking seemingly oppositional qualities in her atemporal photographic settings, Henri shows an aggressively destabilized anti-space of mirror and glass, of multiple, contradictory signs, composites of impossible structure, the restless play of creator, creation, masculine, feminine, tradition and rupture.

Interesting photographer