Published by Safe-T-Gallery Inc.
Don Burmeister: Owner/Editor
Barbara Confino: Associate Editor
By the 1920’s, with Modernism in full swing, the experiments of Cubism and Constructivism, but also those of Dada and Surrealism, began to influence mainstream photography. In particular Moholy-Nagy, who transplanted via his Chicago Institute of Design the Bauhaus belief that modern esthetics should be merged with utilitarian and technological processes, directly shaped several generations of American designers and photographers.
The excellent small show at L. Parker Stephenson illustrates the close ties between commercial photography and Modernism at this time, a period when boundaries between different genres were not so strictly drawn, nor the art director’s hand so heavily felt.
Modernist ideas had filtered into advertising in stages, surfacing first in experimental photography and secondly in commercial work. From a purely visual point of view the commercial work is often as good as or better than its experimental predecessor. Frequently, as in the case of the photos on display here, it is possible to separate image from intention in order to admire strictly plastic virtues.
Anton Bruehl’s image for Bonwitt Teller, for example, uses a surreal approach as effective as some of Man Ray’s ‘artistic’ work. His female figure wrapped in threads, though less overtly sadistic, echoes Hans Bellmer’s dolls as well.
Better known for her reportage, Margaret Bourke-White began her career by doing formal studies of industrial sites. Represented here by a formalist image of mechanical parts that could have been taken by Paul Strand or any number of ‘fine art’ photographers, she is typical of photographers at this time who changed genres with relative ease.
Quite frequently, in fact, experimental and commercial photographers were often one and the same. Florence Henri, for example, was a Bauhaus photographer who explored cubistic space through mirrors, and later transferred that approach to her work for Lanvin. Moholy Nagy, who saw photography as an art of pure light, did many commercial assignments.
In their emphasis on mastering the mysteries of artificial light, commercial studio photographers became, wittingly or not, Moholy’s disciples. Very often commercial still lifes, such as Wynn Richards’ Teapot and Spoons, or Jaromir Funke’s perfume bottle were mere pretexts for virtuoso displays of reflected light. Metallic objects were especially good for this as were both plastic and glass.
This modest show, though lacking some of the best examples from the period, nevertheless offers an excellent selection of both American and European work. In fact it is so good, it merely whets the appetite, and it is to be hoped that some major institution will soon follow suit with a more comprehensive survey.