New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

R Wayne Parsons
Underwood & Underwood, “Untitled”, circa 1933

“Artifice: Photo Illustration in America Circa 1925-1960” will be rewarding to anyone interested in the history of photography … or the history of advertising … or American consumerism … or American capitalism. Or even if you are not interested in any of these topics but just enjoy looking at outstanding photography, there is enough material here to merit a visit to Keith de Lellis Gallery for this revealing and entertaining exhibition.

Mr. de Lellis has selected 48 photographs by 19 photographers from his extensive collection for this show. Three big names need no introduction: Steichen, Hoyningen-Heune and Dahl-Wolfe. Another five or six (e.g. Anton Bruehl, Lejaren Hiller, Paul Woolf) are listed in major reference works; the remaining photographers are pretty much unknown today to all except specialists.

All of the images were commissioned for advertising campaigns, mostly to sell products (cosmetics, cars, carpet sweepers, etc.), though several were created for public service campaigns, such as a children’s clothing appeal and to focus attention on unemployment among World War I veterans.

We don’t see the final ads with text and whatever else the ad men chose to add, just the photograph. This adds a pronounced sense of mystery to more than half of these images, as we’ve no idea as to their purpose, leaving the viewer free to create his own narratives (it’s more fun this way). One striking example is David Attie’s c.1955 photograph of a panicked woman running down an alley, a disturbing image that anticipated Cindy Sherman’s film stills by twenty years or more. The face of another distraught woman in an Underwood and Underwood c.1933 photo dominates the picture frame; has she just learned that the biopsy found a malignancy, or that her crystal glassware has water spots?

 by unidentified photographer.
Lejaren Hiller, “untitled”, circa 1930

One consequence of the way these images were created is their presumed rarity. The photographer no doubt made a few prints for the client, probably kept a file copy, and had no reason (or possibly even legal right) to go to the trouble of making additional prints. So Mr. de Lellis is to be commended for rescuing these photographs from the oblivion of attics, basements and the inner recesses of closets.

It would be easy for an exhibition focused on this subject matter to descend into a morass of cheery consumerism, and there are a good many examples of this type of imagery: Ed Scherck’s 1960 image of a supermarket shopper (a woman, of course) who is ecstatic upon finding her preferred brand of window cleaner, or Gordon Costner’s image of two affluent women in reverential awe of a 1930’s Bissell carpet sweeper. But there are also ample images more appealing to our current cynicism and imagined sophistication. Grancel Fitz, for example, in a c.1930 photograph shows a man passed out on a bar table with his date looking on sympathetically. We can only imagine why this image was created –- a temperance campaign? Especially noteworthy in this context are the tableaux of Lejaren Hiller with biting photos of Spanish Civil War victims, and a medieval-era warrior subjected to a battlefield surgical procedure (one of a series of ads commissioned by a pharmaceutical company for a “Surgery through the Ages” campaign), and others. If you go –- and you should –- be on the lookout for photographs by Fitz and Hiller, as they are among the most interesting in the exhibition.

So what better location for a show like this than Madison Avenue itself? And if you’re stimulated to spend, there are ample opportunities, both in the gallery and just out the door.


Keith de Lellis
1045 Madison Ave. Ste 3
UES         Map

212 3271482

Wednesday, March 31 to
Friday, August 13, 2010
Hours: Tues - Fri 11-5:30; Sat 11 to 5