The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Angled Planes and Flattened Patterns

The Modern Eye: Photographs 1917-1939
Christopher Stromee
Photo by Imogen Cunningham . Source:
Imogen Cunningham, "Magnolia Blossom" 1925

With complementary photography shows currently at the Metropolitan Museum and MoMA, this survey of 46 images at Edwynn Houk has an independent perspective and stands on its own merits. Included are some two-dozen photographers, primarily those associated with the Modernist Movement whose work developed a new vision with profound and lasting influence. Most prominently exhibited are European photographers, such as Ilse Bing, Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and August Sander, alongside Americans, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, Edward and Brett Weston.

Though no one element is shared by all Modernist photographers, the compositional qualities most associated with the movement are an emphasis on diagonals, angled planes and flattened patterns revealed through unconventional viewpoints; strong black and white contrasts, and closely cropped images that focus on a particular effect or grouping of elements. The seminal American photographer Paul Strand, not represented in this exhibition, was among the first photographer to explore such devices early in the century.

Photo by Charles Sheeler . Source:
Charles Sheeler, "Bleeder Stacks, Ford Plant, Detroit" 1927

New subject matter was also introduced. The massive, complex forms of industrial structures in Sheeler’s Bleeder Stacks, Ford Motor Plant, Detroit (1927) and the sleek, soaring, shadow-producing skyscrapers such as those in Berenice Abbott’s 1938 image taken from the top of the Irving Trust Building are examples. A new focus on the arrangement of small commercial objects is seen in images such as the famous Mondrian’s Pipe and Glasses, Paris (1926) by Kertész. And, in line with the prevailing spirit of experimentation, new photographic techniques were employed. The most striking technical innovation is represented here by three examples of Man Ray’s iconic Rayographs in which materials such as strands of hair are placed on photosensitive paper and simply exposed to light.

Photo by Ilse Bing . Source:
Ilse Bing, "Self Portrait, Paris" 1931

There are many engaging images that exemplify Modernist compositional tendencies. Bing’s Self Portrait Paris (1931) is cropped tightly, just above the forehead, emphasizing her eyes and dark hair in contrast to the white jacket lapels below. Contrasting with the bright light to the left, the darkened right side reinforces the sense of psychological complexity. Imogen Cunningham’s Magnolia Blossom (1925) is another tightly cropped, straight on close up. The boundaries of the blossom are unseen leaving a cross-section of diaphanous, subtly shaded petals defining the interior space around the stamen.

Photo by Moholy-Nagy . Source:
Moholy-Nagy, "From the Radio Tower, Berlin" 1928

Alexander Rodchenko’s Street Traffic (1932), viewed at an angle from above, cuts off all but a bit of the street front and is energized by the dark curb which stretches across at a diagonal. Then one notices the compressed shadows from pedestrians, and the patches of light reflecting off the automobiles. Edward Weston’s Plaster Works, Los Angles (1925) frames a structure with jutting roofs, chimneys, an exhaust pipe and dormer so that the actual subject becomes the play of masses and angled roof planes. The volume of these forms, their extension in three-dimensional space, is conveyed through contrasting light and shadow. Another example of abstracting a cityscape is Moholy-Nagy’s well known From the Radio Tower, Berlin (1928). Cropped at an angle to a flat-roofed building surrounding a yard and walkways, this aerial perspective transforms the lightly snow-covered setting into a dynamic two-dimensional pattern, the dark scallops of partially shoveled walks that spin off from a circular center further enlivening the image.

Photo by Charles Sheeler . Source:
Charles Sheeler, "Chartres - Flying Buttresses at the Crossing" 1929

With its landmark architectural subject, one of the other standout images from the show is Sheeler’s Chartres-Flying Buttresses at the Crossing (1929). This photo is a spatially complicated study of interlocking stone supports arrayed around a central girder-like vertical. The angled shot is taken from below to silhouette the thrusting and shadowed construction against rounded clerestory windows and a strip of overhead sky.

The Modern Eye: Photographs 1917-1939

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Thursday, April 9 to
Saturday, May 16, 2015
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