Lewis Hine, Sunday Morning, March 7, 1909, Morris Herowitz, Ten Years Old, 1909, gelatin silver print
Alfred Steiglitz, The Steerage, 1915, photogravure
Arthur Rothstein, Girl at Gee's Bend Alabama, 1937, gelatin silver print
Alongside its big video-art extravaganza, the Johnson is showing a modest gallery-full of still camera images. Evidence: 150 Years of Documentary Photography is quiet and mostly conservative. Only a single work is in full color; two are in sepia and the rest are black and white. Their scale is intimate, book-sized. Most of the work is by established 20th-century photographers, American and European.
The Steerage (1907), by Alfred Steiglitz, is among the best-known pictures in the show. Although Steiglitz is not usually thought of as a documentarian, his photo does provide a strong (even overstated) formal analogy for class stratification. It shows the side of a boat packed with American immigrants; the wealthy are on the deck above and the poor below. The angular, cubist division of the scene suggests instability.
Sunday Morning, March 7, 1909, Morris Herowitz, Ten Years Old is by Lewis Hine. Among other subjects, Hine famously covered the sordid condition of early 20th-century child laborers. Newsboy Morris looks more dignified than most. Standing on a step, slightly to the right, he wears dark trousers and a buttoned blazer over a striped shirt. Under his left arm, he carries a stack of papers. Along with his stoic-looking face, these contain the lightest tones. Behind him is a corner entrance to a stone building. Reflected in the glass of the double doors are dark, silhouetted trees and buildings. Hazy off-white frames the left and bottom edges. The condition of the paper detracts from the strength of the image—the sheet is wrinkled and the bottom edge torn.
Several images illustrate the lives of the Great Depression poor. Although some of these are quite striking, their abundance suggests the clichedness of the subject (not the fault of the artists).
Arthur Rothenstein’s Girl at Gee’s Bend, Alabama (1937) is a standout. Standing in front of a rough log-cabin window is a young girl with her arms on the ledge. She faces left toward the back of the window covered in newspaper. Although the paper serves the practical purpose of insulation, its purpose in the photograph is symbolic. The cheerful advertising contrasts ironically with the evident poverty of the child. (Bruce Davidson’s 1965 Women In Cabin, Alabama makes use of the same device). The paper is also interesting as texture, torn and layered like artistic collage.
Girl bears comparison with Marion Post Walcott’s Unemployed Miner’s Wife (1939), who leans over the railing of a balcony on a rickety wooden building. Her head too is framed by a window (covered this time). Unlike the girl, with her earnest, pained expression, the woman smiles as she looks down at the camera.
A macabre scene by Margaret Bourke-White (shot in 1945, printed in 1965) is titled Hitler’s 1000 years stopped short for the Leipzig city treasurer. He gave his family poison when he saw American tanks under the window of his office. The viewpoint is from slightly above and at an oblique angle. Along with the sharp contrast of a dark interior and a bright exterior, this gives the piece a cinematic feel. Three people are dead. By the bottom left corner sits a man slumped over a paper-strewn desk, his body oriented rightward. In the middle, a dark-dressed woman is arched over a leather chair, her feet under the desk. A couch (also leather) up against the right wall holds a Red Cross nurse in a dark coat and white cap. Above her is a romantic landscape painting. Three tall windows flanked by skinny drapes line the back wall. The furnishings—an oriental rug and a chandelier among them—are lavish but the overall effect is austere.
Landscape in photography often tends towards the romantic and the pastoral. The gritty realism associated with the documentary appears less commonly, at least in self-consciously artistic work. Perhaps this helps explain why the handful of landscapes—with one exception—seem like curatorial afterthoughts.
Richard Misrach’s Dead Animals # 1 (1987) is an anomaly. It is the only piece in color and one of the few by a living artist. It is also the largest picture, although modest by the artist’s standards. The subject matter is exceptional as well. Dramatizing a destructive human presence, it shows a pile of animal corpses on a slope in the Nevada desert. Joined by metal barrels and other man-made detritus, the cows and horses form a large arrow pointing left (the base covers most of the right edge). Above and behind them, near the upper-left corner, is a pile of raw, bloody entrails. The ground is mostly sand, although patches of grass punctuate the far background near the top edge. It is a powerful scene but it feels stranded, both as a picture and as social commentary.