A Democracy of Imagery @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing a total of 100 photographs, variously matted and framed, and hung in the main gallery space, the second HGII gallery space, the book, alcove, and the small transitional space in the back. Ninety of the prints are black-and-white (1 waxed salt; 1 albumen; 2 toned gelatin silver on vellum; 3 photogravures; 1 platinum palladium; 1 bromide; all of the rest gelatin silver) and ten are color (1 transparency; 1 dye transfer; 4 chromogenic; 2 hand-colored gelatin silver; 1 three color; 1 archival pigment.) The earliest prints date from the 1860s; the latest from 2002. The prints vary in size, but none is larger than 18 x 20 inches. An exhibition catalog to be published by Steidl is not yet available (here).

The following photographers/artists have been included in the show, with one work on view unless otherwise noted:

  • Berenice Abbott
  • Ansel Adams
  • Dr. M.F. Agha
  • Anonymous
  • Thomas Frederick Arndt (2)
  • Richard Avedon
  • Jerry Berndt
  • Ruth Bernhard
  • Jack Birns
  • Werner Bischof
  • Erwin Blumenfeld
  • Lev Borodulin
  • Margaret Bourke-White
  • Esther Bubley
  • Wynn Bullock
  • Bill Burke
  • Edward Burtynsky
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • Jean-Philippe Charbonnier
  • Mark Citret (2)
  • Jack Delano (2)
  • Alfred Eisenstaedt
  • Morris Engel
  • Frank Eugene
  • Walker Evans
  • Jaroslav Fabinger
  • Adolf Fassbender
  • Martine Franck
  • Robert Frank (3)
  • Francis Frith
  • Ralph Gibson
  • Allen Ginsberg
  • Frank Gohlke (2)
  • Lewis Hine
  • Charles DuBois Hodges
  • Kenro Izu (2)
  • Betsy Karel
  • William Klein
  • Arthur Leipzig (3)
  • Saul Leiter (3)
  • Leon Levinstein
  • Eric Lindbloom
  • John Loengard
  • Nathan Lyons
  • Michal Macku
  • Man Ray
  • Robert Mapplethorpe
  • Tosh Matsumoto
  • Rhondal McKinney
  • Joel Meyerowitz (2)
  • Gjon Mili
  • Inge Morath
  • Nickolas Muray
  • Arnold Newman
  • France Scully Osterman
  • Gordon Parks
  • George Platt Lynes
  • Albert Renger-Patzsch
  • Leni Riefenstahl
  • Jacob Riis
  • Ringl+Pit
  • Arthur Rothstein
  • Jan Saudek
  • Peter Sekaer
  • David “Chim” Seymour (2)
  • Ben Shahn
  • Jeanloup Sieff
  • Aaron Siskind
  • Edward Steichen (3)
  • Louis Stettner (2)
  • Erika Stone
  • Karl Struss
  • Shomei Tomatsu
  • Doris Ulmann
  • John Vachon
  • James Van Der Zee
  • Roman Vishniac
  • Diana Walker
  • Todd Webb
  • Dan Weiner (2)
  • Clarence White
  • Marion Post Wolcott
  • Henry Wolf

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Exhibitions that showcase remarkable prints by anyone about anything are supposed to be relaxed affairs. It’s a Christmas (or summer) tradition for galleries to take a holiday from organizing work by artist or theme and, digging into their inventory, offer for sale unusual or whimsical items. The Fraenkel Gallery has successfully mounted a few such shows over the last five years, and the Howard Greenberg Gallery is now following suit.

Guest curator Colin Westerbeck outlines the ground rules in the opening wall text: “From the beginning the purpose of the exhibition was to include underappreciated photographs by famous photographers and great photographs by underappreciated photographers.” The only restrictions were that “no photographer would have more than three prints and no print would be larger than 18 x 20 inches.”

With stores as deep as Greenberg’s to pick from, and with the canny Westerbeck doing the picking, the odds of finding something amazing were high—an expectation easily met. The trick to laying out what is basically a yard sale is that it should not look like one, an obstacle that the show also avoids. Pictures that may seem alien to one another turn out on closer inspection to bear family resemblances.

My only gripe is with the hackneyed title, which leads one to expect a roster of artists that would be truly democratic, and that’s not the case.

The span of time in the selections runs from an 1860s French mountain landscape by Francis Frith (not a photographer often associated with Europe) to a couple of toned prints of architecture interiors from 2002 by Mark Citret. But the bulk of the pictures belong to what has traditionally been Greenberg’s sweet spot: American photographers, and black-and-white urban and rural scenes, from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. He has done more to revive the reputations of under-sung figures, such as Saul Leiter and Leon Levinstein, than any other dealer.

Everyone will derive his or her pleasures from the installation. Here are a few of mine:

In the first grouping on the wall is a dye transfer from 1940 by Jack Delano of a sawmill in Maine. This deep-focused view of the semi-industrial landscape puts a pyramid of blonde woodchips near the center and in front of a black smokestack. The drift of the pollutant is mimicked by a line of linked trees on the horizon. A dirt road on the right is lined with telephone poles, while the train tracks on the left have a worn path running parallel. Everything on the ground is being pressed beneath a lid of stormy blue clouds. A predictor of the unromantic New Topographics landscape sensibility, and of what was in store for the country in the next few years, the picture by one of the less-heralded FSA employees justifies the show all on its own.

Robert Frank’s 1962 portrait of Edgard Varèse illustrates that even when hired to photograph a celebrity for an American magazine, he fulfilled the assignment on his own terms. The French avant-garde composer’s enormous head and ferocious eyebrows dominate the top of the frame, while his hands are gently joined at the bottom, in shadow. Varèse was an artistic radical and an émigré. By focusing on his subject’s angry eyes the Swiss-born Frank makes clear their fellowship.

In a portrait of Adam Clayton Powell from 1948, Gordon Parks captured the Civil Rights leader with head propped on his hand, a cross between Rodin’s The Thinker and a rebel angel. (Parks makes sure we don’t miss the wedding band on Powell’s elegant fourth finger, a wicked irony in that the Harlem politician was also a notorious womanizer.)

It’s not clear why one of the few separate categories in the array is devoted to magazine “art directors,” but there are enough rarities here that quibbling is pointless. A 1958 self-portrait by Richard Avedon includes two figures not usually credited enough for the photographer’s success: Henry Wolf (Brodovitch’s successor at Harper’s Bazaar) and Frank Finocchio (Avedon’s studio manager from 1953 to 1962.) A 1963 photograph by Wolf of a group of men framed by a wooden doorway is a visual riddle that makes one wonder if he made lots more pictures as good as this one. An early 1950s portrait of Andy Warhol by Saul Leiter (who would have guessed their paths had crossed back then?) shows the hungry young artist and magazine art director in white shirt and tie handling a pile of photographs.

An apposition of images by Man Ray, who could find grief and mystery in a fauteuil, and Ralph Gibson, who manages to suggest decadent sexuality in a close-up of a dark red round cushion set on a blue velvet chair seat, hints at how deeply the two Francophile Americans are surrealist confrères.

Shows like this are crucial for exposing younger generations to photographers, such as Thomas Arndt, Dan Weiner, Todd Webb, Arthur Leipzig, Jan Saudek, Louis Stettner, and Bill Burke, all of whom at one time had regular gallery exhibitions and are now at risk of being obscured. They shouldn’t be.

The range of styles in the photographs here is admirably open-minded, from the Pictorialism of Clarence White and Edward Steichen to a hand-colored Mapplethorpe from 1971 of a Buck Rogers cartoon. The selection by Westerbeck and Greenberg seems to have been guided primarily by their sense of surprise. I’m certain that their only agenda was to delight themselves. In only about half-a-dozen instances would I say that their taste differs from mine.

Doubts enter into the experience, however, when you start to look for photographs by women. They make up fewer than twenty percent of the total. Several are stand outs nonetheless: Berenice Abbott’s portrait of a woman in slacks wiring the guts of an IBM computer (1958-61) is a study in technical expertise—both the anonymous woman’s and Abbott’s. In an unusually expansive Vivian Maier composition (1971), a bored-looking woman stands in the sun behind an outdoor table in what seems to be an empty schoolyard while her child sits in the shade at her feet—a picture with sour feminist undertones. Best of all is a portrait (c. 1933) of a wraithlike Kentucky old man in a loose white shirt by Doris Ullman that is the equal of a Sander or an Arbus in its self-restraint and solemnity.

“We didn’t start with the title,” writes Westerbeck. “It emerged from the process of selecting the work.”

I don’t doubt that “equal opportunity for all photographers” in Greenberg’s files was the shaping principle. But the checklist’s paltry totals for women, and for minorities in general, indicate that the sonorous pairing of “democracy” and “photography” needs some retuning. The Smithsonian American Art Museum titled its 2013-2014 roundup of photography A Democracy of Images. Celeste Conners called her 2002 book on the Stieglitz circle Democratic Visions. William Eggleston titled his 1989 book The Democratic Forest.

It’s fine that Westerbeck and Greenberg had only to please each other with their choices of what was to be seen. They are among the most experienced and astute eyes in the art photography world. Long may the gallery flourish. But neither the process nor the outcome reflects what most Americans would call democracy.

Collector’s POV: Prices in this diverse group show range from $600 (an albumen print from the 1860s of Chamonix by Francis Frith) to $35000 (a silver gelatin print from 1974 of a 1969 image by Shomei Tomatsu from his series Chewing Gum and Chocolate.) Almost 95 % of the prints are priced under $10000, with more than half of these priced under $5000.

Read more about: Berenice Abbott, Gordon Parks, Jack Delano, Man Ray, Ralph Gibson, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier, Howard Greenberg Gallery, Steidl

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