Burt Glinn: Retrospective @Milk Gallery

JTF (just the facts): A total of 48 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls/dividers in the single room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints (mostly modern but some vintage), made between 1949 and 1968. The prints are generally sized 11×14, 16×20, or 20×24 (or reverse) and no edition information was provided on the checklist. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: At a time when photojournalism is increasingly under siege seemingly from the very ubiquity of the medium itself, a well-edited retrospective like this one can help answer the question of why we still need talented photojournalists. While Burt Glinn’s career spanned several decades and two stints as head of Magnum Photos, this exhibit generally focuses on his work from the 1950s and shows how he jumped from one assignment to the next, always seeming to find a way to capture the grace of a fleeting moment. From the tensions of elections and politics to the glamour of celebrities and faraway places, Glinn’s eye was remarkably consistent. Without imposing a signature visual style on his varied subjects, he still managed to see people, routinely catching a glance or framing an expression in a way that now seems durably powerful.

Glinn’s political pictures were often about reaction – matching a famous figure (Castro, Khrushchev, Truman, Bobby Kennedy) with those around him, the back-and-forth of the interaction telling the story. Khrushchev faces off with the eternal stone of Lincoln. The theater of speechmaking finds Castro making exhortations surrounded by aggressive soldiers and Truman calmly looking out over a sea of photographers and rapt faces. And Bobby Kennedy lies in the grass, his arms wrapped around his young son, the epitome of fatherly protection. These are more than just portraits – they hint at character and intention.

Glinn’s serial images of Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis Jr. go further to capture the difficult balance between public and private in the life of an entertainer. A mass of disembodied arms gropes at Taylor though a fence and an absurdly dense crowd follows her on the beach; Davis pours his heart out on stage silhouetted against the bright stage lights, only to be left weary and alone by the window in the morning.

Time and again, Glinn made the most of his broad photographic opportunities – he documented the elegance of the arrival of a young Queen Elizabeth II, the glamour of Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick emerging out of a manhole, the tender Americana of a high school football game, and the desolation of the misty soldiers and a surreal mannequin on the morning after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., seeing each with clarity and intelligence. Without being heavy handed, his pictures are effortlessly tuned to the right emotional tenor, finding more than just the obvious facts of the situation.

As the years pass, images that once illustrated specific news stories take on their own patina, and Glinn’s photographs have aged well. Whether it was Jack Kerouac at a party, Twiggy at a photo shoot, pilgrims at Mount Fuji in Japan, or a young girl swinging in front of Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona, Glinn had a knack for finding the quietly poetic in the events of the day.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $2800 and $4500, with one image POR. Glinn’s work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets over the past decade, often in London sales. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $1000 and $8000.

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