Cruel Radiance: Photography, 1940s-1960s @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing a total of 60 photographs and photobooks by 34 artists, variously framed and matted, and hung against white and yellow walls in a series of rooms on the second floor of the museum. All of the works on view are recent acquisitions/gifts or part of the museum’s permanent collection.

The following works are included in the show:

  • Roger Mayne: 1 gelatin silver print, 1956
  • Saul Steinberg: 1 gelatin silver print with applied media, 1950
  • John Cohen: 1 gelatin silver print, 1959
  • Don McCullin: 1 gelatin silver print, 1965
  • Walker Evans: 1 gelatin silver print, 1946
  • (in vitrine) Front magazine, 1942
  • Helen Levitt: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1939, 1941, c1944
  • British Air Ministry: 1 gelatin silver print, 1943
  • Robert Capa: 1 gelatin silver print, 1944
  • Unknown: 1 gelatin silver print, 1945
  • US Army Signal Corps: 1 gelatin silver print, 1946
  • George Gilbert: 1 gelatin silver print, 1946
  • Pim van Os: 1 gelatin silver print, c1950
  • Lisette Model: 1 gelatin silver print, c1945
  • Louis Stettner: 1 gelatin silver print, 1954
  • Bill Brandt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1957
  • Richard Avedon: 1 gelatin silver print, 1957
  • William Eggleston: 1 gelatin silver print, 1960-1965
  • Paolo Gasparini: 1 gelatin silver print, 1961-1965
  • Elaine Mayes: 1 gelatin silver print, 1968
  • Ernest Cole: 1 gelatin silver print, 1962-1966
  • Robert Frank: 5 gelatin silver prints, 1955, 1956
  • Mario De Biasi: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1947, 1952, 1954, 1955
  • Diane Arbus: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1960, 1965, 1957, 1966
  • Roy DeCarava: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1954, 1955, 1956
  • Don McCullin: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1964, 1968, 1970
  • Aaron Rose: 10 gelatin silver prints, 1968-1969
  • (in vitrine) Hyonchi Cho: 1 photobook, 1956
  • (in vitrine) Takuma Nakahira: 1 photobook, 1970
  • (in vitrine) Eikoh Hosoe/Yukio Mishima: 1 photobook, 1963
  • (in vitrine) Ken Domon: 1 photobook, 1958
  • (in vitrine) Shomei Tomatsu: 1 photobook, 1966
  • (in vitrine) Ken Domon/Shomei Tomatsu: 1 photobook, 1961
  • (in vitrine) Kikuji Kawada: 1 photobook, 1965
  • Shomei Tomatsu: 1 gelatin silver print, 1959/1970

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Even though the the Met’s 150th anniversary year came in 2020 – the first year of the pandemic – it was still celebrated with a number of special exhibitions and events. The milestone was also an opportunity for the museum to gently encourage donations from its key supporters to honor the major anniversary. This small exhibition gathers together some of the donations to the photography department, and surrounds them with other recent acquisitions and works from the permanent collection, in an effort to put some structure around a disparate set of pictures.

As its subtitle indicates, the selections in this show are chronologically bounded, settling into the period between the 1940s and the 1960s, which for practical matters means being bookended by World War II and the Vietnam War. Four strong photographs provide a flavor of WWII, from Robert Capa’s darkly muscular D-Day landing and squiggles of flak in the sky surrounding Royal Air Force bombers, to a grim pile of bodies stacked at Dachau and a massive mushroom cloud bomb test over the Bikini atoll. And more than two decades later, Don McCullin’s photographs of Vietnam bring the action down to a more intimate level, following soldiers waiting for helicopter transport on their first day in the Mekong Delta, and getting in close to the blank stare of a shell shocked marine and the layered frenzy surrounding a soldier hit by a mortar.

The three vitrines in the exhibit showcase Japanese photobooks and magazines from this period (which in Japan would be defined as post-war), putting the art of the photobook more on an equal footing with the photographs. Critical photobooks by Kikuji Kawada, Shomei Tomatsu, and Ken Domon (on their own and in collaboration) explore the disfigured terrain of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with melted bottles, stopped clocks, scarred walls, and busy hospitals artistically telling the story of the destruction. Other superlative photobooks by Eikoh Hosoe/Yukio Mishima, Takuma Nakahira, and Hyonchi Cho bring an avant-garde sensibility to studies of life in Tokyo and elsewhere. And while the Met has long included photobooks in its exhibits as supporting materials, it’s exciting to see these essential examples featured more prominently as art objects in and of themselves.

The backbone of this show comes in the form of small groups of images made by a single photographer, often mixing the known with the somewhat more obscure. Clusters of works by Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Helen Levitt all fit this description, while groups of pictures by Mario De Biasi (an Italian neorealist photographer) and Aaron Rose (an overlooked New Yorker) push out beyond the usual suspects. The small trio of musical images by Roy DeCarava is the standout of these bunches, the rich darkness of the images playing with circles of light (at a Duke Ellington session), a hint of a highlight (on the wrist of the bassist Edna Smith), and silhouettes (at a performance by the Oliver Beener group).

Other single images are then interleaved between the clusters, creating an eclectic grab bag of photographic ideas. John Cohen catches Grace Hartigan in an infectious laugh at the Cedar Tavern, while Pim van Os and Louis Stettner turn pedestrians into shadowy forms, alternately surrounded by the enveloping blurred lights of night and the murky steam from a manhole. And Shomei Tomatsu’s image inside a bombed munitions factory looks like lively pinpricks of starlight, the corroded tin panels now pockmarked with openings.

In general, it’s decently hard to make a “recent acquisitions” show look like anything other than a nearly random assortment, so this show’s tight chronological framing of the new arrivals is at least an effort at providing a degree of contextual scaffolding. Cruel Radiance likely won’t be remembered on its own, but it successfully gets the new pieces out in the open and quietly thanks the donors. More importantly, the added strength delivered by these acquisitions will endure, filling in some notable gaps (particularly the Japanese photobooks) and deepening some holdings in what was already a powerhouse post-war collection.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices, and given the number of photographers included in the show, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Aaron Rose, Bill Brandt, Diane Arbus, Don McCullin, Eikoh Hosoe, Elaine Mayes, Ernest Cole, Helen Levitt, Hyonchi Cho, John Cohen, Ken Domon, Kikuji Kawada, Lisette Model, Louis Stettner, Mario De Biasi, Paolo Gasparini, Pim van Os, Richard Avedon, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, Roger Mayne, Roy DeCarava, Saul Steinberg, Shomei Tomatsu, Takuma Nakahira, Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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