Destruction and Transformation: Vernacular Photography and the Built Environment @Walther Collection

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 photographic series and one film trailer, dating from 1877 to 2000, installed in the gallery’s main space and library. The photographic series (or excerpts from them) are presented either framed on the gallery walls or in vitrines, and additionally—in the case of photo albums, bound dossiers and, in one case, panoramic prints—as digital slideshows and/or photographic enlargements of selected pages. The works in the exhibition are:

  • Unidentified photographer, The Making of Lynch. Harlan Co., Kentucky, United States Coal, Coke, Co. Incorporated, 1917–20, custom scrapbook containing 84 gelatin silver photographs with handwritten annotations, individual pages shown as four photographic enlargements and a digital slideshow.
  • Unidentified photographer, documentation of the construction of the Viaur Viaduct, near Aveyron, France, 1899–1902, seven cyanotype prints.
  • Unidentified photographer, Long Beach earthquake repair dossier, 1933–35, bound dossier containing gelatin silver prints, individual pages shown as ten photographic enlargements.
  • Rufus E. “Red” Ribble, Bellemead Coal Co., Sabine, W. Va., 1952, 1952, shown as three photographic enlargements of original gelatin silver prints.
  • Yoshikazu Suzuki and Shohachi Kimura, Ginza Kaiwai/Ginza Haccho, 1954, offset printed book with photographic leporello.
  • Ed Ruscha, Every Building on Sunset Strip, 1966, offset printed book.
  • Unidentified photographer, Stowers Building implosion, San Antonio, Texas, 1982, 19 chromogenic prints.
  • Russel A. Bernier, compiler, occupied Japan souvenir album, ca. 1950, commercial photo album containing 429 gelatin silver prints, individual prints shown as 20 photographic enlargements.
  • Unidentified photographer, storefronts along Sixth Avenue, New York, 1936–37, 33 ferrotyped gelatin silver prints.
  • Harvey F. Dutcher, demolition of the Sixth Avenue elevated railroad, New York, 1939, 60 gelatin silver prints, individual prints shown as a digital slideshow
  • Unidentified photographer, storefronts along Fourth Avenue, New York, ca. 1903, five platinum prints.
  • Eadweard Muybridge, Panorama of San Francisco from California Street Hill, 1877, 11 albumen prints mounted in a book.
  • Unidentified photographer, Heath and Co. signage album, ca. 1970, album containing 129 chromogenic and silver gelatin prints on thick-stock print paper, individual pages shown as a photographic enlargement and a digital slideshow.
  • Barbara Kopple, Harlan County, USA, 1976, feature film trailer, 2:32 min., courtesy Cabin Creek Films.
  • William Christenberry, The Underground Club, Greensboro, Alabama, 1967–2000, 12 Ektacolor prints.

(Installation shots below)

Comments/Context: Over the past 40 years or so, vernacular photography—a genre encompassing such utilitarian or amateur images as ID pictures, vacation snaps, mugshots, and evidence photos—has become increasingly collectible. It has also attracted growing attention from scholars and academics for what it can reveal about larger societal structures. At the Walther Collection, which has recently expanded its holdings in 19th- and 20th-century photography and photo-based art to include vernacular photographs, a three-year series of exhibitions drawn from its trove of this material is offering valuable insights into overlooked or suppressed histories, as well as cultural, economic, and political forces at work in the here and now.

Conceived by curator Brian Wallis, the series comprises five themed shows mounted at the Walther Collection’s New York project space. (The sixth and final exhibition will be held in 2020 at the Collection headquarters in Neu-Ulm, Germany.) The first three addressed, respectively, how vernacular photographs—particularly in groups or series like those compiled in family albums and institutional archives—are used to identify and categorize individuals; reinforce or upend normative ideas of gender or sexuality; and as expressions of personal experience.

“Destruction and Transformation: Vernacular Photography and the Built Environment,” the fourth show in the series, takes its title from the modernist notion of “creative destruction,” a term coined by political economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950). Spanning the last quarter of the 19th century and most of the 20th, it brings together a selection of photographs documenting large-scale commercial, industrial and civic projects, paying particular attention to New York City and the coal fields of Appalachia. By focusing on the changes to urban and natural environments wrought by industrialization and development, the exhibition presents a visual history of the human and environmental costs of modernization.

The show opens with a photo album—its pages displayed as a slide show—recording the construction of Lynch, a company coal town in Harlan County, Kentucky. Shot between 1917 and 1920, the black-and-white photographs chronicle the transformation of a pristine valley into a graceless boom town, albeit one with such amenities as a hospital, school, and a post office.

A nearby group of panoramic photographs of mine workers, taken in West Virginia in the late 1940s and 1950s by itinerant photographer Rufus E. “Red” Ribble (1878–1967), puts a human face on the coal industry, while a trailer for Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary film Harlan County, USA follows the 1973 Brookside Strike by Kentucky coal miners seeking to unionize. Through interviews with the miners and their families, the film depicted the deplorable working and living conditions of those employed at the Eastover Coal Company’s Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in Harlan County. The exhibition refrains from making overt connections to recent history. Nevertheless, the company’s management, when interviewed on TV, appear as aggrieved as did Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship when he was accused of conspiring to violate safety standards following the 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners.

Examining another facet of human endeavor is a photographic series from southern France. Built between 1899 and 1902, the Viaur Viaduct is a marvel of engineering still in use today. From a perch high on a mountainside, an unknown photographer took sequential photographs of its construction; printed as cyanotypes, they show the two sides of the structure arching through space before finally meeting high above the Viaur River gorge. Remarkably beautiful images, they are also essentially advertisements for modern technological innovation.

“Creative destruction” is much in evidence in Harvey F. Dutcher’s 1939 series of photographs of the dismantling of New York City’s Sixth Avenue El, which had been supplanted by the IND subway. And it is implied in photographs of now-vanished buildings along Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue, each with its small ground-floor business, commissioned in 1903 by the New York City Board of Rapid Transit. Both series bring to mind the High Line, the park built on remnants of another elevated rail on the city’s West Side—a precursor to that newly completed playground for the one percent, Hudson Yards.

Eadweard Muybridge’s 1877 panoramic photo of a low-rise San Francisco is a similar reminder of that city’s current homeless crisis, caused in part by the tech industry’s takeover of the city, and the attendant rise in the cost of housing. A grid of photographs by the late, incomparable photographer William Christenberry documents the transformation, over time, of a Greensboro, Alabama, underground juke joint into a series of more or less equally illegal enterprises. Like the work of Christenberry’s friend and mentor Walker Evans—a connoisseur of the vernacular whose spirit haunts this show—the piece offers a cooler-eyed view of the wonders of development, as does Ed Ruscha’s 1966 photobook, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, on display in a nearby vitrine.

A mid-century album of photographs of large, colorful signs—easily seen from the road—produced by the Los Angeles–based Heath Company for restaurants, car dealerships, and other enterprises, conjures America’s still entrenched automobile culture. Its dark counterpart is a contemporaneous album, compiled by Russell A. Bernier, a US Army officer stationed in Occupied Japan in the early 1950s, of English language signs advertising a wealth of entertainments to Allied troops.

This important series, and last year’s accompanying symposium, demonstrate that beyond their aesthetic and human interest, vernacular photographs have much to teach us. Coming at a time when income disparity and environmental degradation are among the world’s most dire problems, the current presentation shows not only how we got here, but how urgent it is that we change our definition of progress.

Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. And given that all the works on view are vernacular photographs, the secondary market context is less relevant.

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