Industrial Architecture in Photography @Keith de Lellis

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of a total of 43 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space.

The following photographers/works have been included in the show:

  • Unknown: 3 gelatin silver prints, c1930
  • Germaine Krull: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1928
  • Unknown: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Holmes I. Mettee: 3 bromide prints, c1925, 1926, c1926
  • Gordon Coster: 1 bromide print, 1927; 5 gelatin silver prints, c1930, 1940, c1942, 1945
  • Edward Quigley: 1 bromide print, 1929; 1 gelatin silver print, c1930
  • Harold Haliday Costain: 2 bromide prints, c1933; 1 gelatin silver print, 1933
  • Paul J. Woolf: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1933, c1935
  • Harry Bowden: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1950, c1951
  • Frank Navarra: 1 bromide print, 1938
  • Alberto Galducci: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1952, 1953, c1955
  • Ford Motor Company: 1 set of 4 gelatin silver prints, c1940; 1 gelatin silver print, 1949
  • Giuseppe Goffis: 1 gelatin silver print, c1960
  • C.F. Ross: 1 bromide print, 1933
  • Margaret Bourke-White: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Harold Corsini: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1944
  • Paul Martial: 3 gelatin silver prints, c1930
  • Eric Kastan: 1 gelatin silver print, 1950
  • Charles E. Rotkin: 1 gelatin silver print, 1957
  • Andreas Feininger: 1 gelatin silver print, 1952
  • Russell Lee: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1949

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The history of photography is full of transition points, where aesthetic and subject matter preferences pivot from one direction to another. In some cases, these changes are driven by technological innovation inside the medium itself; in others, prevailing cultural tastes and interests swing around, alternately looking forward to the future and back to the past.

In the early 1920s, the soft-focus painterly aesthetics of photographic Pictorialism reached their endpoint, and a wider turn toward the sharp unadorned clarity of Modernism began. At roughly the same time, the rebuilding activities following World War I jumpstarted construction and industrial development around the world, leading to a wave of new buildings, bridges, and factories that seemed to celebrate the boldness and ingenuity of mankind. Full of hard edged geometries and sleek machined materials, they quickly became favored subjects for photographers looking to capture this burgeoning sense of romantic can do optimism. Inspired by the recent retrospective of the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher (reviewed here), this group show gathers together a selection of mid-20th century images of industrial architecture made by a range of photographers (known and unknown, from both Europe and America), filling out some of the historical context for this point of transition.

But of course no transition is entirely immediate, and several of the earlier works in this show (from the mid 1920s) straddle the aesthetic divide, offering more painterly views of this new industrial subject matter. In bromide prints filled with moody sepia tones, towering smoke stacks become silhouetted against grey skies, their black forms reaching upward with authority. George Coster, Edward Quigley, and Harold Haliday Costain all feature these kinds of seen-from-below chimneys, their thin heights surrounded by billows of smoke, which at that moment attested to their active productivity (rather than their environmental grimness). And Holmes I. Mettee made the before and after contrast of the moment more obvious, adding a horse-drawn cart to the foreground of one of his industrial scenes, deliberately placing old and new together in one frame.

By the early 1930s and on into the following decades, the painterly touches in photography waned and the tones of the gelatin silver print became dominant, moving further and further toward strict precision and purity. In America, the subjects leaned toward the massive and the hulking: Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex in Detroit (where Charles Sheeler made a a series of iconic photographs), the steel mills and blast furnaces in Pittsburgh, dams and hydroelectric projects on various rivers, oil refineries in Texas and along the south coast, and grain elevators in the midwest. As seen in this show, photographers gravitated towards two distinct approaches – the up close, near abstraction of isolated pieces of the infrastructure and the wider view which took into account the massive scale of the facilities.

All the machined metal and concrete surfaces at these sites made for some exciting compositional possibilities. Quigley looked up at the geometric planes of a smoke stack and then flanked that with sharp angled girders and rooftops. Costain highlighted the crossbar supports underneath a water tower. Coster arranged the spindly electrical towers of the Douglas Dam in Tennessee into a dense thicket. Eric Kastan stood directly underneath a radio transmission tower and documented the geometries above. And several of the photographers captured the repeated columns of huge grain elevators, some made of smooth concrete like the perfectly sculpted stone of a grand monument, others decorated with tar ribbons to fill in the endless network of cracks.

And when these American photographers (and others) instead stepped back to take in the scope of these vast locations, the photographs became layered with almost incomprehensible (but impressive) complexity. Margaret Bourke-White shows us grain elevators in Chicago with all of the clustered supporting infrastructure that surrounds them, Harold Corsini captures oil refinery towers and their seemingly endless pipes and connectors, and Russell Lee looks out at a sea of white oil and chemical tanks outside another refining facility. Related pictures of dams and blast furnaces feel similarly awe inspiring, with these industries featured as almost heroic in their weighty stature.

Other pictures included in the show offer a European perspective on some of these same subjects. Germaine Krull’s late 1920s images of the interior girders and elevators of the Eiffel Tower probably don’t count as industrial exactly, but her photobook/portfolio Métal was undeniably instrumental in cementing the angles and aesthetic patterns of industrial Modernism. Photographs by Alberto Galducci and Giuseppe Goffis in Italy show us the now familiar lines of factories, mines, and mills, while Paul Martial’s pictures get in closer to Parisian electrical towers and construction cranes, silhouetting them against the whiteness of the sky and turning them into studies in linear geometry. And a few anonymous images from 1930s Germany capture the hugeness of a zeppelin being constructed in an even larger hangar, and the layers of pipes found inside the engine room of an immense ocean liner. As seen in these and other examples, the aesthetics of industrialization were seemingly celebrated the world over.

Smart deeper dive exhibitions like this one remind us that broad trends in photographic aesthetics don’t end with the short list of the most recognizable names; yes, we can build a show of knockout industrial imagery by Sheeler, Bourke-White, Renger-Patzsch, and Weston, but we can also build one with literally dozens of other accomplished photographers who pointed their cameras at similar subjects, each with his or her own approach to organizing and framing what they saw. These photographs remind us of a collective mindset that once saw industrial architecture as a symbol of ingenuity, and even though our view of such industry may now be more balanced and nuanced, the visual seductions of the implied power of progress remain strong.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows, by photographer:

  • Unknown: $3000, $3500
  • Germaine Krull: $7500, $10000
  • Unknown: $4500
  • Holmes I. Mettee: $7500, $8500, $9500
  • Gordon Coster: $5000, $6500
  • Edward Quigley: $6500, $7500
  • Harold Haliday Costain: $4500, $7500, $9500
  • Paul J. Woolf: $3500
  • Harry Bowden: $3500
  • Frank Navarra: $4500
  • Alberto Galducci: $6000
  • Ford Motor Company: $5000, $7500
  • Giuseppe Goffis: $4000
  • C.F. Ross: $4500
  • Margaret Bourke-White: NFS
  • Harold Corsini: $4000
  • Paul Martial: $3000
  • Eric Kastan: $5000
  • Charles E. Rotkin: (sold)
  • Andreas Feininger: $8500
  • Russell Lee: $5000

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Read more about: Andreas Feininger, Edward Quigley, George Coster, Germaine Krull, Harold Haliday Costain, Margaret Bourke-White, Paul Woolf, Russell Lee, Keith de Lellis Gallery

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