Lives & Still Lives: Leslie Gill, Frances McLaughlin-Gill, and Their Circle @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A paired show, primarily featuring the work of two photographers, Leslie Gill and Frances McLaughlin-Gill, supported by an additional selection of photographs and magazine covers. The show includes a total of 50 black and white/color photographs, 2 magazine covers, and 1 collage, variously framed and matted, and hung against almond colored walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. The exhibit was curated by Elisabeth Biondi.

Works on view by Leslie Gill:

  • 1 dye transfer print, 1949/1983, roughly 23×19, in an edition of 10
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1940, roughly 16×12
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1939, roughly 16×13
  • 1 collage, 1937, roughly 17×14
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1940s, roughly 16×14
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1947, roughly 16×14
  • 1 cibachrome print, 1953, roughly 19×15, unique
  • 1 dye transfer print, 1946/1983, roughly 22×19, in an edition of 10
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1937, roughly 14×11
  • 1 gelatin silver print, c1936, roughly 17×13
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1948, roughly 11×10
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1947, roughly 16×13
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1947, roughly 10×10
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1947, roughly 16×13
  • 1 dye transfer print, 1948/c1983, roughly 23×19, in an edition of 10
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1950, 17×14
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1937, roughly 13×11
  • 1 gelatin silver print, c1950, roughly 17×14
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1941, roughly 10×19

Works on view by Frances McLaughlin-Gill:

  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1958, roughly 10×8
  • 1 gelatin silver print, c1947, roughly 15×12
  • 2 archival pigment prints, 1940s/2017, 20×16
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1952, roughly 15×18
  • 1 gelatin silver print, c1950s, roughly 11×9
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1950, roughly 17×14
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1946/later, roughly 15×12
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1946, roughly 15×12
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1952, roughly 16×15
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1953, roughly 16×11
  • 1 chromogenic print 1948/later, roughly 17×14
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1960s, roughly 10×10
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1960, roughly 19×15
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1951, roughly 9×8
  • 1 cibachrome print, 1948/later, roughly 23×18
  • 1 cibachrome print, 1947/later, roughly 24×18
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1952/c1977, roughly 14×11
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1951, roughly 13×13

The show also includes works by the following photographers:

  • Erwin Blumenfeld: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936, roughly 12×10, 1 gelatin silver print, 1936-1937, roughly 14×11
  • Louise Dahl-Wolfe: 1 gelatin silver print 1950, 14×11
  • Arnold Newman: 1 gelatin silver print, 1946/1988, 10×8
  • Paul Outerbridge, Jr.: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932, roughly 9×6
  • Norman Parkinson: 1 gelatin silver print, 1952/later, 16×12
  • Gordon Parks: 1 gelatin silver print, 1950/later, 14×11, 1 gelatin silver print, 1957, roughly 13×11
  • Irving Penn: 1 cibachrome print, 1985, roughly 22×19, 1 dye transfer print, 1947/1960s, roughly 24×20, 1 gelatin silver print, 1947, roughly 13×16, 1 platinum-palladium print, 1980/1981, 16×24, in an edition of 25
  • Man Ray: 1 gelatin silver print, 1920/1971, roughly 14×11

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The history of American magazine photography from the 1940s and 1950s has largely been written, and its high points are widely known. Under the art direction of Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar and Alexander Liberman at Vogue/Condé Nast, numerous now-famous photographers made their enduring mark, in both traditional fashion layouts, as well as in still life setups and story accompaniments. Depending on where we place the exact beginning and endpoint dates, names such as Penn, Blumenfeld, Dahl-Wolfe, Bassman, and Avedon quickly rise to the top, with many other deservedly notable photographers wandering in and out of the mix during the passing years.

Two figures from that same time with less widely known contributions are Leslie Gill and Frances McLaughlin-Gill, and this well-edited show does an admirable job of making the case for their ongoing importance and inclusion in the larger aesthetic discussion. Although the two were married, their photographic styles could hardly have been more divergent – Leslie made carefully posed still lifes and portraits for Harper’s Bazaar, while Frances brought a fresh, natural eye to fashion spreads for Vogue. Seen in the context of other relevant images from the period, their pictures settle right into direct dialogue with the trending photographic approaches of the time, the exchange of ideas within the magazine circle clearly active and thoughtful.

As seen in the images collected here, Leslie Gill was undeniably a transitional figure in the history of the commercial still life, bridging between the mannered melodrama of 1920s Steichen and the exacting precision of Penn. A consistent innovator who experimented with strobe lighting and early color technologies, Gill wasn’t satisfied with the existing status quo, and took it upon himself to chart a new path forward. In his early black and white work, we see him moving away from the geometric surrealism of Outerbridge’s 1932 The Triumph of the Egg, giving a similar composition of angles and reflections a more natural edge with the textured details of butterflies and ferns situated on a windowsill. Other setups from the late 1930s remain rooted in the formal trappings of old school stylized romance (Roman heads and statuary, gazing balls, allusions to literature), but we see Gill repeatedly pushing against convention, using the edge of the frame as a bold cropping device and testing the limits of unusual lighting and shadow even when shooting the same subject matter.

A decade further on, when Gill’s color still lifes are matched with those by the up and coming Penn, Gill’s subtle ties to the past are more evident, his watermelon and knife or apples and Confederate money bright with pops of color, but more stagey and less elegant than Penn’s surgically balanced equivalents. Curator Elisabeth Biondi’s pairings here are excellent, in that they show both echoes and divergences. The back and forth leaves us with the impression of Gill busily engaging with the various photographers around him, pushing and pulling on the still life genre as it was rapidly evolving.

A similar contrarian instinct and overt break with past can also be found in the work of Frances McLaughlin-Gill. As one of the first female photographers at Vogue, she seems to have wholeheartedly rejected the formal control and careful styling of the traditional studio environment, opting for the more fluid shooting of fashions in nature and on the streets. Her pictures feel like a direct rejection of over-the-top opulence, the backdrop of a hastily hung sheet, a graffiti-covered wall, or a corner bodega a common scenario for her imagery. McLaughlin-Gill’s woman was too chicly busy for primped extravaganzas, her modern life taking place in the bustle of the sidewalks or the airiness of a walk in the woods. Her pictures are full of implied movement (that sometimes becomes a soft blur), a fur stole or an eye-catching hat the highlighted note of stylishness. Her color images continue this naturalistic pattern with flair, letting a red dress stand out against a dappled backdrop of green or a pink towel to harmonize with the nearby sand. The freeness in her images feels almost radical when compared with more strictly composed fashion imagery from the same period.

What makes this show particularly successful, at least from an educational perspective, is that it uses context so effectively to explain where Gill and McLaughlin-Gill fit. By showing us the work of their peers, in side-by-side comparisons of similar setups or shoots, Biondi both explains the aesthetic decisions being made, and traces the influences as they percolated across the years. The takeaway is that Gill and McLaughlin-Gill might both be more intriguing than we might have imagined, as they each sought to upend a commercial genre from inside the establishment. Both provided an innovative and much needed stepping stone of brilliance that jolted their respective genres in new directions and were quickly taken up by other adjacent photographers. This exhibit cements our understanding of their worthy aesthetic contributions, even if their names have faded from view a bit over the intervening years.

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

  • Leslie Gill: gelatin silver prints, $6000, $6500, $7000, $8000, $9000, NFS, dye transfer prints, $12000, cibachrome print, $15000, collage, $20000
  • Frances McLaughlin-Gill: gelatin silver prints, $4000, $6000, $6500, $7000, $7500, $8000, POR, archival pigment prints, $3000, chromogenic print, $8000, cibachrome prints, $10000
  • Erwin Blumenfeld: POR
  • Louise Dahl-Wolfe: $20000
  • Arnold Newman: $4000
  • Paul Outerbridge, Jr.: NFS
  • Norman Parkinson: $8000
  • Gordon Parks: $950, $9000
  • Irving Penn: $45000, POR, NFS
  • Man Ray: $9000

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Read more about: Arnold Newman, Erwin Blumenfeld, Frances McLaughlin-Gill, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn, Leslie Gill, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Man Ray, Norman Parkinson, Paul Outerbridge, Howard Greenberg Gallery

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