Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine @Jewish Museum

JTF (just the facts): A total of 85 black-and-white (gelatin silver prints) and 12 color (chromogenic, archival pigment, or dye transfer prints) photographs, along with 2 rotogravures, exhibited on teal, gray, and yellow painted walls around six outside walls and six interior walls of a partition, of the north gallery on the first floor. There are also 30 enlarged facsimiles of photographs or magazine covers hung on two black-wire lattice structures (one in the northeast corner, one in the northwest.) Four vitrines (two on either side of the partition) contain magazines, books, tear-sheets, letters and other paper ephemera. Two digital video presentations of books being leafed through—Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet (1945) and Robert Frank’s Black and White and Things (1952)—run on loops (the former at the front and the latter at the end of the show.) All of the works date between 1924 and 1962. (Installation shots below.)

The accompanying catalog, co-published in 2021 by the Jewish Museum (here) and Yale University Press (here), has a foreword by The Jewish Museum director Claudia Gould and essays by exhibition curator Mason Klein and contributors Maurice Berger, Leslie Camhi, and Marvin Heiferman. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: The exhibition Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine is so unprovocative in the delivery of its material and ideas that some visitors may not notice the accepted history it is trying to complicate, deepen, tweak, and enliven.

The selection seems to operate with two objectives in mind. The first is to illustrate the explosion of innovative photograph-and-type layouts created during the middle decades of the 20th century for American print publications, from mass circulation magazines to obscure trade journals. Many of those responsible for bringing these Modernist models to our shores were émigrés from Europe or the Soviet Union (many of them Jewish) who had trained in Germany or worked in France during the 1920 and ‘30s. The examples on the walls and in the catalog testify to the daring variety of their concepts and their pervasive adoption.

The curator Mason Klein and his essayist colleagues Leslie Camhi, Marvin Heiferman, and the late Maurice Berger have made it their mission to give proper credit at last to art directors and graphic designs as improvisatory partners with native-born or émigré photographers (many of them also Jewish ) in dreaming up and executing these new ideas.

The second aim is to think about American magazines not just as testing grounds for experiments in image-assembly but as engines of social change. Who was photographed, and by whom, what kinds of images and stories were suitable for mass consumption, and when, are treated as vital questions, with their own historical backgrounds and ramifications. This is a show where Gordon Parks has more photographs (and more catalog citations) than Richard Avedon or Irving Penn, and where the number of women fashion photographers is almost equal to that of the men. In this retelling, content can be as important as style, and modernity is synonymous with democracy and diversity.

The supergraphic at the exhibition entrance establishes the tone for what’s to follow. It’s a photograph from 1949 of an elegant, au courant young woman by Frances McLaughlin-Gill, the first female fashion photographer on contract to Vogue. Dressed in a Dior black-and-white checked-dress, black hat and gloves, the model stands against a backdrop of the recently opened United Nations Secretariat on First Avenue. Ignoring both it and us, she is seen from the back while intently studying a newspaper.

A male photographer might have slipped a copy of Vogue into her hands and made a sly self-reflexive joke about what wealthy women like to read. McLaughlin-Gill instead chose to present her with her head in the pages of the New York Times. Women in the post-war era can be both well-dressed and serious-minded, the photographs implies, and for those with enough bravery and disposable income, Vogue will be your trusty guide into this uncertain, glamorous future.

Other examples revolve around the theme of the confident and prosperous United States. Edward Steichen, who put his stamp on every aspect of American photography in the 20th century, including magazines, is represented by three old favorites from the pre-war period: his Vanity Fair portrait of a forbidding Gloria Swanson behind a black lace scrim (1924) and his astonishingly simple-but-intricate abstract designs—of tacks and of matches and matchboxes—commissioned by the Stehli Silk Co. and featured in a 1926 issue of Vogue. No hard distinctions have ever existed in American magazines between fashion and advertising photography, as these three images neatly demonstrate.

A few ominous shadows are nonetheless evident in the loosely chronological installation, For the cover of Arts & Architecture in 1946, Herbert Matter drew a cartoon human head next to a cartoon planet Earth, planting a photograph of an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud inside the skull. (Klein has diligently hunted down a facsimile of the final design as well as a photograph of it without type.)

Numerous histories have traced the indelible imprint left by Alexey Brodovitch on magazines and photography, both for his art direction at Harper’s Bazaar (1934-1958) and Portfolio (1949-1950), and for his decades as an imposing teacher at the Design Laboratory (1933-1960s), where his illustrious roster of students included Avedon, Penn, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank, to name a few.

Klein concurs with the established view of Brodovitch as an endlessly creative, demanding, inscrutable, and eccentric dynamo. Indeed, the installation and catalog stray beyond the parameters of magazines to extoll the Russian émigré’s equally influential designs for books, such as his Ballet (1945), with its blurrily abstract black-and-white action shots of dancers (the pages play on a video screen); the Avedon-Truman Capote collaboration Observations (1959); and Bill Manville’s raffish memoir of drunken and dissolute New York, Saloon Society: The Diary of a Year Beyond Aspirin (1960) with multi-layered photographs by David Attie, another brilliant graduate of Brodovitch’s lab.

The show and catalog are almost as generous to designers less often lauded, such as Will Burtin, Lester Beall, Cipe Pineles, Mehemet Fehemy Agha, and Paul Rand. Klein balances covers and spreads from general public magazines, such as Vanity Fair, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, and Fortune with examples devised mainly for insiders, such as A+D: An Intimate Journal for Productions Managers, Art Directors, and Their Associates and PM magazine (PM stands for Production Managers.) Modernist layouts of type and photos also found acceptance in corporate America, in publications such as What’s New (the in-house journal for Abbott Labs) and Westvaco Inspirations for Printers (a magazine published by a West Virginia paper company to promote its products.)

Burtin’s art direction for Fortune (1945-1949) and for the medical journal Scope (1950s) are given special prominence. A German émigré who had studied typography in Cologne, he escaped the Nazis with his Jewish wife and was hired by the U.S. Army to design gun manuals for the OSS, where one of his colleagues was Saul Steinberg. Burtin had a gift for translating scientific ideas into inventive illustration, and after the war found himself in demand by corporate America. Eastman Kodak and Union Carbide were two of his clients. As the wall text notes, anyone who could deliver bold Modernist packaging and ads was coveted by “industries whose connection to innovation was key to their success.”

The end of WWII, from which the U.S. mainland emerged unharmed compared to devastated Europe and Asia, saw a surge in consumption fueled by magazines. The appearance of Junior Bazaar in 1945 (the design of which Klein credits to Lillian Bassman rather than Brodovitch) and of the magazines Charm and Seventeen in the 1950s (art directed by Pineles) were signals of a demographic shift toward youth. White middle-class teenage girls now had aspirational magazines of their own and could now regularly see themselves wearing the latest fashions. That they were a desirable target of advertisers was proof of their new economic strength and thus, in one measure, of their value and visibility.

As Leslie Camhi notes in her essay, Junior Bazaar also offered more opportunities for untested talent than did “Big Bazaar.” (Avedon’s first photographs were printed there.) Its pages offered the highly territorial Bassman the room to practice her unique darkroom techniques, a combination, as Camhi writes, of “bleaching and diffusing light with tissue paper or cigarette smoke.” Modern Look showcases not only her high-contrast fashion pictures from the ‘50s but a selection of spare gray still-lifes of food from 1950 that could be mistaken for photographs from 2020.

The centrality of Gordon Parks in the show and catalog (Berger devotes an essay to him, the only photographer to receive individual treatment) has to do with the social transformations in the racial culture of America that he represented and helped to initiate. The presence of Black people in his photographs for Ebony, Circuit’s Smart Woman, Vogue, and Life, and his treatment of them not as downtrodden or criminal but as prosperous or chic or engaged in the ordinary struggles of working life, was far from the norm at the time. “Among his generation of photographers, Parks expanded the political and aesthetic boundaries of photography, employing it to advance a new image of modern American society,” argues Klein.

Berger is eloquent about the “empowering nature of portraiture” and the gratitude of Black readers for seeing themselves positively reflected in his pictures. Parks photographed dozens of celebrities, both Black and White, including the artist Charles White and Langston Hughes (both here) as well as Paul Robeson, Eartha Kitt, Bennett Cerf, and Theodore H. White (not here.) There is also a 1948 photograph of a Harlem gang leader, Leonard “Red” Jackson, whose troubles Parks sympathetically chronicled in the pages of Life, leading to a tense battle with his editors. (Their back-and-forth disagreements over what constituted faithful or demeaning representation of a young Black man in an American ghetto was the subject of an excellent show and book by the curator Russell Lord at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2014).

I am less convinced by the assertion that Parks was an aesthetic pioneer. “While most fashion photographers of the period shot in the studio, Parks was one of the first to prefer real-world settings,” writes Berger. This isn’t true. Many previous fashion photographers in the 1920s and ‘30s (Clarence White, Martin Munkasci, even Cecil Beaton) had posed their models on streets and in parks and gardens. Nor was Parks among the first to portray Black artists, writers, and performers in a dignified light. That had been going on since the 1920s, diligently in the work of James Van Der Zee, occasionally by Steichen, and from the late 1930s onward was a specialty of Carl Van Vechten.

To celebrate photographers or graphic designers because they or their work promotes a progressive  agenda for society can be problematic. Fruitful though it can be to bring issues of gender, sexual, racial representation further forward in the history of American magazines that they have been in the past, aesthetic achievement only randomly overlaps with democratic ideals.

Camhi seems more reluctant to draw any political conclusions from the ethereal images by women photographers that she analyzes in mid-century fashion magazines. “Could one call <Ilse> Bing’s and Bassman’s work, in particular, with its anonymity and abstraction, feminist,” she asks. “Only, perhaps, in the sense that through it Harper’s Bazaar was no longer providing, as Vogue had in its inception, a how-to manual, a template for leading a fashionable life. Instead, these very feminine images of glamour, intimate and sensual, produced by women for women, were invitations not to consume, but to dream—to inhabit, at least psychologically, a more beautiful world.”

In a year when COVID forced museums to close their doors or to slash payroll to remain viable, it may be churlish to note a few shortcomings of this show. Budget and space constraints no doubt largely explain some lacunae. Nonetheless I missed the presence of Lee Miller. If anyone can be said to embody the Modern Look in life and work, it was this Man Ray muse, fashion model and fashion photographer, photojournalist in post-war Germany, and dazzling hostess for the international avant-garde. Only one picture of hers made the cut, and only in the catalog: the opening spread of her shocking Vogue 1945 story on the Nazi death camps. Also surprising is the omission of the graphic designer Henry Wolf, an Austrian-Jewish émigré who became art director at Esquire in 1952 and then succeeded Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar in 1958. Alexander Liberman, another Russian exile and Brodovitch’s counterpart for many decades at Condé Nast, is more of a presence in the catalog than in the show.

Other quibbles are general rather than specific. Nowhere did I read a discussion of—or find a layout to illustrate—the often irreconcilable conflict between editorial photographs and the photographic advertisements that supported these commercial enterprises. Artistic intent and clarity are typically sacrificed in these confrontations, as every photographer of ambition, from Irving Penn to Stanley Kubrick, has had to learn.

The catalog is also better than the show at distinguishing the separate audiences for these magazines. The class hierarchy of the American reader determined the degree and amount of avant-garde graphics in a publication. Business executives and their wives were more tolerant of wobbly typefaces and Cubist photos than farmers, accountants, waitresses, and steel workers.

A word might have been said in the essays about some of the most popular magazines of the 1950s—Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, Collier’s, McCall’s—and why Modernist graphics and progressive politics were largely absent from their pages. No doubt photographs that didn’t call attention to the photographers, and a careful avoidance of controversy, were more acceptable to publishers and a more profitable formula than zig-zagging type and Surrealist darkroom techniques, if you wanted to keep your circulation numbers high with a mass American audience.

Heiferman alleges that the success of Life depended on its discovery of a new formula—”that by emphasizing photographs over text, it upended one of print media’s most entrenched graphic relationships, that a picture’s function was to illustrate text. In Life, the opposite was the case. Photographs did the heavy lifting in the presentation of news, cultural, and human-interest narratives, and text was marginalized, serving more introductory or anecdotal functions.”

This theory would be more credible if images didn’t subjugate text in so many other magazines throughout the show. Photographers and art directors were the stars of mid-century fashion publications, not the caption writers who announced the color of the season or offered dating tips. Photoplay, one of the first movie fan magazines, reached its peak readership in the 1920 and ‘30s with the same ratio followed later by Life: allot premium space to photographs and reduce text to a minimum.

A more likely explanation is given elsewhere in Heiferman’s essay. Behind the scenes at Life was Paul Hollister, a Macy’s ad executive who advised Henry Luce on the design of the magazine, and in particular on the use of photographs. Hollister created the “visual template” of the magazine by keeping the layouts clean and simple. He had “a disdain for stylish art direction” and his formula of “punchy images and accessible design” made Life a runaway hit with American readers. By the late ‘40s it had 5.2 million subscribers.

Modern Look is an intellectual pleasure because it singles out for preferred treatment designers and photographers who didn’t adhere to the Hollister formula. Found around the walls—along with Brodovitch, Penn, and Avedon—are less familiar names. There is a selection of equally compelling images by Josef Breitenbach, Erwin Blumenfeld, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and Paul Himmel. Many of the figures in the show’s last section (Frank, Lisette Model, William Klein, Louis Faurer, and Saul Leiter) were first bundled together with several others in Jane Livingston’s landmark traveling exhibition and book from 1992, The New York School: Photographs 1936-1963. Their upstart energy isn’t as shocking in this context or installation, which has an underlighted entropic ending, but the individual voltage of Faurer and Leiter is undimmed.

In an impressive ensemble of women fashion photographers, the standout for me was Frances McLaughlin-Gill. I had not heard of her until 2017 when I saw the fine show about her (and her husband Leslie Gill) that Elisabeth Biondi curated for the Howard Greenberg Gallery. This selection is even stronger. Her black-and-white series from the mid-’40s–of fashion models standing on New York’s grimy streets, moving within its cast-iron shadows, peering into dusty shop windows, and stranded amid the urban swirl–feels utterly contemporary in its fusion of studied theatrics and unplanned documentary.

It’s more essential than ever in the age of COVID, when exhibition budgets have been drastically curtailed, that ambitious historical surveys like this have catalogs where arguments can be more nuanced than in wall texts, and where more plentiful examples (or counter-examples) can be presented without fear they will interrupt the flow of museum traffic. By all means, see this show. And then afterward, while considering all of the ways that something or someone can be modern, buy the book.

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

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