The Photographs of Ralston Crawford, ed. Keith Davis

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Hall Family Foundation, and distributed by Yale University Press (here). Published to accompany the exhibition Structured Vision: The Photographs of Ralston Crawford at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, October 28, 2018 through April 7, 2019 (here). Hardcover, 11×11 inches, 204 pages, with 18 color and 148 black and white reproductions. With an essay by Keith Davis. (C0ver and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: I have often wondered why the photographs of Ralston Crawford are so puzzlingly underknown. Even when, over the years, I have come across those who are secret fans of Crawford’s photographs, there is always the sense that his images somehow live outside the normal boundaries of the medium, even though they are richly rooted in a particular brand of American modernism.

Much of this confusion likely stems from Crawford’s rightful place in the history of American painting, particularly within the Precisionism practiced by Charles Sheeler and others. Crawford is simply better known as a painter and printmaker, and so his photographic efforts have been, at least until the publication of this fine single medium retrospective survey, under recognized (or ignored) by the establishment and therefore somewhat overlooked by the broader world of photography. Hopefully, this monograph will remedy the situation, by both educating those who haven’t been exposed to his work and encouraging more of Crawford’s long time admirers to come out from the shadows.

The reason Crawford’s reserved photographs elicit such praise, especially from those who value the aesthetics of between-the-wars Modernism, is that when Crawford pointed his camera at industrial details, architectural geometries, and maritime scenes, he had a subtle talent for semi-abstract composition that few could match. His eye is effortlessly clear and precise, but it isn’t so detached that it feels aloof or clinical; there is an undercurrent of appreciation for these forms in his images that feels almost celebratory and romantic, but without becoming bombastic. The best of his photographs bring purity to reductive rigor, seeing the graceful formal qualities and ordered proportions in bridges, factories, highways, grain elevators, railroad cars, and other symbols of American industrial progress.

Crawford started making photographs in the late 1930s, and after the interruption of World War II, came back to photography in the late 1940s, and continued shooting through the early 1960s and intermittently on into the 1970s, so in many ways, he can be faulted for being slightly late to the Modernism party. But even when he took on manmade and mechanical subjects that had seemingly been mastered by others, he found his own versions that consistently rival the canon in terms of sublime clarity. Linear shadows slash across the rhythmic curves of grain elevators. Highways are flattened into crisp lines of perspective. A striped girder from the Third Avenue El zig zags back and forth within its ramrod straight verticality. The gears of train engine resolve into the dense interplay of circles and rectangles. And the steel struts of what would become the Grand Coulee Dam become layered planes of repeating angles, the light cast across the jumble creating crisp, painterly contrasts.

Ships, boats, docks, and the details of maritime architecture were a particular area of interest and experimentation for Crawford. He made many memorable pictures of dry dock activities, dock workers hoisting cargo, the tangled lines of masts and rigging set against white skies, the shapes of railings, lifeboats, and rudders, and the reflections of boats at the waterline. In each case, he tests the edge where real becomes abstract, where elemetal form emerges from everyday structure.

What’s particularly exciting about this monograph is that it reaches out to fill in the gaps around these aesthetic pillars, in the process discovering a much rounder and more three dimensional photographer than we might have previously imagined. While Crawford clearly had a natural affinity for artistic order, he was similarly intrigued by its opposite, and a number of his projects examine the realities of destruction and disorder. He photographed destroyed buildings in post-WWII Cologne in the early 1950s, turning the rough textures of rubble into stark contrasts of light and dark. He got in close to crashed cars at a junkyard in Colorado, and later to rail scrap at a yard in Minnesota, embracing the crumbled imperfections of bent steel and broken glass. And he became interested in torn signage, where movie posters and campaign signs were sliced and peeled into intermingled scraps.

Even more surprising is Crawford’s social documentary work from 1950s New Orleans. Seeing these photographs, I think most of us would be hard pressed to identify them as being made by Crawford, but they are well made and attentive nonetheless. He went inside jazz clubs and captured bands playing and dancers swinging. He walked the streets, following brass band parades and funeral processions. He made sensitive portraits of African-American residents, documented vernacular architecture and storefront design, and wandered through local cemeteries, isolating tomb vases against whitewashed walls. In short, he embraced the city and its unique culture.

This well made monograph provides a template for what we require in a comprehensive (re)examination of an artist’s work. In terms of design and construction, it opts for an appropriately minimalist approach – one comprehensive essay, followed by exquisite reproductions set one to a page with plenty of surrounding white space, the images grouped into spreads with loose attention to theme and chronology.

The Photographs of Ralton Crawford celebrates and digs deeper into the pictures that make Crawford more than just an afterthought in the history of photography, while surrounding them with a sampler of imagery that fills out the artist’s aesthetic timeline. It reminds us of the power of his greatest hits, shows us the next level of support pictures that help us understand why the best compositions function so well, and offers a broader context that ties it all together, even when the pieces of the package don’t fit together neatly. What emerges is a personality, and a well-argued, historically researched rationale for why Crawford made the photographs he did. Davis has delivered the anchor book on Crawford that he deserves.

Collector’s POV: Ralston Crawford is represented by Menconi + Schoelkopf in New York (here). Only a very few Crawford photographs have come up for sale at auction in the past decade, so charting any kind of reliable price history is difficult. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Ralston Crawford, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Yale University Press

One comment

  1. Olivia Lahs-Gonzales /

    Not completely unknown – The Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis organized an exhibit with publication titled “Ralston Crawford and Jazz” in 2011, which also traveled to the New Orleans Museum of Art. Great to hear more is being done with the artist’s oeuvre!

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