August 28: Brave

Date #28August 28: Remarkably, today marks anniversaries of four of the photographers whose work appeared in The Family of Man.

They are Nell Dorr was born on this date in 1893 in Cleveland, Ohio, USA (†1988) and worked in a pictorialist style, as did Doris Ulmann (*1882) who died this day in 1934 in New York, the same date that Farm Security Administration (FSA) documentary photographer Russell Lee (*1903) died in 1986. A fourth American Family of Man photographer Louis Faurer was born, also on the  28 August, in 1916 (†2001) in Philadelphia where he captured its energy with film noir mystery.

They exemplify the way the the selection for this huge exhibition drew upon both earlier styles of photography promoted by Edward Steichen in the Photo-Secession during his early years of involvement with Alfred Steiglitz, and also modernist, contemporary examples.

Nell Dorr, “Mother and Child,” circa 1950. © Nell Dorr:The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the photographer
Nell Dorr, “Mother and Child,” circa 1950. © Nell Dorr:The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
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Nell Dorr Mother and Child, New York : Harper, 1954

Nell Dorr did not join clubs or exhibit in salons and so was not an ‘official’ Pictorialist but her soft-focus effects and tender subject matter adheres to the style, though she produced many of her personal photographs in the 1950s and 1960s, at the very tail end of pictorialism. She had become a professional portrait photographer in 1927 opening a studio, specialising in portraits of men in order to support her family of three girls (she was a mother at 17) after her husband lost his livelihood in a real estate bust.

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Nell Dorr, 1940s, untitled child at Piano from The Family of Man.

Then after divorcing, she moved to New York and established, with the help of childhood friend Lillian Gish, the actress, a portrait studio on East 59th Street that drew a good clientele. Only then did she begin exhibiting, fulfilling commissions, and receiving awards, though she had continued with private artistic work photographing children and flowers. In 1934, the year she remarried, her work was shown in Paris and in two solo shows in New York. There she met Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz. It was for its emotional quality that Steichen selected her pictures of mothers and babies, and if he is to be accused of ‘sentimentalism’ this is where the finger might point. But it’s not that simple if you examine the photographer involved; a woman who triumphed in what was then a man’s world.

The subject of these photographs (four were included in the show) was, on the surface, as romantic as Dorr’s depictions; Tasha Tudor was a very successful American illustrator who at died leaving a $US2M estate. Born into a well-heeled Boston family, she was nine when her parents divorced, and later studied at art school. With her first husband in 1938 she moved to an old farmhouse without electricity or running water, where they lived barefoot, motivated by her love of nature and self-sufficiency, tending farm animals and crops, growing flax for homespun clothes, carting water buckets from the well, and painting by firelight or kerosene lamp, and giving birth to three children. It is hard to tell from Dorr’s photographs that the idyll was to end badly; her children whom she tends so adoringly in these depictions resented their rural upbringing and became estranged from their mother who cut them out of her will.

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Nell Dorr (c.1950) Tasha Tudor and child included in The Family of Man

 

This portrait of Tudor with her baby works so well because Dorr, who preferred natural light, like the nineteenth century studio photographers, exploits the soft illumination of a window open to the sky, but with no direct sunlight. We can see the window reflected in the wedding band, and Dorr stands to the right of it pointing her lens into the room (the light comes from slightly to the left) and it creates the gently graded contour shadows on the rounded forms of shoulders arm, hand, baby’s head and fabric.

 

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Nell Dorr (1929) photogravure from In A Blue Moon published in 1939 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
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Nell Dorr In A Blue Moon 1st edition 1939 showing negative print on slipcase.

The final Dorr image from the exhibition appears in the MoMA checklist for the exhibition introducing the section ‘Childhood Magic’ and is from her enchanting In A Blue Moon (above) illustrated with a series of photographs  made in the Florida Keys of her own children. The book was innovative in including abstract imagery, some of them photograms and negative prints (one appears on the slipcase; right) all beautifully reproduced along with ‘straight’ photography in expensive photogravure. Her father, official photographer for the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, had taught her photography from the very basics, starting with a pinhole camera.

It is instructive to compare two shots from the same session made at the sea’s edge of a young teenager, Dorr’s daughter, carrying flowers on a trug, emerging from the shallows like a latter-day Botticelli Venus.

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Nell Dorr (1920s) print as it appears full-page in The Family of Man catalogue.

Unlike the heavier print at left, the one chosen by Steichen is reproduced high-key in the exhibition catalogue full-page (right), as in In A Blue Moon, and similarly cropped, even though the prints for the exhibition were made by the project’s own printer from the photographers’ negatives, which Steichen required to be loaned to him as a condition of participation. In Dorr’s book the paler printing, paper-white in the upper tones, is in sympathy with the facing-page close-up of other blooms.

To return to the later Mother and Child, the source of Dorr’s maternal imagery in the show, it is illuminating to understand that the book was prompted by the death of Dorr’s much-beloved youngest daughter who hadn’t reached forty, in 1954, after which Dorr closed her commercial studio and devoted herself to photographing mothers and children, eschewing the morbid imagery then abundant in American photojournalism, to devote herself to evoking harmony in her photographs. Asked about the meaning of beauty, Nell Dorr replied;

Without the one thing, beauty, I think I could not endure to live. With it, I can endure all. I find it equally in joy and in sorrow. In the greatest of each, in birth and in death, I find an almost unbearable beauty…” (from Mother and Child).

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Installation view of the exhibition, “The Family of Man.” January 24, 1955–May 8, 1955, showing Nell Dorr’s In a Blue Moon image at right, adjacent to the United Nations mural print near the end of the exhibition. The Museum of Modern Art Archives. Photograph by Ezra Stoller.

Neither of Doris Ulmann’s two pictures in The Family of Man is Pictorialist, and in fact she had a foot on both the art and documentary stools, having  taken teacher training with Lewis W. Hine at the Ethical Culture School from 1900 to 1903 and studying psychology and law at Columbia University, then from 1910, being taught by the personification of Pictorialism, Clarence H. White at both Columbia’s Teachers College and the White School of Photography in New York, her 1920 solo show inaugurating its new gallery. She was a member of the Pictorial Photographers of America (PPA). There is still a classicism in her c. 1933 portrait Cheever Meaders and Daughters, Meaders Pottery, Cleveland, GA.

For poignancy Ulmann’s group challenges Dorothea Lange‘s more iconic photograph, Migrant Mother, of two years later, and though it does not depict the mass migration of ‘pea-pickers’ as Lange’s portrait does, it is nevertheless an equal indictment of the failure of the ‘American Dream’ in the Depression years. The dependency of the children on a parent who clearly is putting a brave face on their hopelessness is just as evident.

The classicist restraint of the photograph to which I refer resides in its stillness, broken only by the slight motion blur of the older girl’s head and of her hand on her sister’s shoulder, an indication of the quality and resolution of the large format negative used; the scan of the print at the University of Georgia is otherwise perfectly crisp, the product of an 8″x10″ camera lens set at a small aperture, and is certainly not in the signature soft-focus of Pictorialism that we see in Dorr’s work, but more in sympathy with the sharp focussed realism of the Group F64, that was formed around this time, though Ulmann had no connection with it.

Doris Ulmann “Cheever Meaders and Daughters, Meaders Pottery, Cleveland, GA,” ca. 1933. Posthumous gelatin silver print, printed by Samuel Lifshey, ca. 1934–37, 8 x 6 inches. Bere
Doris Ulmann (c.1934) Cheever Meaders and Daughters, Meaders Pottery, Cleveland, GA. Posthumous gelatin silver print, printed by Samuel Lifshey, ca. 1934–37, 20.3 x 15.2cm

This almost sculptural stasis—laconic also in the sense of sharing the intertwining of the Hellenistic Laocoön and His Sons—comes in advance of Margaret Bourke-White‘s harsh portraits in You Have Seen Their Faces first published in 1937 (made usually with the flash she used in her industrial photography) and predates the collaboration of 1936 by Walker Evans and James Agee on their Fortune magazine assignment in Hale County, Alabama that resulted in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with photography that is very similar, though somewhat less immobile. To modern eyes there is an element of performance, of playing the part, in Ulmann’s portrait, but the simmering anger we can sense is genuine; a latent plea to the viewer.

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Russell Lee (1936) Hands of Mrs. Andrew Ostermeyer, wife of a homesteader, Miller Township, Woodbury County, Iowa showing 35mm negative rebate and sprockets

Russell Lee, the other photographer who died on this date, is so well known that his Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic documentation project needs no recount here. His Hands of Mrs. Andrew Ostermeyer, wife of a homesteader, Miller Township, Woodbury County, Iowa, of 1936 also came two years after Ulmann’s study of this Depression-era Georgia family, but it is shot made hand-held with the much more mobile medium of 35mm film. It was printed full-frame horizontal for the show (below, left), but cropped to a vertical for the catalogue (below right). 

The other photograph (above) that Lee contributed to The Family of Man is from his extensive survey for the United States Department of the Interior (DOI), in 1946 and 1947, of communities involved in mining bituminous coal; over 4,000 photographs of miners and their working conditions in coal mines which assisted the agency compile to a medical welfare report. It represents one instance where medium format can yield a candid image; Lee has deliberately taken so long get his press camera with roll-film back fitted onto a tripod and ready for shooting that all but one of the children—the youngest, a girl— have lost interest and returned to their conversation, allowing the photographer to pick his moment.

Looking at it on the Library of Congress site his one can detect, from the film rebate left showing, that image of miners’ kids on a porch was shot on Ansco Superpan Safety Press Film which was available in 4×5 sheets and 120 format rolls.

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Crop of the 120 format film rebate of Russell Lee’s photograph of children on a mining company housing porch, showing it is frame 5.

Superpan Press was a film then considered so fast, forgiving and with so much latitude that its manufacturers felt comfortable marketing it to boy scouts! The advertisement appears in this Christmas edition of Boy’s Life, published only six months after Russell Lee took his photograph, in which boy scouts deliver presents to gleeful injured WW2 servicemen recovering in hospital.

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Boys’ Life, Front Cover, Dec 1946, Vol. 36, No. 12, Published by Boy Scouts of America, Inc.

Boy scout photographers who could afford $US1.60 a roll ($20.68 in 2018) were clearly more prosperous than their West Virginia cousins on the porch of their coal mine company house.

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Louis Faurer (1950) Robert and Mary Frank at San Gennaro Festival, as printed in The Family of Man catalogue.

Louis Faurer deserves more attention for photography that approached Robert Frank‘s in immediacy as the Swiss/American photographer admitted himself, rather belatedly, in a Japanese magazine in 1994;

Faurer, with these images proves to be an extraordinary artist. His eye is on the pulse of New York City – the lovely Times-Square people – for whom Faurer felt a deep sympathy. Every photograph is witness to the compassion and obsession accompanying his life like a shadow. I am happy that these images survive while the world keeps changing.

In fact Faurer was shadowing Frank in 1950 to get the shot above; made with his Leica of Frank with Mary Lockspeiser, just before or after their marriage, at the San Gennaro Festival along Mulberry Street in the Little Italy section of Manhattan. It was shot before Frank’s successful application for a Guggenheim grant to work on The Americans in 1955, after both he and Faurer had been included in The Family of Man, in which Frank had seven images and Faurer only two; his other being a sunny shot cropped to panoramic format, of lovers on a bench in springtime in Central Park surrounded by meandering, behatted men.

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Installation view of the exhibition, “The Family of Man” January 24, 1955–May 8, 1955, showing Faurer’s Central Park image at top left.  The Museum of Modern Art Archives. Photograph by Ezra Stoller.

Frank had emigrated to the United States in 1947, getting work as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, and this double portrait was made just after he had returned from trips to South America and Europe. The photographers became good friends, sharing a darkroom, and both had participated in another of Steichen’s exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art the group show 51 American Photographers August 1–September 17, 1950.

It is Faurer’s relish for low level available light, preferably in city streets at night, for maximum-aperture shallow depth of field that made his work attractive to Alexey Brodovitch at Harpers Bazaar. The double portrait glows with the halation of out-of-focus light sources, an effect particularly pronounced on push-processed fast film of this era, to romantic effect in a section of The Family of Man devoted to lovers. Despite a number of opportunities, and perhaps because of self-doubt, and the loss of large numbers of his negatives, but certainly not for lack of talent, Faurer has been eclipsed by his colleagues of this era; he used colour creatively (see below) contemporaneously to Saul Leiter, but is rarely mentioned in that regard.

I have an intense desire to record life as I see it, as I feel it,’ he said. ‘As long as I’m amazed and astonished, as long as I feel that events, messages, expressions and movements are all shot through with the miraculous, I’ll feel filled with the certainty I need to keep going. When that day comes, my doubts will vanish.

The selection below exemplifies what Steichen might have been shown by Faurer for The Family of Man by a photographer with a special talent for discovering the isolated individuals and overlooked detail in the thick of the urban melée.

 

 

 

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