Atget’s Escher

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Eugène Atget, Escalier 25 rue des Blancs-Manteaux, 1903-04 (2008.112.21)

Eugène Atget (1857-1927) was a none-too-successful actor and painter before he became a photographer in the late 1880s. He focused on documenting Paris and its surroundings, for a while specializing in old Paris as it was disappearing during his lifetime. He made a living selling prints of his meticulous and prodigious production of photographs of courtyards, doors, streets, houses, stairs, and other ornamental decorations. His clients were mostly artists, architects, decorators, publishers, libraries, and museums. Only posthumously did the Frenchman became recognized  as an artist rather then solely a maker of useful documents.

The motif of Escalier 25 rue des Blancs-Manteaux, located in the 4th Arrondissement in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, is a narrow and ancient staircase. Its perspective brings to mind M. C. Escher’s impossible architectural drawings, though in this case it is the play of light and shadow that gives the subject an almost surreal appearance.

Alp Klanten, ICP-Bard 2013

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In the Street

Helen Levitt, New York, 1972 (19.1998)Helen Levitt, New York, 1959 (645.1987)

Helen Levitt, New York, 1972 (313.1984)

Helen Levitt, New York, 1972 (146.1997)

Helen Levitt’s street photography documents the vibrancy and humor of chance New York City moments. Her photographs of children are particularly intriguing in her ability to capture fleeting, candid street shots of play. Writer James Agee was an avid admirer of Levitt’s work stating, “At least a dozen of Helen Levitt’s photographs seem to me as beautiful, perceptive, satisfying, and enduring as any lyrical work that I know. In their general quality and coherence, moreover, the photographs as a whole body, as a book, seem to me to combine into a unified view of the world, an uninsistent but irrefutable manifesto of a way of seeing, and in a gently and wholly unpretentious way, a major poetic work.”

Starting the 1930s, Levitt took pictures of chalk drawings along the sidewalk, which led to the book, In The Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City 1938–1948,  published in 1987. While searching for drawings, Levitt came upon many intimate moments of children in the street. Her first solo show, Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children, was in 1943 in New York at the Museum of Modern Art.

After receiving a Guggenheim grant in 1959, Levitt started experimenting with color photography. The combination of her street scenes with the element of color made highly dynamic and saturated photographs. Unfortunately, much of the work from this time period was lost due to a burglary in the late sixties in which many of Levitt’s color transparencies and prints were stolen. Of the remaining prints, forty were included in landmark show in 1974 at the Museum of Modern Art. The show was unique not only in media, but also, because it was one of the first exhibitions to include a photographic slide show.

Levitt was also actively engaged in film, originally editing American propaganda films for Luis Bunuel and later working with Janice Loeb and James Agee on films like In the Street and The Quiet One. Levitt’s film In the Steet, released in 1952, has strong ties to her photographic work. The film is a silent documentary portrait of life in Spanish Harlem, and is the thought of as the cinematic version of her photographs.

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The King of Indiscretion?

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Erich Salomon, Carnaval de Munich, 1925 (411.1983)

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Erich Salomon, Queen Wilhelmina, Princess Juliana and Prince Bernard, Amsterdam, 1938 (409.1983)

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Erich Salomon, Dutch Deputies looking at Erich Salomon’s book “Famous Contemporaries During Unguarded Moments,” The Hague, 1935 (133.1986)

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Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, September 14, 1930 (2007.87.10)

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Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, June 19, 1932 (2007.87.14)

Erich Franz Emil Salomon was born on April 28, 1886 in Berlin and grew up with his four siblings in the city where he was born. Although he grew up in a prosperous family, Salomon must have experienced difficult times during his adolescent years; both his sisters died from tuberculosis, his brother committed suicide, and his father passed away unexpectedly while giving a speech. In the years that followed, Salomon decided to study law like his father.

During World War I Salomon, a sergeant in the German army, was imprisoned by the  French for three-and-a-half years. He returned to Germany to find that his mother had taken her own life. Due to the difficult financial times in Germany and as well as diminishing family capital, Salomon was forced to find a job to support his wife and child. It was not until the 1920s that Salomon became involved in photography. While working closely with photographers on a project in the Publicity Department of publishing house Ullstein, which printed the illustrated weekly Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung among others, Salomon decided it would be more profitable to become a photographer.

In the late 1920s Salomon taught himself to photograph and sold the pictures he took of his family trips to pay for it. During this time he started documenting big trials by photographing through a hole he made in his hat. His career as a photographer officially began when some of these photographs were published in Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. In 1929 Salomon secretly (and illegally) photographed inside the British Supreme Court; the images caused a stir when they were published six years later. Over the course of his career, Salomon continued to photograph scenes, people, and locations, often of political significance, at meaningful and unguarded moments, earning him the nickname “King of Indiscretion.”

Salomon’s oeuvre can be divided into two periods: his work from before and after World War II. In the early 1930s he was considered the official photographer of the German republic. After the war Salomon’s work reflected the political game that went on prior to and during the power that was seized by the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), Hitler’s Nazi party. Not only were Salomon’s photographs used to understand the extent of the international political failing that escalated into the large-scale atrocities, but the images were also used to analyze the political and diplomatic characteristics of the people that he documented during the war.

In 1933 the political situation changed dramatically in Germany when NSDAP became part of the government. During the Salomons’ visit to The Hague that year, where they stayed with the parents of Salomon’s wife, they decided not to return to Berlin. Their oldest son Otto Erich (who later changed his name to Peter Hunter) finished his study in law and moved to London in 1934. After two years of hiding in the Netherlands, Salomon and his family were betrayed in 1944. A few months later he was deported to Westerbork, where he was temporarily united with his wife and youngest son Dirk. On July 7, 1944 they died in Auschwitz.

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Kitchen Table Series

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Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled, from the Kitchen Table Series, 1990 (63.2001.3)

Carrie Mae Weems tells stories in her photographs, often becoming her own subject. She uses her work to explore cultural, social, and political issues, particularly those dealing with representation of women and African Americans, and comments on race, sex, and gender.

In this series, Weems portrays many different domestic scenes all centered around the kitchen table with herself as the one continuous subject throughout all of the images. This selection of works focuses on family, domestic space, and the urban landscape. It brings together photographs from various traditions like conceptualism, still life, and social documentary.

These works ask us to think critically about the role played by the artist, particularly the photographer, in the creation and shaping of a narrative to tell the stories that have been ignored, forgotten, or erased.

This square black-and-white photograph from Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series takes the form of a couple embracing each other over a kitchen table; a sweet and simple moment between two people that inhabit this modern domestic scene. A beautiful geometric composition jumps between squares and circles: wooden table, newspaper, door, frame, glass of water, chair . . . and then back to the center of the image. With a spotlight on both subjects, we become witnesses of this fleeting moment of love that quickly becomes much more than just that. Looking at the shape of the two bodies together and their dark shadow behind, we confirm that here lies a more substantial theme of balances of power within sexual and romantic relationships, as their bodies intertwine and mold into one.

Nina Mendez Marti, ICP-Bard 2014

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Passover on the S.S. Providence, 1947

[Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors celebrate Passover on board the S.S. Providence bound for Palestine], April 1947

Roman Vishniac, [Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors celebrate Passover on board the S.S. Providence bound for Palestine], April 1947


The passenger ship S.S. Providence brought Holocaust survivors from various ports in Europe to Haifa, Palestine, in 1947-48. Although the majority of ships attempting to bring Jewish refugees to Palestine were technically illegal and in defiance of strict British immigration quotas (the S.S. Exodus 1947 is the most famous example), the British permitted a limited number of people to legally immigrate, including the passengers of the S.S. Providence. Vishniac photographed the passengers who had been liberated from Nazi concentration camps and were survivors from the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons’ Camp and the nearby Blankensee children’s home, when the ship departed from Marseille Harbor. The Passover seder, which commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, must have served as a poignant reminder of the survivors’ own recent ordeals as they prepared for their new lives in Palestine.

[Jewish refugees from Germany leaving France for Palestine on board the S.S. Providence, Marseille Harbor], April 1947

Roman Vishniac, [Jewish refugees from Germany leaving France for Palestine on board the S.S. Providence, Marseille Harbor], April 1947

Roman Vishniac’s entire archive of recently discovered negatives, spanning the 1920s to 1970s, includes a large body of previously unknown material documenting the lives and experiences of Holocaust survivors and Displaced Persons in postwar Europe. As the result of generous contributions from a large number of foundations and individuals that supported the work of the Vishniac Archive over the past six years, all of his negatives are now digitized at the highest possible resolution and publicly accessible online for the first time, in partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Search the collection.

To see more images from the recently discovered S.S. Providence series, please explore ICP’s recent exhibition, Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, which is now online. This ICP traveling exhibition opened in Amsterdam, where it will be on view through August 24, before traveling to Paris, Warsaw, Houston, San Francisco and several other venues.

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A First Shout-Out: The New, New American Landscape

haas_ernst_3_1976Ernst Haas, Montana. On Set–Little Big Man Filming, 1974 (3.1976)

The American landscape of our memory, and relatively our most recent past, first memorialized in the subtle hues and creamy pastels by the grand painting masters such as Thomas Cole, Thomas Eakins, or Winslow Homer, and then concretely flattened in the blacks and whites of Ansel Adams, and consequently the new topographers, famously Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, the Bechers, among others, has taken twists and turns in the hands and eyes of the romantics on a mission to find their visual pleasure in the eccentricities of what they found: Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Ed Ruscha. There is an American landscape on-the-go, and ready-made for an explorer with the means to delve into and document. There is an American landscape of the ages, of the now, and of the no longer in existence.

In this selection from the International Center of Photography’s collection, the pleasure in each landscape derives from the origin of its peculiarity, the man-made versus the land, the uses of such land as stages for illusions and constructed narratives, and the understanding of this vastness as not never-ending, but in fact, concretely rooted in one discreet capsule of geography and time.

The work of Ernst Haas (1921-1986), John Pfahl (b. 1939), and Charles Pratt (1926-1976) all encompass what’s simplistically known as the picturesque. Out of the three, John Pfahl continues to document the oddities he finds in the land in what he now calls a series on earth’s metamorphosis. There’s old-school if not twee glamour to these men, not strictly tied to conceptual applause. They are, perhaps, photographers for people of the  twenty-first century in search of the awe-inspiring. There’s the breed of men and women with cameras who knew everything about the apparatus that reproduced their dreamscapes. There’s the crop of photographs that, when encapsulated in the right place and time, represent what perhaps this new, new American landscape will be.

pratt_charles_64_1996Charles Pratt, Pigeon under Hwy, New York, Edge of City, 1960 (64.1996)

pratt_charles_53_1996Charles Pratt, Edge of City, 1962 (53.1996)

Charles Pratt, raised in New York City and Maine, was awestruck by what he called the “edges of the city.” It was his fear that the edges of New York would eventually blur, making his city merge in an vast “megalopolis” with Boston and Washington, D.C. Pratt stated: “I find myself drawn to [the] edges with a sense of urgency, knowing that they may be gone tomorrow—not just extended but really, finally gone.” Out of the three photographers in this presentation, the “scarcity of the city” versus that of the countryside is his preoccupation. In his landscapes the “rivers, parks along the waterfront, highways, embankments, empty lots, airports, rooftops, and the marshes in New Jersey” are predominant.

haas_ernst_77_1976Ernst Haas, Communication, Nevada, 1962 (77.1976)

Ernst Haas, born in Vienna, moved to the United States in 1951 and was part of the LIFE magazine crew, as well as Magnum, an invitation he received directly from Robert Capa. He was a successful, and prolific travel photographer. His work not only for LIFE, but also Vogue, and Look took him across the globe. Haas was considered a pioneer in color photography. The two works selected represent two instances of man in land that evoke two very different variants: the presence of man through his absence with symbols of modern communication, and the presence of man’s chimeras and story-making machine through the lens of motion pictures, and the Hollywood ubiquity.

pfahl_john_420_1984John Pfahl, Nine Desert Snowballs, Hell’s Half Acre, WY, 1977 (420.1984)

Lastly, John Pfahl’s inclusion echoes the “alteration” of the picturesque in its most ambiguous iteration: the oddity of elements in his photograph convey a feeling of eeriness and unknown processes, perhaps hidden and unfamiliar to us, but sourced from systems that seem unlikely to be married with the landscape, yet there they appear, in man’s necessity to maintaining his manufacturing activities apparently seamless, but never quite so.

Laura A. González, ICP-Bard 2014

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Comraderie

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Unidentified Photographer, [Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin looking out window of USS Hornet], July 24, 1969 (2012.99.12)

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Krisanne Johnson, A young HIV-positive woman who works in the garment industry laughs with friends at her rented one-room home, Matsapha, Swaziland, February 2012 (2013.59.2)

leroy_catherine_2011_73_1Catherine Leroy, A Marine is hit by North Vietnamese fire during Battle of Hue, February 1, 1968 (2011.73.1)

lyon_danny_2010_3_20Danny Lyon, Renegade’s funeral, Detroit, 1966 (2010.3.20)

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Yoshito Matsushige, [Dazed survivors huddle together in the street ten minutes after the atomic bomb was dropped on their city, Hiroshima], August 6, 1945 (1464.2005)

We often seem to place great importance on individuals. There are people remembered long after they have faded from this earth because of some act of heroism or ingenuity. It could be claimed, however, that there are no men who truly operate alone, that no successes or discoveries are the result of one person. These remarkable individuals are able to be so because their work, their bravery is achieved in part by standing on the shoulders of giants, on the accomplishments of those before and around them. There is a multitude of persons, the quiet participant, the off-stage support, and the forgotten chorus that rose to the occasion.

As Aristotle said in Politics, “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ” When we, these social creatures, are put into situations of particular stress, excitement or intensity, a great sense of camaraderie can develop. Whether it is on an expedition to the Poles, in a laboratory, on the battlefront, or in a community besieged by difficulties, camaraderie is the enhancement of bonds that give us strength, sometimes in quantities so great it is astounding.

Kathy Akey, ICP-Bard 2014

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