Published: June 12, 2001
BOSTON, MASS. – Defining images of postwar America – scenes of the open road, the Civil Rights movement, and women’s liberation; photographs revealing the emergence of industry on the American landscape – a belching nuclear reactor, imposing black oil rig, a speeding locomotive; pictures of working class women strolling down Fifth Avenue, street-cleaners and fortune tellers – all combine to form “The Social Scene,” a powerful exhibition of photography by artists working in the documentary tradition between the 1930s and 1980s.
Among the well-known photographers featured are Diane Arbus, Brassai (Gyula Halasz), Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Helen Levitt, Danny Lyon, Roger Mertin, John Pfahl and Garry Winogrand.
According to Jill Medvedow, the James Sachs Plaut director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, “The photographs reveal a shift in Twentieth Century documentary photography, in which artists move from the social activist imagery of the 1930s to an increasingly intimate and personal form of documentary photography.” The exhibition is arranged thematically into six areas: American Icons – Ideals and Issues, Character Studies, Loss of Innocence, Natural Occurrences, Picture-Making, and Social Space.
Granted a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955, Robert Frank traveled across the United States by car and photographed postwar American culture. All of Frank’s photographs in the exhibition were taken during this cross-country trip and later published in The Americans (1959), with a preface by Jack Kerouac.
From “Factory Valleys” to “The American Monument,” Lee Friedlander’s ironic placement of objects and people reveals uncanny truisms through humorous juxtapositions.
Garry Winogrand captured a wide range of subjects – from high-society art openings to working class women strolling down Fifth Avenue – in “Public Relations” and “Women Are Beautiful.” In many images, Winogrand used a wide-angle lens and casual framing, which often mocked these situations.
Danny Lyon’s projects investigate social groups and their surroundings by infiltrating the groups and photographing them from within. His book Conversations with the Dead investigates incarceration in six Texas prisons, and The Bikeriders probes the life of motorcycle racers and riders.
Roger Mertin’s gray-scale images of houses, garages, basketball hoops and winter trees employ a scientific approach appropriate to the books’ title Records. Stylistically akin in his reductive formal vocabulary to a new wave of documentary photographers of the mid-1970s, Mertin exemplifies a transition point in photography.
John Pfahl chooses the contemporary landscape and its unnatural inhabitants as the focus of his photographic investigations. In the color portfolios “Power Plants” and “Arcadia Revisited,” nuclear reactors and oil rigs loom on the horizon.
The exhibition is drawn from The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Photography Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boston, formed by Robert Freidus, a New York dealer and collector who represented or worked extensively with several of these artists in the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, including Clark, Friedlander and Winogrand.
“The Social Scene” continues through September 30
The Institute of Contemporary Art, at 955 Boylston Street in Boston, is open Wednesday and Friday, noon to 5 pm; Thursday, noon to 9 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. For information, call 617-266-5152 or visit www.icaboston.org.
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