Our Future is in the Air

An Exhibition Review by Neal Rosenau

While Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand were at work establishing photography as High Art, many camera buffs of the 1910’s were exploring other aspects of photography – the technological, news-gathering, and documentary capabilities, the social potential and the pure fun and excitement to be found in camera work. So hanging in a gallery next to the highly self-conscious art photos of Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand is an exhibit titled Our Future Is In The Air: Photographs from the 1910s.

This Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition uses 58 images from the museum’s own collection to give us an overview of a formative decade in photography. As curator Doug Ecklund describes the exhibit: “This is the other photography going on alongside with the over-aestheticized pictorialism and abstractions” that you can see next door.

So we see some experiments and fresh ideas here.  Remember, this was a new age in technology.  Cameras were smaller, skyscrapers were taller, Einsein had published his Theory of Relativity, Hollywood was being invented, people were driving racecars and flying in airplanes (“Our Future Is In The Air” is a double-meaning phrase from a French brochure about careers in aviation).

For all these technological and social changes, photography was a witness, an agent and a user.  Examples fill the walls here:

The Octopus by Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1912, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

While many cameras were turned to look at the tall buildings, Alvin Langdon Coburn climbed a skyscraper beside Madison Square Park for the top-down perspective needed to make his image “The Octopus.”

Le Grand Prix A.C.F., by Jacques Henri Lartigue,1913, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art ©Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL

Jacques Henri Lartigue panned his camera, following racecars to capture images of speed; 13-year-old William Mayfield got a shot of Orville Wright in his airplane; and Vilhelm Ellehammer pictured the helicopter he had invented and was trying to make fly.

Corsets, Atget, 1912

Photo: Boulevard de Strasbourg, by Eugene Atget, 1912, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Eugene Atget documented the streets of Paris, and E.J. Bellocq trained an unflinching lens on the “working girls” of Storyville, the red light district in New Orleans.

Addie Card, 12 years. Spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill by Lewis Hine, 1910, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Louis Hine created documentary history when his straightforward but emotionally moving photos of working children helped inspire change of America’s child labor laws.

Doylestown House—Stairs from Below by Charles Sheeler, 1917, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art © The Lane Collection

Artists of the 1910’s turned to photography to express their modernist visions: Charles Sheeler sculpted with light for his richly-printed images of his Doylestown, PA, farmhouse/studio.  Man Ray invented his “Ray-o-Graphs” by arranging objects on light-sensitive paper in his darkroom.  And Morton Schamberg made a DaDa-inspired image of a drainpipe and miter box that he called “God.”

Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks Selling Liberty Loans during the Third Loan Campaign at the Sub Treasury Building on Wall Street, New York City, Unknown Artist, 1918, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

From this decade of World War I, we have images of British troops awaiting an order to advance, of wounded French soldiers practicing parade drills in Paris, of a huge American war bond rally featuring Charlie Chaplin waving to the crowd from his perch on the shoulders of Douglas Fairbanks, and there’s a “portrait “of Woodrow Wilson in which Charles S. Mole choreographed thousands of soldiers and shot from high above to create a mosaic image of the President.

From the decade of the Russian Revolution, we can see a family album created by the Dowager Empress Maria Feoderovna, mother of the last czar, who had taken up photography in the 1880’s, soon after George Eastman invented the hand-held Kodak camera.

By the 1910’s, the Kodak and other small cameras had democratized photography, and you see some results here. One charming example is an album called “Girls I Have Known,” by Dan Rochford. an annotated collection of snapshots, studio portraits and magazine images in which a teenaged boy forms and records his affectionate thoughts about the opposite sex. Think of this as an early ancestor of Facebook – teenage musings, but without the modern urge to share indiscriminately (in fact, he posted “Keep Out” signs on his pages).

So visit Our Future Is In The Air for some rare and beautifully-made black and white prints, for a look at a turbulent historic decade, and for a loose composite portrait of photography at a formative age.

The exhibit hangs in the Gilman Galleries on the second floor of the Met.  It will be there until April 10.

NEAL ROSENAU is an avid, award-winning photographer and writer and past president of the Teaneck (NJ) Camera Club.  His career in journalism included writing and editing newspapers and magazines, and he was an on-air correspondent for WCBS and WNBC TV stations in New York. View some of his photos http://www.nealrosenau.com.

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