Life through the lens

“Manhattan Bridge,” a 1936 photography by Bernice Abbott, shows how the newly portable 35 mm camera allowed artists to capture strikingly new types of images during the era. (COURTESY OF BERENICE ABBOTT/COMMERCE GRAPHICS)

Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 3:39 p.m.

Hungarian-photographer André Kertész captured people walking to and from the Louvre in 1929 through the glass face of the Académie Francaise clock. The picture remains a frozen, dream-like reminder to viewers of the connection between the real and the fantastic.


‘The Modern Impulse: Photography from Europe and America Between the Wars’

What: Photography exhibit featuring images taken with the newly portable 35 mm camera between 1918 and 1945.
When: Tuesday through Jan. 6, 2013
Where: Southwest 34th Street and Hull Road
Cost: Free
Info: 392-9826,

Schedule of events:
Wednesday: Harn Eminent Scholar Lecture — “Potential History of Palestine,” Ariella Azoulay, professor at Durham University and director of the Photo-Lexic International research Group at the Minerva Center, Tel Aviv University, discusses photography as a practice that’s capable of reclaiming power for the purposes of critique, freedom and resistance, 6 p.m.
Oct. 11: Museum Nights — Event features programs relating to photography and “The Modern Impulse” exhibition, 6-9 p.m.
Oct. 21: Gallery Talk — Kelly Oliver-Smith, Harn curator of contemporary art, discusses “The Modern Impulse,” 3 p.m.
Nov. 11: Gallery Talk — Joyce Tsai, professor of art history, presents “Virtuous Visions,” a discussion of the innovative perspectives and angles illustrated by the exhibition’s photography, 3 p.m.
Nov. 17: Family Day — Participants can explore the exhibition and create a fun flipbook of images in motion, 1-4 p.m. (A donation of $2 per child or $5 per family is requested to participate in the art-making activity.)

Now, his image, “The Louvre Through the Old Glass Clock of the Académie Française,” hangs inside the angled walls of the Gladys Gracy Harn Exhibition Hall at the Harn Museum of Art as part of “The Modern Impulse” exhibition, which opens Tuesday.

Subtitled “Photography from Europe and America Between the Wars,” the free exhibit showcases more than 135 photographs, books, illustrated magazines and films drawn from four regions that were prominent in photographic innovation. The regions include France and the Czech Republic in Europe and New York and California in the United States.

“The exhibit takes a look at both regions and how we can compare and contrast them,” says Kerry Oliver-Smith, the Harn’s curator of contemporary art. “What they both have in common is that they were right after World War I, the first mechanical war.”

With much of Europe in ruins, the camera emerged as a tool of art and social change, she says. Various schools of thought developed during the newly mechanical society — fueled by the ability to carry the newly portable 35 mm camera.

Oliver-Smith divided the exhibit to reflect those ideologies: Art and Technology — New Vision and the Modern City; Pure Photography and New Objectivity; Dreams, Memory and Desire — Surrealism in France and the Czech Republic; Social Activism and Modern Life — Documentary and Reportage; and Mass Media — Photography for the Public.

“They felt the camera could best reflect the modern city; the rhythm, the pulse, the excitement of a new life that was different than anything before,” she says. “It changed the world.”

Among the photographers featured in the “Art and Technology” section, Berenice Abbott’s photographs depict unexpected angles of city life. Before, views of a street from above had been impossible, but now skyscrapers stretched beyond the streets and into the sky.

“Abbott’s photographs of Manhattan’s skyscrapers showcase New York City as a citadel of power and technical triumph,” wrote Oliver-Smith in the brochure for the exhibit.

In “Pure Photograph and New Objectivity,” works by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston reflect a search for objective realism. They used modernist principles to capture contours and textures of organic and industrial structures.

As visitors move through the exhibit, the industrial pictures fade away and are replaced by the misty, mysterious images captured by the French surrealist in the section titled, “Dreams, Memory and Desire.”

“Artists such as André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassaď saw the city as a labyrinth of signs, including ephemeral moments, obscure places, forgotten objects and marginal people,” Oliver-Smith details.

These pictures juxtaposed life with its mysteries or modern aspects and ancient ruins, such as in Kertész’s “Meudon, France,” where a Roman aqueduct provides a pathway for a steam-engine.

“Social Activism and Modern Life” documents a time in history when the world had fallen into social and political turmoil. Many of the photographers appearing in this section hoped their work would bring change, says Oliver-Smith.

Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Paul Strand recorded the United States breaking under economic devastation, while others, such as Marion Post Wolcott, captured moments of racial prejudice.

The images now line the walls at the Harn Museum, waiting for people to examine the collection starting on Tuesday. A half-century after most of the photographs were taken, museum patrons can become absorbed with the past by viewing the collection of images in “The Modern Impulse.”

“It’s not a regular way of looking at things,” Oliver-Smith says, gesturing to Kertész’s image of the Louvre. “Here, you’re looking through a window, through a clock, through time, which is certainly metaphorical in itself.”

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top

Find Us on Facebook