- Historic Sites
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
by Edward Western (1930). Edward Western could turn a pepper into a monument. He transformed the most mundane subjects—a cabbage leaf, a piece of seaweed, a torso, a tree—into works of profound beauty and spirituality. But as Professor Alan Tractenberg reminds us in an essay on Weston, saying that a rock is “more than a rock” is ultimately an act of faith. It doesn’t matter if the viewer of a Weston photograph sees the subject as sublimely beautiful or as the equivalent of some spiritual force of nature. Once someone has seen a Weston photograph, he or she understands the camera to be a powerful tool for revealing form and detail, and it is difficult to again see any of his subjects—be they shells or carrots or kelp or sand dunes—in the same way.
by Walker Evans (1936). In 1936 Fortune magazine assigned the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans to collaborate on a series of articles about the daily lives of tenant farmers in the Deep South. Their work was subsequently published as a book with the title
by Ansel Adams (ca. 1944). There are scores of indispensable nineteenth-century photographs of the American West. Photographs by Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, and others brought to the attention of Congress the necessity of preserving the wilderness. I choose the twentieth-century work Mount Williamson , by Adams, however, because millions of people saw it in the 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Family of Man and the book that followed. It was the first truly great landscape photograph many people experienced. Unlike most all pretty color pictures, Adams’s photograph is about a communion with nature at the heart of the American spirit.
by Robert Frank (1955–56). Traveling around the United States on a Guggenheim fellowship in the mid-1950s, Robert Frank used his camera to capture the complexity and confusion within American society. Postwar prosperity did not mean all was well in the 48 states. Jack Kerouac wrote in his introduction to Frank’s book
by Charles Moore (1963). Empathy. A great work of art can make the viewer feel the power, the pain, the positions of the subjects depicted.
The pictures of the civil rights movement constitute a golden age of American photojournalism, a period when masterpieces of documentary photography were made that struck many hearts and changed many minds. The Charles Moore photograph from the Birmingham riots is a classic, like a frieze on a Grecian urn, and is as piercing as the jet of water from the firemen’s hose. It is indispensable because it exemplifies the emotional and political power of a great news photograph while teaching the importance of humanity.