Indispensable Photographs

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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.

 

Farmer’s Kitchen, Hale County, Alabama

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 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men . Evans and Agee were unable to view these families as a “social problem” and saw dignity and grace where others saw poverty and squalor. No image challenges assumptions about quality of life more than Farmer’s Kitchen . A dishcloth hangs on a hook, as elegant as a fine piece of chintz. The ceramic jug in the background is as functional and as aesthetically pleasing as those broken vessels of ancient civilizations that grace museum showcases. Someone cared enough to place a simple, single bowl just so on a shelf before the open doorway. To Evans, this tenant family’s home has an inherent balance and grace, and he teaches us that the value we place on things comes from how we see, not how much they cost.

Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, From Manzanar, California

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.

 
 

Trolley-New Orleans

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 The Americans that the photographer “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film.” Using his little camera, Frank captured the big issues facing Americans: alienation, isolation, integration, quality of life. Trolley—New Orleans is like a sad song telling us that no matter how different we seem to be from one another, whatever our particular woes are, we all are on a journey through time together, each of us occupying our own space but sharing a destiny and a destination. Kerouac said of Frank, “You got eyes,” and Frank’s eyes have helped us all to see.

Demonstrators Blasted Against a Doorway, 17th Street, Birmingham, Alabama

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.

 
 

Untitled Film Still #48