Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Homer Page, In Between: New York, 1949 @Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 38 black and white images, framed in white and matted, and hung against light brown walls in a single room gallery space. All of the prints are vintage gelatin silver prints, and were made in 1949; most are sized 11x14 or reverse, although a few are slightly smaller (13x9, 11x11, 12x10). A glass case contains two unpublished book maquettes. A monograph of this work by Keith Davis was published by Yale University Press in 2009 (here). The side galleries and viewing rooms hold smaller mini-exhibits in support of the main Page show: 8 images by Dorothea Lange, 7 images by Robert Frank, and 8 images from a variety of photographers who were included in The Family of Man exhibit. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: The second half of the 1940s (post World War II) was a time of transition for American photography. Prior to the war, the FSA/WPA photographers made pictures that mixed straightforward reporting (with remnants of spare Modernist compositions) with a more humanistic, socially conscious approach to image making. By the beginning of the 1950s, a more personal view of America was coming through. Abstract Expressionism was taking hold, and documentary photography became less formal, expanding into darker, wittier, more ironic, and more subjective modes of image making. While this general line of history is now well known and agreed upon, a puzzling set of questions remain: what happened during the transition? who were the important photographers who were in the middle? while we can easily put Dorothea Lange on one side and Robert Frank on the other, who goes in between?
This exhibit (and an accompanying monograph) seeks to put the heretofore largely unknown and recently rediscovered Homer Page in this empty space (some might argue that Helen Levitt and Lisette Model successfully fill this area already). The works in the show are drawn from Page's photographs of New York during a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1949-1950. Most of the images on view are stolen moments on the streets of the city: men in hats and suits, women in formal clothes on street corners, hot dog carts, cigar smoking, newsstands and men reading racing forms, heads taken from below with the silhouettes of the skyscrapers in the background. There are subtle gestures and stances, small movements and poses. The works capture the mixture of New York in the 1940s: the melting pot of American humanity and the beginning of advertising age. And unlike the photography of the 1930s, the life of the city is no longer adorned with romantic optimism or empathetic concern; there is a more diverse and authentic view of reality in these images, with small doses of cynicism and satire. A very thin layer of sarcastic banter (with equal measures of imperfection and absurdity) is hiding under the surface of many of Page's pictures.
There is no doubt that there are quite a few strong works here, and that they capture a point in photographic history where the dominant documentary aesthetic was in flux. But the challenge with inserting an unknown figure back into the pages of history and changing the narrative on a forward looking basis is that there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence that Page was a downstream influence on Frank (or Klein, Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander or others). So while Page may indeed have been working on similar ideas prior to or contemporaneously with others, I think he needs to be seen more in isolation rather than as part of a continuum. (One could make a similar argument about the early color work of Saul Leiter and its reintroduction into the narrative of the history of color photography.) As an example, Page's New York heads bear a clear resemblance to Harry Callahan's Chicago heads of the early 1950s; but if Callahan never saw Page's work, what conclusions can we draw? Only that there were certain ideas percolating around the artistic community and various artists "invented" a new style at the same time, independent of each other. Page was clearly part of the overall period, but I'm not sure he can be characterized as any kind of a leader.
If we look at Page's photographs simply based on their own merits (without the "missing link" narrative), there are many well crafted and memorable works in this project that resonate well with the work of the better known photographers both before and after him. Stylistically, he was experimenting with some intriguing and innovative ideas; it is too bad he didn't continue his explorations further, as perhaps then Page would have turned out to be something much more than a historical footnote.
Collector's POV: All of the vintage prints in this show are priced at $7500. Since Page's work was recently rediscovered, no secondary market history exists for this work; as such, the gallery prices here seem to have been set with a mind to establish a market in Page's work anchored at a price point within shouting distance of his better known contemporaries. The images in the side galleries are priced as follows: Dorothea Lange - $7000-19000, Robert Frank - all "price on request", selections from The Family of Man - $6000-25000. While Page's works aren't quite geometric or abstract enough for our city genre, I did like the image of a dapper man leaning against the long brick facade of a building. (New York, May 28, 1949).
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • The Photographs of Homer Page @Nelson-Atkins Museum, 2009 (here)
  • Features: Modern Art Notes (here), Looking Around (here)
  • Book review: PDN (here)
Homer Page, In Between: New York, 1949
Through February 20th

Howard Greenberg Gallery
41 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

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