Something happened to photography in the early years of the 20th Century to transform it from a science to an art, and if you want to see that something, it’s currently on display at MoMA’s exhibit “Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection 1909-1949.” Walther, a German photographer who moved to New York in 1977 and is now based in Zurich, has an expert eye for unique and indelible images that is reflected in its full glory in this show.
At the start of the 20th Century, visual artists were looking to push past the stale boundaries of classical training and found inspiration in the modern technology of the camera. Seemingly overnight, the paintbrush and chisel became old-fashioned artistic tools, incapable of exploring the relationship of the artist to the modern world. For the next century, and continuing today, artists have incorporated the view of the camera’s eye into their own visions. Using the camera’s unique attributes like over-exposure, double exposure, extreme close-up, and odd angles and perspectives, they blurred more than just focus. The natural world and the man-made one blended into a new view of reality, with the human body, especially the nude female body, serving as a bridge between the two.
This dizzying exhibit acts as witness to the art of photography being born. The 148 photographers represented were among the first to see beyond the camera’s ability to faithfully capture and reproduce the world around them. They saw the camera’s ability to distort and re-imagine that world. In anticipation of the century that connected the world with popular music and movies, satellites, and the internet, the idea of using the camera as artistic instrument was not a regional phenomenon. The 341 photographs in this exhibit were taken by Germans, Americans, Swiss, Polish, French, Hungarians, Japanese and Russians.
There are the familiar faces of subjects like James Joyce, Paul Citroen, Georgia O’Keefe and Piet Mondrian among the works, as well as the familiar names of photographers like Man Ray, Weegee, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Steiglitz, and Edward Weston.
In addition to the still photos, there are two screens showing films from the same period. While the photos are a fascinating preview of surrealism and cubism, the films are hypnotic and dream-like, transporting the viewer to a time that is gone, save for artifacts like these.
“Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection 1909-1949” is on display through April 19 and is well worth the time of any visual artist looking for inspiration or anyone interested in seeing the birth of modernity.
Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909–1949
December 13, 2014–April 19, 2015
The Edward Steichen Photography Galleries, third floor
Article by Mike Power