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Review: Photography exhibit at SLAM holds its weight

Paul Strand; Village, Gaspé, 1936; Saint Louis Art Museum 73:1978; © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive.
Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - The new special prints and photography exhibit space in St. Louis Art Museum’s Cass Gilbert building has already proved a great boon for the museum. It was truly sad to see the galleries’ inaugural exhibit, Mantegna to Man Ray, come down. But our farewell to curator Elizabeth Wyckoff’s assemblage of cross hatching splendor is followed by yet another spectacular exhibit.

The Weight of Things: Photographs by Paul Strand and Emmet Gowin provides another delightful display of rare and exceptional work available to our eyes for only a brief period.

Paul Strand was celebrated by the great master of seeing Alfred Stieglitz. He was a student of the prescient social documentary photographer Lewis Hine. His career spans the move away from 19th-century photographic pictorialism to sharply defined and purposefully abstracted modernist photography. Strand used his camera as a tool for sharing his own poetic perspective of the world and as an advocate for social reform.

Some of Strand’s photographs will be recognized as iconic images that capture an era or a place. A great many of the works within this exhibit came out of SLAM’s permanent collection. Strand’s photographs, taken over decades, reveal the way in which varied photographic processes render expansive expressive scope.

For example, Strand attains great tonal range by using platinum prints. Platinum prints are completely non-reflective, providing warm blacks, reddish browns and delicately varied grays that look very different from the glossy, or even matte, photographic prints we typically see. The effect is spellbinding.

Where Strand shows himself as deeply sympathetic to the painful conditions in which he finds humanity, Gowin seems perplexed by the disjointed connections between idiosyncratic (as all of us are) people. An image of a single person, when seen through Gowin’s lens, appears unsettled in one or several ways. Gowin’s images of two or more individuals confounds the bewilderment. He appears to take as his directive: Show what is so honest as to be disconcerting. The resulting images have an entrancingly spectral quality.

Throughout their careers these remarkable photographers both turned their cameras toward their marital partners. Strand’s platinum print of his wife, Rebecca, taken in 1920, two years before their marriage, is haunting. Gowin, too, is enthralled by his wife, Edith, making weirdly wonderful images of her over a period of several decades.

Eric Lutz and his curating team make a marvelous pairing with these two masters of photography. Together, Strand and Gowin’s combined work lays out a history of the 20th century. The history is political and personal. It is also a strong history of a century of photography.