POSTED BY Guest Blogger, ON April 14, 2011, Comments Off
The upcoming exhibition Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life will feature over 300 objects created by central and eastern European artists who believed that art’s role was to revolutionize the habits of everyday life. They were influenced by urban culture and mass media, and many created both one-of-a-kind pieces and commercially-produced objects.
While the exhibition is organized by the Department of Photography, it includes a wide variety of media extending outside the photographic realm. In order to compensate for this, we had to devise a system to identify the processes and simplify our media categories to make easier comparisons. Some identification remained the same: gelatin silver prints were left as gelatin silver prints; porcelain was still porcelain. However, identifying the commercial printing processes used for posters, periodicals, and books in the exhibit proved tricky, as I was trained in photographic processes and only had limited knowledge of printmaking techniques, let alone commercial ones.
With a list of objects, I enlisted the aid of Kristi Dahm, Assistant Conservator of Prints & Drawings to light my way through the maze of medium identification. Kristi provided invaluable information, explaining the techniques, terms, and methods used to identify the various types of printing processes used. She also pointed me to a book entitled, How to Identify Prints: A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Inkjet by Bamber Gascoigne, an outstanding visual guide I used liberally during the identification process.
With Kristi’s instruction and Bamber Gascoigne’s text, we decided on identification terms to identify all the commercial processes: letterpress, lithograph, and gravure. Below are the microscopic examples to help you identify the differences and impress your fellow visitors.
Letterpress is a colloquial term for commercial relief printing processes including halftone letterpress and line block processes. To make the print, the printer inks a metal printing block with the letters and images rendered on a raised surface. The metal form is then pressed into the paper, making the excess ink squish to the edges and creating indents in the paper. The effect of the indents is often referred to as planar distortion. Under the microscope, the excess ink around the edges and the planar distortion (circled in the image immediately above) from the printing block provides the clues needed to easily identify the technique.
Every time I walk through American Modern: Abbott, Evans, Bourke-White, I can’t help but stop at the pages on display from Berenice Abbott’s early New York scrapbooks. They jump out because of their size, shape, and black background, but also because they look no different than the photo scrapbooks my grandparents kept. Not knowing much about Berenice Abbott, I wondered what exactly was she trying to accomplish in these commonplace, black pages? Was it similar to how my grandparents used albums to store photos and keepsakes or was she doing something else entirely?
Abbott was born in Ohio, but moved to New York City in 1918 when she was 20, forming an intimate connection with the city she would call home for the latter part of her life. She moved to Paris in 1921 and began working in Man Ray’s studio. It was her first contact with photography and she fell in love with the art form. When she returned to New York in 1929, she found that the city was undergoing massive architectural changes. Older, dilapidated buildings were being torn down to make way for new skyscrapers, each trying to take the title of “tallest.” The Chrysler Building, for example, became the city’s tallest building in 1930…only to be eclipsed the following year by the Empire State Building.
Small format camera in hand, Abbott began furiously and excitedly moving through this newly vertical city, taking photographs along the way. She printed and pasted them on numerous pages. Her fascination is clear as she catalogued everything from skyscrapers to blank store windows. We can bear witness not only to her private enthrallment with New York, but also to the development of Abbott’s trademark style—high-angle shots that emphasized the “canyons” formed between skyscrapers (see image above). She wrote in pencil right on some of the photographs, putting a checkmark on what are presumably her favorites. Interestingly, she didn’t even refer to these photographs as such, preferring to call them “just notes.” So these pages become a unique opportunity to see the photographer’s thought process at work.
While photographers usually work through ideas with proof sheets, Abbott did all her thinking in 1929 and 1930 on the pages of her scrapbooks. As an aspiring art historian (and amateur photographer) I’m captivated by this entirely different approach she took to taking photographs. This outpouring of “notes” certainly rings true with our modern-day tendency to snap picture after picture to fill our digital memory cards, which we then upload and scroll through on-screen and organize into virtual albums. Over seventy years later, her method has become ubiquitous. In that sense, Abbott was way ahead of her time!
—Matt K., Curatorial Intern, Photography Department
6 inches of snow! Winter Weather Advisory! Sounds like December in Chicago…
Now, I’ll believe it when I see it, but the forecast tonight is calling for the first big snowstorm of the year. To “celebrate” the occasion, we thought we’d give you a preview of a few of the images that will go up in the Photography Galleries on December 17th in an installation devoted to snow.
From top to bottom:
Wilson A. Bentley. Snowflake, 1885-1931. Ernest N. Kahn Photography Fund.
Jay Maisel. First Snow, Elizabeth Street, 1984. Gift of Arnold Crane.
Mario Giacomelli. Pretini, 1961/63. Photography Purchase Fund.
Alfred Stieglitz. From the Window of 291, 1915. Alfred Stieglitz Collection.
Quote of the year: “I’m a very promiscuous photographer.”
Artist Martin Parr uttered these words during his conversation with Gregory Harris at the museum last month. Harris curated In the Vernacular, an exhibition featuring photographs that celebrate the everyday, the banal, the commonplace. These “vernacular” photographs elevate subjects like movie theaters, basketball games, and the beach and encourage us to reevaluate our relationship with these seemingly ordinary images.
The exhibition runs through May 31 and in addition to works by Parr, includes photographs from Walker Evans, Andy Warhol, and Lee Friedlander, among others.
If you’re looking for a good place to salute the life of Alex Chilton (singer/songwriter and former front man of Big Star and Box Tops, among other bands), the William Eggleston exhibition at the Art Institute might be an appropriate location. Eggleston knew Chilton for decades and provided the cover photos for several of his albums, including Big Star’s second album Radio City (1974), as well as Chilton’s first solo venture, Like Flies on Sherbert (1979). Both of these album-cover images are in the exhibition.
The untitled image Chilton chose for Like Flies on Sherbert (see above) shows a cluster of dolls on the hood of an aqua-colored Cadillac. In Eggleston’s body of work, the image comes from the series Los Alamos, which includes about 2000 photographs taken on a number of road trips around the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like the image above, the photographs in Los Alamos document the randomness and absurdity that one might encounter on a trip across the American landscape.
After paying tribute at this image, move across Griffin Court to Gallery 188 and look for Eggleston’s sketchbook from 1978. On the left page you’ll see a rectangle with Chilton’s name and below a quick sketch of the image that ended up on the album cover the following year.
Alex Chilton isn’t the only example of Eggleston’s long-standing connection with music. The photographer has long been around the music scene, most evidently in this exhibition in the video Stranded in Canton, which shows a variety of musicians performing in Eggleston’s native south. Throughout the exhibition you can also find photographs that have been used for album covers for bands like Primal Scream, Chuck Prophet, and Spoon. See if you can figure out which ones they are . . . and let us know what you recognize.
William Eggleston. Untitled, 1970. From Los Alamos, 1965-68 and 1972-74, and 10.D.70.V2, 1996. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase, with funds from the Photography Committee, 2009.79. © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy Cheim and Read, New York.