Masterworks of American Photography: Popular Culture
Amon Carter Museum
Through July 18, 2010
In a small, square room on the second floor of the Amon Carter Museum lies the only space specifically allotted for photo exhibitions. On the walls of the finite space lies an infinite exploration through American life via Masterworks of American Photography: Popular Culture. Judging from the title of the exhibition, some might expect a display of portraits of movie stars and celebutantes from decades past, but instead viewers are taken (swiftly) through American history, as far back as the 1800s.
The journey starts when photography is a privilege for the wealthy, used for portraits of affluent families and individuals. At the time, photographers’ tools and the lengthy processing techniques made these ambrotypes and silver gelatin prints commodities for the wealthy only. As photography progressed into the 1900s, epic scenes of nature across the country became the focus for many photographers; showing Americans who didn’t have the luxury to travel what the rest of their country looked like.
In the 1900s we start to see photographs used as advertisements–portraits of Annie Oakley to promote her show and landscape portraits of popular vacation spots. Photographing and processing was still a lengthy and difficult process as evident in Eugene Goldbeck’s 1922 photo of a swim suit competition in Galveston. Several of the faces are unrecognizable due to motion blur as subjects had to sit for long periods of time in order to reach the correct exposures.
As the tools and processing become more efficient in the mid to late 1900s, so the photographs become more abundant. Photographers begin to capture scenes of American life, documenting the despair and anguish of Americans during the Depression as in Dorothea Lange’s 1936 portrait of a young migrant worker whose family has been continuously internally displaced. Photographs are also becoming a popular commodity in the political scene. Gene Gordon’s 1963 portrait of JFK shows us that photographers are starting to bend the rules of conventional portraits as the faces of the crowd at his rally are in fact the only faces visible.
This visual walk through history is a brilliantly brief look at photography’s evolution and its implications on how we are able to view history. And, for the pop culture-obsessed, there is in fact one portrait of Marilyn Monroe.