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Striking Three

A photo exhibition at the MFAH has some real standouts

The Target Collection of American Photography: A Century in Pictures" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston surveys a hundred years of work by American photographers. In the exhibition, three powerful works by three renowned photographers stand out. They not only give us striking images but glimpses into race, poverty and politics at the beginning of the 20th century.

One of the earliest photos in the show is Kate and Rachel, taken in 1907 by James Van Der Zee. Van Der Zee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, but would go on to open up a portrait studio in Harlem, chronicling the Harlem Renaissance and the emerging black middle class. The then-21-year-old amateur photographer took this early photograph of his wife and young daughter.

It's a romantic image of the wife, a pretty young woman clutching a handful of leafy branches, and their daughter, a little girl in a ruffled dress and pigtails standing next to her. The pair pauses on the bank of a creek by a single plank bridge. The image is a lovely, sentimental, turn-of-the-century scene.

FSA Clients at Home, Hidalgo County, Texas has some "what's wrong with this picture?" details.
The Target Collection of American Photography
FSA Clients at Home, Hidalgo County, Texas has some "what's wrong with this picture?" details.

The wife models an au courant Edwardian hairstyle, parted down the middle and swept back on either side. Her white shirtwaist dress is equally fashionable. At the time, a white dress could be construed as a sign of affluence. Wearing the easily soiled color was a signal that you could afford a maid to care for it.

Van Der Zee grew up middle class in Lenox, Massachusetts. His was one of only a half-dozen or so black families in a town that provided a summer haven for wealthy New Englanders. When Van Der Zee was in the fifth grade, he became one of two people in Lenox who owned a camera. Photography was always a hobby for him, but when he moved to Harlem and tried to make a living as a musician, it became a way to pay the rent. He created lavish portraits in his studio, using backdrops, props and techniques such as double exposures. He retouched photographs to make his subjects look their best.

The images are amazing, but they are important for another reason, too. Van Der Zee created some of his era's few photographs of black people by a black photographer. The dignity and beauty of his works stand in stark contrast to other photographs of African Americans in this era, when even well-meaning white photographers honed in on the impoverished and downtrodden.

Poverty is the central theme of another compelling photograph in the show, one taken by Russell Lee, who famously worked for the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration. He photographed farmers, sharecroppers and migrant workers, illustrating their plight. At first glance, his FSA Clients at Home, Hidalgo County, Texas(1939) looks like a Norman Rockwell cover for The Saturday Evening Post. A middle-aged white couple sit on either side of an expensive-looking wooden cabinet radio. He's reading a magazine in his easy chair; she's doing her mending in her upholstered rocker. But as you get a little closer, you see some "what's wrong with this picture?" details. The man's sock has a gaping hole; the wife's hairnet is torn; her worn, dirty shoes look like they were taken off a dead hobo. But the radio, no doubt purchased in more prosperous times, still gleams. It's a seemingly straightforward photograph that speaks volumes about the sweeping devastation of the Great Depression.

The Depression made many Americans more sympathetic toward socialism, including another photographer in the show, Margaret Bourke-White. The first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union, Bourke-White entered Russia in 1930 when Stalin was in power. His first five-year plan was under way, an agenda that would industrialize the Soviet Union and starve millions through the process of forced farm collectivization.

Bourke-White's striking photograph A Blast Furnace Under Construction in Ural Mountains as Part of the First Five-Year Plan, Magneto-Gorsk, USSR (1931) has a suitably lengthy, Soviet-esque title. It depicts a massive construction project in Magnetogorsk, a city newly made in the remote Ural Mountains for the purpose of mining iron ore and processing steel.

The dynamic angle of Bourke-White's image glorifies the engineering might of the newly industrializing nation. It's an impressive achievement of Stalin's agenda, whose true costs were aggressively hidden from Western eyes. We share in the photographer's awe at this massive industrial complex arising from nothing. At the time the photo was taken, the project was the world's largest and most advanced steel mill.

But with the benefit of hindsight, we see a ghostly afterimage. The plant in Bourke-White's photograph was constructed under horrific conditions by a combination of idealists and forced laborers living in flimsy tents during the region's harsh winters. Stalin paid for his grand plans of industrialization with atrocities, confiscating the agricultural production of the Ukraine's rebellious farmers and selling it. Stalin's act intentionally caused the famine of 1932–33, which killed millions but no doubt helped pay for that blast furnace and many other projects.

Van Der Zee, Lee and Bourke-White explored and photographed the world they lived in. Van Der Zee worked for clients, Lee worked for the FSA and Bourke-White worked as a photojournalist, but their talent and individual points of view shaped the images they created. They not only produced memorable artwork but gave us provocative visual commentary on the times in which they lived.

 
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