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A Staggering Revolution

A Cultural History of Thirties Photography

John Raeburn

Publication Year: 2006

During the 1930s, the world of photography was unsettled, exciting, and boisterous. John Raeburn's A Staggering Revolution recreates the energy of the era by surveying photography's rich variety of innovation, exploring the aesthetic and cultural achievements of its leading figures, and mapping the paths their pictures blazed public's imagination. _x000B_While other studies of thirties photography have concentrated on the documentary work of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), no previous book has considered it alongside so many of the decade's other important photographic projects. A Staggering Revolution includes individual chapters on Edward Steichen's celebrity portraiture; Berenice Abbott's Changing New York project; the Photo League's ethnography of Harlem; and Edward Weston's western landscapes, made under the auspices of the first Guggenheim Fellowship awarded to a photographer. It also examines Margaret Bourke_White's industrial and documentary pictures, the collective undertakings by California's Group f.64, and the fashion magazine specialists, as well as the activities of the FSA and the Photo League. _x000B_Raeburn's expansive study explains how the democratic atmosphere of thirties photography nourished innovation and encouraged new heights of artistic achievement. It also produced the circumstances that permitted artful photography to become such a thriving public enterprise during the decade. A Staggering Revolution offers an illuminating analysis of the sociology of photography's art world and its galleries and exhibitions, but also demonstrates the importance of the novel venues created by impresarios and others that proved essential to photography's extraordinary dissemination. These new channels, including camera magazines and annuals, volumes of pictures enhanced by text, and omnibus exhibitions in unconventional spaces, greatly expanded photography's cultural visibility. They also made its enthusiastic audience larger and more heterogeneous than ever before - or since.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

By the mid-1970s photographs made a generation earlier under the aegis of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) became ubiquitous enough to be visible even to someone like me, trained to do an American studies mostly grounded in written documents. ...

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pp. xv-xvi

Research and writing are mostly solitary pleasures but periodically become sociable ones as well for reasons of the spirit as well as practical outcomes. It is a pleasure to thank those who provided aid, advice, support, and comradeship while I was writing this book. ...

A Calendar of Thirties Photography

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pp. xvii-xx

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1. The Rebirth of Photography in the Thirties

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pp. 1-18

Triumphantly concluding his 1940 survey of “photographic art” for the Encyclopedia Britannica, Edward Weston observed that the thirties had witnessed “a perceptible growth of interest in and understanding of photography as an art medium.” His experience encouraged that gratifying assessment. ...

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2. Disestablishing Stieglitz

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pp. 19-29

Before a revitalized art world could coalesce, Alfred Stieglitz’s longstanding authority needed to be diminished. Leading that effort were two young photographers, Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans, and two recent Harvard undergraduates, Julien Levy and Lincoln Kirstein. ...

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3. Group f.64 and the Problem of California Photography

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pp. 30-47

California in the early thirties seemed more remote than later in the century or even by the end of the decade after scheduled airline service bridged the continent and radio networks routinely broadcast live programming between the coasts. One emblem of the distance, physical and psychological, between East and West was the four days and three nights necessary to span it by train. ...

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4. An Eastern Beachhead

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pp. 48-60

Even as other venues were being developed to afford photography opportunities for reaching new audiences, galleries and museums continued to be important to revitalizing its art world for three reasons. First, they provided opportunities to recruit adherents among the professionals who ran them and also from their arts-minded audiences. ...

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5. Edward Steichen and Celebrity Photography

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pp. 61-79

In 1929 Edward Steichen had been the Condé Nast magazines’ chief photographer for six years, but he was increasingly dissatisfied with Vanity Fair’s presentation of his portraits, its most prominent monthly feature. The magazine’s design, he felt, was old-fashioned, stodgy, and incongruous with his style. ...

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6. MoMA's "Big Top" Show

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pp. 80-92

In a 1923 talk Paul Strand lamented photographers’ ignorance of their history. He claimed only the back issues of Camera Work preserved it, and they lay unconsulted in Alfred Stieglitz’s archives. “Photographers have no other access to their tradition, to the experimental work of the past,” he said. ...

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7. Camera Periodicals and the Popular Audience

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pp. 93-113

Sensing in 1933 the rising tide of interest in photography, an energetic young entrepreneur named Thomas J. Maloney composed a piece on its “coming of age” that turned out to be the prospectus for a publication he would launch two years later, the U.S. Camera annual. Photography had become the avatar of Currier and Ives ...

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8. Culture Morphology in Berenice Abbott's New York

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pp. 114-142

Although in the thirties Berenice Abbott occupied a prominent position in photography’s art world, recognition of her Changing New York project subsequently became muted, perhaps because none of her later activities over a long life (she died in 1991) matched its achievement but even more because its visibility was eclipsed ...

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9. Farm Security Administration Photography and the Dilemmas of Art

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pp. 143-166

Photographs by the Historical Section of the Resettlement and Farm Security Administrations are unquestionably the best known of the thirties. Several circumstances coalesced to give them such posthumous prominence. The sheer size and extraordinary scope of the Section’s archive—seventy-seven thousand prints and nearly twice as many negatives, ...

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10. Farm Security Administration Photography in the Aura of Art

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pp. 167-193

When it was established in mid-1935 the Historical Section had the improvisatory air of many New Deal initiatives: get the thing up and running and then figure out what it ought to do. From the welter of responsibilities enumerated in its charter photography soon emerged as the only one it would pursue. ...

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11. The Nation's Newsstands

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pp. 194-218

One of John Vachon’s strongest pictures in a 1938 survey of Omaha depicts a central city newsstand, its scores of magazines in serried ranks, a subject identical to Berenice Abbott’s in Changing New York. Besides wanting to illustrate contemporary preoccupations, both photographers were drawn to the formal potential of orderly repetition within difference ...

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12. The Photo League, Lewis Hine, and the Harlem Document

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pp. 219-245

The Photo League occupied a seedy New York walk-up on East 21st Street, where a cardboard sign directed visitors up a rickety stairway to its loft. So modest was it that the Works Progress Administration’s New York City Guide, otherwise determined to call attention to the city’s cultural sites, failed to mention it while pointing out some inconspicuous neighbors, ...

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13. Seeing California with Edward Weston

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pp. 246-275

Applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship in the autumn of 1936 Edward Weston described his “plan of work” in just two sentences: “I wish to continue an epic series of photographs of the West, begun about 1929; this will include a range from satires on advertising to ranch life, from beach kelp to mountains. ...

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14. Photography at High Tide

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pp. 276-292

Beginning in 1935 a new kind of exhibition made artful photography accessible to unprecedented numbers of viewers. Polyglot extravaganzas composed of many hundreds and in one case thousands of exhibits, they attracted enormous crowds to spaces dissimilar to the galleries and museums where art is ordinarily displayed ...

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Afterword: "The Cultural Establishment of Photography"

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pp. 293-302

Just two weeks after the Pageant closed, Ansel Adams hurried to New York to participate in inaugurating MoMA’s new Department of Photography and, with Beaumont Newhall, put together its first exhibition. Both opened on the last day of 1940. ...

Photographs follow page 302

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pp. 303-360


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pp. 361-370

E-ISBN-13: 9780252092190
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252030840

Page Count: 424
Publication Year: 2006