Plugged In: Snapshots in time — learn from the masters

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Now that we’ve concluded our recent digression on the hot coals of the “best” new photo gear, it’s time to return to our overview of prominent photographers.

Although most of these photographers are American, that’s not provincialism on our part. Our list, in fact, was largely suggested by an excellent European overview, “The Photo Book,” published by Phaidon Press in the United Kingdom. Not only was photography a culturally dominant force in the U.S. during much of the 20th century, but a great many European photographers did their best work in the U.S. after fleeing Hitler.

A number of these people led most interesting — in many instances, inspiring — lives and are well worth further reading. Some of the people briefly profiled this week led particularly interesting lives.

  • Dorothea Lange was one of the most widely known and accomplished documentary photographers in the U.S. Working for the Farm Security Administration, Lange and others documented the effects of the Great Depression and the 1930s Dust Bowl upon farm families, with photographers that transcended documentation, and even art, to become cultural icons. Lange’s “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California” is probably her best-known photograph.

  • Jacques-Henri Lartigue, a friend and French contemporary of Ansel Adams, is best known for photographs that exemplify spontaneous motion, whether of racing cars or children playing.
  • Jay Maisel studied at Yale University and became one of the best-known advertising photographers of the second half of the 20th century. Known as a crusty New York character, Maisel, now in his 80s, often produced advertising and magazine cover photos that raised ordinary commercial work to the level of fine art, making an excellent income while doing so.
  • Sally Mann’s fine art photography focused on her growing children, sometimes controversially so. She is considered among the most influential and important photographers.
  • Man Ray was an American who become a famous surrealist photographer and occasional painter in Paris after World War I. His frequent experiments with nontraditional photography helped define the direction of modern photography.
  • Ralph Eugene Meatyard lived what might be called a “normal life” in Lexington, Kentucky, filled with PTA meetings, family outings and a successful professional practice, prior to his untimely death at 46 from congenital heart failure. Despite his short, apparently uneventful life, and his family-based subjects, Meatyard was already internationally recognized, being invited to co-exhibit with such luminaries as Ansel Adams, Minor White, Edward Weston and Harry Callahan, a veritable roster of the most prominent photographers in America. At the same time, Meatyard was a close friend of Thomas Merton, a Catholic priest then one of the world’s most widely read religious writers. Meatyard’s lesson for us, and Sally Mann’s, as well, seems to be that one can lead a normal, undramatic family life yet produce excellent work if one sees deeply enough below the surface of daily life.
  • Joel Meyerowitz is best known for being among the first to use color in serious photography. One of his better-known books is “Cape Light.”
  • Lee Miller, originally a New York model and then the “significant other” of surrealist Man Ray while in Paris, later become one of the few women accredited as a front-line war correspondent in World War II. She is famous for her surrealistically inspired photographs as she accompanied Patton’s Third Army into Germany in 1945.
  • Duane Michals is best known for his humorous work.
  • Rich Misrach is a prominent Western landscape photographer working in color. His work, although sometimes stark, is highly regarded.
  • Lisette Model, originally a German refugee and then an influential photography teacher in New York, consciously rejected “glamour” and celebrated commonplace people and life.
  • Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, one of the early Bauhaus founders, originally trained as a lawyer but later perfected the camera-less photograph known as the “photogram” and wrote an important early book about integrating industry, technology, design and art. He became one of America’s most influential designers after emigrating to Chicago.
  • Nadar, a French portrait photographer of note in the 1860s, pioneered a great deal of photo technology before turning to aviation and other interests.
  • Nicholas Nixon’s images of family situations and personalities raised the notion of unposed documentary portraiture to the level of serious art.
  • Gordon Parks, as one of the first African-American FSA and Life Magazine photographers, documented a wide swath of mid-20th century America, from fashions for Vogue to the street life and culture of African-American Harlem. He later became a well-known Hollywood director.
  • Eliot Porter, a physician, was one of the first landscape photographers to seriously use color.
  • Alexander Rodchenko produced a great deal of documentary photography in the 1920s that continues to feel modern nearly a century later. His work tended to follow Picasso’s Cubism and other modern art trends. Not surprisingly, Rodchenko’s abstract modernist approach resulted in his fall from political favor after Stalin’s seizure of dictatorial power in early post-Revolution Russia. Perhaps Rodchenko’s greatest feat was surviving Stalin’s purges. Both Stalin and Hitler had very conservative ultrarealist tastes in “art” and little tolerance for modernists. Both were, shall we say, unforgiving art critics who destroyed “degenerate” art and those that produced it.
  • Arthur Rothstein was another FSA documentary photographer best known for his photograph of an Oklahoma family taking refugee from a Dust Bowl storm.
  • Ed Ruscha is best known as a practitioner in many different art forms. He’s often considered among the best living artists and has several times been the U.S. representative to major European events. Ruscha’s also highly regarded for his unusual photographs, particularly the massive panorama that shows “Every Building on Sunset Strip.”

Some of America’s, and the world’s, most iconic photographers, such as Edward Weston, Minor White, and Alfred Steiglitz, alas, have last names that outrun both the letter “R” and our space available this week, so they’re for another day. Stay tuned.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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