Armed with cameras rather than guns, World War II photographers braved bombed-out, bullet-riddled and death-strewn landscapes serving as the eyes for those not in the fields of battle, documenting the scale of loss and destruction. Robert Capa, the most iconic of these photographers, stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day just like the infantrymen, and the few prints that could be made from his damaged negatives – all of them frenetic and disorienting – came to symbolize heroism and victory, but also helped elevate such first-hand reportage, in the words of Lisa Hostetler, to “the benchmark of authenticity.”
Hostetler, the Curator of Photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum, has assembled the exhibit and accompanying catalogue Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940-1959. Focusing on the work of Ted Croner, Louis Faurer, Robert Frank, William Klein, Saul Leiter and Lisette Model, Hostetler considers photography’s impact on Americans as they became their own subjects through a medium that transitioned from journalistic to artistic.
Looked at as a whole, as presented in the catalogue, the mostly black and white images share a fragmented, reflective visual sheen that contrasts people with the manufactured patterns of cityscapes and material commodities. There is activity throughout being generated, resisted and imposed.
Saul Leiter’s photographs, several of them color prints, are filled with these active, material forces, viewed from between two wooden boards or from underneath a canopy, the indifference of the objects minimizes the human figures, and as they exist in that moment they seem aware and resigned. Streaks and decay are superimposed on the people; they are little more than the negative space of the shapes and forms that surround them, surrendering to something unknown, not yet named, but felt.
Hostetler writes of Leiter’s work, “[His] aesthetic philosophy was a firm belief in art as an activity rather than a product – a verb rather than a noun.” It is no surprise that these photographers were friends with painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, both of whom executed work that captured the same tension of activity. The action worked in both directions, emanating from the artists and their physical techniques as well as their subjects.
But unlike abstract painters, these photographers were up against the expectations of photography as a medium that showed how the world really looked. Through these lenses, the subject matter goes beyond objects, echoing the profound immensity of the atomic bomb and concentration camps burrowing into the American psyche.
By virtue of developments in camera technology, these photographers were not only innovators but they also played a role in solidifying photography’s status as high art. In doing so, the viewer’s relationship with photographic images and concepts of reality shifted – reality was now a potential; it was not certainty. The integrity of journalistic photography as some absolute truth crumbled with the realization that these machines and developing and printing processes challenged familiarity, creating a self-conscious awareness of photography’s potential to unlock unknown or denied truths.
During this era, photography’s popularity, and its ubiquitous presence, totally altered visual aesthetics. Examining the medium in the late 1970s, Susan Sontag wrote in the collected essays that comprise On Photography: “Photos, rather than the world have become the standard of the beautiful.” Of course, “beautiful” is highly subjective, but that’s the point, and it was something these photographers understood. The recurring words conjured while paging back and forth in Street Seen: transient, time, momentum, isolation, reflections. These photographers captured moments otherwise ignored, and in doing so captured a more self-aware culture that was also increasingly unsure about itself. Lisette Model’s transformation of commuting legs into bodiless vectors and William Klein’s grainy exploitations of shadow and light detail momentum and transition, converting people to conduits for these forces. This is the great honest beauty found in Street Seen.
Hostetler’s essay laces between the book’s images, extrapolating from them the major postwar themes that help define this multifaceted beauty, while also speaking to the attitudes and approaches of the featured photographers and their contemporaries. She writes: “their work speaks to the collective traumas that pervaded American culture during and immediately after World War II. Each of the photographers explored in his or her own way fundamental issues structuring social experience at the time, and wrested a unique personal vision from the experiences and deprivations of the war and its aftermath.”
More than a collection of captivating photographs, Street Seen establishes the foundation for how viewers learned to consider photography and notions of reality.