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Visual Arts, Photography

Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, portraitists, George Eastman, American photography

Photography is probably the most democratic modern art form because it can be, and is, practiced by most Americans. Since 1888, when George Eastman developed the Kodak camera that allowed anyone to take pictures, photography has struggled to be recognized as a fine art form. In the early part of the 20th century, photographer, editor, and artistic impresario Alfred Stieglitz established 291, a gallery in New York City, with fellow photographer Edward Steichen, to showcase the works of photographers and painters. They also published a magazine called Camera Work to increase awareness about photographic art. In the United States, photographic art had to compete with the widely available commercial photography in news and fashion magazines. By the 1950s the tradition of photojournalism, which presented news stories primarily with photographs, had produced many outstanding works. In 1955 Steichen, who was director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, called attention to this work in an exhibition called The Family of Man.

Throughout the 20th century, most professional photographers earned their living as portraitists or photojournalists, not as artists. One of the most important exceptions was Ansel Adams, who took majestic photographs of the Western American landscape. Adams used his art to stimulate social awareness and to support the conservation cause of the Sierra Club. He helped found the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940, and six years later helped establish the photography department at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco (now the San Francisco Art Institute). He also held annual photography workshops at Yosemite National Park from 1955 to 1981 and wrote a series of influential books on photographic technique.

Adams's elegant landscape photography was only one small stream in a growing current of interest in photography as an art form. Early in the 20th century, teacher-turned-photographer Lewis Hine established a documentary tradition in photography by capturing actual people, places, and events. Hine photographed urban conditions and workers, including child laborers. Along with their artistic value, the photographs often implicitly called for social reform. In the 1930s and 1940s, photographers joined with other depression-era artists supported by the federal government to create a photographic record of rural America. Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein, among others, produced memorable and widely reproduced portraits of rural poverty and American distress during the Great Depression and during the dust storms of the period.

In 1959, after touring the United States for two years, Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank published The Americans, one of the landmarks of documentary photography. His photographs of everyday life in America introduced viewers to a depressing, and often depressed, America that existed in the midst of prosperity and world power.

Photographers continued to search for new photographic viewpoints. This search was perhaps most disturbingly embodied in the work of Diane Arbus. Her photos of mental patients and her surreal depictions of Americans altered the viewer’s relationship to the photograph. Arbus emphasized artistic alienation and forced viewers to stare at images that often made them uncomfortable, thus changing the meaning of the ordinary reality that photographs are meant to capture.

American photography continues to flourish. The many variants of art photography and socially conscious documentary photography are widely available in galleries, books, and magazines.

A host of other visual arts thrive, although they are far less connected to traditional fine arts than photography. Decorative arts include, but are not limited to, art glass, furniture, jewelry, pottery, metalwork, and quilts. Often exhibited in craft galleries and studios, these decorative arts rely on ideals of beauty in shape and color as well as an appreciation of well-executed crafts. Some of these forms are also developed commercially. The decorative arts provide a wide range of opportunity for creative expression and have become a means for Americans to actively participate in art and to purchase art for their homes that is more affordable than works produced by many contemporary fine artists.

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