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Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010

‘Street Seen’ at Milwaukee Art Museum

Photos of diverse human landscape from an American past

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World War II ushered in the Atomic Age and the Cold War, but it also had a profound impact on the arts and creative practice. With the advent of portable, 35-millimeter cameras, for the first time photojournalists on battlefields and foreign shores documented the international conflict through a more personal lens. In “Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940-1959” at the Milwaukee Art Museum, curator Lisa Hostetler brings together the work of six photographers who trained their lenses on the urban home front during the nearly two decades that spanned the war and its indelible aftershocks.

“In the ’40s and into the early ’50s, it was not terribly clear that America was going to be a superpower and rule the world ... There were these undertones of anxiety,” Hostetler says. Anxiety and modernity are two undercurrents that run through the urban landscapes as photographed by Louis Faurer, Lisette Model, Robert Frank, Ted Croner, William Klein and Saul Leiter.

The show, which has its roots in Hostetler’s 1996 dissertation on Faurer, is comprised of images from urban life in America. Many of the photographs were taken in New York, though a first edition of Frank’s The Americans gives “Street Seen”national reach. The city, Hostetler posits, is a stand-in for a wider postwar issue, “the urban situation—the individual confronting society at large and trying to find their place in the modern world.”

During her research, Hostetler realized that Lisette Model, an émigré from Vienna by way of Paris, “had a lot more impact and visibility during Word War II than had been previously pointed out in the history of photography.” In Model’s unique position as a European transplant that trained with composer Arnold Schoenberg, Hostetler finds a confluence of European sensibility inscribed on Model’s view of America.

“[Her] first two series combined elements of avant-garde photography from Europe, which would include the New Vision and Surrealism, with her experience of America,” Hostetler says. Model’s Running Legs (1940) harks back to her studies with Schoenberg, she notes: “You can almost hear the atonality of the rush hour when you look at the feet running through the city.”

In “Street Seen,Hostetler finds conceptual connections among the works of avant-garde photographers and their contemporaries, the Abstract Expressionists. “Although their artworks may look formally different, they’re both taking a really unconventional approach to the use of the materials… nontraditional compositions, cropping important parts out intentionally, blurriness, graininess.” This kinship with Abstract Expressionism is most palpable in the work of Saul Leiter, who was trained as a painter and worked in both black-and-white and color. In Leiter’s Canopy (1958), three-quarters of the frame is composed of the interior of a black canopy, obscuring most of the action in front of the camera. Leiter’s unusual composition pushes the photograph from a mere document of men moving through a city street to a painterly image that is as much about the photographer’s point of view, or participation in the act of making an image, as it is about his subjects.

While the photographers of “Street Seen” capture images of figures moving through the urban landscape, some abstracted and cropped into obscurity, as in Model’s Running Legs, they also focus on the individual figure in the faceless masses. The appearance of eccentrics and everyday people on the margins of society, Hostetler says, “was one way of including them in the picture of America that counteract[ed] the tendency toward homogeneity that the burgeoning consumer society was advocating.”

“StreetSeen” offers a welcome counterpoint to the rose-colored, whitewashed nostalgia perpetuated by commercial photography of the postwar era, and paints instead a composite portrait of a diverse human landscape during a tumultuous, uncertain time in American history.

“Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940-1959” opens at the Milwaukee Art Museum Jan. 30 and runs through April 25.