Glamor faded from mid-century print media

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In a town whose newsstands have turned into glorified chewing gum shops, where the shelves of Grand Central newsstands are overwhelmed by chips and phone chargers, one of my few remaining happy places is Casa Magazines. . It’s a hole in a boutique on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 12th Street, and every wall and inch of floor is filled with obscure international fashion and design publications, for a declining class of print lovers. . (I still remember, when I founded a magazine in 2015, the relief I felt when I saw my first issue stacked on the floor of Casa; so it was real.) Once upon a time, before New York City was engulfed in the smartphone screen, the city had dozens of stores like this. Now, if you care about fashion photography and print design, you probably belong in a museum.

Others nostalgic for the print media should seek out “Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine” at the Jewish Museum. It offers an avid look at the fashion and editorial photography of the last century – with snapshots of Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, for publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Look, Fortune and others.

With only 150 works, including several facsimiles, the exhibition is too small and sober for comfort. In many places, it feels more like a tour of mid-century American graphics and photography than a systematic study. (Among those absent: photographers George Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst, and designer Alvin Lustig.)

I myself derived more satisfaction from the catalog, which reproduces many plates and photos not visible in the museum. Its essays are meatier than the gallery’s presentation, and it includes one on Gordon Parks’ editorial work by art historian Maurice Berger, who died last year in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the Jewish Museum’s focus on New York media from the 1930s to the 1950s provides an escape route to the similarity of our digital lives, at a time when American media could still imagine the to come up.

American magazine photography, like American design more generally, experienced a boom around 1930 from Central Europe. Photographers in Weimar, Germany had turned away from the pictorial, blurry imagery that dominated previous decades and used montage, multiple exposures, wide and narrow lenses, and irregular focus to rethink photography for a new industrial society (although photography did not become part of the Bauhaus program until 1929). At the entrance to this exhibit is an experimental still life by Berlin duo Grete Stern and Ellen Auerbach, better known as Ringl & Pit, who used cut paper and glued fabrics to simulate bottled hair color. .

Over the next decade, Jewish immigrants and other European exiles will bring these innovations to the United States. German refugee Erwin Blumenfeld, one of the foremost fashion photographers of the time, overlaid his models’ bodies with distorted shadows or cranked up the contrast so high that parts of their faces vanished into white voids. Martin Munkacsi of Hungary pulled out the studio’s fashion editorial, including when he photographed a model in a one-piece swimsuit walking on a fuzzy beach: a defining image of 1930s glamor.

Herbert Matter of Switzerland made abstract photographs of white fabric twirling in deep black space, which ended up in advertisements for stockings. Their arrival coincided with advances in photographic reproduction, as well as a bolder, more modern sort of magazine layout – discussed in this exhibition’s catalog but only in partial view in the galleries.

The two great artistic directors of the years around WWII – Alexander Liberman at Vogue and Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar – were both white Russian émigrés, and both had made their debuts behind the camera. Brodovich commissioned photographers who abstracted and stylized the fashions of the day, and in his own work, especially the famous “Ballet” photo book, he blurred and blurred bodies into grainy fantasies.

Liberman began his career with the pioneering French photo magazine Vu, and later brought a disjunctive and highly graphic style to Vogue that was inspired by photomontages of Russian constructivism. Images from 1940s Vogue could overlap or be placed at an angle, and the dresses and shoes appeared in weird, surreal proportions. (These immigrants make “Modern Look” an interesting corollary of “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor,” the interwar graphic exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year. assembly of soviet origin to sell revolution or eyeliner.)

“Modern Look” evokes 1940s Vogue through images of Penn, Blumenfeld, but also Frances McLaughlin-Gill, the first female contract fashion photographer, who photographed models on street corners, in restaurants and on the street. the exterior of the city’s most chic new building: the United Nations Secretariat. There are also reproductions of covers on freestanding panels – including the extraordinary March 1945 issue, photographed by Blumenfeld and produced by Liberman, depicting a model blurred behind two pieces of paperwork, alongside the caption “Do your part to the Red Cross. ”Scary and sad to think that no mainstream fashion title would now publish such a bold cover – and there is more in the catalog, which reproduces Vogue’s presentation of Buchenwald’s photographs in the issue of June 1945, photographed by Lee Miller.

Beyond fashion, the show also includes editorial photographs, engaged with segregation, class and the aftermath of war, by artists like Parks, Margaret-Bourke White and Lisette Model. The same graphic innovations began to appear in trade publications like Fortune and in the booming advertising industry. You would like this exhibition to be more interested in typographical and layout innovations, by designers such as Lustig and Ladislav Sutnar, who accompanied these mid-century photographs on the printed page. But what’s here, especially the crisp, colorful facsimiles of German-born designer Will Burtin’s science magazine Scope covers, will first delight and then depress those of us trapped in marketing’s Instagram-optimized minimalism. contemporary. (How many more rounded letters on a coral and beige background should I take?)

By the mid-1950s, that golden age had started to rust. The TV came on. Advertising revenues have declined; the number of pages too. Editorial has become less experimental, but “Modern Look” has a coda of post-war photographers, like William Klein and Saul Leiter, who have found an autonomous voice in the art world. Klein had contributed as a youngster to Liberman’s Vogue, but the magazine would soon have no room for his raw street photographs – to say nothing of his “Atom Bomb Sky, New York”, a 1955 cityscape. whose slow exposure makes the Manhattan sunset look like Hiroshima.

But today, even the art world no longer offers an escape from the normalizing pressures of the social web, where art, advertising, and your friends’ vacation photos all have the same optimized coloring and same polished surfaces. (It’s so bad that Juergen Teller, one of the few remaining photographers to use unfiltered lighting and irregular flash, was recently denounced by cameraphone junkies as a “bad” photographer.) The Deepest Pangs of “Modern Look” do not come from the glamorous demise of mid-century print media, but from the overwhelming demonstration of how technologies we once thought could unleash creativity ended up enforcing the tightest algorithmic rules. . As for my beloved Casa Magazines on Eighth Avenue, the friends of the store did what was necessary to save the printing press: they set it up with an Instagram account.


Modern look: photography and the American magazine

Until July 11, The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street, Manhattan, 212.423.3200, thejewishmuseum.org. Advance tickets required.



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