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Review of Masterworks of Modern Photography 1900-1940: The Thomas Walther Collection exhibition at the Jeu de Paume (September 14th, 2021 —February 13th, 2022).

Jonathan Dentler

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  • 1 Jonathan Dentler is currently the Terra Foundation for American Art Postdoctoral Research and Teach (...)

1Masterworks of Modern Photography 1900-1940: The Thomas Walther Collection, now on display at the Jeu de Paume, presents a selection of 230 photographs that give a rich sense of prominent avant-garde styles and genres of the period, with special attention to developments associated with the “New Vision” in Germany1. The exhibition was principally curated by the museum’s director Quentin Bajac, as well as by Sarah Meister, former curator of the department of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The large and diverse selection of photographs explores modernist approaches and transnational connections across Germany and France as well as, to a lesser extent, the U.S., Czechoslovakia, and the USSR. The decision, however, to frame the exhibition around a set of “masterworks” selected from a private collection assembled beginning in the late 1970s seems to foreclose a richer and more historically-informed treatment of the medium. While nominally a survey of avant-garde photographic production in the first four decades of the twentieth century, the exhibition design reflects the dynamics of a much later art market for photographs, obscuring the intervening historical processes of war, genocide, and exile that produced the conditions for that market.

2The exhibition is organized along broad thematic lines that address but also cut across the major interwar stylistic trends. These thematic groupings begin with “Here comes the new photographer!” which largely explores the “New vision” approach with photographs of bodies, objects, and vehicles in motion. A following section entitled “Discovering Photography” provides examples of the “renewal” of photography’s “vocabulary and syntax” through avant-garde experimentations with filming and printing techniques. The next section, “Life as an artist,” considers artistic networks in Paris, New York, and Berlin, mostly through photographs of artists’ daily lives and collectives such as the Bauhaus. The exhibition continues on the museum’s second floor, where the next section, “Magic Realisms,” explores the subject matter and techniques broadly associated with surrealism. “Symphony of a great city,” considers how new photographic approaches attended to the rhythm and sensory experience of modern city life. A final section entitled “High fidelity” explores divergent American, Czechoslovak, and German approaches to photographic modernism characterized by “sharp definition, unvarnished realism, maximum detail, and nonetheless, pronounced stylization.”

  • 2 As Abigail Solomon Godeau argues in her review of the show, “the opaque wording of the labels ident (...)

3To properly understand this exhibition, one must appreciate its close relationship to MoMA. In 2001 and again in 2017, MoMA acquired several hundred photographs from Thomas Walther’s very large collection, and produced a show in 2014-15 entitled Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909-1949. At that time Bajac was the Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography at MoMA, after arriving in 2013 from a position as head of the Photography Department at the Centre Pompidou. This link to MoMA clearly shaped and helped enable the current exhibition. The show begins with a nod to the MoMA’s acquisition of the photographs from Thomas Walter—we are informed euphemistically that the photographs “entered” MoMA, but not about which were gifts and which were purchased.2 While the exhibition gathers together a remarkable selection of photographs, by positioning them as “masterworks” it anachronistically frames them first and foremost as works of art, cut off from their deep imbrication of social and historical processes. This move fits into a long tradition at MoMA of constructing frameworks within which any photograph’s aesthetic value may be judged (Phillips 27-63).

4The introductory wall text quotes Aleksandr Rodchenko, who in 1934 asserted that “Photography has all the rights—and all the merits—necessary for us to turn towards it as the art of our time.” But while artists such as Rodchenko made claims to the status of art on behalf of photography, these claims took place in a contested field. As the sociologist Howard Becker argued, art is better defined by the existence of an “art world” characterized by the many kinds of labor that go into the production, recognition, and reproduction of objects deemed to be art, than by a timeless set of aesthetic standards. Audiences, critics, and collectors play an essential role by appreciating art and creating an aesthetic rational according to which these objects make sense and are validated (Becker 4). One might imagine a photography exhibition that took this contested field as its object of study by considering the ways that interwar photographs travelled between “applied” contexts and contexts in which they were legible and legitimated as “art.” Instead, the exhibition simply asserts the self-evidence of these photographs’ status as art by virtue of their admittedly impressive formal qualities.

  • 3 The photo is a listed as “Collection Thomas Walter. Don d’Edward Steichen, par échange,” and was th (...)

5While the exhibition’s didactic texts occasionally mention the connections between art photography and other social fields, the show ultimately obscures the close and complex links between art and other areas of visual culture such as the press, advertising, and science. The exhibition claims to look “back to a time when the medium’s creative potential was being explored with unprecedented fervor, freedom, and imagination,” yet it misses the opportunity to consider how and where much of this innovation was actually taking place, namely, in non-artistic, commercial, or “applied” contexts. Right off the bat, Masterworks begins with an aerial surveillance photo from Edward Steichen’s Photographic Division of the Expeditionary Corps of the US Army Air Service: a distinctly “applied” photograph that only becomes legible as a masterpiece when it is collected, purchased, and then displayed in a museum.3

Figure 1: Willi Ruge. Seconds before Landing from the series I Photograph Myself During a Parachute Jump, 1931.

Figure 1: Willi Ruge. Seconds before Landing from the series I Photograph Myself During a Parachute Jump, 1931.

Gelatin silver print, 20,4 x 14,1 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther.

Digital Image © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

6Immediately following the Steichen photograph is the wonderful series by Willi Ruge taken during a parachute jump in 1931. While the accompanying wall label acknowledges that these were works of photojournalism, it immediately pivots by positioning them as “self-portraits” that “bear striking witness to one man’s coming to grips with the camera.” Given that these were not solitary artistic experiments, but rather carried to a vast public in Germany and abroad via the pages of illustrated magazines, can we really say that these pictures primarily represent one man’s effort to come to grips with the camera and modern transportation technologies, rather than that of a vast international public, and through journalism rather than art?

7The exhibition obliquely references the press without directly addressing its decisive influence on photography. At times this connection comes out in the wall labels next to the photographs, but without any consideration of how the press actually worked as a set of institutions, materials, and practices. In part, the problem inheres in the exhibition’s design.

Figure 2: Chefs-d’oeuvre photographiques du MoMA. La collection Thomas Walther

Figure 2: Chefs-d’oeuvre photographiques du MoMA. La collection Thomas Walther

© Jeu de Paume / Photo François Lauginie.

  • 4 As François Brunet argued, photography’s reproducibility means that it circulates through different (...)

8The prints are well lit and hung at eye level on the walls, as well as on red, yellow, and pale blue panels that seem to have a constructivist sensibility, calling to mind Piet Mondrian’s compositions. While this arrangement maximizes the images’ visibility, it completely divests them of the messy material contexts in which they were produced, circulated, and displayed—from illustrated periodicals to books and beyond—before they were collected as art. The information provided by the accompanying wall labels is inadequate to this task. Even when the wall labels do provide some hint of these stories of circulation, the actual “stuff” of material culture remains outside the frame.4 Another show might consider displaying newspapers, magazines, and books in addition to prints, and exploring in more detail the physical spaces such as newspaper kiosks in which photographs were viewed.

  • 5 Keystone was originally based out of Pennsylvania and focused on stereographic views, but in the 19 (...)

9At certain points, the lack of information about production and circulation takes on troubling implications. For example, one photo from 1937 displayed in the exhibition’s first section and credited to “Agence Keystone View Company, New York” depicts “[Bernd] Rosemeyer Chasing the Record.” [https://www.moma.org/​collection/​works/​217510] Taken frontally from a raised viewpoint, the photograph shows a hint of motion blur as an aerodynamic car rushes forward on a highway toward the camera. Left unexplained is the fact that Keystone’s German operation was expropriated during the “Gleichschaltung” or “coordination” of all aspects of society under the Nazi state two years before the photo was taken (Kerbs et al. 62-69).5 Bernd Rosemeyer, moreover, was a commissioned SS-Hauptsturmführer, whose fame as a racing driver the Nazi Party instrumentalized. This begs the question, how was a photographer working for Keystone—whose offices and equipment in Germany were expropriated in 1935 and turned into the new Weltbild Picture Agency under the Propaganda Ministry—able to take this photo of an SS officer breaking the land speed record on one of the new autobahns? How did that picture then get out of the country, where was it published, and to what effect? Knowing this context helps us see the photograph’s meaning in new ways, lending new significance to its formal construction of movement and arrest, speed and circulation.

  • 6 For more on this, see Jonathan Dentler, The Wired Image: News Agencies, Visual Telecommunications, (...)

10To answer these questions, the exhibition would have had to examine how the aesthetics that are its main consideration relate to the history and politics of fascism, exile, and transnational press enterprises, as well as the more material considerations of how photojournalists and their images travelled across borders during this fraught period. This story cannot be understood simply by looking at the photographic print. It helps to look at the print’s verso where traces of its complicated journeys across borders and through propaganda ministries, news photography agencies, telecommunications infrastructure, and newspapers are often left in the form of stamps and other markings.6

  • 7 Pécsi, whose birth name was Goldberger Sámuel, had political difficulties with the rightwing author (...)
  • 8 So a friend who is a historian of Hungary and Central Europe informs me. Kyle Shybunko, Email Corre (...)

11At other points, the show’s inattention to the varied cultural contexts in which photographic production took place results in missed opportunities that would have enriched the interest of the photographs on display. For instance, a fascinating 1928 picture by the Hungarian photographer József Pécsi entitled Újságreklám overlays the shadow from a seltzer soda siphon on top of a newspaper held in one of the newspaper sticks that are ubiquitous feature of Central European café culture.7 [https://www.moma.org/​collection/​works/​83863] The wall label translates Újságreklám as “Newspaper Propaganda,” but “Newspaper Advertisement” would be a better rendering.8 This makes sense given that Pécsi’s career crossed back and forth between various “applied” and “artistic” contexts, and that he was deeply involved in advertising and publicity. Additionally, the newspaper in the photograph, Az Est, or “The Evening,” was a major Hungarian daily with decidedly popular and vaguely progressive politics, known for innovative advertising campaigns.

  • 9 For excellent considerations of how to go about this task see Jason Hill and Elisa Schaar, “Trainin (...)

12Indeed, in an essay included in MoMA’s catalogue for the 2014 exhibition of Walter photographs, Péter Baki argues that, while “Newspaper Advertisement is considered today to be one of Pécsi’s best art photography works… its provenance lies closer to advertising photography” (8). In 1926, Az Est held a competition in which it solicited letters to the editor explaining what advertisements its readers preferred and why. The competition was so successful that it was expanded to include reader-produced pictures of the newspaper and its ads. The winning pictures won cash rewards and were published in the newspaper—Pécsi’s Newspaper Advertisement won the 1928 competition. One cannot help but regret this missed opportunity to consider more deeply how art and mass media developed in response to one another during the period, and how photographers commented on this process in ways we can only understand with recourse to carefully cultivating knowledge regarding their production.9

Figure 3: Unknown Photographer / Press-Photo G.M.B.H. Untitled (Cover illustration from Here Comes the New Photographer), c. 1928-29.

Figure 3: Unknown Photographer / Press-Photo G.M.B.H. Untitled (Cover illustration from Here Comes the New Photographer), c. 1928-29.

Gelatin silver print, 21,9 x 16,2 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Edward Steichen, by exchange.

Digital Image. © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

13The manner in which the exhibition’s bias toward a concept of the “masterwork” distorts its view of photography history is even clearer in the inclusion of a 1928 photo from the Presse-Photo GmbH agency in the “Symphony of a Great City” section. The picture’s overhead view of a pedestrian in motion is taken as “a manifesto of the New Photographic Vision: learn to look at the world from a new angle!” “Despite its anonymity” we are informed by the wall label that “this image has an important place in the history of photography” because it appeared on the cover of Es kommt der neue Fotograf!, the book published in 1929 in conjunction with the major photo exhibition “Film und Foto.” In fact, the majority of photographs are anonymous, and a photo history oriented only toward those whose makers are documented would be distinctly impoverished. Moreover, while this photo gained in visibility through its recirculation in the context of a publication connected to an important exhibition, any number of photographs produced by news agencies for the press could have been chosen, because such visual strategies were entirely typical. The wall text in the section “Discovering photography” suggests that avant-garde experiments “were also taken up by advertising, industry, and publishing, all highly responsive to the visual language inspired by the avant-garde,” when in fact the lines of influence can also be understood to have gone the other way. Indeed, aesthetic developments might be better understood through consideration of subtle and complex migrations of styles and techniques back and forth between different cultural fields.

  • 10 Presse-Photo GmbH, to pick just one example, was run by German Jews Schiffrin and Feinschreiber, wh (...)
  • 11 Again, see Solomon Godeau, « Le retour du chef-d’œuvre. », Transbordeur: Photographie Histoire Soci (...)

14In the end, the period that lies between the interwar years and the late 1970s, when these prints entered Thomas Walther’s collection, is a constitutive absence that structures the exhibition. Fascism, exile, war, and genocide destroyed the cultural worlds from which these photographs emerged, cutting them off from the contexts in which they were originally produced and displayed and making them available for purchase from image producers displaced in the aftermath. The show gives virtually no consideration, for example, to the fact that so many of the photographers were Jewish and the press institutions Jewish-run, and how this might have affected not only photographic production at the time, but also the constitution of the photographic archive.10 That these pictures appear as autonomous aesthetic statements or “masterworks” says less about their place in interwar culture than it does about the booming art market for photographs in the 1970s and 1980s, and about later patterns of accumulation as they made their way into museum collections.11 We need a photography history that attends to the historical, material, and institutional contexts in which photographs are produced, circulated, and displayed, not one governed by the priorities of collectors and wealthy donors. Indeed, the show might profitably have documented and foregrounded the construction of the collection itself as one such important context.

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Bibliographie

BAKI, Péter. “Hungary Between the Wars: A Photographic Portrait.” Object:Photo. Modern Photographs: the Thomas Walther Collection 1909-1949. Eds. Mitra Abbaspour, Lee Ann Daffner, and Maria Morris Hambourg. An Online Project of The Museum of Modern Art. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2014. www.moma.org/interactives/objectphoto/assets/essays/Baki.pdf. Accessed 20 January 2022.

BECKER, Howard. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

BRUNET, François. “Introduction: No Representation without Circulation.” Circulation. Ed. François Brunet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017, p. 11-32.

DENTLER, Jonathan. The Wired Image: News Agencies, Visual Telecommunications, and the Invention of the World Picture, 1917-1955, (PhD diss., University of Southern California, 2020).

GARAI, Bert. The Man From Keystone: Behind the scenes of a great picture agency, by the man who scooped the world. London: Frederick Muller, 1965.

HILL, Jason, and Elisa SCHAAR. “Training a Sensibility: Notes on American Art and Mass Media.” American Art, vol. 27, no. 2, Summer 2013, p. 2-9.

HILL, Jason. Artist as Reporter: Weegee, Ad Reinhardt, and the PM News Picture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018.

KERBS, Diethart Walter UKA, and Brigitte WALZ-RICHTER, eds. Die Gleichschaltung der Bilder: Zur Geschichte der Pressefotografie, 1930-36. Berlin: Verlag Frolich & Kaufmann GmbH, 1983.

PHILLIPS, Christopher. “The Judgment Seat of Photography.” October, vol. 22 (Autumn, 1982), p. 27-63.

SOLOMON GODEAU, Abigail. « Le retour du chef-d’œuvre. », Transbordeur : Photographie Histoire Société, no. 6, 2022, p. 162-167.

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Notes

1 Jonathan Dentler is currently the Terra Foundation for American Art Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Fellow in Paris, where he is associated with the LARCA and HAR research groups at the Université de Paris and Université Paris Nanterre respectively. He recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 2020. His dissertation, which is entitled “Wired Images: Visual Telecommunications, News Agencies, and the Invention of the World Picture, 1917-1955,” is a global history of wire photography services.

2 As Abigail Solomon Godeau argues in her review of the show, “the opaque wording of the labels identifying the photographs […] intentionally or not, made it difficult to determine how many of the photographs were actually gifted as opposed to purchased” (164). Solomon Godeau was able to find out that those labeled as “Don de Thomas Walter” are gifts whereas those that labeled, “don de Thomas Walter, Acquis grâce au fond de la collection ____ par échange” or “Acquis grâce au fonds ____,” or, “Collection Thomas Walter. Don de ___ par échange” were purchased using funds from donors or funds from works that were deaccessioned in order to purchase the work in question from the Walther Collection.

3 The photo is a listed as “Collection Thomas Walter. Don d’Edward Steichen, par échange,” and was therefore presumably purchased from Thomas Walter with funds from a deaccessioned gift from Edward Steichen.

4 As François Brunet argued, photography’s reproducibility means that it circulates through different contexts of use and reuse, making a purely formal attention to any one photographic image insufficient. This is a crucial point for photo history, which must be about the shifting uses to which photographs are put as they are reproduced and recirculated, rather than a pictorial approach that focuses on photograph’s formal qualities and sees them as self-contained, autonomous, and stable vessels for meaning (22-32).

5 Keystone was originally based out of Pennsylvania and focused on stereographic views, but in the 1910s and 1920s it spun off a news picture agency whose large European operation was run by the Jewish Hungarian émigré Bert Garai. See Bert Garai, The Man From Keystone: Behind the scenes of a great picture agency, by the man who scooped the world, London: Frederick Muller, 1965.

6 For more on this, see Jonathan Dentler, The Wired Image: News Agencies, Visual Telecommunications, and the Invention of the World Picture, 1917-1955, (PhD diss., University of Southern California, 2020). I note that the Rosemeyer photograph’s verso is indeed displayed on MoMA’s website.

7 Pécsi, whose birth name was Goldberger Sámuel, had political difficulties with the rightwing authoritarian regime of Miklós Horthy, which stripped him of a teaching post at the Budapest School of Industrial Drawing in 1920. He worked as editor of the Budapest Industrial Guild of Photographer’s journal and in 1930 published Photo und Publizität (Photography and Publicity). In 1945 a bomb destroyed his negatives and after the war he faced financial hardship and took passport photos to make ends meet.

8 So a friend who is a historian of Hungary and Central Europe informs me. Kyle Shybunko, Email Correspondence, January 23, 2022.

9 For excellent considerations of how to go about this task see Jason Hill and Elisa Schaar, “Training a Sensibility: Notes on American Art and Mass Media,” and Jason Hill, Artist as Reporter: Weegee, Ad Reinhardt, and the PM News Picture, especially pp. ix-xviii.

10 Presse-Photo GmbH, to pick just one example, was run by German Jews Schiffrin and Feinschreiber, who ended up emigrating to Israel and France respectively and who were forced to sell the firm in 1934. The archive of more than one million glass negatives was destroyed during the Battle of Berlin in May 1945 (Kerbs et al. 69).

11 Again, see Solomon Godeau, « Le retour du chef-d’œuvre. », Transbordeur: Photographie Histoire Société, no. 6, 2022, p. 162-167.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Willi Ruge. Seconds before Landing from the series I Photograph Myself During a Parachute Jump, 1931.
Légende Gelatin silver print, 20,4 x 14,1 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther.
Crédits Digital Image © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/18345/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 286k
Titre Figure 2: Chefs-d’oeuvre photographiques du MoMA. La collection Thomas Walther
Crédits © Jeu de Paume / Photo François Lauginie.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/18345/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 252k
Titre Figure 3: Unknown Photographer / Press-Photo G.M.B.H. Untitled (Cover illustration from Here Comes the New Photographer), c. 1928-29.
Légende Gelatin silver print, 21,9 x 16,2 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Edward Steichen, by exchange.
Crédits Digital Image. © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/18345/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 369k
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Référence électronique

Jonathan Dentler, « Review of Masterworks of Modern Photography 1900-1940: The Thomas Walther Collection exhibition at the Jeu de Paume (September 14th, 2021 —February 13th, 2022). »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/18345 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.18345

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Jonathan Dentler

Terra Foundation for American ArtUniversité de Paris, Université Paris Nanterre

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Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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