Made in America 1900-1950: Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada explores a dynamic period in the history of photography when the medium was emerging as both an art form and a tool for documenting social change. Presenting 134 works from the National Gallery’s extraordinary collection of American photographs, this exhibition chronicles the evolution of the medium, beginning with Pictorialism and moving through modernism, straight photography and documentary work. On the walls are some truly magnificent, iconic works by the most influential photographers, among them Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage, Edward Steichen’s Nocturne – Orangerie Staircase, Versailles, Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico and Barbara Morgan’s Martha Graham, Letter to the World (Kick).
At the turn of the 20th century, American photographers were fully engaged in the Pictorialist aesthetic, creating pastoral landscapes, foggy street scenes and idealized portraits of women and children. With their soft focus and gentle lighting, the images convey a romantic moodiness. Pictorialist photographers often manipulated their negatives and prints to achieve painterly effects. Gertrude Käsebier’s Serbonne, for instance, is reminiscent of an Impressionist painting.
Around the mid-teens, artists such as Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Walker Evans came to reject the notion of photography imitating painting, and instead sought to take advantage of the medium’s inherent, unique characteristics, especially its ability to achieve sharp definition, even lighting and smooth surfaces. The result was ground-breaking modernist work such as Stieglitz’s Equivalent series, Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Vortograph and Charles Sheeler’s Side of White Barn.
Out on the west coast in the early 1930s, Group f.64 was committed to the ideal of pure, un-manipulated, or “straight” photography. Edward Weston’s nudes and juniper trees, and Imogen Cunningham’s portrait of Frida Kahlo demonstrate the hallmarks of f.64: crisp detail, sharp focus, and often a sensual minimalism.
The first decades of the 20th century also provided rich subject matter for documentary photographers, as social and economic changes dramatically transformed daily life. Lewis Hine’s photographs of immigrants and child labourers tell fascinating stories, as do images of the Depression by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. The Photo League sent its members out into New York’s streets to capture ordinary people on film. Helen Levitt, Jerome Liebling and Sol Libsohn chronicled small dramas unfolding on sidewalks.
Visitors familiar with Ansel Adams’ grand, sublime landscapes might be surprised by his more contemplative series of foaming Pacific waves, titled Surf Sequence. Sharing the gallery space is Minor White’s poetic series Song Without Words, made along the same coast. Both demonstrate an almost cinematic approach to photograph-making and plunge the viewer into seaside reverie.
Meet the Curator
Friday 10 February at 12:15 pm, in English
Friday 17 February at 12:15 pm, in French
Tour of the exhibition with Ann Thomas, curator of the exhibition Made in America. Included with admission to the Gallery.
Sunday 12 February at 2 pm
Ann Thomas, curator of the exhibition explores the influence of American photography from 1900 to 1950 on the work of Canadian photographers. In English with simultaneous translation. In the Lecture Hall. Free admission.
10-minute thematic talks on a theme from the exhibition.
8 January – 1 April
Thursdays at 6 pm
7 Janurary – 1 April
Thursdays at 6:30 pm
Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 pm
Group visits available upon request. Registration and tickets required at 613-998-8888.
Saturday afternoon film series on American Photographers 1900–1950. Free admission. In English unless otherwise indicated. In the Lecture Hall.
Saturday 21 January at 3 pm
Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life. Directed by Meg Partridge, 1995, 46 minutes. An engaging and penetrating look at a life devoted to photography, profiling an artist who recorded some of the most evocative photographic images of the 20th century. Dorothea Lange’s artistic achievements and investigations into the diversity of American life and culture are presented through interviews with her sons and assistants.
Saturday 28 January at 3 pm
Portrait of Imogen. Directed by Meg Partridge, 1988, 30 minutes. The Oscar-nominated documentary was directed by Imogen Cunningham’s granddaughter. Presenting over 250 photographs, the film is a virtual visit with Cunningham as she reveals how she carved out her impressive career while maintaining a household and raising a family.
Saturday 11 February at 3 pm
Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston & Charis Wilson. Directed by Ian McCluskey, 2007, 57 minutes. Charis Wilson was beautiful, smart, and searching. Edward Weston was an emerging genius in the world of photography. When they met, they fell instantly in love. Setting off across the West with camera and typewriter in the depths of the Great Depression, Wilson and Weston transformed photography, and each other. Now age 90, Charis Wilson recounts her years with Weston with humour, candor, and some regret.
Saturday 25 February at 3 pm
Eugène and Berenice – Pioneers of Urban Photography. Directed by Michael House, 2008, 52 minutes. French photographer Eugène Atget meticulously documented turn-of-the-century Paris. Although he is today considered a key figure in the history of photography, Atget’s work might have fallen into obscurity had it not been for Berenice Abbott, who brought his work the recognition it deserved. She later drew inspiration from Atget to capture New York City on film. Abbott, interviewed a year before her death, discusses the connection between her work and Atget’s.
Saturday 3 March at 3 pm
Edward J. Steichen. Directed by Claude Waringo, 1995, 56 minutes. In French. Houston Worldfest Silver Award-winner. Edward J. Steichen was considered by many to be “the greatest portrait photographer of the 20th Century.” He created the Family of Man exhibition, seen by over 9 million visitors and photographed Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and other prominent artists of the modern age. A major cultural force, he introduced Picasso to the New York art world and reinvented fashion and war photography.
Saturday 10 March at 3 pm
Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film. Directed by Ric Burn, 2002, 100 minutes. Few American photographers – indeed, few artists of any kind – have reached a wider audience than Ansel Adams. None has had a more profound impact on how Americans grasp the majesty of their own land, or done more to transform how people think and feel about the significance of the natural world. Ansel Adams was a visionary photographer, a pioneer in photographic technique, and an ardent environmentalist.
Martha Graham, Letter to the World, "Kick", 1940
printed c. 1945
Gelatin silver print, 38.6 x 48.2 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa