Through a compilation of some of its most important artists, this exhibition depicts nearly a century of the history of American photography from its beginnings in the 1860s until the Eighties of the twentieth century. The common theme in this exhibition is the photographic expression of the American experience, photography as an expression of the hopes and failures of the "American dream" and the various revisions of it that have been lacking over the years to keep that tradition alive.
The history of photographic art in the United States begins in the 1860s and 1870s. It was the time when some enterprising photographers joined official expeditions recognising the newly unified land after the Civil War. Although the mission of photographers like Timothy O'Sullivan, William Henry Jackson and Joseph Hillers was essentially documental, their photographs reflect a preoccupation with the image itself which would create a new aesthetic appreciation of the landscape. The impressive canyons and rock formations, giant forests, railway lines and travellers, settlers and adventurers were the first protagonists in this budding and still very precarious photographic industry.
The rapid population growth of 1890 led to the emergence of a social consciousness and with it the genre of portraiture. During this period, the photographic technique was simplified considerably and as a consequence, competitions, photography clubs and specialised magazines emerged. In the following decades many groups were able to popularise photography. While Alfred Stieglitz managed magazines American Amateur Photographer and Camera Work where he introduced the work of the young Paul Strand; Clarence White establishes with others Photo-Secession. Conversely, Ansel Adams heads the Group f64 on the West Coast, successor of Edward Weston in the tradition of Californian landscape, and a group of photographers in New York with social concerns launch Photo League.
After the financial crisis of 29, photography delves into the national conscious. During this period Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange stand out in documentary photography, a trend that prefers neutrality in comparison to emotion and persuasion of others like Eugene Smith, one of the renowned photographers of Life magazine. Big names like Weegee, Robert Frank and Aaron Siskind were the protagonists for a few years that would eventually give way to individualism which grew in popularity during the Sixties. The Vietnam War and the disrepute of the Government made some photographers like Jerome Liebling address issues that he considered urgent, noting demonstrations, prisons and situations of exploitation, while others like Diane Arbus, preferred to record the absurd of American society through night clubs, nudist colonies and miscellaneous events.
The Seventies was a time to consolidate the market for photography in the United States. Galleries appear, exhibitions take place and collectionism grows, coinciding with the addition of colour to the photographic vocabulary thanks to the work of artists such as William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, Richard Misrach and Joel Sterfeld.
And finally, a turn towards technical sensuality and expressionism of the medium format and flash is witnessed in the work of Larry Fink, Tod Papageorge, Tina Berney and Nan Goldin, the exhibition begins precisely here and moves in reverse chronological order.
This exhibition at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía presents photography as a means of self-expression, both of personal convictions as well as the social concerns of each era in American history, always geared towards recovery and redefining their own past.
Reina Sofia Museum's Publications
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