In honor of Black History Month, below are some photographs of local women who aided in the struggle of Civil Rights, as seen through the lens of Charles “Teenie” Harris. In Teenie’s heyday, these ladies were quite instrumental and inspirational in the fight for racial equality. Their plight was most often displayed in a quiet yet unyielding push in education, social services, employment, charitable aid, medicine, and housing. As wives and mothers, their strength propelled them to build a better world, not only for themselves, but for the generations to come. We thank these pillars of society.
(L): Barbara Kasten, Construct VII-A, Polaroid, 8 x 10 inches, 1981. Courtesy of the artist. (R): Barbara Kasten, SCENE 140, Archival Pigment Print, 43.75 x 53.75 inches, 2012. Courtesy of the artist
Curation can be a kind of storytelling—it is a chance to narrate or reframe an artist’s practice, but it is also a conversation. For the past two years I have been spending time with the artist Barbara Kasten as we work together to mount her first museum survey. The show, opening at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art in February 2015, will bring her most recent large-scale photographs together with her well-known images of studio constructions and architectural interventions, as well as her seldom-seen experiments in other mediums.
I initially became interested in revisiting Kasten’s work about six years ago when there was a renewed excitement around photographic abstraction. As a younger generation of artists began to find inspiration in the works she had produced over thirty years ago, I wanted to learn more about the ideas and processes that had informed her practice and was prompted to invite her to speak at the museum where I was working at the time. Now that I know her better, I increasingly understand her photography within a wider and more complex context. Working in her archive I learned about her forays into fiber and set design, and I became familiar with her own intergenerational explorations, namely a 1990 documentary, produced through a collaboration with art historian Deborah Irmas, High Heels and Ground Glass, which presents interviews with five women photographers working in different areas of photographic practice who at the time were in their seventies and eighties.
(L): Florence Henri, Abstract Composition, gelatin silver print, 7 7/8 x 6 13/16 in., 1929. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; (R): Lucia Moholy, Florence Henri, gelatin silver print, 14 5/8 x 10 15/16 in., 1927. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
As a young artist looking for role models within the European avant-garde, Kasten became intrigued by the photographs of mirrored surfaces and nonrepresentational imagery by Florence Henri, an artist whose work helped usher in the era of the New Vision, in which the camera portrayed the abstraction of modern day life via startling perspectives and refracted viewpoints. Although by the late 1970s the history of modern photography was becoming increasingly codified, she found that there was a lack of substantive information about the women she admired and wanted to learn about their approaches to photography and how being a woman in a male-dominated field had impacted them. Realizing that many of these photographers who had played a role in the heyday of the early 20th century might still be alive and able to tell their stories, she applied to the National Endowment for the Arts with the aim of acquiring funding to videotape them.
(L): Gisèle Freund, Walter Benjamin, Paris, C-print,1938. Courtesy of www.gisele-freund.com; (R): Eiko Yamazawa, What I am doing No, 24, Cibachrome, 1982
Upon learning of her NEA award in 1980, Kasten immediately wrote to Henri to inquire whether she could meet her in person. She explained, “As an artist and instructor of photography, I have felt the need and desire to identify my own roots in the art of photography and also present this to the students I teach. Although women have recently been gaining recognition for the importance of their roles in the history of photography, I would like to facilitate the acknowledgement even further” (from a letter from Barbara Kasten to Florence Henri dated April 8, 1980; Courtesy of Barbara Kasten’s archive). By the time Kasten met with Henri in Paris, she was too ill to be recorded, but the experience was encouraging enough for Kasten to return to the States and begin reaching out to other photographers in an effort to document their stories. Working with Irmas she set out to interview women that represented different areas of the field: from Louise Dahl Wolf‘s iconic fashion spreads in Harper’s Bazaar and Maurine Loomis’s headshots of glamorous Hollywood stars, to Lisette Model‘s fresh images of New York street life, Gisèle Freund‘s portraits of iconic European intellectuals, and Eiko Yamazawa‘s colorful abstractions. In their homes and studios from Los Angeles to Osaka, each artist reflected on her individual philosophy about photography and offered insights into her autobiography and how World War II had brought both opportunity and devastation.
Barbara Kasten, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and Deborah Irmas during the filming of High Heels and Ground Glass. Courtesy of Barbara Kasten
Of course, this was all done in an era before mainstream digital technology and affordable editing software had become available, and so, before Kasten and her collaborators knew it, they had embarked on a project ten years in the making. The final documentary thus provides an invaluable record of the artists and their personalities, and continues to be shown in classrooms to this day. At a moment when intergenerational dialogue is increasingly central to artistic and curatorial activity, and as the history of art is continuously being expanded and rewritten (thankfully), we can now access the numerous hours of unedited footage—acknowledged as an important document in their own right—in the Center for Creative Photography‘s archive, where they await a new generation of artists and scholars to become acquainted with these remarkable women in their own words.
I recently spent a few days in Charleston, South Carolina, researching and revisiting sites photographed by Frances Benjamin Johnston. In the Heinz Architectural Collection there are 25 photographs by Johnston, an early female photojournalist and later in life a documentary photographer. Johnston’s interest in photographing buildings was mainly for preservation purposes. Her goal was to document the buildings should they be torn down, but also to inspire communities to preserve or restore the historic edifices if possible. The photographs in our collection represent houses, storefronts, and architectural details around the historic downtown Charleston area. The set was displayed in 1937 at the Gibbes Art Gallery, now the Gibbes Art Museum, and will be on view in the Heinz Architectural Center in the upcoming exhibition Architecture + Photography.
Johnston donated most of her archive to the Library of Congress. Part of the archive includes the original photographs of the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South, a multi-year endeavor to photograph buildings from Maryland to Louisiana.
During my research trip I revisited the sites in Johnston’s photographs in an attempt to recreate the scene as much as possible. Many of the buildings in our set of 25 photographs are still standing, but a few are empty lots, or are completely unrecognizable. Below are some comparisons between Johnston’s images from 1937 and some from the recent trip.
Much news attention has been given to Snowmageddon and the Polar Vortex, but in 1950, the Great Appalachian Storm dumped over 30 inches of snow during Thanksgiving weekend in Pittsburgh. The city was essentially shut down for days, the Allegheny County coroner warned those over the age of 45 against shoveling snow, and most of the newspapers ceased to print for a day or two. And Teenie Harris (who was used to being everywhere all of the time) was possibly stuck shoveling out as well.
I asked Charles A. Harris, Teenie Harris’s oldest son, what his dad thought of snow:
“I was very young when my father took me aside and talked about people who liked snow because it was so pretty. He really impressed upon me that though it may be pretty to look at from inside, there was always someone trying to go to work; many many accidents are caused by snow for people who don’t have a choice. In addition, there are ambulances that have to travel dangerous streets on their way to the hospital. In a word, he HATED SNOW!”
And it shows—out of over 70,000 negatives that we’ve cataloged so far, there are only around 120 that feature snow. Throughout his career, snow impeded his photojournalistic work…
…but also provided subjects for photographs…
But though he didn’t like the stuff, it’s no surprise that Harris still managed to capture some joyous images of those who did:
In the fall of 2012, I met Polish artist Paulina Olowska. She was visiting to plan her 2013 Carnegie International installation for the Carnegie Café—we talked about the beginnings of the Dada movement at the Cabaret Voltaire and her plans to transform the museum café into a cabaret atmosphere. When Olowska later invited me to work on the performance piece for her project (and exhibit a collection of my puppets), I began thinking about creating a show about the ideals of early Dada artists.
It’s difficult to think about the trauma experienced by European artists living during World War I. What were artists to do at a time when humanity was pushed to the edge, when the reality of war and suffering permeated everyday life? The Cabaret Voltaire was an outlet for artists and intellectuals to express their disgust, their needs, and their aim to redefine art. Today, wars are often managed by drones controlled from locations far from the battlefield. At home we watch football, go to the movies, and get into arguments at the supermarket as wars are being waged halfway around the world. In developing this new puppet show, I thought about the iconic figure Hugo Ball, dressed in a shiny cone-shaped bishop’s outfit. I wondered what Ball, his wife Emmy Hennings, and other Zurich Dadaists of 1916 would think about the world today.
Come see our new puppet show, Flight Out of Time, this Thursday at Culture Club! Flight Out of Time (after Ball’s diaries) recreates the scene of The Cabaret Voltaire. A fantastical ending suggests a prophetic element in Ball’s prose. I developed the show with fellow artist and puppeteer Michael Cuccaro, and it includes an adaptation of Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto as well as a reenactment of Hugo Ball’s sound poetry. You can even make your own puppet for the stage! Hope to see you there.