New Mexico Connections: Hondius and Cowles

Cowles-Dasburg-Hondius-ArtistsFrom top: Cowles, Dasburg and Hondius 

You’d be surprised at how often we find New Mexico links in the biographies of our historic artists, even if they never lived here. The latest paintings to appear on our walls are good examples. Gerrit Hondius and Russell Cowles were celebrated modern artists in New York: both exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the World’s Fair, and their works are now part of the permanent collections of numerous major museums. Their mutual friend Andrew Dasburg, whose career also took off in New York, would move to Santa Fe in 1921 and help usher in the region’s modernist period.

It goes to show that New Mexico was a major player in the American modernist movement, far beyond Georgia O’Keeffe’s significant contributions. Read on to learn more about these influential artists and their ties to the Land of Enchantment…

Russell Cowles- Untitled Modernist Landscape- Matthews Gallery Blog

Russell Cowles, Untitled (Modernist Landscape), Oil on Panel

“When an artist sees something he wants to paint, his first step should be to look- to look long and sensitively- to feel what nature has to say,” said Russell Cowles (1887-1979). Wherever the modernist set up his easel—from New Mexico to East Asia—he followed this philosophy with the passion of an artist and the intellectual focus of a scholar.

The Iowa-born artist graduated from Dartmouth College in 1909. He studied painting in Paris and Rome, drawing inspiration from the artwork of Cezanne and Gauguin. Cowles returned to the United States in 1920, exhibiting his artwork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art soon after. In 1925, he received a medal from the Art Institute of Chicago. These honors marked the beginning of a long and illustrious career that took Cowles as far as China to study with a master of Chinese painting, and Bali to experiment with abstract painting.

Cowles began living in Santa Fe for part of each year in 1930, and befriended John Marin, Andrew Dasburg, Marsden Hartley and other New Mexico modernists. He received a prize at the World’s Fair in New York City in 1937, and his artwork appeared in LIFE Magazine in 1948. He died in New York City in 1979.

Gerrit Hondius- Untitled Modernist Landscape- Matthews Gallery Blog

Gerrit Hondius, Untitled (Modernist Landscape), Oil on Panel

Gerrit Hondius (1891-1970) was born in the Netherlands and studied painting at the Royal Academy in The Hague. It was there that he developed a passion for Georges Rouault and the French expressionists, but he found a true match for his style and creative energy in New York City.

Hondius moved to New York in 1915, and studied at the Art Students League with Max Weber and Andrew Dasburg. He first caught the eye of the art world with a massive WPA mural in brilliant Fauvist and expressionist hues. In the mural, colorful city people tangled with masked figures, clowns and ballerinas, inviting Old World allegorical figures to frolic in the capital of New World modernity.

In the following years, Hondius split his time between New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts, and exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the World’s Fair, the Museum of Modern Art, Rockefeller Center and over fifty other venues across the United States and Europe. His artwork is in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum and other institutions across the world. His wife Paula donated his sketchbooks, letters and other personal effects to the Smithsonian Institution after his death.

Check out our website to learn more about Gerrit Hondius and Russell Cowles, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr for daily gallery news.

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OUTSIDER/INSIDER: Abstract Expressionism at Matthews Gallery

Stanley Boxer and Robert Motherwell at Matthews Gallery Boxer (left) and Motherwell

It was Mark Rothko’s 111th birthday this Friday, and the occasion has us pondering one of the 20th century’s most polarizing art movements: abstract expressionism.

Three artworks by renowned abstract expressionists have recently landed on our walls. The first two are heavily impastoed oil paintings by Stanley Boxer, who resolutely clung to the far fringes of the movement. Determined to defy labels, he was furious when art critic Clement Greenberg called him a color field painter, and yet the arc of his creative explorations closely paralleled that of his abstract expressionist contemporaries:

In the manufacture of my art, I use anything and everything which gets the job done without any sentiment or sanctity as to medium. Then, too, I have deliberately made a practice of being “visionless”… this is, I go where my preceding art takes me, and never try to redirect the future as to what my art should look like. This is a general credo and foundation for everything I have ever done and stands firm in its solidity as this is written.

Boxer, who died in 2000, would have loved Grace Glueck’s New York Times review of a 2004 exhibition of his late works. She notes that he was “never part of a movement or trend,” but rather driven by paint’s “physical possibilities without script or program.”

Abstract Paintings by Stanley Boxer- Matthews Gallery Blog Atriumofashreddednight  (top) and Crisppitchofsigh, Oil on Linen

Glueck ends the piece with a brief analysis of Boxer’s titles, lyrical lists of words that are jammed together in unbroken strings. The works in our collection, for example, have names that read like fragments of beat poems: Atriumofashreddednight and Crisppitchofsigh. Glueck writes, “As Boxer joked in his titles, these canvases, more than most, do not really lend themselves to verbal exposition. They live for the eye, to which they bring deep satisfaction.”

Boxer’s titles provide a link to Robert Motherwell, the other abstract expressionist represented in our collection. Unlike many “abex” artists who labeled their canvases using dates or arbitrary numbers, Boxer and Motherwell were unapologetic in their wordplay.

That’s where the similarity ends. While Boxer considered himself an isolated frontiersman of abstract painting, Motherwell was an eager icon of abstract expressionism. He coined the term ‘New York School’ to describe his revolutionary circle, which included Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and acted as a spokesperson for the movement in the world of academia.

If Boxer’s titles were little more than impressionistic quips, Motherwell, who was a scholar before he became a “serious artist” and wrote numerous essays on aesthetics, chose names that have inspired endless analysis. His most famous series of paintings, Elegies to the Spanish Republic, chronicles the Spanish Civil War in bold strokes of black and white and subtle passages of ochre, blue, green and red.

Mainly, I use each color as simply symbolic: ochre for the earth, green for the grass, blue for the sky and sea,” Motherwell wrote. “I guess that black and white, which I use most often, tend to be protagonists.” In varying contexts, each color holds a universe of meanings. To fully understand the use of ochre in Motherwell’s Spanish Elegies, “You would have to know that a Spanish bull ring is made of sand of an ochre color,” the artist wrote.  Other works that feature ochre, like Western Air or Personage, with Yellow Ochre and White, would naturally spark different associations. 

Robert Motherwell- Africa 4- Silkscreen- Matthews Gallery Blog Robert Motherwell, Africa 4, Silkscreen

What to make of our Motherwell silkscreen, titled Africa 4? Motherwell completed the Africa suite in 1970, the same year he created his Basque and London suites. They were his first projects entirely devoted to silkscreens, and a divergence from the heavily layered nuances of his oil paintings. Here his black abstract forms stand crisply against their off-white backgrounds, although on closer inspection, their tumultuous edges still seem to weave in an out of focus.

“All my works [consist] of a dialectic between the conscious (straight lines, designed shapes, weighed color, abstract language) and the unconscious (soft lines, obscured shapes, automatism) resolved into a synthesis,” the artist wrote in 1944.

Motherwell first explored the concepts of automatism and the subconscious with a group of Parisian Surrealists, including Duchamp, Ernst and Masson, who had fled Europe during World War II.  Their ideas would help shape the spiritual side of abstract expressionism, a spontaneous, intuitive element that Motherwell carefully balanced with his more intellectual inclinations.

Motherwell’s connection to the Surrealists lends us a potential clue to the significance of the ‘Africa’ title. In his 1946 essay ‘Beyond the Aesthetics‘, Motherwell discusses the life of French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, who helped inspire Surrealism. In the final decades of his life Rimbaud quit writing and set off on an African expedition, a leap of faith that Motherwell compares to the Surrealists’ break from Dada and formation of a new movement:

Like Rimbaud before them, the Surrealists abandoned the aesthetic altogether; it takes a certain courage to leave poetry for Africa (as Rimbaud did, fh). They revealed their insight as essentially moral in never forgetting for a moment that most living is a process of conforming to an established order which is inhuman in its drives and consequences. Their hatred sustained them through all the humiliating situations in which the modern artist find himself, and led them to conceptions beyond the reach of more passive souls. For them true ‘poetry’ was freedom from mechanical social responses. No wonder they loved the work of children and the insane – if not the creatures themselves.

Perhaps Motherwell’s Africa suite represents a similar journey, a leap into the unknown that is a clear break from previous adventures. Just as Rimbaud abandoned an intellectual pursuit for one centered on travel and action, and as the Surrealists broke from the societal battles of the Dadaists to explore dreamscapes, so Motherwell’s stark Africa forms landed him in a new realm of image-making. Perhaps he sought to prove that even the most distinctly divided blacks and whites could possess endless shades of grey.

Learn more about Stanley Boxer and Robert Motherwell on our website, and make sure to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr for more gallery news.

Hannah Holliday Stewart: The Messengers

Hannah-Stewart-Blog1

Candid shots of the secretive artist with her sculpture “Survivor“, Hannah Holliday Stewart archives

At last Friday’s opening for Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered, art enthusiasts who saw the press coverage for the show came armed with a diverse array of questions.

“What was her family like?”

“Where did the full-scale models in those photos end up?”

“What’s ‘Ockum’s Razor‘ ?”

“Who’s Brad?”

Of course, the most frequent question was also Stewart’s most impenetrable mystery: why did the sculptor abruptly leave Houston, the launching point and epicenter of her nationally renowned artistic career? In our explorations of Stewart’s archives over the past few weeks, we’ve stirred up as many questions as answers.

Stewart was resolutely private, preferring to tightly focus on her artwork in interviews, exhibition materials and even her diaries. A catalog for her 1975-6 solo exhibition at the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum provides little more information on Stewart’s personal life than a birth year and a brief sketch of her educational history.

“Hannah was a very private person with a lot going on in her head,” close friend Dayton Smith told us. “I learned when to be around her and when not.”

Many of Stewart’s works, on the other hand, were always in the public eye. Kids lounged in the crook of her 11-foot sculpture in Hermann Park, students at St. Thomas University studied under her concrete-and-steel work on campus, and politicians were often photographed beside her “Libertad” fountain as they passed through the courtyard of Houston’s World Trade Center building.

For this week’s blog, we’re taking cues from Stewart’s ghost and focusing on the rich universe of her sculptures. Look below for new insight on five artworks, with behind-the-scenes materials from the artist’s files.

Hannah Stewart- Atropos Key Sculpture with Preparatory Sketch and Full-Scale Model- Matthews Gallery Blog

 

 Preparatory sketch for ‘Atropos Key’ and full-scale plaster model in Stewart’s studio

Atropos Key’ remains Hannah Holliday Stewart’s most well-known sculpture in Houston. Our maquette’s monumental counterpart stands on a hill in Hermann Park, measuring at 11 feet tall and 1,200 pounds. It debuted to much fanfare in 1972. From the Houston Chronicle’s August 11, 1972 edition:

“Out on the hill beyond Miller Theatre the blanket lollers who tune in to night concerts and shows from a horizontal position will have fresh ‘company.’ Overlooking the stage, now, is a bronze vertical figure.

‘Atropos Key,’ the title of which derived from one of the three fates in Greek mythology, was given to the city by Mrs. Patricia S. Woodward of Houston.

Strollers in the park may well stare at it and wonder what it all means…. Miss Stewart’s piece, in its new location, deserves the looking at, the ‘experiencing’ and the consideration of its meaning for you. Is it birth and, more encompassing than that, renewal?”

Hannah Stewart- Messenger Sculpture with Preparatory Sketch- Matthews Gallery BlogPreparatory sketch for ‘Messenger’ dated August 1973

Stewart’s ‘Messenger’ appeared on the cover of Houston Arts Magazine’s performing arts edition in October, 1982. Stewart was a fan of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and often listened to classical music in her studio.

A blurb inside the magazine traces the musical roots of ‘Messenger’:

“Sculptor Hannah Stewart… sees her work as an artist’s shorthand using symbols to communicate complex and abstract ideas— like a composer uses the symbols of musical notes to convey a spiritual idea in a sensuous form.

In Messenger… Stewart sees a parallel between the structure-strength-shapes interplay of her work and compositions played by Nathan Milstein and Bella Davidovich.”

Hannah Holliday Stewart- Ockum's Razor Sculpture with Original Typewritten Label- Matthews Gallery BlogOriginal typewritten label for ‘Ockum’s Razor’

Stewart was known for her mythology-inspired artwork, but that was far from the only subject she explored.

“Her studies in literature, mythology, metaphysics, esoteric philosophy, religion, science, astrology, dance and yoga suffuse her output, revealing in form and textures,” wrote Stewart’s friend Dayton Smith in a letter to the gallery.

In ‘Ockum’s Razor’, Stewart turned to science for inspiration. The title refers to a problem-solving principle devised by 14th century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347). The principle states that “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” In other words, the simplest path to an answer is the best one.

Hannah Holliday Stewart- Maquette and Full-Scale Survivor Sculptures- Matthews Gallery blog

 

 Maquette and full-scale versions of ‘Survivor’

An article about Stewart’s work appeared in the local paper of her childhood home of Birmingham in 1994. In the story, Stewart explains the inspiration for ‘Survivor‘. From the August 1, 1994 edition of the Birmingham Post-Herald:

“I was teaching welding at the university, and I’d go to the welding studio and talk to friends of mine, and there were a lot of men coming down from Detroit who’d lost their jobs, and they were so tense and angry about having to reform themselves, to learn to do welding or something else at the age of 55, after having been an auto worker. I reacted to that force within them, and the drastic changes people have to make to survive.”

 Hannah Holliday Stewart- Einsteins Song and Polaroid of Hannah Holliday Stewart working on the sculpture in her studio- Matthews Gallery blog

Polaroid of Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Albuquerque studio working on ‘Einstein’s Song’

Stewart was 80 years old in the Polaroid above and still hard at work on her bronze forms, though she never exhibited again in her lifetime.

Here’s an excerpt from a typewritten artist statement Stewart wrote a year later:

“For me, the image should be an intellectual and emotional symbol plucked from the fringe of the imagination, it should suggest a classic truth and not be confused with social comment. The image at its most successful strikes a common chord of sensations in every viewer, and yet leaves each viewer with his/her own particular interpretation.”

See Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered through July 18, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more information on the artist.

Hannah Holliday Stewart: Letter from Houston

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston Studio- Matthews Gallery

Our exhibition Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered
begins with an opening reception on Friday, July 4 from 5-7 pm

“In a day in which so many things in Art are merely exercises in Media and devoid of any real significance, it is refreshing to discover an expression which transcends the cerebral prison of its own time and manifests itself in forms poetically germane to a more cosmic significance,” wrote Dayton Smith, with poetic flair of his own, in a typewritten statement dated March 22, 1991.

Smith was referring to the sculptures of his close friend Hannah Holliday Stewart (1924- 2010), whose monumental forms caught the eye of the nation in the 1970s and 80s. As chronicled in our last blog post, Smith and Stewart met in Houston in the late 1960s as Stewart’s career was taking off. He assisted Stewart in various ways for a number of years, and watched as the artist found success in galleries and museums across the country.

More from the note:

Her art mirrors a consciousness expanded beyond the pragmatic doctrinal limits of our milieu. Her commissions stand to prick our higher sensibilities in a world which, it would seem, affords little for the pursuit of what may be a neglected cosmic heritage. In an age in which “symmetry does not balance make” (but which, nevertheless seems to be the applied solution for everything), her bold compositions embody a superbly balanced abstract expression of form and function suggestive of the anthropomorphic with its attendant graces and imperfections.

More than two decades later, Smith admits with a chuckle that the write-up can be a bit “over the top”, but it survives as an illuminating statement about an artist whose cosmic creations were at times misunderstood. After we contacted him, Smith was inspired to return to the typewriter—or, keyboard—and draft another statement on Stewart’s work. His musings provide new insight into the life and artwork of the dynamic sculptor.

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston studio- Matthews Gallery

From Dayton Smith:

Hannah Remembered

It can be said with clarity and confidence that the monumental sculptural work of Hannah Holliday Stewart is cosmic in scope and spiritual in dimension and process. At the peak of her production in the 1970s and ’80s, there emerged from her studio great plaster forms, many well over ten feet in height. These graceful mammoths, cast in bronze, would weigh hundreds to thousands of pounds, and command public spaces in Houston and other cities. A major exhibition of these large plasters was mounted in January 1976 at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and another in the ’80s at One Houston Center. In the 1990s, she established studios in Flagstaff, Arizona, and later in Birmingham, Alabama, and finally in Albuquerque.

Born in 1924 in Marion, Alabama to a prominent family, she studied art in Alabama and Georgia (BFA), and at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan (MFA); studied ceramics in California with the legendary Bauhaus potter Marguerite Wildenhain; worked in foundries in Florida and Mexico; moved to Texas to teach at Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the University of Houston, and the University of St. Thomas. Her notable public works include Atropos Key, installed in 1972 on the hill at Houston’s Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park; Libertad, a smoothly elegant birdlike bronze at World Trade Center Houston; works in Samuels Park in Dallas and New Harmony in Indiana; and Passage, at University of St. Thomas Houston. Her public commissions are claimed as example of landmark achievement by women in the arts. Respected among Houston architects and adept in various media she developed sand-blasted and sand-cast relief panels for specific architectural settings. Her works of smaller scale are to be found in notable private collections.

Her studies in literature, mythology, metaphysics, esoteric philosophy, religion, science, astrology, dance and yoga suffuse her output, revealing in form and textures. Her earlier smaller works reflect ineffable humanity, humor, elegant charm and always superb craftsmanship. She was disciplined, intelligent and well-read, possessed of an intense work ethic, compassionate and understanding and encouraging of others, and an inspiring teacher, respected and loved by friends in business, academia and the arts. Whether attired in her usual studio denim or occasional Dior, she moved among interesting people and was an accomplished host and gourmet. Music was her creative keynote and the atmosphere mystical, always stimulating and, on occasion, convivial. On so many occasions when I would assist her in some project: photographing, gallery installation and lighting, foundry, studio, even building repair, I was aware that I was only facilitating much greater work. I think she really did come to ‘see’ the wind, and must have stood in awe of that which materialized from her consciousness and hands. I can still hear her warm southern voice and motto – Nil desperandum!, and her memory, towering as her work, is quite, quite treasured.

D.A. Smith
Public Broadcasting, University of Houston, retired

Make sure to attend the opening reception of our exhibition Hannah Holliday Stewart: An Artistic Legacy Rediscovered on Friday, July 4 from 5-7 pm. To learn more, check out our previous blog post and our Hannah Holliday Stewart artist page. For daily gallery news, connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Hannah Holliday Stewart in her Houston studio- Matthews Gallery

SCULPTOR’S PROCESS: Frank makes a fountain

Frank Morbillo- Sculptor- Matthews Gallery

It all started with a sculpture you may recognize if you’ve been to Matthews Gallery in the past few years. Frank Morbillo‘s ‘Complement’ was a fountain that stood outside our building for a time, enchanting Canyon Road tourists with its elegant lines and soothing sounds:

Frank Morbillo- Complement- Matthews Gallery

“It was inspired by the figure, a relationship between people or entities,” says Frank. “The two sides have a connection in terms of how the line of one complements the line of the other.”

Two gallery visitors who were particularly charmed by the sculpture kept it in mind as they built their new home. Nearing the end of construction, they got in touch with Frank and asked him to create a similar piece for their front entryway. Just like the two pillars of the sculpture, Frank says the commission was all about maintaining a carefully balanced dynamic.

“During the course of the commission, I am constantly sending images that are going back and forth between myself and my client,” the artist explains. “Six times throughout this process or more, we were exchanging information and tweaking and getting approval.”

Below you’ll see images from their correspondence, starting with a cardboard model and ending with the stainless steel fountain in its beautiful new space. Follow Frank on his artistic journey…

Frank Morbillo- Artist Process- Matthews Gallery Blog

 

First, Frank marked up an image of the original sculpture (left). ‘Complement’ was larger than his clients wanted, so he adjusted the scale and used the new measurements to resize some cardboard cutouts from the original project (center). The new, smaller cardboard pieces came together to create a full-scale model of the new piece (right).

“When I’m building it in the studio, it’s important to have the model at the level that it’s going to be viewed. In the clients’ home, it’s going to be up a few steps from the ground level. I elevated it to make sure the proportions were working. I want there to be a good interaction of elements.”

“Different materials make the water flow differently. A rough material creates some surface tension, while a slick material will let the water run very fast.”

 Frank Morbillo- Sculpture Process- Matthews Gallery blog
Next, Frank manipulated images of the cardboard model in Photoshop to show the flow of the fountain. The blue line you see on the edited photograph is where the water will fall on one side. The white piece of cardboard under the sculpture represents its base, which presented a unique problem.

“From the very beginning, I had to be very careful about water flow because I had a limited landing pad for the water to fall. The basin was much smaller and narrower than in the original sculpture.”

Frank Morbillo- Artist Process- Matthews Gallery Blog

After tweaking the cardboard model, Frank took it apart and traced the pieces on stainless steel (left). He used tack welding to create a rough version of the piece (center and right). Tack welds allowed Frank to alter the form based on his client’s feedback.

 “The dark buttons going up the edge are the tack welds. The tack weld is very strong; a series of four down the side can hold it mostly in place. Once you’re at this step, you want to make sure that everything is right. Afterwards, there are several days worth of work to make the elements seamless.”

Frank Morbillo- Artist Process- Matthews Gallery Blog

 

It took about a week to create the shiny sculpture you see on the left. The two red arrows mark openings for the water. Next Frank worked on the base of the sculpture, installing a pump and carefully feeding the electrical cord through a riser tube that holds it above the water (center and right).

“All of those edges have been welded and sanded. This is my first rough pass on putting the finish on the metal.”

“One of the things you look for is the pump’s capacity to go vertical. I size it at a slightly greater capacity than my need is going to be so that I’m sure the water will reach the top.”

“The water enhances and adds to the whole scheme of the project. By placing the pump on the foam pads, it reduces noise vibration from the pump, allowing the viewer to focus on the sound of the fountain.”

Frank Morbillo- Sculpture Process- Matthews Gallery Blog

 

Frank cut mesh and steel plates to cover the base and prevent splashing. The slots you see around the sides of the sculpture are one of Frank’s latest innovations.

“Because of the size of the basin, I have less latitude with what the water does and how it falls. I knew I had to create a slot around the base of both sculptures so as the water falls it goes into this slot. It worked really well, and I learned something from it. It’s changed how I deal with water capture in a small basin.”

“In every sculpture project, there’s always the opportunity to say, ‘What can I do different in the future?’”

Frank Morbillo- Artist Process- Matthews Gallery Blog

Careful tests of the water flow followed. Frank got the final approval from the client and shipped it.

“There’s a lot of structure in there that you’re not seeing that supports all of the different elements. When all of this is said and done, you don’t see any of that but it’s all happening because of it.”

“I took a good long look at it and liked what I was seeing in terms of how I thought it would look on site.”

And PRESTO!

Frank-Morbillo-SculptureProcessFinal

Frank’s clients sent back images of the piece in its new home, and the sculptor couldn’t be happier.

 “The experience of walking up the steps and around the sculpture must be pretty awesome.”

“It’s interesting, the sculpture is the only thing with curves in the space. Everything else is really hard and geometric. That’s cool that it’s really different than anything else line-wise in the space.”

“When you can have fun going through the process of doing it, for me that’s where my thoughts go when I’m working. There’s a lot of opportunities to have fun.”

“When I saw the contemporary design of the house, I said, ‘Great project.’ I’m really happy that this sculpture became part of it.”

See more of Frank Morbillo’s artwork on the Matthews Gallery website, and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for daily gallery news.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FAMILIAR STRANGERS: Almost Lost

Familiar Strangers Found Photography Show- Matthews Gallery Blog

Editor’s Note: No original photographs were harmed in the making of this blog

The messages were all the same. “Why do found photographs hold allure for you?” we wrote to members of Flickr’s robust vernacular photography community. “What is it about anonymous photographers and their subjects that makes collecting these artworks special or important?” 

As we explained in our last blog post, we’ve been wearing many different hats as we prepare for the May 16 opening of FAMILIAR STRANGERS: Vernacular Photography. Judging by the diverse answers we received from this query, it seems longtime found photography fans follow a similar process.

“At the time they were taken, they meant something to the photographer,” writes Gary Moyer, who runs a Flickr Group called Found Photos. “It’s a shame to think they can’t live on in this digital age.” But although part of Moyer’s mission is to bring this ephemera to the virtual realm, he’s also charmed by the objects themselves. “The photos are real, something to hold in your hand,” he concludes. 

For John Van Noate, administrator of several vernacular photography groups, it’s more about the immediacy of the image. “They provide a slice of life unfiltered, unmediated,” he writes. “Life in the raw, so to speak.”

Dave Bass‘ interest in vernacular photography started with a childhood fascination for taking snapshots. “I still recall the anxiety felt when retrieving a processed roll from the drugstore and opening the package to discover my treasures,” he recalls. Hunting down “orphan” photos seemed like a natural extension of his passion, and over years of collecting he’s learned a lot about human nature from the pictures he’s found.

I truly believe that such photographs are authentic cultural artifacts that portray who we as humans were, who we have become, and where we will likely go,” Bass writes. He uses Flickr group Vernacular Photo to connect with like-minded folks across the world. 

All of these intrepid collectors’ answers did have one thing in common: a sense of loss, and a desire to subvert it. As Moyer puts it, “Each [photograph] represents a moment that is gone forever.” In a way, these collections preserve memories that would otherwise have vanished long ago. 

On that hopeful note, we leave you with an excerpt from Paul Jackson‘s correspondence. The UK resident runs the Flickr group Found Photographs, and has a lot to say about vernacular photos and the power of the online community to uncover their secrets. It’s enough to make you believe that nothing is lost forever. Attend our FAMILIAR STRANGERS exhibition, opening May 16 from 5-7 pm, to untangle more mysteries!

Familiar Strangers Found Photography Show- Matthews Gallery Blog

From Paul Jackson:

I went to art school here in the UK in the 1970s and my interest in vernacular photographs stems from then. In those days you could often buy old postcards and snapshots in charity shops for virtually nothing. Often just arranged in old shoe boxes. You can rarely do that now as these things have become very collectable.

I think it is a shame when dealers break up old photograph albums as all the clues that would help place these images in context get wiped away. You may be interested in some subsidiary groups we run on Flickr. One is called “What’s That Picture” where we invite people to post pre-1945 images that they want help identifying. Sometimes this is a tall order but the Flickr community acts a bit like a hive mind and we have had some astonishing successes. A lot of these can be found in another group “The Astonishing Power of Flickr“. Here many images that have been successfully identified have been posted and some other extraordinary events such as people recognising themselves or other serendipitous events have occurred. 

You ask what the allure is for me. Well, there is something awfully poignant about old snap shots/vernacular photographs. The lives of strangers’ births deaths marriages, love, hearth and home..all life is there and with the knowledge that all that life has probably by now slipped away. These things end up in sales almost always through a death and the death of someone who either has no remaining family, or a family that cannot or will not preserve these fragile family histories. It is a very sobering thought.

I am at a period in my life when I am beginning to realise that even my own family photographs and the ones of my parents and grandparents are going to be vulnerable to be “lost” when I die and it does make you dwell on the ephemeral nature of life, the impermanence of the structures we build around ourselves and how easily it can fade away.

One of my favourite quotes is the famous one in Blade Runner when Roy Batty the replicant is dying:

“I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those. moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time… to die…”

Looking at so many old and found photographs I often think that “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” the person behind the camera has seen these things, lived that life..you know, we can sometimes almost taste it.

 

Familiar Strangers Found Photography Show- Matthews Gallery Show

FAMILIAR STRANGERS: Be a Voyeur, Detective, Surrealist, Humanist!

Found Photograph- Familiar Strangers Show- Matthews Gallery

  Untitled, Unknown

“A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into,” said Ansel Adams. When it comes to the pictures in our upcoming show, there’s no other option but to dig a little deeper.

FAMILIAR STRANGERS: Vernacular Photography, opening Friday, May 16, is not your typical Matthews Gallery show. The artists who created our collection of found photographs never got the recognition that Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec or Renoir did, but there’s no denying their aesthetic sensibilities.

That’s what has kept us digging through estate sales, thrift shops, antique stores and attics for years. We’ve amassed quite the collection of vernacular photographs, also known as “found” or “orphan” photos, and we’re not alone in our scavenging habits. Our friends on social media understand the great allure of the hunt.

Looking at so many old and found photographs I often think that, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,'” writes Paul Jackson, who maintains the Flickr group Found Photographs.  “The person behind the camera has seen these things, lived that life..you know, we can sometimes almost taste it.” We asked several other photo finders what they love about the pursuit, and they all had equally passionate answers.

Vernacular photography presents unique challenges to the viewer, asking us to shift between different roles to grasp what we’re seeing. Our first impulse is often voyeuristic. We can’t resist a peek at someone’s intimate moment, and we swiftly draw conclusions about what’s going on. In the image above a baton girl gawks open-mouthed at a band boy, but he looks resolutely away. Is this a tale of unrequited love?

Society often slaps us on the wrist for our voyeuristic tendencies. In his brilliant essay on found photography Dr. Barry Mauer of the University of Central Florida says this instinct is something we should indulge.

“At first sight, most of these pictures are hilarious or tragic or both,” writes Mauer. “Voyeurism allows me to experience these reactions from a comfortable distance.” However, Mauer cautions against stopping there. Voyeurism often comes hand-in-hand with judgment and categorization. Stereotyping these mysterious individuals cuts us off from a rich world of visual mysteries. Time to pull out the magnifying glass.

Found Photograph- Familiar Strangers Show- Matthews Gallery

 

Untitled, Unknown

If we act as detectives, this simple portrait holds a lot of hints about the bicyclist and her photographer. Did you notice the bandages on her knee and arm? If those are recent wounds, perhaps she’s just learning how to ride. It’s difficult to tie a forearm bandage on your own. Maybe the person behind the camera is her teacher and medic? On the other hand, the bags on the handlebars hint at a different adventure. One of them looks like a canteen. Could the other hold snacks for a picnic?

Teasing out these details is invigorating. To take it one step further, note the composition of the photograph. The front wheel is cut off and part of the path is visible behind the girl. This perspective, when combined with the subject’s bent posture and excited face, lends the photo a sense of forward movement. Our mysterious photographer has imbued a picture of a static bike with surprising dynamism. Was that his or her intention?

Found Photograph- Familiar Strangers Show- Matthews Gallery

Untitled, Unknown

Of course, in the end we’ll probably never know if our inferences are correct. Who better to help us surmount our fear of the unknown than the surrealists? André Breton and his friends were inspired rather than daunted by impenetrable mysteries. They sought out fragments of culture, watching films from between their fingers to try to catch discreet details and writing stories based on dreams they had about real experiences.

Both techniques allowed them to focus on details they otherwise would’ve ignored. In the photo above, our interest in the group in the foreground distracts from the odd figure standing in the far background. Cropping the photo brings up a whole array of new questions.

Found Photograph Detail- Familiar Strangers Show- Matthews Gallery

Detail of previous photo

In a broader context the entire photo is a fragment. The man in the foreground’s stern expression stands alone, isolated from what happened before or after. Perhaps he cracked a smile a moment later, but this short glimpse of his day at the pool has a foreboding air to it.

“The surrealists used fragmentation as a means to knowledge, discovering significance in the fragment that had been concealed in the contextualized whole,” Mauer writes. It’s not hard to trace the progression of this thinking to Marcel Duchamp’s use of found objects, or to the Dada artists’ repurposing of vernacular photos in collages (more on all of that in an upcoming blog post).

In the end analyzing and relating to the “characters” in these photographs helps develop our skills in another field: humanism. It’s amazing how connected we can feel to a person we’ll never meet, and how powerful our feelings of empathy and sympathy can be when we exercise them. Look long enough, and you’ll start to imagine that these familiar strangers are looking right back.

Step into the shoes of a voyeur, detective, surrealist and humanist at FAMILIAR STRANGERS: Vernacular Photography, opening Friday, May 16. Also, make sure to check out our fascinating interview with four found photography collectors and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr for more gallery news!