Glamor faded from mid-century print media

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In a town whose information kiosks have turned into glorified chewing gum shops, where the shelves at the Grand Central Newsstand are overrun with chips and phone chargers, one of my few remaining happy places is Casa Magazines. It’s a store hole on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 12th Street, and every wall and square inch of floor lifts obscure international fashion and design publications, for a declining class of fashion and design enthusiasts. print. (I still remember, when I founded a magazine in 2015, the relief I felt seeing my first issue piled on the floor of Casa; then it was real.) Once upon a time, before New York City was engulfed in the smartphone screen, the city had dozens of stores like this. Now, if you care about fashion photography and print design, you are probably in a museum.

Those nostalgic for the print media should look for “Modern look: photography and the American magazine” at the Jewish Museum. It offers a nostalgic look at the fashion and editorial photography of the last century – with snapshots by Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, for publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Look, Fortune and others.

With only 150 works, including several facsimiles, the show is too small and infrequent for comfort. In many places, this looks more like a drive-by of mid-century American graphics and photographs than a systematic study. (Among those absent: the photographers George Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst, and the designer Alvin lustig.)

I myself have more satisfaction with the catalog, which reproduces many paintings and photos not visible in the museum. Its essays are meatier than the gallery presentation, and it includes one on Gordon Parks’ editorial work by art historian Maurice Berger, who died last year in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the Jewish Museum’s focus on New York media from the 1930s to the 1950s offers an escape hatch from the similarity of our digital lives, at a time when American media could still imagine the ‘to come up.

American magazine photography, like American design more generally, was shaken around 1930 by Central Europe. Photographers in Weimar, Germany had turned away from the soft, pictorial imagery that dominated previous decades and used editing, multiple exposures, tall and narrow lenses, and irregular focus to rethink photography for a new society. industrial (although photography was not part of the Bauhaus program until 1929). At the entrance to this show is an experimental still life by Berlin duo Grete Stern and Ellen Auerbach, better known as Ringl & Pit, who used cut paper and glued fabrics to color bottled hair.

Over the next decade, Jewish immigrants and other European exiles will bring these innovations to the United States. German refugee Erwin Blumenfeld, one of the greatest fashion photographers of the time, layered the bodies of his models with distorted shadows, or increased the contrast so strong that parts of their faces disappeared into white voids. Martin Munkacsi, from Hungary, released a fashion editorial from the studio, most famous when he imagined a model in a one-piece swimsuit walking across a fuzzy beach: a defining image of 1930s glamor.

Herbert Matter, from Switzerland, made abstract photographs of white fabric twirling in a deep black space, which resulted in advertisements for stockings. Their arrival coincided with advances in photographic reproduction, as well as a bolder, more modern sort of magazine layout – discussed in this exhibition’s catalog but only in partial view in the galleries.

The two great artistic directors of the years around WWII – Alexander liberman at Vogue, and Alexey Brodovich at Harper’s Bazaar – were both White Russian émigrés, and both made their debuts behind the camera. Brodovich commissioned photographers who summarized and stylized the fashions of the time, and in his own work, especially the famous photo book “BalletHe scrambled and scrambled the bodies into grainy fantasies.

Liberman began his career with the pioneering French photo magazine Vu, then brought a disjunctive and highly graphic style to Vogue that drew on photomontages of Russian constructivism. Images from 1940s Vogue could overlap or be placed at an angle, and the dresses and shoes appeared in weird, surreal proportions. (These immigrants make “Modern Look” an interesting corollary of “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor,” the interwar graphic exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year. assembly of soviet origin to sell revolution or eyeliner.)

“Modern Look” evokes the Vogue of the 40s through images of Penn, Blumenfeld, but also Frances McLaughlin-Gill, the first female contract fashion photographer there, who photographed models on street corners, at dinner parties and outside the city’s fanciest new building: the United Nations Secretariat. There are also reproductions of covers on freestanding panels – among which the extraordinary March 1945 issue, photographed by Blumenfeld and directed by Liberman, depicting a fuzzy model behind two pieces of paperwork, next to the caption “Do your part for the Red Cross”. Scary and sad to think that no mainstream fashion title would now publish such a daring cover – and there’s more in the catalog, which replicates Vogue’s presentation of Buchenwald’s photographs in the June 1945 issue, photographed by Lee Miller.

Beyond fashion, the show also includes editorial photography, engaged with segregation and class and the aftermath of war, by artists like Parks, Margaret-Bourke White and Lisette Model. The same graphic innovations began to appear in trade publications like Fortune and in the booming advertising industry. You wish this show was more engaged with typographic and layout innovations, by designers such as Lustig and Ladislav Sutnar, which accompanied these mid-century photographs on the printed page. But what is it here, especially facsimiles of crisp, colorful covers of the German-born designer’s science magazine Scope Will burtin, will first delight and then depress those of us trapped in the Optimized minimalism for Instagram contemporary marketing. (How many more rounded letters on the coral and beige backgrounds should I take?)

By the mid-1950s, that golden age had started to rust. The TV came on. Advertising revenues have declined; the same was true for the number of pages. Editorial has become less experimental, but “Modern Look” has a coda of post-war photographers, like William Klein and Saul Leiter, who have found an autonomous voice in the art world. Klein had contributed as a youngster to Liberman’s Vogue, but the magazine would soon have no room for his unpolished street photography – not to mention his “Atom Bomb Sky, New York,” a 1955 cityscape which the slow exposure makes the Manhattan sunset look like Hiroshima. .

But today, even the art world no longer offers an escape from the normative pressures of the social web, where art and advertising and your friends’ vacation photos all have the same optimized colors and surfaces. polished. (It got so bad that Juergen Teller, one of the few remaining photographers to use unfiltered lighting and irregular flash, was recently denounced by camera junkies like a “bad” photographer.) “Modern Look’s deepest pains come not from the vanished glamor of mid-century print media, but from the overwhelming demonstration of how technologies we once thought could unleash creativity ended up imposing the strictest algorithmic rules. As for my beloved Casa Magazines on Eighth Avenue, the friends at the store did what it took to save the printing business: they set it up with an Instagram account.


Modern look: photography and the American magazine

Until July 11, The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street, Manhattan, 212.423.3200, thejewishmuseum.org. Pre-timed tickets required.

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