NOW SHOWING AT THE BRUCE
Through the Lens of Four American Photographers
By Arthur Stampleman
The work of four important American photographers — Margaret Bourke-White, Carl Mydans, Patrick Nagatani, and Brett Weston — is the focus of “From Butterflies to Battleships: Selections from the Bruce Museum,” which runs through September 1.
Drawn from the Bruce’s own collection, the exhibition is both a celebration of that collection and the museum’s dual dedication to artistic and scientific inquiry. The exhibit reminds us that since its inception photography has been a tool for scientific and aesthetic exploration. In the exhibit, viewers see examples of photographers working in a documentary mode (scientific/objective), or a directorial mode (artistic/subjective), whether examining the natural world, humanity, or both. Works that represent the documentary mode can have strong aesthetic tendencies, while the artistic works required technical prowess and mechanical manipulation.
Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was one of the most prolific photojournalists of the 20th century. She gained renown for her dramatic photo essays for Fortune and Life magazines, in which she captured the Industrial Age.
In this exhibit, viewers will learn about her interest in the natural world and see work produced relatively early in her career — small, sophisticated images from the 1930s showing mourning cloak butterflies, polyphemus moths, and praying mantises in various stages of metamorphosis. These portraits indicate the influence on her work of both Pictorialism and straight photography. At times, the creatures are shown in stark clarity, down to the delicate details of antennae and wings. Other examples are elegant abstractions in which the subject offers aesthetic rather than scientific study.
Carl Mydans (1907-2004) was an acclaimed photojournalist who captured major landmark events over the course of 36 years as a staff photographer for Life magazine. There he honed what would become his trademark— the ability to communicate the enormous significance of an event with a single image.
Presented here are two iconic photographs from 1945, taken while Mydans was on assignment during World War II with General Douglas MacArthur. One of Mydans’ photographs shows the general as he strode ashore through the waters of Lingayen Gulf, on January 9 and another shows the signing of the Japanese surrender on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay – both showing the power of the documentary photograph. A third photograph (1954) shows a woman planting potatoes in a field, reminiscent of Jean-Francois Millet’s painting, <The Gleaners> (1857), and demonstrates links between documentary photography and artistry.
Brett Weston (1911-1993), whose works were on show at the Bruce in 2016, was the son of renowned photographer Edward Weston. Brett explored an aesthetic aspect of photography – shape, tone, texture, and composition. Over the course of a nearly 70-year career, he developed a body of work that hovered between representation and abstraction, whether capturing a city skyline or a desert landscape.
Selected for this exhibition are photographs in which he transformed natural elements such as tree bark, rocks, and lava into a series of biomorphic shapes and calligraphic marks.
Patrick Nagatani (1945-2017) was born in Chicago on August 19, 1945, less than two weeks after the United States detonated atomic bombs over Japan. As a third-generation Japanese-American, Nagatani would maintain a lifelong fascination with the devastating consequences of nuclear technology.
After moving to New Mexico in 1987, he found the discordant southwest landscape, with Native American ancestral grounds alongside nuclear weapons test sites, an ideal subject for artistic investigation. On view are a number of works from the resulting series, <Nuclear Enchantment> (1988-1993), a body of work centered on the environmental and spiritual fallout of nuclear science, and an example of the artistic/subjective approach. He begins by taking a photograph of an actual location such as a nuclear test site, an Air Force Base, and institutional buildings, makes a 30-x-40-inch print, and uses it as the backdrop for a three-dimensional staged scene in which he places model planes and missiles, cardboard cut-outs, found images, props, and often live actors.
The Bruce Museum is located at 1 Museum Drive in Greenwich. Hours are 10 to 5 Tuesday to Sunday. For information, contact 203-869-0376 or www.brucemuseum.org.