The Modern Photographer: Observation and Intention emphasizes the role of the photographer as a purposeful observer and as an editor of everyday experience. Although they each viewed the world from a distinct perspective, the photographers represented in this exhibition believed that careful notice of their surroundings was of the utmost importance. They sought to capture the subjective experience of life and individual consciousness in their images while remaining anchored by the objective nature of their medium. Their photographs, whether carefully staged in a studio or taken spontaneously on the street, reveal the complex nature of seemingly ordinary situations and the essential elements of their historical moment.
The exhibition features highlights from the Museum’s collection of photography and photogravures from the first half of the twentieth century. Many of the featured photographers, aware of the rapid changes of that time, took a journalistic approach to their medium and documented the construction of skyscrapers and bridges and the impact of poverty and social unrest. Indeed, in the United States, the Farm Security Administration, a government program created in 1935 to aid farmers, enlisted photographers to travel the nation and record the drought and the economic crisis. Others sought to call attention to odd juxtapositions found in modern life—moments of connection that reveal hidden humor or significance. The photographers also experimented with formal aspects of image-making, such as form, tone, framing, and lighting. Their exquisite still lifes and nudes emphasize creative composition and the modulation of light and shadow. Woven into all these photographs are facets of personal expression that deliver a message about the time they capture and the ability of the camera to observe deep truths about the world we live in.