Berenice Abbott’s Canyon and Beyond

Berenice Abbott, Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place, 1936. Gelatin silver print, 9 3/8 x 7 1/2 in. Gift of the Phillips Contemporaries, 2001. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Berenice Abbott, Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place, 1936. Gelatin silver print, 9 3/8 x 7 1/2 in. Gift of the Phillips Contemporaries, 2001. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

One of the works in the new American Moments: Photographs from The Phillips Collection exhibition is a photograph by Berenice Abbott called Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place. The image is reminiscent of a canyon because the tall buildings dwarf the camera. The viewer feels miniature in comparison to the surrounding skyscrapers.  I particularly like the contrast between light and dark spaces. Daylight is barely streaming through the cracks between buildings, adding to the feeling that the buildings might come tumbling down as they hover above you. The photograph makes me feel claustrophobic, as if I barely have space to breathe when surrounded by such imposing structures.

Studying this exhibition, which includes over 130 photographs by 33 artists, I find that many of the photographs are documentary: what was in the lens is what got photographed. Photography gives viewers an opportunity to compare what is being shown with what is experienced firsthand. Generally speaking, early documentary photographs were often simple to decipher, and they did not typically confuse or frustrate the audience the way other art forms might. In part, this exhibition depicts how photography in the 20th-century was thought of as a window on reality. Even the most educated viewers are inclined to see only the object that is represented, regarding it as the principal subject matter. However, less recognizable are the tools used by a photographer to create a compelling image: the shadows, lighting, and cropping. As Richard Avedon said, “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” By using multiple techniques to create a photograph, the artist creates something otherwise not seen by the naked eye.

Almost everyone has used a camera, and therefore, photography might be seen as a more readily available art form of the masses.  From its beginning, photography has fought criticism of the medium’s artistic merit. Some critics stated that photography seemed too easy to be art, contending that it was simply a technological way to reproduce what we see.  Others argued that photography was one of the highest art forms because artists manipulate the lens of the camera to represent something unseen or missed by the naked eye. Much debate ensued between photographers and those who did not see photography as art.  I find this argument among the most compelling and complicated in the entire history of photography—an argument that still goes on today.

Lana Housholder, Gallery Educator

Deconstructing Lawrence’s Struggle Series: Panel 12

Jacob Lawrence, Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 12: And a Woman Mans a Cannon (Molly Corbin, Defense of Ft. Washington, North Manhattan Island, November 16, 1776), 1955. Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 12 in. Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This spring, former Phillips curator Beth Turner taught an undergraduate practicum at the University of Virginia focusing on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. In this multi-part blog series, responses from Turner’s students in reference to individual works from the series will be posted each week.

Panel 12 of the Struggle series tells the story of Margaret Cochran Corbin, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and the first woman to receive a military pension. Corbin originally served as a cook and laundress for the militia, but soon joined the battle as a matross, or cannon operator. When her husband’s matross partner was killed in action, Corbin took up the task herself. As the fight wore on, Corbin’s husband was also killed and she was left to operate the cannons alone. Although she was inexperienced in combat, Corbin was described as having excellent aim, a fact that the British did not overlook. With multiple British troops firing at her, Corbin held her ground and was the last cannon to stop firing in battle.

Though the entire piece details the narrative of Margaret Cochran Corbin, she is rather obscured in the panel. Filling almost the entire left side of the painting, Corbin’s dress is the same tan brown with abstracted shadows as the background and appears to blend in almost seamlessly. She is shown with her back to the viewer, focusing on the cannon fire. Additionally, the two accompanying figures appear much more dynamic. Lawrence is not allowing the viewer to see the most important part of the narrative. Instead, he provides insight through the text. In a removed, objective tone Lawrence reveals what is hidden in the panel’s abstraction, creating a relationship between the text and image that gives both new meaning.

Madeline Bartel