The Ambiguity of a Photograph, Part 1: Aesthetic Historical Documents

Photographs are historical documents. They capture a split second of a particular moment. A slice of life.

A photograph doesn’t lie.

Well, that’s not always true; especially in the age of Instagram filters and Photoshop. The history of the medium is filled with photographers who obsessively edited, altered, and cropped their images. In the darkroom and today on computers, light and shadow can be manipulated until the photographer is satisfied. Even what photographers choose to capture and print is very selective. One only has to look at the contact sheets of some of the most famous photographers to see the countless images that were left unaltered and never printed.

siskind_Chicago 30

Aaron Siskind, Chicago 30, 1949. Gelatin silver print, 13 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of the Phillips Contemporaries, 2004

I first encountered Aaron Siskind’s Chicago 30 (1949) a few weeks ago. Currently located in the original house of the museum, the work sits above one of the old tiled fireplaces. First drawn to the dramatic contrast of black and white, I marveled at the work’s ability to capture and hold my attention. Photography always grabs me, but usually what I like about the medium is the ability to place the content within a time or a place. This photo is removed from all context. It is unclear what has been photographed by Siskind. The only hint of context is the title, Chicago 30.

In the early years of his career, Siskind engaged with traditional documentary photography, often through a socially engaged lens. One of Siskind’s most well-known projects is the Harlem Document. The project focuses on documentation, but Siskind’s eye for artistry is present particularly in one of his most famous works, Savoy Dancers.

Compared to his documentary work and given its lack of context and content, can Chicago 30 be considered a historical document? This photograph captures what Siskind saw through his camera lens, but we, the viewer, don’t know or understand what he saw. The work can be considered documentation of a particular moment in Siskind’s life, but without concrete information and context, the viewer is left only with the aesthetics of the photograph.

This is a multi-part blog post; check back next week for Part 2.

Emma Kennedy, Marketing & Communications Intern

5 Disgruntled Characters from the Collection

Not every sitter is excited to be painted. The Phillips owns a wide range of portraits, and within them, all manner of expressions. Here are five less-than-enthused subjects from the museum’s permanent collection.

1. Chaim Soutine’s Woman in Profile  is #NotImpressed.

Soutine_woman in profile

Chaim Soutine, Woman in Profile, ca. 1937. Oil on canvas, 18 13/8 x 10 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1943; © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY

2. Paul Klee, The Witch with the Comb. The fierce brows say it all.

Klee_the witch with the comb

Paul Klee, The Witch with the Comb, 1922. Lithograph, 20 7/8 in x 16 3/4 in x 1 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Gift of B. J. and Carol Cutler, 2006; © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY

3. Sensing some side-eye from Joseph Solman’s Portrait in Yellow and Blue.

Solman_portrait in yellow and blue

Joseph Solman, Portrait in Yellow and Blue, not dated, Oil on canvas 20 x 16 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1954

4) Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Portrait of a Woman unsuccessfully feigning interest.

Corot_portrait of a woman

Unsuccessfully feigning interest. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Portrait of a Woman, 1870, Oil on canvas, 22 7/8 in x 19 in x 1 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1922

5. Thomas Eakins, Miss Amelia Van Buren. Read what visitors told us she’s thinking in these earlier blog posts.

Eakins_Miss Amelia Van Buren

Thomas Eakins, Miss Amelia Van Buren, ca. 1891. Oil on canvas, 45 x 32 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1927

To end on a happy note: channel this woman from Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Cry Laughing!

taylor-johnson_cry laughing

Sam Taylor-Johnson, Cry Laughing, 1997. 8 C-type prints on aluminum, each print: 16 x 12 in. The Phillips Collection. Gift of the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC, 2011

Who’s Who in William Merritt Chase’s “The Open Air Breakfast”

Chase_The Open Air Breakfast

William Merritt Chase, The Open Air Breakfast, c. 1888. Oil on canvas, 37 3/8 x 56 3/4 in. Toledo Museum of Art. Purchased with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in Memory of her father, Maurice A. Scott

“If Mr. Chase had never painted any other picture, this one alone would place him on the highest plane of American painting. The exquisite mastery of the entire situation, the complete harmony, quality of the colour, the unity—everything combines to label it a great performance.” —W. H. de B. Nelson, 1916

In this verdant garden oasis, a counterpart to the open air Sunlight and Shadow painted a few years earlier, William Merritt Chase presents an autobiographical glimpse into his life as a newlywed and father. The painting is set in the backyard of Chase’s parents’ Marcy Avenue home in Brooklyn, where he and his wife had moved in 1887 in anticipation of the birth of their first child, Alice (“Cosy”). Chase’s wife appears seated at the table beside baby Cosy in the high chair. Standing in front of the screen is Chase’s sister Hattie; Chase’s sister-in-law Virginia lounges in the hammock. In a manner akin to his studio ensembles, Chase builds up the scene through color harmonies, layered surfaces, vibrant brushwork, and an array of objects and accessories from both the West and East: the Spanish shawl draped on the empty chair, the Japanese screen and cap, and the Dutch 17th-century hat. That Chase kept this painting until his death is testimony to its special meaning for him.

Elsa Smithgall, Exhibition Curator