Placing American photographers within New Vision photography reveals the difference in the cultures of, for example, the artists in Moscow, the photographers in Germany at the Bauhaus in Dessau, and Old Guard and their followers in New York and those in the f/64 group in California. For the Americans, the 1920s had roared, roared with prosperity and zoomed upwards with the stock market. After the Great War, the American art world, as undeveloped as it was, returned to normal, centered itself around Alfred Stieglitz in New York City. There had been no interruption in industry or the economy due to the War in America, which was growing only stronger.
During this decade, the excitement of making money, obscured the very real struggles between labor and management and, unlike Germany and the Soviet Union, there was no political unrest and revolution roiling the social waters. In terms of the visual culture itself, unlike the cultural situation in the Soviet Union, the American artists had not been given carte blanche to create from whole cloth an entirely new semiotic system and a new language to communicate with the masses. Unlike Germany, where mass media and illustrated presses were a dominate force, in American advertising was the leading visual experience. It would ten more years before America would get its first pictorial magazine in 1930; therefore, in the 1920s, there was no appetite to appropriate from popular culture with an eye to disrupting and critiquing official information.
It is possible that the relative political stability in a business-oriented conservative period in the United States accounts for the lack of photomontage in American photography. Making these comparisons allows a deeper understanding of the political forces that were important subtexts for photography in Germany and Russia, revealing that the strong drive towards experimentation in photography in those nations were unique to those brief moments in time. While Germany was riven with conflicting political parties and opinions and the Soviet Union was inventing itself, America was calm and stable, reveling in a consumer boom in buying everything from stocks to new household appliances.
Optimism ruled: the skyscrapers of New York City were signifiers of a building boom, and the industrial landscape photographed by Charles Sheeler was expanding, while Margaret Bourke-White examined the mechanized built environment that was changing the nation, and Ralph Steiner shared with Albert Renger-Patzsch a fascination with poking the camera lens deep into the bowels of machines. While these two photographers may be included in New Vision and although they seem to have shared in the European fascination for the machine, their “visions” were far more conservative and traditional.
For many years, Alfred Stieglitz ruled the art world in New York city, from the fin-de-siècle era to the 1930s. A gifted photographer with a mission, he was instrumental in a decades long crusade to turn a photograph from an object produced by a machine to a work of art created by an artist. Interested in all the art forms, Stieglitz opened his own gallery, 291, where the avant-garde could gather to see the latest art from Europe—Picasso and Brancusi, Matisse and Braque. But he also supported American artists and became an important focal point for advanced art in New York that was home grown and American through and through.
For photographers, the contribution of Stieglitz was a lasting one—he introduced “straight photography” which cut the ties of photography with pictorialism or the attempt to make a photographic image look like a watercolor or a print. Straight photography, as it was practiced in America on both coasts, eschewed all attempts to manipulate the photograph and that would include photomontage, a technique which was rarely seen in America. Edward Steichen thought the photomontage was too closely connected to painting and not a true expression of photographic capabilities. Walker Evans, the future documenter of the Depression, dismissed the machine images of Albert Renger-Patzsch as “photomethod.” But he was drawn to the project of August Sander, calling it “a photographic editing of society, a clinical process; even enough of a cultural necessity to make one wonder why other so-called advanced countries of the world have not been examined and recorded.” The Americans attending Foto Auge would not have accepted the distortions of an André Kertész, but the American Man Ray, who lived in Paris, did not share their traditional stances and, as an experimental photographer, he played freely with both Dada and Surrealism. The Americans who stayed at home moved easily from Straight Photography to New Vision Photography.
The 1929 exhibition in Stuttgart brought together some one thousand photographers to represent not just their age but also the “eye” of their respective cultures. The American room or section of the huge exhibit was curated by Edward Steichen, the young associate of Alfred Stieglitz, and an up and coming artist, Edward Weston, neither of whom practiced the European version of New Vision. A New Yorker, Steichen was a veteran of the revolution of straight photography which had occurred twenty years earlier, while Weston, from the West Coast, produced beautiful prints about “beauty” in the traditional sense. To the extent that the California photographers could be included in New Vision, it would be their use of close-ups or the habit of framing and cropping to remove an object from nature, enhancing certain abstract properties.
In European photography, the close-up was an aggressive tactic, designed to disrupt habitual vision, while the American approach was far more benign and, it should be noted, much less political and not nearly as experimental. American photographer Berenice Abbott returned to New York a few months before the Stock Market Crash of 1929, bringing with her a continental sensibility. Like her European counterparts, she was fascinated by the most modern city in the world, its tall buildings, the jagged skyline, which she photographed to maximize the drama, the height, in compositions designed to convey to the viewer the dizzying experience of the pedestrian. Comparing the photographs of New York skyscrapers by Berenice Abbott to those of the older photographer Alfred Stieglitz who literally watched the city change day to day, wiping away the nineteenth-century, shows the difference between the willingness of Europeans to use the unique vision of the camera, while the American sought a more straightforward eye-to-eye confrontation with a building. American photographers who lived and worked abroad, such as Man Ray, played with the camera, experimenting with all of its possibilities, but American photographers who stayed at home seemed to prefer a more conventional formalism, viewing the photograph as an aesthetic object demanding formal appreciation.
It has often been assumed that Bauhaus photography was synonymous with New Vision, but even within the Bauhaus there were individual styles among the artists, and it is the American Ralph Steiner who in America showed the closet affinity for the vision of Herbert Bayer and Florence Henri. Steiner had been selected by Steichen, who had been asked by the organizer of the American section of Foto Auge, architect, Richard Neutra, to curate the East Coast participants. Interestingly enough, Stieglitz refused his invitation to participate. Even though his idea of straight photography was the common inheritance of Abbott, Sheeler, Paul Outerbridge and Steiner, the older man felt that the young group was tainted by exposure to European influences.
Ralph Steiner’s work evolved from the 1920s to the 1930s and in doing so he followed the shift in American photography, from timid experimentation to straight forward documentation. His work of the 1920s shows a European flair for play. The frame with its rectilinear borders strains to confine the image and contain the tilt to a skyscraper photographed from the sidewalk. Steiner photographed close-up, from nature and machines, but always with a formalizing perspective. While Henri experimented with imaginary compositions and radical croppings, Steiner documented in fragments of Henry Ford’s new Model T car, while rarely leaving the viewer in doubt as to the identity of the object itself. As conventional as Steiner’s view of the horseless carriage was, this machine was iconic in America, symbolizing all things modern.
And it was in that spirit that Charles Sheeler, protégé of Alfred Stieglitz, went to the home of the assembly line, the Ford plant at Rouge River, just outside of Detroit. Sheeler brought a painter’s eye to photography, but he was one of the most radical of the American photographers. One of the reasons for his break with Stieglitz was his affinity for Cubist composition, an understanding of the abstract design inherent in a Cubist painting. Sheeler’s use of the Cubist grid appeared his series of photographs of his early American home in Doylestown Pennsylvania. The geometry of the bare bones home, its window, its door, its rising staircase, even the stove in the middle of a stripped-down room, become design elements on a vertical-horizontal framework, which both enhances the identity of the objects while also subordinating them to the composition.
Sheeler, however, had a very American understanding of Cubism which was filtered through a post-Cubist Purism, mediated by the home-grown response called Precisionism in painting. In his vision, the machine was the natural outcome of American colonial simplicity and ingenuity, which renounced ornament and concentrated on necessity. Collaborating with Paul Strand, Sheeler’s landmark 1921 film, Manhatta, a ten-minute strip of still photographs of the city of New York during a typical day, was overlaid with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Sheeler and fellow photographer Strand combined documentary views with avant-garde shots of the metropolis, a combination that evidences the local unease with any compositional devices that disturb the intent to document. Charles Sheeler’s iconic series on the Rouge River Plant in 1927 continued his complex stance—between history and modernity.