Paris 1949 New Year is a small, unpretentious black-and-white photograph that opens Carnegie Museum of Art’s current exhibition Yours Truly: Privately Collected Photographs. A young man in an overcoat, stopped on a busy street, back to the camera, hides a tulip behind him. He is large in the vertical picture frame. A passerby, walking toward us, searches a small purse for some coins; together they occupy the bulk of the image. Tulips must have been rare in January 1949, so the flower was probably a surprise for someone special. Who? Further looking reveals, over the man’s shoulder, a pretty blonde waiting in the distance. This is an early work by Swiss national Robert Frank who, in the following decade, would immigrate to the United States and redefine the aesthetics of 35 mm photography.
Small black-and-white images like Paris 1949 are condensed like poems. You can get a sense—a hit, really—of their meaning by scanning them once, but only careful viewing yields a full appreciation of their significance. In the hands of masters of the 35 mm camera like Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Garry Winogrand, there can be an amazing rhyming of forms—one person’s gesture magically echoing or playing off another’s although they are disconnected, maybe even separated in a crowd. You can see their work in Yours Truly. The show contains only vintage prints; that is, images made at or around the time the negative was shot. Prints, which can be different sizes, darker or lighter, with more or less contrast, are a means of interpreting an image, affecting its message. Before digital photography, photographers often made their own prints. In Yours Truly you will see an image like Robert Doisneau’s Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville (1950), which you may have seen many times before; but here, you will see it interpreted in the way the photographer intended, perhaps for the first time.
After 10 years working as a photographer, teaching photography, and writing about it, I went to graduate school in art history. It was the early 1980s; the photography boom of the ’70s, which augured widespread acceptance of the medium as art, was over. For me, personally, small black-and-white images had started to feel constricting. I wanted to think about things more expansively, play in a larger arena. Artists like Cindy Sherman were making very large color photographs that occupied a wall like a painting and could be marketed as such. There was a cultural shift going on and I wanted to be in the midst of it. My field became modern and contemporary art and I never looked back—until recently.
Yours Truly, along with a visit to a fine photographic collection in Cleveland and some wonderful new acquisitions here at CMA, has made me hunger to look at photography in a way that I haven’t for years. Is this the reflection of another cultural shift, or is it just me? Either way, I have renewed pleasure in being transported by great works in small packages.
There is no text in Yours Truly. Even the labels that identify the works and their makers are relegated to a brochure. Normally, I am against this approach to exhibition-making, regarding the notion that art speaks for itself as a delusion of the art world. Most people need help to understand the meaning of what artists do. But Yours Truly is an exception. Its romantic sweep communicates easily. The works included also capture a moment gone by, reminding us that time—the stuff of life—is passing. Where, after all, are the man with the tulip and the pretty blonde today? Yours Truly is a beautiful, poignant Valentine. Don’t miss it.
Until next month,