"The Language of Vision: Early Twentieth-Century Photography” opens Aug. 17 at Telfair Museums' Jepson Center and includes pieces from four prominent photographers working in the early half of the 20th century, when photography was just beginning to gain traction as a legitimate art form.
Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Ralph Steiner were all instrumental in elevating photography to the lofty heights of fine art while eschewing many of the bells and whistles being used in fashion and advertising photography at the time.
The works featured in this exhibition, mostly drawn from Telfair's permanent collection, show what a keen eye these artists all had and how a photograph can sometimes illuminate what our corporeal vision can't always discern.
“It's a small, focused exhibition,” says curator Erin Dunn. “It's a chance to tell some stories that haven't been told with the works and to show several photographs that haven't been on view in a long time, so any time I can get a chance to bring that history to a new audience is exciting.”
Dunn explains that there were many commonalities between the four photographers and they all worked with early 20th century themes that were sometimes overlapping and sometimes in parallel with each other.
“It was really a changing world and what better technology to capture that than photography?” says Dunn. “There were these young artists starting to recognize that they wanted to capture what was in front of them and they wanted to do it in the form of straight photography. They saw what they saw and didn't manipulate it later in the darkroom. But they still put their own artistic insight into it based on cropping, lighting, and the cameras they were using. So that's kind of the thing that connects all these artists.”
There will be a handful of vintage cameras from the era on display to give a sense of what the artists were working with, and Dunn's Sept. 16 tour will give more insight into the individual personalities behind the images. Dunn hopes that Telfair's continuing commitment to showcase a range of works from its collection allows visitors to share their love of all the different languages of vision.
She explains that the title for this exhibition was inspired by an article in the winter 1978 issue of The Massachusetts Review by Walker Evans, which deserves to be quoted. As Evans writes:
“The meaning of quality in photography's best pictures lies written in the language of vision. That language is learned by chance, not system; and, in the Western world, it seems to have to be an outside chance. Our overwhelming formal education deals in words, mathematical figures, and methods of rational thought, not in images. This may be a form of conspiracy that promises artificial blindness. It certainly is that to a learning child. It is this very blindness that photography attacks, blindness that is ignorance of real seeing and is perversion of seeing. It is reality that photography reaches toward. The blind are not totally blind. Reality is not totally real.”