Editor's note: The Cantor Arts Center has been closed to the public through April 15 in response to concerns over the coronavirus. Read more here.
When the Cantor Arts Center received a gift of 1,000 photographs from the Capital Group Foundation last year, it must have been very tempting to present all of the prints in a blockbuster-type exhibition. Instead, curator Elizabeth Mitchell wisely decided to select works from the gift to be shown in three separate shows. The current exhibition, "Outside Looking In: John Gutmann, Helen Levitt and Wright Morris," is on view in the Ruth Levison Halperin Gallery at Cantor until April 26.
We should all applaud Mitchell's restraint, because these works demand slower consideration and work well for viewing in smaller quantities. The first installment featured two masters of modern photography, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. This current display is quite different, as it presents three artists who worked during the nascent years of social documentary, or "street photography." If Adams and Weston sought to portray the beauty and grandeur of nature, Gutmann, Levitt and Morris looked at the urban landscape and the changes wrought by the Great Depression and, later, World War II.
"This exhibition focuses on the approach taken by each photographer when they used their cameras to observe the lives of other people," Mitchell said.
Helen Levitt was notable not only because she was a pioneering woman photographer but also because she was one of the first to experiment with color photography. Her prints in this exhibition are poignant glimpses of inner city children playing and people interacting just going about their everyday lives. A wall statement explains that she used a right-angle lens, so her subjects were unaware of what she was doing. The results are spontaneous slices of life.
In the "New York" series from 1940, we see two small African American boys sitting on a street curb. One is comforting the other as he cries into his crumpled hat. The slight blurring of the boy's arm as he reaches for his friend confirms that Levitt was capturing a special, fleeting moment in time. We get a sense of place, thanks to the wrought-iron fence and front stoop steps, but the boys are front and center in the composition and it is their sweet and innocent interaction that we remember.
In another print we see a tableau that could be a classical frieze (or a scene from "The Godfather"). Four men, all gazing away from the camera, are caught in a moment of pensive contemplation. Given their close proximity, they probably know one another but are completely isolated in their own thoughts. In the background, a young girl, in a pose very similar to a Raphael cherub, observes the scene. It's an enigmatic picture -- Why are these men together? Why are they so serious? In another print from the series, Levitt captures the uninhibited happiness of a little girl and boy dancing in the street. These were, undoubtedly, hard times and impoverished neighborhoods but Levitt was able to find small moments of joy.
Gutmann's work offers a different perspective on American life, probably because he was an "outsider." Born in 1905 in Germany, he emigrated to the U.S., as so many other European artists did, in order to flee the Nazis. He settled in San Francisco, worked as a photojournalist and taught at what is now San Francisco State University. His black-and-white prints, taken with a Rolleiflex camera, tend to focus more on the quirky aspects of American life. In "The Beautiful Clown" (1940), two circus performers are captured in a close-up, double portrait. Fully made up, they seem a bit grotesque and we wonder why they chose this unusual profession. The woman, who stares at the clown in admiration, must be a fellow performer maybe the one who works with the knife-thrower or who swings from a trapeze? Gutmann also displayed a sense of whimsy and humor in "Artist Lives Dangerously"(1938), a print showing a small boy creating a chalk drawing on the street while cars whiz perilously close by.
While the Levitt and Gutmann photographs in this exhibition are categorized as "street theater," the work of Wright Morris is about places and spaces without people. Morris was born in Nebraska and attended Pomona College. He bought his first camera (a Rolleiflex) in 1934 and found a way to combine his first avocation, writing, with photography by creating photo-texts (short narrations that accompanied photos). He did find success as a writer and, like Gutmann, also taught at San Francisco State. In this exhibition, his prints depict the places he knew while growing up in Nebraska. These are quiet studies, composed and shot with an eye towards capturing a facet of life in middle America that was quickly going away. "Stove and View of the Parlor" (1947) could be a museum period room, with the prominently placed cast-iron stove, rocking chair and floral-patterned carpets and curtains. In "Eggs in Pot," Morris hones in on a humble subject but arranges it so carefully, so artfully, that we might imagine they are precious objects.
"The works I selected by Wright Morris demonstrate what he did best: construct precise, haunting images," noted Mitchell.
The Capital Group gift adds to what was already a prestigious collection of photography at the museum, including the archives of Andy Warhol and Civil Rights documentarian Bob Fitch.
In addition to the prints, the gift included funding for a curatorial fellowship position. "We just hired Maggie Dethloff as assistant curator of photographs and new media, and the future will tell how we continue to grow," said Mitchell.
When one remembers that it was Leland Stanford who initially funded the groundbreaking motion photography work of Eadweard Muybridge, it all seems like a natural evolution that the university he and wife Jane founded would become home to such a valuable collection.
What's up next? An exhibition devoted to another American photographic master, Gordon Parks, on view from May 13 to Aug. 23.
A version of this story first appeared at thesixfifty.com. Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at email@example.com.
What: "Outside Looking In: John Gutmann, Helen Levitt and Wright Morris."
Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Way, Stanford.
When: Through April 26. Museum hours are Wednesday-Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open until 8 p.m. on Thursday.
Info: Cantor Arts Center.