The Vanished Glamour of Midcentury Print Media
In a city whose news kiosks have become glorified gum shops, where the shelves of the Grand Central newspaper kiosk are being overtaken by chips and phone chargers, Casa Magazines is one of my lucky few places. It’s a hole in a store on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 12th Street, and every wall and inch of floor is filled with obscure international fashion and design publications for a dwindling class of print enthusiasts. (I still remember the relief starting a magazine in 2015 when I saw my first issue on the floor of Casa; then it was real.) Once upon a time, before New York was swallowed into the smartphone screen in the City there were dozens of such shops. If you’re into fashion photography and print design, you probably belong in a museum.
Those nostalgic in print media should search the Jewish Museum for “Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine”. It offers a nostalgic look at fashion and editorial photography of the last century – with snapshots from Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, and Louise Dahl-Wolfe for publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Look, Fortune, and others.
With only 150 works, including several facsimiles, the show is too small and economical for comfort. In many places, it feels more like a drive-by of mid-century American graphics and photography than a systematic study. (Among those absent: the photographers George Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst as well as the designer Alvin Lustig.)
I myself have more satisfaction with the catalog, which reproduces many spreads and photos that are not on display in the museum. Its essays are meatier than the gallery presentation, and it includes an editorial about Gordon Park’s work by art historian Maurice Berger, who died in the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic last year. However, the Jewish Museum exhibition’s focus on New York media in the 1930s to 1950s offers an escape from the equality of our digital life in a time when American media could still envision the future.
American magazine photography, like American design in general, got a jolt from Central Europe around 1930. Photographers in Weimar, Germany, had turned away from the painterly soft focus images of previous decades and used montage, multiple exposures, wide and narrow angle lenses, and irregular focus to rethink photography for a new industrial society (although photography did not become part of the Bauhaus until 1929 At the entrance to this show is an experimental still life by the Berlin duo Grete Stern and Ellen Auerbach, better known as Ringl & Pit, who used cut paper and collaged fabrics to shill the hair color in bottles.
In the next decade, Jewish immigrants and other European exiles would bring these innovations to the United States. The German refugee Erwin Blumenfeld, one of the greatest fashion photographers of the time, covered the bodies of his models with distorted shadows or heightened the contrast so much that parts of their faces disappeared into white cavities. Martin Munkacsi from Hungary pulled the fashion editorial out of the studio, best known when imagining a model in a one-piece swimsuit striding across a blurry beach: a defining image of 1930s glamor.
Herbert Matter from Switzerland took abstract photos of white fabric spinning in the deep black room, leading to advertisements for stockings. Their arrival coincided with advances in photographic reproduction, as well as a bolder and more modern magazine layout, discussed in the catalog of this exhibition, but only partially seen in the galleries.
The two great art directors of the years around World War II – Alexander Liberman in Vogue and Alexey Brodovitch in Harper’s Bazaar – were both Belarusian emigrants, and both started behind the camera. Brodovitch hired photographers to abstract and stylize the fashion of the day, and in his own work, especially the famous “Ballet” photo book, he blurred and blurred bodies into grainy phantasms.
Liberman began his career with the pioneering French photo magazine Vu and later brought a disjunctive, highly graphic style to Vogue that was based on the photomontages of Russian constructivism. Images in ’40s Vogue could overlap or be placed at an angle, and clothes and shoes would appear in strange, surreal proportions. (These immigrants are making Modern Look an interesting episode of Engineer, Agitator, Constructor, the interwar graphic show at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year. They can use the same Soviet-born assembly techniques to sell Revolution or eyeliner.)
“Modern Look” is reminiscent of Vogue of the 1940s through pictures of Penn, Blumenfeld and also Frances McLaughlin-Gill, the first contracted fashion photographer there, who photographed models on street corners, in restaurants and outside the fanciest new building in town: the United Nations Secretariat. There are also reproductions of cover sheets on freestanding boards – including the extraordinary March 1945 figure, photographed by Blumenfeld and directed by Liberman, showing a blurry model behind two pieces of bureaucracy, along with the caption, “Do your part for the red cross. “Scary and sad to think that no mainstream fashion title would publish such a bold cover now – and there’s more in the catalog that reproduces Vogue’s presentation of photographs from Buchenwald in the June 1945 issue, filmed by Lee Miller.
In addition to fashion, the show also includes editorial photography by Parks, Margaret-Bourke White, and Lisette Model, addressing segregation and class, and the aftermath of war. The same graphic innovations appeared in business magazines like Fortune and in the booming advertising industry. They want this show to be more to do with the typographic and layout innovations from designers like Lustig and Ladislav Sutnar who accompanied these mid-century photographs on the printed page. But what’s here, especially facsimiles of crisp, colorful covers from German-born designer Will Burtin’s science magazine Scope, will first please and then depress those of us caught in the Instagram-optimized minimalism of contemporary marketing. (How much rounded font on a coral red and brown background do I have to use?)
This golden age began to rust in the mid-1950s. The television arrived. Advertising revenue fell. Page numbers too. The editorial became less experimental, but “Modern Look” has a coda from post-war photographers like William Klein and Saul Leiter, who found an autonomous voice in the world of art. Klein had contributed to Liberman’s Vogue at a young age, but the magazine would soon run out of space for his unpolished street photography – let alone his “Atom Bomb Sky, New York,” a 1955 cityscape whose slow exposure shows the Manhattan sunset what Hiroshima looks like.
But even today the art world no longer offers a way out of the standardization pressure of the social web, in which art and advertising as well as the holiday pictures of your friends all have the same optimized colors and polished surfaces. (It has gotten so bad that Jürgen Teller, one of the few remaining photographers who uses unfiltered lighting and irregular flash, has recently been denounced by camera addicts as a “bad” photographer.) The deepest pain comes in “Modern Look” not from the vanished mid-century print media glamor, but the devastating demonstration of how technologies we once thought could unleash creativity resulted in the strictest algorithmic rules being imposed. At my beloved Casa Magazines on Eighth Avenue, friends of the shop did what needs to be done to save the printing business: they set it up with an Instagram account.
Modern look: photography and American Magazine
Until July 11th, The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., 92nd Street, Manhattan, 212.423.3200, thejewishmuseum.org. Timed advance booking required.