Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Road to Victory, 1942

In 1942, Beaumont Newhall was called up to duty with the Army Air Corp, eventually to serve as an analyst of photographic aerial reconnaissance. He had been curator of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, since it's inception in 1940.

It took a bitter fight, but Ansel Adams (vice-chair of the Department) and Newhall convinced the trustees that Nancy Newhall, Beaumont's wife, was the best choice as curator in his absence. Still, they wouldn't give her but an "Acting Curator" title and paid her half what her husband had earned.

Throughout the 3 years she served as curator, Nancy Newhall had to repeatedly defend against the closing of the department. Overall budget-cutting at the museum was one problem (alleviated for the Photography Department by several donations by David McAlpin) but the other problem was that Adams' and the Newhall's curatorial vision was at odds with the times. At the time, photography was seen as a democratic medium while as their philosophy argued for differentiating between photos on aesthetic grounds. This included important members of the museum's staff and Board of Trustees who saw the presentation of photography in more populist terms. Ironically, on account of the Newhall's attempts to define photography by the same criteria as the other arts, the museum was accused of snobbery.

The most outspoken critics outside the museum were Edward Steichen and Tom Maloney. (Maloney at the time was editor of Camera Craft magazine and the U.S. Camera books.) Steichen, who had a couple of powerful allies on the board, was asked to guest curate a couple of exhibitions of war-related photography which Nancy Newhall had no say in and wasn't consulted about. Steichen's view was that photography could be used for propagandistic purposes in the service of the war effort. As he has been quoted saying: "When I first became interested in idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts. Today I don't give a hoot in hell about that. The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself." (Sounds like a definition of art to me.)

The first of the shows was Road to Victory: A Procession of Photographs of the Nation at War which opened May 21, 1942 and closed after October 4, 1942. What follows is the June, 1942, issue of the Museum of Modern Art's Bulletin, describing the show. Note the credit for Steichen on the cover: "Directed by..." In Ansel Adams and the American Lanscape, Jonathan Spaulding notes that "Steichen, who had done frequent work for the studios, brought the visual impact of the big screen and the dream factory's penchant for sensationalism to the once staid gallery."

The text was written by Carl Sandburg, the poet (and Steichen's brother-in-law.) The show was designed by Herbert Bayer--former Bauhaus member who had become quite successful in the U.S. as a graphic designer--and was influenced, like the leading designers of Fascist Germany and Italy, by the design idiom El Lissitzky had created for Soviet exhibits. Steichen curated the photos. "Together," says Spaulding, "Bayer and Steichen devised a show of spectacular visual impact."

I'll let Spaulding describe the scene for us. (Sandburg's text is reproduced in the Bulletin.)

Clicking on the images will make them larger.


Spead 1

"The display began with images of the land...Entering the exhibition the viewer would have seen panels of buffalo and Indians followed by the first of the series of murals, an immense 12 x 16-foot view of Bryce Canyon, Utah. On the panel nearby was the first block of Sandburg's text: 'In the beginning was virgin land and America was promises...'"

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"Next were panels showing farms and ranches, corn and wheat fields to the horizon, cattle herds, and combine harvesters. Following these were images of industrial America and huge murals of government reclamation projects--Shasta Dam, Hoover Dam, the TVA. The natural forces of the land had been harnessed by decent, hardworking folk. Americans possessed the strength to defend their virtuous nation. Now the 'arsenal of democracy' was at work."

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"After witnessing this stirring of the slumbering giant, the viewer would move to a panel of an isolationist 'America First' meeting that quoted their slogans, 'It can't happen to us' and 'We've got two oceans protecting us.' Immediately following was a dramatic photograph of tbe U.S. destroyer Shaw at Pearl Harbor exploding in a tower of flame, shrapnel, and black smoke. Hanging in front of this picture was one of the Japanese ambassador, Kichisaburo Nomura, and the Japanese peace envoy, Saburo Kurusu, 'rocking with laughter.' Opposite, seeming to stare grimly at them, was an image of an old Texas farmer, who was quoted as saying, 'War--they asked for it--now, by the living God--they'll get it.'"

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"There followed a series of panels of the gathering American forces, fighter and bomber formations, and a huge mural enlargement of the battle for the Marshall Islands, with the text, 'Smooth and terrible birds of death--smooth they fly, terrible their spit of flame, their hammering cry, 'Here's lead in your guts.' Loads of death, tons on tons of annihilation, out of the sky and down down on the enemies of the free world.'"

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"The exhibition came to a close with 'a final mighty climax,' a mural, 12 feet by 40 feet, of a vast sea of armed and marching men. Accompanying it were panels showing mothers and fathers from different parts of the country."

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Back cover

The show was wildly popular and traveled to San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and London. "In its overheated rhetoric and heavy-handed imagery, the show was typical of the wartime propaganda that began to issue from both the public and private sectors. The strange combination of sentimentality and vicious war fever evidenced in the Road to Victory was hugely appealing to the public and drew unprecedented crowds from the first days of its opening. It was not simply the general public that was impressed. Reviews from across the journalistic and political spectrum chimed in their praises." (Some of the quotes are reproduced on spread 10, above. One to note is from the Daily Worker, who found it "the most sensational exhibit of photographs that ever was shown in these parts. What a country to fight for!")

Adams and the Newhalls hated the exhibit and thought that it did not belong in a museum of art. At the time Adams was working on photographs to be turned into murals by the Interior Department. They were never produced but it is interesting to note that "for all his ranting against it, Adams was profoundly influenced by the success that Steichen had achieved...That kind of public outreach had, after all, become [Adams'] highest ambition...He wanted to achieve an emotional impact without sacrificing the integrity of the photographic print. He wanted to communicate ideas and persuade public opinion without falling into sentiment and propaganda."

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