At the Crossroads of American Photography examines the aesthetic interrelationship of three photographers who helped define the course of American photography: Frederick Sommer, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Although each has been honored with individual museum retrospectives, this is the first full comparison of their work and exploration of their robust, prescient exchange of ideas about photography, abstraction and metaphor. Self-taught as photographers, they helped shape a national community of peers and the evolution of photography as an art form. They are the bridge between the purity of Group f/64-era photography at mid-century and the hybrid approaches to the medium seen today.
These men, whose professional friendships span 25 years, were dubbed the “holy trinity” of American photography. This exhibition and publication highlight the powerful role of such camaraderie in shaping photography at this seminal time, before the emergence of a market for photography and before widespread artistic acceptance of the medium. It brings to light contrasting philosophies of the artist/photographer’s role (influenced by existentialism for Siskind and by the writings of Spinoza for Sommer); the interest in chance as an artistic process; the expressive potential of photographic ‘found’ objects and ‘collage’; experimental abstraction; close affiliations with “fine art” movements (New Bauhaus, Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism); and changing attitudes toward the fine-print tradition. This project explores the intellectual genealogy of American photography, as well as the artistic personalities that helped define photographic education in this country for generations to come.
This publication, which accompanies an exhibition at The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, includes 66 of the most seminal images from the show (22 by each photographer), a thorough text by guest curator Keith F. Davis, an essay by Dr. Britt Salvesen, and a complete exhibition checklist. The images included in the exhibtion will be borrowed from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation in Prescott, and a heretofore unseen vast private collection in northern Arizona, which are together nearly comprehensive and of especially remarkable high quality.
About the Photographers
Harry Morey Callahan (October 22, 1912 – March 15, 1999) was an American photographer who is considered one of the great innovators of modern American photography. He was born in Detroit, Michigan and started photographing in 1938 as an autodidact. By 1946, he was appointed by László Moholy-Nagy to teach photography at the Institute of Design in Chicago. Callahan retired in 1977, at which time he was teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. Callahan left behind 100,000 negatives and over 10,000 proof prints. The Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona maintains his photographic archives. His estate is represented in New York by the Pace/MacGill Gallery.
Aaron Siskind (1903 -1991) was an American abstract expressionist photographer. In his biography he wrote that he began his foray into photography when he received a camera for a wedding gift and began taking pictures on his honeymoon. He quickly realized the artistic potential this offered. He worked in both New York City and Chicago.In 1950 Siskind met Harry Callahan when both were teaching at Black Mountain College in the summer. Later, Callahan persuaded Siskind to join him as part of the faculty of the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago (founded by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy as The New Bauhaus ). In 1971 he followed Callahan (who had left in 1961) to teach for the rest of his life at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Frederick Sommer (September 7, 1905 – January 23, 1999), was born in Angri, Italy and raised in Brazil. Considered a master photographer, Sommer first experimented with photography in 1931 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis the year prior. Sommer started to seriously explore the artistic possibilities of photography in 1938 when he acquired an 8×10 Century Universal Camera, eventually encompassing the genres of still life (chicken parts and assemblage), horizonless landscapes, jarred subjects, cut-paper, cliché-verre negatives and nudes. His archive (of negatives and correspondence) was part of founding the Center for Creative Photography in 1975 along with Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Wynn Bullock, and Aaron Siskind. He taught briefly at Prescott College during the late 60s and substituted for Harry Callahan at IIT Institute of Design in 1957-58 and later at the Rhode Island School of Design.
About the Authors
Keith F. Davis is a curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Hallmark Collection.
Britt Salvesen is the director of the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson.