Thomas Hart Benton Part 2: Before and After America Today

Self Portrait, Thomas Hart Benton

Self Portrait, Thomas Hart Benton


Two years after returning from studies in Paris at the Académie Julian, the young painter Thomas Hart Benton, now living in lower Manhattan, was hired by a former roommate, Rex Hitchcock, to work as a scenic researcher and set designer for the movies. Benton’s salary was $7 a week. Hitchcock soon changed his name to Rex Ingram, and by this name he became one of the most celebrated film directors of the silent era, with credits such as Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Prisoner of Zenda and Mare Nostrum.

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José Clemente Orozco in New England

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Man Released from the Mechanistic to the Creative Life by José Clemente Orozco.

On the wall, just above double doors, in a narrow hallway connecting the Dartmouth College Baker Memorial Library lower-level reserve reading room with Carpenter Hall, is a seldom seen masterpiece. It bears the unwieldy title Man Released from the Mechanistic to the Creative Life. It is a test panel for what became the most ambitious work in the United States by the great Mexican fresco muralist José Clemente Orozco, the least lauded of the three Mexican artists who visited and worked in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s. Known as “Los Tres Grandes,” Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Orozco came north both by invitation and in search of commissions as work in Mexico became scarce. Orozco said of the mural:

“It represents man emerging from a heap of destructive machinery symbolizing slavery, automatism and the converting of a human being into a robot, without brain, heart or free will, under the control of another machine. Man is now shown in command of his own hands, and he is at last free to shape his own destiny.”

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The Brown Sisters … and a Few Thoughts on Aging


25 years of The Brown Sisters

25 years of The Brown Sisters

It seemed at first to be nothing more than a casual, one-off snapshot of his wife, BeBe, and her three younger sisters, Heather, Laurie and Mimi. This was in August 1974. But Nicholas Nixon didn’t much care for the photograph, though as with most of his work, he used an 8×10 view camera, its large-format negative requiring a tripod to support its bulk. In the time-honored tradition of art photographers like Edward Weston, Nixon made contact prints directly from his negatives (this before mural-sized prints became the gallery norm). Such large-format photography was unusual for photojournalists and street photographers like Nixon, who typically gravitated to 35mm for convenience and speed; Garry Winogrand’s shoot-from-the-hip, auto-drive aesthetic was more commonplace. Nixon, a strong editor of his own work, decided to throw out this first negative of the four sisters.

However, nearly a year later, in July 1975, Nixon made another informal portrait of the sisters. This one he decided to keep.

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Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful at the Getty

Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka

Between 1970, when he left Prague, and 1985, when he became a French citizen, the Czech photographer Josef Koudelka was a man without a country, and in many ways a man without even an identity. He had no passport, and his papers were listed with the rubric “Nationality Doubtful,” a condition of uncertainty for a still young man who’d had tight bonds to his city’s vibrant culture.

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Thomas Hart Benton and America Today


A section of Thomas Hart Benton’s mural America Today

The “today” of Thomas Hart Benton’s 10-panel mural painting is pre-FDR, early Great Depression America of 1930-’31, a kaleidoscopic portrait of working people and their entertainments; their Moloch-like machines of production; the land’s bountiful crops and natural resources. It is peopled by New York City subway straphangers, cowboys in the West, steel-mill and coal workers in the industrial Northeast, cotton balers in the Deep South, and corn farmers in the Midwest (whence came Benton, an artist born in the heartland town of Neosho, Mo.) The mural is also a catalog of heroic portraits limning the post-World War I rising might of the United States, even as its promise hovered over the precipice of economic crisis.

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Sebastião Salgado, Part 3: The Salt of the Earth

Juliano Salgado in Los Angeles.

Filmmaker Juliano Salgado in Los Angeles.

Sitting on the terrace outside his room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Juliano Salgado, son of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, pulls down on his cigarette as the day turns to night and the Christmas lights below come to life. Juliano is only a few hours away from attending the IDA Awards, where he’ll represent the nominated feature documentary The Salt of the Earth, which he and Wim Wenders have made about Sebastião’s life and work. A few days before, the film was shortlisted by the Academy’s documentary-nominating committee; it has since been nominated in the Documentary Feature category.

Juliano has flown in from Berlin and is scheduled to leave the next day for São Paolo. Even on a tight schedule, he is meeting with me to discuss the film and how he, an experienced documentarian himself, and Wim Wenders had worked together to bring his father’s life and work to an audience that knew the photographer mainly through his powerful, often disturbing images — or those who did not know his work at all.

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Sebastião Salgado, Part 2: Genesis

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Midway through a scene in the documentary The Spectre of Hope, Sebastião Salgado explains to John Berger that the near 350 photographs in Salgado’s book Migrations represent little more than one second of actual time. This is premised on an average exposure of about 1/250th of a second, yet Salgado says this single second of life as captured with clicks of the camera shutter “tells the story of what is going on in the planet” and poses the question, “Why am I being hurt?” — echoing the Simone Weil quote Berger had read earlier in their conversation.

This “hurt” is also the result of unimaginable psychic pain as it bore down on Salgado as he photographed famine, war, endemic poverty and genocide in Rwanda and in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. This visual catalog of unrest and privation around the world in the final decades of the 20th century evoked in Salgado’s soul a pain that forced him finally to return to Brazil to heal his body and spirit by restoring his family’s devastated farmland. He and his wife, Lélia, came to call this project “Instituto Terra”; it was a return to his roots and the embrace of his aged father.

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Sebastião Salgado, Part 1: The Spectre of Hope

Sebastiao Salgado

Sebastião Salgado

During the seemingly endless wars and humanitarian crises of recent decades, some “conflict” photographers have been accused of exploiting their helpless subjects, of purveying “poverty porn.” Doubtless, there are NGOs and other aid organizations that have found photographs of starving children and displaced people to be useful tools in their fundraising. Much of this photographic genre is merely serviceable imagery, but some of it, including the work of James Nachtwey and Sebastião Salgado, is not only closely observed and deeply emotional, but also representative of the highest aesthetic level of photographic art. And there’s the rub!

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John Adams and The Death of Klinghoffer: Protests at the Met

John Adams

John Adams

Police barricades, yelling demonstrators, hectoring politicians and bitter press harangues — and all this after settling a summertime labor dispute with IATSE Local 1? No, this is not how the world’s greatest opera house, the Metropolitan Opera, expected to stage its 2014-2015 season.

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Godard and Goodbye to Language

Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard, pixelated

Only a few ripples remain. When the critic-filmmakers of the New Wave surged against the ramparts of the French “Tradition of Quality,” sweeping away in Cahiers du Cinema the detritus of many post World War II movies, they introduced a revitalized Gallic cinematic spirit, an élan as fresh as when Gance, Delluc, Epstein, Pagnol, Cocteau, Vigo, Clair, Renoir and Carne made French cinema an artistic equal of Hollywood in the 1920s and ’30s.

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