Four photographers, one little state

by by Monica Heffron

Focus on Four,” now showing at the Newport Art Museum, features the work of four photographers with superficially little in common. Gertrude Käsebier, Lewis Hine, Charlotte Estey and Aaron Siskind share neither a common aesthetic nor a technical approach, nor do they share a common time frame—their work spans the 20th century, from Hine’s in the teens to Siskind’s in the ’80s. But they do share one link: the state of Rhode Island. While only Estey was a native to the state, all four photographers spent time and practiced their craft in Rhode Island. Nancy Whipple Grinnell, the show’s curator, has assembled their work to create a showcase of “Rhode Island Photographs,” which she hopes can “form an educational show on the development of photography in our region.”
In truth, one might not leave “Focus on Four” with a comprehensive understanding of the state’s photographic history. But the exhibit at least offers an opportunity to appreciate these four photographers, and this little state’s ability to inspire them.

Hine & Estey
Lewis Hine and Charlotte Estey, two documentary photographers, chose to direct their lenses toward the residents of the Ocean State. Separated by 40 years, each used photography as a way of exposing the social injustices they discovered in Rhode Island, focusing, respectively, on child laborers and the ignored victims of urban deterioration.
Lewis Hine came to Rhode Island in 1909, as a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, to report on the conditions of Rhode Island textile mills and their young workers. Part of a national group devoted to changing child labor laws, Hine came to the area with a specific view of continuing his ongoing project, and found it in the child laborers employed by Rhode Island factories. His subjects, like the young girl in A Beautiful Young Spinner and Doffer in Interlaken Mill, Arkwright, RI (1909), are stoic and dignified. Hine’s straightforward style, so far from the dreamlike, often fantastic images of the pictorialist photographers he disdained, suited his purpose. Grinnell said that Hine did not view the camera as a creative tool, but as “an instrument of truth which could reform society’s ills.” Rhode Island shared in the nation’s subjection of children to hard labor, and Hine sought to expose this injustice through photography.
The exhibit juxtaposes Hine’s work with a few photographs of the contemporary artist Scott Lapham. Much of Lapham’s work also focuses on the state’s textile mills—now inhabited by local artists—that are facing demolition. As Lapham states on his website, “By turning our backs on these mills it feels like turning away from and abandoning our elders [and our history], instead of incorporating them into our lives to enrich us all.” This juxtaposition of Lapham’s photographs with Hine’s shows how Rhode Island’s architecture has changed over time, and how photography is still being used to document the conditions the buildings’ inhabitants.
Charlotte Estey worked in the 1950s as a semi-professional photographer for the Providence Journal. Almost unknown today, her work sits in the Rhode Island Historical Society with little public attention. She documented the demise of what is now South Main Street in Providence. The buildings of the neighborhood, once grand, were falling apart and the area was touched by poverty. Her photographs, like [Three Boys and a Bicycle], South Main St., Providence, RI (1950), are mostly portraits of the people who lived amidst the deterioration. Although her work has been criticized for its grayness and lack of technical finesse, Estey managed to capture a moment of Rhode Island’s history.

Käsebier & Siskind
Gertrude Käsebier and Aaron Siskind, on the other hand, did not document their experiences in the state, but used their time in Rhode Island to develop their practice of photography as fine art.
Gertrude Käsebier spent her summers outside of Newport during 1899 and 1903, finding inspiration in the rural surroundings and searching for wealthy clients. For the rich, Newport offered an idyllic setting for vacation and escape from the real world. In the midst of this feeling of recreation and detachment from the harsher realities of life, Käsebier experimented with her pictorialist style, characterized by a soft quality and hand-done manipulations in the darkroom, using her friends and family as models for fantastic portraits. Her subjects were not in essence real people or situations, but imaginary characters inspired by the pastoral setting.
Although Käsebier ‘s pictures do not depict identifiable areas of Rhode Island, the sense of fantasy and leisure they convey captures the atmosphere of Newport’s summering aristocrats perhaps more aptly than a documentary photograph could have.
Aaron Siskind, a RISD professor in the 1970s, rejected documentary photography like the work of Hine and Estey. Continuing his experimentation with abstraction, he spent his time in the Ocean State taking close-up pictures of asphalt, rocks, and architectural details in Providence and Newport. While the locations of his subjects are nearly unrecognizable, his photographs offer little clues into the historical period of Rhode Island in which he practiced his work. The walls of the building in Trinity Church, Newport 2, (1974) are not distinguishable as a church, but they are indicative of the style of New England architecture that was prevalent in Newport at the time. Even the asphalt in Providence 82 (1986) suggests a time of industrialization.
Siskind’s work in the exhibit represents the development of photographic style, from pictorialist to abstract, and offers small views of the region during those two decades. When asked why she chose to focus on the work of Siskind—as opposed to the work of Harry Callahan, Siskind’s colleague whose similar work is more well-known—Grinnell replied that “Siskind was much sexier to write about. He was very passionate, a big, open personality, and people are passionate about his work.” Perhaps Siskind did not have the strongest connection to the state in comparison to other photographers in Rhode Island of his time, but his work was a big step in photography’s development as an art form, and his presence in the state left big waves, especially among his students at RISD.

Although they are linked by their common presence in Rhode Island, the work of these four photographers tells a story distinct from the history of the state—a narrative of the development of photography with glimpses of Rhode Island occurring throughout. While the works of Kasebier, Hine, Estey, and Siskind cannot tell the Ocean State’s history alone, these photographers are part of its history, leaving their mark on Rhode Island just as Rhode Island left its mark on them.

“Focus on Four” is showing at the Newport Art Museum (76 Bellevue Ave, Newport) from October 24, 2009 to January 18, 2010.

MONICA HEFFRON B’10 thinks Aaron Siskind is sexy.