Even a historical event can become art through the right lens. Sometimes news can transcend traditional conventions, intended for consumption through art and photgraphs.
The fall art gallery at Scripps College’s Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery tackles this paradox. Titled “Documenters and Storytellers: Photographic Narratives in the 20th Century,” the exhibit of exclusively black-and-white photography explores the relationship between art and news. While many of the featured photographers identify as documentarians, their work serves to inform and evoke feeling, balancing beauty and functionality.
The opening reception took place in the gallery on Saturday night, and visitors are greeted by a muted assault on the senses, an almost earthy aroma, a soft light from above and some gentle music. The gallery room is cavernous, greeting art enthusiasts as the photographs capture their interest. While each image stands on its own, the images gradually become cohesive. The most obvious links between photographs are the use of color and each photograph’s historical significance.
Only one piece includes color: a striking Tatiano Parcero photograph, in which the artist uses her body as a black-and-white canvas, overlayed with an Aztec-styled design. The color seems natural within the two-toned exhibit, expressing a tone that compliments the exhibit’s green and purple wall accents—the only other color in the gallery. Beside the Parcero work is an image of modern dancer Martha Graham, photographed by Barbara Morgan. These pieces are deliberately aligned, with both photographers highlighting the body's potential as art.
A photograph of Marilyn Monroe, solitary and melancholy on a film set, is displayed beside one of Marlene Dietrich, who is beaming seductively into the camera. Both women are regarded as sex symbols, and yet here, Marilyn is seen as shy and contemplative. These photographs do not simply document glamorous women; they also ask questions. Through contrast, they give insight to what happens behind the camera, art and history working together.
As one progresses through the exhibit, the photographs grow increasingly intense and provocative. Marion Post Wolcott’s photograph depicts a group of young boys kneeling beside a machine gun, examining the mechanics. Beside it, is Dmitri Baltermants’s picture of soldiers running in a field. Baltermant's photograph eerily foreshadows the fate of Wolcott’s boys.
The stars of the gallery, however, are the multiple Leon Levinstein photographs. Kirsten Tingle PO ’18, gesturing to the Levinstein photographs, said, “There’s just this incredible sense of realness, like the photographers captured a moment that could be lost, but he manages to see it and capture it.”
Many of the Levinstein photographs are fleeting seconds; a man in a Mardi Gras crowd, beach goers lounging in the sand. While Levinstein’s chaotic street pictures are a contrast to the clean lines of Morgan or Parcero, his subjects are portrayed as carefully procured and executed. On a basic level, Levinstein’s photographs document daily street life, but they manage to evoke visceral feelings.
“You’re very much almost in the lens with the photographer,” Lily Comba SC ’16 said. “You’re in the moment and in the heat of it.”
Notably, the exhibit does not trivialize any struggles, instead highlighting conflicts that are personal, national, and international.
“I’m kind of amazed by how well it captures the real feelings of all the people,” Tingle said.
Each photograph in the gallery is uniquely beautiful, art without context. Yet each photograph has a purpose, a story, and it is the viewer’s responsibility to unearth the underlying statement or question. So what is the line between what is considered art and what is considered news? If anything, the gallery proved that this line can be blurred.