Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Perceptions of a Migrant

This exhibit seeks to show the life, struggles, and perceptions of a migrant in the late 1930’s to mid 1940’s. The life of a migrant can be very difficult and isolating. This exhibit gives an example of how a photographer, namely André Kertész, expresses the isolation he felt through the subject matter that he chose. There were also photographers who sought to give a voice to those who were relegated by society to the position of being an outsider. In raising awareness about the plight of the migrant and ethnically different, Ansel Adams dedicates time to show the humanity of the Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps. Dorothea Lange also shows the struggle of the Japanese-American citizens as she captures the compelling photograph of a Japanese-American storefront owner who had a sign painted outside his shop that reads “I am an American.” Lange also gives voice to the voiceless in her photo of the migrant mother. Here she shows the realities of migrant life as she captures the image of a starving mother and her two children. Finally the exhibit ends, as it started, with the migrant André Kertész. This is a picture of a small, lone cloud next to a towering skyscraper in New York City. This picture is said to be autobiographical of Kertész himself and how he felt as a recent migrant to America.

André Kertész, Poughkeepsie, New York,  1937

Gelatin Silver Print, 23.6 x 18.3cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1972.572.1

André Kertész is a migrant himself. In following a job opportunity, he was transplanted from Hungry to New York.  Kertész’ work has strong semblances to both formalism and surrealism. In Poughkeepie, New York, strong elements of formalism are shown through the stark lines that guide the eye in navigating through the picture. However, aside from the formal elements, there is something else happening in the subject matter. All of people in this photograph are Caucasian. Also all are middle-class to upper-class citizens (excluding the one station worker that is separate from those on the platform). The interesting phenomenon in this picture is the surprising lack of interaction among those waiting for the train.

Ansel Adams, Untitled, 1944

Born Free and Equal: Camera Book. Library of Congress: F870.J3 A57  

Ansel Adams, typically known for his landscape photographs, shifts his lens to document the plight of Japanese-Americans. Taking pictures of the Manzanar interment camp, Adams seeks to argue through his photographs the humanity of people he is photographing. This picture shows a scene of girls presumably walking either to or from school. The picture is captioned with “Manzanar is only a Detour on the Road of American Citizenship” showing the persistent faces of those willing to do what it takes to enjoy American freedom. The contrast can be seen between this piece and Ketész’ Poughkeepsie. While the formal elements remain, the contrast in subject matter and its portrayal is quite powerful.

Ansel Adams, An American School Girl, 1944

Born Free and Equal: Camera Book. Library of Congress: F870.J3 A57

Ansel Adams captures the contagious smile of a young, Japanese-American girl, once again seeking to show his presumably Caucasian, middle-to-upper class American audience the humanity and genuineness of the people he is photographing. A smile is something shared by all humanity. It melts barriers and helps the viewer to realize how much more similar everyone is than different. I think that was what Ansel Adam’s was trying to convey in titling this piece An American School Girl (emphasis mine).

Dorothea Lange, Japanese Owned Grocery Store, 1942

 Photonegative, 5in x 4 in.  Oakland Museum of California: A67.137.42015.1

Dorothea Lange gives us a compelling photograph of a shop owned by a Japanese man. The fact that this man had to have a sign painted with the message “I am an American” speaks volumes to the tensions that arose in America especially after the bombing on Pearl Harbor (which the owner tells Lange happened right before he decided to have the sign painted). This man, misunderstood due to his ethnic heritage, was forced to abandon his shop. Unfortunately those in governmental power did not seem to believe his sign and his plea that he was just the same as them.

Dorothea Lange, Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother), 1936

Gelatin Silver Print, 13 7/16 x 10 6/19 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum

This image of a starving mother with her children immediately draws the viewer in. The mother’s concerned look can easily be read even as her children, hidden as they are from the camera, also have a discernable air of grief and desperation. It would seem that the mother is looking forward, unsure of the future while the children, with growling bellies, are all too aware of the present. Again, Dorothea Lange is documenting the plight of migrants and how easily they left alone and helpless.

André Kertész, The Lost Cloud, New York, 1937

Gelatin Silver Print, 9 ¾ x 6 ½ in. The J. Paul Getty Museum

Many things could be said of Kertész’ Lost Cloud.  One could talk about the photo’s formal aspects such as the cloud being the only organic shape and the contrast between the cloud and the skyscraper. However, there seems to be more to this photograph. It seems that Kertész is analogously comparing himself to this cloud as though he himself felt alone in New York. This photo was taken soon after his arrival in New York. The feeling of being alone would continue to haunt Kertész, a migrant who struggled with English and felt like his was not as appreciated in the states as he was in Paris. He would stay in America until his death, bearing to his grave his identity as a migrant.

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