The Howard Greenberg Gallery on East 57th Street describes its current show, The Immigrants, as "a group exhibition of works by select photographers." Such a generic title hardly does justice to the wide range of artists whose works are shown here. For once, politics and polemics take second place to quality and craftsmanship.
The exhibit opens with an image by Ernst Haas entitled Last Displaced Person Boat (gelatin silver pirnt, 1951) that sets the tone of the show perfectly. Here a group of European immigrants crowd the rails of their ship and lean forward to catch their first glimpse of their new home. One can only imagine the range of emotions they must have experienced at that moment. Although Haas is remembered today primarily for his pioneering color work with Kodachrome, he was earlier in his career a master of black & white photography as this splendid image clearly demonstrates.
Next are two photographs by Alfred Stieglitz. The first is his masterpiece The Steerage (1907, photogravure printed 1915-1916) that is considered by some to be quite simply the greatest photograph ever taken. Its composition, with the gangway that moves diagonally across the middle neatly dividing the upper class passengers from those in steerage, is as close to perfection as can be achieved. Next to this image is his equally famous City of Ambition (1910, printed 1920's) in the form of a very rare gelatin silver contact print.
Lewis Hine is represented not only by photographs taken over the course of several decades on Ellis Island of which the best in my opinion is Climbing into America (1905) but also by his iconic Powerhouse Mechanic (1924) that gives an excellent indication of the type of work newcomers found once they were settled in the US. This aspect of immigration can also be seen in photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White's Ludlum Steel Company (1930). Imogen Cunningham, the last artist one would associate with social realism, photographed the poignant Angel Island (1952). The great FSA photographer Dorothea Lange has several photographs in the show, some of which depict the travails of interned Japanese citizens after the commencement of World War II, as well as I Am an American (1942). There are also several photographs by Jacob Riis showing immingrant life on New York's Lower East Side in the late nineteenth century. Even Eadweard Muybridge, most famous for his "stop motion" photographs, makes an appearance at the show with The "Heathen Chinese" Finding the Color (c. 1871, albumen print on stereograph) that shows Chinese workers laboring in the California gold fields under inhuman conditions.
Some of the photographs shown at the exhibit are not an exact fit with the underlying theme of immigration but are welcome nonetheless. These include several images by Robert Capa including one taken on D-Day at Omaha Beach. I had hitherto believed only one photograph from this first day of invasion had survived (almost all were destroyed accidentally in processing) and was heartened to learn that there are more still in existence. Dream Street by W. Eugene Smith is an wonderful photograph, but unless there is a context of which I am unaware it has only the loosest association with immigration. There is also a intriguing photograph by Robert Frank entitled Road to La Paz, Bolivia (1949) taken years before he commenced work on The Americans. Finally, the exhibit ends on an ironic note with The Vanishing Race (1904) by Edward S. Curtis depicting the only group in this country not descended from immigrants. What's not generally known about Curtis's photographs of Native Americans is that they are not documentary. By the time Curtis began his series, the Native American way of life had indeed vanished and the photographer was forced to pose his subjects in clothing and activities that they had already abandoned.
Altogether, this is an excellent well curated show, one of the best of the season, and should not be missed.
The exhibit continues through January 27, 2018.