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Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer

November 5, 2005 - February 5, 2006

 

A major retrospective photography exhibition Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer will be on view at Carnegie Museum of Art from November 5, 2005 through February 5, 2006. Active from the mid-to-late 1920s until his premature death in 1944, Luke Swank was one of the pioneers of modernism in photography. At the height of his career, his work was included in several prestigious exhibitions in New York, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and received praise from critics, art historians, and renowned photographers. Widely recognized during his lifetime, Swank has gone unnoticed since his death.

Swank's large and varied body of work moved from an early pictorial style in the late 1920s to precise, sharp, modernist images that combine a documentary reality with abstraction and the surreal. Swank's photographs from the 1930s portray the city of Pittsburgh, the nation's center of industrial innovation and economic vitality, as well as other industrial subjects with a singular documentary vision. As Swank surveyed his world he looked for subject matter that was vanishing from the American scene. His circus images are seamless explorations of the real and the surreal and his evocative photographs of rural historic Pennsylvania architecture pay homage to form, detail, and light. (right: Luke Swank, American, 1890-1944, Bumpsy Anthony, Clown, c.1930-1932, Vintage Gelatin Silver Print, 6 15/16 x 6 1/8 inches. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh)

Guest curator Howard Bossen, professor of journalism at Michigan State University and adjunct curator of photography at the Kresge Art Museum, East Lansing, aims to restore Swank's place in photographic history. Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer features 141 of the artist's black-and-white photographs and a variety of memorabilia, including exhibition announcements and catalogues, books and magazines, correspondence, and personal items. Bossen has also written a book of the same title to accompany the exhibition.

"What makes Swank's vision unique," says Bossen, "is his combination of traditional machine age and social documentary content with a dramatic and poetic use of light, form, and the picture frame."

Linda Batis, former associate curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art, has worked with Bossen in organizing the exhibition for Carnegie Museum of Art and the Kresge Art Museum, Michigan State University, where it has been on view September 6 - October 16, 2005.

Born in 1890 to a Johnstown, Pennsylvania, mercantile family, Luke Swank graduated with a degree in horticulture from Pennsylvania State Agricultural College (now Penn State University) and then explored a variety of careers, including vegetable farmer and dog trainer. He served in the U.S. Army during the first World War, and was assigned to a research facility to study the manufacture of poison gasses. After the war, Swank, his wife Grace, and son Harry, returned to Johnstown, where he entered the family business as manager of a hardware store; he later became manager of the family automobile dealership.

"Folklore has it that Luke Swank first picked up a camera when he was nearly 40 and within two years was exhibiting his work in New York's Museum of Modern Art," says Bossen. "There is no doubt that Swank was seriously exploring photography by the mid-1920s, and by the late 1920s, he was an enlightened amateur aware of the trends, practices, and controversies within art photography." Swank's pictorial work in the 1920s used dramatic artificial lighting and dark room manipulation to produce diffused and moody images.

In 1931, at 41 years of age and still selling cars in Johnstown, Swank started to enter his work in competitive photographic salons. He was accepted into the All-American Photographic Salon and the Fifteenth Annual International Salon of Pictorial Photography, Los Angeles; and the Eighteenth Pittsburgh Salon of Photographic Art, Carnegie Institute (now Carnegie Museum of Art), Pittsburgh. During this period, his photographs rapidly moved away from the romance of pictorialism and toward the hard-edged realism of modernist photographers lead by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and others. (left: Luke Swank, American, 1890-1944, Kidwell's Market, Leesburg, Virginia, c.1940-1943, black and white photograph, 13 11/16 x 10 5/8 inches. On loan from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh)

In December of 1931, after discovering a listing in The New Yorker magazine about a new art gallery in New York City that specialized in photography, Luke Swank introduced himself and his work to the gallery owner, 25-year-old Julien Levy. A dynamic champion of modernist photography and surrealism, Levy held exhibitions for such artists as Berenice Abbott, Joseph Cornell, Walker Evans, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí. He gave artists Lee Miller, Man Ray, and Frida Kahlo their first solo exhibitions, which he would also do for Luke Swank. He became an advocate of Swank's work; and in March 1932, Levy steered his photographs to placements in two key New York exhibitions -- the Brooklyn Museum's International Photographers exhibition, and Murals by American Painters and Photographers at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In these shows Luke Swank's Bethlehem Steel foundry photographs were shown in the company of works by such notable photographers as Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Walker Evans, Charles Sheeler, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, and Tina Modotti.

Julien Levy gave Luke Swank a one-man show in his gallery in 1933, Photographs of the American Scene. Following this exhibition, Swank continued to take part in photographic exhibitions though not necessarily with Levy's assistance. In 1934, Swank's circus photographs were exhibited at the Delphic Studios, New York, and reviewed by Frank Crowninshield of Vanity Fair magazine who compared the sensitivity of Swank's still lifes to that of Alfred Stieglitz. "Not only is Luke Swank interested in interpreting American life, but in revealing what is peculiar to American light and air," wrote Crowninshield. "Therein, we believe, lies his artistry."

Later that year, Luke Swank directed his focus toward the West Coast, where he entered the First Salon of Pure Photography, sponsored by Group f.64, which claimed that aesthetic beauty in photography came from the pure form of finely grained, tonally deep, and detailed images. Five of Swank's photographs were accepted, more than any other photographer in the exhibition. (right: Luke Swank, American, 1890-1944, Meason Mansion Staircase, Fayette County, Pa., c. 1933-1935, Vintage gelatin silver print , Western Pennsylvania Architectural Survey Collection, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh)

By the end of 1934, the Depression had taken its toll on the Swank family businesses, and Luke Swank decided to become a professional photographer. He moved to Pittsburgh with his wife and child and took a job at the University of Pittsburgh as the official university photographer. Before long, Swank created a course in photojournalism -- thought to be the first college-level instruction in news photography anywhere, according to the New York Times.   

Two years later he left the University of Pittsburgh to open his own studios, financed by his friend of many years, Edgar Kaufmann. Swank's clients included Aluminum Company of America, Calgon Company, Chevrolet, Ford Motor Company, and General Electric. In 1936, the H. J. Heinz Company became his most important client, and his photographs for Heinz were used for cookbooks, advertisements, publicity, and magazine articles. Through his relationship with H. J. Heinz, Luke Swank met Edith Elliott, who worked as a professional writer for the company. After the death of his wife Grace, Swank later married Edith, who also served as his collaborator and business partner.

Luke Swank continued to work on his own projects outside of his commercial business. He taught night classes in photography at Duquesne University. During this period he made many of his important urban images. Swank photographed Fallingwater, Edgar Kaufmann's famous country home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and several of these images were included in the 1938 MoMA exhibition about the house. He sold his photographs to national magazines, such as Fortune, which published his photographs of urban and industrial themes. He photographed the people and architecture of the Pennsylvania Dutch region of Pennsylvania for a book that he and Edith planned to publish. In 1935 the Bulletin Index referred to Swank as Pittsburgh's best-known photographer. He was the subject of an in-depth piece in the first issue of U. S. Camera Magazine in 1938. And in 1940, Luke Swank's photographs were included in the inaugural photography exhibition organized by MoMA's new department of photography.

After his death, Edith Swank kept most of her husband's photographs for decades before eventually bequeathing them to the Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh, in 1975. Very little of Luke Swank's work was put on the art market. Because his contemporaries -- Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams -- lived much longer, they were still alive and their prints were in circulation as a market for art photography gradually developed.

 

(above: Photographer unknown, Portrait of Luke Swank, black and white photograph, 7 1/16 x 9 1/8 inches. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of the Carnegie Library Pittsburgh)

 

Today most of Swank's photographs are found in institutional collections, such as those of the Carnegie Library, Carnegie Museum of Art, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (housed at Fallingwater), Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Kresge Art Museum at Michigan State University.

 

Guest curator Howard Bossen

Howard Bossen, professor of journalism and adjunct curator at the Kresge Art Museum at Michigan State University, East Lansing, is guest curator for Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer, on view at Carnegie Museum of Art November 5, 2005­February 5, 2006. (right: Howard Bossen, Author, photo credit: Charlee Brodsky )

Bossen was the Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Center for the Arts in Society at Carnegie Mellon University for 2001­2002 and was first introduced to Luke Swank through the artist's works in the collection of Carnegie Museum of Art. "When I came to Pittsburgh in 2002, I had never heard of Luke Swank. As I was to learn, while known during his lifetime Swank almost completely disappeared after his death in 1944," says Bossen. "As I began to survey the Swank collections housed at the Carnegie Library and Carnegie Museum of Art, I realized I was looking at an extraordinary body of work that almost no one had ever seen in its entirety.

"Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer has taken nearly four years to research and produce. It is a rare privilege for an historian to be able to bring out of the shadowy recesses of historical near-oblivion the work of an artist as talented as Luke Swank," Bossen continues. "What began as a research project ended as a labor of love."

In addition to the exhibition and book Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer, Howard Bossen has organized Historic Photographic Processes and Techniques, Highlights of 150 Years of Photography and Photography and Documentary Expression at the Kresge Art Museum at Michigan State University. Bossen has written and lectured extensively. He is also the author of the biography Henry Holmes Smith: Man of Light.

 

Catalogue 


A fully illustrated book dedicated to the life and work of Luke Swank, an important but forgotten pioneer of modernist photography, is the latest release from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Howard Bossen, author of Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer, says the publication will restore the artist to his place alongside contemporaries Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, and Edward Weston. The book accompanies an exhibition of work by the same name, on view at Carnegie Museum of Art, November 5, 2005 ­ February 5, 2006. (right: catalogue cover, Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer, by Howard Bossen)

Swank's biography is accompanied by 141 plates and 64 illustrations in the 248-page, hardcover publication. It is available at the Carnegie Museum of Art bookstore, through the museum's web site, and at bookstores everywhere.

 

Lectures and Events

Lecture: Luke Swank: The Missing Modernist
Howard Bossen, curator of the exhibition and professor, School of Journalism, Michigan State University, lifts decades of obscurity to reveal Swank's significance as a modernist photographer. Sat., November 5, noon, Carnegie Museum of Art Theater, free.
 
Shutter to Think: A Writer's Workshop
Students explore the intersection of images and words through a series of gallery discussions and facilitated writing sessions that culminate in a public reading on December 10. Michigan State University writing professor Anita Skeen introduces the workshop in a talk elucidating the fundamentals of writing from art (November 5). Subsequent sessions will feature guest artists including poet Jim Daniels and photographer Charlee Brodsky (November 12), and drama coach Kathryn Spitz who will lead a reading rehearsal (December 3). Pre-registration is required. Call 412.622.3288 to register. Sat., November 5, 1:30 p.m.; November 12, 19, and December 3 and 10, time TBA, free.
 
Lecture: Clyde Hare, Making Pictures for the Pittsburgh Photographic Library
In 1950 renowned photographer Clyde Hare was lured to Pittsburgh by Roy Stryker to document the city at the pivotal moment of its renaissance. He has lived here since. Hare will talk about the experience of photographing the city for at its industrial height. Sat., November 12, noon, Carnegie Museum of Art Theater, free.
 
Photography Class: Seeing Through the Lens
Photographer Charlee Brodsky leads gallery discussions of composition and formal elements in photography by looking at the images in the Luke Swank and Witness to the Fifties exhibitions. In the second session, students bring their own prints for analysis and critique. Pre-registration is required. Call 412.622.3288 to register. Tues., November 29 and December 6, 6:00­8:30 p.m. Fee.

 

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