Nancy Newhall: A Literacy of Images

September 19, 2008 - January 25, 2009


Wall texts for the exhibition

 

Nancy Newhall: A Literacy of Images

Painter, writer, curator and photographer, Nancy (Wynne Parker) Newhall played a major role in legitimizing photography as a fine art. A founding member of Aperture magazine, and an important contributor to the publication, Newhall wrote extensively about the evolving role of photography, and was visionary in her thinking about the then "new medium" of television.

As she wrote in her essay "The Caption," from the first issue of Aperture in 1952, "...the old literacy of words is dying and a new literacy of images is being born." Newhall goes on to speculate, "Perhaps the printed page will disappear and even our records will be kept in images and sounds." One of the first to write about visual literacy--the importance of reading images and the ability of text to change the meaning of images--she was decades ahead of her time.

Nancy Newhall worked closely with her husband Beaumont Newhall and with many of the well-known photographers of her day including, Ansel Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Brassai, and Minor White. A strong and independent individual, Newhall helped define photography as a fine art in America during the first half of the twentieth century. More than thirty years after her tragic death in 1974, Newhall's legacy still shapes and informs the field of photography and lens-based imagery.

Deborah Klochko
Curator

 

Portfolios

Throughout her professional life, Nancy Newhall worked closely with her husband Beaumont Newhall. From 1942-1945, while Beaumont was on active duty in the Air Force during World War II, Nancy substituted for him as the acting curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). During that time, she organized over a dozen exhibitions including two major retrospectives, the first for both Paul Strand and Edward Weston. She also established MoMA's short lived Photography Center with its library, study center and exhibition space. In addition to Strand and Weston, she exhibited the work of Peter Henry Emerson, Weegee, Lisette Model, W. Eugene Smith, and Helen Levitt. Newhall also curated a number of thematic exhibitions such as Action Photography, 100 Years of Photographic Portraiture, Art in Progress and French Photographs: Daguerre to Atget.

Unfortunately, both Newhalls left the museum under unhappy circumstances. Following Beaumont's return from active duty, MoMA appointed Edward Steichen as the director of photography. Steichen and the Newhalls had very different views of photography and when the museum refused to retain Nancy Newhall, Beaumont was left with no choice but to resign.

Nancy Newhall began to devote her time to writing and editing photography books. She knew how to combine images with words, articulating what made a photograph art --

It must be photographic; it must achieve results impossible in other mediums;
 
It should bear the imprint of the photographer's individuality so unmistakably that to anyone who knows his work his signature is superfluous;
 
It must have inner life, which is not exhausted by years of looking. This is the acid test of a photograph; thousands are made everyday which cannot survive a second glance.

Among her major accomplishments are the books This is the American Earth, An Eloquent Light, both with Ansel Adams, Time in New England with Paul Strand, and the monumental task of editing both volumes of The Daybooks of Edward Weston.

 

The Art of Nancy Newhall

Born in 1908 in Swampscott, Massachusetts, Nancy Wynne Parker showed an early interest in the arts. She began writing poetry at age seven and had one of her poems published in the youth magazine, St. Nicolas by age twelve.

In 1930, following her graduation from Smith College, Nancy moved to New York City to study painting and engraving at the Art Students League. In 1933, her first solo exhibition of painting and wood engravings at a Boston gallery was a critical success.

Having first met in 1932, Beaumont Newhall and Nancy Wynne Parker forged a lifelong partnership of love and respect that covered both their personal and professional lives. In 1935, Beaumont gave Nancy her first camera, a Kodak Bantam. As Beaumont wrote, "Almost at once she showed a highly individual style. Her portraits were bold, her landscapes lyrical, her architectural subjects detailed and foursquare."

Married on July, 1, 1937, their honeymoon, a trip to Europe researching photographs for an upcoming exhibition at MoMA, was evidence of Nancy's often quoted statement, "When I married Beaumont, I married photography." Known primarily as a writer and curator, this is a rare opportunity to view the photographs of Nancy Newhall, many of them exhibited for the first time.

 

Minor White

Following his discharge from military service in 1945, Minor White, already an accomplished photographer, moved to New York City to continue his studies and work as Beaumont Newhall's part-time curatorial assistant at MoMA.

Nancy would later write, "We took Minor with us whenever something or somebody interesting came along. He became quietly a part of our lives, this tall pale and very strong man, with his deep voice and his background of science and poetry. At our parties, whether large or small, he watched and listened, with humor and sympathy, to what went on around him, and you could feel him grow."

Their personal and professional interactions continued throughout their lives, with Nancy and Minor working closely on Aperture magazine. After leaving the California School of Fine Arts, where Minor taught for seven years, he joined the Newhalls in Rochester, New York to work with Beaumont at the George Eastman House.

 


 

(above: Beaumont Newhall. Chan Weston, Dorothy and Cole Weston, Nancy on Broadway, March 1946, vintage gelatin silver print. Loaned by The Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Estate, courtesy of Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd.)

 

(above: Beaumont Newhall, Henri Cartier-Bresson, New York, 1946, gelatin silver print, courtesy of Scheinbaum & Russek, Ltd. Copyright © 2008 the Estate of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, all rights reserved. Permission to reproduce courtesy of Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd., Santa Fe, New Mexico.)

 

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