The interwar years were a period of intense social and political change. Fighting for new freedoms and interrogating issues of identity, women emerged as powerful and provocative creators. The explosion of picture magazines, print advertising, and photography studios established photography as the ideal medium to express the changing social landscape of post-war America.
This exhibition presents photographs from the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, along with key loans, that highlight the development of the documentary modes practiced by photographers working in North and South America. Included in the exhibition are photographs by trailblazing photojournalist, Margaret Bourke-White, celebrated for her dynamic studies of industrial development and technology; documentary photographer, Arthur Rothstein, whose sympathetic and revealing portraits drew attention to the plight of those most affected by the Depression; and Canadian photographer, Reva Brooks, who produced sharp and compelling photographs of women in Mexico.
The exhibition also features studio portraiture: photography studios proliferated during the interwar years, and photographers were intent on developing their own unique style. On display are Michael Disfarmer’s minimalist studies of people in rural Arkansas; Carl Van Vechten’s stylized portrait of actor Betty Field; Irvin Penn’s iconic photograph of two children in Cusco, Peru; and Torontonian Elizabeth Dickson’s photograph of Stewart Bagnani—a former staff member of the Art Gallery of Ontario—in playful masquerade. Special attention is given to the works of James VanDerZee, the pre-eminent photographer of the Harlem Renaissance. VanDerZee’s distinct style and transformative studio space made his portraits of Black middle-class New Yorkers powerful affirmations of Black identity.
The works on display reflect the spread of documentary photography and the diversity of photographic aims, from the critical examination of social disparity to the celebration of the self in a studio portrait. The exhibition pays homage to the women behind, and the women in front of, the camera.