Gelatin silver print of young person looking out log cabin window

Arthur Rothstein, Artelia Bendolph, Gee’s Bend, Alabama, 1937. Gelatin silver print, printed later, Overall (sheet): 22.6 x 30 cm. Gift of Carol and Morton Rapp, in honour of Maia Sutnik, 2015 © Art Gallery of Ontario 2015/249.2

Photography, 1920s–1940s: Women in Focus II

November 23, 2019 - April 19, 2020

Located on the first floor in gallery 128, the Edmond G. Odette Family Gallery.

Admission is always FREE for AGO Members, AGO Annual Pass Holders & Visitors 25 and under. Learn more.


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.


Gelatin silver print of Woman wearing flowered dress, standing

Michael Disfarmer, Woman wearing flowered dress, standing, 1940–1959. Gelatin silver print, Overall (sheet): 12.8 × 8.9 cm. Gift of Aaron Milrad and Brenda Coleman in memory of Bella and Joseph Milrad, 2011 © Art Gallery of Ontario 2011/338

Michael Disfarmer, Woman wearing flowered dress, standing
Gelatin silver print of Grain Elevators

John Vanderpant, Grain Elevators, 1920s. Gelatin silver print, Overall (sheet): 35.1 × 27.5 cm. Malcolmson Collection. Gift of Harry and Ann Malcolmson in partnership with a private donor, 2014 © Art Gallery of Ontario 2014/698

John Vanderpant, Grain Elevators
Gelatin silver print, portrait of a woman

Melvin Ormond Hammond, 1928, 1928. Gelatin silver print, Overall (sheet): 29.8 x 24.5 cm. Gift of Mr. Skip Gillham, Vineland, Ontario, 1985 © Art Gallery of Ontario 85/139

Melvin Ormond Hammond, 1928
Gelatin silver print of Stewart Houston in Fancy Dress

Elizabeth Dickson, Stewart Houston in Fancy Dress, 1923–1924. Gelatin silver print, Overall (sheet): 24 x 18.9 cm. Gift of the Betty Ann Elliott Fund, 1995 © Art Gallery of Ontario 94/301

Elizabeth Dickson, Stewart Houston in Fancy Dress
Gelatin silver print with applied colour, A reclining young man wearing a bathing suit

Unknown American, A reclining young man wearing a bathing suit, around 1920. Gelatin silver print with applied colour, Overall (sheet): 20.2 × 25.1 cm. Purchase, donated funds in memory of Eric Steiner, 1999 © Art Gallery of Ontario 99/396

Unknown American, A reclining young man wearing a bathing suit



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