Exhibitions/ Few Are Chosen

Few Are Chosen: Street Photography and the Book, 1936–1966

November 5, 2004–March 6, 2005
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

In the years from the Great Depression to the late 1960s, artists such as Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Helen Levitt presented ambitious, artfully sequenced surveys of their work in monographic form. Drawn from the collections of the Metropolitan and the Gilman Paper Company, this exhibition of approximately thirty-five prints comprises suites of photographs from six milestones in the history of photography, from Walker Evans's Many Are Called—featuring his legendary hidden-camera portraits of subway passengers—to Robert Frank's beat-era classic The Americans, with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. The exhibition also includes copies of each book, some represented in multiple editions to show how the meaning of images changed with their presentation.

The exhibition is organized on the occasion of the re-release of Walker Evans's monograph Many Are Called. Published by Yale University Press in association with the Museum, Many Are Called features the photographer's legendary hidden-camera portraits of New York City subway passengers.

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Between 1938 and 1941, Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975) used a hidden camera to make more than six hundred photographs of passengers riding the subway. Although the setting was public, Evans found that with his subjects unaware of the camera and lost in their thoughts, "The guard is down and the mask is off . . . even more than when in lone bedrooms (where there is a mirror), people's faces are in naked repose down in the subway." He later wrote that the subway series was his idea of what a portrait ought to be, "anonymous and documentary and a straightforward picture of mankind."

The subway portraits, eight of which are included in the exhibition, remained unpublished for twenty-five years, until 1966 when Many Are Called, a book of eighty-nine photographs, was initially released.

The English at Home, published in 1936 by Bill Brandt (British, born Germany, 1904–1983), is a penetrating look at contemporary English society in and around London in the early 1930s, with the English class system emerging as the book's unlikely protagonist. Throughout the book, Brandt juxtaposes images of upper-class life, such as After the Theatre and Parlourmaid and Under-Parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner, with those from the world of the working classes, such as Window on Osborne Street and Rainswept Roofs. Brandt's progression of images highlights the different habits and habitats of those on opposite ends of the economic spectrum.

The recently deceased master of photography Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908–2004) is represented in the exhibition by his 1952 monograph, The Decisive Moment. Cartier-Bresson changed the practice of photography by demanding that artists work with spontaneity, intuition, intelligence, and accuracy. In The Decisive Moment, the artist defined his philosophy: "To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of the forms which gave that event its proper expression."

Among the iconic images published in The Decisive Moment and included in the exhibition are Valencia, Spain, a study inside the sliding doors of a bullfight arena, and London, a snapshot of an older British woman resting on a bench in Hyde Park and adjusting the collar of her checkerboard coat against the day's drizzle. With a cover and dust jacket by Cartier-Bresson's friend Henri Matisse, and 126 exquisite heliogravure plates, the long-out-of-print publication is among the most handsome and beloved books in twentieth-century photography.

One of the most influential photography monographs is Robert Frank's The Americans of 1959, originally published as Les Américains in France the previous year. The book is the result of the Swiss-born Frank's (American, born 1924) travels throughout the United States on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955 and 1956. Like his Beat-era contemporaries Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (who wrote the book's introduction), Frank captured the loneliness, alienation, and social tensions simmering beneath the surface contentment of Eisenhower's America with a visionary brilliance. Frank's assured sequencing of images moves deftly from corrosive anger to gentle pathos to bedazzled transcendence.

William Klein (American, born 1928) was twenty-six and living in Paris when Alexander Liberman, then the art director of Vogue, invited him to return to New York City to work on special projects for the magazine. For his first series, Klein proposed a photographic diary about how it felt to return home after eight years abroad. For months, Klein roamed the streets of New York, turning out images that were as gritty and dynamic as the city itself. Unencumbered by formal training, he invented an edgy style inspired by the in-your-face aesthetics of newspaper tabloids. Although Vogue ultimately declined to publish the New York photographs, the monograph Life Is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, which Klein designed, was published to instant acclaim in 1956 in France, Italy, and England—but was not published in the United States until 1995.

Helen Levitt (American, born 1913) practiced photography with a small handheld camera on the streets of New York, making tender yet unsentimental depictions of ordinary city people, especially children. For Levitt, the stoops and sidewalks of poor neighborhoods constituted an open-air theater of the imagination, where her young subjects played games, performed improvisational dramas, and made fantastic, untutored chalk drawings. She is represented in the exhibition by five photographs from her landmark volume A Way of Seeing (with an introduction by James Agee), a monograph of photographs from 1938 to 1948 that was not published until 1965, by which time it seemed to chronicle a bygone era.