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Witness: 20th-Century Photographic Images from the Collection of Gary and Ellen Davis

Witness: 20th-Century Photographic Images from the Collection of Gary and Ellen Davis

The twentieth century saw more technological innovations than any preceding century. Though the camera is an invention of the nineteenth century, it evolved in the twentieth into an artistic medium capable of producing luminous images of distinctive beauty, thanks to the efforts of practitioners like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Even after the allure of their preferred style, pictorialism, faded in the 1910s, Pandora’s box was now open, and the camera’s capabilities would be exploited and transformed by artists in successive generations, striving to bear witness to the life around them.

These new photographers were a different breed from their predecessors. Men and women, they were brave, articulate, and ambitious, empathizing with their subjects while never sentimentalizing. Objectivity was not an easy feat under the often emotional circumstances, but the photographers would not have got their images without at least a semblance of it.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the photographic documents of the 1930s. The struggles of migrant workers and tenant farmers in the Deep South and in California and the desperate urban poverty of New York and Chicago still resonate with us today in the iconic images of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Berenice Abbott. These are now our memories of this era; they provide us with a shared visual album of images, which we assume to be true. But when asked by an interviewer if it is possible for the camera to lie, Walker Evans unhesitatingly responded, “It certainly is. It almost always does.”

So what is it that is being witnessed? Is it purely the subjective determination of the artist and the selective images he or she captures? Are these always momentous events or have they become so through our familiarity with these particular images while what is unrecorded, no matter of what importance, remains obscure?

A photograph is the work of a second, a moment frozen in time that will never repeat itself but becomes part of our collective memory because it is in front of us, presenting itself as a true fact. What photographs provide us with is a discriminating compilation of chosen moments, both life-changing and mundane, which is the truest reflection of life itself. This exhibition offers insight to both the artist who chose the shot and our own celebratory response, for we, as viewers, have appropriated these images as our own remembrances.

Our sincere thanks go to the lenders, Ellen and Gary Davis, who have so generously shared their collection with us and our community, and for their many gifts to our photography collection; and to Cat Celebrezze, whose ever-efficient help with all the details guaranteed that this all came together.

Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs