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Focus on Photography This Fall at Block Museum of Art

Exhibitions highlight artists and experimentation that transformed the medium

EVANSTON, Ill. --- From enduring images of classic Hollywood stars to instant photos that push the boundaries of the medium, the fall exhibitions at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art bring new perspectives to the art of photography.

“Steichen|Warhol: Picturing Fame” is the first exhibition to pair the photographic works of Edward Steichen and Andy Warhol to explore their roles in shaping how we see fame and glamour. Organized by the Block Museum, it is drawn primarily from recent major gifts to the Block from collectors Richard and Jackie Hollander and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

“The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation” brings together work by more than 40 artists who embraced the Polaroid format as they upended the established parameters of photography. The groundbreaking exhibition comes to the Block from the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College.

“The Block Museum is excited to concentrate its fall exhibitions and programs on pioneering achievements in photography and to share with the public, for the first time, two extraordinary donations to its collection,” said Lisa Corrin, the Block’s Ellen Philips Katz director.

“Steichen|Warhol” and “The Polaroid Years” are on view at the Block Sept. 20 to Dec. 1, 2013.


Decades separated their photographs and their subjects -- one snapped Clara Bow, John Barrymore and Franklin D. Roosevelt; the other Liza Minnelli, Carly Simon and the Studio 54 crowd -- but both Edward Steichen and Andy Warhol shaped our celebrity dreams and desires across a century.

“Steichen’s photographs captured the American imagination and shaped the visual language of celebrity worship that Warhol would simultaneously glorify and undermine many years later,” exhibition curator Elliot Reichert said.

As chief photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue, Steichen established himself as America’s premier portrait and fashion photographer in the 1920s and ‘30s. Shooting in sharp focus with dramatic lighting before stark backgrounds, Steichen distilled the essential characteristics of his subjects’ personas. The parade of performers, writers and public figures who posed before his camera is staggering: Fay Wray, Eugene O’Neill, Carl Sandburg and Greta Garbo are just a few of the ones whose portraits are featured in the exhibition.

Just as Steichen photographed the wealthy for commissioned portraits and the society pages of Condé Nast publications, Warhol created images of high-paying patrons, both the famous -- golfer Jack Nicklaus, cartoonist Garry Trudeau and artist Paul Delvaux, among others -- and non-celebrities in the manner of his iconic silkscreen paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. “Picturing Fame” displays the preparatory Polaroids Warhol shot for these portraits alongside Steichen’s images of stars, fashion models and socialites, examining the ways that Warhol and his subjects both borrowed from and subverted the styles defined by Steichen.

Reichert has uncovered a remarkable link between the artists: drawings a young Warhol traced from a 1955 cover of Life magazine that featured a photograph of Greta Garbo taken by Steichen.

“Warhol’s copies of the Garbo portrait preceded his Monroe silkscreens by nearly a decade, but these inkblot drawings show that he was already beginning to realize the enormous power and appeal of the celebrity image,” Reichert said. “Steichen|Warhol” will include the Life cover that inspired Warhol, three of his drawings and Steichen’s original 1928 photograph of the actress.

Also in the exhibition, a set of candid snapshots documenting Warhol’s social life in the 1970s and ’80s -- saturated as it was by the likes of nightclub impresario Steve Rubell, writer Fran Lebowitz and fashion designer Paloma Picasso -- that are contrasted with the carefully composed images Steichen created in his era.


To the public, it’s a reminder of a bygone era of instant color snapshots at family gatherings. For historians, it’s a precursor to today’s ubiquitous instant photos. But from the time Polaroid released its famed SX-70 camera in 1972, there were artists who saw its ability to instantly produce color photos as an invitation to innovate.

“Instant photography arrived in the hands of artists at a time when the world of fine art photography had recently become fertile ground for artistic experimentation,” said Mary-Kay Lombino, exhibition curator and The Emily Hargroves Fisher 1957 and Richard B. Fisher Curator at The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College. “By juxtaposing early experimental work with more recent forays into the possibilities of the medium, ‘The Polaroid Years’ tells a complete story of instant photography than has yet been revealed.”

“The Polaroid Years” demonstrates how pioneering photographers Ansel Adams and Walker Evans took to instant photography late in their careers. It revisits the radical self-portraits Lucas Samaras created by physically manipulating Polaroid prints’ internal dyes and demonstrates how artists working decades apart, like Barbara Kasten and Lisa Oppenheim, used Polaroids to push the boundaries of abstraction.

Those of us who picture the standard 4-1/4 by 3-1/4 inch object when we think of Polaroids will marvel at the large-scale instant photos in the exhibition, from composite photographs by Dawoud Bey to a self-portrait shot by Chuck Close on a Polaroid camera that prints 40-by-80-inch instant photographs.

“The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation” was organized by the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, with research support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and exhibition sponsorship by the Smart Family Fund for Art Exhibition Support.


The Block Museum is located at 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. Admission to exhibitions is free of charge. The museum is open Tuesdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free parking is available on weekends and after 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. For more information, visit or call (847) 491-4000.

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