Taft’s ‘Moment in Time’ captures photographic legacy

“Moment in Time” is one of those photo exhibitions you might easily miss.

It’s not a show packed with those overheated, supersaturated images that tease and taunt and dare us to ignore them. Instead, most of the photos here are black-and-white and fairly staid; an image of a dancer tilting forward as her dress swooshes up in an arc behind her, a young girl nervously posed next to a commercial loom, four guys hanging out in front of a run-down barber shop. 

Barbara Morgan, “Martha Graham in Letter to the World,” 1940. Bank of America Collection
Barbara Morgan, “Martha Graham in Letter to the World,” 1940. Bank of America Collection

Even the name of the exhibition – “Moment in Time” – is pretty ho-hum.

But don’t be put off by any of this. If you have even the vaguest interest in photography, “Moment in Time” is worth exploring. It’s at the Taft Museum of Art through Sept. 15.

First, a little background. The full title of the show is “Moment in Time: A Legacy of Photographs / Works from the Bank of America Collection.” And, in many ways, this collection holds a significant place in the history of photography.

It began with a man named Samuel William Sax, the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Exchange National Bank of Chicago, which – after a handful of mergers – became part of Bank of America. Sax, it turns out, was an avid collector of photography. “He decided that he wanted to start a collection for the bank, too,” said Jennifer Brown, curator of the Bank of America Collection. 

“The idea was that they would rotate exhibitions in the workspace. He wanted employees and clients to have the opportunity to see it and appreciate it.”

So in 1967, he turned to notable art historian and curator Nancy Newhall to assemble a collection of photography for the bank. The initial plan was to collect 100 images though, with Sax’s blessing, Newhall brought together many, many more.

Back in the 1960s, there was no shortage of corporate art collections. But they focused on paintings and, very occasionally, sculpture. For most banks – and bankers – photography was too risky a proposition. Even the art world was still divided about whether photography was merely an offshoot of technology or could be regarded as an art form. But Sax was big on taking chances. 

In 1970, Exchange became the first American bank to open offices in Israel. So the idea of asking Newhall to move the company’s art collection into the realm of photography hardly seemed daring to him. Indeed, he seemed to love the attention it brought to the bank.

W. Eugene Smith, “Spanish Wake,” from the Spanish Village series, 1950. Bank of America Collection. © 1951, 2024 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith
W. Eugene Smith, “Spanish Wake,” from the Spanish Village series, 1950. Bank of America Collection. © 1951, 2024 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

Newhall came to the project with remarkable credentials. She had collaborated with several photo-world luminaries on books about their works, including Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and Edward Weston. In 1958, she and her husband, Beaumont Newhall – the Museum of Modern Art’s first curator of photography – created what would become one of the best-known books on the subject, “Masters of Photography.”

Brown isn’t certain precisely how many photos are in the collection today. But overall, Bank of America’s voluminous art collection includes more than 25,000 works. And now, 115 of those works are at the Taft.

This isn’t the Taft’s first photo exhibition. But there is something different about the connection between photography and the Taft that resonates more deeply in this exhibition. The home that houses the Taft was built for Martin Baum in 1820, just as photography was evolving from a scientific concept into something that would define our understanding of the world around us.

The first “permanent” photos (with fixed, lasting images) were made on pewter in 1826 by Nicéphore Niépce. Henry Fox Talbot developed paper prints in England in 1834. Louis Daguerre introduced his revolutionary daguerreotype images in 1839.

The world outside Baum’s mansion on the edge of downtown Cincinnati was increasingly intrigued with the possibilities offered by photography. Not so much inside the house. Nonetheless, the birth of photography and the growth of the home that would become the center of Nicholas Longworth’s Cincinnati-based empire happened side by side.

Typically, this traveling exhibit is displayed in a strictly chronological order. But the Taft’s curators have given it a bit more shape, refining the presentation into sections such as “Photography as Modern Art,” “Innovative European Photographers” and “Social Justice and Documentary Photography.”

We start in a dimly lit room at the outset of photographic history, beginning with the earliest photos, where simply preserving a photographic image on a piece of paper was regarded as something of a miracle. Along the way, we witness the discoveries of various visionaries who see new possibilities through the lens and the beginnings of manipulated photographs.

Even those with the most modest interest in photography have probably come across many of these photos before. This is, in many ways, a collection of “best of” images.

Perhaps no image in the exhibition speaks to the show’s title more aptly than Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1932 “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare.” It’s a simple image of a man attempting to leap over a flooded sidewalk. But it is a perfect example of what Cartier-Bresson called a “decisive moment.” We can see that the man’s foot is going to land in the water. But his reflection in the still surface of the puddle is so perfect that the impending splatter of water is a non-issue. If you keep searching the frame, you’ll see a dance poster in the background that complements the man’s leap. It’s a brilliant and unforgettable image and was destined to become one of Cartier-Bresson’s best-known.

Robert Frank, “Trolley – New Orleans,” 1955, Bank of America Collection, © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation, from The Americans
Robert Frank, “Trolley – New Orleans,” 1955, Bank of America Collection, © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation, from The Americans

There are others:

That image of the dancer mentioned above? The performer is modern dance pioneer Martha Graham caught in another decisive moment by photographer Barbara Morgan in 1940. In her “Letter to the World,” Graham leans forward and, as she sweeps one leg back and her dress, for a brief moment, creates an arresting semi-circular shape.

Robert Frank’s 1955 “Trolley – New Orleans” captures, in the briefest of moments, a searing commentary on American society. We see four mini-portraits in the open windows of a trolley, from the cold stare of a well-dressed white woman in front to a pair of working-class Black people sitting – of course – in the back of the bus.

In addition to these are Walker Evans’ harrowing Depression-era photos of despair and Lewis Wickes Hines’ early 20th-century images of children forced to work in mines to W. Eugene Smith’s haunting “Spanish Wake” from his well-known “Spanish Village” series.

This isn’t one of those photography supershows that pack galleries from opening to closing. It’s too intimate for that. Too quiet. But then, that is what the Taft often offers to us. A place of solace, a space to reflect on the serene brilliance around us.

taftmuseum.org


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