ICP at 50 Celebrates the Power of the Image

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the International Center of Photography has mounted “ICP at 50: From the Collection, 1845-2019,” a palate-whetting smorgasbord of a show, with 170 pictures that illustrate the history and breadth of the medium, from 19th-century daguerreotypes to 21st-century Conceptual art.

Wide ranging as it is, the show tilts toward the photojournalistic. Considering the center’s origins, that’s not surprising. In 1966, the photographer Cornell Capa — the younger brother of Robert Capa, the pre-eminent war photojournalist — founded the International Fund for Concerned Photography as a traveling museum without a building. In 1974, he transformed it into the International Center of Photography, the first New York museum dedicated to the art.

His devotion to “concerned photography” bucked a trend. In 1967, the Museum of Modern Art staged “New Documents,” an exhibition that welcomed a new generation of photographers who aimed, in the words of its curator John Szarkowski, “not to persuade but to understand.” Capa instead celebrated photographers who sought to change minds in the pursuit of social progress.

In a practical sense, when he established the ICP, he wanted first to find a home for the archive of his brother and three photojournalists who had also died young in the line of duty. “The other impulse was for concerned photography that said something about what was happening in the world,” David E. Little, the executive director of the ICP, said in a recent phone interview. “Yet the interesting thing is, if you look at the history of exhibitions, ICP always addressed photography in all of its forms.”

In its first year, along with to-be-expected exhibitions of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s reportage in the Soviet Union, portraits of Chicago workers attributed to Lewis W. Hine, and W. Eugene Smith’s pictures of mercury-poisoning victims in Minamata, Japan, the ICP mounted an early show of holography and a survey of color Polaroids.

The center is democratic in outreach as well as outlook. Despite frequent financial challenges (expenses have surpassed revenues in recent years), it offers robust education and lecture programs.

It continues to embrace photography with inclusive arms. “There is always pressure in an art museum for Art with a capital A,” Little said. “Our ability to have a freedom with images and explore them with our audience is very different.”

During photography’s climb to acceptance as a fine art, which accelerated around 1970, it ran the risk of becoming precious and solipsistic, as manifested in an arid exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015,” filled with pictures taken by artists who engaged with the world at a remove, from the cloister of their studies or the internet. The ICP favors photographers who go out and explore.

But in consequence, the exhibition also reveals shortfalls in the collection. There is little abstraction on view, not many landscapes or still lifes, few digitally constructed or manipulated images. And there is scant representation of fashion photography (although a concurrent show, “David Seidner: Fragments, 1977-99,” displays the work of a fashion photographer who died of AIDS-related illnesses).

Alongside work by recognizable names, the exhibition highlights anonymous tintypes, especially of African Americans. But even when displaying the famous, the curator Elisabeth Sherman has uncovered anomalous shots. The ICP owns about 13,000 prints and 7,000 negatives by Weegee (Arthur Fellig). Rather than select a crime scene or Coney Island crowd picture, Sherman took one from 1963, late in his life, during a stint as a photographer on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Starkly lit by Weegee’s trademark flash, the portrait of the actor Peter Bull as the open-mouthed, bulging-eyed Soviet ambassador fits squarely in his delightfully lurid body of work.

“We felt ICP audiences might be familiar with that photographer,” Sherman said. “This wasn’t a picture most people knew, and it points to politics and to celebrity culture.”

For Andre Kertesz, she chose early rather than late: a modernist image he made in his 20s, before leaving Hungary, of a swimmer wearing a horizontally banded suit that contrasts with the squiggly light reflections in the water. There are also signature images: Robert Capa’s death-defying shot of soldiers landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day and Cartier-Bresson’s classic photograph of children (and a man of hefty embonpoint) in Madrid, in front of a wall with randomly placed windows.

Cornell Capa prized the ability of photography to record history. The exhibition charts the AIDS epidemic: a patient on his sickbed from Rosalind Fox Solomon’s disturbingly intimate series of portraits, a political poster by the activist artist collective Gran Fury and a large print by Brian Weil, so high contrast and grainy that the dark-uniformed arm and bright badge of a policeman apprehending a thin, white-clad ACT UP demonstrator assumes emblematic gravitas.

Other photographs raise questions. Although photographs are popularly imagined to be more truthful than words, in fact they are just as malleable. Without a lengthy caption, a photograph is often ambiguous. What was the Greenwich Village “sandstorm” that Ruth Orkin shot in 1949? Is the toddler photographed by Peter Magubane with his arms outstretched in a wicker bassinet really preaching, as the title says, to the crowd of babies in a South African orphanage? Did Gustav Klutsis’ constructivist photomontage (which became a poster) of the heads of a deceased Lenin and a young Stalin, placed between industrial machinery, succeed in galvanizing support for the Soviet leadership?

One of the earliest photographs in the show is an anonymous photographer’s carte de visite from 1864 of the abolitionist Sojourner Truth, which she sold to support herself and her cause. And one of the most recent is a bare-breasted self-portrait by Nona Faustine in which she stands in Lower Manhattan in 2016, holding a sign that refers to a speech by Sojourner Truth: “Ain’t I a Woman?” Separated by a century and a half and an incalculable distance of self-consciousness, they are two performances — the first in the pursuit of political action, the second as social commentary — that mark their historical moments and remind us of the manifold possibilities of photography.

ICP at 50: From the Collection, 1845-2019

Through May 6, International Center of Photography, 79 Essex Street, Manhattan; (212) 857-0000; icp.org

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