WELLESLEY – The test of an artistic era or style isn’t its masters. Genius eludes category. It isn’t the hacks either. Mediocrity, or worse, occludes category. It’s those practitioners in the middle, maybe not celebrated but by no means negligible. If their work is strong, then it’s a good bet that so’s the era or style they belong to.
Charlotte Brooks — hadn’t heard of her? me neither — shows just how good postwar photojournalism was. She’s the subject of “Charlotte Brooks at Look, 1951-1971,” which runs at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum through Dec. 18.
Brooks wasn’t one of the high-fliers at Magnum or Time-Life. She worked for Look, which was to Life as Newsweek was to Time, only less so. That was one strike against her. Another was being a woman. There were notable female photojournalists during the ’50s and ’60s — Eve Arnold, Inge Morath — but they had a much harder row to hoe than their brethren. How much harder? Brooks was the only full-time female staff photographer at Look during the magazine’s 34-year history.
Brooks had 450 assignments over the course of her two decades at the magazine. To give a sense of her work at Look, curator Ileana Selejan has organized the show’s 68 images (almost all are black and white) in canny fashion: as eight photo-essays. That format was Look (Life, too) at its most characteristic. In addition, there are 20 contacts sheets and nine vintage copies of the magazine.
Three aspects of Brooks’s work come through most clearly.
Her style has a consistent immediacy and sense of personality. Without ever sentimentalizing, Brooks emphasizes the human element.
This nicely complements what she described as her “sociological” approach. The people she photographs — whether famous, like Duke Ellington or the Cuban singer La Lupe, or little known — always remain individuals. Yet she invariably places them in some larger social context. In that sense, she made the most of the essay part of a photo-essay.
Finally, and most striking, Brooks manages to seem at once very much of her time and ahead of it. A 1955 photograph of Ellington in Florida playing baseball with his musicians in front of the band bus has obvious anecdotal interest. The interest becomes that much greater, for quite different reasons, when you notice the word atop a nearby motel sign: “Colored.”
The politics of race are even more explicit eight years later, with “A New Job for Joan.” Joan Murray was an African-American woman working as a secretary on the CBS show “Candid Camera” (the great-grand-daddy of reality TV?). “Mad Men” meets “A Raisin in the Sun.” With its reductively liberal uplift, the photo-essay seems very much of its time. Then you notice the last image: Murray — attractive, modishly dressed — unable to get a cab to stop for her, and it’s not because all the taxis are taken. That’s something, and all that it signifies, which hasn’t changed.
“A New Job for Joan” could seem patronizing, as could a 1966 photo essay about a young woman in St. Louis trying to square the demands of a job with those of single motherhood. But they don’t. The most affecting image in the exhibition shows mother and son embracing when she picks him up after work. He’s practically tackling her. It’s Brooks’s knack for finding real emotion within what might otherwise be a reductive formula that makes the photo-essays so effective.
The feminist aspect of Brooks’s career connects to Wellesley conceptually. “Partners in Design: Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson” does so familially. Before he became founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Barr taught art history at Wellesley, where he offered the first college course anywhere on modern art. Before becoming one of the most prominent postwar architects, Johnson was MoMA’s first director of architecture. He was also the son and brother of Wellesley graduates.
The show excitingly captures that heady period from, say, 1930 to 1950, when Modernism managed to be both aesthetically revolutionary and socially influential. It wasn’t just paintings and buildings that were on the artistic cutting edge, but also furniture and appliances. Form following function was at once credo and selling point. The clearest sign of just how successful the design revolution that Barr and Johnson helped bring about is how familiar the various items here look.
On display are objects ranging from one of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chairs to a Walter Dorwin Teague cash register (surely, never has ka-ching sounded so stylish) to an Isamu Noguchi table lamp. A 1938 set of dorm furniture designed by Marcel Breuer for Bryn Mawr College nods to Seven Sisters solidarity.
As good as both “Charlotte Brooks” and “Partners” are, the biggest cause of excitement at the Davis is the just-unveiled rehanging of its permanent collection. Some 620 items are now exhibited, double the previous number. In this case, more is more. Even better, the sense of flow to the galleries is almost as impressive as what’s on the walls.
CHARLOTTE BROOKS AT LOOK, 1951-1971
PARTNERS IN DESIGN: ALFRED H. BARR JR. AND PHILIP JOHNSON
At Davis Museum, Wellesley College, 106 Central, St., Wellesley, through Dec. 18. 781-283-2051, www.wellesley.edu/davismuseum
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.