By Mason Klein
192 pages, hardcover, $45
Published by Yale University Press
Published as an exhibition catalog for New York’s Jewish Museum, Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine is a lavishly illustrated exploration of how midcentury mass visual culture reflected rapid societal changes, and how the boom in sophisticated large-circulation full-color magazines changed both photography and graphic design irrevocably.
The book’s first essay, written by senior curator Mason Klein, traces the subject’s origins back to the interwar European avant-gardes and follows some of the figures who emigrated to the United States. Klein covers important contextual ground while introducing key names, including art directors Alexey Brodovitch, Alexander Liberman and Mehemed Fehmy Agha; innovative photographers like Richard Avedon, William Klein and Irving Penn; and the most influential magazines, Vogue, Fortune, Harper’s Bazaar and Life.
The other three essays are more specific. Maurice Berger explores the question of identity, and especially looks at race in the powerful works of leading African American photographer Gordon Parks. Leslie Camhi considers gender representations through the rise of women’s magazines, and the rare opportunities they offered women designers and photographers, such as Cipe Pineles, Lillian Bassman and Margaret Bourke-White. The final essay, by Marvin Heiferman, places the subject within a wider societal and political context.
The essays, all well written and accessible, provide multiple perspectives alongside the familiar story of European émigrés thriving in the United States. As a study in how the clash of cultures, art and commerce, and words and pictures can result in innovation and beauty, Modern Look is a timely book on a golden age. —Theo Inglis