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On-Site Disaster

Exposing Calamity in Twentieth-Century Art Photography

Astrid Böger


Pages 607 - 624



This essay looks at twentieth-century American art photography as an important arena of the calamitous by focusing on scenes of death, decay, and disaster centrally featured in many photographs by a group of well-known artists. It begins by revisiting Walker Evans’s work for the Farm Security Administration, which depicts the human and economic disaster of the Great Depression so artfully that one could miss the sobering subject entirely. Next, with Weegee and Robert Frank the essay considers two photographers of the New York School, whose work broke with established conventions of art photography in different ways in their search of a more immediate as well as authentic approach to depicting calamity. It is further argued that a significant step in the history of photography occurred in the 1970s, when William Eggleston, with the help of MoMA curator John Szarkowski, introduced color into art photography and thus produced highly evocative images giving the entire medium a new hue. In its final part the essay turns to the provocative work ‘On This Site’ by Joel Sternfeld, which combines elements from all previous styles and yet manages to reposition American photography as a politically engaged art, enlisted here to commemorate unknown sites of violent deaths. One leitmotif connecting all photographs included here is the theme of traffic, both as a symbol of individual as well as national progress and simultaneously as a major site of man-made disaster. Moreover, each approach reflects a new way of representing traumatic incidents in the form of visual commemoration, leading to a rather different viewing experience in each case. Finally, each photographic oeuvre discussed below critically resonates with the ‘destructive sublime’ as theorized by Miles Orvell.

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