Installation shot of the Boston MFA’s “Modernist Photography” (all photos by author)

The artistic avant garde is often a pretty insular group — when you’re doing something new, odds are that few people besides your immediate friends and collaborators know what’s up. A jewel box of an exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts proves just how small the art world is with Modernist Photography 1910-1950, a show that’s just as much about the aesthetic (and physical) interrelationships between artists as it is about the advent of modernist photography in the United States.

Modernist Photography attempts to pin down the transition from a soft-focused, romantic aesthetic of photography to the straight-shot, clear-eyed approach of the modernists, accepting the camera as its own art-making tool. The curators pin that transition to the year 1910, with the emergence of dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his protégés Edward Steichen and Charles Sheeler (perhaps better known as a painter) and their West Coast counterparts Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. A rare case, Modernist Photography’s curatorial statement actually understates what the exhibition accomplishes; beyond examining the changing aesthetics of photography, the show gives a cross-media look at how this new sensibility filtered through a social group of artists, artists who became major voices in photography and painting.

The show might just as well have been called Stieglitz and his Playmates. Fellow artists, lovers and friends pop up both as portrait subjects and as creators themselves in the exhibition, from Stieglitz’s wife painter Georgia O’Keeffe to fellow associates at the seminal 291 gallery like Steichen and Paul Strand, whose wife Rebecca is the subject of several nudes by Stieglitz, shot while they were all on vacation together in upstate New York. The cross-pollination is pretty sexy, and it divulges a backside to the art world that curators don’t often approach — the cliques, flings, in-fighting and inspiration-taking that comes as a consequence of a niche community.

At left, a Georgia O’Keeffe landscape, at left, Charles Sheeler’s sketches of his wife

The scene becomes clear in the visual echoes between works and in the show’s label text, which straight-facedly includes lines like this one about photographer Dorothy Norman: she is “perhaps best known for her long relationship with Alfred Stieglitz; late in his life, he became her mentor and lover.” Sure, it’s all about the changing aesthetics of photography. But isn’t this more fun? Steichen’s portrait of future wife Dana was “likely inspired by Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe,” as were Paul Strand’s own portraits of Rebecca. One imagines Strand getting jealous that Stieglitz shot his wife’s portrait. Or maybe just a case of mutual appreciation? Either way, it’s totally juicy.

It also helps that the work on display in Modernist Photography is just about the opposite of what you’d expect from such a dry title. These are fleshy works, portraits that pin down the wrinkles of a face, nudes that trace the contours of skin and volumes of the body. The mechanical aesthetic that formed another wellspring of the modernist aesthetic is largely submerged for a more intimate, physical collection of work. Close observation is still the name of the game, as it is with Stieglitz’s vertiginous photos of New York City skyscrapers and O’Keeffe’s paintings of the same, but here, the subject that most entranced these artists was themselves, and we’re all better off for it. Nowhere is the messy give and take of an art movement more apparent than in the striking juxtaposition (seen above) of  an O’Keeffe canvas with a grid of Charles Sheeler drawings. O’Keeffe’s dusky mountains have the same wrinkles, folds and mass of Sheeler’s sketches, traced from the artist’s own close-up photos of the landscape of his wife’s curves.

Modernist Photography 1910-1950 is open at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts through July 3, 2011.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...