Lusha Nelson’s art career was brief, but prolific. In the 1930s as a staff photographer for Condé Nast publications including Vogue and Vanity Fair, he captured icons like Katharine Hepburn and Jesse Owens with a direct elegance, always avoiding retouching or manipulation of his portraits. He mingled with Alfred Stieglitz and was mentored by Edward Steichen; he was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1937 photography survey; he surveyed the streets of Depression-era New York with a documentarian eye; and he even once ran away with the circus, following Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey from Manhattan to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
So why don’t many people remember his name? After a quick rise from teenaged Latvian immigrant to successful modernist photographer, Nelson died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 30 in May of 1938. Most of his archives were stored in private hands, the majority of them later purchased at a 1980s estate sale. It wasn’t until a 2015 acquisition of over 4,000 of his prints, negatives, and archival materials by the Philbrook Museum of Art that the breadth of his work was exhumed. Now the Tulsa, Oklahoma museum is exhibiting Nelson’s first retrospective, called Lusha Nelson Photographs: Celebrity, the Forgotten Man, and 1930s America, part of a decade-long initiative by the institution to retrieve and contextualize his legacy.
Scott Stulen, director and president of Philbrook, writes in a catalogue foreword that it “marks the beginning of a long-term project as Philbrook seeks to discover the full extent of Nelson’s production and to situate him and his work within the lively New York photography scene of the 1930s.”
For those who can’t make it to Tulsa, the exhibition catalogue is online. Co-curated by Catherine Whitney, Philbrook’s chief curator and curator of American art, and Sarah Lees, curator of European art, the exhibition introduces visitors to this overlooked artist through five themed sections: biography, portraits, New York City, “for hire,” and “entertainment & leisure.” Portraits of artists like Stieglitz, Edward Hopper, Diego Rivera, and Marcel Duchamp, mingle alongside street scenes of New York, where homelessness and poverty contrast to the striking silhouette of the Chrysler Building and a night skyline glittering like a constellation of stars.
While his documentary photographs are interesting in their perspective on the 1930s, it’s Nelson’s portraits that are especially engaging. Sometimes dramatically lit, they focus intensely on the landscape of the human face. As Steichen once wrote, he “did not try to interpret his subject, he simply photographed.” Actress Jean Arthur is posed in profile beneath a Greek-style bust in a 1935 image, the sculpture emphasizing the classical angles of her face; a shot of Jesse Owens from that year shows the athlete from below, as if he’s in racing motion, a calm determination in his eyes. Some of the acquired archives at the Philbrook demonstrate how Nelson could portray the complexity of a subject. One of his 1935 portraits of Joe Louis is at the National Portrait Gallery, the boxer seen with his gloves raised, perhaps preparing for an upcoming fight. In another image from the same session, Louis is hunched over, his gloves off, the wounds of previous matches seeming to haunt his face.
“The photographs in this exhibition point to an accomplished yet still-emerging artist who observed and absorbed the styles of the colleagues around him, from Steichen’s clear-eyed realism to George Hoyningen-Huene’s glowing, fashionable glamour,” write the curators in the catalogue. “Although in his abbreviated career Nelson may not have fully realized the promise demonstrated in these works, he still left a lasting mark on the visual culture of the time.”
Lusha Nelson Photographs: Celebrity, the Forgotten Man, and 1930s America continues at the Philbrook Museum of Art (2727 South Rockford Road, Tulsa, Oklahoma) through May 14.