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September 5, 2000


UMBC's Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery presents "Power and Paper: Margaret-Bourke White, Modernity and the Documentary Mode," from Monday, September 11 through Saturday, December 9. The exhibition of 82 photographs by the groundbreaking photojournalist, war correspondent, industrial and architectural photographer was organized by the Boston University Art Gallery. Curator John R. Stromberg will present a lecture on Thursday, September 28 at 4 p.m. in the Gallery. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 12 noon to 4:30 p.m.; Thursday 12 noon to 8 p.m.; and Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. For more information call 410.455.2270.

Bourke-White's photograph of Fort Peck Dam appeared on the cover of Life's first issue; she was one of the first Fortune and Life photographers. "Power and Paper" focuses on a project which Bourke-White started as an assignment for Fortune, and then later for Life, covering International Paper's operation in Canada. The project turned into the most complete summation of Bourke-White's photographic powers in the 1930s when she received a commission from the International Paper Company to provide the photographs for Newsprint: A Book of Pictures Illustrating the Operations in the Manufacture of Paper on Which to Print the World's News.

Cynthia Wayne, curator of exhibitions for the Kuhn Library Gallery, says, "We are very fortunate to be able to host this fascinating exhibition of Margaret Bourke-White's photographs, especially as such a large display of her work is rarely seen in this region. The vintage photographs included in the show attest to Bourke-White's skillful ability to capture with her camera the aesthetic beauty and elegance of industrial objects, and also allow the viewer a rich opportunity to become better familiar with the signature photographic style which made Bourke-White famous."

Tom Beck, chief curator for the gallery, adds, "Margaret Bourke-White is one of the most respected and courageous photographers in the history of the medium, and was a pioneer among women photographers. She was an internationally renowned photojournalist who tirelessly and fearlessly took her camera where others dared not venture. She has served as a role model especially for the generations of women who have followed in her footsteps."

The exhibition title has a dual meaning. On one level, it refers directly to the subject of the photographs themselves; they are pictures of paper manufacture and power production at the International Paper and Power Company. But in a less direct way all photography is paper with power; it is the result of adding the perennially mysterious power of an image to a sheet of paper. The subtitle refers to Bourke-White's self-described transformation in the 1930s. She began the decade primarily interested in the amalgam of business, technology and modernist aesthetics that fall under the rubric of modernity. She joined in the growing chorus of machine-age enthusiasts who believed profoundly in technology's promise for a better future.

Bourke-White's photography developed through a Darwinian process of elimination whereby only the strong, effective photographs survived the criteria of her various editors to make it to publication. She seldom created work for the calm of a gallery wall, but rather designed her images to withstand the visual cacophony of a magazine. She arranged her subjects in the most compelling compositions possible, always striving for dramatic impact. The photographs in this exhibition demonstrate her continued use of dynamic, persuasive images even as her interest shifted from subjects mechanical in nature to those of human nature, and they illustrate the breadth of photographic practice she could bring to a single, if monumental, commission.

In May 1930 - the very month Bourke-White's first set of International Paper and Power photographs ran in Fortune - a Detroit newspaper featured her credo as part of an article they published about her: "I believe…that any great art which might be developed in this industrial age will come from industrial subjects, which are so powerful and sincere and close to the heart of life. It seems to me that huge machinery, steel girders, locomotives, etc., are so extremely beautiful because they were never meant to be beautiful….They are powerful because the industrial age which has created them is powerful and art, to be of any importance as a reflection of these times, must hold the germ of that power."

International Paper and Power Company, one of the largest paper producers in the world, commissioned Bourke-White to photograph their newsprint manufacturing operations in Canada in 1937. The company made a variety of papers in the United States but processed most of their newsprint (paper for printing newspapers) in Canada, where most of the world's newsprint was produced. Probably in preparation for their fortieth anniversary the following year, the parent company planned a 72-page, hard-bound promotional book to be published under the title Newsprint: A Book of Pictures Illustrating the Operations in the Manufacture of Paper on Which to Print the World's News. The book reaffirmed International Paper and Power's commitment to their newsprint operations at a time when their Canadian output levels reached an all-time high. Bourke-White had experience working on corporate publications, but nothing on the scale of this new book. Even her own books, hailed for their profuse reproductions, did not match Newsprint in terms of how many of her pictures were included. She heartily accepted International Paper's offer to work on a book that would rely heavily on approximately 80 of her photographs to cover the story.

Bourke-White made hundreds of prints from which the company could make selections for their book, and she used every mode of imagemaking then in her repertoire, including industrial, documentary, advertising, portraiture and aerial photography. The work she completed for this commission acts as an encyclopedia of her photographic endeavors. She also showed every state of newsprint production and the people involved in that production. As she worked, she seems to have gone beyond the commission's mandate. The scope of her interest expanded to capture the totality of the newsprint industry - not just the direct manufacture as was typical for a corporate commission, but the greater social ramifications of the mills' presence in people's lives.

The Kuhn Library's Special Collections houses more than 1.5 million photographs, as well as extensive holdings of books, apparatus and ephemera covering the entire history of photography from 1839 to the present. "UMBC is proud to hold seven rare publications of Bourke-White's work, and an important gravure portfolio of her images," says Beck.

This presentation of "Power and Paper" at UMBC has been generously supported by the Friends of the Library and Gallery, and by a program grant from the Maryland State Arts Council, an agency funded by the State of Maryland and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Posted by dwinds1 at September 5, 2000 12:00 AM