Explore Act of Sight: The Tsiaras Family Photography Collection - Exhibitions

Explore Act of Sight: The Tsiaras Family Photography Collection

“No one else can ever see quite what you have seen,” wrote photographer Aaron Siskind. “The picture that emerges is unique, never before made, never to be repeated … It came into being as an instant act of sight.” The photographs in the Tsiaras Family Photography Collection, in all their great variety, capture fleeting moments of the human experience and reflections on the natural world. Promised to the Colby College Museum of Art in 2020, and featuring paragons of the medium’s technical, artistic, and documentary potential, the collection spans from the late nineteenth century to the present and encompasses five hundred photographs by one hundred photographers.

This deeply personal and wide ranging collection was assembled over the last twenty-five years by Dr. William Tsiaras and Nancy Meyer Tsiaras, Colby alumni from the class of 1968. A renowned ophthalmologist and medical professor, Dr. Tsiaras has had a long and successful career helping others to see better. In poetic resonance, his vision and generosity formed the foundation of the photography collection at Colby in the early 2000s. Over the last two decades, he has helped grow these holdings into one of the museum’s most vibrant and widely accessed groups of work. The capstone gift of the Tsiaras Family Photography Collection ensures that photography will be an ongoing focus of study at Colby College for generations to come.

Image: Gyorges Kepes, Juliet with Peacock Feather, 1937-38. Gelatin silver print. The Tsiaras Family Photography Collection, 110.2020

Show How the People Live

Established in New York City in 1936 by the photographers Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn, the Photo League was a cooperative that offered instruction in photography and organized exhibitions, publications, and events. Many of the Photo League’s original members were raised in immigrant households, and the Great Depression was a defining experience for the group as a whole, informing its paired commitment to art photography and social change. In 1939, the photographer Margaret Bourke-White urged the cooperative to “show how the people live,” a phrase that aptly characterizes the work of such key Photo League practitioners as Libsohn, Lewis Hine, Aaron Siskind, Arthur Leipzig, Walter Rosenblum, and Helen Levitt, all of whom are represented in the Tsiaras Collection. 

The Photo League remained active during World War II and its members created enduring images during this period. Nonetheless, following the war, the U.S. attorney general added the cooperative to a list of organizations and people associated with “totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive” activities, a claim based on the Photo League’s support of social causes and a history of ties to the Communist Party of America. Blacklisted photographers associated with the group were unable to find employment and membership gradually declined. The Photo League closed its doors in 1951, yet its impact on how photography is taught and practiced reverberated for decades.

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A Desire to Know

One of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal initiatives, the Resettlement Administration was established in 1935 to address rural poverty. Renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937, the agency provided temporary housing for displaced farming families and migrants fleeing drought on the Great Plains. The economist Roy Stryker headed the FSA division that hired photographers and filmmakers to document rural hardship and life in the resettlement camps. “In this job and elsewhere,” Stryker later reflected, “I began to realize it was curiosity, it was a desire to know, it was the eye to see the significance around them. Very much what a journalist or a good artist is, is what I looked for.” The Tsiaras Collection features images by most of the FSA photographers, some of whom were also employed by the Works Progress Administration, which administered the Federal Art Project responsible for commissioning portrayals of workers and infrastructure projects in a modernizing United States.

In the commercial realm, documentary photographers were enlisted to promote industries and contribute to the expanding market for photo-illustrated magazines. The first issue of Life magazine was published in 1936 and featured a cover image of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana by Margaret Bourke-White, who earlier in the decade had photographed workers at the Leigh-Portland Cement facility. A group of photographers that included Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa joined forces in 1947 to establish Magnum Photos, an international collaborative that fed the growing demand for photographic realism. 

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Little America

The phrase “Little America,” which appears on a road sign that David Vestal photographed in 1966, derives from the name of the U.S. exploration base on Antarctica. In the 1930s, hotels and other businesses catering to travelers in the American West adopted the name, which evoked a mythic notion of frontier living during an era of expansionism. In the context of this exhibition, the phrase applies to the ways that photographers have captured conceptions of Americanness, place by place, often through a focus on street life and byways.

“Get close enough to fill up the picture with what’s most important,” Vestal advised. “Get far enough away to include everything you need in the picture. What’s important? You decide. It’s your picture; you’re the photographer. No one else can say what’s important to you.” With these and other pragmatic instructions, he encouraged seasoned and aspiring photographers alike to explore a medium well suited to an ethos of individualism. Vestal demonstrated this approach through his extensive documentation of New York City and his perspective on a burgeoning American car culture. Streetscape patterns and brilliant sunlight defined Henry Wessel’s portrayal of the Southwest. And Lauren Greenfield considers the experience of women in the public sphere, a subject she has explored in the United States and beyond. 

Exemplifying photography’s global reach, the collection also showcases American photographers working abroad in the context of their international peers.

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Being Seen

As an “act of sight,” photography is also an act of attention, however momentary. This section considers the “beings”be they humans or animals, with others or aloneas seen by a photographer. Some of these subjects pose and perform for the camera in group or individual portraits. James Van Der Zee photographed costumed dancers during a pause in a dress rehearsal; Arnold Newman portrayed the artist Max Ernst engulfed in a cloud of smoke on a throne-like chair. And since the 1960s, Lucas Samaras has united portraiture with photographic manipulation, revealing seemingly infinite permutations of the self. Through this decades-long project, Samaras attests to being “my own critic, my own exciter, my own director, my own audience,” and he approaches his portraits of friends and fellow artists with the same spirit of playfulness and experimentation.

Other photographic encounters are comparatively serendipitous, as if seized upon at the moment the camera shutter opens and closes. Impromptu photo shoots emerge out of the synergies of street life, play, and recreation. Elliott Erwitt’s camera met the steely gaze of a chihuahua on a walk in New York City; and a playground jungle gym provided the backdrop for Roz Gerstein’s image of the self-possessed Shirla, age ten. In contrast, some subjects either are or appear to be oblivious to the photographer’s presence, creating the sense that we are witnessing a private view of the experiences of others. For instance, David Vestal photographed a father and a son sharing a moment of joyous connection.

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Human-Altered Landscape

In 1975, the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House presented New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, an exhibition that included Joe Deal. In marked distinction to the idealized landscapes of Ansel Adams, the “new topographers,” as they came to be known, have been drawn to places marked by human interventions. Rather than photographing people, they have documented suburban sprawl, industrial sites, and the mundane “facts” of such architectural types as the roadside filling station. Objectivity and self-effacement are these photographers’ credos. “The world,” Deal observed, “is infinitely more interesting than any of my opinions concerning it.”

Other photographs take a more subjective view of the built environment, using scale, color, and, in some cases, digital manipulation to highlight the surreality of a contemporary ghost town or the eerie perfection of a prototypical subdivision. For photographers of the human-altered landscape, the past is visible in the present. “I’m not a believer in the future,” admits Robert Polidori. “I look at everything as archeology.”

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Friends in Photography

The extraordinary creative alliance between Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind began in Chicago and continued in Providence, Rhode Island, where both photographers were patients and close friends of Dr. Tsiaras. Born in 1912 in Detroit, Callahan was a largely self-taught photographer who joined the faculty of Chicago’s Institute of Design in 1946. In addition to photographing Chicago and other cities, he created iconic portraits of his wife, Eleanor. In 1951 Callahan hired Aaron Siskind, his senior by nearly a decade, to teach at the school, which had been absorbed by the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1949. Callahan left IIT in 1951 to head the photography department at the Rhode Island School of Design. A decade later Siskind joined him there, and the two photographers taught at RISD until each retired in the 1970s. 

Born in New York City in 1903, Siskind was employed as a high school English teacher when he became interested in photography. In 1933 he joined the Photo League. At midcentury, around the time he began working in Chicago, Siskind gravitated toward abstraction in dialogue with European modernism and trends in contemporary American painting. Both he and Callahan pioneered how photography was taught in the United States and through their work as instructors and practitioners they were instrumental in defining the scope and ambition of art photography in the second half of the twentieth century.

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Ansel Adams maintained that in his photographs of nature, “There are always two people . . . the photographer and the viewer.” This section takes pairings as its point of departure, highlighting images of friends, couples, parents and their children, and people photographed in the context of their work or chosen vocation. The duo of Leda and the Swan represent a mythic pair, while several portraits, including two self-portraits by Andy Warhol, signal the enduring malleability of this very modern subject.

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