"INDUSTRY AS theater."
That's the way curator Stephen Bennett Phillips describes the tenor of the dramatically lit photographs of airplane propellers, plow blades and spark-lit steel mills in "Margaret Bourke-White: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936," a fine and insightful new exhibition at the Phillips Collection dedicated to the early work of the pioneering photojournalist.
"Industry as porn" might be a better way to put it. Sure, it's showbiz and chorus lines here, with walls of artfully heaped aluminum wire and rows of gleaning industrial machinery standing in for the elaborate stage sets and chorines of a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. It's gorgeous, too, in the transcendent, romanticized way of the movie musical. But it also drools and leers, and more than a little bit, over the skyscrapers, smokestacks and (figuratively speaking) churning pistons of the Machine Age.
When people come into the picture, it gets even weirder.
There, the mania of Bourke-White's object fetishism and her preoccupation with the conveyor belt and the myth of American plenty (even in the midst of a depression), combined with a sensibility that elevated composition uber alles, produce some rather strange results. This is never clearer than when she shoots factory workers -- peeling onions, for instance, in a 1935 image of a Campbell Soup plant, or making "Red Hot" frankfurters for Armour in a 1934 shot.
In Bourke-White's settings, the workers are less human beings than automatons. They forgo the caricatured smiles of the happy drudge, side-stepping an apotheosis of the noble laborer that would almost certainly have been taken as too far-fetched, even in an age when you were considered fortunate to have any job. But neither are these toilers covered with the sweat (and raw meat) that one might expect in this line of work. They stand (or sit) and do their jobs, as joylessly and uncomplainingly, yet as efficiently, as the equipment around them.
Sausage, it has been said, is like legislation. Nobody wants to see either being made. Here, however, you do. The slaughterhouse is a clean, well-lit, almost beatific place as captured by Bourke-White's lens.
Check out the man in "Ford Motor: Open Hearth Mill," a silhouetted figure bowing his fedora-capped head in an attitude of seeming prayer before the apparatus of the automotive plant. Backlit by the glow of molten steel (and, quite possibly, by the magnesium flares Bourke-White slipped in to supplement available light in situations of low illumination), her subject seems in awe of his surroundings -- except that he is not, properly speaking, her subject.
Bourke-White, in those days, was known not for her affinity for man but for the man-made. Commissioned by industry -- Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Otis Steel, Aluminum Company of America, Owens-Illinois Glass, NBC and Pan American Airways, to name a few of her corporate patrons -- to create portfolios that in a sense eroticized what they made, Bourke-White made a name for herself not as a photographer of flesh and blood but of metal, concrete, wood and glass.
Even though her pictures of Russian workers, taken during one of three trips to the Soviet Union, seem less posed than some of the artist's American assignments, they possess a temperament, a kind of sex appeal, if you will, that is one step closer to Herb Ritts than Walker Evans.
Despite its undeniable beauty, Bourke-White's early work is problematic.
Even during her lifetime, it was criticized as too posed. Though an exquisitely composed tableau, "Safety -- Child on Tricycle," produced for Goodyear and depicting a woman in the moment of frantically waving an automobile away from an oblivious little girl, is an utterly laughable case in point. And, while author James Agee considered Bourke-White susceptible to what Phillips calls, in his catalogue essay, the "urge to make politically manipulative photographs," it seems likelier that her careful attention to framing, lighting and composition -- to design, in short -- was less the result of a desire to make a political statement than a profoundly aesthetic one.
After all, isn't that what all artists used to do?
MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE: The Photography of Design, 1927-1936 -- Through May 11 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-387-2151. www.phillipscollection.org. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 to 5; Thursday evenings to 8:30; Sundays noon to 7. $7.50, seniors and students $4, 18 and under free; on Thursdays, admission is $5 after 5. Individual advance tickets are available through Ticketmaster at 202-432-7328 and www.ticketmaster.com (service charges added).
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Thursday at 6 and 7 -- Gallery Talk: "Margaret Bourke-White's Daring Images of Industrial Dynamos." Free with admission.
March 6 at 6:30 -- Film screening: " 'The Grapes of Wrath' and the 1930s." Free with admission.
March 13 at 6:30 -- Film screening: "Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White." Free with admission.
March 18 at 6:30 -- Lecture: New York Times photography critic and Bourke-White biographer Vicki Goldberg will discuss "Documentary Photography and Photojournalism in the 1930s." $15. To register, call 202-387-2151, EXT. 266.
April 3 from 6 to 7:30 -- "Advancements in Photographic Technology: From Margaret Bourke-White's Large-Format Cameras to the Latest Digital Techniques." Experts from Penn Camera demonstrate the differences between the cameras of the 1920s and 1930s and those of today. Free with admission.
May 8 at 6 and 7 -- "Margaret Bourke-White's Eyes on Russia: A Glimpse Inside Stalin's Soviet Union." Mary Hannah Byers, curatorial assistant at the Phillips Collection and a PhD in Russian and East European studies, discusses Bourke-White's three journeys to the Soviet Union. Free with admission.