“Capturing Culture” is an exhibition that looks at the different ways photographers have presented and embodied style and popular culture in the last half-century. It touches upon the photographers’ unique methods of finding a voice to capture notable personalities and celebrities as well as cultural artifacts like fashion; presenting the arbiters of style and taste that arrest the desires of our imagination.
In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. and Europe experienced unprecedented economic growth and prosperity which generated an upper middle class that demonstrated an interest in the arts, fashion, and popular culture. Concurrently, air travel became more common – and Americans and Europeans became exposed to each other’s cultures thus developing a cross-fertilization of culture. Photographers such as Horst, Steichen, Huene, Penn, Horvat, Elgort and Newton, were able to flourish due to the advent and growth of weekly and monthly glossy magazines that helped to broadcast the latest trendsetting personalities and the creations of fashion houses, and jewelers. There was a general sentiment that life was improving. Science, technology, and industry were seen as agents that enhanced our lives and elevated our lifestyles. Culture was a reward and a validation of success – and these photographers created a desire on the viewers’ part to participate in this privileged life.
Fashion and the arts were disseminated and popularized mainly through the creative energy of prominent photographers, crafting pictures that had a lasting presence. “Capturing Culture” shows how photographers were able to distill what they viewed as memorable in a dynamic, changing world. From early 1950s images full of grace and refinement to the 1960s and 70s photographs showing revolution and youth-culture, to the more current images from the 1980s to the present, expanding in multiple directions, photography was not a neutral endeavor. The photographers were part of the star-making machinery; they mythologized musicians, actors, artists as well as fashion styles. Rather than being archivists, they were inventors of their own kind of drama. Each photograph is made in its unique time and embodies the energies of its creator, but as we see the exhibition through a temporal perspective, we see the cultural changes taking place in the world. In “Capturing Culture” we get glimpses into a world that we wish to remember, demonstrating the strength of photography as an anchor of culture; it proved the medium’s capacity to produce an alternate reality where cultural capital would be built, sold, and defined by its images.
The present can echo the past and can build upon it or react against it, but the work of the notable photographers in this exhibition opens up a dialogue about how we view our world and what we see as the purpose and the significance of culture.