Elvis Presley on the threshold of stardom. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in a decidedly modest early home. Scrawny Woody Allen walking alongside the towering fashion model and actress Tamara Dobson. And a panoply of images of more ordinary Americans amid some of our quirkier landscapes.
It’s all part of two photo exhibits this month at the Herter Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that play off one another in unusual ways. They both offer indelible images of America that gallery director Trevor Richardson says should be of interest to a broad audience, from connoisseurs of photography to students and others interested in United States popular culture.
“It’s an American Thing,” the larger of the two shows, is a group exhibit, mostly in black and white, featuring the work of 14 U.S. photographers dating back to the 1930s. Their subject? Vintage Americana, whether that’s defined by famous faces, cultural references or style.
The exhibit notes put it like this: “What is particularly American about these images? The vastness of our landscape, the glamour and mystery of our movie queens, the charm and character of our musicians and the skill of our great photographers, both famous and unknown.”
From a shot of a brooding Joan Crawford in 1934, to a 2007 picture of a man dressed liked Superman, side by side with a woman in heels and evening dress, as they walk down Hollywood Boulevard, the images reflect the style and diversity of America, said Richardson, as well as its unique weirdness.
“Is he going to a film shoot?” Richardson asked during a recent interview at the gallery, gesturing at the costumed man. “Or is he just out for a stroll? We don’t know, but it makes for a great picture.”
The second exhibit, “American Pie,” features color photos comparable to the one of the mysterious Superman. All are by Martin Parr, a British documentary photographer who specializes in images of daily life that gravitate somewhere between droll and uncomfortable. Parr has typically done extended documentary studies of locales around the world, focusing in particular on leisure activities. The photos in the UMass show were all taken in the U.S. between the mid -1990s and 2012.
“He’s got an unerring eye for eccentricity and a great sense of composition,” said Richardson, who’s a longtime admirer of Parr’s work. “He’s very good at [photographing] people unaware at a particular moment and revealing some larger theme through that, and leaving unresolved issues in the process.”
Richardson said he discovered “It’s an American Thing” this summer when it opened at the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York City, and arranged to bring it to UMass. He then also arranged to bring Parr’s photos to the university at the same time, believing the two shows would complement each other.
‘It’s an American Thing’
A big appeal of the “American Thing” show is that it presents its range of famous faces primarily in unguarded or casual moments. Three photographs of Elvis Presley, all taken in 1956 by Alfred Wertheimer, capture the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll at age 21, just as he was starting to make waves but before he’d become a national sensation.
In one, Presley sits in a chair on his porch at his Memphis, Tenn., home, a bottle of Pepsi curled in his right hand, looking back at the photographer with a bit of a scowl on his face, and something less identifiable. Is is apprehension? Uncertainty? Is he ready for the loss of privacy that comes with being a star?
In another picture, The King looks like an ordinary young man, standing on a train platform in Sheffield, Ala., waiting for his turn to buy lunch from a vendor selling fried chicken, milk and Hostess cupcakes. In the third image, there’s a reminder of life in the American South in that era: Presley sits, his back mostly turned, at a counter in a segregated cafe in Chattanooga, Tenn., while a black woman waits to be served at a separate part of the counter.
Another icon of the time, Newman, the actor, stands in front of a small stove in a modest Beverly Hills apartment; his wife, Woodward, stands behind him holding a dog in her arms. It’s 1958, and Newman is one of the hottest actors in Hollywood — he starred that year in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Elizabeth Taylor — but he looks nonchalantly déclassé, wearing a light windbreaker, dark shorts and loafers with white socks.
In an image by Phil Stern, actor John Wayne and director John Ford are shown in 1960 on the set of “The Alamo”; they stand just inside the doorway of a wood shack, Ford with a cigar in his mouth and Wayne indistinct, almost a silhouette, in the weak light. Across the gallery, former New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, seen in profile and from the front in his mirrored reflection, shaves while wearing nothing but his birthday suit (he’s visible from just below the waist on up).
One of his interns, Richardson noted, had no idea who Namath was: “She thought he was a porn star.”
The largest picture is of a more universally known face: actor James Dean, a black sweater pulled up to just beneath his eyes, his famously tousled hair filling the top of the frame.
Some other notable images include a 1956 photo of jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recording the album “Ella and Louis”; a weary looking vocalist Aretha Franklin, taking a cigarette break in a recording studio in 1968; and a 1996 color photo of artist Andrew Wyeth, then about 79, outside his weathered home in coastal Maine, as he walks with his back to the camera, a large sketchbook tucked beneath his left arm.
Martin Parr’s photos offer an immediate visual contrast to those in the first exhibit. Parr shoots mostly in super-saturated color, and he uses that rich look to highlight some of the comedic and ironic content of his photos.
As Richardson puts it, “Parr sees the flood of media images in the world as propaganda, so he wants to counter that with his own images, his own form of social commentary.”
Several of Parr’s photos depict scenes in Las Vegas and its bizarre fabricated environment. One shot shows a handful of tourists, one with a cartoonish image of James Dean on the back of her dungaree jacket, standing down the street from the Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino, with its part-size replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Montgolfier hot air balloon.
“Las Vegas Breakfast,” at 40-by-60 inches one of the larger pictures in the exhibit, is a lurid blowup of a platter of food apparently designed for one but that could easily feed three or more. An enormous pile of bacon, sausages, ham and hash appears to glisten with grease; two large servings of cottage cheese sit side by side, and the plate also includes a bagel, waffles and half a canned peach.
Perhaps the most arresting image, though, is of an older couple in a Vegas hotel lobby swimming in competing floral patterns: on the carpet, a rug, the wallpaper and the upholstered chairs the man and woman sit in. They look to be in their late 50s or early 60s, the man with a big belly, T-shirt, dungarees and work boots, the woman with her hair in a severe bun and glasses.
They have the grim, unsmiling look of a long-married couple. Their chairs are separated by a small table and lamp, and the two don’t appear to be in any hurry to get closer. In the end, the photo offers an amusing contrast to the slick ads that hype the sinful pleasures of Las Vegas with the tagline, “What happens here stays here.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at email@example.com.
“It’s an American Thing” and “American Pie” can be seen at the Herter Gallery through Nov. 29. Hours are Mondays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. The gallery is in Herter Hall at UMass. For information, call 545-0111.