Wednesday, March 26, 2008

On View: Letting the world come in: Lida Moser

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Courtesy of Fraser Gallery
Taken in 1950 as part of Moser’s ‘‘Québec Diary,” this photo of nine siblings shows the artist’s casual but calculated approach to her subjects.
For photographer Lida Moser, being able to ‘‘let the world in” is key to her art. During those heady post-World War II years in New York City when many American artists were forging new paths in modern art, Moser was among those breaking new ground in the way they used a camera. As she put it, ‘‘I open the lens, and let life come in.”

A retrospective of Moser’s 60-year career is now on view at Fraser Gallery in Bethesda. One of the most important photographers in America, her work encompasses pioneering efforts in documentary photojournalism, portraiture, fashion and theater photography, special effects in black and white and color, and architectural photography. Her photographs, which have been exhibited worldwide, are in the permanent collections of prestigious museums and institutions in England, Scotland, Québec and New York, as well as D.C.’s Corcoran and Phillips galleries, the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Vintage and lifetime prints continue to be collected by individuals and museums, and have sold for thousands of dollars at auction.

In the Fraser exhibit, Moser’s relationship to French photographer Eugène Atget can be seen in photos of Edinburgh, Scotland, taken for Vogue magazine in 1949, especially in one showing a narrow street, or ‘‘close,” seen through an archway. The early influence of Atget and of American photographer Walker Evans steered Moser toward a clarified and systematic approach to subject matter. As the exhibit makes clear, this approach is characterized by an observer’s distance, exactly calibrated to achieve a casual, but perfectly organized, view of any scene. Conversely, her connection to the human element in her photos, balancing distance and warmth, distinguishes her from her mentors.

Moser’s particular way of seeing through the lens is most evident in her portraiture and in her now famous photo essays of Québec made for Vogue (and subsequently for Look) in 1950. This project, comprised of more than 2,000 photos, and later acquired as a national treasure by Les Archives Nationales de Québec, documented the province still largely untouched by the modernization that would soon come there. The people in these photos live and breathe, conveying an intensely felt sense of time and place. Moser’s directness of approach was in part made possible because she could hide, ‘‘invisible behind the camera,” while her subjects’ attention was directed to her serendipitous companions on this adventure: Paul Gouin, then Cultural Minister of Canada, and two folklorists whom she happened to meet soon after arriving in Montreal.

Some of the Québec pictures, a few of them vintage prints, are in the Fraser exhibit. In a photo like ‘‘Brothers and Sisters,” showing the nine children of a carpenter, this combination of the casual and the composed is very clear. The dark-haired girl in the center, with her striped apron, provides a focal point, holding the composition tightly together. In Canada, her driving ambition was ‘‘to find what is most personal, and simultaneously, most universal, about a place, a people.” In another photo, two young girls hold a cat in a small garden. What is so remarkable is that in an image that could have been merely cute, Moser managed to find something profound. Complementing these photos is an insightful video made by Canadian filmmaker Joyce Borenstein showing more images from the two Québec essays. A video documentary of Moser speaking about her life and her work made by Lizzie Donahue over the past 10 years is also on display.

Among the portraits in the exhibit are one of photographer Berenice Abbott (1965), of painter Alice Neel (1975) and of James Levine and Leonard Bernstein playing pianos opposite each other (1987). The 1949 photo of Scottish painter Sir William Gillies, holding one of his paintings, is a masterpiece. Moser snapped the picture at precisely the moment when the glint in his eye reveals his slightly mischievous character, behind a façade of respectability.

A small photo from a 1969 trip to the island of Grenada shows two women beneath a tree that has grown sideways because of wind. This high-contrast, nearly surreal image sets the tree, a dark shape resembling a cloud, against a starkly white sky. It is a gem.

A number of photos of New York from different dates are included here, such as the view of ‘‘19th St. and 5th Ave.” (1949), and one showing laundry hanging in an alley (1998). Although after 1960, Moser worked extensively in commercial photography, her art continued to develop in the direction in which it began. The bold lines of the George Washington Bridge are softened in a photo taken in foggy conditions (1968). The enlargement resulted in a grainy quality Moser says she liked and used elsewhere for its textural effect. It can be seen defining the New York skyline in another large print, ‘‘Leaving JFK on the LIE” (1970), which is also striking for its calibrated distance, tightly conceived composition and tonal range.

‘‘Letting life come in,” and being open to experiment and chance, have been Moser’s aims throughout her long career. She wrote about it succinctly: ‘‘I yearn to capture the invisible, the breath of life, the heart-beat, and by whatever means; magic, technique and passion to strive to get it through the lens and onto the film...and pray that it will imprint itself on the negative.”