wary subject: Ann Zane Shanks’ Woman in Third Avenue
Zane Shanks: Behind the Lens
York State Museum, through Feb. 26, 2006
Zane Shanks: Behind the Lens, an exhibit of photographs
and a short film curated by Bonnie Yochelson for the New-York
Historical Society and now placed in a back gallery at the
New York State Museum, is not to be overlooked. Nearly all
the pictures date from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and they mostly
resemble other first-rate work from that period—but these
photographs are also first-rate, even if lesser known than
those by the top figures in photography of the time.
Zane Shanks was one of those special women of her generation
who broke with tradition to have both a high-powered career
and a family. It can be hard to believe that, before feminism,
this was not considered possible: To insist on “having it
all” was an act of bravery in the time before Gloria Steinem
(one of Shanks’ subjects), and Shanks’ work reveals both her
great courage and an equal degree of compassion.
Comprising about 70 black-and-white photographs (and one in
color), Behind the Lens revisits a time when social
issues were mainstream concerns and journalism meant radio
and daily newspapers and picture magazines (later replaced
by television) that just about everybody followed. Within
this context, Shanks combined a social worker’s sensitivity,
an activist’s passion and an artist’s eye to make beautiful
photographs that conveyed urgent messages.
With training in urban studies and encouragement from members
of the Photo League in New York, Shanks’ first major project
documented the soon-to-be-dismantled Third Avenue El in 1953,
capturing the faces of riders on their daily commute. This
work was shown in an exhibition at the Museum of the City
of New York in 1955.
A subsequent project, commissioned by the Housing Authority
in 1958, shows slum dwellers in Norfolk, Va., harking back
to the enormously important Farm Security Administration and
WPA photographic projects of the ’30s and ’40s that gave us
many unforgettable images by such greats as Dorothea Lange
and Walker Evans. In both projects, Shanks’ work compares
favorably to her renowned predecessors.
Shanks also had a theatrical background and connections to
the entertainment world, leading to regular assignments to
photograph stars and impresarios of Broadway, movies and television.
To these tasks she brought the same unpretentious approach
that informed her earlier work, resulting in remarkably natural,
yet powerful portraits of such personalities as Catherine
Deneuve, Jack Paar, Jason Robards and Judy Garland.
One particularly riveting example from this body of work (made
in the mid-1960s) is a portrait of a radiant 16-year-old Anjelica
Huston, captured in a moment of repose on the Austrian set
of a period film being shot by her father, John Huston. A
soft alpine landscape in the background and the lavishly embroidered
sleeve of her costume create an archaic European atmosphere,
which is then deliciously broken by Huston’s mod ’60s sunglasses
and long, black hair.
Speaking of the ’60s, the 12-minute film (in color) titled
Central Park is a real period piece in itself. Featuring
a jazzy soundtrack punctuated by snippets of trumped-up dialogue,
it celebrates the hippies, lovers, children and oldsters who
enjoy a day in the park at the height of the free-love era.
It was a time of innocence and awakening, which is both captured
in the film and represented by the film’s silly optimism and
broad humor. And here’s a bit of trivia for photo buffs: The
cameraman was a young Ralph Gibson (who would shortly go on
to distinguish himself in publishing and as a member of the
Leo Castelli stable, then judge the first Photography Regional
here in 1979).
Other public exposure of Shanks’ work is represented in the
exhibition by originals of magazines carrying photo essays
and her three books, published in 1973, 1975 and 1982; all
these are shown in glass display cases. Also presented are
pictures taken while traveling to Rome in 1954, to the Bahamas
in 1960, and to Israel in 1968. In these, she applies the
same sensitivities and polished use of black and white, resulting
in graphically potent and appealing images.
At the same time, Shanks, a native of Brooklyn, was photographing
on the streets of New York, where she found particular resonance
in the women she would find there. Several of these pictures
shine—but the best of them, and perhaps the best in the whole
exhibition, was taken of a woman in a Third Avenue doorway
in 1958. Here, we have a black-and-white photograph that resembles
nothing so much as a 16th-century Dutch painting: Atmospheric,
touching and emotionally true, this picture carries the essence
of what makes Shanks’ contribution matter. She is a wonderful
Gallery, through Sept. 11
In an impressive display of the power of painting
for its own sake, Ghent-based Peter Acheson presents
31 very small works at A.D.D. Gallery in Hudson
that intrigue, confound and delight the senses.
His deep involvement with the language of color
and quirky personal vocabulary of shapes and marks
is readily apparent in these mostly unframed oils
What is not apparent is just what drives and directs
such a pursuit—a mystery that I found more and
more gripping the more I looked. How does a painter
create a 6-by-10-inch quartet of gestures that
somehow grabs your attention from a shop window
and holds it as you stand gaping on the sidewalk?
What process guides the decisions that lead to
a certain composition and set of color relationships?
Acheson’s style of abstract quasi-minimalism is
not unique, but it is not often seen so concentrated;
even more rarely is it so totally convincing.
See it if you can.