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A wary subject: Ann Zane Shanks’ Woman in Third Avenue Doorway.

Sociology in Black-and-White
By David Brickman

Ann Zane Shanks: Behind the Lens

New York State Museum, through Feb. 26, 2006

Ann 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.

Ann 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 discovery.


PERIPHERAL VISION

Peter Acheson: Paintings

A.D.D. 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 on board.

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.

—David Brickman


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