The Photograph and the American Dream

28 September 2001 - 6 January 2002

Including original photographs by Walker Evans, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Margaret Bourke-White, Paul Outerbridge and Eadweard Muybridge

This autumn, the Van Gogh Museum is presenting a survey of American photography from the years 1840 to 1940. The exhibits are drawn from the extensive and remarkable collection of the American expert Stephen White. With around 200 original prints by famous and little-known photographers a picture is presented of a century of American photography. It is the first time a selection of photos from this unique collection has been exhibited.

Photography was to help establish America's identity from its invention in 1839. In the 1840's the first photographers began travelling the New World in search of customers to photograph. Wandering from town to town and farm to farm with their primitive equipment they immortalised families and individuals on their light-sensitive plates called daguerreotypes. These pictures provide the first photographic record of America.

The six themes of this exhibition reveal different facets of the American Dream in the decisive years between 1840 and 1940. It was a period in which a national identity emerged, when the nation fought for freedom, established values, began to develop as an industrial power and when towns were built throughout the country.

The presentation opens with a prologue describing the mainly European immigrants as they arrive in their new homeland. A powerful image is the picture by an unknown photographer of the newborn baby, George B. Billings Rego, asleep in the American flag. George Rego, who was named for the chief of the Boston Immigration Office, was the first child to be born at Boston Long Wharf, where new arrivals were examined for medical ailments before being allowed to enter the country. The Portuguese Rego family were probably kept there temporarily because the woman was about to give birth.

American Identities reveal the development of the American portrait from the static daguerreotype of the first fifteen years to the more spontaneous shots that improvements in technology allowed in later years. The series of portraits provides a fascinating survey of the various population groups: workers, pioneers, homeowners, traders, politicians. As leisure time increased at the close of the 19th century, photos began to show the pastimes and entertainments which people enjoyed.

Fighting for freedom and equality for all is an essential aspect of American society. In All Men Are Created Equal, photos have been selected that highlight this ongoing struggle. One of the pictures, for example, is a retouched portrait of President Abraham Lincoln by Gertrude Käsebier. Lincoln played a major role in establishing the ideal of equality. Nevertheless, a huge gulf separated the elite and the working classes well into the early 20th century.

Men to Match My Mountains features a series of national icons: Buffalo Bill as symbol of the Wild West, actress and model Evelyn Nesbit, Alexander Graham Bell who founded the first telephone service between New York and Chicago in 1892, flight pioneer Orville Wright in the air in 1903.

American expansion went hand-in-hand with the construction of bridges, dams, gasworks, power stations and irrigation canals. Manufacturing the Dream shows the explosive industrial growth that characterised the country in the 19th century. The compelling image of the young cotton mill worker in Augusta (Georgia) by Lewis Hine starkly highlights one of the negative effects of this development - child labour.

Religious tolerance, economic opportunities and free land were the main motives for most who headed west to discover the New Frontiers. The rise of a wealthier middle class and the construction of new railway lines gave rise to tourism. Popular attractions included the Grand Canyon and Indian culture. Photos of the first to visit America's natural wonders graced many an album and postcard.

For many, cities like New York, Washington DC and San Francisco were a dream. Faith in the American metropolis was unbreakable, despite the appalling conditions in which people lived and worked. The superb panoramas and cityscapes of photographers like Berenice Abbott, Alfred Stieglitz and Eadweard Muybridge that conclude the presentation in The City Rises, bear silent witness to the greatness of a country with powerful dreams.

The exhibition has been compiled by Stephen White, owner of the collection, and Andreas Blühm, Head of Exhibitions and Display at the Van Gogh Museum. The Photograph and the American Dream can be seen in Paris at Hôtel de Sully (Patrimoine photographique) from 29 March to 16 June 2002.

An English catalogue accompanies the exhibition, entitled The Photograph and the American Dream, 1840-1940, featuring essays by Stephen White and Andreas Blühm as well as a foreword by Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States of America; Van Gogh Museum, 224 pages, 195 illustrations, hardback (ISBN 90-400-9640-6, price ƒ 95.-) and paperback (ISBN 90-6987-029-0, price ƒ 55.-).

On Saturday 29 September 2001 the Van Gogh Museum will host a symposium on the theme of the exhibition. The symposium is organised jointly with the American Embassy in The Hague and the Netherlands American Study Association (NASA). All the speakers are experts on photography and America.
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