The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery’s new exhibition offers an innovative view of the beginnings of social documentary photography in the United States. Social Forces Visualized: Photography and Scientific Charity, 1900-1920 will display over 125 photographs by seminal photographers Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Jessie Tarbox Beals, and others. The photographs were selected from over 1,000 images in the Community Service Society records at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Many of the exhibition images have not been seen in public for close to a century. The exhibition also includes a generous selection of original illustrations, maps, exhibition panels, and publications in which many of the photographs first appeared. Social Forces Visualized is organized by Drew Sawyer and Huffa Frobes-Cross, both Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.
Social Forces Visualized is open to the public from Wednesday, November 9, through Saturday, December 12, 2011. The Wallach Art Gallery is located on the eighth floor of Schermerhorn Hall on Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, 116th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. To learn more, call 212-854-2877.
Since the 1930s, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine have been established as the progenitors of the social documentary tradition in the United States. However, their most well-known images are almost always shown in isolation, without the publications, exhibition displays, and lantern-slide lectures in which they first appeared and circulated. This exhibition and the accompanying catalogue will place their photographs, along with those by other photographers, within the diverse and multi-media visual strategies employed by two charity organizations, the Charity Organization Society (COS) and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP), during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The COS and AICP merged in 1939 to form the Community Service Society, whose archives were donated to Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library in 1979.
“Social Forces Realized does more than offer a chance to see extraordinary documentary images from leading American photographers” said Elizabeth Hutchinson, associate professor of art history at Columbia and Barnard. “Through creative exhibition design, the show helps viewers see the role photographs played in the watershed public reforms of the early twentieth century. Photography’s reputation as factual document supported the growing authority of other modes of documenting social problems and envisioning their solutions.”
Both the COS and the AICP, formed in 1882 and 1843, respectively, were part of the broad “scientific charity” movement, an approach to charity that involved not only assisting, but also studying the poor. At the turn of the twentieth century, with the proliferation of photography and new media coinciding with the rise of social work, the underlying strategies used by these organizations evolved. From the late 1880s to the late 1910s, exactly the span covered by Social Forces Visualized, COS and AICP moved from purchasing photographs from various agencies to hiring individual photographers, such as Hine and Riis, for extended projects on topics as diverse as tenement housing, tuberculosis, food safety, and widow’s pensions. These photographs functioned as a form of scientific data. COS and AICP hung them alongside graphs, dioramas, and electro-mechanical displays in exhibitions; published them as part of proto-sociological surveys, informational pamphlets, and advertisements; and projected them in lanternslide shows.
Toward the end of the 1900s COS and the AICP sought to expand their publications and exhibitions’ audience from professional social workers to a wider, lay public. In doing so, the organizations moved from using photographs as a form of data collection to relying on them to bolster emotive pleas for assistance—a practice utilized by thousands of charity organizations to his day.
Publication This exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated book, Social Forces Visualized: Photography and Scientific Charity, 1900–1920, published by the gallery. Two curatorial essays highlight the significance of the images in the exhibition within the literature on documentary photography. The volume also includes a foreword by Maren Stange, a full catalogue of the exhibition and over 30 illustrations of objects that have rarely been seen . RELATED EVENTS:
Curator’s Talk Thursday, 17 November 2011, 12:30–1:30pm
Symposium: Social Forces Revisited Friday, 2 December 2011, 1:00–8:30 pm Keynote Speaker: Michael Katz, Walter H. Annenberg professor of History at University of Pennsylvania Three thematic panels and a closing keynote address explore topics related to the history of social work, current practices in social work and community organizing, and the role of social documentary photography. Co-sponsored with the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University
Panel Documentary in Contemporary Art —The Legacy of the Progressive Era Saturday, 10 December, 2011; 4:00 pm Martha Rosler, Trevor Paglen, and Lucy Raven discuss their work in relation to the origins of social documentary photography and progressive politics. Moderated by the exhibition curators.
All events are free and open to the public.