Seeing Ourselves: Masterpieces of American Photography from George Eastman House Collections

June 6, 2009 to October 18, 2009

The largest exhibition of masterpieces of American photography ever presented in Wisconsin, Seeing Ourselves features over a hundred iconic images from the internationally acclaimed George Eastman House Collections of Rochester, New York. This extraordinary exhibition dramatically illustrates our country’s landscape, people, culture, and historic events through works ranging from vast western scenes to fascinating documentary photographs to intimate celebrity portraits. Artists represented include such masters of the medium as Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, and dozens of other accomplished photographers.

Spanning more than 150 years of photography, Seeing Ourselves is organized according to five broad themes: American Masterpieces, American Faces, America at War, America the Beautiful, and American Families. Each section features renowned photographs documenting the American experience. The exhibition begins with “American Masterpieces,” which sheds light on celebrated images like Yosemite Valley, Summer by Ansel Adams, Nautilus by Edward Weston, and The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz. Other highlights include Oshkosh native Lewis Hine’s Powerhouse Mechanic, a dynamic image symbolizing the arrival of a new Industrial Age, and Dorothea Lange’s unforgettable photograph Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, which gave a human face to poverty and suffering during the Great Depression.

“American Faces” illustrates the diversity of our nation, including subjects ranging from Native Americans whose ancestors have lived here for thousands of years to immigrants at Ellis Island who had just arrived in America that day. Photographs of everyday people are juxtaposed with portraits of illustrious political and civil rights leaders, artists, celebrities, and athletes, including Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, and many other familiar faces. Master photographers who portrayed these individuals include Mathew Brady, Edward S. Curtis, Walker Evans, Richard Avedon, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Steichen.

Some of the most famous, memorable, and shocking images in the history of American photography are photographs of war. While photographs of war may be difficult to look at, they serve as an important record of America’s past. “America at War” displays images from the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, as well as contemporary photographs created in response to 9/11.

“America the Beautiful” features timeless photographs that capture the beauty and power of unspoiled nature, as well as scenes of westward expansion, urban America, and the intimate spaces we call home. Dramatic images of Alaskan glaciers, majestic western views, and tranquil dunes are contrasted with big-city skyscrapers, small-town neighborhoods, and backyard gardens. Major works in this section include Alvin Langdon Coburn’s beautifully atmospheric view of New York’s Singer Building and landscapes by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

The final section, “American Families,” brings together families from all walks of life, exploring their differences and commonalities. A variety of examples by such notable photographers as Weegee, Lewis Hine, Aaron Siskind, Margaret Bourke-White, and Mary Ellen Mark are included. Some works portray idealized scenes of American life, while others capture a glimpse of everyday life and the serious challenges many families face, such as poverty or illness. Highlights include Hine’s photograph of an Italian family seeking lost luggage at Ellis Island and a tender portrait of a mother and son from the series Black in America by Eli Reed, an award-winning member of Magnum, the prestigious photojournalists’ cooperative.

Seeing Ourselves: Masterpieces of American Photography from George Eastman House Collections is organized by George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film and is made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the American Masterpieces program. George Eastman House is the world’s oldest photography museum, founded in 1947 on the estate of Kodak founder George Eastman, the father of popular photography. The museum has unparalleled collections of 400,000 photographs from 14,000 photographers dating from the beginnings of the medium to the present day.  

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Paine Art Center and Gardens

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