Works by four singular American photographers — Margaret Bourke-White, Carl Mydans, Patrick Nagatani and Brett Weston — are on view through Sept. 1 at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“From Butterflies to Battleships, Selections from the Bruce Museum Photography Collection” opened June 22 and showcases the diverse directions taken by photographers in the 20th century. That range is evident, whether it’s employing the camera in a documentary mode to record insect development, chronicle historic events, or experiment with the technology to create abstract or composite images.
“Butterflies to Battleships” is organized by Stephanie Guyet, who is the Bruce Museum’s Zvi Grunberg resident Fellow 2018-19, and consists exclusively of photographs from the museum’s permanent collection.
“Given that the Bruce is a place for both aesthetic and scientific inquiry, I wanted to create an exhibition that tapped into that dual mission,” Guyet said. “Since photography is a practice that lies at the intersection of art and science — and the museum has a host of surprising works in its photo collection — this seemed like the perfect subject to explore.”
A trailblazer in the world of photography, Bourke-White shot Life magazine’s first cover story in the 1930s and was the first foreign journalist to photograph inside the Soviet Union. She documented fateful figures, such as Mahatma Gandhi shortly before he was killed, and events such as the U.S. Army’s liberation of Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp.
Although renowned for capturing the glories of the Industrial Age and the suffering of economic and wartime disasters, Bourke-White also had a lifelong interest in the natural world. On view in this exhibition is a collection of insect studies from the 1930s in which butterflies and moths are hazily depicted in various stages of metamorphosis, showing what Bruce Museum representatives said “reveal a remarkably intimate and experimental side of Bourke-White’s oeuvre.”
The onset of Parkinson’s disease in the early 1950s curtailed Bourke-White’s globetrotting career. She retired to Darien, Connecticut, writing a best-selling memoir, “Portrait of Myself,” and dying in 1971 at age 67.
Mydans was also one of Life magazine’s first photographers. He spent the majority of his career capturing landmark events for the magazine in the United States, Europe and Asia. During World War II he worked along the Finnish-Russian border, as well as in Sweden, Britain, Italy, France, China, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. Throughout the war, Mydans embedded himself among both troops and locals, which allowed him to capture intense and critical moments of history. He and his wife, Shelley, a researcher at Life magazine, were held as prisoners of war for two years.
“From Butterflies to Battleships” includes two iconic photographs from 1945, taken while Mydans was on assignment during World War II with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his regiment. He also covered the Korean War for Life and continued working for the publication until it closed in 1972. He died in 2004 at age 97 in Larchmont.
Nagatani was born in 1945 and died in 2017. By the time he moved from California to New Mexico in 1987, he had already demonstrated a talent for clever layering of imagery to construct surreal photographic satires. He found an ideal subject for his particular brand of politicized artistic intervention in the discordant Southwest landscape, where Native American ancestral grounds rest alongside nuclear weapons testing sites.
On view in the exhibition are a number of works from the resulting series, “Nuclear Enchantment” (1989-93), in which Nagatani makes a powerful statement about the environmental and spiritual consequences of nuclear technology.
Weston, the fourth artist whose works are highlighted in the Bruce exhibition, was born in 1911 and died in 1993. The son of pioneering photographer Edward Weston, Brett Weston began taking pictures as a teenager while living in Mexico with his father. His eye for subject and form was evident from an early stage, to Bruce Museum representatives who noted that “over time, Brett would reach beyond the modernist aesthetic championed by his father to the brink of abstraction, as shown in a series of stunning photographs taken around 1970, in which natural elements such as sand, trees and water are transformed into expressionistic compositions.”
Guyet has been working at the Bruce for the past nine months, organizing the show. “This is a first for me, having worked previously at museums and galleries that are exclusively dedicated to fine art,” she said. “I hope that Bruce Museum visitors will be as excited and inspired as I am by the beautiful and provocative work.”
For more information, call 203-866-0376 or visit brucemuseum.org.
Bruce Museum is located at 1 Museum Drive, Greenwich, Connecticut.