Nathan Lerner: A Lifetime of Photographic Inquiry

at Illinois Art Gallery, through August 15

From Our Perspective: Postcards from the Neighborhood

at the Chicago Historical Society, through September 7

Student Photographs

at Jane Addams Center, through September 1

By Fred Camper

Nathan Lerner, a Chicagoan born in 1913 who died earlier this year, made both documentary street pictures and abstract fine-art photography. But these two very different strands were united by Lerner’s interest in light: it gives his formal studies an almost redemptive power and makes his street photographs seem poems of light. His experience at Chicago’s New Bauhaus (later the Institute of Design), as one of its first students in 1937 and later as an instructor, was formative: founder Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s paintings and sculptures made Lerner “aware for the first time,” he said, “that light itself, like clay or paint, could be a medium.” But by then Lerner was already a sophisticated artist who’d been painting and photographing for years–Moholy-Nagy called him a “very good Renoir painter”–who took naturally to the school’s emphasis on form.

Among the 89 prints on view at the Illinois Art Gallery, Lerner’s photos of the Maxwell Street market, a series he began in 1935, are extraordinary for their lack of formal closure, however; compositional devices make them seem slices of a larger space and time. Gypsy Woman (1935) shows us three women in dynamically different poses in a slightly tilted view of a stoop. In Child and Mask (1936) a girl holds a little boy while the child wearing the mask is half cropped out by the frame. The girl’s and boy’s expressions and the mask don’t add up to some truth about street life; each element remains separate from the others, autonomous, suggesting that for Lerner all human experiences are equal.

Other Lerner street photographs show an early interest in abstraction. In City Forms (1936), the dark jackets and ties and white shirts of the figures on the right and in the background echo the light and shadow of a stone bench on the left. Its curves are different enough from the figures to prevent the composition from seeming simply unified, however; the spatial depth of the street scene is very different from the deep darkness of the bench’s shadows. While a true formalist might seek to fuse people and object in a single pattern, Lerner–who more than one acquaintance called a “humanist”–preserves their differences.

Even his abstract light studies are alive with contrasts. Wooden Dowels (1939) is one of several compositions apparently made in the light box that Lerner invented, now standard in photography instruction: light was directed through holes at the top and sides, allowing the photographer to control the way the objects inside were lit. But what’s interesting in Wooden Dowels is its messiness: the dowels are irregularly arrayed, and the light falls on different portions of each. It’s almost as if each peg were allowed the individuality Lerner gave his Maxwell Street figures. The viewer sees a mysterious forest rather than a formally reductive design.

It was typical of Lerner to undercut his own key concepts, as can be seen in the “eye” series he began in the 1930s. In Eye and Barbed Wire (1939) a disembodied eyeball peers up from beneath some dirt, as if a head had been buried there; curly strands of barbed wire sit just above it. Eye on Nails (1940) superimposes an eye, complete with lashes and lids, on a field of nails. These disembodied eyes serve as metaphors for both the camera lens and the creative viewer: for Lerner, both are free to go anywhere, see anything.

But there’s a gentle, quirky humor to these photos as well, and less danger than one might imagine given all the pointy objects. The disembodied eye is its own self-parody, and the eye that peers up at barbed wire from dirt mocks its own “transcendence.” Later Lerner was to find eye shapes everywhere–in two holes in wood or two adjacent spirals in metalwork. Establishing the pervasiveness of “eyes” is a way of critiquing his own eye images: since they’re everywhere, they’re nothing special. In Brown’s Face (1939), he undercuts eyes in a different way: he places a magnifying glass over the subject’s mouth, enlarging his teeth and whiskers, which compete for attention with the face’s bulging eyes.

Lerner’s undercutting is a form of democratic animism, which holds not only that no person is superior to any other (doubtless a residue of his 30s leftism) but that people are not superior to objects. For Lerner, light is the universal substance through which we see everything. The 1945 City Light Box shows tenements with numerous white garments on clotheslines against dark walls. Aware of finding in a city scene a view akin to his light-box studies, he nevertheless emphasizes the scene’s lack of symmetry and the diverse levels of depth that make it alive, not staged, “human.” However abstract Lerner’s photos may be, they always stop short of the unified compositions sought and achieved by many of his colleagues. The great virtue of a show this large is that it makes clear Lerner’s “lack” is an essential part of his vision: though steeped in European formalism, he would not use its methods to convert the light before him into something entirely his own, as in different ways Renoir and Moholy-Nagy did.

In the 50s and 60s Lerner worked as an industrial designer, creating some product designs still in use today, and photographed much less. By this point he’d seldom exhibited his photographs, many of which he’d also never printed. But after marrying a classical pianist, Kiyoko, in 1968, he began traveling frequently to Japan and, much inspired by the country and its culture, resumed photographing, also working in color for the first time. Eventually, in 1973, he exhibited publicly as well. And it’s in the later photos that Lerner’s self-abnegations, becoming more explicit, often attain a deeper, spiritual dimension.

Heroic Figure (1983) shows a brick wall; a smoother, lighter area to the right seems to form the outline of a seated Buddhalike figure. But the title can be taken as a gentle mockery of portentous art: the insubstantial “figure” is a mere shading of the wall–in fact, because of its texture, it seems more transparent and less weighty than the brick. Shadows (1974) shows bicycle and plant shadows elongated by a diagonal view of the wall, their depth tying them to the physical world, of which they are signs, rather than to the abstractions of formalist photography. The 1976 Afternoon Shadows, with its close view of peeling paint revealing an old poster underneath, recalls the wall views of Aaron Siskind. But where Siskind’s wall abstractions concentrate their energy in a few forms, achieving a dynamic perfection, Lerner’s myriad tiny shadows create a baroque complexity; lacking a central focus, the photo’s richly dispersed shadings deny closure.

Lerner was after a different kind of perfection. In Japanese Landscape (1975) he focuses on cracks in a wall but also includes plants and a three-dimensional view of the ground. As perfect in its way as a bonsai garden, this view also seems more open than a typical Western composition: rather than converge, its parts almost float. It’s a long way from the intentional incompleteness of Lerner’s Maxwell Street photos, but in both cases the image seems to be reaching out, to the viewer and to the objects it depicts, rather than dictating, enclosing, defining.

Though the “imperfections” of Lerner’s photographs ultimately seem part of a perfected vision, I found echoes of his desire to coexist with his subject matter in two excellent exhibits of student photographs. What these young artists lack in mastery they make up for in freshness, invention, and sincerity. Most of the best photographers show admirable expressive control, but without trying to account for every part of the image. But though they have some of Lerner’s openness, their direct first-person approach can’t quite reach the heights of his poetry.

Each of the 14 high school students in “From Our Perspective: Postcards From the Neighborhood,” at the Chicago Historical Society, is represented by two prints, an explanatory text, and one additional photo on a postcard. Students in a documentary photo class offered by the Marwen Foundation, some show real visual sophistication. Charlie Burks’s two peaceful Chicago River views recall Impressionist painting, while Kurt Salveson seeks metaphors for life’s choices, he indicates in his text, with images such as two staircases ascending in opposite directions.

The subjects in some of the most effective photos are people and scenes from the students’ own lives. Claire Nereim gives us two intimate views of her grandfather; set lovingly in a domestic context, he’s seen seated across from us at the dinner table. Cynthia Canteros presents two somewhat threatening images of a young man she calls “a lost child [who] finds a quick fix–his homeboys.” In one, he stands holding a gun in front of a picture of the Virgin Mary and a statue of an armed Indian; in another, he lifts his shirt to reveal an ornate tattoo on his belly–presumably a gang symbol. Parts of both images are in soft focus, giving them an instantaneous snapshotlike quality; the subject’s powerful presence seems to flow from the connection Canteros feels to him, which a more composed image might deny. His vivid presence intensifies the social point Cantero articulates in her text.

Raquel Torres’s views of “my life, my home” are expressively disordered. In one, a chaotic little outdoor space seen from a window includes children’s toys and rubbish. The other shows a baby eating in a slightly tilted view, with a television screen and another child in the background; the baby’s eyes are dominated by the image on the TV behind him.

The subject matter of the 78 photos by Hull House adult students at the Jane Addams Center is less intimate and more wide-ranging, but the best photographers look at the world with a similar originality. Carolee Kokola seems to discover city crowding in her view of repeating windows and terraces on the side of a building in Urban Vertigo. Nancy Goldenberg seems a bit troubled by the long-necked dog in a cage in Dog Show, shot with a wide-angle lens that makes it stand out from the background and seem isolated and alone. A martini glass with three olives is similarly isolated from the out-of-focus liquor bottles in the background of Heather Dombrowski’s Three Olives; its prominence suggests it’s a power object, and the excess of olives that the photographer might be troubled by drinking.

A group of photos by Philip Blum reminded me of Lerner’s light studies in their sensitive attention to form. In Nude four violins standing upright are so tightly framed that they fill the space, focusing the viewer on their feminine shape. Blum’s Chair in Framed Light is even more complex. A lone chair combines with floorboards, a rectangle of light on the floor, and a large rectangular hole in a wall where a window once was to form a kind of poem of rectangles, each presented in depth, each representing a different aspect of the world: light, shadow, object, absence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Shadows” by Nathan Lerner; “City Forms” by Nathan Lerner.