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Photographs and words have been doing their rather stiff box-step dance since the beginning. In the 1840s, Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the negative-to-positive process, published The Pencil of Nature, a collection of photographs accompanied by a text that was both instruction manual and eloquent shout for the new medium. (The camera, he said, could depict “the injuries of time.”) Since then, words and pictures have practiced different kinds of dialogue. A magazine caption can bias how we read an image. Catalog essays and museum-wall labels craft a historical or interpretive matrix for an exhibition’s contents. The most ambitious engagement of words and photos was the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, where James Agee’s rhapsodic prose swooned around Walker Evans’s austere images of barefoot-poor sharecroppers in the South. Words have even been part of the photographer’s tool kit, from the scrawled locales and messages on vernacular snapshots to the kooky, fragmented narratives Duane Michals grafts directly onto his serial imagery.

A major player in this ongoing dialogue was Nancy Newhall. Born Nancy Lynne in 1908 and trained as a painter, she turned to photography after marrying Beaumont Newhall, the first curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography division, established in 1940. We’re the beneficiaries of her conversion — “When I married Beaumont,” she said, “I married photography” — and ample evidence of that is on view in Nancy Newhall: A Literacy of Images at the Museum of Photographic Arts. Up until her death in 1974, Newhall distinguished herself as a photographer, proselytizer, writer, and curator. (She subbed for Beaumont at MoMA when he went off to serve in World War II.) She worked closely with some of the enduring artists of the last century, among them Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Minor White, and Ansel Adams. She also helped to craft the concept behind Aperture, the most influential publication of inventive photography, founded in 1952 and still going strong — Aperture’s mission was to experiment with the relationship between powerful images and language.

As a novice photographer, Newhall was mentored by Alfred Stieglitz, who, in his own art and in the work he exhibited at his 291 Gallery in New York, promoted photography as a fine art. She lived in heady times. In the 1930s and 1940s, Life and Look, those Jurassic prototypes of magazines that wed words to photographs, were read by millions of Americans, and Newhall was keen on the didactic and political influence the new mass media were wielding. She lived when, in her words, “the old literacy of words is dying and a new literacy of images is being born.” Visual literacy was becoming a new and increasingly indispensable “quality” in American life. She was intensely curious about popular art forms and as early as 1940 wrote an essay on the fledgling medium of television. Newhall was a feisty type, a crossover artist equally at home in Stieglitz’s precious precincts of art photography and in the expanding broadband stream of popular art. Long before the word became a new-age commonplace, she promoted what she called a “synergistic” relationship between words and images. Her innovative 1945 book on Paul Strand, Time in New England, matched up Strand’s brooding, ascetic pictures of New England with texts taken from precolonial diaries, sermons, and other writings.

The exhibition at MoPA is a jewelry box of photographs made by some of the most consequential image-makers of the last century, all connected in some way to Nancy Newhall. She spent many hours listening to Stieglitz, who urged her, in the interest of autobiographical idiosyncrasy, to make her own “equivalents.” He had progressed from his early turn-of-the-century efforts to create “painterly” photography to a belief that pictures should be visual equivalents of the photographer’s inner life. The exhibition includes a few classic “equivalents,” nature studies he made at Lake George in the 1920s and 1930s. But it also includes one of his most famous early images, The Steerage (1907), the iconic vision of what Henry James called “the launched populations,” the millions who emigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. In Stieglitz’s picture, the gangway slanting down through the upper and lower decks of the teeming steerage quarters stretches out to the New World shore like a promise and a dare.

Several of the photographers in the Newhalls’ circle, including Nancy and her husband, shared an obsession with architecture both as subject and compositional principle. Beaumont’s picture of the Flatiron building, a response in part to Stieglitz’s famous picture of the same landmark wedge, pitches diagonally across its space and seems, as skyscrapers sometimes do, to be about to tip over and fall like an axe on our heads. Paul Strand’s stark New England image, The Steeple, is the Flatiron’s country cousin. Nancy shared this passion for the constructed, geometric qualities of buildings. Her moody Fire Escapes, with its snow-dusted zigzag ironworks, has a sober quietude and, like so much of her work, explores the virtually infinite inflections of light falling on the charred-wood blackness of things.

Nancy Newhall differed from most of her contemporaries by combining the purist, metaphoric impulses of Stieglitz, Strand, and Minor White (one of the founding editors of Aperture) with a passion for the populist aspects of photography, its fierce eye for the commonplace and familiar, for things that hide in plain sight until the photographer exposes them. She was an advocate not only for Stieglitz, Weston, and Strand, but for Cartier-Bresson and other straight photographers, artists who preferred to catch life on the run. The exhibition has several of Helen Levitt’s marvelous, unsettling pictures of New York street kids. Her vision of childhood is not at all the dreamy ideal of innocence that a lot of late-19th-century photography offered up. Her kids, buzzing with worked-up bravado, hanker for the experience of adulthood: they play at it, test it out, but the tougher they try to look, the more tenderly exposed and alarmingly vulnerable they and their fearless grins seem. Newhall also promoted Lisette Model, whose pictures crisscrossed some of her own interests. Model made a series of architectural pictures of “reflections” in which reflected street-side images slide down the sides of the Rockefeller Center and other buildings like a sheer wash or glaze. They make stone and brick seem fragile, provisional. But Model also made a delirious image of a cabaret singer — she looks like the unholy offspring of Janis Joplin and Don King — that explodes with the giddy, out-of-your-skull transport of club music everywhere.

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