Ajax loader
The Real City: Reginald Marsh’s Photographs of New York
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Marsh’s photographs only began to receive public attention in the appraisal of his estate following his death in 1954. A major proponent in this process was Norman Sasowsky, a former student of Marsh’s who rented studio space in the same building as his teacher at One Union Square. Shortly after Marsh’s death, the young Sasowsky was hired by Felicia Marsh and William Benton, a former senator from Connecticut who was Marsh’s Yale schoolmate and most significant patron, to catalogue and help distribute the material in the estate. Lloyd Goodrich, then associate director of the Whitney Museum and Marsh’s oldest childhood friend, provided a space in the museum’s library for this massive undertaking to take place—a process that would ultimately take twenty-five years. It was during this period that Sasowsky unearthed the multitude of photographs that Marsh had left behind. [xvii] He advised the artist’s widow to donate the artist’s photographic prints, contact sheets, and negative rolls, along with his photographic notebooks and diary, to the Museum of the City of New York in 1979. [xviii] Sasowsky’s interest in these works also led him to spearhead the publication of a portfolio of fifty posthumous prints made from Marsh’s negatives in January 1977, in association with two dealers, Middendorf Gallery and JemHom. [xix] Goodrich was the first to publish images of the photographs in a scholarly context, reproducing thirty of them in his 1972 Marsh monograph, which remains the largest catalogue of the artist’s work to date. At the same time, however, Goodrich and other scholars continued to follow the artist’s precedent by minimizing the importance of the photographs and overlooking their direct influence on his painted compositions. “The subjects are often identical [in Marsh’s photographs and paintings], but there the relationship stops,” Goodrich asserted. “Probably they were simply another product of his consuming interest in New York and its life. Marsh was not a Stieglitz; his photographs do not show the latter’s selectivity and artistry. But as documents of an artist’s eye for the city’s many aspects, they have their special value.” [xx] Art historian Thomas H. Garver, who authored the catalogue of a traveling Marsh retrospective the same year, concurred with Goodrich’s assessment. Insisting on the primacy of the sketches, he wrote that “photography was never as important a documentary device as the sketchbooks, for it didn’t permit the flexibility of rendering that the little sketches allowed.” [xxi]The direct relationship between Marsh’s paintings and photographs would not begin to be documented until 1983, in Marilyn Cohen’s catalogue that accompanied a Whitney Museum exhibition of Marsh’s work. Intriguingly, the primary person to recognize the independent artistic merit of the photographs in the years immediately following Marsh’s death was photographer and curator Edward Steichen, who included several of them in a 1957–58 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art entitled Seventy Photographers Look at New York. Lent by Marsh’s widow, the three prints in the show were enlargements made from Marsh’s negatives. The first depicted a down and out, probably unemployed man perched on the sidewalk of a Lower East Side street corner, his face obscured by deep shadows; the second was a contemplative scene of sailors and other figures at the boating lake in Central Park; and the third, an image of fashionable shoppers and a nun asking for alms outside Bonwit Teller, was one of shots that inspired the watercolor Mink and Mannequins (90.36.1.273, 90.36.1.325, 90.36.1.298). How Steichen arrived at the decision to highlight Marsh in an exhibition devoted exclusively to photography—indeed, how he even knew about these works—remains a mystery. In all likelihood, they were brought to his attention by Grace Mayer, the curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, who had cultivated an interest in Marsh’s work and worked closely with Steichen on Seventy Photographers Look at New York. [xxii] As images of the installation testify, Steichen’s exhibition recognized Marsh’s photographs as a part of the urban documentary tradition that was central to American photography and that gathered a powerful new sense of vigor and relevance during the Depression. In the show, Marsh was situated within a historical continuum of New York photographers from nineteenth-century pioneers such as Mathew Brady and Jacob Riis to his contemporaries, including Berenice Abbott, Weegee, and Lisette Model. Marsh’s photographs are less refined and technically adept than those of his contemporaries, but as the Museum of Modern Art exhibition acknowledged, their blunt immediacy and investment in documenting the spirit of a specific historical moment represented a worthy parallel to the efforts of the period’s urban documentarians—Abbott, Shahn, and Walker Evans, as well as the members of the radical New York Photo League, including Weegee, Model, Walter Rosenblum, and Aaron Siskind, among others. With them, he shared the impulse to document the city’s transformation in the 1930s, and as a result, his images closely resemble the work of these practitioners. Weegee’s crowded beach scenes, Model’s voluptuous female bathers, Evan’s shop windows and subway portraits, and Rosenblum’s Lower East Side streetscapes all find parallels in Marsh’s photographs. [xxiii] The extent of Marsh’s awareness of these photographers is unclear, but as an avid consumer of popular culture and magazines, he could not have been unfamiliar with their work. His diaries from 1933 indicate that he knew Shahn, an artist whose approach to photography was perhaps most akin to his own. Both eschewed the sweeping vistas and crisp architectural visions of the city favored by Abbott, Stieglitz, and others in favor of the Bowery, with its profusion of signage, scraggly buildings, and colorful inhabitants. Likewise, neither prized technical mastery in their photography, instead primarily using the medium to collect dynamic visual data that could be broken down and recombined in subsequent painted compositions. [xxiv] .................................................................. [xvii] Sasowsky, e-mail message to author, February 11, 2012. [xviii] Marsh’s studies for the murals he painted at the Customs House in lower Manhattan were also given to the Museum by Felicia Marsh in 1976. [xix] The portfolio was published in a limited edition of twenty-five with four artist-proof sets; the Art Students League continues to make the copies of the portfolio available for purchase. [xx] Lloyd Goodrich, Reginald Marsh (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1972), 40. [xxi] Thomas H. Garver, “Reginald Marsh and the City that Never Was,” in Reginald Marsh: A Retrospective Exhibition (Newport, CA: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1972), unpaginated. [xxii] The curatorial files regarding the exhibition, which are in MoMA’s archive but not yet publicly available, may someday yield additional clues. Grace Mayer subsequently resigned from MCNY in 1959 to work as Steichen’s personal assistant in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art; she became a curator there in 1962. [xxiii] Marsh’s particular interest in capturing cultural phenomena in decline, such as burlesque and circus sideshows, also forms a kind of analog to Abbott’s Federal Art Project–sponsored book, Changing New York (1939), which chronicled the city’s transforming architectural geography, with particular emphasis on aspects of the city’s geography slated for demolition or in the process of disappearing. [xxiv] For additional information on Shahn’s New York photographs, see Deborah Martin Kao, Laura Katzman, and Jenna Webster, Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times (Cambridge, MA and New Haven, CT: Harvard University Art Museums and Yale University Press, 2000).

ID:
90.36.1.273
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
[Double exposure of destitute men in the Bowery.]
ca. 1938
gelatin silver print
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Felicia Meyer Marsh, 1990.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
The Real City: Reginald Marsh’s Photographs of New York
Page 6

Surveying the archive of Marsh’s photographs begins to clarify how photography differed from sketching as a tool for the artist. First and foremost, the camera seems to have allowed him to record an abundance of figurative and architectural information with greater rapidity and accuracy than was possible with the sketches. His use of multiple, slightly varied shots of the same subjects to create works such as Modeling Furs on Union Square demonstrates the medium’s value in enabling him to recall and draw upon an array of poses, details, and potential compositional perspectives. In addition to its efficiency, the camera provided Marsh with raw images unadulterated by the biases and preferences that would invariably infiltrate his sketches, allowing him to remember sites and figures as they were, and, perhaps, to later seize on details that initially had gone unnoticed. Moreover, in certain situations the camera seemingly allowed Marsh to go undetected as he documented his sites and subjects—to be precisely the opposite of the conspicuous, theatrical artist depicted in Gene Pyle’s photographs—and thus to capture his subjects unaware. With their lack of technical sophistication, some of Marsh’s photographs are more successful than others. The rolls he shot inside Minsky’s burlesque hall, where the lighting was dim and he likely had to conceal his camera, are dark and blurry; the artist never printed them and they exist only as contact sheets (90.36.1.1556). [xxv] The intense sunlight at Coney Island beach, by contrast, made it one of Marsh’s most frequent and fruitful photographic locations. Hundreds of shots taken there reveal his fascination with the seemingly endless variations of the human body on public display (90.36.1.60, 90.36.1.2, 90.36.1.104, 90.36.1.206, 90.36.1.23). During the 1920s, the female bather had become the iconic representation of modern womanhood; by the 1930s, the low backs and elimination of modesty shorts in women’s swimwear led to unprecedented degrees of physical exposure, which Marsh documented at varying angles and proximity to his subjects. [xxvi] He especially focused on the awkward corporeal realities—the inelegantly revealed buttocks, splayed groins, and ungainly physical contortions of lounging female beachgoers—that were a routine but nevertheless titillating element of Coney Island life. As a foil to these, his shots of lifeguards, musclemen, and youths performing acrobatic feats exult in a vigorous masculine idealism (90.36.2.14.1C, 90.36.1.71). Marsh’s celebration of the beach’s bizarre contrasts and of the dialectic between the chaotic masses and intimate moments occurring amid the crowd, also informed canvases such as Lifeguards, Negroes on Rockaway Beach (1934) and Coney Island Beach (1934). At the same time, his photographs revel in a sense of spontaneous playfulness and lack of compositional rigor—qualities that are largely absent from the artist’s fastidiously organized paintings and drawings of the same subjects. .................................................................. [xxv] These images must have been shot sometime before Marsh purchased the Leica, since Minsky’s closed in 1937. [xxvi] For discussion of the significance of the female bather and body culture in art of the 1920s, see Teresa A. Carbone, “Body Language: Liberation and Restraint in Twenties Figuration,” in Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, Teresa A. Carbone, ed. (New York: Skira Rizzoli and Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 2011), 15–39.

ID:
90.36.1.23
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
[Couple embracing on Coney Island beach.]
ca. 1938
gelatin silver print
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Felicia Meyer Marsh, 1990.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
The Real City: Reginald Marsh’s Photographs of New York
Page 7

Indeed, it is this informal, uncomposed quality that distinguishes all of Marsh’s photographs from his painted imagery. What is most striking in comparing his work in the two media is the degree to which Marsh embellished his photographs in transferring them to painting, infusing them with physical and psychological intensity, sexual drama, and exaggerated fullness. For example, the teeming crowd of glamorous female shoppers in Mink and Mannequin or the voluptuous seductress who dominates Smoko, the Human Volcano are a far cry from their more modest and mundane photographic counterparts. By layering his own fantasies and fascination with Old Master compositional strategies over the fragmentary pieces of visual data gleaned from photographs, Marsh elevated his scenes to the realm of myth, creating what Thomas Garver called “the city that never was.” [xxxvii] Between the camera’s observation and the artist’s final composition, ordinary women were transfigured into modern-day versions of Rubenesque goddesses while scattered crowds were reimagined in terms of baroque order, abundance, and theatricality. Though Marsh is often categorized as a social realist, the vast distance between the urban realities portrayed in his photographs and his painterly vision candidly reveals his determination to fictionalize everyday life.” While photography was not the only tool in Marsh’s arsenal for transforming real-world subjects into the realm of art, his energetic pursuit of the medium beginning in 1938 may be linked to specific circumstances in his artistic development during this period. Throughout his career, Marsh experienced a conflicted relationship with painterly media. During his transition from illustrational work to painting in the late 1920s, he struggled with the oil medium, finding that his paintings were always “an incoherent pasty mess.” [xxviii] He was rescued from this predicament when Thomas Hart Benton introduced him to tempera, an egg-based paint adopted by many artists during the 1930s. Tempera’s ability to dry instantaneously enabled a rapidity of execution that suited Marsh's affinity for drawing and allowed him to create a calligraphic effect that invested his scenes with a sense of fluid activity and transience. By 1938, however, after producing a cycle of large-scale murals at the United States Customs House in lower Manhattan, he became dissatisfied with tempera, in particular, its inability to achieve the qualities of richness and depth that he sought, and he soon abandoned the medium altogether. [xxix] “I’m through with tempera and egg yolk,” Marsh remarked. “It gets a painting all gummed up. Watercolors give clarity, and allow for better drawing.” [xxx] .................................................................. [xxvii] Thomas H. Garver, “Reginald Marsh and the City that Never Was,” in Reginald Marsh: A Retrospective Exhibition, unpaginated. [xxviii] Marsh, quoted in Goodrich, Reginald Marsh, 30. [xxix] Ibid., 161–63, for more on this shift in Marsh’s development. [xxx] Ibid., 161, for Marsh quote.

ID:
90.36.1.461
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
[Children jumping off pier.]
ca. 1938
gelatin silver print
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Felicia Meyer Marsh, 1990.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
The Real City: Reginald Marsh's Photographs of New York
Page 8

It does not seem simply coincidental that this was precisely the moment when Marsh bought his Leica and began his most prolonged period of experimentation with photography. As has been discussed, the more than forty watercolors that Marsh produced between 1938 and 1940 often were informed by the subjects of his photographs. Beyond this, however, it may be possible to link the stylistic shifts that he introduced in these large-scale watercolors, which he adopted as his primary painterly vehicle in lieu of tempera during this period, to his experiments with the camera. Marsh’s watercolors of 1938–40 are marked by the emergence of sharply modeled, deeply contrasting lights and darks and weighty, substantial forms that may owe to the artist’s photographs, even in cases where he did not use them directly for subject matter. The lightened, transparent tonalities and turn to a cool palette of blues and silvery grays in these works likewise seem to indicate the influence of his photographic images. Thus, while Marsh’s photographs have long been considered merely a data collecting tool for his paintings, it is likely that they in fact played a more pivotal role in his artistic development, providing a springboard that allowed him to reinvigorate his aesthetic language and create a group of watercolors that Goodrich would describe as among his “liveliest and most technically successful works.” [xxxi] Unfortunately, just after their creation, Marsh’s restless experimentation with media led him to maroger, a newly invented painting technique that would give his canvas surfaces of the 1940s the quality of opaque, pasty sludge and obscure his gift for dexterous brushwork. [xxxii] Despite his departure onto this disastrous path, however, Marsh’s intensive engagement with photography during the late 1930s helped him to establish new formal and aesthetic priorities during a decisive moment of upheaval and transition, paving the way for the creation of his last great works of the decade, and, arguably, his career. .................................................................. [xxxi] Ibid., 162. [xxxii] Maroger was developed by Jacques Maroger, former technical director of the Louvre Museum laboratory, who claimed to have developed a medium that he believed was the lost secret of the old masters. Its principle feature was a paste emulsion that was both solid and transparent and that produced a heavy impasto. Marsh used maroger exclusively in his paintings from 1940 to 1945.

ID:
53.107.2
No. 6 -- Bowery
1944
Chinese ink
paper (fiber product)
watercolor (paint)
H: 40 1/2 in, W: 26 3/4 in
ADDITIONAL IMAGES