Exhibitions: The great melting pot

Edinburgh is host to the most comprehensive exhibition of American photography to be held on this side of the Atlantic
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The Independent Culture
THE MUSEUM of Modern Art in New York, founded in 1929, collected photographs from its earliest days and in 1940 was the first museum to establish a curatorial department devoted to photography as an art form. "American Photography 1890-1965", a Moma exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, is a record of this prescience and its catalogue provides an interesting survey of attitudes toward photography in the 1940s.

A crucial issue then, as now, was the division between photography conceived as a part of modern fine art and photography as a means of mass communication. We learn of many disputes about the role of camerawork within Moma, and indeed the whole exhibition has an introspective flavour. This is not what we expected. One walks into the gallery looking for large, vivid and panoramic pictures of American life. Instead, the photographs appear small. They are often rather dark and are evidently the products of private experience. Hardly any are optimistic. There's no glamour, even when movie stars make an appearance. Technically, they are careful. Even the "experimental" art photographs are timid. The overall impression is of a sad, faraway country.

There's not enough of the crackle of the here-and-now. Perhaps that's because the show ends in 1965, which is far too early. A deeper reason may be that Moma was always concerned that photography should have its own dignity. Solemn people were encouraged and vulgarians excluded, or so I guess from the catalogue's account of Moma politics. On the broader cultural front, photography as presented in Edinburgh contrasts with American painting and sculpture of the period. It doesn't have the same openness, acceptance of risk, high ambition or desire for untramelled creation. There is no photographic equivalent of Abstract Expressionism: the art-artists and the art-photographers served different parts of the American psyche.

American photography's sister art is not painting but literature; and not so much poetry as prose. I'm thinking of novels about families in the South and West, the tales of immigrant homes in New York streets, documentary accounts of distant states and then all the touching evocations of adolescence. Everywhere in this show there are people coming to terms with their environment, and often the pictures call out for words. How literary Weegee's photograph becomes when we read its title, Brooklyn School Children See Gambler Murdered in Street; how much we desire social information when looking at Walker Evans' and Dorothea Lange's portraits of the poor in Alabama and New Mexico; while all the 1890s nature photographs, beautiful though they are, make me wish that some settler would chop down those trees and start building a cabin.

Of course we are shown photographs of cabins, Shaker furniture and the like, notably in Clifton Johnson's Barred Door, Rocky Hill Meeting House of 1910, Charles Currier's Kitchen in the Vicinity of Boston of 1900 and Charles Sheeler's White Barn, Bucks Country, Pennsylvania of 1914-17. Such prints, with their American appreciation of plain factuality, bring the photography of human manufactures towards abstract composition. Yet their emptiness leaves us with dissatisfaction. The photographs are too artistic. We want these stables and simple verandahs to be peopled. I prefer two subversive photographs of empty museums, Henry Hamilton Bennett's Layton Art Gallery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin of around 1890 and Alfred Stieglitz's Picasso-Braque Exhibition at "291" of 1915. Both prints, the first showing old European statues and the second some Synthetic Cubism, are deadpan. Underneath their cool facades, though, they ask what this European art is doing in America, where people have other things to do.

Patriotism is a theme, though I note that the fissures within American society are understated. A month ago I reported on the remarkable photo- graphy that accompanied the American Civil Rights Movement (at the Photographers' Gallery in London: see Going Out, page 84). There is nothing of that sort in Edinburgh. On the whole these photographs observe. They do not bear witness. Nor are they concerned with any of the crucial events of the period covered.

That, I suspect, is because the Moma collection is not disposed towards photo-journalism. Is it not a Moma principle - and a good one - that while the American world rushes on there is still room for contemplation? There's a nice set of metaphors for speeding modern life in O Winston Link's Hot Shot East Bound at Iager, West Virginia of 1956. The freight express pounds towards the far Atlantic coast. Beside the tracks two young people at a drive-in movie see a plane on the big screen. They seem a bit older than adolescents. Still we wonder about their parents and wonder more whether this couple think about the future, or are merely gazing at one of its images.

! Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Rd, Edinburgh (0131 556 8921) to 26 November.