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Cantor Arts Center : Reality Makes Them Dream : American Photography, 1929–1941


The Cantor Arts Center presents Reality Makes Them Dream: American Photography, 1929–1941, an exhibition featuring over 100 photographs, periodicals, and photobooks. This material collectively pushes against the typical history of 1930s photography that views the work of this period as primarily documentary, and instead illustrates that artists of this era frequently used photography to ignite the imagination. The exhibition and the expansive art historical narratives it illuminates result from Dr. Josie R. Johnson’s study over the past three years of the Cantor’s Capital Group Foundation (CGF) Photography Collection—a major gift of over 1,000 twentieth-century American photographs.

Currently serving as the museum’s CGF Curatorial Fellow for Photography, Johnson comments: “The Cantor’s holdings of American photography from the 1930s are especially rich, and the generous terms of the Capital Group Foundation Fellowship enabled me to delve deeply into this fascinating chapter of photo history. Sifting through these prints allowed me to set aside what I thought I knew about this material and take a fresh look, giving me a new appreciation for the novel approaches these artists developed in the midst of a profoundly difficult historical moment.”

The work of five photographers from the CGF Collection—Ansel Adams, John Gutmann, Helen Levitt, Wright Morris, and Edward Weston—comprises the core of the exhibition. Its conceit draws from a curious phrase by Stanford biology professor Laurence Bass-Becking about the photography of his friend Edward Weston: “Reality makes him dream.” Though few people today would associate dreaminess with the Great Depression, Bass-Becking penned this statement in the fall of 1930, one year into the economic turmoil that would last until the nation’s entry into World War II. Reality Makes Them Dream exemplifies the spirit of experimentation that Bass-Becking describes by highlighting an undercurrent of artistic practices in the United States that were sometimes more akin to those of Surrealism taking place concurrently in Europe.

To tease out these under-examined connections, and de-emphasize the association of American photography of the 1930s with the unbiased documentation of real people and events, works by the five core CGF artists are interwoven with a diverse selection of photographs by their contemporaries, both iconic and overlooked, such as Walker Evans, Hiromu Kira, and Dorothea Lange. Edward Weston’s bold experimentation with forms both natural and man-made—exemplified by highly evocative works such as Pepper No. 35 (1930) and Egg Slicer (1930) that inspired Bass-Becking’s comment—blends harmoniously with contemporary prints from the community of Japanese-American photographers in Los Angeles that often supported Weston’s work. Examples of fashion and editorial photography, including color images by Toni Frissell and Paul Outerbridge, draw connections across the galleries with photographs of airplanes, household items, and tourist sites made by seasoned artists and amateur hobbyists alike. Helen Levitt’s surreal tableaux on the streets of New York echo Berenice Abbott’s studies of the metropolis with multiple layers of history jumbled into the same block. Ansel Adams’s pristine images of the Sierra Nevada hang alongside little-known photographs by Seema Weatherwax, his darkroom assistant in the late 1930s who was similarly enchanted with nature but developed a vision all her own. Despite gaining the respect of not only Adams, but also Weston, Lange, and Imogen Cunningham, Weatherwax shared her own work publicly for the first time in 2000 at the age of 95. Her photographs evidence her technical abilities and, not unlike her peers on view in this exhibition, find beauty in the everyday. Altogether, these photographs effectively illustrate Johnson’s three year exploration of the collection which revealed that despite the very real financial, political, and cultural challenges of the Great Depression, certain photographers chose not to focus on the camera’s cold mechanical precision, but rather used it as a medium to spark their imaginations—fusing reality and dream into one.

“The Capital Group Foundation Photography Collection is not only a gift to the Cantor and its future programming, but to the education and enrichment of the wider community of Stanford,” said Director Veronica Roberts. “The accompanying funding for the stewardship of the collection and a CGF Fellow ensures that new scholarship will be supported and enables us to foster the next generation of photography scholars and enthusiasts. Josie R. Johnson’s stellar exhibition demonstrates just how much there is to learn from this material and her research has already paved the way for new art historical narratives to take shape.”

The first exhibition curated by a CGF fellow, Reality Makes Them Dream is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue. It features an essay by Johnson and contributions from the community of photography scholars at Stanford University—Kim Beil, associate director of the ITALIC arts program for undergraduates; Yechen Zhao (PhD in art history ’22); Anna Lee, photography curator for special collections at the Stanford Libraries; Rachel Heise Bolten (PhD in English ’22); Altair Brandon-Salmon (PhD candidate in art history); Marco Antonio Flores (PhD candidate in art history); and Maggie Dethloff, PhD, assistant curator of photography and new media at the Cantor.


Reality Makes Them Dream: American Photography, 1929 –1941
Until July 30, 2023
Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University
328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way Stanford, CA

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