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Photography Oral History Project (1975-1977)

These audio recordings were originally made during an oral history project conducted from 1975 to 1979 and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project includes extensive interviews with key figures in photography, including André Kertész (1894–1985), the pioneering photojournalist; Jacob Deschin (1900–1983), photography editor for the New York TimesLisette Model (1901–1983), known for her brash and memorable street photography and her mentorship of Diane Arbus, among many other photographersHenry Holmes Smith (1909–1986), renowned as a teacher and creative photographer; Brett Weston (1911–1993), famed for his elemental landscape and nature photographs; Arthur Siegel (1913–1978), the influential experimental and documentary photographer; and Carl Siembab (1926–2007), owner of a Boston art gallery. For Arthur Siegel, Henry Holmes Smith, and Brett Weston, background interviews with other photographers, friends, and family members were also conducted.  

Jacob Deschin +

Jacob Deschin

Biography

Born: 1900, Minsk, Russia
Died: 1983, Great Neck, NY, USA

Jacob Deschin was a noted writer on photography from the 1930s until his retirement in 1970. Early in his career as a journalist, Deschin developed an interest in photography as an illustrative tool and, eventually, as a subject in and of itself. Deschin wrote for Scientific American as the camera columnist during the 1930s, and he was a frequent contributor to Popular Photography, starting with its first issue in 1937. In 1941, the New York Times hired Deschin to write a weekly column titled “Camera View,” which was featured in the Sunday edition until Deschin’s retirement. 

Deschin’s column became an integral source of information in the photographic community and featured writing on all aspects of the field, including photographers, events, books, exhibitions, technologies, and industry news. In addition to his weekly column, Deschin authored instructional photography books such as Say it With Your Camera: An Approach to Creative Photography and New Ways in Photography: Ideas for the Amateur. After his retirement, he published a newsletter, The Photo Reporter, and operated galleries for Modernage, a photographic printing laboratory in Manhattan. 

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André Kertész +

André Kertész

Biography

Born: 1894, Budapest, Hungary
Died: 1985, New York, NY, USA

Born into a middle-class Jewish Austro-Hungarian family, André Kertész was studying for a career in business at the Academy of Commerce and working as a clerk at the Budapest stock exchange when he bought his first camera in 1912. After serving in the army during World War I, Kertész moved to Paris in 1925, where he worked as a freelance photographer. There, amid the city’s bohemian milieu, Kertész made innovative use of Leica’s newly introduced handheld 35mm camera, photographing the Paris streets, still lifes, and his fellow artists. Kertész’s work was featured in several European publications including Die Photographie, Vu, and the Times of London. Between 1933 and 1936, he published three books of his own photographs—a pioneering endeavor in the newly formed genre of the photobook. 

Kertész relocated to the United States in 1936, settling in New York City. He continued his work as a freelance photographer for mass-circulated American magazines such as Collier’s and Harper’s Bazaar. Upon his retirement from commercial photography at the age of 68, he returned to photographing the subject matter he found interesting as an amateur: city scenes, movement, gesture, and abstract shapes. His personal body of work produced during the 1960s and 1970s gained international recognition; it was widely published and exhibited, earning Kertész recognition as one of the most respected and influential photographers in America. 

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Lisette Model +

Lisette Model

Biography

Born: 1901, Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Died: 1983, New York, NY, USA

Photographer Lisette Model was born Elise Amelie Felicie Stern to a Jewish-Austrian family in the Austro-Hungarian capital of Vienna. Originally, Model planned on a career in music. At the age of nineteen, she studied piano under the renowned avant-garde composer Arnold Schönberg, whom she would later credit as her greatest influence as an artist. After moving to Paris in 1924, Model became increasingly interested in the visual arts, particularly painting and photography. In 1933, Model began taking courses in painting from the French Cubist painter and critic André Lhote, but soon turned her full attention to photography. Having already learned the basics from her younger sister, Olga, Model expanded her technique under the tutelage of Rogi André, the Hungarian photographer and, at the time, wife of photographer André Kertész. While Model’s initial aspiration was to work as a darkroom technician, she soon began practicing street photography and developed an aptitude for unique, closely cropped images of her subjects. In 1937, Model married the Russian-born painter Evsa Model.

In 1938, Model moved to New York City, where she met prominent figures in the photographic community. She worked as a freelance photographer for Harper's Bazaar magazine, and her photographs were featured in a variety of other mass-circulated publications. In 1940, the Museum of Modern Art held its first Department of Photography exhibition, Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Aesthetics, which included Model’s work. From then on, her work was featured in many major museum and gallery exhibitions. In addition to her documentary work, Model taught photography for thirty years in New York. She instructed many students who went on to become successful photographers including Diane Arbus, Larry Fink, and Lynn Davis.

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Joe Munroe +

Joe Munroe

Biography

Born: 1917, FL, USA
Died: 2014, Orinda, CA, USA

Best known for his photographic record of post-WWII agricultural development in the American Midwest, photographer and filmmaker Joseph J. Munroe was born in Florida but relocated to Detroit, Michigan, in 1918 following the death of his mother. As a teenager, Munroe was an active member of various Detroit-area camera clubs, and worked in a camera shop as a darkroom technician as well as numerous studios before joining the faculty of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in 1939. In addition to working as an instructor, Munroe photographed the school’s staff and students, and in 1942 became Cranbrook’s Director of Photography. Later that year, Munroe enlisted in the Air Force where he worked as a public relations photographer during WWII. After the war, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to work for the newly founded Farm Quarterly magazine, photographing agricultural and rural life—themes which remained prominent in his work throughout his career.

In 1955, Munroe moved to California and began working as a freelance photographer for such mainstream publications as Time, Life, National Geographic, and Ladies’ Home Journal. In 1959, Munroe took one of his best-known photographs for Life: 21 students crammed into a phone booth on the campus of St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. Additional commercial work included portraiture of prominent figures such as President Lyndon Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Ansel Adams. In 1991, Munroe and writer Kirby Moulton published Changing Faces on Our Land, a book-length photo essay documenting the rapidly changing landscape of US farming in the decades following World War II.

Munroe was also an accomplished filmmaker. Beginning in the 1960s, Munroe shot promotional films for public television and the agricultural producer Pioneer Hi-Bred International, as well as more personal documentaries about geology, the environment, and outdoor adventure.

Roy Sieber +

Roy Sieber

Biography

Born: 1923, Shawano, WI, USA
Died: 2001, Bloomington, IN, USA

Roy Sieber was an historian and curator of African art known for his photographic documentation of artistic traditions in western Africa. He is widely regarded as a key figure in the development of African art as an area of scholarly study in the United States.

Sieber graduated from the New School for Social Research in New York in 1949 and went on to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Iowa. He received his PhD in African art history in 1957, becoming the first scholar to receive a doctorate in that field of study. In 1962, Sieber began teaching art history at Indiana University. While teaching, Sieber curated several exhibitions of African art.

Sieber relocated to Washington, DC, in 1983 when he accepted the position of Associate Director for Collections and Research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. While at the Smithsonian, he established standards for the acquisition of African art and lectured at institutions throughout the United States and abroad, including the University of Ghana and University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Nigeria. Sieber returned to Bloomington, Indiana, following his retirement from the Smithsonian in 1994. The University Archives at Indiana University Bloomington hold the Roy Sieber papers, which contain hundreds of Sieber’s photographic prints and slides documenting African artwork in both rituals and gallery exhibitions.

Frederick Sommer +

Frederick Sommer

Biography

Frederick Sommer
Born: 1905, Angri, Italy
Died: 1999, Prescott, AZ, USA

An accomplished photographer, artist, and formally trained landscape architect, Frederick Sommer was born in the southern Italian town of Angri, but raised in Brazil by his German-speaking parents. After earning a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Cornell University in 1927, Sommer returned to Brazil, where he worked with his father, also a landscape architect. Sommer permanently relocated to the U.S. in 1931 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. Following treatment in Switzerland, Sommer, along with his wife, Frances Elizabeth Watson, a social worker, settled in Prescott, AZ, where they would remain for much of their lives.

During the early 1930s Sommer developed an interest in modern art, and began creating and exhibiting paintings, drawings, and collages. Upon first seeing Edward Weston’s work in 1933, Sommer developed a fascination with photography and began communicating with prominent practitioners of the medium, including Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, and Aaron Siskind. By 1935, he began exploring photography’s creative possibilities, incorporating it into an increasingly diverse and substantial body of work that included drawing, painting, collage, and writing.

Sommer’s technically masterful photographs range in subject matter from landscapes to abstractions. Of note are his still life compositions, photographed with an 8 x 10 inch view camera and often consisting of discarded, at times grotesque, objects. Sommer also taught at Prescott College, the IIT Institute of Design, and the Rhode Island School of Design.

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Paul Vanderbilt +

Paul Vanderbilt

Biography

Born: 1905, Cambridge, MA, USA
Died: 1992, Madison, WI, USA

Paul Vanderbilt was a photographer, curator, archivist, and librarian credited with creating new methods for cataloging visual material. Vanderbilt studied first at Amherst College in Massachusetts, then transferred to Harvard, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in art history in 1927. In 1928, after working as a consultant for the New York City art-books importer E. Weyhe Inc., Vanderbilt was hired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to serve as the museum’s first professional librarian. To prepare, Vanderbilt traveled to Europe to study library science at the Paris Library School and the Institut de Psychologie Bibliologique in Lausanne, Switzerland. Returning to the United States in 1929, Vanderbilt commenced work at the museum; in 1935, with assistance from Works Progress Administration staff, he initiated the Union Library Catalog project for the Philadelphia area.

In 1941, Vanderbilt was hired by Roy Stryker of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and, later, the United States Office of War Information (OWI), to catalog the vast collection of photographs made by FSA-OWI photographers. In order to make the collection searchable, Vanderbilt developed the Lot Number and Classification Tags systems. The materials were transferred to the Library of Congress in 1943, where Vanderbilt went on to serve as curator for the recently founded Prints and Photographs Division. As World War II drew to a close, Vanderbilt joined the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program, serving as Assistant Archives Advisor under Sargent B. Child. Together, Vanderbilt and Child planned and managed the return of millions of stolen archival objects to their rightful owners and repositories.

In 1954, Vanderbilt transferred to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, where, as curator of visual materials, he expanded and cataloged the photographic collection. He also served as a field photographer, documenting locations and events throughout the state. Vanderbilt would incorporate his own landscape photography, along with historical photographs from the historical society’s collection, into the Wisconsin Thematic Panels project, which he initiated in the mid-1960s. The project sought to encourage a more personal experience of 

historical photographs by forgoing factual information and pairing experimentally grouped images with poetry written by Vanderbilt himself. In 1967, Vanderbilt presented an overview of the project at an Advanced Studies Workshop at the George Eastman Museum.

After his retirement from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1972, Vanderbilt continued to practice photography as an artist-in-residence at the Apeiron Workshops in Millerton, New York, and various other projects. His book of personal and historic photographs, Between the Landscape and its Other, was published posthumously in 1992. 

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