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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Ad men's art seen through the lens

Images in 1934 show union with commercialism

Gordon Coster’s 'Advertisement for N.W. Ayer,' the first advertising agency in the country. Gordon Coster’s "Advertisement for N.W. Ayer," the first advertising agency in the country. (1934 Art And Industry Exhibition Photograph Collection, Baker Library Historical Collections)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / August 29, 2010

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Photographic advertising is always artful, or at least it is if the ad’s going to be any good. When does it qualify as art? That question inevitably arises from “The High Art of Photographic Advertising: The 1934 National Alliance of Art and Industry Exhibition,’’ a smart and highly appealing show which runs at Harvard Business School’s Baker Library/Bloomberg Center through Oct. 9.

The show might itself be seen as an ad for the splendors of Depression-era photography. For starters, its accompanying website, www.library.hbs.edu/hc/naai, is a model of its kind: thorough, attractive, and highly informative without being at all didactic. For another, the show boasts several famous names who have work among the 60 photographs, advertisements, and related materials in the show: Anton Bruehl, Nickolas Muray, Margaret Bourke-White (a stunning view of the George Washington Bridge).

What’s most impressive about the show, however, is the consistent quality of the images from numerous little-remembered photographers or anonymous ones who labored in commercial studios. The truest test of any period or style isn’t its highest or lowest level of achievement, but its middle. And there’s nothing middling about the work of these photographers.

As its subtitle indicates, “The High Art of Photographic Advertising’’ is a show about a previous show, the “National Alliance of Art and Industry Exhibition,’’ which was held 76 years ago, in New York and Chicago. The NAAI celebrated the use of photography in print advertising. So what’s there to celebrate, you might well wonder. That’d be like celebrating motion in dance or solidity in architecture. Photographic images are that central to advertising.

Yet their common use was a fairly recent development back then, the result of technical advances in photographic reproduction. One of the more startling aspects of the show is how relatively many color photographs it includes. Something like Muray’s “Lucky Strike Girl’’ or Alfred Cheney Johnston’s “A Study in Color’’ seems like an emissary from the future to what we normally think of as a fully black-and-white world.

Adding further historical interest to the original show was the almost universally held opinion that photography wasn’t a fine art. It would be several more years, for example, before the Museum of Modern Art started a department of photography, the first institution to do so. That the NAAI should address the medium with such seriousness and so comprehensively, let alone the medium in such an explicitly commercial guise, makes it something of a landmark.

The exhibition consisted of 250 photographs. In 1935, the Baker Library acquired 125 of them. This made perfect sense at the time: The show was about the use of photography in promoting business. Only a few years earlier, Calvin Coolidge had declared that the business of America was business. Well, the business of these photographs was business.

Now they look quite different. We see them as being about photography for its own sake, the intersection of technique and aesthetics; and history, a rendering of the way contemporary society saw itself — or a least wanted to be seen. Advertising may be as close to a record of a collective cultural unconscious as an era has, and all sorts of social crosscurrents and visual motifs run through these ads. High as the quality of the images is artistically, they are even more impressive as indices of style, taste, and aspiration.

The most obvious presence here is an absence. Depression? What Depression? These pictures present a uniform vision of hearty confidence and machine-tooled allure. Men wear tuxedos, women gowns, and both wield cigarette holders. Shoes gleam like black ice. Not only are there butlers, but they pour Sanka — Sanka! If the people on display smiled any more, you’d think they were all in Pepsodent ads — except that the one Pepsodent product on display is a facial cream, glimpsed in a Gordon Coster-shot ad for Lord & Taylor. Even a product as banal as Schaefer Beer gets gussied up, in Victor Keppler’s “Beer and Target,’’ as if the plebeian brew were part of the required equipment for an archery tournament.

The instances of color aren’t the only indication that this was a transitional period in photography. The prejudice in favor of Pictorialism as the most artistic form of photography — a thing of wisps and gauze — can still be detected. It’s there in the soft focus, sinuous body line, and floral décor of Coster’s ad for N.W. Ayer, the moody shadows of Gilbert B. Seehausen’s portrait of the boxer Barney Ross, or the shamelessly theatrical lighting in Alfredo Valente’s picture of the sculptor Paul Manship in his studio.

But one can see the growing popularity of a clean, crisp visual approach. Rather than obscure the product, as a soft focus might, such an approach thrusts it forward. Related to that directness is a strong sense of experimentation. That Sanka ad includes multiple exposures, for example. The football players in William M. Rittase’s “Team Work’’ show a dynamism all but unseen in photojournalism at that time. The title of Coster’s “Experiment in the Reversal of Image’’ (it looks like a swanky version of one of Man Ray’s rayograms) speaks for itself.

An alertness to new and recent styles, however incongruous, is very much in evidence. It even transcends ideology. Rittase’s “The Boiler Maker’’ or the Barnaba Studios’ “The Pipe. For Johns-Manville’’ could be a Soviet propaganda poster lionizing the heroic worker. Lenin, who famously said, “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them,’’ would have understood.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

THE HIGH ART OF PHOTOGRAPHIC ADVERTISING: The 1934 National Alliance of Art and Industry Exhibition At Baker Library/Bloomberg Center’s North Lobby, Harvard Business School, 25 Harvard Way, through Oct. 9. 617-495-6411. www.library.hbs.edu/hc/naai