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The Photographer as Artist

A Changing World: New England in the Photographs of Verner Reed, 1950-1972

Photographer as Artist

Most professional photographers grapple with balancing commissioned work against that done with artistic intent. Often the best photography results when these two interests combine. Early in the twentieth century, photographers were most often considered professionals and not artists. This mindset was shifting during Reed's years as a photographer. In 1954, the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, gave Reed an exhibition. The photographs here show that Reed was often less interested in transmitting facts than in sharing his feelings about the subject matter. Like poems, these images express ideas and emotion obliquely. Though some were created during assignments, Reed selected them for his personal use.

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Stowe VFD, Stowe, Vermont, 1951

The Volunteer Fire Department in Stowe used an old house to practice their fire-fighting skills. Reed shot with his large format camera, which allowed him to capture the great range of subtleties in the clouds of steam and smoke. The 4" by 5" negative used in this camera permits great richness of tone and detail.

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Tree Branches, Newport, Rhode Island, 1951

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Adams Wood Mill, Stowe, Vermont, 1952

Reed created this photograph on commission for the mill, probably for an advertisement. Reed was drawn to the way the operator was almost obliterated from view by the shower of wood chips.

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Soaped Window, Boston, 1953

Reed has described his interest in the calligraphic quality of these random scratches on a soaped window. Images such as this were at the center of much of the creative photography in Boston in the 1950s. Most often referred to as "subjective" in style, it was an approach to photography that paralleled Abstract Expressionism in the United States and L'art informel in Europe. Essentially, this approach combined the realism inherent in photography with the abstract and expressive goals of contemporary art. Often this effect was gained, as here, through the close-up examination of a subject that became abstract when stripped of its larger context.


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Charles River, Massachusetts, 1953

Reed photographed industrial sites on several different occasions during his career. In each instance, he worked to make the building appear natural to its surroundings. In this approach, Reed carried on a tradition established by painters and writers living in America a century earlier. The ideal was to make industry and the landscape fit together harmoniously as a reflection of America's essential twin assets--natural resources and the technology to capitalize on them.

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Charlestown, Massachusetts, 1954

Confronted with the problem of how to cover riots in the Charlestown Prison, which were taking place out of sight behind the walls, Reed spent time shooting the environs. Unable to tell the prisoners' story, he created a composition that celebrates the urban landscape while depicting the distance between him and his subject--the distant prison.

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Woman in Water, Newport, Rhode Island, 1955

With three simple elements, the body, the water, and the sky, this image exemplifies a tendency towards simplicity characteristic of Reed’s creative photography of the mid-1950s.

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Bonfire Barrels, Deerfield, Massachusetts, 1955

In New England, many small towns celebrated the Fourth of July with bonfires. Here Reed captures the monumentality of the tower of barrels before they were burned.

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"Texas Tower," off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1955

This rig was an artificial island that served as offshore housing for an early warning radar station for the Continental Air Defense Command. Built in Quincy, it was stationed about 100 miles east of Cape Cod. The five man-made islands in this system, covering 1,000 miles of the eastern seaboard, were called "Texas Towers" after the Gulf of Mexico oil rigs on which their design was based. This defense system demonstrates how seriously the government took the threat of attack during the Cold War.


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Horses, Vermont/Quebec border, 1958

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Winter, Stowe, Vermont, 1963

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Evening Snowfall, Stowe, Vermont, 1971

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Dump Fire, Stowe, Vermont, 1971

The burning at the local dump was a volatile public issue in Stowe. Reed spent many hours documenting the deleterious effects of the smoke on the small town. In this view, he included a series of fence posts evocative of grave markers in a not-so-subtle allusion to the potential impact of pollution. The early 1970s was an era when environmental activism and awareness of pollution were slowly growing in the United States.

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Crushed Cars, Morrisville, Vermont, 1971

Like many of Reed's photographs, this one finds abstract beauty without sacrificing an interest in environmental issues. The image can be read as an intriguing pattern of lights and darks, or, equally, as a warning about the onslaught of trash blotting out the landscape. These concerns, one aesthetic and the other political, have come to characterize the era of the early 1970s.

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Pemaquid Tree, Pemaquid Harbor, Maine, 1972

 

A Changing World: New England in the Photographs of Verner Reed, 1950-1972 

Organized by Historic New England, Boston, Massachusetts 

All photographs are drawn from the collections of Historic New England, presented by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. They are part of the Verner Reed Archive, a collection of more than 26,000 negatives and prints, which was donated by Verner and Deborah Reed. 

John R. Stomberg served as guest curator of the original exhibition.


 

The Photographer as Artist