Consuelo Kanaga:Review by Elsa Dorfman
Consuelo Kanaga: An American Photographer by Barbara Head Millstein and Sarah M. Lowe is published by the Brooklyn Museum in association with the University of Washington Press. 1992.224 pp., 180 images.
This book was published on the occasion of the retrospective exhibit, Consuelo Kanaga: An American Photographer at the Brooklyn Museum in 1992, fourteen years after her death. (In 1976, the Museum had organized a 50-print exhbit of Kanaga's work which led Kanaga's husband to bequeth all the photographer's negatives and a substantial number of her prints to the Museum. Thus this study of her sixty-year career.)
In alternate sections written by Barbara Head Millstein, Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture at The Brooklyn Museum,and Sarah M. Lowe, guest curator, the catalogue divides Kanaga's work into seven categories and provides a very useful biographical review of her life. Though Millstein's essay is only 34 pages, it gives a good sense of what Kanaga was like and how she worked. It is a little descreet about her habits (did she drink too much to get much work done? ) about her long-term relationship (1922-1925) and about her marriages (three). It fails to wrestle with the hard question: why did a woman who was obviously talented and charismatic and for whom there was no lack of opportunity turn out so little work? The text barely mentions her work as a painter and we have no idea if painting distracted Kanaga from photography. Nonetheless Millstein's biographical essay and the chronology prepared by Sarah M. Lowe are indispensable. This is the first and probably only study that will be devoted to Consuelo Kanaga's work, though it suggests that her work deserves to be considered in any study of how African Americans have been presented in American photography and in any study of photography in women's magazines in the first half of the twentieth century.
Consuelo Kanaga was born in 1884 and grew up around San Francisco. She worked from 1915-1922 first for the The San Francisco Chronicle and then for the San Francisco Daily News. It was highly unusual for a woman to be a newspaper photographer in those days and she was treated with deference and respect by her contemporaries: Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange and Imogene Cunningham because of her job. (Millstein and Lowe don't recap the history of women photographers in the newspaper business so I don't know if Kanaga has claims to being the first.) In 1918 she joined the California Camera Club, discovered Alfred Steiglitz's ¯Camera Work and decided to become an art photographer. "It changed my life," she said. She felt that the prints were "the most beautiful things that had ever been done in photography, and I wanted to start from there." p. 21. That decision to turn from what a decade later became photojournalism as we now know it was crucial and in a way imprisoned her. It determined how and what Kanaga photographed, how she thought about money, and how she arbitrarily divided her life into "work for money" and "work for herself/that is ART." It made the life of the artist incredibly romantic and devalued the life of the self-supporting photographer. It tied her to the Steiglitz and later Steichen aesthetic.
From 1922-1924 Kanaga worked at The New York American, then operated a portrait studio in San Francisco until 1927. After almost a year in Europe, she came back first to New York and then to San Francisco married to a man who was jealous of her work and who eventually cheated her friends and left her with a pile of his bills to pay. She ran her portrait studio in San Franciso from 1930 to 1935. Her work was widely respected and was accepted into what turned out to be historic photography shows:Showing of Hands and the first exhibit of Group f/64 both at the M.H. deYoung Memorial Museum. She left San Francisco for New York in the fall of 1935 for a change of scene and to get over that distastrous marriage. In Manhattan she worked for the WPA, photographed for the political left, got involved with the New York Photo League, and married an artist, Wallace B. Putnam. She freelanced for Woman's Day¯ and ¯Good Housekeeping¯, travelled, and maintained her portrait business. In 1948 her work was included in three important shows at the Museum of Modern Art. Just two years later Putnam convinced her to move out of Manhattan to their modest country property in Yorktown Heights near Croton on Hudson and in 1955 a photograph she made five years earlier was included in Steichen's landmark museum show, The Family of Man.
Lowe and Millstein don't discuss the ramifications of the move out of Manhattan beyond stating that Kanaga resisted Putnam for as long as she could. The move took her away from the city which was the source of her favorite images and took her away from her colleagues. Up to 1950 the momentum of her career seems typical of the few successful female photographers in Manhattan.
Lowe and Millstein don't call attention to the fact that only three images in their catalogue were made after 1950--although Kanaga lived until 1978. They explain simply: "She had no gift for self promotion. Few people saw her work, and the consequence is the story of her career."p.50 and "Perhaps her activity on both coasts contributed to her lack of public recognition or acceptance in photographic history, although it also extended her illustrious circle of friends, colleagues and admirers.:p.9 They write without drawing any conclusions: p.48 "Putnam came first to her, as friends and acquaintances have noted: She felt that her work wasn't important. His work was important." And similarly, they relate the experience of Helen Gee, an important figure in American photography in Manhattan p.48,49 I wanted to show Consuelo's work in the late 1950s at the Limelight. I arranged with a friend to drive me up to her house...As soon as we got there, she insisted that we eat and aferwards I asked to see her photographs. She proceeded to wander around the house looking for them in an aimless fashion. She couldn't seem to focus at all. She couldn't find the photographs. The conclusion was that Wally began to show us his canvases of two birds...There must have been two hundred canvases...So, she never had a show. I didn't see one photograph and it didn't seem to bother her at all."
But William Maxwell who was her country neighbor got it right in his introduction to this catalogue, "Connie herself was dispossessed--that is to say, she was in the wrong place. The people she wanted to be photographing were in the city, in black neighborhoods, or in the deep South." p.15.
Millstein and Lowe are circumspect about how much Putnam contributed financially to the marriage once he left his day job in Manhattan for Yorktown Heights. They describe Kanaga having to live very frugally. Into the nineteen sixties she was charging only $10 for a portrait when young people like myself were charging $40. Her main source of income was her portrait business. We don't know if she ever applied for a Guggenheim, an NEA grant or a grant from the New York State Council. (We do know she never got any grants.) Ironically, Kanaga had one treasure. In 1925 she had bought a set of Steiglitz's ¯Camera Work for $200. The authors describe her showing it to two young collectors before she died in 1978 (when it was worth a fortune). They do not say if Kanaga sold it to the young men and if she did, for how much.
Kanaga's life work included 2500 negatives and 375 prints. We do not know if the 2500 negatives included the negatives from the sixty years of making commercial portraits. In fact, although the catalogue is divided into seven sections, there is no section devoted to Kanaga's commercial portraiture or to her newspaper and magazine journalism. Nor is there anything from the WPA project she worked on.
Though clearly Kanaga could make a wonderful landscapes, interiors, still lifes, and cityscapes (the potential was there to be a great photographer with a definitive oeuvre) the portraiture chapter by Millstein is the heart of the book. Kanaga describes her approach:p.32.".I would sacrifice resemblance any day to get the inner feeling of a person,she later wrote. It seems so much more of one than our face which is so often just a mask." She is also quoted, p. 17. The great alchemy is your attitude, who you are, what you are. When you make a photograph, it is very much a picture of your own self. That is the important thing. Most people try to be striking to catch the eye. I think the thing is not to catch the eye but the spirit. "For this reason perhaps Kanaga was particulary successful photographing children. Millstein notes that the children in all of Kanaga's portraits of children are solemn and unsmiling. The portraits of March Avery and of an unnamed child (figure 67) are wonderful examples of portraits that do not try to make kids cute.
The portraits of Barbara Deming, possibly made in 1966,and of Mark Rothko are particularly memorable. There is one undated wonderful self-portrait (fig.48) of Kanaga in her kitchen leaning behind a wooden chair. The chemical stains on the image actually enhance it. Her last noncommercial portrait of W.Eugene Smith and his wife Aileen, made in 1974, four years before her death is warm and lively, making Smith look angelic and Aileen blissful. A portrait of Countee Cullen (fig. 50) is forceful and thankfully departs from her occasional formulaic portraits that manage to include the hands cradling the face in some way. Langston Hughes is draped on a couch, staring with a penetrating gaze at her camera. (But where is Jean Toomer who was her close personal friend?) There is a wonderful portrait of a woman (M.C) that is perhaps of M.C. Richards (plate 41). Figure 59 of Seddie Anderson shows Kanaga's interest in skin texture and profile. Plate 85 of a young African American mother with her baby girl is exhuberant and clear. The woman seems real, not monumental or sculptural or symbolic of endurance. These portraits by Kanaga are as wonderful as any portraits to be found from any era. Her subjects sensed her spirit and returned the favor. William Maxwell writes, p.15: Many years after she had focused her camera on them, she continued to love the people she had photographed...p.15. . Even though there are many powerful images in this book, Kanaga's photography is eclipsed by the questions her working life raises. Found among her papers was the following prose written by Consuelo Kanaga toward the end of her life: p. 50
Am I a poor taker? Why? What do I want? Am I concealing my needs and yearnings? Why should I insist on being second and carry resentments for years? Why really have I not driven the car? Is it to shackle myself and suffer more? Why do I look down on money as an evil and yet be in need of enough to live on? Was it necessary to divide my creative work so called which aims at reality--with portrait work which I feel must be softened and flattereing? Aren't they one? Why have I turned away from thinking about what to eat !!!! Sometimes I make Wallace suggest what we might eat. To make him pay? Why have I felt shut in at the Icehouse--when it is so beautiful and I am so fond of the plantings, etc. What do I lack in physical needs? Clothes? Food? Shelter? Would cutting off my hair free me of any strings or bonds? Do I want to die or be in jail again to be reborn-- must one always become a captive to know freedom? What am I--a mess or something reaching toward light?