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Indepth Arts News:

"Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer"
2005-11-05 until 2006-02-05
Carnegie Museum of Art
Pittsburgh, PA, USA

A major retrospective photography exhibition Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer will be on view at Carnegie Museum of Art from November 5, 2005 through February 5, 2006. Active from the mid-to-late 1920s until his premature death in 1944, Luke Swank was one of the pioneers of modernism in photography. At the height of his career, his work was included in several prestigious exhibitions in New York, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and received praise from critics, art historians, and renowned photographers. Widely recognized during his lifetime, Swank has gone unnoticed since his death.

Swank’s large and varied body of work moved from an early pictorial style in the late 1920s to precise, sharp, modernist images that combine a documentary reality with abstraction and the surreal. Swank’s photographs from the 1930s portray the city of Pittsburgh, the nation’s center of industrial innovation and economic vitality, as well as other industrial subjects with a singular documentary vision. As Swank surveyed his world he looked for subject matter that was vanishing from the American scene. His circus images are seamless explorations of the real and the surreal and his evocative photographs of rural historic Pennsylvania architecture pay homage to form, detail, and light.

Guest curator Howard Bossen, professor of journalism at Michigan State University and adjunct curator of photography at the Kresge Art Museum, East Lansing, aims to restore Swank’s place in photographic history. Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer features 141 of the artist’s black-and-white photographs and a variety of memorabilia, including exhibition announcements and catalogues, books and magazines, correspondence, and personal items. Bossen has also written a book of the same title to accompany the exhibition.

“What makes Swank’s vision unique,” says Bossen, “is his combination of traditional machine age and social documentary content with a dramatic and poetic use of light, form, and the picture frame.”

Linda Batis, former associate curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art, has worked with Bossen in organizing the exhibition for Carnegie Museum of Art and the Kresge Art Museum, Michigan State University, where it has been on view September 6–October 16, 2005.

Born in 1890 to a Johnstown, Pennsylvania, mercantile family, Luke Swank graduated with a degree in horticulture from Pennsylvania State Agricultural College (now Penn State University) and then explored a variety of careers, including vegetable farmer and dog trainer. He served in the U.S. Army during the first World War, and was assigned to a research facility to study the manufacture of poison gasses. After the war, Swank, his wife Grace, and son Harry, returned to Johnstown, where he entered the family business as manager of a hardware store; he later became manager of the family automobile dealership. “Folklore has it that Luke Swank first picked up a camera when he was nearly 40 and within two years was exhibiting his work in New York’s Museum of Modern Art,” says Bossen. “There is no doubt that Swank was seriously exploring photography by the mid-1920s, and by the late 1920s, he was an enlightened amateur aware of the trends, practices, and controversies within art photography.” Swank’s pictorial work in the 1920s used dramatic artificial lighting and dark room manipulation to produce diffused and moody images.

Luke Swank
American, 1890-1944
[Steel Worker in Foundry], c. 1934
Vintage gelatin silver print
13 3/6 x 9 7/16 in.
Carnegie Museum of Art; Gift of Edith Swank Long by transfer from the 
Pennsylvania Department, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh 

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