NORMAN — Photographer Horace Bristol’s (1908-1997) name doesn’t have the ring of familiarity such as those of Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz. He was contemporaries with that famous trio and his work arguably should be just as well known.
The University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art will be making that case with a display of Bristol’s photos on exhibit Nov. 16 to May 18, 2014.
“Our exhibition is a survey of one of the most productive periods in Horace Bristol’s career from 1938 to 1948,” said Mark White, museum chief curator and interim director. “It was an important time for him as a photographer as well as one in world history.”
Images from Bristol’s “Grapes of Wrath” series will undoubtedly have an emotional impact on many Oklahomans. Although the photos were taken in a California migrant workers camp in 1938, it’s part of our national legacy that many of those folks had traveled there from the Sooner State. The shots were part of a joint journalistic project with author John Steinbeck that never came to fruition. The writer’s experiences in the camp later became the inspiration for his great American novel “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939).
White believes these photos from over a half-century ago still hold a tremendous amount of relevance for the modern world, noting the themes of economic insecurity, patriotism during wartime and increased exposure to other cultures.
“American interest in the 1930s, and especially the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, represent problems we still deal with,” he said. “Being able to show the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ series of photographs that inspired the novel is deeply interesting because it depicts where the story began and then where it wound up.”
Bristol’s pictures of real migrants are named for characters in Steinbeck’s novel. The photographic reality and author’s fiction are blurred into an American montage that holds genuine significance for us today.