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.
Pictures are included from when Bristol worked as a freelance photographer for “Life” magazine. Included is a series produced on the South Pacific island of Bali. He made images in New Mexico and of 1930s water irrigation projects in the arid west.
“To some degree Bristol was never really happy working for ‘Life,’” White said. “He liked the fact that his photographs were being shown and wanted them to be used as a tool for social change and awareness but had a lot of difficulties with his photo editor at the magazine.”
Those job conflicts were rendered irrelevant by WWII. In 1941 Bristol became a member of the U.S. Naval Aviation Photographic Unit under the command of noted portrait and fashion photographer Capt. Edward J. Steichen. A picture of Bristol from those days shows a Hollywood-handsome 33-year-old in Naval Officer’s uniform gazing resolutely away from the lenses.
“His photos from WWII are fascinating,” White said. “Part of the tour is from ‘Operation Torch’ in North Africa, some from the Pacific theater and shots of the Alaska campaign.”
Many of these images were widely viewed by Americans hungry for news during the war but they didn’t necessarily know who the photographer was. Bristol has a place in the American collective memory mostly without the fame.
White’s primary challenge organizing the exhibition was selecting images. The Bristol estate maintains a vast library of his photos and they worked closely with the museum.
“I wanted to capture the important aspects of his career while showing a side that is unfamiliar to most Americans,” White said.
This involved choosing pictures that ran in “Life” magazine but also ones that were compelling but without prior broad public exposure. Soon after WWII, Bristol relocated his family to live and work in Occupied Japan. Photos from that era have been seen by relatively few.
“There are some tremendous images in his postwar Japan essay,” White said. “He’d created his own outlet called East West Photo Agency with a couple other photographers and they were interested in capturing a side of Japan that was not well known.”
Subjects were as diverse as Shinto priests and heavily tattooed organized crime figures. Scholarly circles study those first few years after Japan’s defeat but these pictures document a place in time unfamiliar to average Americans.
“I think this exhibition will draw an audience because it has a little something for everybody,” White said. “Most viewers will be Oklahomans and it will speak to them on multiple levels.”
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