Bell Telephone Department, New York World’s Fair, 1939, by The Press Department. From Hunt’s Three Ring Circus.
Bell Telephone Department, New York World’s Fair, 1939, by The Press Department. From Hunt’s Three Ring Circus.

The face of America in the Fifties

The International Center of Photography looks back at the group shot in early 20th century America

“The future,” wrote the New York novelist Don Delillo in his 1991 novel, Mao II, “belongs to crowds.” Yet what about the past? US citizens might not have been packed into shopping malls and funnelled through airports in quite the same volumes as they are today, yet the social group – be it a regiment, a lodge, a sports team or a beauty pageant – played a crucial role in early 20th century life.

If there’s something that the International Center of Photography’s forthcoming exhibition illustrates, it’s how beguiling this older sense of American group identity now looks, over six decades later.

 

Ramona, Rebekah Lodge, No. 83, I. O.O.F., late 19th–early 20th century, Unidentified Photographer. From Hunt’s Three Ring Circus
Ramona, Rebekah Lodge, No. 83, I. O.O.F., late 19th–early 20th century, Unidentified Photographer. From Hunt’s Three Ring Circus

Hunt’s Three Ring Circus: American Groups Before 1950 is an exhibition of images from the archives of the prominent American photography collector W. M. Hunt. It features more than 100 photographs and video from a private collection of unusual vintage images of American crowds, rallies, assemblies, organizations, fraternities, unions, clubs, tribes, conventions, and alliances, all made before 1950.

Some images, such as the 1918 shot, The Human Liberty Bell, consisting of 27,000 officers and men arranged in a bell shape at Camp Dix, New Jersey, have a naïve, quaint look to them today. Others, such as a 1924 group portrait of a Massachusetts branch of the Klu Klux Klan, remind us of the sinister side to formal associations.

 

The Human Liberty Bell, 25,000 Officers & Men, at Camp Dix, New Jersey, General Hugh L. Scott, CMDR, 1918 by Mole & Thomas. From Hunt’s Three Ring Circus
The Human Liberty Bell, 25,000 Officers & Men, at Camp Dix, New Jersey, General Hugh L. Scott, CMDR, 1918 by Mole & Thomas. From Hunt’s Three Ring Circus

Hunt began this collection, which was also displayed at Rencontres d’Arles in 2014, about twenty years ago. He has found the images in school gyms and Masonic Halls, as well as at antique markets and on Ebay. A few entries in the collection, like the numbered portrait of the Bell Telephone Department at the 1939 New York World's Fair, appears to serve a clerical use, while others, including the Atlantic City Miss America pageant, seem to commemorate a group gathering, however brief. When Hunt showed his collection the acclaimed contemporary photographer Nadav Kander, Kander remarked that the images lacked tension. Perhaps this lack of anxiety gives us some insight into the easy associations Americans once struck up, before the rampant individualism of more recent times.

 

Miss America Pageant, Convention Hall, Atlantic City, New Jersey, September 7–12, 1953 by  Fred Hess & Son. From Hunt’s Three Ring Circus
Miss America Pageant, Convention Hall, Atlantic City, New Jersey, September 7–12, 1953 by Fred Hess & Son. From Hunt’s Three Ring Circus

To see for yourself go to 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery, New York, where the photos will be on display from 28 September until 8 January. For greater insight into the history of photography get The Photography Book; and for more today’s crowds, buy the wonderful People of the Twenty-First Century.