The Unheralded Passion Of Photographer Kanaga

Consuelo Kanaga (1894-1978), subject of The Phillips Collection's current "Consuelo Kanaga, an American Photographer" exhibit, was on a mission.

Unlike her more famous peers - Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Imogen Cunningham - Kanaga saw photography as a sacred calling.

She identified with the downtrodden, especially African-Americans who were largely invisible in American society at the time. As intense about her chosen medium as she was about life, she wrote, "I feel something close to religion in photography." And, "I thought a medium like photography could change the world."

Although she concentrated on photographing the poor and disenfranchised, this exhibit shows the full range of her art, from a lyric still-life of a "Camellia in Water," to the grittiness of American cities, to the desperation of Depression-era families on their farms.

She was the only American photographer of her time who trained her lens on African Americans, giving them almost abstract sculptural qualities as in one of her most well-known images, "Frances With a Flower." As a white woman, she also stepped over the color barrier to shoot the black intellectuals of Harlem, such as poet Langston Hughes.

Unlike her contemporary, Ansel Adams, Kanaga did little to market herself. While Adams printed during autumn and winter for summer sales at Yosemite Park's gift shop, Kanaga spent long hours in the photo darkroom perfecting her images, and selling only a few.

Kanaga was successful as a portraitist of the rich and as a news and commercial photographer, and she shuttled often between New York and San Francisco.

Her contemporary, Dorothea Lange, worked for government agencies, documenting the ravages of the Depression, but always as an outsider. Kanaga, by contrast, identified closely with her subjects. She even tried to adopt one of the destitute children she photographed.

Though largely unknown to the general public, her fellow photographers knew and admired Kanaga. Raised near San Francisco, she joined the San Francisco Chronicle in 1915 as a reporter. Finding pictures more interesting than words, she taught herself photography.

By 1935, she had traveled in Europe and North Africa. She settled in New York, taking her first urban poverty photos there. She also met photographer and promoter Alfred Stieglitz, but never became one his protgs like her more successful peers.

Kanaga was appalled by how black Americans were treated, and wrote of them, "One thing I had to say in my photography was that African-Americans are beautiful and that poverty is a tender and terrible subject to be approached on one's knees."

Edward Steichen, then director of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art, included a Kanaga portrait in his "50 Photographs by 50 Photographers" exhibit in 1948. For the museum's landmark 1955 exhibition, "The Family of Man," Steichen selected one of her more famous later images, "She Is a Tree of Life to Them," a portrait of a tall, thin black woman with two children sheltered by her arms.

Kanaga unmasked people's souls in a unique and forceful way. With this she earned her place alongside her more well-known contemporaries, and among the foremost American photographers.

* After the exhibit ends in Washington April 5, it moves to the Greenville County Museum in Greenville, S.C. (April 17 to June 21); the Marsh Art Gallery, University of Richmond, in Richmond, Va., (July 24 to Sept. 27); the Samuel P. Harn Museum, University of Florida at Gainesville (Oct. 30 to Jan. 3, 1999); and the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, N.J. (Feb. 7 to April 18, 1999).


In the March 6 Arts & Leisure section, the article about building your own home needs clarifying. The FirstDay Cottage kit is $17,000, but the total cost of construction ranges from $28,000 to $30,000. The kit is designed for two people to build the house, but it takes six to 10 people to unload materials from the truck.

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