Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer


Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer reintroduces the work of an important artist who had been relegated to virtual anonymity after his untimely death in 1944.  As both a biography of Swank (1890-1944) and an analysis of his work, the book focuses on his essential contribution to the modernist movement and positions Swank alongside contemporaries Edward Weston, Margaret Bourke-White, and Walker Evans.

In 1930, at age forty, Luke Swank was selling cars in his hometown of ...

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Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer reintroduces the work of an important artist who had been relegated to virtual anonymity after his untimely death in 1944.  As both a biography of Swank (1890-1944) and an analysis of his work, the book focuses on his essential contribution to the modernist movement and positions Swank alongside contemporaries Edward Weston, Margaret Bourke-White, and Walker Evans.

In 1930, at age forty, Luke Swank was selling cars in his hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  Just two years later, his five-part photo mural “Steel Plant” was featured in Murals by American Painters and Photographers, the first show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York to include photography.

Although Swank’s images share stylistic similarities with many of the modernists, they also reveal his unique visual poetry.  His compositional exploration, technical virtuousity, and use of intense highlight and shadow and geometric forms and lines affirm his contributions to the modernist movement and the emerging art of photography.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Swank was one of the best photographers of his (or any) era. [Luke Swank] by Howard Bossen goes a long way toward reintroducing us to Swank and his work. It's a hefty edition that tells us about Swank's life, gives context to the man's work and beautifully reproduces more than 140 of his images. . . . These are pictures that have become more than art and more than documentation. They connect us . . . to the past in a way that's at once frighteningly real and exhilarating.”
—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“It is thrilling when a lost American artist is brought back into deserving light, and that is the gift Howard Bossen has given us with his rediscovery of the work of Luke Swank: both a thirties documentarian and photographic explorer of modernism.”
—Paul Hendrickson, Carnegie Mellon University

“Luke Swank is a great rediscovery.  This “Flaubert of the camera’ has been forgotten and overlooked until this timely and beautifully illustrated reappraisal by Howard Bossen.”
—Pamela Glasson Roberts, former curator, Royal Photographic Society, England

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822942535
  • Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 11.00 (w) x 10.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Howard Bossen is a professor of journalism and an adjunct curator at the Kresge Art Museum at Michigan State University.  He is guest curator of the Carnegie Museum of Art exhibit Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer.  Bossen is also the author of Henry Holmes Smith: Man of Light, a biography of this photographer, educator, and critic.

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Table of Contents

Foreword vi
Preface vii
Introduction 1
Chapter 1 Fragments of a Life 3
Chapter 2 Steel 28
Chapter 3 Circus 37
Chapter 4 People 44
Chapter 5 Transformations 49
Chapter 6 Rural Architecture and Landscape 53
Chapter 7 This Is My City 64
Plates 73
List of Plates 217
Notes 223
Index 233
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2005

    Capturing America in a Difficult Time

    Luke Swank may have come to his career as a photographer rather late in life (born into to a wealthy family whose life was inexorably altered by the Great Depression) and became a popular journalistic photographer, even later acknowledged as one of the first of the Modernist School photographers. Then after his death his contribution to the visualization of America from 1920 to 1940 through the lens of his Pennsylvania based camera fell out of sight. Now due to the fine work of Howard Bossen the boxes of photographs kept by his wife have been reassembled into a major photographic exhibition of his life's work: this superb book serves not only as the catalogue for that exhibition but also fills a much missed gap in the journalistic reportage of America under duress. While other photographers have captured the resolute spirit of Americans during times of stress (such as Disfarmer and Dorothea Lange), Swank's motivation was not to document tragedy but merely to observe, capture on film, and utilize the developing room to create art of the images he elected to immortalize. The collection of one hundred and forty photographs includes people at daily routines, deserted streets scattered with flakes of the ruins of the Depression, portraits of people, landscapes, magnificent architectural studies, and objects for still life. His eye was sensitive and his manner of developing his photographs, emphasizing light and shadow in the most dramatic fashion, was astoundingly unique. Perusing the images in this book, all well informed by Bossen's commentary, is a subtle journey back to the times when the country ached under depression but somehow found the courage to celebrate beauty in the strangest places. Hopefully this book and this exhibition will restore Luke Swank's position as one of America's foremost artists of photography. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp

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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    mid-1900s photographs of a Pennsylvania photographer

    Luke Swank (1890-1944) was a photographer of the 1930s. Up until 1930, he was a used-car salesman in his hometown of Johnstown, PA. Five years later, photographs of his were being shown at an exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Unlike Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, Swank's photographs did not aim to portray the trials and anguishes, or the rural or industrial ruin of the Depression. Although the viewer cannot help but see Swank's photos in some respect through this historical and social lens. Swank's works are recognized as being of the 1930s from the clothing of the individuals, cars, buildings, incidental advertising in the scenes, and the equipment, towers, etc., of the factories. Besides mostly regional photographs of western Pennsylvania including Amish, farm buildings, plain rural people, and steel factories, the characteristic element of Swank's photographs is the varying pitches of darkness, or shadows. One hundred and forty plates of photographs of this fine photographer grouped into subjects such as Steel, Circus, Rural Architecture and Landscape, and others following the front matter of a biographical essay and one on each of the subject groups of the photographs.

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