Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer

by Matt Damsker


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Written by Howard Bossen and photographs by Luke Swank. Published 2005 by University of Pittsburgh Press. 248 pages; 141 plates; 64 illustrations; ISBN No. 0-8229-4253-4; clothbound, $65. University of Pittsburgh Press, Eureka Bldg., Fifth Floor, 3400 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15260 USA; phone: 1-412-383-2493; fax: 1-412-383-2466; email .

Another artist championed by New York's Julian Levy Gallery, Luke Swank died fairly young in 1944 and has been all but forgotten since his shining moment among modernism's photographic pioneers of the 1930s. But thanks to Howard Bossen, a journalism professor and adjunct curator at Michigan State University, the Swank Rediscovery is in full swing, with a long-overdue exhibition (guest curated by Bossen) at the Carnegie Museum of Art--and this fine accompanying book. If anything, Bossen proves that Swank is much more than a curiosity, and arguably the equal of his modernist peers--from Abbott to Walker Evans--in his own way.

These images speak strongly for themselves, echoing Atget's fascination with urban life and the monochromatic richness of stone, steel, and natural light, yet the largely self-taught Swank (born in Johnstown, PA) set himself apart with a lyrical flair for dramatic shadow and highlighting, resulting in shots that are wonderfully artful without seeming self-consciously arty. His brilliant images of workers toiling in an iron foundry, pouring molten metal while molten sunlight pours in from the high windows, are extraordinary, iconic, yet free of any workers-of-the-world rhetoric. Swank saw powerful form and complex geometry in his industrial images, and that was more than enough to validate the work. In contrast, his shots of clowns and tenting, crowds and vendors at a circus are high-keyed and affectionate, as are his portraits of migrant children, or of a little white boy giving a brotherly hug to two black friends in 1934. And the portraits of nudes or the still lifes of baskets become fascinating studies of shadow, line, and visual rhythm that are easily among the finest of their day.

Of course, as Bossen chronicles, Swank's untimely end meant that his famous, longer-lived contemporaries not only produced more work but refined their styles in a way that Swank was just beginning to do, while the market for their art only grew in the post-war era. Unfortunately, Swank's widow, Edith, held his prints off the market for decades after his death. But this book and exhibition will go a long way toward rectifying posterity's slighting of Swank. In a relatively brief time, he created a body of work that spans the seminal age of modernism, brilliantly capturing urban flavor, vivid iconography, and the human form. Indeed, his figures in the landscape are typically dwarfed by their surroundings, but their personalities resonate magically, often from a considerable distance. It is high time that we bridge the distance between Luke Swank and his rightful place in photography's canon.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.