I’ve taken an interest lately in The Photographs of Homer Page, the catalogue of a show that just opened at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. It amounts to a rediscovery, almost a disinterment, of a photographer who was prominent enough in the late 1940s to get featured treatment a few times by the Museum of Modern Art. But just when he seemed poised to produce a career-making book of New York photos, the fruit of a one-year Guggenheim grant, Page clutched. He never completed the book and over the next years disappeared into a contented but fairly anonymous life in photojournalism and commercial photography. He was living with his third wife in rural Connecticutt when he died in 1985 at the age of 67. The Nelson-Atkins show, and the book that accompanies it, is effectively the book he never produced.
In his catalogue essay, Keith F. Davis, the Nelson-Atkins photo curator who organized the show, makes what seems to me the essential point about Page’s work of 1949-50, the year that the show is concerned with. Namely, that Page was one of the several American photographers who were doing work around that time that marked a transition from the more straightforward documentary photography of the Depression and war years to the more personal style that we would eventually identify with Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and so on. As it happens, Page had a close connection for a while with one of the great figures of the older documentary style, Dorothea Lange. In the late ’40s Page and his first wife lived for a time in a garden cottage on the property of Lange and her husband. He revered Lange, but he was after something very different in his own work.
The mood in a lot of Page’s work is enigmatic. The “subject” is very often simply the dreamy inwardness of people walking or standing on the streets of a great city. And his best pictures are truly forward looking. Some of his street work, men and women caught up in private reveries, anticipates the great spontaneous portraits that Harry Callahan started making in 1950 of anonymous women walking around in downtown Chicago. Some of Page’s other pictures adopt a jittery blurred style that William Klein would start using in the 50s. And long before Pop Art came along he an eye for the ironic juxtapositions of the pop culture landscape — check out the picture above of a man in front of some billboard advertising.
Page was wrong not to finish that book. It wouldn’t have been a ground breaking volume like Robert Frank’s The Americans. There’s a darkness and a nasty edge in Frank’s work that Page wasn’t entirely ready to find in himself. But it would have gained him a deserved place in the history of photography, a place that the Nelson-Atkins show should go some way to secure for him belatedly.