Lou Block: An Unexpected Slice of Life

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Image: Lou Block (American, 1895-1969). Conversation No. 1, ca. 1960. Gelatin silver print. Henry Holmes Smith Archive, Eskenazi Museum of Art 200.X.18.1

Today we bring you a look into the work of American photographer Lou Block by Nan Brewer, the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper. Block’s work, along with that of other influential photography professors, including Minor White, Allen Downs, Aaron Siskind, and Indiana University’s first photography professor, Henry Holmes Smith, will be on view in a new installation, Modern Pioneers: Professors of Photography, from November 8, 2016, through May 7, 2017, in the museum’s first floor gallery of the Art of the Western World. 

Lou Block is primarily known as a muralist, illustrator, and arts administrator, and served as a supervisor for the WPA Federal Art Project in New York City. During his tenure with the FAP he raised issues of racism and segregation within the government-sponsored organization, particularly the rejection of designs by black artists for the Harlem Hospital. Block was also involved politically with the Artists Congress and Artists’ Union, which organized an artists’ strike in 1934. Having worked with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera on his controversial Rockefeller Center murals, Block understood the power of art to move people and recognized the importance of truthfulness.

Inspired by his friend Ben Shahn, Block took up the camera as well as the brush and pen. He approached photography with the same honesty and creative passion as he did his other work. During his years in New York City he photographed numerous mural projects (many now lost), the Artists’ Union strike, and studies for a mural proposed at Riker’s Island. In 1951 Block moved to Kentucky, where he taught painting and creative photography at the University of Louisville. His later photographs include shots taken in Louisville, Mexico, New York City, and New Jersey.

Block’s photographs continued in the documentary tradition of the Farm Security Administration, while embracing the grittier, urban style of the New York Photo League. This image with its closely cropped focus on two foreground figures offers an intimate look into their private world. Never overly sentimentalizing or condescending to his subjects, Block used a 35mm camera to record as unobtrusively as possible a fleeting moment in time. While the interaction between the women is the central focus of the picture, the blurred tapestry of street life seen in the background provides the social context. Like the street photography of Robert Frank—whose book The Americans was published in the US in 1959—Block’s image relies on gesture and unexpected juxtapositions to reveal the whole story.

Nanette Esseck Brewer

The Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper

Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

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