Ralston Crawford was a celebrated modern painter whose compositions often featured crisply rendered geometric forms and abstractions of his real-world subjects, but he also gained a reputation as a talented photographer.
This work deviated from the linear and flat sparseness of his painting and graphic style, particularly his photographs of the New Orleans jazz scene during the mid-twentieth century.
What art historian Barbara Haskell has termed “the calm monumentality” of Crawford’s paintings is at odds with the closely observed energy, even visual chaos, of New Orleans musicians and their environments.
Crawford’s photographs are the subject of a photography exhibition opening at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City Oct. 26 through April 7, 2019. Structured Vision: The Photographs of Ralston Crawford, showcases the museum’s deep holdings of his work.
Crawford (1906-1978) was born in Canada, grew up in Buffalo, NY, and never lived in Louisiana on a permanent basis. He began visiting the city in 1938 and continued until the time of his death forty years later. Unlike painting, which offered the ability to synthesize a perfect (if nonexistent) moment, Crawford saw his jazz photographs as letting truth unfold frame by frame.
One of the stories behind the jazz photos is that, as a White man, he had to obtain a permit from the city to visit Black clubs, such was the level of segregation in New Orleans.
Another New Orleans subject recorded in photographs—the city’s cemeteries—proved different. The brilliant light (and consequently shadows) of these environments produced photographs of bold graphic form, aligned much more closely with Crawford’s approach to painting and printmaking.
An exhibition of paintings, prints, and photographs at Louisiana State University in 1950 marks his first one-person show in the Pelican State. The January 1952 issue of the French magazine, Le Jazz Hot, appears to be the first publication of his New Orleans jazz photographs. The Bienville Gallery in New Orleans had major exhibitions of his work in 1969, 1973, and 1976. An exhibition of his New Orleans photographs was held at The Historic New Orleans Collection in 1983. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City presented a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1985.
“Ralston Crawford is an important artist in the Nelson-Atkins collection because he applied a painter’s eye to the challenge of making interesting photographs,” said Keith F. Davis, Senior Curator, Photography. “There is enormous variety in his work, from industrial subjects to street life and cemeteries of New Orleans. Some of his pictures are about pure geometry; others celebrate the improvisational vitality of everyday life.”
In addition to key gifts from the Hall Family Foundation, the artist’s son, Neelon Crawford, was instrumental in increasing the Nelson-Atkins’s holdings of his father’s photographs.
The exhibition is accompanied by a new book, The Photographs of Ralston Crawford, written by Davis, providing a fresh, comprehensive look at Crawford’s photographs from 1938 through the mid-1970s, including both well-known works and previously unpublished images. This volume, published by Yale University Press, is distributed for the Hall Family Foundation in association with the Nelson-Atkins.
FOLLOWUP: Also on display at Nelson Atkins will be an exhibit on the French Emperor Napoleon, whose extravagance could give Lil Wayne close competition.