Homer Page

Click on an image for a larger view and the artist’s gallery

Homer Page
(1918 – 1985)

Homer Page was born in Oakland, Cali­fornia and studied art and social psychology at the Univer­sity of Cali­fornia from 1936 — 1940. His neighbor and mentor, Dorothea Lange, encour­aged him to take up photog­raphy in 1944. By ’47 he was featured in a major show at the Metro­pol­itan Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Page received a Guggen­heim Fellow­ship in 1949 and he took the oppor­tu­nity to docu­ment his interest in modern culture primarily by photographing people on the streets of New York City. He was easy and sly in his craft. Mostly his subjects seem unaware of his pres­ence, but the tension of the ’40’s is clearly visible.

The fellow­ship allowed Page to focus on his photog­raphy for a year. While he was widely recog­nized for this work, he tran­si­tioned into a profes­sional career as a maga­zine photog­ra­pher. Few of his photographs were in private hands and his work was largely forgotten by the time of his death in 1985.

A bril­liant but over­looked photog­ra­pher active in the late 1940s and 50s. It focuses on his previ­ously unpub­lished photographs of New York taken while a Guggen­heim Fellow from 1949 to 1950. First recog­nized by Ansel Adams in 1944, Cali­fornia-born Page exhib­ited in a major show of young artists at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1946. Four years later, he was invited to partic­i­pate in MoMA’s seminal photog­raphy sympo­sium, along­side 10 other promi­nent photog­ra­phers, including Walker Evans, Irving Penn, and Aaron Siskind.

In photographs that echo those of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Robert Frank, Page uniquely synthe­sized docu­men­tary and artistic concerns. His work as a Guggen­heim Fellow – – which depicts pedes­trians in motion, friends and family members conversing, commuters, chil­dren playing, polit­ical rallies and protests, and isolated figures resting and watching – – offers a fasci­nating look at New York during the late 1940s and repre­sents the culmi­na­tion of Page’s most impor­tant work.

We are not sure of war or peace, pros­perity or reces­sion; not sure what balance to strike between our freedom and our secu­rity, either as a nation or as indi­vid­uals. The funda­mental issues are clouded and almost certainly in tran­si­tion. This makes any attempt to record condi­tions extremely diffi­cult.” — Homer Page

Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Homer Page How does one measure a successful life? Is the proper metric a rewarding career? A loving rela­tion­ship? Content­ment with the choices one has made? More joy than regrets? What if you lived a long, fulfilling life doing impor­tant and inter­esting work, a life replete with friend­ship and love, a life lived on your own terms – what if you had all that, but the one thing that you wanted to succeed at the most,the project closest to your heart during your most produc­tive years, what if that turned out to be a failure?

Homer Page worked as a photo­jour­nalist for a good part of his life, covering stories around the world. In the early 1950s he was asso­ci­ated with the Magnum Agency. He worked stories in Africa, India, Laos, Indonesia; he worked in the Caribbean and in Latin America. In 1957 he produced possibly the first major photo­jour­nalism feature on a nun working with the poor of Calcutta, a woman who later became known as Mother Teresa. He did stories on juve­nile delin­quency and cancer research and the civil rights move­ment in the Amer­ican South; he did stories on the Peace Corps and the begin­nings of the envi­ron­mental move­ment.

Grad­u­ally over time he became more jour­nalist than photog­ra­pher. As he became more intrigued and impas­sioned by the back-to-nature move­ment in the mid-to-late 1960s, Page and his wife moved to a five acre parcel of wood­land in Connecticut, part of a 750 acre nature coöper­a­tive. He made furni­ture and split his own rails for fencing, he hand-crafted iron tools– every­thing from shovels to scis­sors. He died in 1985 at the age of 87, in a house he’d designed and built himself.

Like anybody who lived a long and active life, Homer Page surely had his share of regrets as well as successes. It would be presump­tuous of me to try to clas­sify those regrets. But surely near the top of the list would be the failure of his Guggen­heim Fellow­ship.

Page was born in Oakland, Cali­fornia in 1918. His interest in photog­raphy grew out of a promo­tional stunt by the Kodak company. In 1930 Kodak gave free Brownie cameras to school chil­dren across the nation. Page, 12 years old at the time, was one of the lucky recip­i­ents. He learned to use the camera and by the time he was in high school (which he attended in Los Angeles) he’d bought a 35mm camera and had set up his own dark­room. During his high school years Page began shooting what he called “candid” photos of people in and around L.A.‘s Pershing Square, which was a fairly rough neigh­bor­hood at the Time.

He attended the Univer­sity of Cali­fornia, initially studying busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion before switching to social psychology, which he later aban­doned for a major in Art. He met and fell in love with and married a fellow student, Christina Gardner, also an enthu­si­astic photog­ra­pher. After grad­u­a­tion in 1940, Page took a job at glass company while Christina completed her studies. Their lives were inter­rupted by World War II. Page was rejected for mili­tary service because of a punc­tured eardrum, so he found employ­ment in the ship­yards – his way of contributing to the war effort. With the money he earned from his first real job, Page bought a twin-lens reflex Rollieflex camera. In his free time, he use the sturdy TLR to shoot “candid” photographs of the men and women who worked in and around the ship­yards. Christina, in the mean­time, accepted a posi­tion as an assis­tant for Dorothea Lange, already recog­nized as one of the nation’s best photog­ra­phers.

Lange encour­aged both Page and his wife. At her sugges­tion he sent some of his photos to the Museum of Modern Art. Although MoMA didn’t purchase any of the photographs, the acting director was very encour­aging and asked that he peri­od­i­cally send in more of his work. Around the same time, Page started a personal project photographing delin­quent and trou­bled juve­niles. Many of the resulting images were published as an article (The Ques­tion of the Kids) in a camera maga­zine; others were shown at MoMA as part of an exhibit on rising photog­ra­phers.

His success with the delin­quent chil­dren project had two signif­i­cant results. First, it sealed Page’s desire to become a profes­sional photog­ra­pher docu­menting social issues. Second, it sparked an internal debate in his mind. What was he trying to do – create art or docu­ment social situ­a­tions? How did he want the images to be received – as striking and memo­rable photographs or as vivid illus­tra­tions of life circum­stances? What was his target audi­ence – maga­zines or galleries? Was he primarily an objec­tive recorder of reality or was he expressing his own singular perspec­tive through art?

In 1944 Page quit his job at the ship­yard and began to devote all his energy to photog­raphy. He accepted free­lance work, he spent a year as the offi­cial photog­ra­pher for a Univer­sity of Cali­fornia orga­ni­za­tion, he began to teach photog­raphy part time at the Cali­fornia School of Fine Arts. His work was garnering more atten­tion, espe­cially in the art world. He even found support from the new curator of photog­raphy at MoMA – Edward Steichen. In 1948 Page moved to New York City to work part-time for Steichen; his wife followed a few months later.

Earlier, Dorothea Lange had encour­aged Page apply for a Guggen­heim Fellow­ship (she’d been a recip­ient herself in 1941). photo­graph the “rela­tion­ship between urban people and the cultural forces which surround them.” He also wanted to With Steichen’s support, he finally sent in an appli­ca­tion in 1948. In the appli­ca­tion letter, Page stated he wanted to “orga­nize these pictures into a dramatic form that has a flow of devel­op­ment.” In other words, a book.

This may sound similar to a Guggen­heim appli­ca­tion by another photog­ra­pher, Robert Frank, who went on to create the seminal photo­graphic series in modern Amer­ican photog­raphy. It’s impor­tant to remember, though, that Homer Page made his appli­ca­tion seven years before Frank.

Page’s appli­ca­tion was accepted and in April of 1949 he began his year as a Guggen­heim Fellow. Armed with a new 35mm Leica camera bought with his grant money and his trusty old twin-lens reflex Rollei­flex he began to photo­graph New York City using the style he’d devel­oped around the ship­yards of Los Angeles and Oakland – a style that would even­tu­ally develop into what is now called ‘street’ photog­raphy.

Almost imme­di­ately Page real­ized his orig­inal plan was wildly over-ambi­tious and vague. In a letter, he wrote: Some days every­thing I see seems to be impor­tant; other days, nothing. He also found it nearly impos­sible to shoot the photographs and take reli­able notes regarding what was being photographed, which was a serious concern if he wanted to docu­ment the “cultural forces which surround” urban people.

Part of the problem was that post-war culture in the U.S. (and, indeed, throughout the entire indus­tri­al­ized world) was changing rapidly. The U.S. had , in the preceding two decades, survived the Great Depres­sion and a war that spanned the globe, and were now facing what the govern­ment was calling the “Red Menace” of commu­nism and the possi­bility of atomic warfare. Art was changing, music was changing, modes of trans­porta­tion were changing, tele­vi­sion was becoming ubiq­ui­tous. The exis­ten­tialist move­ment was taking hold of creative minds, while at the same time there was a drive toward confor­mity and conven­tion­ality based on a powerful desire for normalcy after the war.

In a lecture Page gave shortly after accepting the Guggen­heim Fellow­ship, he said: “We are not sure of war or peace, pros­perity or reces­sion; not sure what balance to strike between our freedom and our secu­rity, either as a nation or as condi­tions extremely diffi­cult.” Later, he said, “If confu­sion of values is an impor­tant part of our life today, we must analyze indi­vid­uals. The funda­mental issues are clouded and almost certainly in tran­si­tion. This makes any attempt to record and record this confu­sion.”

And that’s what Page ended up doing. The photographs from his Guggen­heim year are precar­i­ously poised between the balance and order of an earlier era and the embrace of diver­sity and chaos of the coming era. His work isn’t entirely docu­men­tary, nor is it unabashedly street photog­raphy. It’s tran­si­tional photog­raphy made during a tran­si­tional period; uncer­tain imagery of uncer­tain times. But one consis­tent aspect of those photographs is Page’s atten­tion to detail and to the indi­vid­u­ality of his subjects. These are compas­sionate photographs. At some point along the way, Page essen­tially aban­doned his Rollei­flex and relied almost exclu­sively on the light and agile Leica. He recog­nized that his work wasn’t what it had been at the begin­ning of the fellow­ship year, and he wasn’t entirely sure where it was going to end up. He wrote to Dorothea Lange, You will notice that my seeing is changing, and though I have no alter­na­tive but to follow my eye, I wonder what you think about it.… The newer images more suit my ambiva­lent and confused state of mind.

In early 1950, as his Guggen­heim year approached its end, Page requested a second year of support. That request was denied. The stress of that year – which included a move from Cali­fornia to New York City, inhab­iting a tiny tene­ment apart­ment in a ques­tion­able neigh­bor­hood, the high cost of living in New York, and Page’s intense focus on his work – shat­tered the Pages marriage. Christina moved back to Cali­fornia with their daughter. Although Page shopped the photographs around to various publishers in the hope of getting a book contract, nobody showed any real interest in his work.

Page even­tu­ally gave up. He put his Guggen­heim prints and nega­tives into storage boxes, put them away, and ignored them. He went on to other photo­graphic pursuits, then to jour­nalism, then to living a simple life on a small plot of land. The world of photog­raphy moved on without him and he was essen­tially forgotten. A search of the Magnum Photos website reveals only two photos relating to Homer Page – and they’re portraits of Page taken by another Magnum photog­ra­pher.

Homer Page was a pivotal figure in a pivotal moment in the history of photog­raphy, but his work failed to take root. Was it the fault of Page or the times he lived in? Were the photographs inher­ently flawed, or had the public’s visual aware­ness not yet evolved enough to appre­ciate them?

How does one measure a successful life? Perhaps one measure is that sixty-odd years after Homer Page’s year as a Guggen­heim Fellow and twenty-some years after his death, those photographs were removed from their storage boxes by his third wife and again presented to publishers. Perhaps one measure of success is that, at long last, the Guggen­heim photographs were made into a book (all of the photographs above were shot during Page’s Guggen­heim year). Maybe one measure of a successful life is that his photos have finally found the right audi­ence.

And maybe the ulti­mate measure of a photographer’s life is the courage to follow his or her eye wher­ever it leads, even if it appears to lead to obscu­rity.

Homer Page