Sunday, January 19, 2014

Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon

Where: African Art Museum

When: through August 24, 2014

It's been a while since my last trip to African Art, and since I was a bit disappointed in what I saw then (the Roger Ballen show), I was hoping for something to restore my faith in the place.  Enter Eliot Elisofon, a very interesting person, of whom I had never heard before, to help me wile away a very pleasant hour.

Eliot Elisofon was a photographer for Life who was sent to Africa.  While there, he fell in love with the continent, and made a practice of photographing African craftspersons at their work.  In 1947, he made a trek from Capetown to Cairo, photographing all the way.  In 1973, he donated his collection of African art and photographs to the museum, which has a photographic archives named for him.  I'm sure it must be a treasure trove for scholars, as he made many trips and visited a variety of different countries.

One of his best known photographs is of a Kuba king in fantastic regalia - covered with shells.  There's something captivating about this photograph; I found myself looking at it for some time.  Perhaps it's the air of leadership about him.  In another photograph, you see a chief's wife holding a cloth that she presented to Elisofon - it is on display as well.  There should be a name for that phenomenon - when you see a photograph or painting of an object, along with the object itself.  There probably is, and I just don't know it.

Elisofon was the first person to photograph African leaders in color, so he had no fear of new technology.  That is clear from his abstract photographs, which he made as the first staff photographer of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  He also directed and produced educational films about African arts and crafts, and was the photographer on the production of The African Queen.  Not to mention that he was friends with Gypsy Rose Lee - there's a photo of them cooking together, which I only saw on my way to the women's restroom.  Clearly, a man who lived life to the fullest.

Verdict: Well worth a trip to African Art.  A fine show about a very interesting person.

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