The Pictures of Hugh Edwards
(1903 – 1986)
To his friends he was simply, “Mr. Edwards”, a sign of the affection and respect with which he was held by the young people who he helped and whose pictures he showed, often for the first time. From 1959 until 1970 he was associate curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in that capacity was in charge of the already famous collection of photographs. At a time when photography was still the pariah of the “art world”, when prints by unknowns sold for $2.00 and by the famous sold for $25.00, he was perhaps the most influential curator of photography in America. Shy, refusing to write and publish, disliking publicity and never giving interviews, Hugh Edwards was the first person to offer a one man show to Robert Frank, Duane Michaels, Danny Lyon and many other ground breaking realists. His vision, his love of Americans and the “street” changed what and wasn’t considered a proper subject for photography. He did not like things that were popular, almost never showed “group” shows, and refused to recommend Diane Arbus for a Guggenheim (he told her she had enough support already, and he left out the fact that he did not like her work.) Nor did he like Dorothy Lange, whom he considered too sentimental. He was crazy about Walker Evans, when Evans was just beginning, about the films of Kenneth Anger (“the first non-Hollywood filmmaker”), and the books of John Rechy. He saw “Lawrence of Arabia” seven times.
Hugh Edwards also took photographs. Using a Rollieflex and color film, Edwards spent much of the 1950’s making pictures at a roller rink in Harvey, Illinois. He would show these 2 1/4 inch chromes on a small table top Ferrania projector to his friends, and then say “I never show them to anyone.” He also liked to say that he stopped making photographs “when I saw the pictures of Robert Frank.” This might actually be true since he seems to have stopped making pictures the same year he gave Frank his first one man show at the Art Institute in 1961. Since Hugh Edwards’ death in 1986 his career and all that he did for photography have been largely forgotten. His pictures were preserved by his friend David Travis who is now the present curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago; Bleak Beauty presents them here for the first time anywhere. They are masterpieces of photography made almost fifty years ago by the most influential curator in his field of the late twentieth century.
(Summer 1996 issue, Doubletake magazine published ten letters written by Hugh Edwards to photographers including Frank, Evans, Cartier-Bresson, with a commentary by Lyon. Click here to view the letters. He also appears as a character in the text of “Knave of Hearts,” Twin Palms, 1999)