This image is from a portfolio of twelve, small-scale silver gelatin print photographs taken by Robert Rauschenberg between 1949 and 1961 and printed in 1979. The prints are individually titled, and each one is signed, dated and numbered. The portfolio, simply titled Rauschenberg Photographs, was published in an edition of fifty by Sonnabend Editions, New York, and Tate’s copy is number seventeen in the edition. The photographs depict everyday scenes and locations, such as park benches, lightbulbs, building facades, street scenes, interiors and details of cars. The art dealer Ileana Sonnabend and her colleague Antonio Homem conceived the idea of creating portfolios of photographic works by various artists in the 1970s; for example, they approached David Hockney (born 1937), who published one such portfolio through them in 1976. They proposed the idea to Rauschenberg who was excited by the opportunity. The photographs in the portfolio were selected by Rauschenberg, Sonnabend and Homem, with Rauschenberg supervising the printing of each work. The portrait photograph of Rauschenberg on the cover of the portfolio box was taken by Cy Twombly (1928–2011), one of the artist’s closest friends.
Whether in the forms of his own photographs, appropriated images from the media, found photographs or family snapshots, photography was of central importance to Rauschenberg’s practice, something he recognised himself when commenting ‘I’ve never stopped being a photographer’ (quoted at http://www.museoreinasofia.es/en/collection/artwork/stop, accessed 21 October 2016). The curator and museum director Walter Hopps noted in an early exhibition catalogue essay that, for Rauschenberg, photography was ‘a vital means for investigations into how humans perceive, select and combine visual information … without photography, much of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre would scarcely exist.’ (Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, quoted in Cullinan et al. 2011, p.13.) Rauschenberg studied photography for one semester at Black Mountain College in North Carolina under the American photographer Hazel Larsen Archer (1921–2001). Throughout his career he found new ways to integrate his photographic imagery into his artworks, whether via collage, silkscreen or other transfer methods. His embrace of photography is evident from his early career through to his Combines of 1954–64 and continuing into his later Runts series of 2006–8.
The portfolio contains some of the artist’s earliest experimentations with photography as well as Rauschenberg’s first artwork to be acquired by a museum, Untitled (Inside of an Old Carriage) c.1949, which was acquired in 1952 by the Museum of Modern Art, New York on the recommendation of the then director of the photography department, the artist, photographer and curator Edward Steichen (1879–1973). Rauschenberg was motivated to return to photography and to use his own images, having experienced difficulties with copyright when reproducing images from the media and other sources. Although the images in this portfolio were not taken with the intention of being incorporated into later work, specific images do appear in later canvases by the artist. The image of chairs bathed in bright light as depicted in Quiet House – Black Mountain College 1949 reappears in the Combine Pilgrim 1960, the multimedia installation Soundings 1968 and in Big D Eclipse (Shiner) 1990. The image Ceiling and Light Bulb c.1952 reappeared in Fusion (Anagram) 1996.
From an early age, and throughout his entire career, Rauschenberg was a keen traveler. In 1952 he travelled with Cy Twombly first to Charleston, South Carolina and then to New Orleans, Key West and Cuba, before crossing the Atlantic to journey into Italy, Morocco and Spain. It was on this trip that he took some of the images included in this portfolio, such as Rome Wall (III), 1953 1953 (Tate P14773), Tangier 1952 (Tate P14772) and Rome Flea Market (V), 1952 1952 (Tate P14770). Other works in the portfolio evidence the artist’s particular visual tastes. For example, the image of a neon sign reading ‘stop’ is an early indication of Rauschenberg’s interest in road signage, which presents itself again in his work Overdrive 1963 and also as physical objects in his Gluts series 1986–9 and 1991–5.
Each of the photographs in this portfolio displays a concern with the formal characteristics of photography, most notably composition, shape and texture. Little human presence is depicted directly in the images but it is, at times, indicated, whether through a glimpse of feet or rubbish left on a park bench. Rauschenberg frequently adopted a snapshot aesthetic which cropped certain details from the picture. In several of these photographs, elements of the depicted scene are cropped out of the frame in order to give full attention to a particular detail or interesting juxtaposition. It has been noted that Rauschenberg avoided cropping in the darkroom, stating that ‘photography is like diamond cutting, if you miss you miss’ (quoted in Cullinan et al. 2011, n.p.). Finally, the artist’s clear focus on the everyday and the ephemeral in this portfolio echoes his well-known comment that he wished for his work to function in the ‘gap between art and life’ (quoted in Lynne Warren, Encyclopaedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, p.1321).
Sam Hunter, Robert Rauschenberg: Works, Writings and Interviews, Barcelona 2006.
Nicholas Cullinan, Dr David White, Susan Davidson, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Rauschenberg: Photographs 1949–1962, New York 2011.
Leah Dickerman, Achim Borchardt-Hume, Robert Rauschenberg, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2016.
Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.