ALBANY – From protests and stump speeches to breathtaking views of moody mountains and towering buildings, the latest exhibit to open at the New York State Museum renders a sweeping view of state history.
Called “Captured” it features recently acquired works from four photographers, including Irving Browning, Joel Meyerowitz, Diana Mara Henry and Joseph Squillante. While their subjects and styles are unique to one another, their connections to life in the Empire State remain a common thread.
Henry’s photographs focus on the charged and changing political and social landscape of the 1970s. The freelance photographer, who is based in Vermont, spent much of her early career in New York City, documenting women’s movement protests and the campaigns of Bella Abzug and George McGovern, among others. She was also the official photographer for the New York State Women’s Meeting, which was held in Albany in 1977, and for the First National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas.
The purpose of the Albany meeting was to assess the status of women in the state, identify barriers to equal participation, and find ways to eliminate barriers to equality. Participants also elected delegates to represent the state at the National Women’s Conference.
Henry’s photographs show just how sprawling an endeavor the local meeting was, with hundreds of women gathered around the Empire State Plaza, listening to a speaker at a microphone or waiting to speak. Other photos show Helen Hayes performing, journalist Melba Tolliver reporting on the event, and a weaver from the Mohawk Nation making and selling baskets.
“It was a massive undertaking,” Henry remembered of the meeting. The same could be said for the national event, which was the only federally funded national conference by, for and about women, Henry noted.
Elsewhere in the exhibit are other familiar faces from the women’s movement, including Gloria Steinem, who Henry captured at Abzug’s 60th birthday party, alongside actress Shirley MacLaine. There are also plenty of scenes on the streets of people demonstrating support for women’s rights, including the use of the term “Ms.”
One 1974 photo shows people marching in front of the New York Times building advocating for the newspaper to adopt the term “Ms.” so that a woman’s marital status wouldn’t be the first thing one learned about them.
“It was a big effort in the early ’70s and in the ’60s to try to establish a term that, like Mr., would not indicate a woman’s marital status so that she could be a professional in the same way that a man is,” Henry said.
Capturing these protests and rallies took technical and sometimes physical skill. One photo in particular, which features women marching in an Equal Rights Amendment demonstration in New York City in 1976, reflects that.
“You can see them racing through the streets with their fists raised. It’s always a challenge to photograph from that point of view because you’re racing backward as quickly as they’re racing forward,” Henry said.
Outside of the social and political landscape, Henry also recorded daily life around New York City, including kids fishing in Brooklyn, people in bus terminals, shopping, etc.
Looking at her work, Henry sees a sort of back-and-forth between herself and the people she documented.
“It’s a collaborative event. It’s not just subject and object. We were creating these photographs together. I think that’s something that makes me very happy about my work. It was a shared moment, and it was a shared realization of identity,” Henry said. “I think there are a lot of different ways we can approach what we do as journalists and I tried to honor the people for who they were.”
A different approach
In another section of the exhibit, Squillante’s work gives viewers a deeper appreciation of the Hudson River. Taken from unexpected angles and perspectives, Squillante’s shots capture everything from the wilderness seen at the river’s source at Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondacks to the more gritty scenes found at the other end of the river in the New York Harbor.
The Peekskill-based photographer became interested in the art form as a kid growing up in the Bronx but didn’t dedicate serious time and study to it until after college.
“I think that this intrigue with lenses and light was in my blood and it came out once I bought the camera,” Squillante said.
The Hudson became his main muse when while working to fix up a friend’s house that was situated along the river in Tivoli.
“Being a novice really only a few years into it in 1975, I recognized this incredible subject. This Hudson River is magnificent, it’s majestic. It’s beautiful and it still today gives me incredible photographs,” Squillante said.
Over the years, he’s created evocative shots of the mountainous and the industrial side of the river, as well as the wildlife around it.
One standout from the exhibit depicts wildlife biologist Craig Thompson cradling a three-year-old bald eagle in a boat. The ponytailed Thompson looks directly down at the bird, which he has secured with one gloved hand holding the eagle’s talons and a bare hand under its wings.
To get the shot, in 2000 Squillante and his wife, who worked at the National Audubon Society at the time, shadowed a team studying bald eagles and their habitats. That same year, Squillante shot 500 rolls of film along the river as part of what he called the Hudson 2000 Project, capturing the state of the river during that benchmark year.
While he didn’t necessarily set out to be an environmental photographer, as the years have gone on, he’s made it his mission to raise awareness about the Hudson and has worked with environmental organizations like Riverkeeper, Clearwater and Scenic Hudson.
However, the breadth of Squillante’s work reaches far beyond the river. He’s also photographed agricultural and industrial subjects, including shad fishing, apple orchards, and freight trains. His portraits in particular are captivating.
In one featured in the exhibit, an older man sits atop a large tractor that seems to swallow him up, his arms are on its wheel and his brows are raised almost in surprise that he’s become the subject of the photo.
The image, like many of Squillante’s works, is in black and white. While he’ll depict some scenes in full color, he favors the more muted black and white tones.
“Black and white will show you the shape, the line, what the light looks like. For me, color is like a facade that you have to push through to see the other shapes and lines and design . . . all the other elements,” Squillante said. “Also, we’re used to looking at the world in color. So when we see a color photograph, we get stuck on the surface.”
Though he continues fine art and commercial photography work – including working with ophthalmologists to get photos of patients’ retinas – he has been working to find homes for his large collection of photographs.
“I’m at the point of really now trying to find placement for my work because I want it to go on and I want it to be used for exhibits and education and research through the years,” Squillante said.
The New York State Museum seemed an ideal place to house part of his collection and Squillante noted he was impressed with the “Captured” exhibit.
“I could have been at any fine art museum in the world,” Squillante said of his visit to the exhibit, adding that he hopes it’ll draw in people who don’t necessarily go to art galleries or art museums.
There’s certainly plenty to offer in the way of variety. Beyond Henry and Squillante’s works, there are scenes from New York City during the 1920s and 1930s thanks to Irving Browning, who recorded some of the city’s most distinguished architectural landmarks. Viewers also get a look at the landscapes, architecture and cityscape images captured by Joel Meyerowitz, a pioneering color photographer.
The exhibit is located in the West Hall Gallery and will be open through Monday, Feb. 27. For more information visit nysm.nysed.gov. For more information on Squillante’s work visit josephsquillante.com. For more on Henry, visit dianamarahenry.com.