GEORGE DANIELL (1911-2002) was a major figure in twentieth century American photography, his work appearing in several of the country’s most popular magazines of the era, and selected for contemporary representation in many prominent public and private collections, both domestically and abroad. Known primarily for his dramatic black and white photographs of actors, artists, and writers in naturalistic settings, he also produced a compelling body of work culled from his worldwide travels that at times took the form of grittily realistic, mist-imbued profiles of fishermen and dock workers, and at others captured the charm and romanticism of exotic locales, often featuring river and water motifs, and scenes of island life. Following a stroke in 1988, he returned full-time to his first love, painting, and his boldly-hued watercolors produced in his coastal Maine farmhouse have in recent years become a distinctive addition to his oeuvre.
Born in Yonkers, New York, in 1911, Daniell began experimenting with photography in his teenage years, using a folding Kodak. His formal education in painting began in 1927, when he took a class in Drawing from the Cast at the Grand Central Art School in New York City. Though he had an adoring mother whom he adored in return, tragedy struck early on when his father committed suicide in front of the entire family, an event which, as Daniell later recounted, was part of an early life filled with deep blacks and whites; CUNY Professor James J. Shields, the curator for one of Daniell’s many exhibitions, has suggested that these early travails were “very likely the reason he was drawn to cinematic black and white portraiture, which sometimes have the feel of movie stills.” Following his graduation in 1934 from Yale University, where he earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts with a Concentration in Drawing, Daniell returned to Yonkers, where, using a Leica camera he had purchased on a trip to Europe (an inveterate traveler from an early age, he first crossed the Atlantic while a student at Yale), he began taking photographs of fishermen and bathers along the banks of the Hudson River, later traveling farther afield to Glen Island, Jones Beach, and Fire Island. It was during this period that his fascination with individuals in or near the water and on the beach became a central theme in his work, along with his drive to “capture beauty before it faded,” as he wrote in his memoir. Moving to New York City with dreams of becoming a painter, he supported himself as a free-lance photographer while taking courses at the Art Students League. In the summer of 1937, in an effort to escape the heat of the city and seeking relief from a lifelong struggle with respiratory ailments, he traveled north to Maine, initially visiting the art colony at Ogunquit before continuing up the coast to Monhegan Island, where the young artist honed his eye for composition and tonal value while depicting Monhegan’s distinctive topography and character: shingled houses, hardworking fishermen, and rugged terrain. Many of these images appeared in both Time and Life magazines, earning Daniell a reputation as an artist with a keen sense for recognizing authentic human moments within the context of everyday life; moreover, his skill at projecting through his lens the irrepressible dignity and hope of individuals, regardless of life’s difficulties, was manifested in a photo essay he shot the following summer featuring the now-disappeared herring fishermen of Grand Manan Island, off the coast of New Brunswick, a pictorial which afforded Daniell international notoriety and acclaim, and of which Professor Shields has compared to Marsden Hartley’s masterful portrait series of a Nova Scotian fishing family painted during the same period; Hugh French, Director of the Tides Institute and Museum of Art in Eastport, Maine, has recently said, “George Daniell’s photographs of Grand Manan hold up very well, they are as riveting today as when they were taken.”
In 1940 Daniell continued his study of painting at the American People’s School in the Bronx, New York, then served a stint in the U.S. Army from 1942-1944. Returning to New York City after his discharge, he resumed his career as a freelance photographer. His association with the legendary photographer/gallery-owner Alfred Stieglitz helped open the door to that part of his career for which he would become most famous: portraits of celebrities. It was in Stieglitz’s famous “291” Gallery in New York City that Daniell met Georgia O’Keeffe, which led to two photo shoots with the notoriously reclusive artist: one in 1948 on Fire Island (where Daniell owned a home) and another in 1952 at O’Keeffe’s ranch in New Mexico. In 2006 and 2007 these photographs appeared in exhibitions organized by the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art: Georgia O’Keeffe and the Camera-The Art of Identity and Both Sides of the Camera. Of Daniell, with whom she developed a friendship, O’Keeffe said: “Besides Stieglitz, of course, George Daniell is one of my favorite photographers.” Another artist that Daniell met in Stieglitz’s Gallery (and whom he also befriended) was John Marin, one of the best known American landscape painters of his time. Stieglitz thought so highly of Daniell that he assigned him the task of photographing Marin at the artist’s homes and studios in Cliffside, New Jersey, and Cape Split, Maine, leading to some of Daniell’s most renowned pictures. In 1991, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., featured many of these photographs in a major retrospective of Marin’s work. Marin himself described Daniell as “having that rare quality, the true eye of an artist.” Besides O’Keefe and Marin, other artistic luminaries caught by Daniell’s camera include photographer Bernice Abbott, writers Tennessee Williams and W.H. Auden, and actors Robert De Niro, Henry Fonda, and Greta Garbo.
Over the course of his career, Daniell spent a considerable amount of time traveling abroad, completing two around the world excursions. In 1955 he spent two months photographing at the Cinecitta Movie Studios in Rome, Italy, where he took portraits of Audrey Hepburn on the set of War and Peace, and shot a series of photos of a then unknown Sophia Loren (whom he called the most beautiful woman he had ever seen). As was his wont, he was not content to merely take photos of celebrities, and he journeyed around the countryside capturing with his camera the devastation suffered by Italy in the Second World War. Indeed, Daniell, who in recent years has attained the status of an iconic gay artist, does not consider his pictures of celebrities to be his signature work. For him, pictures of dock workers in New Brunswick, crabbers on the Hudson, swimmers at Glen Island Beach, and ballet dancers on Fire Island express a deeper interest: a tender, muscular celebration of the angular male figure. Celebrated fashion photographer Bruce Weber, whose work has regarded the male figure with a delicacy similar to Daniell’s, said of Daniell’s portfolio: “I’ve always loved his photographs. They have a spark and a sense of humor that’s very human. The humanness in his pictures - that’s the thing I really felt strongly about when I stumbled upon his work. . . . There are wonderful gems of photographic life hidden away in America. George Daniell is definitely one of them.” Recent critically-acclaimed exhibitions of Daniell’s work in New York City and Maine were met with enthusiastic responses by young collectors who saw in Daniell’s work the same vitality which Bruce Weber described. April Gallant, the curator of Prints, Drawing, and Photography at the Portland (Maine) Museum, has recently said, “I think the time has always been right to look at what George achieved. He’s a great American photographer.” Adds art critic and curator Carl Little: “We’re talking about two George Daniells here. He was a photographer who did his greatest work in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s. He was also a watercolorist who bloomed when he wasn’t doing photography. . . . There’s an enormous achievement here, and a lot of work is still to be uncovered. His photographic oeuvre is very important.”
During his lifetime Daniell’s photographs and photo-essays appeared in several leading national publications, such as Life, Time, Esquire, Coronet, and Scribners, and from 1965 to 1980 he was a contributing photographer for Down East magazine. Prominent public collections which have exhibited or purchased his work for permanent display include: The Museum of Modern Art; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (which awarded him the Jennie Sesnan Gold Medal in 1947); the New York City Public Library; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; the Portland (Maine) Art Museum; the Art Institute of Chicago; the University of Maine Art Museum; the Leslie-Lohman Gay Arts Foundation; the Maine Historic Preservation Commission; and the Masterworks Foundation, Bermuda.
Though George Daniell’s work chronicles many of the places he was able to visit, from the Tyrol to Greece and Morocco, back to Bermuda and Monhegan Island in Maine, he was most enthusiastic about photographing the people he met along the way. His aesthetic was to capture both high and low: movie stars in Italy and fishermen on the river, celebrated artists and impoverished migrant workers, movie studios and war-ravaged Europe. Yet common to all these images is a sense of hope and joy, and a celebration of the human spirit. “When I take pictures,” he said in an interview conducted shortly before his death, “I am the camera.”
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