"But we are found," said Karen Paul Stern, granddaughter of Lusha Nelson, as she spoke during the opening weekend of Philbrook's new exhibit "Lusha Nelson Photographs" a display of his work that was nearly lost forever. These photos would have been thrown away long ago had it not been for a single moment that forever changed the outcome of a filing cabinet and some old boxes.
Ken and I have been looking forward to this special exhibit for some time. We love to go to Philbrook often, just to walk around in the beautiful museum and gardens for some romantic time, but we do enjoy the exhibits as well. He decided to take me on this particular day, because there was a panel featuring the curators and Lusha's granddaughter Karen.
Karen's simple yet incredibly meaningful words "but we are found" were in response to a guest at the exhibit who asked how all of this has affected her. "It has helped me on my journey," she said. "We are all on a journey..." She continued to say that on our journeys, we all experience loss and that she has experienced loss. Karen had lost her mother some time ago, for example, and recently her husband.
As Karen spoke of loss, I couldn't help but think of my father. I lost him when I was 14, and that loss became a part of my journey. Of my father's remaining possessions, all I was given was a single photograph, one that I had just mentioned during lunch with my husband and some friends the day before. We had gotten on the subject somehow, and while his loss is never an easy subject, I was happy in remembering this picture I have of him. It's a cool black and white self portrait (my father liked to take photos too), of when he was about 20 years old and stationed in Japan. He is standing under a pagoda and looks so happy.
I understood exactly what Nelson's granddaughter meant when she said that this exhibit has helped her on her journey. A photograph isn't always just a photograph, after all. It can help us to connect the past with the present in a way that makes loss not just the end of something, but rather one part of a fascinating whole. It allows us to celebrate rather than mourn, to celebrate the things we love and to cherish the moments we wish to remember.
This also made me think of my husband. He lives for experiences...for making good memories, and has filled my life with the best memories. It has made the rough memories of the past begin to fade, and I can see a long, happy journey ahead.
Lusha Nelson's journey was one of a lone immigrant who ran away from his home in Latvia and at the age of fifteen, landed in New York City on his own with no connections. After a series of odd jobs and a brief study in painting, he took up photography as a hobby with ambitions of doing it professionally. His first break came in 1932 when The New York Times published his portrait of American Novelist Sherwood Anderson.
Not long after, Nelson was hired as a staff photographer for Conde Naste. Thus began his career shooting everything from commercial photography to sports figures to New York city scenes and celebrity portraits including stars like Katherine Hepburn. In his short six-year career (before his untimely death), Nelson had achieved success as a staff photographer with works in Vogue and Vanity Fair, produced commercial photography for department store giants Bergdorf Goodman and Saks 5th Avenue, and was included in several group exhibitions.
At the time, Nelson's work was seen as modern. He took a simplistic approach to portraits in particular, choosing minimal backgrounds in attempts to focus on the mood of his subject. When it came to his famous city shots, his work was candid and minimally edited. "(I) am moved by all that is simple - simplicity in art, people, and living itself; and find the simple life an experience." ~Lusha Nelson
After his death, close to a thousand of Nelson's photos wound up in his daughter's home, in that filing cabinet and pile of boxes I mentioned earlier. His granddaughter Karen remembered seeing them in her childhood home but at the time didn't realize they were more than just some cool old pictures. When her childhood home was being sold many years later, the seller was going to throw away whatever didn't get taken. A neighbor acquired the photos during the estate sale, thus rescuing them from a trash pile, and kept them safe and sound for decades. Upon that man's death, his wife began researching to see what should become of this large collection, and in 2015, Philbrook received a call from this woman. It was a call that would lead to many visits, meetings, and collaborations to bring this exhibition to life.
Philbrook curators say they have just begun to scratch the surface of this treasure trove containing prints, negatives, and personal letters. On display, you'll find not only an immense amount of Nelson's prints, but some personal items and beautiful 1930s style cameras. In the entrance to the exhibit, you can even thumb through vintage issues of Vogue and Vanity Fair in which curators have identified Nelson's work. Also at the entrance, you'll find copies of Philbrook's new publication The Globe - this debut issue containing lots of information on Nelson and the 1930s America. It is as much a celebration of the era as it is of Nelson's work. The special exhibit "Lusha Nelson Photographs" opened to the public on Sunday, Feb.5th and will be on display until May 7th of this year. You won't want to miss this one!
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