Urban Precisionism - Photography by John Fass
New York City: 1940s and 50s
Throughout the 1940s to the 1960s John Fass created precisionist photographic images of New York City and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He created works that were as finely crafted and immaculately composed as his letterpress printing.
Much of John's modernist New York photography of the 1940s and 1950s reveals his contributions to the artistic movement known as Precisionism. This art movement was pioneered by Pennsylvania artists Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, who were John's contemporaries.
Charles Demuth and John Fass were both from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where John was born seven years after Demuth's birth. John presented a collection of his photography to the New York Public Library, where today some of his photographs are exibited online in the library's digital collection. Most of John's photography remains in private collections. (Excerpt from the Wikipedia article I created about John Fass)
Precisionist artists celebrated the industrial landscape. Their themes were modern and unconventional. Their images were strong and geometric. Their subjects were skyscrapers, bridges, factories and water towers.
These artists celebrated the industrial age, and created bold, new images of American machines and technology.
Two Lancaster County Artists in the Big Apple:
Did John Fass Know Charles Demuth?
John's Precisionist photography raises the question of whether John Fass was an acquaintance of Lancaster native Charles Demuth, the Pennsylvania pioneer of Precisionism in American art.
In the 1920s and 30s Charles Demuth had major exhibitions of his paintings in Manhattan. During this same time John Fass was operating his Harbor Press in Manhattan.
Demuth had four solo exhibitions at New York's Anderson Galleries between 1926 and 1929. And beginning in 1930 Demuth was included in seven group and solo exhibitions at Alfred Stieglitz's American Place gallery on Madison Avenue.
Meanwhile, Charles Demuth's primary residence was Lancaster, PA, where he was born, which is seven miles from John Fass' hometown of Lititz. The Demuth family and the Fass family were both associated with the Moravian community of Lancaster County. The Demuth family was one of the early Moravian families in America. Charles Demuth's father had attended Nazareth Hall, a Moravian private school in eastern Pennsylvania.
John's archive of papers from the 1920s and 30s do not include references to Charles Demuth. However John's papers do include four wood engravings by another Precisionist artist, Howard Norton Cook.
So, perhaps I will never know if Charles Demuth and John Fass crossed paths. But they certainly do seem to be kindred spirits.
Above: Manhattan: Park Row - Church Street
John's black-and-white print of this same scene is on exhibit in the New York Public Library Digital Gallery here. He created numerous photographs of the city's elevated train tracks and the train cars that rumbled over his head.
Above: Marble lion at front entrance of the New York Public Library
John Fass had a major soft spot for the New York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue. An exhibition of books from John's Hammer Creek Press was held here in 1953. The exhibition was created by John's friend John Archer, superintendent of the library's printing office and bindery.
Today the New York Public Library has an extensive collection of works created by John Fass, including many items which John donated to the library as he produced them. The collection includes numerous black-and-white photographs of the library's facade and the lions who guard the entrance. These marble lions was John's favorite feline models.
Above: New York pedestrian
This 1940s photograph by John Fass is suggestive of the photograph "Wall Street" by Precisionist Photographer Paul Strand. The Precisionist theme of isolation is a recurring theme in Fass photography.
Above: Cigar on platform at New York stadium
Many of John's cityscape photographs are devoid of real-time people. John did not want pedestrians to clutter the geometrics and lines of his carefully-composed urban images, unless he posed those people himself or approved of their presence.
The stadium photograph, above, is empty of human activity, except for a discarded cigar in the lower left, which John probably knew was there. The cigar reminds me of John's chronically under-employed father, who struggled with health issues and worked as a cigar-maker in Lititz.
This dramatic photograph is one of John's most powerful images of New York City. He composed the scene with diagonals, to create a unsettling vision of Gotham at night. The photograph feels ominous and foreboding, and foreshadows the fall of urban towers in a cloud of fog and smoke.
John's photographs suggest that he found much pleasure and beauty in the city, despite the threat of apocalypse.