Margaret Watkins
Domestic Symphony

March 14 — May 11, 2013

An important bridge between the once vanguard pictorialist movement and an incipient photographic modernism in the United States, Margaret Watkins (1884-1969) has only recently begun to move from the margins to the center of our understanding of the history of photography. Following a large-scale monographic exhibition and scholarly catalogue of her work organized by Associate Curator Lori Pauli at the National Gallery of Canada in Autumn 2012, Robert Mann Gallery's first solo exhibition of Watkins's work since 1996 will revisit iconic masterpieces and present new material, as well as investigate her extensive influence as an educator.

Moving quickly from a student participant to a teaching assistant in 1917 at the Clarence H. White School of Photography, the most prominent pedagogical institution for pictorialism in America, by 1920 Watkins was a full time instructor at the school. Under her tutelage, figures such as Paul Outerbridge, Ralph Steiner, and Doris Ulmann began path-breaking careers that skillfully navigated the porous boundaries of fine art, commercial, and documentary photography. Our presentation of Margaret Watkins will be supplemented by a selection of work produced by her students at the White School.

Teaching at the White School was both an important influence and outgrowth of Watkins's personal work. Synthesizing the best lessons of White's pictorialism, she left behind that movement's symbolist origins, replacing evocations of the fantastical and the wondrous with a carefully honed eye for design and the artfulness of everyday objects and scenes. Adopting the precepts of Arthur Wesley Dow and Max Weber that were introduced at the White School, she made them distinctly her own. With characteristic wit and attention to gradations of light and shade, Watkins seems to bring modernist styles inherited from cubism into domains traditionally coded as feminine — the kitchen, the boudoir, the pantry. A 1921 feature of her photographs in Vanity Fair, one of several that year to feature advanced photographers including Outerbridge and Man Ray, heralded her work in announcing, "Photography comes to the kitchen." Immediately recognized as a "modernist" and "cubist" in her own era, Watkins saw modern art as a great inspiration for photographers, while also understanding how it could be translated into the language of advertising, which was increasingly clamoring for cutting-edge photography to sell its products. To such ends she developed a successful practice producing commercial work for the likes of J. Walter Thompson and Macy's.

Born in Canada, Watkins's professional success in New York in the 1920s was cut short when she arrived in Glasgow, Scotland in 1929 to care for a pair of ailing, elderly relatives. Stranded by circumstance and then the arrival of war, she would never return to North America, leading a reclusive life in which her past successes as a photographer were unknown to anyone else. Though she would undertake impressive documentary projects, most notably in the Soviet Union and Paris as well as the shipping yards of her adopted home of Glasgow that continued her development as a modernist, her public professional career was over. Near the end of her life she entrusted a trunk filled with prints and negatives to a neighbor, Joseph Mulholland, on the condition it remain unopened until her death. Posthumously emerging out of obscurity, it is only in the past several decades, largely due to the efforts of Mr. Mulholland and the Robert Mann Gallery, that Watkins's importance to the development of modernist photography has become visible.

As the representative of the Margaret Watkins estate for nearly three decades, Robert Mann Gallery is pleased to be able to present a wide range of her work, including classic kitchen still lifes, portraits, and nudes from her crucial years teaching at the White School and exhibiting nationally. Domestic Symphony will be on view concurrent with the 2013 AIPAD Photography Show at the Park Avenue Armory. 

The New Yorker
April 29, 2013

As both a teacher and a photographer, Watkins (1884-1969) was a key, if little known, figure in photography's transition, in the early twentieth century, from painterly pictorialism to a tougher, sleeker modernism. This excellent overview of her career, which petered out in the mid-nineteen- thirties, includes portraits, landscapes, and two terrific female nudes. But Watkins's still-lifes, a number of which were made as advertisements, are her most distinctive work. Whether her subjects are poppies, gourds, glassware, or dishes in a sink, she frames them with striking clarity and warmth, casting a fond and thoroughly engaging eye on ordinary domesticity. Through May 11.

The Wall Street Journal
April 5, 2013
William Meyers

This is a strange tale: Margaret Watkins, born in Canada in 1884, by 1920 was a full-time instructor at the Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York. Besides teaching such talented photographers as Doris Ulmann, Ralph Steiner and Paul Outerbridge, Ms. Watkins was a successful photographer who had commercial assignments from Macy's and J. Walter Thompson, a portfolio published in Vanity Fair and was recognized as a leader in the movement from soft- focus Pictorialism to a modernist idiom. Then in 1929, she went to Glasgow, Scotland, to care for two sick relatives and never came back; her career was over. She died in obscurity in 1969 and it was only because of the tenacity of a neighbor to whom she left a trunk of prints that her reputation has revived. The National Gallery of Canada had a retrospective exhibition in 2012 with an accompanying catalog.

Mann is showing 20 of her pictures and 10 by her students. Almost all of hers are platinum/ palladium prints, including a 1925 portrait of composer Sergei Rachmaninov and a 1919 self- portrait that shows a certain hauteur and an elegant neck. There are nudes in the Clarence White mode, and wonderful still-lifes. "The Kitchen Sink" (1919) is a fine example of modernism with its emphasis on simple shapes: a milk bottle, a cup, a creamer, a bowl, a faucet, a teakettle spout, and their shadows on the sink's white enamel.