The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded Assistant Professor of Art History Nadya Bair $60,000 for the study of Cornell Capa and the International Center for Photography (ICP). Bair’s award is one of 70 grants totaling $3.9 million in the Fellowships and Awards for Faculty category for support of advanced research and writing projects in the humanities by college and university teachers and independent scholars.
With this grant, Bair plans to continue work on her book-length project focused on Capa, the ICP, and uncovering the volatile history of making, marketing, and historicizing documentary photography from the ’60s into the digital era. She said her book will be “part networked biography, part institutional history …[offering] a new account of photography’s institutional development that is international and interdisciplinary, bridging art and photo history, media studies, postwar cultural history, and Jewish studies.
“Cornell Capa was the Jewish-Hungarian born, naturalized American, brother of the famed photojournalist Robert Capa who dedicated himself to preserving the work of news photographers whose massive archives were in danger of being discarded and forgotten,” wrote Bair in her proposal. “Capa understood that the 20th century was the first for which ‘an historic [photographic] record will exist.’ Simultaneously, he imagined a space for ‘instant history’ exhibitions, i.e., an outlet for photojournalists who were faced with a shrinking magazine market.”
Capa cared about photographs as news and as history, Bair said. In 1974, he founded the International Center of Photography (ICP), New York’s first museum, archive, and educational forum devoted exclusively to photography. “Via ICP and its publishing and exhibition programs, Capa canonized many of the photojournalists and images that we now take for granted, and which continue to be shown in museums today,” she added.
Bair’s book will span Capa’s career from his start as a darkroom assistant at Life in the 1930s to his retirement from ICP in 1994. With the grant, Bair will be able to complete the majority of the primary research and draft the second part of the manuscript. She anticipates that her book will be of interest to scholars in art history, history, media studies, and Jewish studies and will be accessible to students and general readers.
“This project has been very much at the forefront of my mind in my teaching, especially my course on documentary photography,“ Bair said. “I engage students not only in discussions about documentary photography’s history but also its historiography.” Bair leads students in discussing the ways in which we come to think about certain photographs as “documentary,” whether via institutions or with the help of different voices. They also discuss the value the term “documentary” places on photographs, including in the marketplace.
Based on exclusive access to Capa’s papers and ICP’s institutional records, her book will also offer the first critical analysis of ICP’s origins. “I argue that Cornell Capa is an emblematic behind-the-scenes figure who created an outlet for photography’s circulation in the late 20th century,” Bair wrote. “And although he operated outside of the art world, the booming photo market bolstered Capa’s work. By looking at Capa and ICP, I demonstrate how major historical events became equated with a few iconic news photographs.”
Bair will also show that Capa’s creation of ICP, “a quintessential New York institution,” underscores the previously overlooked role of American emigres and Jews to photography’s institutional development, in the U.S. and around the world.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.