NORMAN — Some of the most popular works of late photographer Horace Bristol are nearly 80 years old, but his pictures of Depression-era Oklahoma migrants, World War II combat and postwar Japan still resonate with Americans today.
“We have a renewed sympathy for the hardships of the 1930s, because we have been reminded over the past couple of years how an economic issue can have such a pervasive impact on a society,” said Mark White, chief curator and interim director at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. “These photos might not have spoken to Americans the way they do today if we were in a more affluent decade.”
Bristol's historic photographs will be on display in a new exhibition titled “On Assignment: the Photojournalism of Horace Bristol” opening Saturday at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. Museum officials also will host a public lecture at 6 p.m. Friday that will provide more information about Bristol and his work.
Bristol was an important photographer, yet he was not a household name, White said.
“He was not a photographer who sought attention or public recognition, nor did he ever see himself as a fine artist. In many ways, he saw himself as a bluecollar worker, who was an advocate for social change and awareness, and he wanted to help bring about that change and awareness through his work,” White said. “This exhibition captures one of the most important decades in Bristol's career, 1938-1948. Included in that span of time you have a number of national and international, significant events that Bristol captured for the press and institutional usage.”
The exhibit will cover Bristol's work from three eras: the Great Depression, World War II and postwar Japan.
During Bristol's career, he collaborated with famed American author John Steinbeck, who wrote the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Grapes of Wrath,” the novel about migrant farmers from Oklahoma and their hardships during the Great Depression.
The two initially set out to document the plight of migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl in hopes of finding a better life in California, with Bristol taking the photographs and Steinbeck interviewing the subjects about their experiences. However, Steinbeck later pulled out of the project and used his interviews to pen “The Grapes of Wrath.” After reading Steinbeck's novel, Bristol was inspired to name many of his photographs after characters from the novel, and those photos will be a part of the exhibit, White said.
Pictures from combat during World War II, for which Bristol is most known, also will be displayed. Photographs from combat in North Africa, the South Pacific, the campaign to take the Aleutian Islands, and a photo series titled “The Rescue at Rabaul” also are included in the exhibit, as well.
“He really captures America's transition from an isolationist culture, absorbed by our own problems, to an international consciousness,” White said.
Bristol's pictures from postwar Japan are some of his least known, but perhaps some of the most intriguing, White said. Some of the more fascinating photos show the darker side of Japanese culture, such as prostitution and mob life, White said. In particular, Bristol captures the mob's practice of tattooing the body from the neck to the ankles, and even the preservation of the tattooed skin after death.
“I think it's a fantastic exhibition, and I believe that most of our audience will take away something very meaningful,” White said.
“On Assignment: the Photojournalism of Horace Bristol” is on display through March 16. An additional gallery talk by Todd Stewart, photography associate professor and associate director of the University of Oklahoma School of Art and Art History, is scheduled at 12:30 p.m. Dec. 3.
More information about the exhibition and programs is available on the museum's website at www.ou.edu/fjjma.