[man2]After searching through boxes upon boxes of photos in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Howard Bossen stumbled upon a hidden treasure – a box full of amazing yet forgotten photos taken decades ago. The discovery of the Depression era photos has consumed Bossen’s life for the past four years. Luke Swank, according to Bossen, is a “too well-kept secret” and he’s made it a goal to bring him back in the spotlight.
“When I pulled out the first one I thought it was pretty darn neat. The second one was neater than the first, and by the time I reached the fourth or fifth photo, I was amazed at how fabulous he was,” Bossen said.
Unearthing these photos shocked Bossen because he couldn’t comprehend why such incredible art would ever be buried. Bossen has spent virtually his entire professional life working with photography; he had earned his Ph.D. in photography, is a photojournalism professor at MSU and the adjunct curator of photography at Kresge Art Museum. The name “Luke Swank” was unknown to him, so surely it was unknown to most. “There’s this photographer producing such amazing work and the first thought that went through my mind was, ‘Luke Swank? Who’s he?’” Bossen said. He decided to find out.
The Project
Bossen came across the photos in January 2002 while spending five months in Pittsburgh as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He was elated to be living only five minutes from the Carnegie Institute, home to an extensive photo collection.[kidwell2]
Bossen decided he would do a research project with the museum based on a specific photographer. “The idea was that by the end of my time with them, the project, ultimately including both an exhibition and a book, would be of mutual benefit both to me and the museum,” Bossen said.
After getting proper approval, Bossen began delving into the project, burying himself in the Carnegie files. After rummaging through poorly marked boxes and piecing together ambiguous facts, he ran into a box of Luke Swank’s work.
Bossen knew Swank’s work shouldn’t be kept stored away in a basement, and he was determined to give justice to the lost artist. He researched the man behind the name and discovered Swank was actually very successful while alive and had many prestigious exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The disappearance of Swank’s work followed immediately after his death in 1944.
Bossen contacted MSU hoping the university would support his goal to re-expose Swank’s art, and they gave him a grant to work on it for 18 months. “I developed the project with Carnegie in hopes that I might be able to bring it here [to MSU]. Because they funded my research, the idea was very sensible,” said Bossen.
The Exhibit
[snake3]After years of organizing thousands of Swank’s images, the exhibit opened at Kresge last month, and although the student turnout was no more than other shows, the general public turned out in large numbers. “The show itself was a great discovery of an artist,” said Elizabeth Whiting, the curator of education at Kresge. “From what I observed, it drew people from all over the Lansing area and even the broader Detroit area. I haven’t talked to anyone that said, ‘Hmm…not that great, I can see why he was forgotten.’ People said it was really an eye-opener.”
Since his death, Swank’s work has been shown in one exhibit in 1980, which displayed only one-third of the photos that were housed at Kresge this fall. Kresge’s exhibit displayed Swank’s most impressive prints and photo buffs from all over the state enjoyed the show.
It showcased what is truly unique about Swank’s work. His art deals mostly with the Depression era, but in a surprisingly refreshing light. Unlike the most famous modernist artists of the 1930s, such as Walker Evans or Edward Weston, Swank is less overtly political and more interested in America’s personality.
Many photographers of the time worked for the government and had stricter guidelines on how to express themselves. Swank had no ties with the government, therefore his pictures can more truly communicate certain aspects of the era. He was most interested in capturing parts of America he thought might disappear. He wanted to record and preserve the state the nation was in.
Swank’s style gives special regard to lighting and shadows, which can make even a seemingly boring subject into an intensely attractive work of art. His most praised photos are those of the industrial scene, which because of all of the geometric shapes and shadows, are represented in a way most people would never look at a factory.[concrete2]
“I think Howard Bossen’s work will really put Luke Swank back on the map,” Whiting said. “It gives a new name to the context of the 1930s. He has beautiful work, and I think he will begin to be included when speaking about modernist photographers.”
Bossen is currently teaching a special topics course focusing on photography and documentary expression, which he has built around the exhibit. The class often meets in the art museum. “When you’ve got the real stuff, students engage in quality discussion,” said Bossen. “It’s really wonderful to watch.”
Bossen feels privileged to share this with his class; he feels when you can actually look at a photo, the reactions are much better. Putting Swank’s work up on a PowerPoint slide just wouldn’t do him justice, Bossen said.
“We use Luke Swank’s work comparatively.” said Cedric Tai, an art education and studio art junior. “It helps in discussions to talk about what kinds of trends we see in certain photographers because we can see a good portion of one photographer’s work.” Tai, who runs a darkroom on campus, has long been interested in the art of photography and is using this class to strengthen his knowledge of the subject. “I really loved being able to examine photographs for that long of a time in depth. It helped get an idea of how to read photographs and context, which was a huge goal for me in class.”
[wagon2]In only a little over a month, Swank has had a huge impact on students and those who visited the exhibit. The photos are now traveling back to their home at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where Bossen is the guest curator of the exhibit. It is showing until February, so if you missed your chance to see it on campus, consider taking a road trip to Pittsburgh.
The Book
Although exhibits are a great starting point to get the word out about Swank, Bossen wanted to create something more lasting in order to ensure Swank’s work would never wind up in a basement again. His solution: to write a comprehensive book on Swank, including a thorough biography and a large collection of his photos.
Bossen’s book, Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer, “will live long beyond the exhibit to expose Luke Swank,” Whiting said. Before this book, there was only one slender catalog dedicated to his art. It included a 1-2-page bio which actually had many inaccuracies. Bossen explained the reason for this poor representation of Swank is because of time restrictions given to those previously studying his work. To accurately write about Swank required devotion to piece together the puzzle.[furnace3]
Bossen is glad he had the time and means to write a book that depicts Swank in an honest light. He wrote a comprehensive book in order to show others the incredible artist that has been forgotten for the last five decades.
When artists die, their art often dies with them, but Bossen’s dedication to Swank has allowed his photos to live on. It is possible Swank’s name might someday be among the most prominent modernist photographers, and all thanks to a professor at our very own university.

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