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Thérèse Bonney: Curator, Photographer, Syndicator, Spy

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Thérèse Bonney, 1940. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-90145]
This is a guest post by Kluge Center Research Assistant Sophia Zahner, an interview with 2021 Kluge Fellow Caroline Riley. Riley is also a Research Associate at the University of California, Davis.

Sophia Zahner: How did you become interested in the photography of Thérèse Bonney? How does it relate to your other research projects?

Caroline Riley: Thérèse Bonney is a photojournalist many people know through her photography surveys and exhibitions, including the Library of Congress’s Women Come to the Front. However, I am the first scholar to study Bonney’s entire career thanks to the processing of her archive at the Bancroft Library. My research on Bonney builds on my larger interest in how an artistic canon is formed and the international history of American art. This interest grew from an understanding that the American art history I learned growing up did not necessarily reflect my identity or culture, with the result that many in my situation would not feel included in our collective national history.

My first book project, MoMA Goes to Paris in 1938: Building and Politicizing American Art (University of California Press, forthcoming) examines the powerful role that museums can play in constructing national art historical narratives by concentrating on MoMA’s Three Centuries of American Art exhibition. One theme the book seeks to explain is how the bureaucracy within a museum permitted exhibitions to be employed as soft power on the cusp of World War II, with American and French diplomats selecting artwork they thought would foster democracy.

This theme plays into my research on Thérèse Bonney and my work at the Kluge Center. Specifically, my next book, Thérèse Bonney’s Photography: The Intermedial Syndication of Art, the Body, and War from 1920 to 1970, explores how Americans and the broader global public learned through press and photo syndication about international conflicts. Bonney created publications and exhibitions that changed Americans’ understanding of the world and, consequently, themselves during a pivotal period from 1920 to 1970.

At the Library of Congress, I am also exploring how the syndication of Bonney’s photographs permitted a duplication and dissemination of Bonney herself as a professional woman artist and writer. Bonney’s trail-blazing life had a dramatic impact on the progress of women in the male-dominated professions of photographer, journalist, spy, business owner, and curator. Importantly, Bonney saw an opportunity to transform the news market created by publishers such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer by founding the Bonney Service in 1923 to syndicate photographs taken in 19 countries to a global market crisscrossing 33 nations.  My book will document the history of how Americans learned about the world as a result of syndication and the important, but understudied, role of women within that history.


SZ: Can you briefly describe the research you will be doing at the Kluge Center regarding Bonney and what you hope to achieve with this research?

CR: My research on Thérèse Bonney involves extensive research at the Library of Congress in its vast collections of photographs, exhibition files, global newspapers, and period sources on the syndicated press. Notably, Bonney curated an exhibition at the Library: War Comes to the People (1940), coordinated by poet and the ninth Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish. The exhibition, which focused on war’s impact on citizens and democratic institutions, eventually was taken to thirty-seven cities and transformed the nomenclature around grief by expressing its universality.

Beyond the documents of the exhibition, the Library of Congress’s rich resources will enable me to match each clipping with its periodical to put in context the politicized, and at times partisan, use of Bonney’s work as “impartial” documents or as persuasive propaganda. This will allow me to understand why Bonney’s work appeared in certain periodicals and not others.  As my book title suggests, during her five-decade career Bonney continually engaged with modernist art, explored the social roles of women, and created a voice for marginalized people. The selected periodicals demonstrate the shifting perspectives of journalists and the agendas of editors throughout this period.

To explore the implications of Bonney’s exhibition for the challenges facing democracies today, I am looking forward to investigating the exhibition records, including the exhibition photographs in the Photo and Prints Division, as well as MacLeish’s papers and recordings in the Manuscript Division. Bonney’s syndication service sent her photographs to thirty-three countries; in so doing, exposing many millions more around the world to these objects. Her work was seen on the pages of hundreds of periodicals, including national presses such as Collier’s, local papers like The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and international publications including Le Peuple from Brussels. Almost all of the periodicals that published Bonney’s photographs are available at the Library.

SZ: Before becoming a wartime photographer, Bonney focused on French decorative arts. How did the work of Thérèse Bonney contribute to American perceptions of French decorative arts? How would this experience eventually affect her later work?

CR: Bonney sent a flood of images on French design to the United States during the 1920s and 1930s that influenced how the emerging middle class thought of international modernism and how white American women in particular saw their shifting place in the world. I add to the current scholarship on Bonney’s influence on French decorative arts by introducing to scholars for the first time her company, the Bonney Service. The Bonney Service disseminated to a global audience conceptions of European modernism as high culture. For example, she produced spreads on American expatriates in Paris, including her friend Gertrude Stein (for the Syracuse News readers), and fashion, intended for wealthy, white women readers of The New York Times.

In the 1930s, the Bonney Service, according to Bonney, competed with five leading national press syndicates— the Associated Press, Wide World, International News, Pacific and Atlantic, and Underwood and Underwood—which together, she calculated, supplied nearly 2,000 papers of the United States, approximately 150 Sunday rotogravures (often the Sunday photography supplement to a newspaper), and reached several million readers. Bonney supplied photographs to 150 publications, including 10 of the leading US dailies that claimed an aggregate circulation of over 13,000,000, implying about 65,000,000 readers. The lessons she learned creating the Bonney Service affected her work process during World War II, when she moved photographs from Europe to the United States by leveraging timetables and shipping lines, informing Americans about World War II and the Holocaust.

SZ: Speaking of World War II, Therese Bonney was a wartime photographer, specifically on the Russo-Finnish front. How did this photography contribute to the world’s perceptions of the war and the Russo-Finnish front? How was her work different from that of other wartime photographers?

CR: From September 1939 to March 1940, Bonney traveled in Finland documenting the country before, during, and after the Soviet invasion in November 1939, one of the early battles of World War II. Originally in Finland to photograph preparations for the summer 1940 Olympic Games, Bonney became one of the only photojournalists at the scene of the Soviet invasion. These images found their way into Life magazine as a photo essay that showed the history and strength of the Finnish government and the power of politician and military leader Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim to Americans largely unfamiliar with the country. Her Life article illustrates how Bonney’s photographic and journalistic ventures influenced the way Americans learned about the world, and who was cast as the villain, victim, and victor. Bonney’s work for the Finnish government also opens new questions on the perceived impartiality of her writings and photographs, especially given Finland’s alignment with the Nazis against the Soviet Union.

In 1941, Bonney returned to Finland as a spy for the US Office of Strategic Services. During her time, she assessed the nation’s willingness to forsake its relationship with Germany and resolve its disputes with Russia and the other Allies. Despite lengthy conversations with political leaders, the mission failed. The photographs taken in Finland in 1939 and 1940 became the starting point for what became her popular exhibition on warfare in the early 1940s, which in turn became Europe’s Children, Bonney’s most influential photobook of children suffering from war. I explore the book within the context of her lectures, exhibitions, and eventually the book’s adaptation into the Oscar-winning film, The Search. I look at how each presentation layered the book’s interpretations in light of the host institution’s commercial, modernist, or nationalist mission.  

More broadly, my book examines how Bonney documented the war and its impact on people and culture for a global audience. It sets her glorifying action photos from the Russo-Finnish War in sharp relief against her haunting images of the mass exodus of families during the Nazi invasion of France in 1940 and the near-total destruction of the small town of Ammerschwihr in Alsace. These photographs tackle the violence, displacement, and loss of home in three communities experiencing different aspects of a world in ruins. She also photographed seven Nazi and Vichy camps in France and Germany between 1939 and 1946. Bonney marshaled different photographic strategies in each camp, and my work considers how portraiture contributed to Americans’ shifting understanding of the camps through press reportage. These photographs are painful, filled with the dead and dying, but also with unlikely survival. Bonney’s photographs of storage sites at Buxheim, Königssee, and Neuschwanstein Castle give context to discussions on Nazi-looted art by showing the horror in hoarding and the impact of individual loss. In the history of the Holocaust, there is a tendency to view the scale of the looting as the travesty, but, in Bonney’s portraits of people and objects, she argues for us to see the horror of each dispossession.

Distinguishing her from other photojournalists is the range of Bonney’s work and her business ventures; how early she visited Nazi and Vichy camps; her photography of Nazi-looted art; her work for the OSS; and her vast output in articles, exhibitions, publications, lectures, and a film.



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