Collection Talk: W. Eugene Smith “Robert Slocombe, Monsanto Chemical Co” (1953) [Video]

Throughout 2020-21 The Block Museum is reflecting on artworks from the collection that explore ideas of excess, consumption, and the environment, and offer an interdisciplinary perspective on the climate crisis. Our project is inspired by The Story of More by Hope Jahren, Northwestern University’s 2021-2022 One Book One Northwestern (OBON) selection. This online talk by Corinne Granof Academic Curator, was presented in partnership The Alumnae of Northwestern University. The talk takes on Americans’ reverence for plastics and the implications of this mid-century image and its historical journalistic context.

Watch the Art Talk

Captions in English & Spanish

We included this work in our group because of how it represents industrial growth in the period and expansion in plastic production that Hope Jahren talks about in The Story of More. We’re using this work as a window to understanding that time in mid-century America; the quest for more in the United States in the post-war period. It appeared first in Life Magazine in a photo essay on the company Monsanto, and this is the opening page of the photo essay. It’s titled The Reign of Chemistry and it has 18 photographs that really celebrate Monsanto’s innovations. This opening image, which is really quite an extraordinary photograph to show us an inspector walking through a calcinatory where this furnace was used for making detergents….

So reading Hope Jahren’s book and thinking again about this photograph and this whole photo essay and what it represents. The issue in which this appeared was supposed to be one of celebration presenting what science can achieve, what the company had achieved and how Monsanto’s brilliant scientists were able to improve the lives of all Americans through their inventions. From our current perspective, we’re prompted to question that confidence and faith in scientific advancement and to approach our own technological advances keeping the long view in mind.

W. Eugene Smith (American, 1918–1978) Robert Slocombe, Monsanto Chemical Company, from the series The Reign of Chemistry, 1953 Gelatin silver print 11 in x 13 7/8 in Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Richard L. Sandor in honor of Julie and Penny Sandor, 1986.1.182

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