The Photography of George Collins Cox and Societal Mobility in New York City, 18801900

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Patrick Jackson, Washington College
This poster will focus on the work of the photographer George Collins Cox (1851-1903). Cox worked in and around New York City from the mid-1870s to 1900, and photographed many of the most notable people of the time – including Andrew Carnegie, Joseph Pulitzer, Stanford White, and President Cleveland – and thus was integrated into the elite circles of New York society. From humble beginnings in a small studio in Newark, NJ, Cox became acquainted with two of the most well-connected individuals of his time: Richard Watson Gilder, editor of Century Magazine, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the prolific sculptor. Through the friendship and patronage of these two men, Cox was able to establish himself as a premier photographer among the artistic and literary elite in New York City, where he would go on to photograph hundreds of America’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens. The photographs of George Collins Cox re-contextualize the high society of New York City – from one well isolated from other classes and political ideas to one much more enmeshed in a diverse ideological landscape. We see from Cox’s work that economic elites such as J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie were in the same milieu as advocates for progressive journalists like S.S. McClure and Ida Tarbell. Building on the work of Sven Beckert, this poster will show how the shared consumer and artistic experiences of the economic elites and the lower classes promoted the power of social and cultural capital. Through close analysis of Cox’s photographs, this poster will reveal that those with differing economic ideologies often shared the same spaces, assumptions, and aesthetics, and that through these shared consumer experiences enabled the ascendency of a cultural elite composed of writers, journalists, editors, and artists. Cox had an unusual method of portraiture for the time – one attempting to rid his sitters of their “non-committal mask” to attain a more natural character – which to many of his artistic contemporaries did not go unappreciated, but likely was more a novelty to his upper-class patrons. Whatever the motivation, his naturalistic style attracted the attention of the elite in New York City and made his photography a valuable commodity in elite society. The cultural mobility which this broad appeal enabled was best exemplified by the founder of McClure's Magazine, Samuel Sidney McClure. No other figure in Cox’s history, besides his initial two patrons, benefited so greatly from his work as McClure had. McClure, after founding his magazine in 1893, became aware of Cox’s work and began to use his photography as illustration. The poster will showcase both Cox and McClure as case studies within the larger collection. This case study on one side of the poster will show how Cox and McClure shared similar upward trajectories, and the other will reveal a larger network of photographic subjects while mapping inconspicuous artistic and consumer relationships across distant economic ideologies.
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