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Last modified: Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Who is Art Sinsabaugh?

IU Art Museum retrospective may lead to greater recognition for visionary American photographer

SEPT. 12, 2005

"At some point I became aware of the unbelievable infinite detail on the horizon; this is what drew my attention. So I set about to pursue the distant horizon." -- Art Sinsabaugh (1924-83)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Armed with an antique "banquet" camera intended primarily for photographs of large groups of people, Art Sinsabaugh (1924-83) captured, in striking detail, the American landscape -- from the flat farmland of the Midwest to the bustling diversity of Chicago, the rustic towns and valleys of New England, and the vast spaces of the desert Southwest. Despite the breadth and power of his artistic achievement, however, he has never quite enjoyed the same name recognition as some of his more celebrated contemporaries.

Three photos from the IU Art Museum's collection of Art Sinsabaugh's photography. Top: Midwest Landscape #60. Middle: Chicago Landscape #122. Bottom: Chicago Landcape #66. Copyright 2004, Katherine Anne Sinsabaugh and Elisabeth Sinsabaugh de la Cova. Captions, including copyright notice, must be used in connection with images.

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That may change now that the Indiana University Art Museum has organized the first-ever retrospective of Sinsabaugh's remarkable career. "American Horizons: The Photographs of Art Sinsabaugh," which will run at the museum from Oct. 1 to Dec. 23, may lead this visionary American photographer from the status of an "artist's artist" to the more widespread recognition he deserves.

The retrospective includes nearly 100 images, the majority of which were drawn from the Art Sinsabaugh Archive at IU Bloomington. It is accompanied by a monograph on the artist, written by the exhibition's guest curator and photography historian, Keith F. Davis. Admission is free and open to the public.

Unlike landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams (1902-84), who has long enjoyed nearly universal recognition, Sinsabaugh is an artist ripe for rediscovery. His large-format photographs of the distant horizon and its endless subtleties -- including buildings, silos, bridges, highways, homes, skyscrapers, trees and gravestones -- capture a richly nuanced sense of place and the ever-changing face of the American environment.

"Art Sinsabaugh on Balcony of Marina City After Making Chicago Landscape #157," 1964. Copyright 2004, Lynda Pownall-Carlson. Captions, including copyright notice, must be used in connection with images.

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A student of celebrated photographer Harry Callahan at Chicago's Institute of Design, Sinsabaugh, a native of New Jersey, made his artistic breakthrough in 1961 working with an enormous view camera that produced 12 x 20-inch negatives. Working in this large format, he sought to create an all-encompassing visual "census" of characteristically American places -- from the cityscapes of Chicago and Baltimore to Midwestern farms, the deserts of the Southwest, and the hills, farms and towns of New England.

Sinsabaugh's landscapes are far more than simply attractive "panoramas." They reflect both his formal brilliance and his evolving social awareness. Working in a period of dramatic economic and environmental change, he was particularly drawn to urban and rural environments that were in the process of transformation. His elegantly composed images recorded a highly dynamic process: cities were being redesigned and redeveloped, rural landscapes were being invaded by the growth of suburbs. Similarly, the majestic views of the Southwest during his late career are about the forces and patterns of geologic change.

Sinsabaugh's cool, clear aesthetic has been described as a mixture of the great expansive vision of classic 19th-century landscape photography and the rigors of mid-20th-century formalism. Like Carleton Watkins' renowned 1860s views of Yosemite, Sinsabaugh's photographs represent a brilliant union of factual precision and formal or structural invention. His straightforward, detached viewpoints and attention to the myriad details of everyday life also link him to the social and environmental concerns of the New Topographic photographers of the 1970s and 1980s.

Chicago Landcape #66. Copyright 2004, Katherine Anne Sinsabaugh and Elisabeth Sinsabaugh de la Cova. Captions, including copyright notice, must be used in connection with images.

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In 1978, the IU Art Museum established the Art Sinsabaugh archive. It includes over 3,000 photographs, as well as the artist's negatives, master slides and papers. It is open to the public and scholars by request.

Although Sinsabaugh has long been admired by photographers, scholars and historians, his fame has been limited, in essence, by his very integrity as an artist. He was one of the first photographers to produce his finished works in very small editions (often not more than three prints). As a result, his exhibition prints are extremely scarce, and thus rarely seen by the general public.

The IUAM exhibition surveys all aspects of the artist's oeuvre, from his early design studies through his late work in the American Southwest. Although special emphasis is placed on his two most important series -- the Midwest Landscape Group (1961-63) and the Chicago Landscape Group (1964-66) -- examples of his lesser-known series, including his portraits and works in color, will also be included.

For more information on the retrospective, go to

To learn more about the IU Art Museum, visit


  • Keith F. Davis will deliver a public lecture on Sinsabaugh's life and work on Sept. 30 from 5:15 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts Auditorium (Room 015). A reception will immediately follow Davis' lecture in the IU Art Museum's Thomas T. Solley Atrium.
  • Davis and Nanette Brewer, the Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper at the IU Art Museum, will sign copies of the Sinsabaugh monograph on Sept. 30 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. in the Thomas T. Solley Atrium.