Warner Untersee owned a commercial photography studio in downtown Kansas City from 1949 until 1976. But it's hard to categorize him solely as a commercial photographer, as the curators of this show do. His work isn't exactly documentary photography, and it couldn't really be considered "fine art photography" because of a certain flatness in the images. What's clear is this: Untersee really enjoyed taking photographs, and in doing so, he captured a post-World War II city Kansas City in the people who populated it and some of the events that shaped what it is today.
People may have a wistful nostalgia for the 1950s represented in these images, and lovers of kitsch should take note. In a color photograph of a new trailer home, all members of the nuclear family are present. In this advertisement for both a trailer and a way of life whose decline is bemoaned ad nauseam in some political circles, the wife and mother, adorned in an apron and a neatly pressed dress, emerges from a shiny pink, metallic trailer that's surrounded by a white picket fence. The daughter plays in the yard, and the smiling husband, apparently just home from work, picks up the son. For reasons that Untersee could not have foreseen, the photograph is really funny.
Many of the photos provoke a then-and-now reaction. After all, the middle class was moving to the suburbs, and the storefronts he photographed would disappear. For example, a photograph of the intersection of 75th Street and Wornall Road shows a Katz drugstore where Osco now stands.
There are happy moments, such as the centennial that Kansas City celebrated in full regalia. The curators supplement Untersee's photographs by displaying memorabilia from the party many of these objects are also visible in his photographs, allowing us to more fully grasp the gaiety of the party. Untersee also documented serious events, such as the flood of 1951. His aerial photographs of the stockyards show the severity of the damage, and the accompanying captions provide details about the devastation. Through his lens, Untersee lets us witness numerous such moments in the city's life.
The high-gloss, high-contrast prints hanging at the Kansas City Museum are only a small sample of Untersee's work. Apparently, there are more than 200,000 film negatives and prints in the Warner Studio Collection, which was donated to the museum following Untersee's death in 1996.
Only a few of these photographs were printed by the photographer himself the others were donated as negatives and later printed by someone else. This fact doesn't detract from the quality of the images or the exhibit, but there is clearly more finesse in Untersee's prints.
Untersee's skill as a photographer and printer is obvious, for example, in an image of a boat on a still lakeshore in Colorado, with a hill behind it and voluminous clouds above. He frames the scene in a way that makes it feel like a short story or a poem, and his mastery of light can only be compared to Ansel Adams' landscapes. Nearby, three other photographs printed by Untersee show the same skill with light, though the scenes aren't as interestingly composed. One is a shot from the dashboard of a car driving on a highway a predictable view of any predictable road strip. Another is merely a street scene in San Francisco's Chinatown, though the street seems abandoned, and we know that this area can be a lot more interesting than it looks here.
The bulk of the show is not at all like these four photographs. It's Untersee's commercial photography that's fascinating. Perhaps unwittingly, Untersee was documenting the end of an era. Welcome to Kansas City. Look around. It is the same town.