Ohio to the White House: Photographs by Matthew Albritton, Taft Museum of Art

May 17th, 2012  |  Published in May 2012  |  2 Comments

Matthew Albritton, “Hayes Birthplace: Marker,” 2007, digital capture, archival digital print, 6” x 9”. Photo courtesy of Taft Museum of Art.

In the exhibition “Ohio to the White House,” appropriately at the Taft Museum of Art, Matthew Albritton has documented the birthplaces and boyhood homes of the seven Ohio-born presidents. Their terms account for half of presidential service between 1869 and 1923. During that time only three presidents hailed from outside the Buckeye state.

Albritton’s lush and nuanced black-and-white photographs represent a selection drawn from a larger book-length project, which documents the birthplaces of 43 American presidents. (I guess he hasn’t gotten to Hawaii.) This is a collaboration between Albritton, an assistant professor of art, photography, at Northern Kentucky University, and Andrew Leiter, associate professor of English at Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA.

Albritton has photographed these homes, focusing on unassuming details that often go unnoticed. He’s clearly operating in the mode of the Farm Security Administration photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans as he records reality as faithfully as possible. But like those predecessors, Albritton also manages to evoke an emotional response from the viewer.

Without the Taft’s always enlightening didactic material, there would be no way of knowing that these photos were of presidential birthplaces and boyhood homes, or that they were all taken in Ohio. Only one photo reveals that information. It is of the marker designating the site of the Rutherford B. Hayes birthplace in Delaware, a brick farmhouse since demolished.

Albritton doesn’t do the standard postcard views of the homes. Instead but he gives viewers much more information, allowing them to enter the formative worlds of these men before they ascended to the highest office in the land.

In some cases, Albritton records a detail that the future president might have known and which may not have changed significantly since. In an essay by Leiter, he is quoted as saying, “I look for details that pull me back through the years, something that the president, while living there, may have touched or walked on.

For example in “Grant Boyhood Home: Hearth,” one can imagine a young Grant sitting there to warm himself since the legs of a chair can be seen on the worn wood floor that butts up against the bricks of the fireplace floor.

As in all of his work, Albritton takes a formalist approach to the composition, and the photograph becomes almost abstract. A narrow board running diagonally from right to left marks the division between the bricks and wood floor. It also leads the eye into the composition until it’s stopped by a dark rectangular form with a small square foot, perhaps a chest or cupboard. The bricks are parallel to that line and the planks of the floor are perpendicular. For something that is static, Albritton imbues it with a lot of motion.

In “McKinley Birthplace: Silhouette,” the modest frame building is on Main Street in the small town of Niles. Cracks in the pavement in front of it zigzag their way back to the house, which looks like a child’s drawing. The pavement occupies nearly two-thirds of the foreground and is almost luminous in the sunshine.

The home is in the center of the photograph and totally in shadow. There are chimneys on either end of the pitched roof with its shingles glinting in the sun. For a sense of symmetry, a flagpole and electric lines on the right are balanced by a lamplight and branches of a tree on the left. The house reads as a rectilinear form, and up close you can discern the rectangular shapes of windows and doors, which echo it. It’s as much abstraction as a realistic document.

Albritton doesn’t only suggest a view of the past, he also gives a view of today, as in his photographs of the birthplace of William Howard Taft, an impressive Greek Revival house in Cincinnati’s Mt. Auburn. The future president’s father, Alphonso, a successful lawyer, diplomat, and politician, had purchased the domicile for his growing family.

Albritton has shot the home from a distance, but also up close. In one of these photos (“Taft Birthplace: Brick,” 2011), a brick wall is painted white except for one brick that the paint has inexplicably flaked off. This is very reminiscent of Aaron Siskind’s so-called Abstract Expressionist or New York School photos of sections of walls and pavements.

I found myself drawn to a very romantic image of “Taft Birthplace: Address Numbers.” It shows two incomplete and almost superimposed sets of the “2038” numbers. What I take to be original has lost the “8”, leaving a ghostly image. The new numbers that are only slightly more graceful than those available at Home Depot run at a diagonal and use the original “3” to complete them. The shabbiness of the numbers contrasts with the elegance of the house.

In contrast to the Taft residence is Garfield’s log cabin. A symbol of humble beginnings, Garfield is one of seven presidents born in one.

Albritton has captured the essence of the homestead, a reconstruction of the Moreland Hills structure, with photos of a split-rail fence and of a, again Siskind-like view, of a wall of hand-hewn logs and plaster. The ends of the horizontal logs are cut into interlocking L-shapes, and the vertical logs are notched to fit into those logs. Again, the picture borders on pure abstraction.

“Ohio to the White House: Photographs by Matthew Albritton” is an exhibition worth seeing for its historical content but also for its artistic value.

–Karen Chambers


  1. Tamera Muente says:

    May 23rd, 2012at 10:08 am(#)

    Dear Karen:

    Thank you for your insightful review of Matthew Albritton’s exhibition.

    An interesting historical tidbit for you: There are actually only 43 birthplaces, even though Barack Obama is the 44th president. Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms. One of the many things I learned while working on this show…

    Thank you again for adding to the lively discussion about art on AEQAI.

    Tamera Muente
    Assistant Curator, Taft Museum of Art

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