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Stanford University
Reality Makes Them Dream: American Photography, 1929–1941

Reality Makes Them Dream: American Photography, 1929–1941

March 29–July 30, 2023

A black and white image of a naked woman floating in a pool

Edward Weston, Nude (Charis) Floating, 1939. Gelatin silver print. © 2022 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. The Capital Group Foundation Photography Collection at Stanford University, 2019.48.323

Freidenrich Family Gallery (221)


In the fall of 1930, Stanford biology professor Laurence Bass-Becking used a curious phrase to describe the photography of his friend Edward Weston: “Reality makes him dream.” Few people today would associate dreaminess with the Great Depression, yet Bass-Becking penned this statement one year into the economic turmoil that would last until the nation’s entry into World War II. This exhibition of over 100 photographs, periodicals, and photobooks offers an alternative understanding of 1930s photography in the US by taking Bass-Becking’s phrase as its point of departure.

The work of five photographers featured in the Capital Group Foundation Photography Collection at the Cantor Arts Center—Ansel Adams, John Gutmann, Helen Levitt, Wright Morris, and Edward Weston—comprises the core of the exhibition. Woven into this display is a diverse selection of photographs by their contemporaries that present new narratives about artists and images, from the iconic to the overlooked. Against the typical history of 1930s photography that views the work of this period as primarily documentary, this exhibition contends that a key goal for artists of this period was to use photography to ignite the imagination.

Talking Pictures Audio Experiences

During your visit, listen to a selection of audio experiences designed by students in Talking Pictures, a winter 2023 course at Stanford that considered all the noisy potential buried in the quiet spaces of museum galleries. What do pictures sound like? What would they say if they could talk? What would we say back? Follow the QR codes posted on the adjacent wall labels in the gallery to play through the files, which give voice to the pictures in the exhibition Reality Makes Them Dream. The audio is best experienced when wearing two headphones.

Virtual Tour

Explore this exhibition of over 100 photographs, periodicals, and photobooks virtually by clicking on the self-paced tour below.


In 2019, the Capital Group Foundation donated a collection of over 1,000 prints by American photographers to the Cantor Arts Center. This transformative gift included the endowment for a postdoctoral fellowship to develop exhibitions from this collection. Reality Makes Them Dream is the first of these projects.


This exhibition is organized by the Cantor Arts Center. We gratefully acknowledge support from The Capital Group Foundation Photography Collection Fund, the Kazak Acquisitions and Exhibitions Support Fund, the Elizabeth K. Raymond Fund for Photography at the Cantor Arts Center, the Hohbach Family Fund for Educational Outreach, and the Mark and Betsy Gates Fund for Photography at the Stanford Museum of Art.


Upcoming/Past Programs

Curator Talk

Thu., Jun 1, Noon | Meet at museum lobby

Join Josie Johnson, Capital Group Foundation Curatorial Fellow for Photography, for a tour of the exhibition Reality Makes Them Dream.


Bohemians, Realists, & Dreamers: Women Photographers in the Interwar Period

Thu., May 4, 6:00 PM | Cantor Arts Center Auditorium

Join author Jasmin Darznik and art historian Sarah M. Miller for a discussion of their research on the lives and work of women photographers during the 1920s and 1930s.


Related Publication

Now available at our front desk

The accompanying catalog features reproductions of 83 objects from the exhibition and a suite of short essays by photography scholars affiliated with Stanford University. Drawn from original research and thoughtful readings of objects presented in the exhibition, their essays further expand our understanding of interwar American photography.

More details




Visit Us

The Cantor is open to the public, Wednesdays–Sundays 11:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. We’re always free. Advance registration is not required, but it helps us plan if we know who's coming.

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The Cantor Arts Center is located at the intersection of Museum Way and Lomita Drive in the heart of the arts district on the Stanford campus. The Cantor faces the Bing Concert Hall across Palm Drive, northwest of The Oval and the Main Quad.

328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way
Stanford, CA 94305-5060

How to Get Here


Parking is limited. Stanford has a new contactless process to pay for parking, using the ParkMobile app, website, or phone. Prior to your visit, we recommend you visit the Stanford Transportation website to learn more about the updated visitor parking process.

Parking Rates and Map
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