Cultural Cohesion, p.70Clive James
So there is nothing simplistic about Szarkowski. It will be a rare aesthetician who matches his analytical capacity. There is not much wrong with his prose either, apart from his conviction that “disinterested” means “uninterested.” What disturbs you about his writings is how they make photography so overwhelmingly significant. For Szarkowski, photography is the biggest deal since the wheel. If he did not feel that way he would never have got so far as a curator and showman, but when the same fervour smites his readers they can be excused for succumbing to a mild panic. Surely photography isn’t everything.
It isn’t, but it isn’t nothing either. One can be sceptical about just how great Szarkowski’s great artists are, but there is no reason for deciding that they are anything less than a remarkable group of people. Just how remarkable is now being revealed by a swathe of plush monographs. The hard work of the archivists and curators is paying off in a big way. Only in a climate of acceptance could these sumptuously produced books come to exist. The late Nancy Newhall’s The Eloquent Light is a new edition of her biography of Ansel Adams, first published by the Sierra Club in 1963. It traces Adams’s career from 1902 up to 1938, by which time Alfred Stieglitz had given him—in 1936, to be precise—the one-man show that helped establish him as a master photographer.
The book has plates drawn from Adams’s whole range, although the Yosemite photographs inevitably stand out. The text gives due regard to the emphasis he placed on cleanliness. The washed prints were tested for any lingering traces of hypo. Adams was not alone among the American photographers in taking himself so solemnly: with monklike austerity they acted out the seriousness of their calling. That its seriousness was not yet unquestioned only made it the more necessary to keep a long face. In the case of Adams the results justified any amount of pious rhetoric about the Expanding Photographic Universe. Published last year, Yosemite and the Range of Light contains the finest fruits of Adams’s long obsession with the Sierra Nevada. The quality of the prints is bewitching. They are so sharp you can taste the steel. Blacks, grays and whites look as lustrous as the skin of a Siamese cat.
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Walter Benjamin thought a work of art could have authenticity but a photograph could not. He said so in the famous essay whose title is usually translated as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” although really it should be translated as “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,” since Benjamin’s point was that mankind had always produced everyday things in multiple copies but it was only lately that the work of art had become subject to the same rule. Since a given negative could yield any number of prints, Benjamin argued, to ask for an “authentic” print made no sense (“die Frage nach dem echten Abzug hat keinen Sinn”). Sontag, who in other respects might have subjected Benjamin’s great essay to a less awe-stricken scrutiny, realized that on this point at least the sage was exactly wrong. Negatives can be damaged, prints can be made from prints, paper and methods of reproduction can fall short of a photographer’s wishes. Obviously some prints are more authentic than others and you can’t have greater or lesser degrees of nothing. These prints of Adams’s Yosemite photographs are so echt they sing. El Capitan looms through a winter sunrise. Half Dome shines clean as a hound’s tooth under a thunderhead or fills with shadows as the moon, filled with shadows of its own, plugs a hole in the sheet steel sky.
Suppose Paul Strand had taken pictures of the same chunks of geology: could a layman, however knowledgeable, tell the difference? Even the most distinctive photographers tend to be defined more by subject matter than by style. If a photographer’s any and every photograph were immediately identifiable as his he would probably be individual to the point of mania. Good photographs look better than bad photographs but don’t often look all that much different from one another. Some of Paul Strand’s photographs in Time in New England, a book devised in collaboration with the much-missed Nancy Newhall (she died in 1974), look as if Adams might have taken them, yet it is no reflection on either man. The book was first published in 1950 but is now redesigned, with the prints brought closer to the authentic state. Adams’s senior by twelve years, Strand likewise profited from an association with Stieglitz. These connections of inspiration and patronage are very easy to be impressed by, but it is worth remembering that just because half the Florentine sculptors were all born on the same few hills did not make them blood brothers. The life of art lies in what makes artists different from one another—the individual creative personality. The main difference between a clapboard church by Paul Strand and a clapboard house by Harry Callahan is that in Strand’s lens the church leans backward and in Callahan’s the house leans forward.
In Brett Weston: Photographs from Five Decades there is more than enough clean-cut shapeliness to recall his father Edward’s predilection for “the thing itself.” The air of dedication is once again monastic. “For Brett, the struggle has been a long, unhurried process of refining an uncompromising, inborn vision. He did not acquire it: it was simply granted to him, like grace.” There is no reason to doubt the intensity of Brett’s inborn vision. What niggles is the fact that a beach photographed by Brett Weston and a beach photographed by Harry Callahan look like roughly similar stretches of the same stuff—sand.
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Water’s Edge collects the best of Callahan’s black-and-white Beach Series (always capitalized) from 1941 until now. The light, the sand patterns, the reeds and the frail water could not be more delicately caught. When they are more delicately caught, the result is the kind of abstraction that leaves you striving to admire. But generally Callahan photographing is good at what Lichtenberg said was the most important thing about thinking—keeping the right distance from the subject. The text, a deeply rhythmless poetic concoction by A. R. Ammons (“I allow myself eddies of meaning”) is in the hallowed tradition of overwriting for which, with his accompanying prose to Walker Evans’s photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee unfortunately gave an eternal sanction. For crazy people, there is a deluxe limited edition priced at $1,500. Presumably it is bound in platinum. Harry Callahan: Color has some of the Beach Series in colour and a lot more besides: clapboard houses, billboards, store fronts and, most importantly, his wife Eleanor. Callahan composes exceptionally pretty scenes but human beings keep stealing them.
The same applies to the old Czech master Sudek, who was born in 1896 and is apparently still alive. Not much of his work has been seen outside Czechoslovakia until now. Sonja Bullaty and Anna Farova have compiled and introduced their monograph in a manner befitting his unarguable stature. The amber haze of the early prints proclaims his affinity with Steichen, whose symbolist nudes in Steichen: The Master Prints 1895–1914 might have been signed by Sudek. The wily Czech’s still lifes and surrealist fantasies are enough to keep aestheticians happily chatting, but once again the people, when they are allowed to appear, infallibly upstage the settings.
The same is doubly true for Lotte Jacobi, whose people are not, like Sudek’s, anonymous. Jacobi was also born in 1896. Kelly Wise’s book on her, called just Lotte Jacobi, was published in the U.S. in 1978 but English readers might like to note that it has only lately succeeded in crossing the Atlantic. In New York for ten years after World War II Jacobi busied herself with abstract effects called “photogenics.” Like all art inspired by its own technique, they dated instantly and are now of little interest. But her portraits, mainly taken in pre-war Germany, are of high value. The high value becomes especially high when the sitters are world famous, but there is no way around that. Weill, Lorre, Walter, Furtwängler, Piscator, Lang, Kraus, Planck, Zuckmayer, Grosz and many more are all preserved in echt condition. She did a whole, fascinating sequence of Einstein portraits both in Germany and in American exile. There are also multiple portraits of Thomas Mann, Chagall, Frost and Stieglitz. The cover girl is Lotte Lenya.
Jacobi also did a portrait of Moholy-Nagy. If Moholy-Nagy had done more portraits himself, Andreas Haus’s book on hi
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But Moholy-Nagy’s people are vivid enough. From a balcony in Dessau (datelined “1926–1928”) a woman looks down at a pretty girl stretched smiling on a parapet. Moholy-Nagy was a tireless organizer of forms but the most interesting form, that of the human being, comes ready made. Cecil Beaton, to his credit, never doubted that his career as a photographer owed something to the human beings he was pointing his camera at. Self-Portrait with Friends, the selection from his diaries which appeared last year, now receives its necessary supplement in the form of Beaton, a collection of his best portrait photographs, edited by James Danziger. Raphael, Berenson was fond of saying, shows us the classicism of our yearnings. Beaton gave famous and fashionable people the look they would have liked to have. In many cases they had it already. Lady Oxford, photographed in 1927, may have been a battleaxe, but she was a regal battleaxe. Beaton wasn’t a sentimentalist so much as a dandy who believed in glamour as a separate country. Until the 1950s he was almost the only mainstream British photographer the young aspirants could look to. (Bill Brandt was a dropout.) From the technical viewpoint he was awesomely capable—he snatched candids in Hollywood that look as uncluttered as the best official studio portraits.
Beyond technique he had a sense of occasion. At times this might have been indistinguishable from snobbery, but it served him better than the routine compulsion to record documentary truth. His book New York (1938) is painfully weak when it goes up to Harlem. (“These people are children.”) In Far East (1945) he is plainly more interested in Imperial Delhi than in the air-raid casualties. In Time Exposure (1946) his “Bomb Victim” is merely cute, whereas the portrait of John Gielgud “in a Restoration role” slips straight into immortality with no waiting. These books and several more lie behind the present compilation, which loses little from being deprived of the original text. (The “DeHavilland fighter, 1941” depicted on page 42 is, however, clearly a Spitfire, which was manufactured by Vickers Supermarine. How old is Mr. Danziger? Eight?) Beaton was a social butterfly who wrote the higher gossip. But the circles he moved in provided him with human subjects who were, in many cases, works of art ready made. With Beaton’s beautiful socialites, as with Baron de Meyer’s, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they had no other reason for existence than getting into the picture. Beaton has, if anybody has, a clearly defined artistic personality. But once again the self-expression is largely defined by the field of documentation. His exquisite drawings, which he left like thank-you notes in the grand houses, are far more characteristic than his photographs.
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Mainly by shading his eyes with a wide-brimmed hat and allowing his feet to take him in congenial directions, Beaton found the world seductive. He wasn’t out to shape reality, even by photography, which he rated, perhaps jokingly, fifth among his interests. With Diana Vreeland seductiveness becomes Allure. In a folio called just that, Ms. Vreeland collects some of her favourite twentieth-century photographs. Equipped with a stream of semi-consciousness text emanating from DV herself, the book (which I see the latest number of Manhattan Catalogue calls “absolutely historic,” not just historic) has been thrown together with such abandon that some of the captions have landed on the wrong photographs—in my copy, at least. The picture dubbed “Baron de Meyer / The New Hat Called Violette Worn by the Honorable Mrs. Reginald Fellowes—Alex, 1924” should almost certainly be entitled “Louise Dahl-Wolfe/Balenciaga’s white linen over-blouse, 1953” and vice versa. In later copies, I understand, such anomalies have been put right. The model for the Balenciaga is, unless my eyes are giving out under the strain, Suzy Parker. Even at this late date, Ms. Vreeland continues Vogue’s queenly habit of always crediting the fashionable ladies but rarely the models. In effect this quirk has helped to glorify the photographers, who get kudos not only for the way they make the girl look but for the way she looks anyway.
The most striking pictures in Vreeland’s book are by Anonymous, who snapped the British royal women at George VI’s funeral. By the time these prints, probably duped off other prints, have been blown up to fit the squash-court-sized pages of Allure, there is not much left to say about authenticity. Yet aura—the many-layered immanence which Benjamin said photography deprived things of—is present in large amounts, possibly because Allure has been banished.
Not that it stays banished for long. On most of Vreeland’s pages it seems fighting to get in somewhere. In the context of Vreeland’s unbridled prose, Eva Perón becomes a figure of moral stature, since she cared how she looked to the bitter end. Vreeland is a place where appearance is everything. But the occasional big-name photographer manages to look timelessly unfussy. Some of the cleanest plates in Allure’s pantheon are by George Hoyningen-Huene, this year the subject of a retrospective exhibition, called “Eye for Elegance,” at the International Center of Photography in New York. The catalogue gives a taste of his work, although really he is too protean to sample. Among other activities, he set the standard for pre-war French Vogue’s studio photography and was colour consultant on some of the best-looking Hollywood films of the fifties and early sixties, including Cukor’s wildly beautiful Heller in Pink Tights. No fashion photographer ever had a wider range. The shadows on his reclining swimsuit models are calculated to the centimetre, yet some of his celebrity portraits of the 1930s look natural enough to have been done today. His 1934 Gary Cooper, for example, seems to be lit by nothing except sunlight. The profile is almost lost in the background and every skin blemish is left intact. Yet the result has aura to burn.
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The Hollywood studio photographer retouched as a matter of course. In his splendidly produced The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers, John Kobal gives us the rich benefit of his archival labours. Based in London, Kobal has built up a peerless collection of the original negatives. Kobal knows everything about how the studios marketed their property. Some studios assessed the daily output of their photographers by the pound. The stars were expected to cooperate and the smarter of them realized that it was in their interests to do so. Lombard, it seems, was particularly keen. Garbo was nervous, but Clarence Sinclair Bull never made the mistake of saying “hold it”—he just lit her and waited. One key light, one top light, and a long lens parked some way off so she wouldn’t notice. There are stories by and about, among others, Ruth Harriet Louise, Ernest Bachrach, Eugene Robert Richee, George Hurrell and Laszlo Willinger. Sternberg knew exactly how he wanted Dietrich to look but otherwise it was a conspiracy between the studio and the photographer, with the star in on it if she was powerful enough. Before and after shots show how drastically Columbia rearranged the accoutrements of Rita Hayworth’s face. One of the after shots, by A. L. “Whitey” Schaefer, is surely an image for eternity.
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In Mrs. David Bailey—called, in the UK, Trouble and Strife, cockney rhyming slang for “wife”—David Bailey celebrates the extraordinary beauty of his wife Marie Helvin. Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffey became such famous photographers in London during the sixties that they have been faced ever since with the requirement to astonish. This book is not wholly free from the strained compulsion to dazzle, but it is still Bailey’s best effort since Goodbye Baby and Amen, mainly because Marie Helvin is so bliss-provokingly lovely that she takes the sting out of the naughtiest poses Bailey can think up. There is an admiring prefatory note by J. H. Lartigue, who would have done at least one thing Bailey hasn’t—caught her smiling. Avoir pour amour une femme aussi belle, jolie, charmante et troublante que Marie, quelle inspiration pour un artiste. At eighty-four Lartigue still has an eye for a pretty foot.
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes