Cultural Cohesion, p.71Clive James
Bailey has graciously allowed his model to retain her name. Helmut Newton takes that away and a lot more besides. Special Collection 24 Photo Lithos comprises big, slick prints of photographs you might have seen before in White Women (1976) and Sleepless Nights (1978). Rapturously introducing Sleepless Nights, Philippe Garner, billed as the photographic curator of London Sotheby’s, unintentionally pinned Newton to the wall. “There is, surely, an added spice in having the talent to present a subject as blatant as this in such a way that the spokespersons of a society which should, in theory, deplore such an image as shocking actually pat one on the back for taking it and reward one handsomely.” There was also a lot about Newton’s alleged humour.
Mercifully his new book is deprived of textual accompaniment, leaving those who have a taste for these things free to indulge their fantasies of exhibitionism, bondage and flagellation. Apologists have explained that Newton loves women so much he wants to show how they retain their dignity no matter what you do to them, or pretend to do to them. So here they are in a variety of neck braces, trusses and plaster casts. For men who want to be in the saddle, there is a spurred and booted beauty wearing a saddle. Famous in the trade for his technical skill, Newton will take endless pains to find the right props and setting. I suppose he is trying to make us question our own desires, but I always find myself questioning his. It can be argued that Newton’s sado-masochistic confections pale beside what can be found in hard-core pornography, yet the question still arises of why he thinks he is engaged in anything more exalted than a fashionable triteness already going out of date. He gives you the impression of somebody who has had his life changed by an Alice Cooper album. How his dogged prurience makes you long for Lartigue.
But what Newton does to girls is a sweet caress compared with what girls do to girls. Women on Women gave a broad hint at what was on the way. Women covered with cream, women with skulls in their twats, women flaunting six-foot styrofoam dicks, women solemnly feeling each other up in the backseats of limos. At first glance, Joyce Baronio’s 42nd Street Studio, with an introduction by Professor Linda Nochlin of CUNY, is the same scene, folio size. One’s initial impulse, when faced with the spectacle of a naked girl attached by ropes to a blond stud in black boots plus obligatory whip, is to burst out yawning. But Baronio’s pictures are laudable for their quality and most of the fantasies count as found objects. They litter the Times Square district where she works. She is performing a certain documentary service in recording them, even if you doubt the lasting value of her self-expression. For myself, I’m bound to say I’m at least half hooked, and would like to see what she does next. I don’t think it’s just because of the pretty girls, although I could certainly do without some of the guys, especially the one in the leather jockstrap and the hat.
. . .
A photographer who interests himself more in documentary than in self-expression is nowadays likely to remain anonymous until such time as his unassertive vision turns out to have been unique all along. For most photographers that time will never come no matter how arresting their photographs. The Best of Photojournalism 5 enshrines some of the year’s most riveting shots. You can flick through it and decide if reality is being consumed. I was particularly impressed by L. Roger Turner’s three pictures of a Down’s syndrome boy hefting a bowling ball in the Special Olympics. Perhaps I am congratulating myself on my own compassion, which has in fact been reduced to a stock response by too many images. There is also a chance that my aesthetic sensibility is being blunted instead of sharpened when I admire Bill Wax’s study of Chris Snode preparing to dive into a heated Florida pool on a cold winter’s morning. Crucified in steam, Snode looks like a Duccio plus dry ice.
Eve Arnold’s new book In China raises the question of veracity. Sontag argues persuasively that the beautifying power of photography derives from its weakness as a truth-teller. It is indeed true that a photograph can tell you something only if you already know something about its context, but the same applies to any other kind of signal. Here are some extremely pretty coloured photographs of China. They inform you of many facts, including the fact that there is at least one bald Buddhist monk still in business at the Cold Mountain monastery in Suchow. What they can’t tell you is just how long those children singing in the classroom will be obliged to go on believing in the divinity of the man with his picture on the wall. The same kind of stricture, if it is one, applies to Photographs for the Tsar, which collects the astonishing pre-Revolutionary coloured photographs by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, a forgotten pioneer now destined to be clamorously remembered.
Prokudin-Gorskii employed a triple-negative process of his own devising. Nicholas II commissioned him to perpetuate anything that took his fancy. The results fell short of those Eve Arnold is accustomed to obtaining but not by far. Prokudin-Gorskii was necessarily limited to photographing stationary objects but took care to pick the right ones. The book takes its place beside Chloe Obolensky’s indispensable The Russian Empire, published last year.
Across the Rhine is the latest in the Time-Life corporation’s admirable series based on its own World War II archive. Once again the text, contributed this time by Franklin M. Davis, Jr., but with the usual assistance from “the editors of Time-Life Books,” is a sane corrective to the revisionist theories now rife among more exalted historians. The photographs do what photographs best can—they give you some idea of what the reality you already know something about was like in detail. Some of the pictures taken in the liberated concentration camps are included. Sontag tells us that her life was changed by seeing these very pictures—a moment in her book which I appreciated from the heart, since it was an extensive reading of the Nuremberg transcripts, with due attention to the horrific photographic evidence contained in Volume XXXI, that did more than anything else to shape my own view of life.
Sontag might agree that whatever else images had done to take the edge off reality, they rubbed her nose in it in that case. These photographs are hard to respond to adequately but then so might have been the reality. The brave documentary photographer Margaret Bourke-White, after taking her pictures in Buchenwald, told her editors that she would have to see the prints developed before she believed what she had witnessed. It is a point for an aesthetician to seize, but too much should not be made of it. She was speaking metaphorically. The thing had happened and she could tell that it had happened. Her photographs helped, however inadequately, to tell the world.
There is a case for photographing horrors, since not all torturers are as keen as Hitler’s and Pol Pot’s to keep their own pictorial record of what they get up to. Snapping celebrities with their pants down is harder to justify, but in his preface to Private Pictures Anthony Burgess does his best to convince us that the paparazzi are engaged in something valuable. From the photographs you can’t find out much beyond a few variously startling physical facts about the firmness of Romy Schneider’s behind, the pliancy of Elton John’s wrist and the magnitude of Giovanni Agnelli’s virile member. It is also sensationally revealed that Orson Welles has a fat gut and Yul Brynner a bald head. Burgess is pretty scathing about Brigitte Bardot’s breasts, but to me she looks in better shape than Burgess was when I last saw him.
Apparently Burgess shares the gutter press assumption that those who achieve fame should be made to suffer from it. But many of this book’s victims are famous only as a side-effect of pursuing honourable careers. “This book,” growls Burgess, “in bringing stars down to the human level, is a kind of visual poem on the theme of expendability.” One night before a Cambridge Union debate I saw Burgess get angry because Glenda Jackson had not turned up to lead the opposing team. Burgess made it clear that to meet her ranked high among his reasons for being in attendance. Not even such unexpendable philosophers as Burgess are always entirely innocent of the star-fucking impulse. Private Pictures supplies additional evidence for the already well-documented theory that those who fuck the stars are the same people who enjoy sticking it to them.
Brandt, the perpetual loner, is not present. On BBC radio recently he described how Cartier-Bresson, when they met in Paris in the 1950s, wouldn’t speak to him, because he had sinned against photographic purity by cropping the negative and using artificial light. At the time of writing, Brandt is all set to unleash on London an exhibition of his recent work in which the girls are reportedly weighed down with more chains and leather straps than Helmut Newton ever dreamed of. Cartier-Bresson would doubtless not approve. The photographers have always been quite capable of ideological warfare. Ansel Adams said that Walker Evans’s work gave him a hernia.
. . .
Peter Tausk’s Photography in the 20th Century tells you how the Western photographic tradition looks from Czechoslovakia, for whose art and photography students this book was originally written. Tausk has his nose pressed to the glass but is not unduly dazzled. He has a useful way of pointing out that the reporters are as worthy of attention as the name photographers—the kind of thought which would occur to you with special sharpness if you lived in a country where there are no reporters. The best encyclopedia of the name photographers is still The Magic Image by Cecil Beaton and Gail Buckland (1975). One had always suspected that Gail Buckland must have done most of the work. The suspicion is confirmed by the high quality of Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography, the authorship of which is claimed by her alone. Etymology, philology, mathematics, crystallography—his interests were endless, and all pursued at the highest level. On top of all that, he set the standards for the intelligent use of his invention. His photograph of volumes from his own library is a necessary reminder, bequeathed to us by the progenitor, that the apparent divorce between word and image is really an indissoluble marriage. One closes the book more astounded than ever at Talbot’s achievements. It was a genius who started it all.
Whether all those famous names that have cropped up since should be thought of as geniuses is open to doubt. The Americans are more vexed by such questions than the Europeans, who better understand that some arts are minor and that it is more satisfactory to be an accomplished practitioner of a minor art than a third-rate exponent of a major one. Enjoying a less coherent social and intellectual life, the Americans have understandably either clung together for warmth or been strident in isolation. The consequent rhetoric should not too quickly be dismissed even when it is patent moonshine. The impure applied and minor arts are often accompanied by dumb talk, off which it is easy for the critic to score points. He does best, however, when addressing the thing itself. Photography, despite the attendant cacophony of promotion, remains, after all, a miraculous event—almost as interesting, in fact, as Szarkowski says it is. Castalia still has its attractions. As for the higher thinker, he must sooner or later discover that the aesthetic of photography, like the aesthetic of the novel or the aesthetic of the ballet, is a snark. The best contribution a critic can make to aesthetics is to aim for consistency, argue closely and be wary of big ideas.
Sontag’s notion that images consume reality counts as a big idea. Intellectuals should speak for themselves in the first instance. Obviously images are not consuming her reality. So she must mean the rest of us. Nor was Benjamin being as penetrating as he sounded when he said that people flooded with images would not know how to read a book. My own children watch television for half a day at a stretch and still read more books than I did at their age. Benjamin thought of photography as one of the means by which Fascism would allow the masses to express themselves without posing any threat to the social order. At that time everyone had a theory about the masses. Benjamin had already died his lonely death before it was generally realized that the masses do not exist. There are only people—so many of them that the aesthetician can be forgiven for finding their numbers meaningless. But the critic’s job is to maintain what the best photographers have helped define—a discriminating eye.
New York Review of Books, December 18, 1980;
later included in Even As We Speak, 2001
PICTURES IN SILVER
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by
Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard
The flow of photographic images from the past suggests that what we are already experiencing as a deepening flood in the present will seem, in the near future, like a terminal inundation. Most of the theoretical works purporting to find some sort of pattern in the cataract of pictures only increase the likelihood that we will lose our grip. But occasionally a book makes sense of the uproar. Appearing in the author’s native language just before his death, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, now published posthumously in English, will make the reader sorrier than ever that this effervescent critic is no longer among the living. Barthes was the inspiration of many a giftless tract by his disciples but he himself was debarred by genuine critical talent from finding any lasting value in mechanized schemes. By the end of his life he seemed very keen to re-establish the personal, the playful and even the quirky at the centre of his intellectual effort, perhaps because he had seen, among some of those who took his earlier work as an example, how easily method can become madness.
Whatever the truth of that, here is a small but seductively argued book which the grateful reader can place on the short shelf of truly useful commentaries on photography, along with Walter Benjamin’s Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, John Szarkowski’s promotional essays and the critical articles of Janet Malcolm. Also asking for a home on the same shelf is the recently published Photography in Print, edited by Vicki Goldberg and including many of the best shorter writings about photography from its first days to now. As well as the expected, essential opinions of everyone from Fox Talbot to Sontag, there are such out-of-the-way but closely relevant pieces as a reminiscence by Nadar which suggests that Balzac pre-empted Benjamin’s idea about photographs robbing an object of its aura; a stunningly dull critique written by one Cuthbert Bode in 1855 which shows that photography has always generated, as well as a special enthusiasm, a special intensity of patronizing scorn; and a brilliantly turned Hiawatha-metre poem by that fervent shutterbug Lewis Carroll.
From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the second book of Euclid.
There is, of course, a much longer shelf, indeed a whole wall of long shelves, packed with commentaries which are not particularly wrong-headed. But they are platitudinous, and in the very short run it is the weight of unobjectionable but unremarkable accompanying prose which
Barthes at his best had a knack for timing the soufflé. The texture of Camera Lucida is light, making it suitable for a heavy message. The message is heavy enough to be called subversive. Barthes finds photography interesting, but not as art. An awful lot of would-be artists are going to be disappointed to hear this. But before they smash up their Nikons in frustration they should hear the argument through, because if Barthes is disinclined to treat photographers as artists he is uncommonly inclined to examine what they do with an intelligently selective eye. “A photograph is always invisible,” he writes, “it’s not it that we see.” Barthes says that what we see is the subject matter: “the referent adheres.” Barthes airily dismisses all talk of composition. Indeed he goes a long way towards saying that a photograph hasn’t got any formal element worth bothering about. He claims for himself, where photography is concerned, “a desperate resistance to any reductive system”—pretty cool, when you consider the number and aridity of reductive systems his example has given rise to.
Barthes says that what he brings to the average photograph is studium—general curiosity. What leaps out of the exceptional photograph is a punctum—a point of interest. In Kertész’s 1926 portrait of Tristan Tzara (unfortunately not reproduced in this book), the studium, says Barthes, might have to do with a Dadaist having his picture taken but the punctum is his dirty fingernails. In William Klein’s photograph “Near the Bowery” (1954), you and I might have our attention drawn by the toy gun held to the smiling boy’s head, especially if the scene arouses an echo of the Viet Cong prisoner being summarily executed in one of the most famous pieces of news film footage to have come out of Vietnam. But Barthes can’t help noticing the little boy’s bad teeth. Barthes is not always startled by what the photographer finds startling and is never startled by what the photographer rigs to be startling—abstract and surrealist concoctions leave him cold.
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