Cultural Cohesion, p.72Clive James
A photograph, says Barthes, does not nostalgically call up the past. Instead it shows the past was real, like now. Photography proves the past to be a reality we can no longer touch. Instead of the solace of nostalgia, the bitterness of separation. Photography is powerless as art but potent as magic. Thus his little book concludes as it began, with a confident emphasis on subject matter.
When John Szarkowski, in his 1966 critical anthology The Photographer’s Eye, showed that for every master photographer’s laboriously created definitive statement there was at least one amateur snapshot equally interesting, the photographic world had the choice of inferring either that the artists weren’t artistic or else that the amateurs were artistic too. On the whole the latter course was taken, mainly because Szarkowski so persuasively extended the range of what it was possible to discuss about a photograph, so that the mere business of selecting what to shoot stood revealed for what it is—an artistic choice at some level, however diffident.
Similarly Barthes’s potentially devastating re-emphasis is mollified by his willingness to concede that the selectivity involved is not just his own unusually receptive eye for the punctum. The photographer is allowed the faculty of selectivity too. Barthes does not seem to allow even the best photographer much more, but perhaps he just never got around to developing his argument, which nevertheless is an attractive one as it stands. If one famous American classical photographer’s photograph of trees has ever worried you by looking indistinguishable from another famous American classical photographer’s photograph of trees, here is a way out of your dilemma. The identity of subject matter tends to render the alleged compositional and tonal subtleties nugatory in each case. There is no reason to feel guilty just because we have got one of the Westons mixed up with one of the others.
The composition of a photograph can be analysed usefully, but not as long as it can be analysed uselessly. As with a literary work, there is a line to be drawn between the critical remark that yields meaning and the analytical rigmarole which tells you little beyond the fact that some ambitious young academic has time on his hands. Barthes’s thesis is a refreshing simplification. But a fresh look doesn’t always simplify. In Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography, the catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art exhibition which will next be seen in Los Angeles and Chicago, Peter Galassi cunningly advances the deceptively simple thesis that some paintings prepared the way for the invention of photography by manifesting “a new and fundamentally modern pictorial syntax of immediate, synoptic perceptions and discontinuous, unexpected forms.”
Galassi’s argument has already been examined at some length by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner. I will not rehearse their analysis beyond saying that they find Mr. Galassi’s achievement as impressive as I do. They argue that Mr. Galassi gives an incomplete account of perspective. Galassi says that over the centuries the original pictorial strategy, to make a three-dimensional world out of a flat medium, gradually reversed itself, and became the new pictorial strategy of making a flat picture out of a three-dimensional world—at which point photography, which might have been invented much earlier if anyone had really wanted it, finally showed up in order to answer the new need. Rosen and Zerner recommend that Galassi should take into account the implications of the empirical representation developed by the fifteenth-century Flemish painters. No doubt they are right, but I can think of someone else who might fit Galassi’s theory even more instructively—Velázquez.
As Ortega explains in The Dehumanisation of Art, Velázquez was the first to look into the distance with a dilated pupil and so blur the focus of things near. That is why foreground figures in some of his pictures—one thinks particularly of Las Meninas—look so strange. They are strange because they are the unexamined familiar. They look the way things look when we are looking past them, as if they were floating, converdidas en gases cromáticos, en flámulas informes, en puros reflejos. Converted into chromatic gases, into formless flames, into pure reflections. (Ortega’s writings on aesthetics are so poetic that they constitute an aesthetic problem in themselves.)
Unless I have got it hopelessly wrong, Ortega uncovered in Velázquez a concern with focus and depth of field which presages just those aspects of the photographic vision. No doubt Velázquez developed these perceptions out of a desire to mimic how the eye actually sees, but Galassi seems to be saying that the photographic pictorial strategy developed out of just that impulse, away from conceptual ordering and towards the randomly inclusive. Ortega, who said that you could see a Velázquez in one gulp, even has a vocabulary that seems ready-made for Galassi’s thesis. Ortega says that the closely focussed analytic vision is feudal and that the distantly focused, synthetic vision is democratic.
Doubtless other readers of Galassi’s essay will have their own ideas, not just because his argument is the kind that makes us recognize something we already suspected, but because so many of us have a head full of references. By now Malraux’s musée imaginaire, the Museum Without Walls, has transferred itself from books of reproductions into our own skulls. But a brain which already has a few hundred of the world’s great paintings arranged inside it is likely to panic when asked to take in several thousand of the world’s putatively great photographs as well. Yet we can retain the notion of the photographer as artist without feeling obliged to accept his every creation as a work of art.
By and large that is what John Szarkowski does in his excellent introductory essay to The Work of Atget, Vol. 1: Old France, the magnificently produced and highly desirable catalogue volume for the first of what will be four Museum of Modern Art exhibitions devoted to Atget’s work, the cycle being due to complete itself in 1984. The material will take a long time to show and took even longer to get ready. Berenice Abbott gave the museum her collection of about 5,000 Atget prints in 1968. Maria Morris Hambourg, Szarkowski’s co-scholar on the project, has been occupied with nothing else since 1976. Together they have performed prodigies of research, but one expects no less. Less predictable was the way Szarkowski, while diving around among all this visual wealth like Scrooge McDuck in Money Barn No. 64, has managed to keep his critical balance, something that a man with his capacity for enthusiasm does not always find easy.
Echoing the useful distinction he established in 1966 between documentary and self-expression, Szarkowski is able to divide Atget’s work up into the large number of photographs which are of historical interest and the smaller number in which the historical interest is somehow ignited into an aesthetic moment—in which, that is to say, the studium acquires a punctum. But the viewer who finds his attention not only attracted but delighted by some of these pictures will be hard-pressed to decide where the punctum is. Is it in the plough or the well, the overhanging tree or the doorway in the wall?
It soon becomes clear that the best of Atget’s photographs, while they are unlikely to hold your interest as long as paintings might do that are nominally of the same subject, nevertheless owe their aesthetic authority to much more than an isolated piquancy. They really do imply some kind of controlling artistic personality, however attenuated. The notion of punctum, while necessary and welcome, is too limited a critical criterion to be sufficient. On the other hand, Barthes’s other and larger notion, the one about the thereness of the past and the lost reality which rules out nostalgia, is underlined with full force. Leaving aside the soft tones of the albumen process, here is Old France looking close enough to touch and as irrecoverable as the Garden of Eden—an effect only increased by Atget’s reluctance to include human beings even when the exposure time would have allowed it.
On a smaller scale but still good to have, The Autochromes of J. H. Lartigue shows us an unfamiliar side of another indisputable artist—his work in colour. The autochrome process has the effect, when the prints are reproduced today, of making everything look like a pointillist painting. Since Lartigue’s sensibility was so like Seurat’s anyway, the echo effect is often uncanny, but in fact Lartigue was no more likely
It is a small book but makes a substantial supplement to his indispensable Diary of a Century, which chronicles his work in black and white and proves him to have been the first great lyrical celebrator of human beings at play. In black and white the relatively short exposure time enabled him to capture movement. In autochrome he couldn’t do that, but his joyous personality still comes bubbling through. He had an inexhaustible supply of pretty girl acquaintances trying out new scooters, dashing brothers who built flying machines, etc. Perhaps other photographers were similarly blessed, but Lartigue knew exactly what to include in the frame and when to press the button or squeeze the bulb. Highly endowed with a knack for what Cartier-Bresson was later to call the guess, Lartigue could see a punctum a mile off. He could see puncta in clusters. In other words, he had a self to express.
As time increases the total number of photographers and it becomes increasingly obvious that there is no room for all of them to express themselves, it may become permissible to suggest that documentary interest is a sufficiently respectable interest for a photographer’s work to have, and that if a photographer can go on getting good documentary results for a long time then he is artist enough. To have such a point conceded would make it easier to save some of the masterly but less than outstanding photographers of the past from an otherwise inevitable public revulsion against the indigestibly strident claims made for their seriousness.
The Photography of Max Yavno, for example, is a book well worth having. Yavno has been taking thoughtful photographs since the 1930s. Not all of them are as striking as his famous 1947 picture of the San Francisco cable car being swung on the turntable by its balletically swaying attendants. The picture adorns the jacket of this book, is superbly reproduced in a plate within and features in just about every anthology of photographs published in the last thirty years. It should be possible to allow a man a few such happily sought-out and taken chances without trying to find the same significance in the rest of his work, which the law of averages dictates will be more studium than punctum. Luckily, the mandatory prose-poem captions (once again it is hard to suppress a blasphemous twinge of regret that James Agee and Walker Evans ever got together) are largely offset by an appended interview with Yavno in which he reveals himself to be admirably, indeed monosyllabically, unpretentious. Except when generously reminiscing about his fellow veteran practitioners, he keeps things on the yep-nope level, Gary Cooper style.
Much the same applies to Feininger’s Chicago 1941, in which Andreas Feininger, in a lively introduction written forty years later, keeps his ego perhaps excessively within bounds. Forgetting to inform us that he was a Bauhaus-trained intellectual who personally invented the super-telephoto camera, Feininger gives humble thanks that he was obliged to view Chicago with the fresh eye of the displaced European. Here are parking elevators at a time when cars were just about to lose their running boards, Union and Dearborn Stations when the silver trains still ran, Lake Shore Drive before Mies van der Rohe built his apartments and the kind of skyscraper that Stalin copied and that now exists nowhere except in the Soviet Union. Feininger presents his lost city without any accompanying verbal elegies.
The Weston family tends to be less taciturn. Cole Weston: Eighteen Photographs enshrines the colour work of one of Edward Weston’s sons. Like Brett Weston, another son, Cole seems to have inherited from his father a deep sense of mission. As is recounted in Charis Wilson’s introduction to this volume, Edward Weston had Parkinson’s disease and young Cole had to help him work the camera. It’s like reading about Renoir père et fils—an apostolic succession. On the other hand it is not like that, since the painter and the filmmaker each had a separate, fully developed artistic vision which makes their blood kinship remarkable, whereas one suspects that for photography to run in the family is no more startling than for carpentry to run in the family, as a craft to be learned rather than an inner impulse to be bodied forth. Nonetheless, here are sumptuous colour prints of California surf, Nova Scotia fishing coves, Utah aspens and similar Americana. A close-up of rust on a water tank looks like abstract expressionism, showing that painting still has its pull despite all the disclaimers. Also a nude lady seen from the same angle as the Rokeby Venus reclines on an old stone staircase in Arizona. She looks exactly like a confession that the staircase would not be very interesting without her.
Cole and Brett Weston take you back to Edward Weston, to Paul Strand, to Minor White, to Ansel Adams—to every master photographer, in fact, who has ever gone out into the American landscape and tried to isolate a clean piece of nature within his metal frame. Some of the results are collected in American Photographers and the National Parks, edited by Robert Cahn and Robert Glenn Ketchum. The pictures are arranged chronologically, starting with a William Henry Jackson study of Yosemite Falls in 1898. Jackson got a terrific action shot, in colour, of the Yellowstone Great Geyser in 1902. Edward Weston’s Zabriskie Point picture of 1938 reminds you of just how good the old man was at waiting for the right shadows. The Ansel Adams pictures will be familiar to most readers but still stand out. They don’t stand out so far, though, as to convince you that subject matter is anything less than very important. Even for Adams, to pursue too closely the light patterns on a cactus was to court inanity. In Barthes’s terms, the referent adheres. If it doesn’t, you’ve got nothing.
Adams deserves our lasting respect for the reverent skill with which he photographed a mountain, even though a modern amateur with up-to-date equipment might fluke a picture not entirely risible by comparison. After all, Adams knew what he was doing, and could do it again. So could Paul Strand when taking pictures of clapboard houses. Nevertheless New England Reflections, 1882–1907 features, among other things, enough clapboard houses, photographed with more than enough verve, to set you wondering whether that particular form of architecture ever needed Paul Strand to bring out its full beauty. All the pictures were taken by the three Howes brothers, who formed themselves into a commercial outfit and toted their tripods around New England persuading people, obviously with profitable results, that great moments in life should be permanently recorded. The glass-plate negatives having miraculously survived to our own day, here is the permanent record. It is a fascinating little book which Richard Wilbur honours with a foreword that you might wish were longer, since Wilbur’s distinguished, visually fastidious sensibility is exactly what such material requires to give it a proper context. But Gerald McFarland provides a useful historical introduction and anyway the pictures are so rich themselves that you would be drowning in puncta even if you didn’t know where and when they came from.
All seems in order, even the home for the handicapped, whose inmates have formed up for a serene group shot as if Diane Arbus did not exist—which, of course, she as yet didn’t. Here is the irrecoverable past only a few inches away. Some of the buildings are still intact, so that inhabitants of New England who buy this book will be able to stand in the right spot and look through time. Paradoxically, the Howes brothers were just going about their everyday business, with not much thought of preserving a threatened heritage, whereas Atget, who had a Balzacian urge to register his epoch, saw much of what he photographed destroyed within his lifetime, and if he were to come back now would find almost nothing left.
If a photographer wants to express himself but fears that his personal view might be short on originality, originality of subject matter is one way out of the trap. The only drawback to this escape route is that the number of subjects, if not finite, is certainly coterminous with the known universe. Already most topics are starting to look used up. In Man as Art: New Guinea, Malcolm Kirk has persuaded an impressive number of New Guinea natives to pose in full warlike and/or ceremonial make-up and drag. Thus we are able to observe, in plate 74, that a We
Some of the pictures are stunning, or at least startling, but there is no denying that the natives have shown at least as much invention as the photographer, whose skill in lighting them and pressing the button can scarcely be compared to theirs in caking their skins with clay, inserting bones in their noses, and pulling on their grass skirts. Nor, more damagingly, is there any denying that we have already seen most of this in the National Geographic, albeit on a smaller scale. Much of the justification for these big picture books is that they give you big pictures, but there is also the consideration that what looks appropriately dramatic when bled to the edges of a full page in a magazine starts looking emptily pretentious when pumped up to folio size. Not only is it bigger than the negative, it’s bigger than the reality. In real life you would learn all you need to know about Nigel without going quite so close.
Still on the National Geographic beat, Rajasthan: India’s Enchanted Land comprises pictures by Raghubir Singh which suggest that its title might not be a complete misnomer, although for at least this viewer the puncta which are obviously meant to be bursting out of such a picture as “A Gujar Villager, Pushkar” remain defiantly quiescent. Far from being amazed that a man with a turban is wearing a watch and smoking a cigarette, I’d be amazed if he were not. More exciting, or less unexciting, is another shot in which all the village males, after a hard day’s work supervising the women, are rewarding themselves by sucking popsicles. There is a foreword by Satyajit Ray to remind us that for Indian artists of all kinds Rajasthan is a fairly resonant part of the subcontinent, but you can see how a foreign photographer with a reputation to make might want a more jazzy angle.
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