Cultural Cohesion, p.73Clive James
In Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, Mary Ellen Mark shows how this can be done. She moved in with the eponymous hookers, became part of the scenery and ended up by reaching such a level of acceptance that the girls and their clients allowed her to photograph them in flagrante. The results are unlikely to put you off sex, with which the activities in Falkland Road seem to have only a parodic connection, but they might well put you off India. The girls work in cubicles the size of packing crates and perform their ablutions in a bucket. Hepatitis hangs in the air like aerosol spray. For the alert customer the whole deal would be a bit of a downer even if Ms. Mark were not poised in the rafters busily snapping the action. The intrepid photographer contributes her own introduction, in which she spends a lot of time conveying her deep affection for the girls without ever raising the topic of whether she, too, might not be said to be drawing sustenance from the sad traffic, and in a much safer way. Still, Cartier-Bresson photographed whores in Mexico in 1934.
Already responsible for nine books, Ms. Mark was born in 1940 and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Susan Meiselas, author of Nicaragua, is a Sarah Lawrence graduate who does not give her age but can safely be adjudged even younger than Ms. Mark. Both women are getting well known fast, not because either of them is Gisèle Freund or Lotte Jacobi reborn but because they both know how to get in and get the story. Ms. Meiselas’s story is the Nicaraguan version of with-Fidel-in-the-Sierra, down to and including the berets, Che moustaches and .45 automatics triumphantly raised in adolescent fists. “Yet unlike most photographs of such material,” says an accompanying note from John Berger, “these refuse all the rhetoric normally associated with such pictures.” Not for the first time one wonders how Berger, inventor of the purportedly illuminating concept “ways of seeing,” actually does see. His eyes certainly work differently from mine, which find Ms. Meiselas’s every second picture laden with rhetoric. But despite more recent reports from Nicaragua, one concedes that the rhetoric might be, in this case, on the side of the angels. Nor can it be gainsaid that people calling on themselves to be courageous often behave rhetorically. Who looks natural when nerving himself for battle?
Photographs, according to Barthes, never entirely leave the world of words. In Visions of China Marc Riboud’s photographs taken between 1957 and 1980 constitute, even more than Eve Arnold’s recent volume on the same subject, a reminder that if we know nothing about the background we might well make a hash of interpreting the foreground. Orville Schell’s introduction makes much of Riboud’s supposed ability to see past the rhetoric to the reality beneath. Certainly Riboud got off the beaten track and managed to hint that not all was harmony, but it should not need saying—and yet it does—that he got nowhere near recording the full impact of the Cultural Revolution, which we were allowed to see nothing of in the form of pictures and have since had to hear about in the form of words. Most of these words were emitted between sobs, since those victims who survived are often unable to recall their sufferings with equanimity.
This fact should lend additional significance to such a photograph as plate 89, “Student Dancer, Shanghai, 1971.” It shows a radiantly happy girl being inspired by the mere presence of Mao’s little red book. But in this case the punctum, instead of crossing from the photograph to the viewer’s mind, travels in the other direction. Today’s viewer will have heard that the Chinese ballerinas were sent by Mrs. Mao to have their muscles ruined in the fields. The dancers were already suffering at the time when Shirley MacLaine, a dancer herself, was wondering, in her television documentary about China, why the Chinese looked so happy. The viewer haunted by these considerations is unlikely to look on Riboud’s photograph of a Chinese dancer as being anything more edifying than a pretty picture.
But where any pictures are hard to get, all pictures have some value, even if they seem to point in the wrong direction until interpreted. So it is with China and so it will probably always be with the Soviet Union. Vladimir Sichov’s The Russians deserves immediate notice, since the standard of photography in the Soviet Union is so blandly low that any attempt at realism looks like a sunburst. Sichov was born in 1945 and in 1979 was permitted to leave for the West. He brought 5,000 rolls of film out safely—his whole archive. The full effect is of a dowdiness so comprehensive that it becomes almost enthralling. Unfortunately Sichov seems to have concentrated on the routine dowdiness of old women in shapeless coats rather than the more interesting dowdiness of young ones in the latest fashions from GUM. The true visual squalor in the Soviet Union resides in what is thought to be chic, a fact which Sichov has subsequently had ample opportunity to realize, because he is nowadays an ace catwalk photographer for the Paris fashion shows, a task to which he brings the hungry eye of a man raised during a famine. Photographers brought up on a visual diet in which swimsuits look as if they have been cut out of motel shower curtains tend to be especially grateful for what Yves Saint-Laurent hangs on Jerry Hall.
William Klein makes America look almost as scruffy as Russia but in the case of his collection William Klein much of the flakiness is due to inky printing. Klein has issued a protest about how his publishers have treated him and if later copies look like my early copy then he is right. Some of the pictures look like action shots of a black cat in a coal bunker. In the ones you can see, however, puncta proliferate. The snap Barthes liked of the little boy with the toy gun to his head is here spread over two pages, making the bad teeth more attention-getting than ever. But most viewers will probably still take the gun, rather than the teeth, to be the main point. Mainly because he runs forward to involve himself instead of hanging back to be objective, Klein is very good at catching the vivid moment. There are also pictures taken in Italy, Russia and elsewhere, but really Manhattan, where he was born, is Klein’s precinct. He can see the casual calligraphic symmetry of window signs offering breaded veal cutlets for $1.05. So could every American urban photographer back to Weegee and beyond, but the thereness never fails to grip.
More involved even than Klein, more involved even than Hemingway, almost as involved as the soldiers themselves, Don McCullin gets his camera into the war. An Englishman, McCullin started by photographing his own country’s dark underside, but he was not alone. Covering Cyprus in 1964 he discovered his own bailiwick, up where the bullets were flying. Since then he has been in all the wars, most notably Vietnam, where his work was on a par with that of Philip Jones Griffiths. But his eye is not so spoiled by the adrenaline of action that it refrains from dwelling on the aftermath. Dead soldiers in every variety of contortion and civilians in every stage of starvation are duly recorded.
Scanning the worst of McCullin’s horrors, you find yourself wishing that Barthes were less right about the past really having been there. But anyone not capable of realizing that these things happen will not be much struck by the photographs anyway, so John le Carré’s introductory exhortations about McCullin’s mission to “appall the comfortable” are themselves somewhat cosy. It is a characteristic of the English intellectual middle class to believe that the mass of the public is uninstructed in the world’s grim realities and needs waking up. McCullin is too bravely independent to share so smug an attitude but it has helped make him famous—the most dazzling current example of the photographer singled out by subject.
Not many photographers would have the nerve to follow reality as far as McCullin does in search of their own territory, even supposing that there were any territory left. The alternative has always been to take the reality nearby and fiddle with it. By now I think it is becoming clear that for photographers abstraction and surrealism are a dry well, partly because, pace Galassi, painting always seems to exert at least as strong a pull on photography as photography does on painting. The moment the photographer starts treating the objects of experience symbolically, the referent ceases to adhere, and what he composes gravitates seemingly inexorably towards something already made familiar by the painters.
Herbert List: Photographs 1930–1970 coll
Most of List’s cleanly lit and composed surrealist confections flare to life only when they include a couple of strapping young men standing around in G-strings. Immediately you get interested in the life going on off camera. Stephen Spender evokes some of it in the introduction, which like everything he writes about the Germany of the time makes you sorry not to have been there. He is much better than Isherwood at giving you some idea of the mental excitement. Isherwood, even today, concentrates on the physical excitement.
Drawing on their memories, writers can pursue their own tastes into old age. For photographers it is not so easy. List gave up after the war, feeling that once he had explored the limits of his own technique he was through as an artist, always supposing he had ever been one. Some of the portraits are good enough to make you think he judged himself too harshly, but there is no getting away from the fact that even with them the interest resides at least partly in the identity of the sitter. It is Morandi, Cocteau, Chirico, Picasso, Montherlant, Auden and Somerset Maugham who lend List renown, and not vice versa.
Anyone who finds it hard wholly to admire List is going to make heavy weather of admiring Robert Rauschenberg. Robert Rauschenberg Photographs shows what he has been up to in a medium to which he is not new, since he started off as a photographer. Having achieved fame, and presumably fulfilment, as a painter, he has recently revisited his first passion.
Rauschenberg’s chief trick in any medium is to juxtapose ready-made images. I can remember wondering, when I saw his exhibition of paintings at the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End of London in the early 1960s, why he didn’t juxtapose them more tightly, suggestively—in a word, wittily. I liked what he was doing but didn’t think he took it any distance, and resented the suggestion, made on his behalf by eager commentators, that the grubby white space left in each of his large canvases was meant to give my own imagination room to work. My own imagination was already at work, wondering how much of Rauschenberg’s allegedly selective creativity was doodling.
All the same doubts go double here, where there are not even a few swipes of paint to indicate personal intervention. In plate 45 a Mona Lisa tea towel hangs over the back of a canvas chair which is also variously draped and decorated with discarded clothes and a folded newspaper. If you buy the theory that a pure response to the Mona Lisa is no longer possible, here is food for thought. But for anyone to whom the Mona Lisa is still the Mona Lisa whatever happens, the inevitable reaction is a fervent wish that Rauschenberg would paint his own pictures and leave Leonardo’s alone.
“So what?” is not necessarily a philistine reaction. Sometimes it is required for the preservation of sanity, especially when one is presented with the intentionally meaningless and told to find it meaningful. John Pfahl’s Altered Landscapes shows us how a competent photographer can beautifully photograph landscapes in the same way as any other equally competent photographer can beautifully photograph landscapes, but pick up extra, reputation-making acclaim by “altering” them, hence the title. A picture taken in Monument Valley includes a piece of red string squiggling along the ground, which enables it to be called “Monument Valley with Red String.” Some of the pictures generate a sufficient frisson to make record album covers. Rock groups with metaphysical proclivities often favour the sort of album covers in which a line of large coloured spheres marches across the Sahara: altered landscapes for altered states.
Sam Haskins, it hardly needs saying, is better than competent, especially when photographing pretty young girls, for whom he has a hawk eye. But Sam Haskins/Photo graphics reveals a desire to be something more than the kind of craftsman whose output the uninitiated might mistake for soft porn. The term “photo graphics” calls up Moholy-Nagy’s photograms. Think of a Moholy photogram, add colour, focus the composition on the exquisitely lit, plumply swelling pantie-cupped crotch of a young girl lying back thinking pure thoughts about a sky full of roses, and you’ve got a Haskins photo graphic. You have to take it on trust that the picture bears no relation to a hot paragraph by Terry Southern. This is a meticulously produced book by whose technical accomplishment Haskins’s fellow-photographers will no doubt be suitably cowed, but the sceptical viewer could be excused for wondering whether a picture of a rainbow shining out of a pretty girl’s behind might not be a more direct indication of the artist’s state of mind than the circumambient surrealist trappings.
With Bill Brandt: Nudes 1945–1980 we are in another, less ambiguous, part of the forest. The model and inspiration for the young British photographers of the 1960s, the one home-grown loner they could admire without reserve, Brandt dedicated his career to photographing Woman in a way that would resolve her sensual appeal into a formal design. Hiding the lady’s face and applying every device of elongation, distortion and convolution, he pushed the formal design towards the abstract. But it approached the abstract asymptotically, as if Brandt were aware that when the referent ceased to adhere the result would be not just no woman but no anything.
Brandt’s hermetic commitment cost him a great deal and won him deserved admiration. Looking at these pictures, even the most clueless viewer will sense himself in the presence of a rare concentration of thought and feeling. But it is still possible to say, I think, that in treating the human body as a sculptural form Brandt was unable to avoid the gravitational pull of sculpture itself. Warm bottoms become cold Brancusis. Hips turn into Arps. Finally, in his most recent phase, Brandt unexpectedly and shockingly starts to load his nudes down with ropes and chains, as if it were his new ambition to take a studio on Forty-second Street or set up in partnership with Helmut Newton. It looks like a despairing confession that whereas a painter can significantly change the woman in front of him and make her part of something more significant, a photographer can’t significantly change her without destroying her significance altogether. But with all that said, nobody should mistake this book for anything less than the work of a unique isolated master photographer.
In the long run the photographers who glorified women individually, rather than rendering them all symbolically impersonal, stood a better chance of being called artists. The Hollywood portrait photographers rarely thought of themselves as much more than craftsmen, but John Kobal’s essential book The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers has no doubt given the survivors a higher, and well-merited, estimation of themselves. Likewise assembled by Kobal from his unrivalled archive, Hollywood Color Portraits is the colour supplement to the black-and-white standard work. Less weighty than its predecessor, it is still well worth having. Not only was colour less adaptable than black and white to subtle lighting; it was also much harder to retouch, so in this book you see some of the stars as they really looked, right down to the enlarged pores and—in Burt Lancaster’s case—the five o’clock shadow of Nixonite tenacity.
Theories of the hunger towards realism suffer a setback when faced with this order of evidence. Black and white was the ideal, colour was the real, and the ideal looked realer. Bob Coburn’s colour picture of Rita Hayworth in 1948 is just a pretty girl. “Whitey” Schaefer’s 1941 black-and-white portrait of her is an angelic visitation. Yet surely the black and white is the more true to the way she was. Not many of us who are grateful for her talent can look at such a photograph without feeling the bitterness of the irrecoverable reality that Barthes talks about. There was a day when supreme personal beauty was impossible to capture fully and so could fade without its possessor being too forcibly r
For reasons of space and self-preservation I have had to leave many current books out of this survey. Nor are all the books I have included likely to prove essential in the long run. But A Century of Japanese Photography I can confidently recommend to any institution concerned with photography and to any person who can afford the price. Compiled in Japan and presented for Western consumption by John W. Dower, the book is a treasure city, a Kyoto of the printed image. Barthes would have been so shot through with puncta that he would have felt like Saint Sebastian, or Toshiro Mifune in the climactic scene of Throne of Blood. Peter Galassi will find his theory simultaneously borne out and borne away, since so much of Japanese painting led up to photography (what else did Hiroshige and Hokusai do with their winter landscapes but bleach out the inessential?) and so many of the Japanese master photographers are drawn back into the established pictorial tradition.
Since the Meiji restoration the Japanese have been photographing one another and the inhabitants of every country they have invaded. They seem rarely to have decapitated anyone without getting some carefully framed before-and-after shots. The level of violence in the book is made even more terrifying by the degree of delicacy. You feel that you are at a tea ceremony with Mishima and that he might behead you and disembowel himself at any moment and in either order.
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