Remember Life and Look magazine photos?  

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12/25/2005 5:53 pm

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3/5/2006 9:27 pm

Remember Life and Look magazine photos?


The Look of Truth

by PETER PLAGENS

[from the December 26, 2005 issue]

We're prone to ask serious art to do the impossible--to be beautiful, original, profound, informative and relevant to our everyday lives, all at the same time. With photography, we up the ante to include something called "truth." That is, while painters create their images stroke by stroke, photographers select a chunk of the visible world and document it via a machine whose capacity for objectivity far surpasses the painter's hand. With almost any photograph, the operative assumption is that what we're seeing did, in fact, exist in front of the lens at the moment the shutter was snapped. (That's why pornographic or courtroom photographs are so much more galvanizing than drawings of sexual couplings or murder trials.)

Edward Weston said that a photograph is "not an interpretation, a biased opinion of what nature should be, but a revelation--an absolute, impersonal recognition of the significance of facts." Bill Brandt went even further, arguing that photographic portraits should contain, he thought, "a profound likeness, which physically and morally predicts the subject's entire future." To Brandt, photography's power to tell the truth is apparently so great it can in social effect overturn Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which says that we cannot know both the position and velocity of subatomic particles and therefore cannot predict the future nanomillisecond's "snapshot" of it.

Not long after the invention of photography circa 1835 (the exact date and individual inventor credit are still up for grabs), Gustave Le Gray printed one photograph from two negatives--the second taken at a different exposure to make the sky look better. About a century later O. Winston Link tweaked his famous plane-train-and-automobiles drive-in-movie photograph by using a separate negative of the same scene to get a sufficiently clear image of an airplane onto the drive-in's screen. In the intervening years, an untold number of photographers created an untold number of deliberately untruthful photographs, via multiple negatives, darkroom high jinks and retouching. Today, digital cameras forgo continuous-tone film and produce their pictures directly in electronic dots called pixels. (Indeed, every photograph you see in a newspaper, magazine or book has been translated into an array of tiny ink dots very similar to pixels.) Since readily available computer programs such as Photoshop manipulate pixels with the same license for fiction enjoyed by painters, photography's claim to any inherent "truth" has just about flown the coop.

But the fictive possibilities of photography have been present from the birth of the medium. Distortions of truth occur not only mechanically (in lens, shutter speed and aperture) and in printing (choice of chemicals and paper, time in the "bath" and the photographer's taste for darkness and fuzziness) but are integral to the very idea of photographers being stylistically different from one another. In other words, you can't have artistically original photographers without giving up, to some extent, the idea that photographs tell the truth. Dorothea Lange asserted that every photograph is a self-portrait of the photographer. Her photograph of a Dust Bowl émigré to California is better than yours or mine would have been--even if we'd taken it at the same instant, with the same camera and film, from the same position--because her "self-portrait" as a photographer is a hell of a lot richer than ours. Even when a photographer's work exudes a "this is simply the way it is" quality, it still exudes biography. To take an example all the more relevant for its being offered in jest, "[William] Eggleston's photographs look like they were taken by a Martian who lost the ticket for his flight home and ended up working at a gun shop in a small town near Memphis."

That observation about Eggleston comes from The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer's contribution to what I'd call "musing" books about photography. It's a genre that blends history, biography, pictorial analysis, connoisseurship and a lot of chin-stroking; its best-known exemplars are Susan Sontag's On Photography and Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida. Dyer is a 47-year-old British polymath who, The New Yorker has said, would be "Slacker Laureate" were he not so prolific--ten books of fiction, travel writing and criticism since 1986. Here he ruminates on the nature of photography by following two intertwining paths: particular photographers (dealt with roughly chronologically) and particular photographic subjects. While gliding smoothly from Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz to Walker Evans and Edward Weston, and then on to contemporary war photographer James Nachtwey, Dyer simultaneously moves from (I've reordered them slightly here) doors to stairs, unmade beds to windows, open roads to signs, people lost in thought to hats and finally to barbershops. Such subjects seem to lend themselves to photography the way that guys stranded on desert islands or flying, 86-ed, out of bars lend themselves to gag cartoons.

Dyer's book is "writerly" in a generally good sense--cleverly fluid without being showy--and some of his paragraphs are concise marvels of observation. After pondering Lange's picture of homeless men sleeping on the pavement in San Francisco's skid row in 1934, and just before a disquisition on her 1937 photograph of an Oklahoma sheriff kickin' back on a sidewalk chair, Dyer writes:

The kerb is the lowest form of step which, in turn, is a rudimentary kind of chair--and all chairs bend over backwards to become rocking chairs. The rocking chair is the throne of the Republic, symbol of leisure (whether achieved or inherited), of what John Berger, in another context, terms "sedentary power."

From stairs to chairs, and on to leisure and class consciousness, with an erudite tip o' the hat to a great social art critic--all in fifty-three words. At times, Dyer's insights are truly profound:

In the work for which they are best known Strand, Evans, [Robert] Frank, [Henri] Cartier-Bresson, Lange and Weston saw and photographed the world in black-and-white. In their different ways each took a dim view of photographers who saw the world in black-and-white but photographed it in colour (in Strand's terms, dyed it). Then came people like Eggleston, [Joel] Meyerowitz and [Stephen] Shore who saw the world and photographed it in colour. [Jack] Leigh, on the other hand, is that rare phenomenon: a photographer who sees the world in colour but records his vision in black-and-white.

Of course, Dyer doesn't explain exactly what he means by presumably noncolorblind photographers "seeing" in black and white. We can assume, I think, that it's something like an elevated version of a pickpocket's "seeing" people in terms of potential victims. The pickpocket willingly blinds himself to extraneous phenomena until he spots an accessible wallet. The photographer searches similarly for the makings of a nice black-and-white photograph.

Dyer's flair for transitions, which rhetorically propel his book, is also remarkable. The sentence "The American windshield has been thoroughly Anglicized and turned into a windscreen" takes him from photographs of the open road to pictures of drive-in movies, and then to that contemporary Japanese photographer of blank American movie screens, Hiroshi Sugimoto ("Walker Evans [perceives] 'the cruel radiance of what is.' Sugimoto perceives the soothing radiance of what is not"). At this point, Dyer equates Sugimoto's empty cinema screens with the empty white skies infesting mid-nineteenth-century long-exposure photographs and segues nicely into the story of Le Gray's two-negative solution to that problem.

The Ongoing Moment has its share of problems, however. Take Georgia O'Keeffe's pussy. I'm not kidding: "her pubic hair [in a particular print of a 1921 Stieglitz photograph of his lover] looks like pubic hair, not shadow, and in the midst of it we can just make out the impression of her pussy." Now, I don't object to the P-word in principle (I've been known to use the related, only marginally less chauvinist term "wuss" in conversation), and I can see the Hobson's choice of using "vagina" or "labia" or the totally unacceptable "cunt." (Yes, it's horribly unfair that the designators of male equipment--"cock," "dick" and even "penis"--all have an automatic whiff of the heroic about them.) But Dyer and his editors should have figured out a better way to treat our most prominent twentieth-century American woman painter in a book that's going to hang around library shelves a lot longer than this review.

Dyer's questionable taste crops up in more than his writing about sex--although The Ongoing Moment provides you with more than you probably care to know about Stieglitz's horny pictures of O'Keeffe, his subsequent squeeze Dorothy Norman and Paul Strand's unchaperoned wife, Rebecca, not to mention Weston's photographs of his innamorata Charis. There's a fair gap in quality between the textbook-sanctioned icons (Strand, Stieglitz, Evans, Weston, et al.) to whom Dyer devotes most of his book and the more contemporary photographers he includes. Perhaps their work makes better grist for his essayist's mill, but it is remarkable that The Ongoing Moment includes no Mary Ellen Mark, Leland Rice, William Klein, Susan Meiselas, Richard Billingham or Craigie Horsfield--to name just a few relevant but omitted Americans and Brits.

In fact, Dyer's lack of visual (as opposed to forensic or psychological) acuity occasionally abuts philistinism. Ben Shahn, he says, "took at least three pictures of the [blind] accordionist (all more effective than the rather childish painting he derived from them almost twenty years later)." Childish? Say what you want about Shahn's Cubism lite in the service of Popular Front politics--his painting is anything but "childish." What Dyer substitutes for a genuinely good eye is a minor ability to spot possible attribution difficulties owing to crossovers of style: "Were it not for the fact that it was actually taken by Lange this picture could have easily found a place in [Robert Frank's] The Americans." Or he notices that several photographers--quelle surprise!--avail themselves of a similar standard subject: "A quick glance in the rear-view: Lange takes a picture of the open road; Frank takes an almost identical picture at night; Winogrand takes several through the windshield of his car.... In an undated photograph, [Michael] Ormerod peers at the road through a rain-spotted windshield in twilight." OK, but so what?

For me, things come to a philosophical head with Dyer's discussion of Evans's photograph "The Breakfast Room, Belle Grove Plantation, White Chapel, Louisiana," taken in 1935:

The room is quite empty, as if the picture had been taken with an exposure so long that everything except the building itself--not just people, but chairs, furnishings, carpets--had been disappeared. What was said of Sugimoto also holds good for Evans: time passes through his camera. This is why it seems almost inconceivable that a picture like this could ever be taken with a digital camera. The house took a long time to get into this state and, as far as possible, a photograph of it needs to partake of a similar process and duration.

On the plus side, here we have an apt example of one of the several meanings of Dyer's take on the nature of photography. An ongoing process of post-Civil War neglect, weathering and decay had brought this once proud house to its moment in front of Evans's camera. The moment of its being photographed, of course, had its own duration--a few seconds, maybe half a second, perhaps just a tenth--as well as the subsequent hours of darkroom labor required to release the image from the film and fix it on paper. Finally, the photographed moment lives on (i.e., endures, is "ongoing") in the photographer's flat files, on the gallery wall, in the museum's vault and on the pages of books like Dyer's.

But why, suddenly, this inveighing against the digital camera? Awhile back, I asked New York photographer Jeff Sturges--who also takes precise, fairly long-exposure photographs of architecture (albeit Alphaville-like office buildings instead of moldering plantations)--if a digital camera could yield large, gallery-quality prints as good as he got from film. "Sure," he said, "but the camera would cost me about $30,000." (He noted that the ferocious price wouldn't be prohibitive to a busy commercial photographer, who'd otherwise likely go through that much worth of film in six months.) It is, in fact, entirely conceivable that such a picture could "ever be taken" ("ever" supposedly gainsaying permanently any adequate technological advance) with a digital camera. Dyer's observation reflects little more than a fetish for film similar to an audiophile's for the "warm" sound allegedly obtainable only with vacuum tubes and a turntable.

Even more risible is his contention that the duration of the house's descent from mint condition necessitates a parallel slow shutter speed. Suppose the passive abuse of Belle Grove lasted seventy years and Evans's shutter speed was five seconds. Does that mean a photograph of the Pyramids should require a five-minute exposure, or one of the Grand Canyon--how long did it take the Colorado River to groove that baby, anyway?--five months? Yes, I'm being literal to the point of absurdity, but only to indicate what Mandingo-like romanticism Dyer is peddling about an Old South gone, alas, forever. He says that "a photograph of it needs to partake of a similar process and duration," as if something crucial would be lost without it, as if we're supposed to ignore the fact that his own Exhibit A on page 228 of The Ongoing Moment has, in fact, been translated into the halftone-printing equivalent of pixels.

The final photograph reproduced in Dyer's book is by Regina Fleming (whose name unaccountably fails to appear in the appendix, "Chronological list of photographers whose work is discussed in the text"). It's a three-quarter-length portrait of a black man named (his shirt tells us) Monty, who works (the shirt again) for a company called Reliance. Monty fills most of the frame. The leftover space contains a bit of blurry urban background--tall buildings, a passing SUV or truck, a few people on a street corner. Monty holds a paper coffee cup in his right hand. Around his neck hangs a homemade sign, a circle about a foot in diameter, reading AFTER DEATH WHAT?? The photograph, the caption tells us, was taken in New York on September 11, 2001. A little less than halfway into the book, Dyer writes, "The value of a life cannot be assessed chronologically, sequentially. If that were the case then the only bit that matters--like the closing instants of a race--would be how you felt in the seconds before your death. (This is one of the questions posed by photographer Joel Sternfeld--'Is what we are at the end ultimately what we are?'--in his book On This Site.)"

I get the connection already, I get it. But even with my modest artist's education, I know that Dyer's entire-life versus coda-only question has other, much older and stronger precedents than Sternfeld's coming up with the question. (I've been told that the ancient Greeks and the Catholic church wrestled with this very puzzlement.) And even without my modest artist's education, I know that death does indeed throw a monkey wrench into the whole "ongoing" versus "moment" business. It's just another one of those matters where photographs are perhaps the last things you should rely on for truth.

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