Shooting America

"Fotografa di un'Epoca: Ghitta Carell"

Special issue of Skema Anno V, Numero 8/9
65 pp., 1,500 lire

Men Without Masks: Faces of Germany 1910-1938

by August Sander, with an introduction by Golo Mann
New York Graphic Society, 314 pp., $27.50

Dwellers at the Source: Southwestern Indian Photographs of A. C. Vroman, 1895-1904

by William Webb and Robert A. Weinstein
Grossman, 226 pp., $25.00

In This Proud Land: America 1935-1943 As Seen in the Farm Security Administration Photographs

by Roy Emerson Stryker and Nancy Wood
New York Graphic Society, 208 pp., $17.50

As They Were

by Tuli Kupferberg and Sylvia Topp
Links Books, 160 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Down Home

by Bob Adelman, text edited by Susan Hall
McGraw-Hill, 168 pp., $16.95

Wisconsin Death Trip

by Michael Lesy, with a preface by Warren Susman
Pantheon Books, 264 pp., $5.95 (paper)


Photography has the unappealing reputation of being the most realistic of the mimetic arts. In fact, it is the one art that has managed to carry out the grandiose, century-old threats of a Surrealist takeover of the modern sensibility—while most of the pedigreed candidates have dropped out of the race.

In painting, the Surrealists were handicapped from the start by practicing a fine art, with each object a unique, handmade “original.” A further liability was the exceptional technical virtuosity of those painters usually included in the Surrealist canon, who seldom imagined the canvas as other than figurative. Their paintings looked sleekly calculated, complacently well made. They kept a long, prudent distance from Surrealism’s contentious idea of blurring the lines between art and so-called life, between objects and events, between the intended and the unintentional, between pros and amateurs, between the noble and the tawdry, between craftsmanship and lucky blunders.

In painting, therefore, Surrealism amounted to little more than the “contents” of a meagerly stocked dream world: a few witty dreams, mostly wet dreams and agoraphobic nightmares. (Only when its libertarian rhetoric helped to nudge Pollock and others into a new kind of irreverent abstraction did the Surrealist mandate for painters finally seem to make wide creative sense.) Poetry, the other art to which the early Surrealists were particularly devoted, has yielded almost equally disappointing results. The arts where Surrealism has come into its own are prose fiction (only as a “content,” but a much more immoderate and more complex one than that depicted in painting), theater, the arts of assemblage, and—most triumphantly—photography.

That photography is the only art that is natively surreal by no means identifies it with the destinies of the official Surrealist movement. On the contrary. Those photographers (many of them former painters) consciously influenced by Surrealism count almost as little today as the nineteenth-century photographers who copied the look of Beaux-Arts painting. Even the loveliest trouvailles of the 1920s—solarized photographs and Rayographs of Man Ray, the multiple exposure studies of Bragagliå, the photomontages of John Heartfield and Alexander Rodchenko—are regarded as marginal exploits in the history of photography. The photographers who interfered with the supposedly superficial “realism” of photographs were those who most narrowly conveyed the surreal properties of photography.

Surrealist photography became trivial as Surrealist fantasies devolved into a repertoire of images and props which was rapidly absorbed into high fashion. In the 1930s Surrealist photography was mainly a neo-mannerist style of portrait photography, recognizable by its use of the same decorative conventions introduced by Surrealism in other arts, particularly painting, theater, and advertising. The mainstream of photographic activity has shown that Surrealist distortion and theatrics are unnecessary, if not actually redundant. Surrealism lay at the heart of the photographic enterprise itself: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision. The less doctored, the less patently crafted, the more naïve—the more surreal the photograph was…

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