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Freak Show

Walker Evans

introduction by John Szarkowski
Museum of Modern Art, 189, 100 plates pp., $7.95 (paper)

Diane Arbus

edited and designed by Doon Arbus, by Marvin Israel
Aperture Monograph, 192, 80 illustrations pp., $9.50 (paper)

Walt Whitman tried to see beyond the difference between beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality. It seemed to him servile or snobbish to make any discriminations of value, except the most generous ones. Great claims were made for candor by our boldest, most delirious prophet of cultural revolution. Nobody would fret about beauty and ugliness, he implied, who accepted a sufficiently large embrace of the real, of the inclusiveness and vitality of actual American experience. All facts, even mean ones, are incandescent in Whitman’s America—that ideal space, made real by history, where “as they emit themselves facts are showered with light.”

The Great American Cultural Revolution heralded in the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) didn’t break out, which has disappointed many but surprised none. One great poet alone cannot change the moral weather; even when the poet has millions of Red Guards at his disposal, it is not easy. Like every seer of cultural revolution, Whitman thought he discerned art already being overtaken, and demystified, by reality. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” But when no cultural revolution took place, and the greatest of poems seemed less great in days of Empire than it had under the Republic, only other artists took seriously Whitman’s program of populist transcendence, of the democratic transvaluation of beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality. Far from having been themselves demystified by reality, the American arts—notably photography—now aspired to do the demystifying.

In photography’s early decades, photographs were expected to be idealized images. This is still the aim of most amateur photographers, for whom a beautiful photograph is a photograph of something beautiful, like a woman, a sunset. In 1915 Edward Steichen photographed a milk bottle on a tenement fire escape, an early example of a quite different idea of the beautiful photograph. And since the 1920s ambitious professionals, those whose work gets into museums, have steadily drifted away from lyrical subjects, conscientiously exploring plain, tawdry, or even ugly material. In recent decades, photography has succeeded in somewhat revising, for everybody, the definitions of what is beautiful and ugly—along the lines that Whitman had proposed. If (in Whitman’s words) “each precise object or condition or combination or process exhibits a beauty,” it becomes superficial to single out some things as beautiful and others as not. If “all that a person does or thinks is of consequence,” it becomes arbitrary to treat some moments in life as important and most as trivial.

To photograph is to confer importance. While there are subjects that cannot be beautified, there is no way to suppress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects. But the meaning of value itself can be changed—as it has been in the contemporary culture of the photographic image which is a parody of Whitman’s evangel. In the mansions of pre-democratic culture, someone who gets photographed is a celebrity. In the open fields of American experience, as catalogued with passion by Whitman and as sized up with a shrug by Warhol, everybody is a celebrity. No moment is more important than any other moment; no person is more interesting than any other person.

The epigraph for the superb book of Walker Evans’s photographs is a passage from Whitman that sounds the theme of American photography’s most prestigious quest:

I do not doubt but the majesty & beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world…. I do not doubt there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, slaves, dwarfs, weeds, rejected refuse, than I have supposed….

Whitman thought he was not abolishing beauty but generalizing it. So, for generations, did the most gifted American photographers, in their democratizing pursuit of the trivial and the vulgar. But among American photographers who have matured since World War II, the Whitmanesque mandate to record in its entirety the extravagant candors of actual American experience has gone sour. In photographing dwarfs you don’t get majesty & beauty. You get dwarfs.

Starting from the attic gallery-workroom Alfred Stieglitz ran for thirteen years (1905-1917) at 291 Fifth Avenue (first called the Photo-Secession Gallery, later simply “291”), the most ambitious forum of Whitmanesque judgments, American photography has moved from affirmation to erosion to, finally, a parody of Whitman’s program. In this history the most edifying figure is Walker Evans, who, if not the greatest American photographer, was surely the greatest photographer of America.1 Evans is the last great photographer to work seriously and assuredly in a mood deriving from Whitman’s euphoric humanism, summing up what had gone before, anticipating much of the cooler, ruder, bleaker photography that has been done since. (For example, the prescient series of “secret” photographs of anonymous New York subway riders that Evans did between 1938 and 1941.) But Evans broke with the heroic mode. He found Stieglitz’s work arty.

Like Whitman, Stieglitz saw no contradiction between making art an instrument of identification with the community and aggrandizing the artist as a heroic, romantic, self-expressing ego. Paul Rosenfeld praised him in his florid, brilliant book of essays, Port of New York (1924): “Alfred Stieglitz is of the company of the great affirmers of life. There is no matter in all the world so homely, trite, and humble that through it this man of the black box and chemical bath cannot express himself entire.” Photographing, and therefore redeeming, the homely, trite, and humble is also an ingenious means of individual self-expression.

The photographer,” Rosenfeld writes of Stieglitz, “has cast the artist’s net wider into the material world than any man before him or alongside him.” Photography is a kind of overstatement, a heroic copulation with the material world. Evans sought a more impersonal kind of affirmation, a heroic reticence, a lucid understatement. Neither in the impersonal architectural still lifes of American facades and inventories of rooms that Evans loved to make nor in the moving portraits of Southern sharecroppers he took in the late 1930s (which became the book with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) was Evans trying to express himself.

Even without the heroic inflection, Evans’s project still descends from Whitman’s: the leveling of discriminations between the beautiful and the ugly, the important and the trivial. Each thing or person photographed becomes—a photograph; and becomes, therefore, morally equivalent to any other photograph. Evans’s camera brought out the same formal beauty in the exteriors of Victorian houses in Boston in the early 1930s as in the store buildings on main streets in Alabama towns in 1936. But this was a leveling up, not down. Evans wanted his photographs to be “literate, authoritative, transcendent.” The moral universe of the 1930s being no longer ours, these adjectives are barely credible today.

Whitman preached empathy, concord in discord, oneness in diversity. Psychic intercourse with everything, everybody—plus sensual union (when he could get it)—is the giddy trip that is proposed explicitly, over and over and over, in the prefaces and the poems. This longing to proposition the whole world also dictated his poetry’s form and tone. Whitman’s poems are a psychic technology to chant the reader into a new state of being (a microcosm of the “new order” envisaged for the polity); they are functional as mantras, ways of transmitting charges of energy. The repetition, the bombastic cadence, the run-on lines, and the pushy diction are a rush of secular afflatus, meant to get readers psychically airborne, to boost them up to that height where they can identify with the past and with the community of American desire. But this message of identification with other Americans is foreign to our temperament now.

The last sigh of the Whitmanesque erotic embrace of the nation, but universalized and stripped of all demands, was heard in the “Family of Man” exhibit organized in 1955 by Edward Steichen, Stieglitz’s contemporary, and cofounder of Photo-Secession. Five hundred and three photographs by two hundred and seventy-three photographers from sixty-eight countries were supposed to converge—to prove that humanity is “one” and that human beings, for all their flaws, are attractive creatures. The people in the photographs were of all races, ages, classes, physical types. Many of them had exceptionally beautiful bodies; some had beautiful faces. As Whitman urged the readers of his poems to identify with him and with America, Steichen set up the show to make it possible for each viewer to identify with a great many people depicted and potentially with the subject of every photograph: citizens of World Photography all.

It was not until seventeen years later that photography again attracted such crowds at the Museum of Modern Art: for the retrospective of Diane Arbus’s work that was shown between November, 1972, and February, 1973. In the Arbus show, a hundred and twelve photographs all taken by one person and all similar—that is, everyone in them looks (in some sense) the same—impose a feeling exactly contrary to the reassuring warmth of Steichen’s material. Instead of people whose appearance pleases, representative folk doing their human thing, the Arbus show lines up assorted monsters and border-line cases—most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothes; in dismal or barren surroundings—who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not “one.”

The Arbus photographs convey the anti-humanist message which people of good will in the 1970s are eager to be troubled by, just as they wished, in the 1950s, to be consoled and distracted by a sentimental humanism. There’s not as much difference between these messages as one might suppose. The Steichen show was an up and the Arbus show was a down, but either experience serves equally well to rule out a historical understanding of reality.

Steichen’s choice of photographs assumes a “human condition” or a “human nature” shared by everybody. By purporting to show that human beings are born, work, laugh, and die everywhere in the same way, the “Family of Man” systematically denies the determining weight of history—of genuine and historically embedded differences, injustices, and conflicts. Arbus’s photographs suggest a world in which everybody is an alien—hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities and relationships. But both the pious uplift of Steichen’s photograph anthology and the cool horror of the Arbus retrospective render history and politics irrelevant. One does so by universalizing the human condition, into joy; the other by atomizing it, into horror.

Diane Arbus’s photographs are a good place to examine more closely this recent and widespread turn of the American sensibility downward—into a pessimism that, at the turn of the century, would have been routinely labeled as decadent, but which now is hailed as simply tough-minded. Professional and successful as a fashion photographer since her late teens, Arbus began doing serious photography only around 1958 when she was thirty-seven, and died in 1971; about a decade of work is represented in the Museum show and the book. Only three of the 112 photographs in the retrospective are landscapes: either dead, or, literally, fake. The rest are portraits, most of them of a single person or some kind of couple; and all the people are grotesques.

  1. 1

    I suppose that Paul Strand is the greatest American photographer, as D. W. Griffith (alas!) is our greatest film director. Strand is simply the biggest, widest, most commanding talent in the history of American photography.

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