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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, by 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, by Nancy Wood
New York Graphic Society, 208 pp., $17.50

As They Were

by Tuli Kupferberg, by 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 likely to be.

Surrealism has always courted accidents, welcomed the uninvited, flattered disorderly presences. What could be more surreal than an object which virtually produces itself, and with a minimum of effort? An object whose beauty, fantastic disclosures, power to be moving, are likely to be further enhanced by any accidents that might befall it? It is photography that has best shown how to juxtapose the sewing machine and the umbrella, whose fortuitous encounter a great Surrealist poet hailed as the essence of beauty.

Unlike the fine art objects of predemocratic eras, photographs don’t seem to be deeply beholden to the intentions of an “artist.” Rather, they owe their existence to a loose cooperation (quasi-magical, quasi-accidental) between photographer and subject—mediated by an ever simpler and more automated machine, which is tireless, and which even when capricious can produce a result that is interesting and never entirely wrong. (The sales pitch for the first Kodak, in 1888, was “You press the button, we do the rest.” The purchaser was guaranteed that the picture would be absolutely “without any mistake.”) In the fairy tale of photography the magic box insures veracity and banishes error, compensates for inexperience and rewards innocence.

The myth is tenderly parodied in a 1928 silent film, The Cameraman, which has an inept dreamy Buster Keaton vainly struggling with his dilapidated apparatus, knocking out windows and doors whenever he picks up his tripod, never managing to take one decent picture, yet finally getting some great footage (a photojournalist scoop of a Tong War in New York City’s Chinatown)—by inadvertence. The hero’s pet monkey actually loads the camera with film and operates it part of the time.

The error of the Surrealist militants was to imagine the surreal as universal, that is, a matter of psychology, when it turns out to be what is most local, ethnic, class-bound, dated. Thus the earliest surreal photographs come from the 1850s, when photographers first went out prowling the streets of London, Paris, and New York, looking for their unposed slice of life. These photographs, concrete, particular, anecdotal (except that the anecdote has been effaced)—slices of lost time, of vanished customs—seem far more surreal to us now than any photograph rendered abstract and “poetic” by superimposition, underprinting, solarization, and the like. Believing that the images they sought came from the unconscious, whose contents they assumed, as loyal Freudians, to be timeless as well as universal, the Surrealists misunderstood what was most brutally moving, irrational, unassimilable, mysterious—time itself. What renders a photograph surreal is its irrefutable pathos as a message from time past, and its class realism.

As an artistic politics, Surrealism opts for the underdog, for the rights of a disestablished or unofficial reality. But the scandals flattered by Surrealist aesthetics generally turned out to be just those homely mysteries obscured by the bourgeois social order: sex and poverty. And eros, which the early Surrealists put at the center of the tabooed reality they sought to rehabilitate, was itself a class mystery. While it seemed to flourish luxuriantly at extreme ends of the social scale, both the lower classes and the nobility being regarded as naturally libertine, middle-class people had to toil to make their sexual revolution. Class was the deepest mystery: the inexhaustible glamour of the rich and powerful, the opaque degradation of the poor and outcast.

A view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera has informed photography from the beginning, and makes the confluence of the Surrealist counterculture and middle-class social adventurism. Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and lower depths. Documentarists (as distinct from courtiers) prefer the latter. For more than a century photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance on scenes of violence—with a spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them.

To return to The Cameraman: a Tong War among poor Chinese is an ideal subject. It is completely exotic, therefore worth photographing. Part of what makes the hero’s film so successful is that he doesn’t understand his subject at all. (As played by Buster Keaton, he doesn’t appear even to understand that his life is in danger.) The perennial surreal subject is How the Other Half Lives—to cite the innocently explicit title that Jacob Riis gave to the book of photographs of the New York poor that he brought out in 1890. Photography conceived as social documentation was an instrument of that essentially middle-class attitude, both committed and merely tolerant, both curious and indifferent, called “humanism,” which found slums the most enthralling of decors. Contemporary photographers have, of course, learned to dig in and limit their subjects. Instead of the chutzpah of “the other half,” we now get, say, East 100th Street, Bruce Davidson’s book of photographs published in 1970. The justification is still the same, that photographing serves a high purpose: uncovering a hidden truth, conserving a vanishing past.

Starting as artists of the urban sensibility, photographers quickly became aware that nature is as exotic as the city, rural folk as “picturesque” as city slum dwellers. But the camera remained a tool of class condescension. In 1897 Sir Benjamin Stone, MP from Birmingham, founded the National Photographic Record Association with the aim of documenting traditional English ceremonies and festivals which were slowly dying out. The camera represented the gaze of a titled gentleman upon the rural poor. It took the social immobility of a photographer of genius who happened to be a small child—Jacques Henri Lartigue—to confine someone to capturing the exotic habits of his own family and class. But the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.

Perhaps the earliest model of the sustained look downward is the thirty-six photographs taken by the British traveler and photographer John Thomson and published as Street Life in London (1877-78). But for each photographer specializing in the poor, many more go after a wider range of exotic reality. Thomson himself had an exemplary career of this kind. Before surveying the poor of his own country he had already been to see the heathen, after which he brought out his Illustrations of China and Its People in four volumes (1873-74). And following his book on the street life of the London poor, he turned to the indoor life of the London rich and pioneered (around 1880) at-home portraits of celebrities.

From the beginning, professional photography typically meant the broader kind of class tourism, with most photographers combining the social trip downward with portraits of celebrities or high fashion or advertising or studies of the nude. Many of the richest photographic careers of this century (like those of Edward Steichen, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon) proceed by sharp jumps up and down the social level and ethical importance of subject matter. Probably the most dramatic break is that between the prewar and postwar work of Bill Brandt. To have gone from the splendid photographs of industrial squalor assembled in The English at Home (1936) to his superb celebrity portraits and nudes of the last decades seems a long journey indeed. But there is nothing particularly idiosyncratic, or perhaps even inconsistent, in these swings. Traveling between “degraded” and “glamorous” reality is part of the very momentum of the photographic enterprise, unless the photographer is locked into some extremely private obsessions (like the thing Lewis Carroll had for little girls or Diane Arbus had for the Halloween crowd).

Poverty is no more surreal than wealth; a body wearing filthy rags is not more surreal than a principessa in ball dress or a clean nude. What is surreal is the distance imposed by the photograph: the social distance and the distance in time. From the middle-class perspective of photography, celebrities are as exotic as pariahs. Photographers need not have an ironic, intelligent attitude toward their stereotyped material. Pious, respectful fascination may do just as well, even or especially with the most conventional subjects.

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