Photography and Society
Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography
The Eloquent Light
Time in New England
Brett Weston: Photographs from Five Decades
Harry Callahan: Color
Moholy-Nagy: Photographs and Photograms
Eye for Elegance Company
The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers, 1925-1940
Mrs. David Bailey
Special Collection 24 Photo Lithos
Women on Women: Twelve Photographic Portfolios
42nd Street Studio
The Best of Photojournalism, 5: People, Places, and Events of 1979
Photographs for the Tsar: The Pioneering Color Photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, Commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II
Across the Rhine
Dialogue with Photography
Photography in the Twentieth Century
Fox-Talbot and the Invention of Photography
The very first book illustrated with photographs, William Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844), carried as an epigraph a quotation from Virgil. Talbot, who was a learned classicist as well as a chemist clever enough to invent photography, enlisted Virgil’s aid in declaring how sweet it was to cross a mountain ridge unblemished by the wheel-ruts of previous visitors, and thence descend the gentle slope to Castalia—a rural paradise complete with well-tended olive groves. The gentle slope turned out to be a precipice and Castalia is buried miles deep under photographs. A subsidiary avalanche, composed of books about photographs, is even now descending. In this brief survey I have selected with some rigor from the recent output, which has filled my office and chased me downstairs into the kitchen.
In her book On Photography (1977) Susan Sontag darkly warned the world that images are out to consume it. Books about images are presumably also in on the feast. Hers remains the best theoretical work to date, although competitors are appearing with startling frequency. Gisèle Freund’s Photography and Society, now finally available in English, is half historical survey, half theoretical analysis. Her own experience as a celebrated photographer has obviously helped anchor speculation to reality. When the argument takes off, it takes off into a comfortingly recognizable brand of historical determinism. Thus it is made clear how the early portrait photographers served the needs of the bourgeoisie and wiped out the miniaturists who had done the same job for the aristocracy: hence the collapse of taste. Baudelaire, who hated the bourgeoisie, consequently hated photography too. These reflections come in handy when you are looking at the famous photograph of Baudelaire by Nadar. That baleful look must spring from resentment. Sontag, makes greater play with such historical cruxes but Freund gives you more of the facts.
Janet Malcolm, the New Yorker‘s photography critic, has produced a worthwhile compilation of her essays. She thinks “discomfit” means “make uncomfortable,” but such lapses are rare. More high-flown than Freund, although less self-intoxicatingly so than Sontag, Malcolm is an excellent critic between gusts of aesthetic speculation. Diana and Nikon is grandly subtitled “Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography.” Whether there is such a thing as an aesthetic of photography is a question which critics should try to keep open as long as possible, since that is one of the things that good criticism always does—i.e., stops aestheticians from forming a premature synthesis. In her essay on Richard Avedon, Malcolm assesses the April 1965 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, the one edited by Avedon, as a “self-indulgent mess.” But she insists on being charitable, against what she has already revealed to be her own better judgment, about his warts-foremost portraits of the mid-Fifties. “Like the death’s-head at the feast in medieval iconography, these pictures come to tell us that the golden lads and lasses frolicking down the streets of Paris today will be horrible old people tomorrow…. Avedon means to disturb and shock with these pictures, in the way that the young Rembrandt…the aging Swift….”
Whatever its stature as aesthetics, this is low-grade criticism. Every artist who shoves something nasty in your face means to shock. When Rembrandt portrayed the decay of the flesh he was saying that ugliness, too, is a part of life, and even part of the beautiful. By using such a phrase as “horrible old people” Malcolm unwittingly proves that she has caught something of Avedon’s crassness, even while taking him to task. A photographer might be permitted to think in such coarse terms if he is inventive enough in his work, but it is a ruinous habit in a critic and can’t be much of an advantage even to an aesthetician, who should be above making her older readers feel uncomfortable, or discomfited. Cras mihi—tomorrow it is my turn—remains a useful motto.
Malcolm calls photography the uppity housemaid of painting. Not a bad idea, but like her range of reference it shows an inclination to worry at the phantom problem of whether photography is an art or not. Sontag does better by calling photography a language: nobody wastes time trying to find out whether a language is an art. But Malcolm between mandatory bouts of ratiocinative fever, stays cool enough to give you some idea of the thinner book she might have written—the one subtitled “Critical Essays about Photography.” She shows herself capable of skepticism—a quality not to be confused with cynicism, especially in this field, where an initial enthusiasm at the sheer wealth of stimuli on offer can so easily switch to a bilious rejection of the whole farrago.
On the subject of Diane Arbus’s supposedly revolting portraits of freaks and victims, Malcolm makes the penetrating remark that they are not really all that revolting after all—the reason for their popularity is that they are reassuringly in “the composed, static style of the nineteenth century.” Such limiting judgments are more useful than dismissive ones, and more subversive too. Similarly, when she says that Edward Weston, far from being the “straight” photographer he said he was, was simply copying new styles of painting instead of old ones, she isn’t trying to destroy him—just to define him.
A vigorously interested but properly skeptical tone is the necessary corrective to the star system promoted by John Szarkowski. Operating from his command center at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Szarkowski has conjured up from photography’s short past more geniuses than the Renaissance ever knew. Szarkowski’s passion would be infectious even if he lacked discrimination, but in fact he is a first-rate critic in detail and an admirably cogent thinker within his field. The Museum of Modern Art booklet Looking at Photographs (1973) continues to be the best possible short introduction to the entire topic. In it he draws the vital distinction between self-expression and documentary, and draws it at the moment when it is least obvious yet most apposite—with reference to a photograph by Atget of a vase at Versailles. Other photographers, according to Szarkowski, had been concerned either with describing the specific facts (documentation) or with exploiting their individual sensibilities (self-expression). Atget fused and transcended both approaches. Szarkowski’s gift for argument manages to convince you that Atget’s artistic personality is somehow present in a picture otherwise devoid of living human content. In an earlier Museum booklet, The Photographer’s Eye (1966, reprinted this year), he declared himself aware that the “fine art” and “functional” traditions were intimately involved with each other—another vital critical precept.
So there is nothing simplistic about Szarkowski. It will be a rare aesthetician who matches his analytical capacity. There is not much wrong with his prose either, apart from his conviction that “disinterested” means “uninterested.” What disturbs you about his writings is how they make photography so over-whelmingly significant. For Szarkowski, photography is the biggest deal since the wheel. If he did not feel that way he would never have got so far as a curator and showman, but when the same fervor smites his readers they can be excused for succumbing to a mild panic. Surely photography isn’t everything.
It isn’t, but it isn’t nothing either. One can be skeptical about just how great Szarkowski’s great artists are, but there is no reason for deciding that they are anything less than a remarkable group of people. Just how remarkable is now being revealed by a swathe of plush monographs. The hard work of the archivists and curators is paying off in a big way. Only in a climate of acceptance could these sumptuously produced books come to exist. The late Nancy Newhall’s The Eloquent Light is a new edition of her biography of Ansel Adams, first published by the Sierra Club in 1963. It traces Adams’s career from 1902 up to 1938, by which time Alfred Stieglitz had given him—in 1936, to be precise—the one-man show that helped establish him as a master photographer.
The book has plates drawn from Adams’s whole range, although the Yosemite photographs inevitably stand out. The text gives due regard to the emphasis he placed on cleanliness. The washed prints were tested for any lingering traces of hypo. Adams was not alone among the American photographers in taking himself so solemnly: with monk-like austerity they acted out the seriousness of their calling. That its seriousness was not yet unquestioned only made it the more necessary to keep a long face. In the case of Adams the results justified any amount of pious rhetoric about the Expanding Photographic Universe. Published last year, Yosemite and the Range of Light contains the finest fruits of Adams’s long obsession with the Sierra Nevada. The quality of the prints is bewitching. They are so sharp you can taste the steel. Blacks, grays, and whites look as lustrous as the skin of a Siamese cat.
Walter Benjamin thought a work of art could have authenticity but a photograph could not. He said so in the famous essay whose title is usually translated as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” although really it should be translated as “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility,” since Benjamin’s point was that mankind had always produced everyday things in multiple copies but it was only lately that the work of art had become subject to the same rule. Since a given negative could yield any number of prints, Benjamin argued, to ask for an “authentic” print made no sense (“die Frage nach dem echten Abzug hat keinen Sinn“). Sontag, who in other respects might have subjected Benjamin’s great essay to a less awe-stricken scrutiny, realized that on this point at least the sage was exactly wrong. Negatives can be damaged, prints can be made from prints, paper and methods of reproduction can fall short of a photographer’s wishes. Obviously some prints are more authentic than others and you can’t have greater or lesser degrees of nothing. These prints of Adams’s Yosemite photographs are so echt they sing. El Capitan looms through a winter sunrise. Half Dome shines clean as a hound’s tooth under a thunderhead or fills with shadows as the moon, filled with shadows of its own, plugs a hole in the sheet steel sky.
Suppose Paul Strand had taken pictures of the same chunks of geology: could a layman, however knowledgeable, tell the difference? Even the most distinctive photographers tend to be defined more by subject matter than by style. If a photographer’s any and every photograph were immediately identifiable as his he would probably be individual to the point of mania. Good photographs look better than bad photographs but don’t often look all that much different from one another. Some of Paul Strand’s photographs in Time and New England, a book devised in collaboration with the much-missed Nancy Newhall (she died in 1974), look as if Adams might have taken them, yet it is no reflection on either man. The book was first published in 1950 but is now redesigned, with the prints brought closer to the authentic state. Adams’s senior by twelve years, Strand likewise profited from an association with Stieglitz. These connections of inspiration and patronage are very easy to be impressed by, but it is worth remembering that just because half the Florentine sculptors were all born on the same few hills did not make them blood brothers. The life of art lies in what makes artists different from one another—the individual creative personality. The main difference between a clapboard church by Paul Strand and a clapboard house by Harry Callahan is that in Strand’s lens the church leans backward and in Callahan’s the house leans forward.