The art in photography is literary art before it is anything else: its triumphs and monuments are historical, anecdotal, reportorial, observational before they are purely pictorial. Because of the transparency of the medium, the difference between the extra-artistic, real-life meaning of things and their artistic meaning is even narrower in photography than it is in prose. And as in prose, “form” in photography is reluctant to become “content,” and works best when it just barely succeeds in converting its subject into art—that is, when it calls the least attention to itself and lets the almost “practical” meaning of the subject come through.
This is why there are so many pictures made with documentary intent among the masterpieces of photography. But they have become masterpieces by transcending the documentary and conveying something that affects one more than mere knowledge could. The purely descriptive or informative is almost as great a threat to the art in photography as the purely formal or abstract. The photograph has to tell a story if it is to work as art. And it is in choosing and accosting his story, or subject, that the artist-photographer makes the decisions crucial to his art. Everything else—the pictorial values and the plastic values, the composition and its accents—will more or less derive from these decisions.
The art of Eugène Atget, who was born in 1856 and died in 1927, is the art of the Complete Photographer. I can think of no one else who can be called that. Atget’s activity as a photographer—he had tried to be a painter and an actor—was confined to the last three decades of his life. He lived and worked in and around Paris, and the time and the place must help explain his achievement as they do that of all the other great artists who were his contemporaries and neighbors. Atget’s vocation, as he himself was conscious of it, was to make “documents pour artists.” If ever an artist humbled himself before his subjects, Atget did. He was not after beautiful views; he was out to capture the identity of his subject, and the success with which he did so has to be called “classical.”
The passing of time adds to the aesthetic value of many photographs, and does so legitimately, which is part of the reason why photography is the historical art par excellence. The way, however, in which Atget makes the animate and inanimate surfaces of the Paris of the belle époque speak transcends period flavor in the way that art of the remoter past does, and in the way, too, that the boulevard views painted by the Impressionists do. An abstracting, organizing eye had its part in this, and Atget was a tremendous pictorial as well as illustrative artist; yet it derived from his feeling for the illustrated subject, and his “pictorialism” was largely, and properly, unconscious.
Like other great photographers, Atget could at times extract a more intensely human—i.e., literary—interest from signs and traces of the human presence than from that presence itself. His views of undistinguished facades, and of articles displayed outside or just inside storefronts, were perhaps the first works of art to direct attention to the commercial (not industrial) environment in a completely artistic way—in a way, that is, which was distanced. In this respect, as in others, much sophisticated art photography since Atget has been influenced by him—and so, too, has Pop Art, whether Pop artists know it or not. Involved here is an attitude even more than a subject or a method.
The present book offers a fair sampling of Atget’s art, and is therefore worth having. But many of its plates are poorly printed, in a sepia meant to approximate the golden browns with which the original prints were tinted. And I would question the usefulness of the caption-quotations taken from Proust, which breathe a spirit of self-conscious nostalgia that is foreign to Atget.
Edward Steichen’s work contains examples of almost every trend and fashion in photography over the last seventy-five years. Only a few of the photographs reproduced in this book are successful yet this book makes me think better of Steichen than I did before. His account of his career as a photographer has, in addition to its historical interest, the charm of its plainness, and in the light of that account many of the photographs in his book become more interesting. Four or five of them are superb in their own right: an 1899 portrait of the artist’s sister, a “Self-Portrait with Sister” of 1900, and two genre pictures of high life at the Paris races in 1905. But one wonders at what must have been the lack of a capacity for self-criticism that let Steichen abandon the straightforwardness of these works for the painting-like Whistlerian and Carrièresque effects of most of his other photographs of the 1900’s. These may have made him famous, but they have not worn well as art—not nearly so well as similar painting-like photographs made by several other Americans in that period who worked in this style with an inspiration which was missing in Steichen’s case.
One last photograph in his book, however, taken in 1921, but unusual in his work at that time, provides a text in the aesthetics of photography. It was taken in the Acropolis at Athens. In the foreground a woman’s shapely arms are raised vertically with half-open hands from behind a stone parapet that conceals the rest of her body; beyond the arms we see the stolid marble maidens of the Porch of the Erechthyum. The picture is nicely composed and the shadeless scene suppresses any jarring contrasts of black and white, yet the photograph would be artistically inert were it not for what the woman’s arms both state and evoke of attractive femaleness, of young, firmly soft, sexed flesh—living flesh with responding muscle inside it—by contrast with the stone women in the background. The whole thing could have been impossibly arty, what with the $$$ tritely “artistic” gesture of the woman’s fingers (she was one of Isadora Duncan’s group) and the setting, but the story told of life versus trimmed and carved stone has a force, as well as a message, that cancels out artiness.
I have said that the purely formal or abstract is a threat to the art in photography. This threat manifests itself in a variety of ways, of which the worst is not the forthrightly abstract photograph but the Irick shot and the odd shot; the long exposure of moving objects, the reversed negative, the close-up or magnified view that brings out the curious, abstractly curious, configurations any sort of object will reveal when seen in microscopic detail. This kind of photography may contribute to knowledge, but it has never been anything but abortive as art; and it is offered as that and taken as that only by people whose experience of pictorial art in general is defective.
Gas masks and insects’ heads seen close up, lit-up Christmas trees on Park Avenue at dusk, the skeleton of a fish, wind patterns in sand, the web-like pattern left by the lights of a climbing helicopter at night, the wheels and rods of industry, trees in color, the bulbous breasts and midriff of a Lachaise bronze seen at a distance of five feet—Andreas Feininger throws all this and more into the same basket. Well, that’s what the world is like—and Life says so every week. But it’s not what life is like, and it’s not at all what art is like. On the evidence of the book at hand Feininger is not interested in people, and he is right not to be—again on the evidence of the book at hand, which shows him as being very reluctant to do such a thing as take a straight look at the human form. When faces and bodies appear, they do so as pieces of equipment among the other pieces of equipment that clutter up his other-planet view of the world. Except when they appear as art. Feininger’s photographs or sculpture are among the best such photographs I have seen. All the sculpture Feininger illustrates in this book happens to be of the female nude, and his photographs of living nudes are disastrous by comparison. Cézanne’s approach to live flesh was not unlike Feininger’s but Cézanne could not only get away with it, he could exploit it, and that was because he was a painter and the decisions he made in painting a pebble or a chair were just as crucial, artistically, as those he made in painting a face. The case is not the same for photographers, and they ought to be thankful for that—who wouldn’t rather be a literary than an abstract artist, so long as he did not have to sacrifice ambition or quality?
Photography’s advantage over painting, if advantage it is, lies less in its realism—put to it, painting could match and even outmatch that—than in the enormously greater ease and speed with which it achieves its realism. This speed and ease have radically expanded the literary possibilities of pictorial art. All visible reality, unposed, unalerted, unrehearsed, is open to Instantaneous photography. But it is only within the last thirty years or so—with the perfecting of the miniature camera—that more than a very few ambitious photographer-artists have concentrated on the snapshot.
Cartier-Bresson is one of these, and he is one of the best photographers of our day. Like so many other art photographers, he was trained as a painter, but even among painter-photographers he stands out by the sophistication of his art consciousness, I am not sure that this is an altogether good thing. It involves too much of an awareness of what photography should do in the light of what painting and even sculpture have already done. There is a frozenness about many of Cartier-Bresson’s imposed pictures that still suggests the posed, if only because their pictorial and even sculptural qualities are so conspicuous, and this accounts for a suggestion of the $$$ (that plague of art photography) in some of the photographs in this book. This doesn’t mean that Cartier-Bresson has not produced some art that is successful enough to be permanent; he has indeed. But he doesn’t set a good example. Nor are the pictures in this book various enough in their effect. The pictorial values in the snap-shots of such an unsophisticated artist as Weegee (who worked for the tabloids) cannot be compared with those in Cartier-Bresson’s, but Weegee’s photographs show a sharper sense of life and movement and variety. Weegee is demotic, but Cartier-Bresson is almost conventionally esoteric, and in this art the demotic eye is the one more apt to discover unexploited possibilities of “literature” And this is so even when such an eye is acquired only by super-sophistication, as it is in Walker Evans’s case.
January 23, 1964