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.
Nothing could be farther from, say, the subtleties of Avedon than the work of Ghitta Carell, Hungarian-born photographer of the celebrities of the Mussolini era. But her photographs now look as eccentric as Avedon’s, and far more surreal than Cecil Beaton’s “Surrealist photographs” from the same period. By setting his subjects—see the photographs of Edith Sitwell (1927) and Cocteau (1936)—in a luxurious, fanciful decor, Beaton makes them uninteresting, unconvincing effigies. But Carell’s reverent complicity with the wish of her generals and aristocrats and actors to appear static, poised, glamorous exposes an awful, accurate truth about them. The photographer’s innocence has made them interesting. Time has made them exotic, harmless, all-too-human.
Some photographers set up as scientists, others as moralists. The scientists make an inventory of the world; the moralists concentrate on hard cases. An example of photography-as-science is the project August Sander began in 1911: a photographic catalogue of the German people. In contrast to George Grosz’s drawings, which summed up the spirit and variety of social types in Weimar Germany by caricature, Sander’s “arch-type” pictures (as he called them) imply a pseudo-scientific dispassionateness similar to that claimed by the covertly partisan typological sciences that sprang up in the nineteenth century, like phrenology, criminology, psychiatry, and eugenics.
Sander’s work, the first portion of which appeared in book form in Munich in 1929 as Antlitz der Zeit (“Face of Our Time”), has just come out here as Men Without Masks. The new title is unfortunate, since Sander is making just the opposite point: that every individual face is in fact a social mask. Each person he photographed is a sociological instance, a “sign” of a certain trade, class, or profession. All his subjects are representative, equally representative, of a given social reality—their own.
Sander’s look is not unkind. It is permissive, unjudging. Compare his photograph “Circus People” (1930) with Diane Arbus’s studies of circus people, or with the portraits of demimonde characters by Lisette Model. People face Sander’s camera, as they do in Model’s and Arbus’s photographs, but their gaze is not intimate, revealing. Sander was not looking for secrets, he was observing the typical. Society contains no mystery. Like Eadweard Muybridge, whose photographic studies in the 1880s managed to dispel misconceptions about what everybody had always seen (how horses gallop, how people move) because he had subdivided the subject’s movements into a precise and lengthy enough sequence of shots, Sander aimed to shed light on the social order by atomizing it: into an indefinite number of social types.
It doesn’t seem surprising that the Nazis brought Sander’s national portrait project (though not his activity as a photographer) to an abrupt end in 1934, confiscating and burning the unsold copies of his book and destroying the printing blocks.1 The charge was that his project was “antisocial.” What might well have seemed antisocial to Nazis is the idea of the photographer as an impassive census taker, the completeness of whose record would render all commentary, or even judgment, superfluous.
Unlike most photography with a documentary intention, enthralled either by the poor and exotic, as preeminently “photographable” subjects, or by celebrities, Sander’s social sample is unusually, conscientiously broad. He includes bureaucrats and peasants, servants and society ladies, factory workers and industrialists, soldiers and gypsies, actors and clerks. But this variety does not alter his class condescension. His eclectic style gives him away. Some photographs are done with a casual, fluent naturalism, others are naïve and awkward. The many posed photographs taken against a flat white background are a cross between superb mug shots and old-fashioned celebrity portraits. Unselfconsciously, Sander adjusted his style to the social rank of the person he was photographing. Professionals and the rich tend to be photographed indoors, without decor. Laborers and pariahs are usually photographed in a setting (often outdoors) which locates them, which speaks for them—as if they had not yet reached the kinds of separate identities found in the middle and upper classes.
Part of Sander’s work is not so different from Ghitta Carell’s. Everybody is “in place.” Nobody is lost, or cramped, or off-center. A cretin is photographed in exactly the same dispassionate way as a bricklayer, a legless World War I veteran like a healthy young soldier in uniform, scowling communist students like smiling Nazis, a captain of industry like an opera singer. “It is not my intention either to criticize or describe these people,” Sander said. One might have expected that he would have claimed not to have criticized his subjects by photographing them. What is more interesting is that he thought he hadn’t described them either. Sander’s complicity with everybody means a distance from everybody as well. His complicity with his subjects is not naïve (like Carell’s) but nihilistic. Despite its class realism, it is one of the truly abstract bodies of work in the history of photography.
It is hard to imagine an American attempting an equivalent of Sander’s cool, taxonomist undertaking. The great photographic portraits of America—like Walker Evans’s American Photographs (1938) and Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959)—have been deliberately random, while continuing to reflect the traditional relish of documentary photography for the poor and socially exotic, the nation’s forgotten citizens. And the most ambitious collective photographic project ever started in this country, by the Farm Security Administration (under the direction of Roy Emerson Stryker) in 1935, was concerned exclusively with “low-income groups.”2 (This was, of course, the project for which Evans did most of his best-known photographs.3 )
The FSA project, conceived as “a pictorial documentation of our rural areas and rural problems” (Stryker’s words), was unabashedly propagandistic, with Stryker coaching his team about the attitude they were to take toward their problem-subjects. The purpose of the FSA project was to demonstrate the value of the people photographed. Thereby it implicitly defined its point of view: that of middle-class people who needed to be convinced that the poor were really poor, and that the poor were dignified. It is instructive to compare Sander’s work with the FSA photographs. Though the poor do not lack dignity in Sander’s photographs, it is not because of any compassionate intentions. They have dignity by juxtaposition: because they are looked at in the same cool way as everybody else.
American photography was rarely so detached. For an approach reminiscent of Sander’s one must look to people who documented a dying or superseded part of America—like Adam Clark Vroman, who photographed Indians in Arizona and New Mexico between 1895 and 1904. Vroman’s handsome photographs are unexpressive, uncondescending, unsentimental. Their mood is the very opposite of the FSA photographs. They are not moving. They are not idiomatic. They do not invite sympathy. They make no propaganda for the Indians. Vroman knew perfectly well that there was no saving the world that he was photographing.
Photography in Europe was largely guided by the notions of the picturesque (i.e., the poor, the foreign), the important (i.e., the rich, the famous), and the beautiful. Photographs tended to praise or aim at neutrality. Americans, less convinced of the permanence of any basic social arrangements, experts on the “reality” of change, have more often made photography partisan. Pictures got taken not only to show what should be admired but to reveal what needs to be confronted, deplored—and fixed up. American photography implies a less stable relation with history; and a relation to geographic and social reality that is both more hopeful and more predatory.
The hopeful side is exemplified in the well-known use of photographs in America to awaken conscience. At the beginning of the century Lewis W. Hine was appointed staff photographer to the National Child Labor Committee, which was preparing to recommend legislation; his photographs of children working in New England and Carolina mills in the 1910s helped to make child labor illegal. In the case of Roy Stryker’s FSA project (Stryker was a pupil of Hine’s), the camera was ostensibly a way of “learning” about the rural poor, so the New Deal bureaucrats could figure out how to help them. But even at its most moralistic, documentary photography was always imperious in another sense. Both Thomson’s detached traveler’s report and the more forthright angry muckraking of Riis or Hine reflect the urge to appropriate an exotic reality. And no reality is allowed the right to resist appropriation, whether it is scandalous (and should be corrected) or merely beautiful or picturesque.
The predatory side of photography is at the heart of the alliance, evident earlier in the United States than anywhere else, between photography and tourism. After the final opening of the West in 1869 with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, came the colonization through photography. The case of the American Indians is the most brutal. Discreet, serious amateurs like Vroman had been operating since the end of the Civil War. They were just the opening wedge of an army of tourists who arrived by the end of the century, eager for “a good shot” of Indian life. The tourists invaded the Indians’ privacy, photographing and handling holy objects, ignoring the restrictions on photographing the most sacred dances and places, if necessary paying the Indians to pose and making them so self-conscious that they revised their ceremonies.
But the native ceremonies that get changed when the tourist hordes come sweeping down are not so different from a scandal in the inner city that gets corrected because someone photographs it. In so far as the muckrakers got results they too altered what they photographed; indeed, photographing reality was one way of altering it. The danger was of a token change—limited to only the narrowest reading of the photograph’s subject. The particular New York slum, Mulberry Bend, that Jacob Riis photographed in the late 1880s was then torn down and its inhabitants rehoused by order of Theodore Roosevelt, then state governor, though of course other, equally dreadful slums were left standing.
The photographer both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates. Photography is one of the tools of American impatience with reality, the taste for activities whose instrumentality is a machine. Faced with the awesome spread and alienness of a newly settled continent, people wielded cameras as a way of taking possession of the places they visited. Kodak put signs at the entrances of many towns listing what to photograph. Signs marked the places in national parks where travelers should stand with their cameras.
Sander is at home in his own country. American photographers are often on the road, overcome with disrespectful wonder at the “surreal” surprises offered by their country. Moralist and conscienceless predator, child and foreigner in their own land, they will “get something down” that is disappearing—and, often, hasten its disappearance by photographing it. Americans feel the reality of their country to be so stupendous that it would be the rankest presumption to approach it in a classifying scientific way, as Sander did. One could get at it indirectly, by subterfuge—breaking it off into strange fragments that could, somehow, imaginatively be taken for the whole. Like American writers, American photographers sense something ineffable in the national reality—something, possibly, that has never been seen before.
Jack Kerouac begins his introduction to Robert Frank’s book The Americans:4
The crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in these tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen on film…. After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.
Exactly. Any inventory of America is inevitably antiscientific, a delirious confusion of surreal objects, in which jukeboxes resemble coffins, in which the prevailing mood is sadness.
In America, the photographer is not simply the person who records the past but the one who invents it. As Berenice Abbott writes, “The photographer is the contemporary being par excellence; through his eyes the now becomes past.”
When Abbott returned to New York in 1929, after her years of apprenticeship with Man Ray and her discovery (and rescue) of the work of Atget, she was struck by a passion to record the city. New York was very different from Paris, she explains, “not so much beauty and tradition as native fantasia emerging from accelerated greed.” As she writes in the preface to the book of photographs that resulted, Changing New York (1939):
If I had never left America, I would never have wanted to photograph New York. But when I saw it with fresh eyes, I knew it was my country, something I had to set down in photographs. I wanted to record it before it changed completely. Before the old buildings and historic spots were destroyed.
The book is aptly titled, for she is not so much memorializing the past as simply documenting ten years of the chronic self-destruct quality of American experience. Abbott’s purpose sounds like that of her master Atget, who for years had been obsessionally documenting an artisanal, populist Paris that was vanishing. But Abbott is setting down something even more fantastic: the ceaseless replacement of the new. The past is always being swept away, consumed, bulldozed, thrown out, swapped. Fewer and fewer Americans possess old objects, old furniture, grandparents’ pots and pans—the used things, warm with generations of human touch, that Rilke celebrated in The Duino Elegies as being essential to a human landscape. Instead we have our paper ghosts, transistorized heirlooms, a feather-weight portable museum.
Photographs are a short cut: instant history. Any collection of photographs is an exercise in Surrealist montage. As first Kurt Schwitters and more recently Bruce Connor and Ed Kienholz made brilliant objects, tableaux, environments out of refuse, we now make a history out of our detritus. And we have learned to make a virtue of it. The true modernism is not austerity, but a kind of garbage plenitude—the reigning inversion of Whitman’s dream. Influenced by the photographers and the pop artists, architects like Robert Venturi propose Times Square as our Piazza San Marco, Reyner Banham lauds Los Angeles’s “instant architecture and instant townscape” as the theater of freedom, of a good life impossible in the beauties and squalors of the European city: inviting us to be liberated by a society whose consciousness is built, ad hoc, out of scraps and junk. America, the most Surrealist of countries, is full of found objects. Our junk has become art. Our junk has become history.
Of course, photographs are art in the broadest sense. But their appeal is that they also now seem, in a world littered with photographic detritus, to have the status of found objects—unpremeditated slices of the world. Thus, they trade simultaneously on the prestige of art and the magic of the real. They are clouds of fantasy and pellets of information. Photographs have become the quintessential art of affluent wasteful societies—notably, in the new, restless mass culture that took shape here after the Civil War, and reached Europe only after World War II.
The Surrealist approach to history—through garbage, relics, photographs—is also a melancholy view, as well as a joking one. Photographs actively promote nostalgia. There is a generalized pathos in looking at time past. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. An ugly or grotesque subject may be moving because it has been dignified by the attention of the photographer. A beautiful subject can be melancholy, pathetic, because it is mortal. Either it will soon age or decay, or it already no longer exists.
It is only a little over a century since the world started to be recorded by the camera, but what has been inventoried has turned out to be a vast pantheon of transcience. Through photographs we follow in the most intimate, troubling way the reality of the aging process. To look at an old photograph of oneself, of anyone one has known, or of a much-photographed public person is to feel, first of all: how much younger I (he, she) was then. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “A touch of the finger now sufficed to fix an event for an unlimited period of time. The camera gave the moment a posthumous shock, as it were.”
The photographs of Marilyn Monroe, exhibited last year, are pathetic objects, changed by her death. All photographs of Marilyn Monroe seem beautiful now—because they are of her, and because she is dead. One’s reaction now to Roman Vishniac’s photographs of everyday life in the ghettos of Poland, 1938, is overwhelmingly colored by the knowledge of when and how and how soon these people perished. The photographer catches the innocence, the vulnerability of people before their own destruction. It is this link between photography and death which makes all photographs ultimately haunting.
If photography is a cruel act (as Baudelaire thought), it is as well a kind of sentimentality. Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, in which moral distinctions are effaced by the pathos of mortality. The amusing book As They Were perfectly expresses the light side of the past as junk, as charm, and as pathos. A collection of photographs of celebrities as babies or children, arranged alphabetically, selected casually, it is a model witty exercise in the Surrealist collage of history, which disarms the viewer to a state of wistful pathos. Stalin and Gertrude Stein, who face outward from opposite pages, look equally solemn and huggable; another pair of page-mates, Elvis Presley and Proust, show (at their respective tender ages) a slight resemblance. Hubert Humphrey (age 3) and Aldous Huxley (age 8), side by side, already display the exaggerations of character for which they were to be known as adults. No picture in the book is without interest and charm, since we know of (and in most cases have seen photographs of) the famous creatures they were to become. That they are almost all naïve snapshots or the most conventional kind of professional portraiture makes the pictures even more interesting.
Time makes all photographs surreal—makes them odd, moving. A photograph is only a fragment. With the passage of time its original connections come unstuck; it drifts away, into a kind of soft abstract pastlessness, and open to any kind of reading (and collage-matching) except a “straight” one.
Photography has been described as a cut in time. It could also be described as a quotation. And a book of photographs is like a book of quotations. Now there are books with photographs accompanied by quotes—like Bob Adelman’s Down Home and Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip. As social history, they illustrate once again the predilection of documentary photography for the poor.
Adelman’s book is a social portrait of rural Wilcox County, Alabama, one of the poorest counties in the nation, over a five-year period in the 1960s. It descends from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book whose point was just that its subjects were not famous, but forgotten. But there is an important difference. The photographs that Walker Evans took in 1936 were accompanied by eloquent prose written (sometimes overwritten) by James Agee, which aimed to push the reader into a deeper empathy with the share-croppers’ lives. Adelman does not presume to speak for his subjects. After he photographed them, his coauthor, Susan Hall, interviewed them with a tape recorder.
Adelman’s book is a version in miniature (county-wide) of Sander’s project: to compile an impartial photographic record of a people. Except that the specimens “talk.” Their pictures aren’t enough. And their striking declarations lend a weight to Adelman’s photographs they would probably not have on their own. Adelman shows the people of Wilcox County defending or exhibiting their territory. Their lives become a series of “positions” or poses.
Although Lesy is not a photographer, the purpose of Wisconsin Death Trip is also to construct—partly with the aid of photographs—a social portrait of a county. The county is in Wisconsin, and the time is between 1890 and 1910, a period of severe recession and economic hardship. The real time Lesy is interested in is “American history,” and his method is suitably daring. Apart from an introductory and a concluding essay, the entire book consists of found objects—a selection of photographs taken by Charley Van Schaik, the town photographer of Black Falls, Wisconsin, at that time, some thirty thousand of whose photographic plates Lesy found stored in dusty crates in the Wisconsin State Historical Society; and quotations from writings of those decades, mainly drawn from the local newspaper, The Badger State Banner, and records of the Mendota County Insane Asylum. The quotations have nothing to do with the photographs but are correlated with them in an aleatoric, “musical” way, as a text of John Cage is matched at the time of performance with the dance movements already choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
The people in Adelman’s photographs are the authors of the declarations we read on the facing pages. In Down Home, a number of people, white and black, poor and well-off—whose photographs we see—talk, and say different things, exhibiting contrasting views (particularly about class and race). Whereas Adelman’s texts contradict each other, all the texts Lesy has collected say the same thing: that an astonishing number of people in rural America between 1890 and 1910 seemed bent on hanging themselves in barns, throwing their children into wells, cutting their neighbors’ throats, taking off their clothes on Main Street, burning their neighbors’ crops, and assorted other acts likely to land them in jail or the hospital or the loony bin.
Wisconsin Death Trip, the publishers claim, “exposes the dark side of the American dream.” And in case anyone was thinking that it was Vietnam and all the domestic funk and nastiness of the last decade which made America a country of darkening hopes, Lesy is here to say that the dream had collapsed by the end of the last century—not in the inhuman city, but in the farming communities; that the whole country has been crazy, and for a long time. Of course, Lesy’s book doesn’t actually prove anything. The force of his historical argument is the force of collage. To these photographs he could have matched other texts from the period—love letters, diaries—to give quite another, perhaps less desperate impression. The easy pessimism of Wisconsin Death Trip may account for its vogue among college students this past year. It is rousing polemic—and totally specious as history.
Sherwood Anderson knew something about the horrors of small-town life in America at roughly the time covered by Lesy’s book. “All the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques,” Anderson says in the prologue to Winesburg, Ohio (1919), the original title of which was The Book of the Grotesque. He goes on, “The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful….” But no work of imaginative literature can have the same authenticity as a document—which is what Lesy’s (and Adelman’s) book purports to be.
Photographs seem more “true” to these authors and their public because they are taken to be pieces of reality. And the only printed text that seems true to many readers now is not the fine writing of someone like Agee, but the raw unliterary record—unedited talk of people into tape recorders, fragments of subliterary documents (court records, letters, diaries, etc.). There is a rancorous suspicion in America of anything that seems literary. (Not to mention a growing reluctance on the part of young people to read anything that does not cater to them—reading matter including subtitles in foreign movies and copy on a record sleeve as well as novels and essays.) The Carlylean strut of Norman Mailer’s prescient chronicles of the American political madness may wow the over-thirty-five set, but younger people prefer the brilliant gush of Rolling Stone’s Hunter Thompson, whose talents as an analyst of American politics, both presidential and cultural, are as distinguished and baroquely paranoid as Mailer’s, but who takes care to write in a self-deprecatingly sloppy, sub-literary way.
There is a particular melancholy in the American photographic project. Stieglitz, who photographed New York in the 1910s, did so to redeem the material civilization, to show that it has a soul. Stieglitz, in the words of Paul Rosenfeld, was “the man who believed that a spiritual America existed somewhere, that America was not the grave of the Occident.” Lesy’s book is trying to show that America is the grave of the Occident. No other art so poignantly expresses the sense of loss, the displacement of American reality as does photography. “The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!” exclaims Kerouac about Robert Frank’s work. What is American is just EVERYTHING-ness. Embracing everything may seem like an absence of judgment:
As American a picture—the faces dont editorialize or criticize or say anything but “This is the way we are in real life and if you dont like it I don’t know anything about it ’cause I’m living my own life my way and may God bless us all, mebbe”…”if we deserve it”….
But the judgment is there. It is the absence of judgment, the sadness, the emptiness. It is, in short, the Surrealist bluff: the mournful pretense that subjects are just found, with no values attached.
Behind the Surrealist bluff is a weary vision of horror. Surrealism is the art of generalizing the grotesque and then discovering nuances (and charms) in that. No art is better equipped to do this than photography. For photography promotes the surrealistic way of looking. Books of photographs pile higher and higher—measuring the lost past (the rediscovery of amateur photography), taking the temperature of the present. Photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation. But it would be well to beware of these new forms of packaging reality, of which Lesy’s kitsch history is just one example. Surrealism, which promised a new and exacting vantage point for criticism, has declined into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that deprives history of any meaning.
Walter Benjamin probably understood Surrealism better than anyone else. In her magisterial essay on Benjamin, Hannah Arendt recounts that collecting was Benjamin’s central passion: the collecting of books; above all, the collecting of quotations. Benjamin’s passion sprang from his conviction that modern history had already destroyed the greater, living reality. The collector has only to bend down and select his precious fragments and scraps from the pile of debris.
The past itself, during a century or more in which historical change has accelerated at a dizzying rate, has become the most surreal of subjects. From the beginning, photographers saw themselves as the recorders of a disappearing world. “To renew the old world,” Benjamin wrote, “that is the collector’s deepest desire when he is driven to acquire new things.”
But the old world cannot be renewed; and this is the drama and the pathos of the photographic enterprise.
Benjamin dreamed of producing a work of literary criticism that would consist almost entirely of quotations—to avoid anything that might be reminiscent of empathy.5 This disavowal of empathy, this claim of distance, of objectivity, of invisibility has been central to photographers. Photography has always been ambivalent about its moral objectives, on the convenient assumption that all subjects are “out there” anyway, all objects being found objects. Photography inevitably entails a certain condescension toward reality. From being out there, the world comes to be “inside” photographs. Our heads are becoming like the boxes of the great American Surrealist artist Joseph Cornell, filled with objects pertaining to a France he never visited. Or like old movie stills (which he also collected, in the same Surrealist spirit). Stills are emblems, relics of the movie, which make one nostalgic for the original experience, for the actors’ beauty. The photographed world stands in the same relation to the real world as stills do to movies.
Photographs offer a pop reality. It must not be forgotten that the Surrealists always had an ineradicable weakness (even preference) for kitsch. The proliferation of photographs is ultimately an affirmation of kitsch. This is not to deny that some photographs have the sweet gravity of important works of art. But the lure of photographs, their hold on us, is an appeal to a kitsch way of looking at the world. Photography’s ultra-mobile gaze makes us feel superior, safe. It flatters the viewer, creating a false sense of ubiquity, a deceptive mastery of experience.
(This is the third article in a series on photography.)
April 18, 1974
Sander stayed in Germany throughout the Nazi period. (He died in 1969.) His particular “inner emigration” (the compliment is Golo Mann’s) between 1934 and 1945 consisted in switching to landscape photography. ↩
Though that changed, according to a memo from Stryker to his staff in 1942, when he indicated that with the new morale needs of World War II the poor was too downbeat a subject. “We must have at once: pictures of men, women and children who appear as if they really believed in the US. Get people with a little spirit. Too many in our file now paint the US as an old person’s home and that just about everybody is too old to work and too malnourished to care much what happens . We particularly need young men and women who work in our factories . Housewives in their kitchen or in their yard picking flowers. More contented old couples .” ↩
The Da Capo Press has recently published Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration, 1935-1938, a catalogue of photographic prints available from the Farm Security Administration Collection in the Library of Congress, with an introduction by Jerald C. Maddox. ↩
Grossman, $8.50; $5.95 (paper). ↩
The generous introduction to Wisconsin Death Trip by Warren Susman cites Benjamin as the model for Lesy’s collage method, but there is all the difference between Benjamin’s excruciating modesty as an artist and thinker and Lesy’s brash short cuts. ↩