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.
In Brett Weston: Photographs From Five Decades there is more than enough clean-cut shapeliness to recall his father Edward’s predilection for “the thing itself.” The air of dedication is once again monastic. “For Brett, the struggle has been a long, unhurried process of refining an uncompromising, inborn vision. He did not acquire it: it was simply granted to him, like grace.” There is no reason to doubt the intensity of Brett’s inborn vision. What niggles is the fact that a beach photographed by Brett Weston and a beach photographed by Harry Callahan look like roughly similar stretches of the same stuff—sand.
Water’s Edge collects the best of Callahan’s black and white Beach Series (always capitalized) from 1941 until now. The light, the sand patterns, the reeds, and the frail water could not be more delicately caught. When they are more delicately caught, the result is the knd of abstraction that leaves you striving to admire. But generally Callahan photographing is good at what Lichtenberg said was the most important thing about thinking—keeping the right distance from the subject. The text, a deeply rhythmless poetic concoction by A.R. Ammons (“I allow myself eddies of meaning”) is in the hallowed tradition of overwriting for which, with his accompanying prose to Walker Evans’s photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee unfortunately gave an eternal sanction. For crazy people, there is a deluxe limited edition priced at $1,500. Presumably it is bound in platinum. Harry Callahan: Color has some of the Beach Series in color and a lot more besides: clapboard houses, billboards, store fronts and, most importantly, his wife Eleanor. Callahan composes exceptionally pretty scenes but human beings keep stealing them.
The same applies to the old Czech master Sudek, who was born in 1896 and is apparently still alive. Not much of his work has been seen outside Czechoslovakia until now. Sonja Bullaty and Anna Farova have compiled and introduced their monograph in a manner befitting his unarguable stature. The amber haze of the early prints proclaims his affinity with Steichen, whose symbolist nudes in Steichen: The Master Prints 1895-1914* might have been signed by Sudek. The wily Czech’s still lifes and surrealist fantasies are enough to keep aestheticians happily chatting, but once again the people, when they are allowed to appear, infallibly upstage the settings.
The same is doubly true for Lotte Jacobi, whose people are not, like Sudek’s, anonymous. Jacobi was also born in 1896. Kelly Wise’s book on her, called just Lotte Jacobi, was published in the US in 1978 but English readers might like to note that it has only lately succeeded in crossing the Atlantic. In New York for ten years after World War II Jacobi busied herself with abstract effects called “photogenics.” Like all art inspired by its own technique, they dated instantly and are now of little interest. But her portraits, mainly taken in prewar Germany, are of high value. The high value becomes especially high when the sitters are world famous, but there is no way around that. Weill, Lorre, Walter, Furtwängler, Piscator, Lang, Kraus, Planck, Zuckmayer, Grosz, and many more are all preserved in echt condition. She did a whole, fascinating sequence of Einstein portraits both in Germany and in American exile. There are also multiple portraits of Thomas Mann, Chagall, Frost, and Stieglitz. The cover girl is Lotte Lenya.
Jacobi also did a portrait of Moholy-Nagy. If Moholy-Nagy had done more portraits himself, Andreas Haus’s book on him, Moholy-Nagy: Photographs and Photograms, might have been of more than historical interest. The volume is well kitted out for study by aestheticians, but even those up on Moholy-Nagy’s theories of perception could well find that the photograms no longer thrill. Herr Haus speaks of Moholy-Nagy’s “attempt to solve his problems as a painter (the penetration of planes, the elimination of individual handwriting) by means of a new technique….” Unfortunately Moholy-Nagy’s chief problem as a painter, shortage of talent, could not be solved by technical innovation, despite an abundant output of compensatory aesthetic sloganeering. Moholy-Nagy talked about “the hygiene of the optical” and announced that “everyone will be compelled to see what is optically true.” (I once heard Pierre Boulez, at a lunch thrown for him in London by my newspaper the Observer, promise that the general public would be made familiar with contemporary music “by force.”) Moholy-Nagy’s real contribution lay not in abstract doodling but in his knack for shooting reality from unexpected angles so as to reveal forms and textures previously unlooked for. Everybody has since appropriated these technical advances, with the result that most of his once startling photographs are no longer immediately identifiable as being by him. Such is the fate of the technical innovator.
But Moholy-Nagy’s people are vivid enough. From a balcony in Dessau (datelined “1926-1928”) a woman looks down at a pretty girl stretched smiling on a parapet. Moholy-Nagy was a tireless organizer of forms but the most interesting form, that of the human being, comes ready made. Cecil Beaton, to his credit, never doubted that his career as a photographer owed something to the human beings he was pointing his camera at. Self-Portrait With Friends, the selection from his diaries which appeared last year, now receives its necessary supplement in the form of Beaton, a collection of his best portrait photographs, edited by James Danziger. Raphael, Berenson was fond of saying, shows us the classicism of our yearnings. Beaton gave famous and fashionable people the look they would have liked to have. In many cases they had it already. Lady Oxford, photographed in 1927, may have been a battleaxe, but she was a regal battleaxe. Beaton wasn’t a sentimentalist so much as a dandy who believed in glamor as a separate country. Until the Fifties he was almost the only main stream British photographer the young aspirants could look to. (Bill Brandt was a drop-out.) From the technical viewpoint he was awesomely capable—he snatched candids in Hollywood that look as uncluttered as the best official studio portraits.
Beyond technique he had a sense of occasion. At times this might have been indistinguishable from snobbery, but it served him better than the routine compulsion to record documentary truth. His book New York (1938) is painfully weak when it goes up to Harlem. (“These people are children.”) In Far East (1945) he is plainly more interested in Imperial Delhi than in the air-raid casualties. In Time Exposure (1946) his “Bomb Victim” is merely cute, whereas the portrait of John Gielgud “in a Restoration role” slips straight into immortality with no waiting. These books and several more lie behind the present compilation, which loses little from being deprived of the original text. (The “DeHavilland fighter, 1941,” depicted on page 42 is, however, clearly a Spitfire, which was manufactured by Vickers Supermarine. How old is Mr. Danziger? Eight?) Beaton was a social butterfly who wrote the higher gossip. But the circles he moved in provided him with human subjects who were, in many cases, works of art ready made. With Beaton’s beautiful socialites, as with de Meyer’s, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they had no other reason for existence than getting into the picture. Beaton has, if anybody has, a clearly defined artistic personality. But once again the self-expression is largely defined by the field of documentation. His exquisite drawings, which he left like thank-you notes in the grand houses, are far more characteristic than his photographs.
Mainly by shading his eyes with a wide-brimmed hat and allowing his feet to take him in congenial directions, Beaton found the world seductive. He wasn’t out to shape reality, even by photography, which he rated, perhaps jokingly, fifth among his interests. With Diana Vreeland seductiveness becomes Allure. In a folio called just that, Ms. Vreeland collects some of her favorite twentieth-century photographs. Equipped with a stream of semi-consciousness text emanating from DV herself, the book (which I see the latest number of Manhattan Catalogue calls “absolutely historic,” not just historic) has been thrown together with such abandon that some of the captions have landed on the wrong photographs—in my copy, at least. The picture dubbed “Baron de Meyer/The New Hat Called Violette Worn by the Honorable Mrs. Reginald Fellowes—Alex, 1924″ should almost certainly be entitled “Louise Dahl-Wolfe/Balenciaga’s white linen over-blouse, 1953″ and vice versa. In later copies, I understand, such anomalies have been put right. The model for the Balenciaga is, unless my eyes are giving out under the strain, Suzy Parker. Even at this late date, Ms. Vreeland continues Vogue’s queenly habit of always crediting the fashionable ladies but rarely the models. In effect this quirk has helped to glorify the photographers, who get kudos not only for the way they make the girl look but for the way she looks anyway.
The most striking pictures in Vreeland’s book are by Anonymous, who snapped the British Royal women at George VI’s funeral. By the time these prints, probably duped off other prints, have been blown up to fit the squash-court sized pages of Allure, there is not much left to say about authenticity. Yet aura—the many-layered immanence which Benjamin said photography deprived things of—is present in large amounts, possibly because Allure has been banished.
Not that it stays banished for long. On most of Vreeland’s pages it seems fighting to get in somewhere. In the context of Vreeland’s unbridled prose, Eva Perón becomes a figure of moral stature, since she cared how she looked to the bitter end. Vreeland is a place where appearance is everything. But the occasional big-name photographer manages to look timelessly unfussy. Some of the cleanest plates in Allure’s pantheon are by George Hoyningen-Huene, this year the subject of a retrospective exhibition, called “Eye for Elegance,” at the International Center of Photography in New York. The catalogue gives a taste of his work, although really he is too protean to sample. Among other activities, he set the standard for prewar French Vogue’s studio photography and was color consultant on some of the best-looking Hollywood films of the Fifties and early Sixties, including Cukor’s wildly beautiful Heller in Pink Tights. No fashion photographer ever had a wider range. The shadows on his reclining swimsuit models are calculated to the centimeter, yet some of his celebrity portraits of the Thirties look natural enough to have been done today. His 1934 Gary Cooper, for example, seems to be lit by nothing except sunlight. The profile is almost lost in the background and every skin blemish is left intact. Yet the result has aura to burn.
The Hollywood studio photographer retouched as a matter of course. In his splendidly produced The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers, John Kobal gives us the rich benefit of his archival labors. Based in London, Kobal has built up a peerless collection of the original negatives. Kobal knows everything about how the studios marketed their property. Some studios assessed the daily output of their photographers by the pound. The stars were expected to cooperate and the smarter of them realized that it was in their interests to do so. Lombard, it seems, was particularly keen. Garbo was nervous, but Clarence Sinclair Bull never made the mistake of saying “hold it”—he just lit her and waited. One key light, one top light, and a long lens parked some way off so she wouldn’t notice. There are stories by and about, among others, Ruth Harriet Louise, Ernest Bachrach, Eugene Robert Richee, George Hurrell, and Lazlo Willinger. Sternberg knew exactly how he wanted Dietrich to look but otherwise it was a conspiracy between the studio and the photographer, with the star in on it if she was powerful enough. Before and after shots show how drastically Columbia rearranged the accoutrements of Rita Hayworth’s face. One of the after shots, by A.L. “Whitey” Schaefer, is surely an image for eternity. (See page 22 above.)
But the studio photographers were not engaged in making something out of nothing, even though the lead used for retouching formed such a significant proportion of their daily poundage. The stars might have been helped to realize their ideal selves, but the ideal self was not, and could not be, too far divorced from the real appearance. When the silver transcontinental trains pulled in at Dearborn station in Chicago, a man called Len Lisovitch used to be lurking in wait. He was an amateur photographer who wanted the stars all to himself. Len collected, among others, Hedy Lamarr, Betty Grable, Merle Oberon, and Greer Garson. His candids of Hedy Lamarr are not decisively less enchanting than the portraits turned out with such labor by Laszlo Willinger at MGM. Admittedly Lamarr had flawless skin and always photographed well as long as she was not allowed to become animated, but the point is hard to duck: the stars were already well on their way to being works of art before the hot lights touched them. They were simply beautiful human beings—if there is anything simple about that.
In Mrs. David Bailey—called, in the UK, Trouble and Strife, cockney rhyming slang for “wife”—David Bailey celebrates the extraordinary beauty of his wife Marie Helvin. Bailey, Terence Donovan, and Brian Duffey became such famous photographers in London during the Sixties that they have been faced ever since with the requirement to astonish. This book is not wholly free from the strained compulsion to dazzle, but it is still Bailey’s best effort since Goodbye Baby and Amen, mainly because Marie Helvin is so bliss-provokingly lovely that she takes the sting out of the naughtiest poses Bailey can think up. There is an admiring prefatory note by J.H. Lartigue, who would have done at least one thing Bailey hasn’t—caught her smiling. Avoir pour amour une femme aussi belle, jolie, charmante et troublante que Marie, quelle inspiration pour un artiste. At eighty-four Lartigue still has an eye for a pretty foot.
Bailey has graciously allowed his model to retain her name. Helmut Newton takes that away and a lot more besides. Special Collection 24 Photo Lithos comprises big, slick prints of photographs you might have seen before in White Women (1976) and Sleepless Nights (1978). Rapturously introducing Sleepless Nights, Philippe Garner, billed as the photographic curator of London Sotheby’s, unintentionally pinned Newton to the wall. “There is, surely, an added spice in having the talent to present a subject as blatant as this in such a way that the spokespersons of a society which should, in theory, deplore such an image as shocking actually pat one on the back for taking it and reward one handsomely.” There was also a lot about Newton’s alleged humor.
Mercifully his new book is deprived of textual accompaniment, leaving those who have a taste for these things free to indulge their fantasies of exhibitionism, bondage, and flagellation. Apologists have explained that Newton loves women so much he wants to show how they retain their dignity no matter what you do to them, or pretend to do to them. So here they are in a variety of neck braces, trusses, and plaster casts. For men who want to be in the saddle, there is a spurred and booted beauty wearing a saddle. Famous in the trade for his technical skill, Newton will take endless pains to find the right props and setting. I suppose he is trying to make us question our own desires, but I always find myself questioning his. It can be argued that Newton’s sado-masochistic confections pale beside what can be found in hard-core pornography, yet the question still arises of why he thinks he is engaged in anything more exalted than a fashionable triteness already going out of date. He gives you the impression of somebody who has had his life changed by an Alice Cooper album. How his dogged prurience makes you long for Lartigue.
But what Newton does to girls is a sweet caress compared with what girls do to girls. Women on Women gave a broad hint at what was on the way. Women covered with cream, women with skulls in their twats, women flaunting six-foot styrofoam dicks, women solemnly feeling each other up in the back seats of limos. At first glance, Joyce Baronio’s 42nd Street Studio, with an introduction by Professor Linda Nochlin of CUNY, is the same scene, folio size. One’s initial impulse, when faced with the spectacle of a naked girl attached by ropes to a blond stud in black boots plus obligatory whip, is to burst out yawning. But Baronio’s pictures are laudable for their quality and most of the fantasies count as found objects. They litter the Times Square district where she works. She is performing a certain documentary service in recording them, even if you doubt the lasting value of her self-expression. For myself, I’m bound to say I’m at least half hooked, and would like to see what she does next. I don’t think it’s just because of the pretty girls, although I could certainly do without some of the guys, especially the one in the leather jock-strap and the hat.
A photographer who interests himself more in documentary than in self-expression is nowadays likely to remain anonymous until such time as his unassertive vision turns out to have been unique all along. For most photographers that time will never come no matter how arresting their photographs. The Best of Photojournalism 5 enshrines some of the year’s most riveting shots. You can flick through it and decide if reality is being consumed. I was particularly impressed by L. Roger Turner’s three pictures of a mongoloid boy hefting a bowling ball in the Special Olympics. Perhaps I am congratulating myself on my own compassion, which has in fact been reduced to a stock response by too many images. There is also a chance that my aesthetic sensibility is being blunted instead of sharpened when I admire Bill Wax’s study of Chris Snode preparing to dive into a heated Florida pool on a cold winter’s morning. Crucified in steam, Snode looks like a Duccio plus dry ice.
Eve Arnold’s new book In China raises the question of veracity. Sontag argued persuasively that the beautifying power of photography derives from its weakness as a truth-teller. It is indeed true that a photograph can tell you something only if you already know something about its context, but the same applies to any other kind of signal. Here are some extremely pretty colored photographs of China. They inform you of many facts, including the fact that there is at least one bald Buddhist monk still in business at the Cold Mountain monastery in Suchow. What they can’t tell you is just how long those children singing in the classroom will be obliged to go on believing in the divinity of the man with his picture on the wall. The same kind of stricture, if it is one, applies to Photographs for the Tsar, which collects the astonishing pre-revolutionary colored photographs by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, a forgotten pioneer now destined to be clamorously remembered.
Prokudin-Gorskii employed a triple-negative process of his own devising. Nicholas II commissioned him to perpetuate anything that took his fancy. The results fell short of those Eve Arnold is accustomed to obtaining but not by far. Prokudin-Gorskii was necessarily limited to photographing stationary objects but took care to pick the right ones. The book takes its place beside Chloe Obolensky’s indispensable The Russian Empire, published last year.
Across the Rhine is the latest in the Time-Life corporation’s admirable series based on its own World War II archive. Once again the text, contributed this time by Franklin M. Davis, Jr., but with the usual assistance from “the editors of Time-Life books,” is a sane corrective to the revisionist theories now rife among more exalted historians. The photographs do what photographs best can—they give you some idea of what the reality you already know something about was like in detail. Some of the pictures taken in the liberated concentration camps are included. Sontag tells us that her life was changed by seeing these very pictures—a moment in her book which I appreciated from the heart, since it was an extensive reading of the Nuremberg transcripts, with due attention to the horrific photographic evidence contained in Volume XXXI, that did more than anything else to shape my own view of life.
Sontag might agree that whatever else images had done to take the edge off reality, they rubbed her nose in it in that case. These photographs are hard to respond to adequately but then so might have been the reality. The brave documentary photographer Margaret Bourke-White, after taking her pictures in Buchenwald, told her editors that she would have to see the prints developed before she believed what she had witnessed. It is a point for an aesthetician to seize, but too much should not be made of it. She was speaking metaphorically. The thing had happened and she could tell that it had happened. Her photographs helped, however inadequately, to tell the world.
There is a case for photographing horrors, since not all torturers are as keen as Hitler’s and Pol Pot’s to keep their own pictorial record of what they get up to. Snapping celebrities with their pants down is harder to justify, but in his preface to Private Pictures Anthony Burgess does his best to convince us that the paparazzi are engaged in something valuable. From the photographs you can’t find out much beyond a few variously startling physical facts about the firmness of Romy Schneider’s behind, the pliancy of Elton John’s wrist, and the magnitude of Giovanni Agnelli’s virile member. It is also sensationally revealed that Orson Welles has a fat gut and Yul Brynner a bald head. Burgess is pretty scathing about Brigitte Bardot’s breasts, but to me she looks in better shape than Burgess was when I last saw him.
Apparently Burgess shares the gutter press assumption that those who achieve fame should be made to suffer from it. But many of this book’s victims are famous only as a side effect of pursuing honorable careers. “This book,” growls Burgess, “in bringing stars down to the human level, is a kind of visual poem on the theme of expendability.” One night before a Cambridge Union debate I saw Burgess get angry because Glenda Jackson had not turned up to lead the opposing team. Burgess made it clear that to meet her ranked high among his reasons for being in attendance. Not even such unexpendable philosophers as Burgess are always entirely innocent of the star-fucking impulse. Private Pictures supplies additional evidence for the already well-documented theory that those who fuck the stars are the same people who enjoy sticking it to them.
The grinding triviality of the paparazzi retroactively makes the dedication of the documentary photographers sound less like solemnity and more like high seriousness. Karin Becker Ohrn’s Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition takes you back to the days of the Farm Security Administration, when a photographer could feel that she was helping to open the world’s eyes. Lange believed that it took time for a photographer’s personality to emerge. Some photographers can’t wait that long, but even if the wrong people sometimes get famous it is generally true that only the right ones stay that way. Dialogue with Photography, edited by Paul Hill and Thomas Cooper, is an absorbing compilation of interviews with the big names, including Strand, Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson, Beaton, Lartigue, and Kertész. The simplicity of true artistic absorption comes shining through even the murkiest rhetoric about Art. According to the late Minor White, Stieglitz asked him if he had ever been in love. When White said yes, Stieglitz told him he could be a photographer. Lartigue makes the same point. “First, one must learn how to look, how to love.” It probably sounds better in French.
Brandt, the perpetual loner, is not present. On BBC radio recently he described how Cartier-Bresson, when they met in Paris in the Fifties, wouldn’t speak to him, because he had sinned against photographic purity by cropping the negative and using artificial light. At the time of writing, Brandt is all set to unleash on London an exhibition of his recent work in which the girls are reportedly weighed down with more chains and leather straps than Helmut Newton ever dreamed of. Cartier-Bresson would doubtless not approve. The photographers have always been quite capable of ideological warfare. Ansel Adams said that Walker Evans’s work gave him a hernia.
Peter Tausk’s Photography in the 20th Century tells you how the Western photographic tradition looks from Czechoslovakia, for whose art and photography students this book was originally written. Tausk has his nose pressed to the glass but is not unduly dazzled. He has a useful way of pointing out that the reporters are as worthy of attention as the name photographers—the kind of thought which would occur to you with special sharpness if you lived in a country where there are no reporters. The best encyclopedia of the name photographers is still The Magic Image by Cecil Beaton and Gail Buckland (1975). One had always suspected that Gail Buckland must have done most of the work. The suspicion is confirmed by the high quality of Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography, the authorship of which is claimed by her alone. Etymology, philology, mathematics, crystallography—his interests were endless, and all pursued at the highest level. On top of all that, he set the standards for the intelligent use of his invention. His photograph of volumes from his own library is a necessary reminder, bequeathed to us by the progenitor, that the apparent divorce between word and image is really an indissoluble marriage. One closes the book more astounded than ever at Talbot’s achievements. It was a genius who started it all.
Whether all those famous names that have cropped up since should be thought of as geniuses is open to doubt. The Americans are more vexed by such questions than the Europeans, who better understand that some arts are minor and that it is more satisfactory to be an accomplished practitioner of a minor art. than a third-rate exponent of a major one. Enjoying a less coherent social and intellectual life, the Americans have understandably either clung together for warmth or been strident in isolation. The consequent rhetoric should not too quickly be dismissed even when it is patent moonshine. The impure, applied, and minor arts are often accompanied by dumb talk, off which it is easy for the critic to score points. He does best, however, when addressing the thing itself. Photography, despite the attendant cacophony of promotion, remains, after all, a miraculous event—almost as interesting, in fact, as Szarkowski says it is. Castalia still has its attractions. As for the higher thinker, he must sooner or later discover that the aesthetic of photography, like the aesthetic of the novel or the aesthetic of the ballet, is a snark. The best contribution a critic can make to aesthetics is to aim for consistency, argue closely, and be wary of big ideas.
Sontag’s notion that images consume reality counts as a big idea. Intellectuals should speak for themselves in the first instance. Obviously images are not consuming her reality. So she must mean the rest of us. Nor was Benjamin being as penetrating as he sounded when he said that people flooded with images would not know how to read a book. My own children watch television for half a day at a stretch and still read more books than I did at their age. Benjamin thought of photography as one of the means by which fascism would allow the masses to express themselves without posing any threat to the social order. At that time everyone had a theory about the masses. Benjamin had already died his lonely death before it was generally realized that the masses do not exist. There are only people—so many of them that the aesthetician can be forgiven for finding their numbers meaningless. But the critic’s job is to maintain what the best photographers have helped define—a discriminating eye.
December 18, 1980