Recently I was browsing in the photography section upstairs at The Strand and chanced upon a title that naturally caught my attention, believe it or not for two reasons: the title was In Plain Sight: The Photographs of Beaumont Newhall, and the second reason — the first, I trust, is obvious — is that I hadn't known (or possibly hadn't remembered) that this great historian of photography was himself a photographer. It's a lovely book, with a sweet preface by Newhall's friend Ansel Adams, and I bought it, along with another Newhall title: The Daguerreotype in America.
That's the trouble with buying a book like that, you end up buying two, or three, or….
One thing does lead to another, and by the end of an afternoon spent with both books I'd decided it was time to reread, carefully, Newhall's marvelous History of Photography, partly for the sheer pleasure of it and partly because for ages now I've been trying to figure out how to characterize what I was (and am) after in the photographs of my own In Plain Sight, and history, especially history as well done as Newhall does it, can be a good and stimulating source of ideas of all kinds.
Now what I mean by "what I was (and am) after" in New York in Plain Sight has two aspects, one having to do with the subject, the content if you will, of project; the other with formal and technical characteristics of the photographs themselves. (Yes, I know, it's a hoary distinction, form and content, but idea of overcoming it has by now gotten long in the tooth as well, so let's just use it for what it's worth and see where that takes us now that we "know better.")
The former aspect, the subject, the content, I've been content for quite a while to describe with the simple formula, "everyday life at street level in daytime Manhattan," though despite this simplicity I do believe that there is a great depth to this subject (whether or not I've been able to capture it in the photographs).
The second aspect, however, the formal/technical aspect(s), has given me a lot more trouble, and this where I hoped to get some help from Newhall's History. And — surprise, surprise — I did, but first let me try to describe what I thought was after in the photographs, or at least part of what I was after, at the time I conceived the project, starting about five years ago.
What I wanted was to take pictures of the city that had nothing whatsoever to do with Photography with a capital "P" or with Art with a capital "A," photographs that excluded any and every trace of the reflexive and self-reflexive, the knowing, the ironic, the expressive; photographs that excluded, in short, the photographer from the photograph, but then also to do this in such a way as to not call attention to the absence of these qualities either. In short, to have the photographs be "about" nothing except their subject.
I should say at this point that my wanting this for the New York in Plain Sight photographs doesn't mean that I dislike or reject other people's photographs that do convey a consciousness of Photography and Art and their histories and current practices, that are reflexive and self-reflexive, knowing, ironic, expressive, subjective, or even that aggressively reject these qualities — I like, even love a whole range of possibilities, from Nan Goldin through Diane Arbus and from John Vachon through the Beckers and many, many others as well. But loving their work doesn't mean that I want to make photographers like theirs, or even not like theirs.
I used to joke with myself that what I was after were "high class snapshots" — what Atget might have done if he'd had a high-end digital camera and some contemporary lenses by Leica or Zeiss to work with instead of his 18 x 24 cm view camera and Rectilinear lens.
But then we would have missed Berenice Abbott's marvelously overwrought prose portraying Atget as a kind of Christ of photography, dragging his heavy camera and tripod cross-like through the narrow streets of Paris early in the morning to avoid the scorn and ridicule of the unwashed, all the while subsisting on nothing more than bread and milk for thirty years, etc., etc.
Well, not to say anything against Atget, or Berencie Abbot either — I love their work, both of them, I do — but for all the romanticizing of Atget's work, and for all that has been said about the virtues of the contemplative approach that the view camera enforces, I couldn't help wondering what Atget would have done if he'd had the option of using today's equipment, perhaps a Linhof technical camera with a Phase One 60 mega-pixel digital back and a Schneider or Rodenstock lens, mounted on a gyro-stabilizer mounted in turn on a lightweight carbon-fiber monopod — but now I've digressed into my own fantasy of how I'd like to reshoot New York in Plain Sight, maybe next year….
But back to the subject of this post: "New York in plain sight" was suggested to me by a wonderful photographer and writer, Benjamin Busch, who used this expression to describe the photographs in what I was then calling just "The Manhattan Street Corners." I'd already given a lot of thought to the idea of "the plain style" in photography — not to be confused with "straight photography" (more about this in another post) — and "in plain sight" seemed to capture the connection between the plain style I was searching for and the subject itself: "In plain sight" — plain to see, plainly seen (thanks, Ben).
And then this weekend, rereading Newhall's History, I discovered him describing the work of 19th century photographers like William Henry Jackson, Carleton E. Watkins, Francis Frith, and others as "topographical," that is, as concerned with "the literal, straightforward representation of the most characteristic aspects of places and things" as distinguished from an approach whose aim is "aesthetic … a means of personal expression." (Newhall, The History of Photography, p. 105)
And I thought, yes, that's it, that's what I'm about here — ein chadash tachat ha shemesh (there's nothing new under the sun) — perhaps, even if taking up Newhall's term puts me a little in mind of Monsieur Jourdain's delight in discovering that he'd been speaking prose all along.
But words can help, can be, if nothing else, a home for an idea, if only perhaps a foster home or even, in some circumstances, a place of refuge, somewhere to go to sort things out, all the while knowing that eventually you'll be leaving that place, that word, for somewhere — and something — else.