Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Friday, April 23, 2010

Open closed open

I've been rereading Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz's magnificent Bystander: A History of Street Photography — after all, New York in Plain Sight surely belongs to the genre of street photography, if nowhere else as well.

Madison Avenue & 60th Street, Northeast Corner

And Bystander is indeed magnificent, the sort of confluence of two minds, and two pairs of eyes, that one could only wish would happen more often.

Not just worth reading, worth rereading, and then rereading again. I read it before starting out on what became New York in Plain Sight, and then again after I'd more or less finished the photography, and now I've started to reread it again, as the project nears completion (at least of this phase, on the hopeful assumption that there will be more phases to follow).

Already on the first page of their introduction, I'm brought up short by the following:

… a paradox to which street photographers are very sensitive. On the one hand, the many shots that they can get at even a rapidly moving, changing subject allow them to strive for the singular image, some one, perfect composition into which all the other possibilities are condensed. On the other hand, they might make purposely open-ended, unbalanced pictures that can't stand alone and need to be played off one another in groups or runs in books. The choice between the two ideas is, in large measure, the choice between Henri Cartier-Bresson's work and Robert Frank's. [Bystander, p. 34]

For simplicity's sake, let's just call these alternatives "open" (Frank) and "closed" (Cartier-Bresson). Of course, these alternatives are extremes, guides to thought, probably never or only rarely to be found in their pure form in any actual photograph.

Moreover, since the eye continues to learn with every image it sees, our sense of what is "open" and what is "closed" continues to change, and with the passage of time and the accumulation of experience, Frank's individual photographs have — to this eye, anyway — come to seem less "open," more self-contained, than they once did, and — again, to this eye — Cartier-Bresson's have come to seem more "open," albeit with an openness quite distinct from Frank's.

While the individual photographs in The Americans may seem open-ended, each in need of all the others, the set as a whole has a kind of closure to it: it is, as everyone now recognizes — very thoroughly composed, despite the gesture of casual artlessness. It is as if the individual photographs are open-ended to the whole but not or not so much to the world, and the closure of the whole itself is an important source of the oppressive, stifling quality of The Americans that gives the book its critical punch — a film noir in 83 stills, the story board of a journey that ends, exhausted and nowhere, at the side of a road.

(Sez me.)

Whereas Cartier-Bresson's "closed" compositions have more often than not whetted my appetite to look at more Cartier-Bresson photographs, without the body of work ever seeming closed to me. Quite the contrary, the more of his photographs I look at, the more I find myself wanting to leave off looking at them and go out and look, not at photographs, but at the world.

Recently Peter Schjeldahl complained in The New Yorker about the perfection of Cartier-Bresson's work, the apparent contradiction between its "Apollonian" detachment and the emotional import of its subjects, but that's not what's at issue here, no more than the validity of the critique of American society implicit in Frank's work, much rejected when The Americans first appeared and no doubt still contentious in some circles.

But is there a connection? Does closure exclude involvement or critique, does openness preclude detachment? Or is the question rather how the photographer balances the whole matrix of possibilities?

Possible desiderata for the next iteration of New York in Plain Sight: more open, more closed, more involved, more detached — and all at once too, of course.

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