Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I was talking last night with my friend Vincent Virga, a world-class photo editor and author of three "must" books: The Eighties, Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States, and Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations. Vincent has spent the better part of a lifetime looking at photographs — millions of them — and we were talking about some of our favorites among the great Farm Security Administration photographers — Jack DeLano, Russell Lee, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott — and how different their photographs look when seen, as they can be at the Library of Congress, in the context of all of the 175,000+ photographs produced for this agency.

Even the individual photographs look different, somehow, have a different import to the eye, when seen as just one — no matter how great (and some of them certainly are that) — among thousands instead of by itself, wholly out of this context, or together with just a few dozen or so, maybe even a hundred, other photographs from the project.

And also how different they look also in the context of all the other FSA photographers, and what happens to their work when it is "edited" into monographs on the individual photographers, or into "greatest hits" collections.

Ever since John Szarkowski famously proposed that the essence of photography was "editing," we've been seduced into believing that aesthetic virtue somehow resides in the mere fact of choices having been made instead of in the much harder work of coming to understand what the choices were and which ones were made and to what end — which I'm (almost) sure is what Szarkowski had in mind when he proposed editing as the crux of the photographic art.

Of course, there are other views, a favorite of which is Lee Friedlander's oft quoted remark that

I only wanted Uncle Vernon standing by his own car (a Hudson) on a clear day, I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on the fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.

Which might be construed as slyly contradicting Szarkowski's dictum — or at least its reductive interpretation — or else as implicitly affirming its importance — the importance, that is, of its (hopefully) original, non-reductive intent. Or, of course, both contradicting and affirming it.

At this point I think that I must confess that I love flickr. I sometimes spend hours — especially when I have something more important to do — browsing through the flickr galleries, looking at hundreds and thousands of pictures, but only ever looking at the real "snapshots": Aunt Edna's birthday party, our neighbor's new car, the five of us at last year's tailgate party, etc., etc.

What I love about these pictures is the combination of their absolute artlessness with their total devotion to their subject, which is another way of saying, their generosity, their indifference to the self of the photographer, the way in which they're not about the photographer, or photography, or art, or anything else other than, e.g., "Joe washing the car last Saturday just before it rained."

Darragh Park and I used to talk endlessly about this, about whether it was possible to set out to achieve this kind of artlessness deliberately without falling into a sort of second-order "artful artlessness" and still, however paradoxically, arrive at something that might be considered, in some art world or other — I use the term more or less in Howard S. Becker's sense — "art."

(It occurs to me that the artists — in any medium — whom I admire most are those whose art could only be accepted as such by an art-world that didn't exist before their work was made but that was brought into existence, at least in part, in response to their work. Which may be just a sociological way of reading Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent.")
"Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine …."
Scale matters — that was the conclusion Darragh and I came to, especially as a way to overcome the artiness of artful artlessness. We were talking a lot then about the late, large scale works of Morton Feldman, and about what Feldman had to say about them, about what happens when you get beyond what Feldman inveighed against as "the twenty minute piece" and into the realm of pieces that may, like his Second String Quartet, run for as much as six hours.

On that scale, or on the scale of the large-scale photography project (e.g., Dylan's Stone's), the kind of close compositional "knitting" (as I call it) that matters in a twenty minute piece (to say nothing of the Webernian two minute piece) or a single photograph just doesn't matter, or doesn't matter in the same way or to the same degree, and other, larger-scaled — and one might say, looser limbed — structurings come to the fore.

Jack DeLano was a great photographer, and some of his images — e.g., of the railway yards in Chicago — might even be called "iconic", but it's quite another experience to click through them by the thousand. They're all pretty terrific — he really was a very great photographer — and somehow the scale of his accomplishment when seen in bulk manages strip away the brown varnish of "celebrity" or "iconicity" that our culture's obsession with the individual artist and the individual work of art slathers over anything it can coopt into the service of a belief in the primacy of the individual — a belief that has, I think, done as much to obliterate individuality (and not only in the arts) as its collectivist opposites.

Well, huh!

To end this post on a lighter note, but addressed to the same issues, here's my favorite Monet story: Monet was in London, working on the London Bridges, when he got a letter from his dealer, Durand-Ruel, in Paris, complaining that he, Monet, had to be more careful about properly signing his paintings — there were fake Monet's being sold in Paris and they were hurting the prices that Durand-Ruel could get for the real thing. To which Monet replied, "Not to worry, there's nothing to be done about it — after all, it is so easy to fake a Monet: I've done it myself hundreds of times." [Remembered, or more likely misremembered, from Grace Seiberling's Monet in London.]

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