Not-So-Simple Simplicity

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OCTOBER 27, 2003

Not-So-Simple Simplicity

Museumgoers who still believe in artistic progress are likely to be
shaken by a visit to "The Dawn of Photography: French
Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855, " at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
through January 4. This finely tuned powerhouse of an exhibition,
which focuses on the very beginnings of the art of the camera,
doubles as a demonstration of nearly everything that the camera has
ever been able to do. Photography, a medium that is often said to be
fueled by technological change, nevertheless appears to have been
born fully formed, so that in a scant fifteen years all the
possibilities, while far from exhausted, had already been sounded
and explored. Near the very beginning of the show, we see
photography's capacity for heart-stopping lucidity leap to life in a
group of views of Paris and the Seine. Soon afterward we find
ourselves wondering at the rapidity with which this
world-washed-clean vision is turned to portraiture, to erotica, to
studies of foreign places. And almost simultaneously, as
photographers eagerly pile still-life elements into baroquely
convoluted arrangements or stage-manage their friends and servants
into more or less sentimental tableaux, we are confronted with the
camera's powers of dissimulation, as bare fact gives way to fantasy
and also to kitsch.While photographic technology continues to move forward at breakneck
speed, so that the paper print and the family album now seem on the
verge of being eclipsed by the digital images that everybody
e-mails to family and friends, the messages that photographs convey
have not changed all that much in the past century and a half. The
medium remains committed to things as they are, in spite of all the
questions that have been raised about the veracity of photography.
No painting could possibly convey the almost alarming immediacy
that we experience in a tiny daguerreotype portrait of Delacroix
included in "The Dawn of Photography," where the romantic painter's
gaze is so darkly energetic that it seems to stir the very air in
the gallery. The frank, unvarnished eroticism of one of the
greatest photographs in the exhibition, a study of a nude black
woman, her legs spread, her hand between her legs, is underscored
by the photographic artist's easygoing technical know-how. In some
of these daguerreotypes we see how the camera's power to freeze time
becomes an instrument for romantic complication, and the very
process of lingering over ordinary things lends them a poetic
loveliness. The steadiness with which photographers attend to the
look and the feel of the world around them can suggest an almost
conservative spirit.

While there is no reason to believe that nothing new can occur in
photography because so much has already occurred, the extent to
which the history of photography is front-loaded with revelations
certainly challenges the widely held belief that photographers have
more of a purchase on the present and the future than painters or
sculptors. Almost simultaneously with the opening of "The Dawn of
Photography," the International Center of Photography has mounted
what is billed as its "First Triennial of Photography and Video."
The exhibition, which is up through November 30, is called
"Strangers," and it sounds a theme that goes back, according to
Carol Squiers, a curator at ICP, all the way to Daguerre. The
shutter speeds that the inventor of the daguerreotype had to use
when he trained his camera on the sights of Paris were far too slow
to capture the people hurrying along the street, but Daguerre did
manage to immortalize a man on the Boulevard du Temple who had
stood still to have his boots cleaned--and that man, Squiers
believes, is photography's first stranger. While few of the
strangers in the ICP exhibition have occasioned photographs that
are in any way remarkable, the show does reflect a spirited
curiosity about the variety of human experience, and it is
relatively free of the whorish eagerness to innovate that turns
most international surveys into multimedia instruction manuals for
the radically chic.

Among the celebrated photographers who have taken an interest in the
men and women who live at the margins of our society and are
sometimes regarded as strangers, Diane Arbus is a hallowed figure.
An almost religiose excitement attends the appearance of Diane
Arbus: Revelations (Random House), an elaborately produced book
that accompanies the exhibition of the same name that will be at
the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from October 25 through
February 8, and then tours the United States and Europe until 2006.
Photographs, which are made by machines, are in certain respects
the most disinterested of works of art, and Arbus sometimes seems
to emphasize the impartiality of the camera's eye through the
stark, documentarian symmetry of her compositions. Yet there is
always an element of ambiguity mixed into Arbus's approach to
photographic disinterestedness, for even as she turns our attention
away from the high bohemian Manhattan where she lived and worked,
she gives her off-the- grid cast of characters a dramatically
personalized aura. Through the very act of snapping the picture,
she is announcing, she is shouting from the rafters, "This is what
interests me."

You could argue that a photographer is constitutionally incapable of
putting form before feeling. The very act of making the
photograph--of composing the image, of selecting the lighting--is a
way of declaring one's feelings. Even a photographer such as Aaron
Siskind, who is generally regarded as an abstractionist, raises
questions about choices made in the world, because he discovered
his enigmatic images in the peeling paint and the dusty graffiti of
city walls. When I see Siskind's work--which is the subject of a
number of exhibitions and publications celebrating the centenary of
his birth--I ask, Why this particular peeling wall? Painters, who
make a world from scratch, disappear into their creations.
Photographers always remain observers. When we look at photographs
we are always being reminded of a particular person's relationship
with the facts--and that is finally an ethical relationship.

The towering figures in the invention of photography in the third
decade of the nineteenth century, Louis Jacques Mand Daguerre in
France and William Henry Fox Talbot in England, were as interested
in the sciences as they were in the arts, and their scientific bent
acted as a damper on the perfervidness of the Victorian
imagination. While it was Joseph Nicphore Nipce who made many of
the discoveries essential to the development of the daguerreotype,
it was Daguerre who perfected the polished copper sheet that was
rendered lightsensitive through silver plating. When he presented
his achievement to the French Academy of Sciences in 1839, Daguerre
was already well known in Paris as a designer of sets for the Opra
and the proprietor of the Diorama, a theater where he presented
vast, romantic architectural vistas, painted on two sides of
translucent fabrics and elaborately lit to create proto-cinematic
effects. Although within a number of decades the daguerreotype,
which was a unique image, would be overwhelmed by much-improved
versions of Talbot's negative, from which paper prints could be
produced ad infinitum, there is a sense in which the exquisite
detail of the daguerrean image has never been bettered. A few years
ago, when Andreas Gursky's immense color photographs of vacation
spots and retail interiors and teeming humanity were greeted with
such enthusiasm at the Museum of Modem Art, I was amused to hear
people praise these high-gloss spectacles for their clarity,
because in fact their detail is quite fuzzy, at least compared with
the razor-sharp focus of the finest daguerreotypes.

At "The Dawn of Photography," where a good many of the works are by
photographers whose names are unknown, we may be left with the
impression that the resplendence of these images is an effect of
the medium itself, and this is not entirely untrue. The exhibition,
which was seen in a much larger version at the Muse d'Orsay in
Paris last summer, has been magnificently presented in New York by
Malcolm Daniel, a curator in the Metropolitan's department of
photographs. This is one more in the recent string of supreme
museumgoing experiences presented by the Metropolitan; I don't
think New York has seen a survey of nineteenth-century photography
as exciting since "Era of Exploration, " devoted to early
representations of the American West, at the Metropolitan in the
mid-1970s. All on their own, the views of Paris in "The Dawn of
Photography" would make a matchless exhibition. In a group of
pellucid studies of the Seine and the le de la Cit and the
Pont-Royal and the Louvre, the silveriness of the daguerreotype
proves a perfect vehicle to catch the gray sparkle of Parisian
light. A study of a Renaissance house on the rue Saint- Denis, with
its elaborate carved faade, gives us a first glimpse of the almost
scientific brand of nostalgia that would some sixty years later
animate Atget's studies of the crumbling monuments of France. A
daguerreotype of Notre Dame, swathed in immense black draperies for
the funeral in 1842 of the still youthful duc d'Orlans, is an
imperishable document of a lost form of spectacular public funerary
decor.

Outdoor scenes are certainly among the glories of this show, and
they range far beyond Paris to the monuments of Athens and Egypt,
the streets of Martinique, the cedars of Lebanon, and the
graphite-mining operations that an adventurous Frenchman set up in
Siberia. Going through "The Dawn of Photography, " wondering at the
feats of technical perfection that were achieved under what must
have often been hair-raisingly difficult conditions, you see how for
these photographers technological and scientific know-how became an
expression of artistic instinct. In the 1840s there was a rapid
rise in the production of portrait daguerreotypes, not only in
France but in the rest of Europe and especially in the United
States, and although much of this work is assembly- line stuff,
there were some photographers who pushed the portrait to poetic
heights. Among the most beautiful portraits in "The Dawn of
Photography" is a study in quotidian serenity that is attributed to
Hippolyte Bayard: a middle- aged man, his legs stretched in front
of him, his top hat set casually on a stone, takes in the sunshine
of a little courtyard, its walls ornamented with espaliered plants.
Adolphe Humbert de Molard, one of the brilliant amateurs who are
key figures in the early history of photography, is responsible for
an unexpectedly gripping bit of make-believe: his study of a young
man pretending to be a prisoner chained in his cell would be pure
kitsch if it were not for the amateur actor's smoldering,
illusion-shattering romantic gaze. Among the electrifying erotic
photographs included are images so brazen or so clinical that some
museumgoers may see a resemblance to Courbet's Origin of the World.

While it is the natural shimmering beauty of the daguerreotype that
carries us through "The Dawn of Photography" and makes magic of
such curiosities as a photomicrograph of a drop of frog's blood,
the show also includes more than a few works in which artistry
gives way to artiness. When Humbert de Molard sets up an elaborate
sickbed scene, or when an anonymous photographer poses a boy so as
to recall the coziness of de Hooch's Dutch interiors, it is easy to
see how an attempt to mimic painting can transform the photograph's
verisimilitude into a cheap-shot magic trick. What is far more
difficult to grasp from the work included in "The Dawn of
Photography" is that the very frankness of photography can also
inspire a whole other kind of artistic posturing. For if directness
is photography's glory, it is also liable to be manipulated, used
as a sort of all- purpose rhetorical device, until frankness itself
becomes a form of obfuscation or artiness--which is a fair
description, I think, of the work of Diane Arbus.

Arbus, who committed suicide in 1971 at the age of forty-eight, is
widely admired as a truth-teller, and if the initial reactions to
the new book, Diane Arbus: Revelations, are any indication, the
woman and her work are exerting as strong an attraction today as
they did at the time of the posthumous retrospective at the Museum
of Modern Art in 1972. Arbus's warts-and-all photographs, which are
at once exposs and benedictions, create just the right kind of
psychological havoc for a public that is all too willing to believe
that any image that disturbs your equanimity is emotionally
authentic, and that the greatest works of art are the ones that
leave you wondering if you are yourself emotionally authentic. The
public all too easily confuses hyperbole with honesty, and Arbus,
who is intent on telling us how awful everything is, is a master of
the highfalutin creep-out.

In a series of photographs of older women on the streets of New
York, Arbus seems to suggest that these ladies, who quite clearly
take considerable pride in looking their best, are in fact ghouls;
she gives such a sharp-eyed attention to their elaborately made-up
faces and carefully arranged clothes that they begin to resemble
the transvestites in whom Arbus also took an interest. The very
eagerness with which Arbus's ladies out for an afternoon pose for
the camera becomes a measure of their self-delusion. What's missing
is the delicacy that Brassa (whose work Arbus admired) brought to
his famous photograph of an old whore, swathed in cheap jewelry,
seated in a caf. Brassa reminds us that, for all her haggard
theatricality, this wreck of a woman is still the proud possessor
of a pair of beautiful, velvety eyes. Arbus uses the fixity of the
image to deny people their freedom--and in so doing she also denies
them their self-esteem. She undermines the young as well as the old,
the pretty as well as the ugly. Often photographed front and
center, in a dull symmetry, even her most sexually intriguing
subjects seem wilted, marooned. Nobody ever looks their best, which
is meant as some sort of revelation.

Arbus is one of those devious bohemians who celebrate other people's
eccentricities and are all the while aggrandizing their own
narcissistically pessimistic view of the world. In a letter from
1968, Arbus observes that "all families are creepy in a way," and
of course we know what she means. There is a solipsistic element to
family life, a comfortableness in the way that husbands and wives
and children interact that can at times feel almost sordid. When
Arbus photographs an upscale suburban family relaxing in their
backyard, she seems to want us to believe that the husband's and
the wife's desire to present themselves as an attractive, sexy
couple hides some terrible secret. But the only secret that is
revealed is the secret of Arbus's own snobbery. She is the New York
Jewish intellectual who treats these polished bourgeois as if they
were fascinating freaks in her personal sideshow. While it has often
been observed that Arbus's documentary manner owes much to August
Sander, we must not forget that Sander brought the same equitable
eye to all people, beautiful and ugly, rich and poor, wise and
foolish, so that when his work is seen in bulk, as it was meant to
be, the spirit is one of democratic optimism.

Arbus stacks the deck through her insistent focus on people who are
mad or odd or marginal, and that is her privilege as an artist.
What I find unacceptable is that she leaves it to us to sort out
the meanings. Arbus may not always have known what she wanted from
her subjects, but she always knew how to give her confusions a
fashionably ambiguous tone. In her letters Arbus describes visits
to a school for the retarded in New Jersey, where she found the
subjects of some of her last photographs, and you feel the warmth of
her attention to these people--indeed, the problem may be that she
makes too much of her own interest. Her attentiveness becomes an
ego trip. She is Saint Diane, tending her flock. She makes a very
telling comment in the midst of a technical discussion of her
method of mixing strobe and daylight to create certain bright yet
grayed-down effects. "I am like someone who gets excellent glasses
because of a slight defect in eyesight," she writes, "and puts
Vaseline on them to make it look more like he normally sees." She
is always cultivating equivocation; she is always razzing the
honesty of photography. And even as she rages against the coolness
of the medium, she is wrapping herself in photography's inherent
earnestness. The photographs are an emotional tease.; Nowadays the
very concept of artistic responsibility is seen by some as
oppressive...

Nowadays the very concept of artistic responsibility is seen by some
as oppressive, and the result is that Arbus gets away with
suggesting that the world made her do it. Arbus pioneered a sort of
passive-aggressive attitude that flourishes among contemporary
photographers who shove what they regard as challenging subject
matter in our faces and leave it floating there. One young
photographer who is receiving a good deal of attention this fall is
Katy Grannan, who finds the men and women who are the subjects of
her work by placing ads in newspapers for models willing to pose in
the nude. Grannan had two shows this fall--at the Artemis Greenberg
Van Doren Gallery and at Salon 94- -and the effect is
indeterminacy incarnate, whether she is photographing her amateur
bathing beauties and overweight kids in color in pretty rural
settings, which gives the large-scale images a disconcerting
sweetness, or in black and white in claustrophobic interiors.
Grannan's subjects are all obviously glad to have us see what they
look like with nothing on, and of course we take a look. While
Grannan exercises a certain amount of control over these experiments
in the banality of voyeurism, I am unable to locate a scrap of
significance in photographic mood pieces that are one part
pulchritude and one part ennui.

Grannan's work would have easily fit into the International Center
of Photography's "Strangers," which has its share of photographers,
like Rineke Dijkstra and Collier Schorr, who play a sort of
bait-and-switch game with their frequently young and attractive
subjects, presenting them as visual candy and as something else--as
illustrations of a theory about gender or race or class, a theory
that is nowadays presented with a certain post-political
listlessness. If there is something more to "Strangers" than this
hipster morality, it is that there is an inherent fascination to
photographs that from time to time eludes even the bestlaid plans
of the forty photographers and video artists whose work is on
display. Justine Kurland's pictures of men and women who live on
contemporary communes are not much more than impressively
stage-managed magazine illustrations, and yet her cast of
characters are a fascinating bunch. I had mixed responses to
Shizuka Yokomizo's photographs of people seen though the windows of
their apartments. Yokomizo sends letters to the occupants of these
first-floor apartments in which she explains that she will appear
outside a certain window at a certain time, and her subjects are
the people who actually decide to respond to her bizarre
solicitations. The idea is a slim contrivance, and yet which of us
has not looked into windows, wondering at what goes on in there?

Yokomizo's photographs are trivial, guilty fun--Rear Window without
Hitchcock, Kelly, or Stewart. But elsewhere in "Strangers" there is
something embarrassing about the cleverness with which serious
subjects are turned into neat, gallery-friendly packages. I
strongly object to the aestheticizing of political dissent in Efrat
Shvily's series of black and white images, "New Homes in Israel and
the Occupied Territories." Shvily photographs these housing
developments when there are no people in sight, so that they take on
a minimalist eeriness. She draws our attention to the banality of
the new buildings, and in doing so, as I understand it, she means
to merge opposition to the settlements with a kind of sly
demonstration of her own good taste. Is her point that the
settlements in the West Bank would be fine if Renzo Piano or Frank
Gehry were drawing up the plans?

Two of the works that I liked best in the ICP triennial are brief
films, perhaps because in these works the strangers are at last
able to exert some freedom of movement, however limited that may
be. Fiona Tan's "Facing Forward" is a collage of archival footage
that focuses on indigenous peoples in New Guinea and other parts of
Asia. We do not know what the original purpose of these brief
lengths of film may have been, but we can see that much of it is at
least half a century old, and the primitivism of the moviemaking
technique lends anonymous men and women a haunted,
there-but-not-there beauty. While Tan may believe that she is
showing us the victims of colonial oppression, this archival
footage has its own kind of subversive richness. These New Guinea
natives, dressed in loincloths and little else, are certainly
following the orders of some director or cameraman, but the
film-makers' actual intentions remain murky, so that what we are
left with is the modest yet vivid presence of particular people;
embalmed in old celluloid, they become wistful victors.

Perhaps the most impressive work in "Strangers" is Zwelethu
Mthethwa's "Flex. " Filmed in black and white, this series of
close-ups of African men, mostly of their faces, has a boldness
that recalls avant-garde silent films or the photographs of
Renger-Patzsch. Mthethwa, who is South African, moves in close. He
films heads right-side up and upside down, and he revels in the
beautiful symmetry of eyes and nose and in the surprising form of
an open mouth. He uses the energetic physicality of his images to
build an erotic abstraction.

If there is a single characteristic that all the best photographic
work has in common, it is a certain plainness, a directness of
address that does not in any way preclude the possibility of
voluptuousness or complexity or ambiguity. Aaron Siskind 100
(powerHouse), an opulent album published to celebrate the centenary
of the photographer's birth, contains only a brief page of text, a
credo that Siskind wrote in 1950, but there is eloquence in these
few sentences. "The business of making a photograph," Siskind
observes, "may be said in simple terms to consist of three
elements: the objective world (whose permanent condition is change
and disorder), the sheet of paper on which the picture will be
realized, and the experience which brings them together." This
experience, Siskind continues, "may be described as one of total
absorption in the object." Siskind's best-known photographs are
abstractions in which close-ups of scruffy, urban surfaces are
turned into boldfaced enigmas, and the lingering power of this
spare imagery has everything to do with the extent to which the
unnaturalness of Siskind's compositions draws on the naturalness of
visual experience. In the 1930s, Siskind had been involved in
documentary photography, recording the fluid street life of Harlem,
and his move from social observation to mandarin abstraction, which
follows an inward-turning path characteristic of
mid-twentieth-century American art, sustains a concern with
factuality, so that there is something in the man's cool, elegantly
direct temperament that unites all his work, early and late.

I believe that there is such a thing as a photographic temperament
or personality, and that its salient trait is a respect for the
given situation, whatever that may be. Siskind respects givenness,
but then so does Lewis Hine. When the work of a photographer holds
us, there is always an ease about observing the world, a steadiness
that has nothing to do with complacency, and you can find this in
work that is joyous or grim, maximalist or minimalist. The best
photographers are phlegmatic personalities with a visionary spark.
At "The Dawn of Photography" we are confronted with the very
beginnings of this photographic directness, and it has a richness
that suggests the mysterious, peremptory completeness of some
mythic Golden Age. You might say that the entire history of
photography is a meditation on the dawn of photography, for
photographers, at least the ones who matter, are always looking for
the plainness or the directness that stares out at us from those
first daguerreotypes.

The plainness of Stieglitz's Equivalents, those photographs of
cloud-swept skies, is infused with an awareness of the metaphoric
possibilities that Kandinsky wrote about in Concerning the
Spiritual in Art. And if there is a plainness to the best
photographs of artistic and social personalities--to the strongest
work of Beaton and Avedon and Penn and, more recently, Bruce
Weber's photographs of Sam Shepard, which define a new kind of
theatrical chic--it is the plainness of the all-knowing observer,
of the observer who hasn't missed a moment of the big city's
razzle-dazzle. You will not find this essential plainness in Diane
Arbus's work, which instead offers us an impersonation of plainness
that violates the very essence of photography. That such violations
are commonplace is not especially surprising when we consider how
difficult it is to achieve the not-so-simple simplicity that
confronts us at every turn in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's
unforgettable exploration of this demanding art.

By Jed Perl

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