The world is not black and white, but until fairly recently, photography was. For most of its history, the art was an art of silver on paper, spread from inky blacks through velvety grays into pristine whites. 

There had been attempts to add color, either by painting on top of the monochrome image, or by various experimental techniques to capture the color directly. But even after the commercially successful introduction of Kodachrome in 1935, photography as a museum-approved art continued to be primarily in black and white. 

(In cinema, Technicolor predated Kodachrome by about a decade, but that process was essentially three different black and white negatives overlapped through color filters to create the effect. It was an expensive and difficult process and relatively few films, percentage-wise, were made with the process until after the commercial success of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz in 1939.)

I have been a photographer for at least 50 years. I have had shows and my work has been published. But for most of that time, I worked in monochrome. I “saw” in black and white. My photographic heroes worked in B&W, the techniques I mastered were silver techniques. I became an excellent printer. But I seldom used color film. It seemed an unnecessary noise to bring to the purity of the medium. 

I was hardly alone in this. When I was younger, even museums shied away from color photography. It was seen as not “permanent.” It’s images faded over time (I’m sure you all have old family snapshots turned rather magenta with age). The real artist-photographers used silver or platinum and made glorious images. 

Back then, art in general was seen with more precious eyes. We thought of “archival processing,” and even paintings were carefully preserved and curators looked down on some artists — such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko — who used non-archival pigments or unprepared canvases and whose works, therefore, had begun to deteriorate. 

In current times, few artists or galleries worry much about such things. Art can be made on newsprint, or can even purposely self-destruct. Concern for the permanence of an artwork is seen as elitist. After all, no matter how careful you are, the art is going to be gone eventually, even if it lasts till the sun explodes. 

And besides, color is now no more or less permanent than black and white: Now they are both nothing but ones and zeros. Silver is dead; long live digital. 

Yet there is still a difference between color photography and black and white. It is a difference not simply of technique, but of thought. Thinking in color is different from thinking in black and white. 

The part of vision that deals in color is processed in a different area of the brain than the part that concerns itself with darks and lights. (Vision is ridiculously more complicated neurologically than you might think — the information on the retina is broken down into many separate components, processed by differing regions of the brain and then re-coordinated as a gestalt.)

And so, some people pay closer attention to the hue, others to the forms they see. 

The fact is, black-and-white photography and color photography are two different art forms. To be successful in both requires a kind of bilingualism. Most of us have brains that function best either in seeing forms and shades, or in seeing hues. The two photographies emphasize those different talents.

One has only to consider the work of Stephen Shore or William Eggleston. Most of their meaning comes through the color. Take one of Eggleston’s best-known images and suck the color out. What have you got?

He made this photo of a ceiling and light bulb. The red is overwhelming. But imagine it as a black and white image.

He also made a similar image of a brothel ceiling painted blue. Also overwhelming. The two are nearly the same image, but with very different emotional and sensuous meanings.

But if we make them both black and white, they very nearly merge into the same thing. 

Color can by itself separate forms. Here are four squares in four colors; as distinct as can be. But the exact image, unaltered except for the draining of all color from it, leaves a confused mess, barely a separation between grays. 

Black and white photography requires the separation of parts not by hue, but by contrast: Lights agains darks. It’s what makes great silver prints sing. Where color photographs separate forms primarily by hue, black and white shapes form with contrast.

I am not saying a color photograph has to be garish. Far from it. But the color will carry a good deal of the meaning and emotional resonance of the image. Even in a color photo that has hardly any color in it.

Many years ago, I tried an experiment. Like so many others, I loved the waterlily paintings of Claude Monet. But I wondered if they would make as much sense in black and white. Is there a structure holding the pictures together, a design or composition, that didn’t depend solely on the rich color. 

So, I began making photographs in black and white of water lilies. 

The most successful of them clearly relied on bright highlights and strong shadows. The shapes made the picture.

If I tried an overall design, like Monet’s the picture lost its strength. 

I did the same experiment with one of Monet’s paintings, rephotographing it in black and white. 

Did it hold up? It is certainly a very different beast. 

Then I went back to one of my own color photographs of his waterlilies in Giverny, a photograph that imitated Monet’s paintings, with color, sky, reflection, shadow and lily. In color and side-by-side, in black and white. 

What I discovered shouldn’t be a surprise: Monet was much more effective in color. But I also noticed that because my photos were well-focused rather than impressionistically fuzzy, they translated better into black and white: Black and white is meant to clarify shapes. Color identifies “areas” rather than discrete textures. 

And so, while I have spent the majority of my photographic career making monochrome images, along with many others now working in digital media, I switch back and forth between color and B&W. They do, however, require different vocabularies. They are different languages. 

While I have always made visual art, I made my career in writing about art. 

As an art critic, I had the unusual need to be bilingual in an odd sort of way. As a journalist, I needed to be good with words, but in writing about art, especially visual art, I needed to know how to use my eyes.

I discovered very early on how these two talents were seldom granted to the same person. All around me were reporters who knew a gerund from a copulative, but who often seemed almost infantile when discussing pictures. They could name the subject of the image, but not go much further than that. 


A photo editor of my acquaintance once explained photojournalism this way: “I need to know it’s a house; don’t trick it up with ‘art.’” This was image as ID photo. 

But on the other side, so many artists I knew couldn’t explain themselves out of a paper bag. They effused in vague buzzwords, words that changed currency every year or so. I once taught a graduate course in writing about art for art students who needed to prepare so-called “artist statements” for their exhibits. Most of what they wrote before the course was utter blather, obscure and important-sounding without actually meaning anything. 

Words and images: Worlds seldom interpenetrable. I call the talent for riding both sides a form of bilingualism. 

I do not know if the ability to deal in multiple “languages” is something you are born with, or that you learn early on the way you acquire language before the ability to do so closes off in adolescence. But somehow, I managed to do it, at least well enough to write about it without embarrassing myself.

The mental juice necessary to process each seems walled off from the other, except in rare cases. One either runs a literary program, based on sentence and paragraph structure, linear words building a whole out of alphabetic parts; or one comprehends shapes, lines, color, size, texture, and frame as carrying the information required to convey meaning. 

This doesn’t mean that visual people are illiterate, nor that literary people can’t enjoy an art gallery, but that their primary modes of understanding vary. The squishiness of an artist’s gallery talk can drive a writer bonkers; the flatness of a word-person’s understanding of a painting can leave an artsy type scratching her head: “Can’t you see?” 

Nor does it mean that either side can’t learn, although it will remain a second language, without native understanding of idiom and customary usage. A word person can be trained to see shape and form, but it will always remain as I learned Spanish. No one will ever confuse me with a native speaker.

This split between word and image, though is only one of the bisections. Musicians can think in tone the way painters can think in pigment. Yes, there is a language that can describe the music, but for non-musicians, that language is usually impressionistic and often visual — what the music “makes you think of,” or the “pictures in your mind.” 

For the musically trained, there is also language, but it is completely opaque to the civilian: Dominant-seventh, voice-leading, timbre, reed trimming, tenor clef, Dorian mode, ritornello, de capo, circle of fifths. But even these are merely words to describe the non-verbal reality of the music itself, which can convey meaning through sound alone. The words are not the music. 

The ability to think in the terms of each mode is essential to create well in that form, and a mighty help in understanding it for the audience. If you are not in love with words, the rich cream of Gibbons or the organ tones of Milton can leave you cold. If you have no eyes for color, the nuance of Turner or the pears of Cezanne can zip past without notice. If you think of pop tunes as music, the shifting tonal centers of Schubert are inaudible, the orchestration of Mahler merely noise. 

We each have a frequency our sensibilities are tuned to, and can receive it loud and clear; we may think we understand the rest, but too often we are only fooling ourselves. Do you really inhale the contrapuntal movement of a Balanchine chorus? Do you notice the rhythm of editing in a Spielberg film? Each is a language that its practitioners and connoisseurs understand profoundly, but zip past the mass of those sitting in the cheap seats. 

It’s a different language

Click on any image to enlarge

I see my granddaughters staring into their phones, watching video of themselves and their friends making goofy faces, or bits of viral kitties on YouTube and, like many of us of a declining generation, worry about the future of the culture. How quick we forget.

The young nowadays hardly watch ordinary television anymore, unless it is streaming video from Netflix. But there was a time when the boob-tube was the primary entertainment for an entire post-war generation. You might even call the damnable thing the “boomer-tube.” We were there at its inception. We watched it try to find its feet. 

I was born the same year Milton Berle made television a necessity in the American home. In a sense, TV and I grew up together and it would be a shame not to admit it.

In my earliest years, we had no TV, but I cannot remember much before the great wooden chunk of furniture with the little oval screen of greenish gray — the DuMont television we had in suburban New Jersey.

It seemed as huge as a furnace and the fire that flickered through the window was the normal hearth of the home. 

Television doesn’t seem to be any miracle if you’ve never known a time without it. It’s an appliance, like the washer or the stove.

In its earliest years, television tried to fill up its empty spaces with recycled product from the movies and radio: Many of its first series were carry-overs from radio, though I didn’t know it. We never listened to radio before television.

I watched Pinky Lee, Miss Frances on Ding Dong School, Crusader Rabbit and Rags the Tiger, Beany and Cecil, the seasick sea-serpent, Bill and Cora Baird and their puppets, including Charlemagne the Lion. With my grandmother, I would watch the Bishop Fulton J. Sheen stand with that long, lined face and tell us that Life is Worth Living. 

There was Howdy Doody and Clarabell the Clown, Princess Summerfall Winterspring and Chief Thunderthud (the original “Kowabunga”). I longed to sit in the peanut gallery. I knew Buffalo Bob many years before I ever heard of Buffalo Bill. 

On Saturday mornings, I’d watch Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and each weekday afternoon, there was Al Hodge (formerly radio’s Green Hornet) as Captain Video, fighting the evil robot, Tobor. (I was proud as a pre-schooler to figure out that “Tobor” was “robot” spelled hindwards.) Later, there was Rocky Jones, another space adventurer.

The broadcast bands were filled with old Westerns, too. Not only Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, but a host of older stars, from Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard to Col. Tim McCoy. I ate up every Three Mesquiteers film ever made, and knew subliminally that Bob Steele as an actor was better with his fists than any other cowboy star.

There was at least one old Western every afternoon, introduced by an aging cowboy, who was actually Lyle Talbot, “B”-movie actor and veteran of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, which we watched a dozen times in a week on Channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie — my first serious film course. They showed the same movie all day and night over and over. I first knew King Kong there, and Wee Geordie and Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It really was a great film course. (And it was only years later I realized that the theme music to Million Dollar Movie was the Tara theme from Gone With the Wind.)

We were lucky in the New York Tri-State Area: In those days when TV channels were few across the nation, we had seven: three networks and four independents  (channels 5, 9, 11 and 13 — which later became the pre-PBS WNET-TV educational television.) 

The kiddie hosts were all over those indies: Officer Joe Bolton, Sonny Fox, Claude  Kirschner, Sandy Becker, Paul Tripp.

Late in the afternoon, Uncle Fred Sayles came on with Junior Frolics (I think it had originally been called Juniortown, or something like), where I became unintentionally conversant with the silent animation of Van Beuren Studios, Max Fleischer and Pat Sullivan. Farmer Gray (originally Farmer Al Falfa) and the Aesop’s Fables of Paul Terry — a billion stick-figure mice running all over the place. (This was also my introduction to jazz, used as background music to the silent cartoons, just as Bugs Bunny and Warner Brothers cartoons were my introduction to classical music.) There were also the Ko-ko the Clown features — Out of the Inkwell — and Betty Boop.

In those early years, they were really hurting for things to fill up the airwaves and threw up on screen anything they could scrounge.

Andy Devine hosted Andy’s Gang, with the gremlin, Froggy: “Pluck your magic twanger, Froggy!” The show featured a serial of Gunga the East Indian Boy, which was supposed to be set in India, but was shot near Los Angeles. The confusion of jungles was common. Ramar of the Jungle switched between generic Africa and fictitious India. I was a kid, what did I know? Imagine my surprise when years later, on Million Dollar Movie, I saw Ramar (Jon Hall) as a South Seas islander, Terangi, with Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane from 1937.

I look back now and think what a pioneer I was, eating up the first indigestible offerings the networks and independent channels served up.

I remember I Remember Mama, The Goldbergs, Life with Riley, I Led Three Lives, Mr. Peepers, Bob Cummings, My Little Margie, and the early Postmodern Burns and Allen. There were searchlights that I didn’t understand in the credits of the Lux Mystery Theatre and a horrible vise that trapped a silhouette in Climax.

In the afternoons, in the years before I went to school, I watched Art Linkletter’s House Party and Ernie Kovacs, before his later primetime shows.

There was Arthur Godfrey and his ukelele and Garry Moore and his Durward Kirby, along with singers Ken Carson and Denise Lor. It was on the Moore show I saw my first stand-up comedians, when Wayne and Shuster appeared. The orchestra was led, of course, by Milton DeLugg and his accordion.

Even Morey Amsterdam had a brief afternoon show, where he told jokes between a note or two on his cello.

Television was certainly more populated than my real life: I came to know many of its citizens almost as if they were friends. I don’t know what I would have done without Hopalong Cassidy every day.

The familiarity continued as I grew up. Each age had its phosphoric denizens, and it’s astonishing how many of them were Westerns: Cheyenne, Maverick, Have Gun, Will Travel, Wagon Train, and Rawhide took the place of Sky King, Annie Oakley and Roy and Dale.

It’s a shame how much square footage in my cranium is taken up with old crates stuffed with meaningless gibberish:

“B, O — N, O — M, O — Bonomo’s” Turkish Taffy.

Hoffman Beverages, Carvel Ice Cream.

“Who’s the first to conquer space?/It’s incontrovertible/ That the first to conquer living space/ Was the Castro Convertible./ Who conquered space with fine design?/ Who saves you money all the time?/ Who’s tops in the convertible line?/ — Castro convertible.”

“Now back to those thrilling days of yesteryear …”

“What a revoltin’ development this is.”

In high school, it was Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission Impossible.

I am mortified at how much time I spent in front of the screen, soaking up American TV culture. And none of it seems to have escaped. It’s all still in there. 

“A little travelin’ music, Sammy — And away we go.”

Dave Garroway holding that meaty palm up to the screen, close enough it seemed to leave a grease print on the inside of the screen glass. “Peace,” he said, every single day of my childhood. I don’t know just how large a part of my decision to become a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War that daily intonation was. I suspect it played a larger part than having gone to a Quaker college.

Joe Franklin and Memory Lane; Jack Bailey and Queen for a Day; Jon Gnagy and Learn to Draw. Jack LaLanne and Marty Glickman and Win Elliot and Jack Paar. 

From infancy, plopped in front of the tube, and through grade school, when I remember spending every night spread out on the carpet in front of the console TV with my two brothers, with our parents in the chairs behind us, smoking cigarettes. We’d hit the freezer for a bowl of ice cream or the cookie jar for a handful of Oreos, and nibble and watch, hypnotized by Ed Sullivan or Carol Burnett.

Every culture has its mythology, its stories and foundational personages. For my generation — and those to follow — television and its plots and casts have replaced historical figures (at least those not turned into Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett or Hugh O’Brian’s Wyatt Earp) and the Bible stories that earlier generations grew up with. It was the TV mythology that filled out my inner picture of what the world was and how it functioned. I’m afraid it may have done the same to every generation since. Chester A. Riley gave way to Marcia Brady to Alex P. Keaton to Eric Cartman to Tyrion Lannister. If only the gray matter were stuffed with all of Dickens or Dostoevsky instead of Jerry Mahoney and Captain Video, what a wonder would have been. 

It gives me the creeps now to think about how much of my childhood was wasted utterly. But it’s all in there, the well I draw on. 

The day after the fire that destroyed the roof of Notre Dame de Paris, more than a billion dollars have been pledged toward the reconstruction, and French President Macron has promised the work would be completed within five years.

But already, a backlash has begun, a rearguard action, to prevent any “modernization” of the building in its restoration. This reaction demonstrates a misunderstanding of what a Gothic church is, and its peculiar history.

Fires are not the exception, but the norm for these buildings. Hardly a one has survived from inception without at least one grand conflagration. Indeed, most catalog a history of fires and collapses, followed by rebuilding, and almost always in a newer and more modern style than the original. For the norm of the Gothic style is its constant change and adaption.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Notre Dame de Paris should be rebuilt in the style of Frank Gehry, but I am suggesting that it is a sentimentalism and a distortion to believe that any Gothic cathedral is “pure” and “historical.” They are all patchworks of styles and modernizations over the centuries. 

In fact, we would not now have Chartres Cathedral if the older building had not burned down in 1194 and wealthy donors had not given money to rebuild in a new style — the Gothic. 

There had been at least five cathedrals on the same hill in the town, each destroyed by fire or war. The first, destroyed in 858, the Carolingian replacement burned in 962, another in 1020 and another in 1134. In 1506, the north spire was destroyed by lightning and its replacement came in the newer “Flamboyant” style — making the two spires so unlike, which is the characteristic feature of Chartres. 

In 1836, the lead roof burned and was replaced by copper. The flammable wood braces were replaced with cast-iron ribs. 

Most of the Medieval churches were constructed piecemeal over centuries, and in almost every case, styles changed over that time, and so Gothic architecture is an especially heterogeneous one: unity out of difference. 

The church considered the original Gothic cathedral, at St. Denis, north of Paris, was built by Abbot Suger and completed in 1144. But he kept a Romanesque Western facade, and filled in behind it in this newer style, with stained glass and a flood of light. 

When he died, the church had three parts: a Romanesque front, a Carolingian middle and a Gothic choir. In 1231, Abbot Odo Clement, Suger’s successor, updated the nave with a newer Gothic style and remade the triforium and clerestory of Suger’s choir and apse. As we see it today, the building is an architectural gryphon. 

Rouen takes that idea and runs with it. It was begun in 1035 on the ruins of a previous Romanesque site that had burnt down. Since then, the history of Rouen is one of calamity and rebuild. This constant reboot has made it a less harmonious jumble than one finds elsewhere, of ad hoc fixes, misguided redesigns and megalomaniac civic striving.

It is the Peter Abelard of cathedrals, and a book could be written on the history of its misfortunes. The previous cathedral was struck by lightning in 1110, and construction began on the current building. The new one burnt again in 1200, destroying all but the nave arcades, the Saint-Romain tower and the left portal, with work ending in 1250. It was struck again by lightning in 1284, was partially taken down and rebuilt in 1302, the spire was blown down in a wind storm in 1353. The construction of the Butter Tower in the 16th century led to disturbances in the facade, which had to be reinforced (finished 1530). 

The original Gothic spire had burned down in 1514 and was finally replaced by a wooden spire covered in gold-plated lead in 1580, paid for, in part, by the selling of indulgences. In 1562, it was damaged by rebelling Calvinists  during the Wars of Religion, when much of the statuary and windows were destroyed. The cathedral was struck again by lightning in 1625 and 1642, damaged by a hurricane in 1683. The choir burnt in 1727 and a bell broke in 1786. 

During the French Revolution, the church, like many in France, was deconsecrated and turned into a civic building and metal parts of the church were melted down to make cannons and cannonballs. The spire was again blasted by lightning in 1822 and a new one made from cast iron added in 1876 (making it the tallest building in the world until displaced from atop the list four years later by the cathedral at Cologne. (Then to the Eiffel Tower in 1889).

The misfortunes continued. In 1940, a fire damaged the building’s structure and burned that part of the city from the church to the Seine river, and later during World War II, the cathedral was bombed twice, first by the British, then by the Americans, just before D-Day. Parts of the south aisle were destroyed and the south tower burned. Much of the remaining stained glass was blown out, leading to the current situation with frosted glass in many of the windows.

Then, in 1999, a cyclone named Lothar destroyed one of the four wooden turrets surrounding the central lantern tower was blasted and fell crashing into the choir. The history of Rouen’s cathedral is one of constant upkeep and rebuilding, like trying to sustain a sand castle against the tide.

If anything is true of these prodigies of architecture, it is that there is no such thing as a Gothic cathedral — at least no such thing as a “pure” Gothic cathedral. Each has been built over decades, even centuries, and each has add-ons in different styles, rebuilds made more “modern,” and restorations by well-meaning finaglers such as the 19th-century Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who replaced damaged statuary, added grotesques and redesigned finials and gargoyles according to his Victorian sense of what Gothic style should be.

Viollet-le Duc

Viollet-le-Duc was put in charge of restoring Amiens in the late 19th century, and he added a whole new line of statues at the top of the west facade, called the “Galerie des Sonneurs,” or “Gallery of Bell Ringers,” a passageway arcade between the two towers. He redid a good deal of the statuary and had the cathedral floor redone to smooth out the cobbling of centuries of foot traffic. Modern standards for restoration were not part of his procedure. “To restore an edifice”, he observed in his Dictionnaire raisonné, “is not to maintain it, repair or rebuild it, but to re-establish it in a complete state that may never have existed at a particular moment.” In other words, as he might imagine it.

It is the genius of the Gothic style that it can absorb almost anything and still seem perfectly harmonious. Some historical styles that strive for unity require any additions to be matched stylistically or the new parts seem like carbuncles grown where they are least desired. (Can  you imagine an addition to London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral designed by, say, Louis Kahn?) 

Burning of St. Paul’s 1666

St. Paul’s would not exist now, but for the burning down of the older Gothic cathedral in 1666, which had replaced one burned down, built after the Norman church burned in  1087. 

But Gothic is an accepting style. There is not much you can do to it and not have it welcomed into the family.

The past as we imagine it is always a shaky construct. History is always being revised, and those scholars who do the work are initially derided as “revisionist,” when, of course, that is their job. To quote the revered Firesign Theatre, “Everything you know is wrong.”

Take Beauvais, the tallest of all Gothic churches. It makers were proud, certainly, not only of the tallest church, but the finest, slenderest flying buttresses supporting the roof. But 12 years after it was finished, the roof collapsed. It seems to modern engineering studies, that a gale wind off the English Channel caused sympathetic vibrations in the structure and it shook apart. They rebuilt.

But the collapse, which caused concern about the engineering, and trouble fund raising to complete the whole left the church with only the choir and transept. At some point, it was decided that instead of using the money they had to finish the nave, they would use it to top the whole with a giant spire, which was finished in 1569 and left the church — at 502 feet high — the tallest building in the world at the time.

“We will construct a spire so high that once finished those who see it will think that we were crazy.”

Perhaps they were. Unfortunately, on April 30, 1573, it, too, came crashing down, along with three levels of the bell tower.

As described by author Elise Whitlock Rose, “On the eve of Ascension Day, 1573, a few small stones began to fall from its heights. The next morning, a mason, who had been sent to test it, cried out in alarm; the bearers of the reliquaries, about to join the Procession of the people and the clergy who were waiting outside, fled; — there was a violent cracking, — and in an instant, the vault crashed amidst a storm of dust and wind. Then, before the eyes of the terrified worshippers, the triple stories of the lantern sank, the needle fell, and a shower of stones rained into the church and on the roofs.”

This could almost describe the fall of the spire on Notre Dame de Paris this week. 

The choir at Beauvais was rebuilt once more, but without the spire. But the nave (except for one bay) was never completed, leaving Beauvais as the trunk of a cathedral, a mutilated fragment.

The shakiness of its construction continues to threaten the building even today. The inside, meant to be an awe inspiring sublime holy space, is filled with trusses and braces, attempting to keep the whole from final catastrophe.

This stylistic hodge-podge is something that you face in almost every Gothic survivor. One recalls the problem of Theseus’ ship, in which, over the years, every board, every nail, every rope has been replaced, one by one. And one asks, is this the same ship that carried Theseus home from Crete?

Or, more aptly, the Japanese temple, whose wood is replaced every 20 years. The grand shrine in the city of Ise has been replaced this way more than 60 times, yet is considered the same temple that was built in AD 692.

(It is widely believed — though not exactly true — that all the cells in a human body are replaced every seven years, yet we think of ourselves now as the same person we were when we popped out of the dark into this bright world.)

Reims has undergone something of the same constant renewal, like the goddess Aphrodite.

The modern cathedral was begun in about 1220 and was finally roofed in 1299, but work continued, adding details through the 14th century. A fire in 1481 required major reworking, finished in 1516, keeping to the Medieval style.

The continuous renewal of Reims began in 1610 with gussying up the central portal of the west facade. Nineteen statues of the central portal archivolts were replaced.

Later reworkings took place from 1727 to 1742 and from 1755 to 1760 to repair the deterioration caused by rain leakage and freezing. Many of the sculptures were repaired or replaced.

But the real overhauls began in the 19th century, as France began looking at its great cultural monuments and deciding to upgrade them. The earlier Enlightenment, for instance, saw the so-called Middle Ages as a time of irrationality and superstition. That age saw its ideals in classical Rome. But the 19th century, given in to Romanticism, idealized the very things the previous century had dismissed. So, in the 19th century (yes, beginning in the late 18th century — these things are not governed by calendar dates), you had a Gothic revival, a raft of novels set in castles, the knights of Sir Walter Scott, the cornball folly of Strawberry Hill and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The Romantic movement in art and literature idealized the Middle Ages, and books such as Chateaubriand’s The Spirit of Christianity, and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (to give it its popular title) revived interest in buildings that had been allowed to deteriorate or had been desecrated during the violently anti-clerical French Revolution.

In 1818, a catalog of Romantic and Picturesque Sites of Ancient France was begun, not finished, in 20 volumes, until 1878. And in 1830, the government created a post of Inspector of Historical Monuments.

Hugo wrote a pamphlet called War on Demolishers, to “stop the hammer that is mutilating the face of the country” by destroying historic edifices. He denounced “ignoble speculators,” who “vandalized” the great monuments to build cheap get-rich-quick developments. He called for a national law to protect the old treasures.

He also explained “There are two things in an edifice: its use and its beauty. Its use belongs to its owner, its beauty to everyone. Thus, the owner exceeds his rights in destroying it.”

Notre Dame de Paris before 19th C. restoration

Between 1826 and 1837, the first major interventions of the 19th century were carried out, replacing sculptures on the western facade. One after another, from then on, a series of restorers and architects tried to bring Reims back to what they considered the authentic and original designs of the cathedral. First diocesan architect Arveuf, then Viollet-le-Duc, the restorer of Notre Dame of Paris, who undid the modifications of 1481-1516 and replaced them with his own design.

After Viollet-le-Duc, Eugene Millet did the same thing to the south side of the nave. From 1879 to 1886, Victor Ruprich-Robert did the same thing to the north side. After him, Denis Darcy jumped in, working to 1904. From 1904 to 1915, Paul Gout reworked the western facade and parts of the chevet. The work was not quite finished when World War I broke out. The war did not treat Reims kindly. It was bombed and a good portion left in rubble.

It took another 20 years to fix what the German artillery shells had broken. Restorer Henri Deneux, began in 1919, clearing away debris and cataloging the fragments and installing a temporary roof. The glass was a particular victim of the war. Deneux had the guide of drawings made of the stained glass made before the war and had many of the windows rebuilt, sometimes from the shards of the originals.

By 1938, most of the restoration was complete,  but World War II was in the offing. This time, the windows were removed for safe storage and reinstalled after the war.

The attempt to make the Gothic church “pure,” or “as originally built” is a chimerical idea, only fancied beginning in the 19th century. And you found, in France, a renewed interest in the monuments left over from those discarded days. And discarded is the proper word: The cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, for instance, was a crumbling shambles, stripped of most of its sculpture and left to be a ruin on the island in the middle of the Seine River. 

In addition to the ravages of time and 500 years, there had been various “updates” to the building, and then, before, during and just after the French Revolution, the sculpture on the door jambs had been removed and the Gallery of Kings above the western portals had been junked in a frenzy of anti-monarchical and anti-clerical sentiment.

But in an ironic stroke of luck, the central government appropriated and deconsecrated the church property in 1789, and thus became responsible for the administration and upkeep of churches, including the cathedral (know then as the Métropole), which had for a time been turned from a Roman Catholic cathedral into a “temple of reason” and then into a food warehouse.

Under the auspices of the state, a few clumsy attempts were made to restore the cathedral, but those attempts did more damage than good.

Then, in 1831, Victor Hugo began his personal crusade to repair and renovate the crumbling monument. He and others worked for a decade persuading public opinion and so, in 1841, a committee was established in Paris to consider the matter, and a year later, architect Arveuf was asked to submit a plan for the refurbishment of the cathedral. Several others decided to submit plans, also, and eventually it was the team of Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc who were chosen to mastermind the restoration. Lassus had already spearheaded the restoration of Sainte-Chapelle, and Viollet-le-Duc had been in charge of the work at Vezelay. 

They were the two most qualified restorers of the age (and although Lassus died in 1857 before the completion of the work in Paris, Viollet-le-Duc went on to work on several more of the cathedrals and basilicas of northern France).

The project began in 1845 and didn’t finish until 1864. It was a huge project. Walls needed rebuilding, statues were carved and put back on the door jambs, all the gargoyle waterspouts that had been replaced over the centuries by lead pipes were redesigned and recarved. (The hideous lead pipes had caused the cathedral in the previous century to be compared to a hedgehog, with all the points spiking out from its walls). The windows were reworked, the doors remade, a new spire added to the roof above the crossing, and perhaps most remarkable — a series of 54 grotesques — “chimères,” or “chimerae,” as Viollet-le-Duc called them — were added to the gallery along the roof line.

Yes, that spire, so lamented in its collapse, was never Gothic, never original. It is a 19th century addition. 

Viollet-le-Duc and his partners sat at the crux of a change in restoration theory — at midpoint between the older ideas of just replacing worn-out parts with modern equivalents and the more recent concept of saving everything original as best as can be done. Viollet-le-Duc’s idea was not to put Notre Dame back to any historically accurate version of the building, which had changed over the centuries with add-ons and updates, but rather to create a vision of the “perfect completed ideal” of what the building would have looked like, if it had ever been completed according to a single plan.

In other words, a fantasy of what the 19th century wanted to believe about the Gothic era. 

Viollet-le-Duc wrote that, for him, restoration should be a “means to re-establish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.”

So, Notre Dame as we see it today, is a fiction, a 19th century overlay, almost a “Disneyfication” upon the remains of a 13th century building in an attempt to recapture what the Romantic 19th century believed to be the soul of the Medieval era.

But we should not be too harsh on them. Viollet-le-Duc was an astonishing person, the best-informed restorer of his time, who published the standard encyclopedia of Medieval architecture and design. His energy and commitment were legendary, and although he had his critics, there was no one else in the central years of the 19th century better placed to give us the Middle Ages.

And without him, the cathedrals of northern France would today be more like the ruins of Ancient Greece than like the awe-inspiring churches in which the Mass has been celebrated for 800 years.

The fact is, there is no “original” and “authentic” Gothic building to which we can point. All such churches were constructed over centuries, with changing styles, and continuous updates and remodelings. The Gothic cathedral is less a thing than a process, and Viollet-le-Duc should be seen as simply part of that continuing process.

And we need to remember that when attempting to repair the newly burned and mourned Notre Dame de Paris. And not be too “precious” about how it will be rebuilt. 

Certainly, the “forest” of wooden beams and joists will be replaced with reinforced concrete or steel, and the toxic lead roof sheathing will become either copper or titanium, with a patina to mimic the dull lead. And it will be architects who oversee that modernization. 

I don’t see a Buck Jones futuristic spire replacing the 19th century one — in fact, if I had my way, there would be no spire at all. But I leave that to the architects and designer who know very well what they are doing. 

Gothic should continue to evolve: That is, after all, what it means to be Gothic. 

Click any image to enlarge

In the spring of 2002 my wife and I attended Easter Mass at the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Since then we have returned to the church so many times, I’ve lost accurate count. It became a kind of landmark anchor for our visits to the city.

So, when I saw the video of the flames spewing out of the transept roof this evening, my heart sank. It was for me very like the feeling of watching the World Trade Center collapse 17 years ago. 

There are other more beautiful churches in France, and at least one — Chartres — that has a more sacred place in my imagination. But the church in Paris was home. I say that even though I am not a Christian. I have no religion. But that doesn’t mean I was immune to the spiritual power of the architecture. On each visit to Paris, we would make time to spend long hours in the cathedral to soak up its metaphorical recreation of the vastness of the cosmos and our place in it. 

Back during our first visit to the city, we went to the big Easter mass that was being celebrated. The church was packed. Most of the visitors were celebrants, but a good number around the edges were just tourists.

But at the altar, spotlighted like a good stage, there were priests and a choir, which was chanting plainsong that echoed through the building like surf.

A priest was swinging a censer around the altar, spreading smoke through the crossing of the transept.

It took a while to get past the “gee whiz, what did we stumble into?” But soon we recognized the beauty and theater of the ceremony. It was intoxicating to hear the chant, melismatically floating like the censer smoke, under the brilliant blues and reds of the Rose Window, high above.

One doesn’t have to be a believer to appreciate how the mass, spoken and sung in the space built for it, 700 years ago, addresses the magnum misterium. Both Carole and I were soon caught up in it.

The vaulting, the lights, the stained glass, the church, spread out in its cruciform, that is also the diagrammatic shape of my body and your body, with the vast ceiling which is metaphorical of the inner dome of the skull — we could see how the priest at the crossing of the transept — the place that counts as the heart of the cruciform homunculus — was casting us out into the cosmos, out into the mystery, out into an intense beauty we only rarely let ourselves be aware of.

I was shaken. I believe Carole was, too. One listened to the choir, now taking on a later music, a descant from the 15th or 16th century, with the soprano floating her melos out over an altos lower harmony, and looked up, and on raising eyes, one sees the axis of the rose window, with all the light pouring through the interstices in the tracery, very like the angels dancing around the divine center of Dante’s mystical rose.

The vastness of the cathedral interior became the vastness of the universe, the singing became the music of the spheres.

And I heard in that melisma something completely separate from an esthetic event. It became the closest thing I have ever heard to the human equivalent of a bird’s song, a sound beautiful beyond its need to be beautiful, uttered out of instinct and joy. Shelley’s skylark, perhaps.

I don’t want to trivialize the event with frivolous hyperbole. But I swelled inside, and tears broke onto my cheek.

It’s one thing to see pictures in books. It’s quite another to experience the flesh. The Rose Windows are huge, colorful, intricate. They serve as metaphors for the same thing as Dante’s mystic rose at the end of the Paradiso. Radiant, radiating, they speak — no they sing — of a divine order, a shape and meaning to the universe. You can practically hear a great C-major chord sung by a Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or more apt, like the great C-major chord in Haydn’s Creation at the moment they chorus sings, “And there was … LIGHT!!!!!”

As a well-known atheist, I don’t believe in anything like the theology of this masonry, yet, I cannot help being moved deeply by the spiritual metaphor. Ranks of angels, rotating as they sing, like some ethereal Busby Berkeley choreography, singing in 8-part polyphony to elaborate harmonies, sliding from suspension to suspension — dissonance, resolution, all headed for that great C-major.

The doctrine simply didn’t matter. The metaphor behind the doctrine — the metaphor truer than the sometimes unknowing doctrine — took over.

A machine is always more beautiful when it is running. A cathedral, as Carole said, is a machine to take you someplace.

That day, we saw that machine with all its gears rotating and its cylinders pumping. We were privileged to witness the building doing what it was designed to do, like driving a Maserati across the countryside, or seeing the dynamos at Hoover Dam spin out electrical power.

We stepped out of the church after about a half hour. The bells were pealing all over town. Easter morning bells, not only from Notre Dame de Paris, but from every small church and chapel.

Then, I reentered the cathedral through the West door. I thought I’d see what the service was like looking down the spine of the nave. The choir was silent, but the organ was playing some Messaien. I could hardly believe it: The French composer was being taken seriously enough to play at an event as important as this. And the music was transformed by the place and event, too.

It was no longer an esthetic construct. Messaien is a joy, rich as pastry, if you have the ears to stand it. But Messaien didn’t write music — especially his organ music — so his listeners could get their jollies. No, he wrote it out of religious devotion to serve a function.

And it, like the cathedral itself, became a machine to take you somewhere. It couldn’t have been designed to be more perfect for its job.

To see the mass, hear the choir and the organ, on an Easter morning, in a 13th Century cathedral, Gothic to the core, with those windows, that color, that light, that theater: It is one of the highlights, not of that trip, but of my life. I was overwhelmed, which is the only appropriate response to the Great Mystery.

So you can imagine the shock, the sinking in my heart, as I saw the flames, the falling spire, the smoke and soot spreading over the sky as the sun went down. It is a piece of me that is wounded. Commentators keep talking about the history that is lost in the fire, and I know it is my history, too. 

I have written about the history of the cathedral, and its 19th century renovation (link here). 

Click on any image to enlarge

“There is something sinister about the past.”

—Artist Kahinde Wiley

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

— Character Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses

The study of history is endlessly fascinating. It is the biggest segment of non-fiction book publishing, a favorite of Civil War re-enactors, the grist for endless op-ed writers, a healthy chunk of the lecture series offered by the Great Courses, and a third of C-Span’s weekend programming. We are all at least amateur historians. 

Everyone knows the major narratives: George Washington as father to the country, Abe Lincoln as martyred Great Emancipator, Hitler as madman, Napoleon with his hand in his shirt, D-Day as the greatest victory of World War II. 

But almost all such interest in history is falsely benign, even when not entirely false. It is history as familiar story, and history with beginning, middle and satisfying end. Rather too neat compared with the messy, chaotic reality. 

It isn’t just that I wish to point out that it is largely a white male history, justifying the status quo, but that the overwhelming lesson of history is human misery. History is not a pageant on a grade-school stage, it is the eternal recurrence of peoples massacring, conquering, colonizing and enslaving each other. 

What we are taught in schools as history is overwhelmingly a list of the dates of the great battles and world-changing wars. There is a reason for this. The bulk of history is one of improved ways of bashing the skulls of opponents into bloody splinters. 

Yes, you can read about how Lincoln used and corralled his team of rivals, or how LBJ managed to pass the Civil Rights bills, but a better gauge of the norm is Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, about the millions of human beings starved, shot, bombed, buried alive or tortured.

Einsatzgruppe shooting naked women

One writer summarized the theme of the book as the “deliberate mass starvation and shootings in the Soviet Union in the period from 1933 to 1938; mass shootings in occupied Poland more or less equally by Soviet and German killers in 1939 to 1941; deliberate starvation of 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and mass shooting and gassing of more than 5 million Jews by the Germans between 1941 and 1945.”

And that is separate from the wartime military deaths, which is more millions of abruptly ended lives. 

Wikipedia lists more than 125 mass killings, genocides, pogroms and massacres before 1945, counting only those that have deserved names: St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; Mountain Meadows Massacre; Wounded Knee Massacre; Rape of Nanking; Babi Yar; Holodomor; Shoah. 

Since World War II, massacres notable enough to have acquired names have occurred on the average of more than two per year. 

Skulls of Spanish, Djerba, Tunisia, 1558

I could make a list, but it would go on for pages, from the pyramid of skulls left by Tamerlane to the Cathar genocide of the 13th century to the death of 90 percent of the Carthaginians during the Third Punic War in 149 BCE. 

We can think of all these genocides and massacres as something that took place in distant years and distant lands. But there is ethnic cleansing going on right now, and as for the distance, the U.S. has to answer for both the decimation of Native American populations and the enslavement of millions of Africans and African-Americans. 

As written about in American Philosophy: From Wounded Knee to the Present, by Erin McKenna and Scott L. Pratt, It is also apparent that the shared history of the hemisphere is one framed by the dual tragedies of genocide and slavery, both of which are part of the legacy of the European invasions of the past 500 years. Indigenous people north and south were displaced, died of disease, and were killed by Christian Europeans through slavery, rape, and war. In 1491, about 145 million people lived in the western hemisphere. By 1691, the population of indigenous Americans had declined by 90-95 percent, or by around 130 million people.”

But let’s not make this into a game of blame the nasty Europeans. Everyone has his share of guilt. We cannot forget the Qing Dynasty’s 18th century Zunghar Genocide, which wiped out 80 percent of the Oirat Mongols of the Altai region; or 19th century genocide of the Moriori, on the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, when 95 percent of them were eradicated by Maoris; or the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 and ’66, when up to 3 million people were murdered; or another 3 million by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who eliminated a third of the country’s population, including 100 percent of the Cambodian Viets, 50 percent of the Cambodian Chinese, 40 percent of their Lao and Thai, and a quarter of all city dwellers. 

The Hopi — called the “Peaceful People” in their own language — murdered the entire male population of their village of Awotovi in 1700 for being ka-Hopi: “un-Hopi.” This is the universal truth of humanity. 

2.

All this — and a hundred times more I am not writing about — is just prologue and context for what I want to say. Not just that the past is a slaughterhouse, but that history continues either to make us do stupid and bloody things or to justify our doing them. The past is not only always with us, it too often governs the present.

History oppresses us; it’s what we mean when we say the generals are always fighting the previous war. Or how so-called “originalists” use a 230-year-old Constitution to attempt to halt the flow of time and bind us to outdated strictures. The past is a ruler-wielding schoomarm. It is the punitive fantasy of MAGA. It is the excuse used by every murderous regime.  

The present is simply the sharp point of a blood-smeared sword whose shaft extends at least 3,000 years back into the past. While it is not the cause of every war, history fuels much of conflict. Even when there is more proximate cause, history is soon recruited to justify the fight. History is animated by grievance and payback. It is the Greeks and Turks, the Arabs and Israelis, the Tamils and Sinhalese, the Croats and Serbs, each side revenging the slights of centuries past, even millennia ago. 

The justification made for flying airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was that it was payback for Western interference in the Middle East, which includes the partition of the Levant after World War I, and before that, going back to the Crusades. In turn, we invade Iraq, in turn ISIS slaughters women and children. Hamas (which means “violence” in Hebrew and “Zeal” in Arabic) shoots rockets into Israel; Israel fires artillery into the Gaza Strip. 

It’s like the back seat on a road trip: “Peter hit me.” “Johnny hit me first.” 

You can carry it back, no doubt to Deuteronomy 20, when Jehovah demands genocide toward the Canaanites: “…you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you…”

Massacre at Drogheda

During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as during the Irish Revolt of the early 20th century, retribution was taken for the deprivations of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century (estimates of Irish death during that campaign range up to 80 percent of the Catholic population.) 

The power of grievance to sustain is appalling. There is a great line in Auden’s poem, September. 1, 1939: “I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”

When I first went to college in North Carolina in 1966, the first day on campus I was puzzled by a banner hanging from the second story of my dorm. It read: “Forget? Hell!” Being a naive Northerner, I did not fathom the historic resonance of the Civil War in the South. There is still a sectional animosity that plays out. 

This mechanism of grievance and retribution is the mythic substance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy of Greek tragedies. The short and oversimplified version is this: Tantalus butchered his son, Pelops, and cooked and served him to an assembly of the gods. Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes; Atreus killed his brother’s sons and cooked and fed them to Thyestes. For revenge, Thyestes then fathered another son on his own daughter, Pelopia, in order that the son would grow up and kill Atreus, which he did. Then, Atreus’ son, Aegisthus, took up with the wife of another of Atreus’ sons, Agamemnon, while Agamemnon was away at the Trojan War. I know this gets complicated, but stay with me. When Agamemnon returned from war, Clytemnestra murdered him, upon which, their son, Orestes was tasked with revenging his father’s death by killing his own mother and her lover. This tit for tat might have continued forever, revenge upon revenge, but for the intercession of Athena, who put an end to the vengeance by putting Orestes on trial in Athens, where he is acquitted. Hence, justice was to be meted out by a jury rather than by blood feud. 

Or that’s the story, anyway. Please let no Classical scholar take umbrage at the violence I have done by streamlining the plot and vow vengeance upon me. 

One can take this myth and open it into the macro world and see the attempt to do as Athena did by setting up first, the League of Nations, and then the United Nations as means of circumventing the natural antipathies that lead to war in the modern world. Alas, we have seen how well that works. 

The world and history is one big Hatfield and McCoy back-and-forth.  A lex talionis writ large and over millennia. 

So as W.B. Yeats had it: “… when they know what old books tell/ And that no better can be had,/ Know why an old man should be mad.”

Photographer Edward Weston is most famous for bell peppers that look like nudes and nudes that look like granite. He is one of a handful of American photographers that took the art from gauzy Edwardian Pictorialism to hard-edged industrial Modernism. Along with the patriarch Alfred Stieglitz and the radical Paul Strand, they put the wooden stake into the heart of the merely pretty.

In Europe, Modernism took a different tack, with photo-collage, political engagement and a series of “isms,” from Dada and Surrealism to Abstraction and street photography. But in America, the art went in the direction of monumentalism and the celebration of the “Ding an sich” — the thing as itself — a way of transmuting the object in the world into secular  icon. 

As Weston himself put it: “to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” And “To present the significance of facts, so that they are transformed from things seen to things known.” 

Unlike the soft-focus Pictorialism that sought to imitate the look of Impressionist paintings, Weston and the other American pioneers attempted a hard edge, sharp vision that took advantage of what the camera and lens could see.

“The camera sees more than the eye,” he wrote, “so why not make use of it?”

In fact, where he once called himself “Edward Weston, artist,” he began using the expression, “Edward Weston, photographer.” He was proud of being what he was. Not that that makes him any less an artist. 

He was born in Illinois in 1886, son of a doctor, who got him his first box camera when Edward was 16 years old. He dickered around with it and a larger 5X7 camera, and won several awards for the “artistic” images he made. In 1910, he moved to Tropico, Calif. (now Glendale) and opened a studio. He married, eventually had four sons and in 1913, met the bohemian bisexual Margrethe Mather, who joined him in his studio and introduced him to a more Modernist vision of art. 

From 1923 to 1927, he spent a good deal of his time living in Mexico with his new love, Tina Modotti, where he came into contact with many artists of the Mexican renaissance, including Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. 

While there, he began photographing subjects less overtly artistic, and more mundane, transforming them into Modernist form — such as his multiple “excusados,” or toilets. 

“Here was every sensuous curve of the ‘human form divine’ but minus imperfections,” he wrote.

When he finally returned to California, he was a full-fledged avant-garde artist, making his living with his camera. In short time, he became nationally known and joined such photographers as Stieglitz, Strand, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and several others, who all proposed a new esthetic of crispness and clarity. 

By 1937, he was awarded a $2,000 Guggenheim grant — the first ever given to a photographer — and traveled around the American West with his new squeeze, Charis Wilson, making in all some 1,200 images, mostly of landscape. The following year, he received a follow-up grant, that allowed him to process and print those negatives. Eventually, he married Wilson (she was 25; he was 53). 

Charis

After the war, they divorced and Weston was hit with Parkinson’s Disease, forcing him to give up making new photographs. He died on New Year’s Day in 1958. 

 

2.

We know the work of so many by their specialty. Ansel Adams has his pristine landscapes; Robert Frank has his street photos; Richard Avedon his pitiless portraits. But Weston encircled so much, so many subjects. 

He also tried so many different things in his career that he seems to prefigure most current movements in art photography. No matter what it was, Weston did it first: 

—He included man-made objects in his Western landscapes before Robert Adams. 

—He made surreal satires — a nude woman in a gas mask — before Les Krims. 

— He chronicled his family before Nicholas Nixon or Emmet Gowin did theirs.

—He used foreground to obscure background, preceding Lee Friedlander. 

—He prefigured the “New Color” of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore when he made his first Kodachrome pictures. 

—He photographed graffiti before Aaron Siskind. 

—He photographed ice crystals as abstractions before Minor White. 

—He prefigured what has been dubbed “photography in the directorial mode” when he posed his friends in oddball satires such as Exposition of Dynamic Symmetry.

—He posed cats before William Wegman posed dogs.

—He even began the “grantsmanship” syndrome, being the first photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1937.

—In fact, it is hard to find a genre of art photography that Weston did not essay before anyone else. He is ancestor to Frank Gohlke, John Pfahl, Lewis Baltz, Len Jenshel, Olivia Parker, Ralph Gibson, Linda Connor, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Sandy Skoglund and really every other working photographer/artist, including those who show his influence by their rebellion against it. 



You would be hard-pressed to find another artist in any medium so crucially seminal. 

His presence has been so overwhelming that one critic, A.D. Coleman, has called Weston a “vast boulder blocking the path of photography.” It is nearly impossible to make a photograph for at least the remainder of the century without either imitating Weston or reacting in opposition. 

It was the same complaint that T.S. Eliot made of John Milton: Being so good, a century of followers couldn’t think of any better way of doing it and so wound up as epigones. It sometimes seems that Weston, like Plato, was the original, and everyone else is a footnote.

That is, of course, an exaggeration, yet his achievement is monumental. Like Rembrandt, Hokusai or Beethoven, his imagination is vast and inclusive. Like them, he combined a brilliant formal sense with the realization that form alone isn’t enough. An art work must have meaning, also. His images are richly sensual, dark, at times brooding, always emotionally and psychologically fascinating. 

Weston, more than any other single figure, has defined the directions photography has taken in the second half of this century. His is an influence that is only now being transcended.

 

3.

What we think of as the ur-Weston photograph is sharply focused, tightly cropped, so immaculately composed each element in the picture fits with the others like Lego blocks. Light defines shapes, moving across their curves like a masseur’s hands. And everything, whether the skin of a woman or the porcelain of a toilet, became abstract form.

When he returned to Los Angeles in 1926, he began the series of photographs he is best known for: his close-ups of vegetables. Of his famous Pepper No. 30 (1930), he said, “It is classic, completely satisfying — a pepper — but more than a pepper; abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter. … This pepper takes one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind.” 

Weston called what he did “a revealment” and said, “This is the ‘significant presentation’ that I mean, the presentation through one’s intuitive self, seeing ‘through one’s eyes, not with them,’ the visionary.”

He said he wanted to make a picture of a pepper, for instance, ”that was more than a pepper.” He wanted it so sharp, our attention focused on it so intensely, that it verged on the psychedelic. Of course, that word didn’t exist at the time, and Weston certainly would have resisted any label, but it is hard to avoid recognizing the visionary quality of his best work. 

This is something we might lose sight of in the later landscapes, if we are fooled into thinking of them as postcard pictures — a way of remembering scenery we have driven past. All of Weston’s work, whether portrait, still life or landscape, were made and meant to be seen as metaphor. 

As his esthetic progeny, Robert Adams, put it: “Landscape pictures can offer us, I think, three verities — geography, autobiography and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring; autobiography is frequently trivial; and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together, as in the best work of people like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact — an affection for life.”

In 1941, he visited New Orleans and made a passel of photographs of graveyards and abandoned plantation houses, some burned out with old family pictures and children’s dolls left in the debris. (He even traveled around New Orleans with arch-surrealist Clarence John Laughlin, whose pictures are hardly weirder than Weston’s.) 

And there always had been the pictures of scorched car wrecks on the beach, twisted dead pelicans, sandstone concretions in peculiar shapes, a giant cup of coffee in the desert and a particularly modern-looking photograph of a steam-shovel bucket in the High Sierra. Ansel Adams he is not. Weston saw the world as it was, not a pristine version he might have wished. 

His shells and peppers are often noted for their sensuous beauty, almost more flesh than calcium or chlorophyll. It can almost become comic.

It is almost perverse, the way he conflated skin with rind.

 

Often his nudes are mere fragments, as if he were making a new set of Elgin marbles.

His nudes were another form of his Modernism. No “September Morn” for him.

 

4.

I mention all this in prologue to the three points I really wanted to make. The first is the simplest: That seeing the images here on your screen, or in reproduction in a book is a poor substitute for seeing the actual silver prints. 

Most of us get to see Weston’s images only in books. (And I own, or have owned, at least a score of them — some I have since donated to museum collections). 

But I remember as one of the highlights of my esthetic and critical life, getting to see and handle several Solander boxes of Weston’s originals at the Prints and Photographs Department of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This was in the early ’70s, before such access was limited by new conventions of conservation. I was permitted to take each print from its box, open its hinged matte and examine the prints as close as my eye could get and still focus. 

And what is more, and more important, I could take it to the window in the viewing room and let the incoming blast of sunlight ignite the print to its true glow and incandescence. Parts of the print that in reproduction might look like a uniform black turn out to have infinite detail, which is only revealed by the intensity of the light.

Silver coated on paper is an actual piling up of image, and the blacker the image, the thicker the coating of tarnished silver. A strong light enters into that layer, hits the paper behind and reflects back out through the grains of silver, so that, the more light hitting the photograph, the more luminous become the shadows. 

What is more, even the grays and highlights pop in a way they cannot as the photos are now usually presented, in reduced light in museum galleries under the constraints of current professional standards. Those standards are meant to protect the artwork from UV damage and other light damage, so it’s hard to complain too much. But a silver image is one of the least affected by light. It is by all measures, archival. 

Nevertheless, if you ever get a chance to view a silver-image photograph in a strong light, you will understand what glorious thing it is. 

And seeing the original print can be a revelation. I remember seeing at least one image in my first-edition book California and the West, published in 1940, which featured his Guggenheim images, and that image seemed so uninteresting, that I labored over trying to figure out what Weston was thinking. But there in the Library of Congress, I held the original and it was amazing. It popped. 

He took two versions of the scene, and I have seen both live, and they both jump out with life: What looks like bland areas of light gray turn out to be deeply textured with detail that is completely lost in reproduction. These are now among my favorite Westons. 

As a P.S.: During that trip to D.C., there was a Weston show at a local gallery and they were selling original prints (albeit printed by his son, Cole) for $100 a pop. I drooled, but I was a poor student and just didn’t have the C-note to put down. I have regretted it ever since. 

5.

Famously, the last photograph Weston ever made, from 1948, is of a  few beach pebbles flying out from the center of the frame, which is left blank with its empty sand. Rather like the blank, unprimed canvas untouched by the paint that Morris Louis has thrown down along its edges. 

“Weston arranged his compositions so that things happened on the edges; lines almost cross or meet and circular lines just touch the edges tangentially; his compositions were now created exclusively for a space with the proportions of eight by ten. There is no extraneous space nor is there too little,” wrote Weston scholar Amy Conger.

Notice how, although the center of the image is largely empty, the rocks cluster at the bottom, as if drawn down by gravity, giving the photograph, although nearly abstract, a firm sense of what is upside-right. 

The cluster along the bottom of the image is nearly a constant in Weston’s design sense. It is almost as if, like a child drawing a “ground line” at the bottom of his painting before adding his house and sun, Weston wants to provide a solid base to build his composition on. 

Certainly not every image has this, but if you rifle through a book of his pictures, you will come across the ground line more often than would be expected. Sometimes, it is an actual ground line, sometimes it is a fence that runs across the bottom of the landscape, sometimes it is a row of items. Often it is near the bottom, but sometimes, he raises that ground line up in the frame, even to the halfway point or even above. But over and over, there is a foundation poured for the rest of the picture to settle safely upon. 

Take one of these images and turn it upside down and see how the gravity affects it: The picture dangles from its fence. Upside right, it sits comfortably. 

6. 

Finally, I would make a plea to some curator, scholar or writer, to publish a book concentrating on his work for the edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which was first published in 1942. 

In 1941, he was commissioned by the Limited Editions Club of New York to illustrate a deluxe edition of Whitman’s poems. Weston and Charis traveled something like 24,000 miles across 24 states in their Ford, named “Walt,” and visited places in the East that he had never photographed before. 

Unfortunately, the war interrupted the trip, and he had to come back to California prematurely, with some 700 negatives in the sack. Forty-nine were chosen for the book. (Weston was always inclusive: He photographed many African Americans for the book; the publishers chose not to use any of them.) The book sold poorly during the war, and has only been available since in a very badly printed re-print edition, with grayed-out images. 

This period of his work is the least studied, the least exhibited and the least published — and the least respected. Which is unfortunate, because they are some of his best work, an opinion shared with Weston himself. 

Two exhibits have been mounted in recent years, one at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2012, and one at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., in 2016. But each was rather small, compared with the number of images available, and each was rather slightly remarked in the art world. 

There are hordes of books about Edward Weston out there, many of them huge and gorgeous, with hundreds of images printed, often in beautiful duotone, nearly approaching the beauty of the originals (sans the caveat above), and they all repeat the peppers, the shells, the Guggenheim landscapes, the nudes, the portraits, even the Surrealist goofs from the war years, but no one has seen fit to gather the Leaves of Grass work together for a well-crafted presentation.  

Come on, guys, it’s just begging to be done. 

Click on any image to enlarge

A few years before my late wife got ill, I began asking her to tell me stories from her childhood. She would talk and I would type them into my laptop (I can type as fast as someone can speak). 

She had been telling these stories for decades; she seemed to have an uncanny memory for even minute details, memory that went back nearly to her infancy. I thought it would be important to preserve some of these, especially for her granddaughters. We knew from our own experience how much we wish we could now ask our grandparents for information now irretrievable by their deaths. Here was a trove to preserve for when the granddaughters finally come to want to know their roots.

Well, their roots are as Southern as they could be. I am from New Jersey, and I always thought the baroque and byzantine tales of William Faulkner were clearly hyperbolic and sensational, but as Carole sat and recalled her life, it seemed ever more likely that Faulkner was just writing what he knew.

I thought I might share a few of these stories that Carole retold me. This group concerns her grandfather, Earl Thaddeus Steele, who she called “Papa E.” He was a character; he hardly worked a day in his life, spending his time hunting and fishing instead. When he was a boy, his family migrated to Kansas in a wagon to start an apple orchard; it failed and they moved back to North Carolina. Late in life, Papa E caused a car wreck in which he lost a leg. He had driven through a stop sign, but he always said that traffic signs were only for people who didn’t know how to drive. 

I have what amounts more than a hundred pages of typewritten recollections. I can only offer a few here. These are Carole’s words, transcribed by me. 

Bucko the Bull

Papa E bought a bull for a pet and named the bull Bucko. Or maybe I named him Bucko. Because each day when I would come home from school,  Bucko would be chained to a telephone pole at the right side of our house, of our front yard. And he was always trying to buck the telephone pole down.

Bucko was very ill-tempered and I was afraid of him. His only role at our house was to be Papa E’s pet. Bucko managed to work himself loose occasionally and only Papa E could catch him. 

There was a sunken well in our back yard, a very dangerous place that Melvin and I were forbidden to go near. We had some wooden Adirondack style furniture in the back yard and Bucko butted it all into the sunken well, piece by piece.

On my way home from school, I always checked the telephone pole to see if Bucko was tied up; he was. So I went down under the back porch to my cowgirl ranch/mudpie bakery to check on things and when I came out, Bucko was standing loose in the yard with red eyes and steam shooting out his nostrils and ears. I tried to run up the back steps, but Bucko cut me off from the steps and I had to run toward the creek. Bucko followed me and I ran around the yard twice. Finally, I saw mother at the top of the steps with the screen door open, and I made a run for the steps. This time, I made it and mother pulled me in the door just as Bucko climbed the steps after me.

The next morning, I looked out the window to see if Bucko was chained up and Bucko was not there. 

I went out into the front yard to talk to Daddy to ask about where Bucko might be, and I saw Papa E loading Bucko into the back of the truck. I asked mother where Bucko was going and she said, “The glue factory.”

The Easter Chicks

When I was a child, Easter chicks were sold at Mack’s 5&10. They were dyed fuschia, green, blue and purple. The purple ones were my favorites.

And one day, before Easter, I saw them in the dime store counter between the toy watches and the rubber balls. So, I bought a little purple one and took it home. I had a colored Easter chick every year, but the poor little things never lived long. The dye probably made them sick.

On this occasion, Papa E was home when I brought my chick in and he thought it was beautiful, too. So pretty that he went up to the dime store and bought 100 of them, all different colors. And he put them in a big metal drum with high sides; he put them under the back porch where the land dropped away toward the river. This open spot was my “ranch/mud pie bakery.” And I was thrilled to have the chicks with me.

I must have been 5 or 6 because I had to drag a cinderblock up to the oil can to climb up high enough to hang my ribs on the rim of the oil can to look down and see the chicks. They were wonderfully beautiful. All different colors. Fuzzy and peeping.

Papa E came down to check them after supper, kicked the cinder block away and held me up over the rim so I could see them again. And then we all went in to bed.

The next morning, I woke up to the sound of Papa E’s feet hurrying through the house. 

“Get your pistol, Mutt. A weasel’s got the chicks.”

Daddy grabbed his pistol; Papa E already had his. And I jumped out of bed in my pajamas, barefooted and ran behind them out of the house, where Papa E had already located the weasel in the dirt road.

We all went running down the road behind the weasel, with Daddy and Papa E each shooting their pistols as we ran.

The bullets would puff up the dirt under the weasel’s feet, but it ran zig-zagging from left to right, left to right, all down the dirt road and finally ran off to the left into our small swamp, where we couldn’t follow.

We had to give up, turn around, and walk slowly back home and I heard Papa E tell Daddy, “He  killed ‘em just for blood, Mutt. Just for blood, every one.”

Daddy said, “Don’t you look at them, Carole.”

But when we got back to the house, I ran to the oil drum in my playhouse and dragged up the cinder block again, climbed up and hung on my ribs and there they were, 100 colored chicks each of their necks bitten and no chick swallowed. 

Language Therapist

Papa E’s sister, Mattie, married Captain Jack Hawkins. One of their sons was Dewey Hawkins, who ran the pool room. And this Dewey was Papa E’s nephew and lifelong sidekick.

Mattie and Captain Jack also had a son, Wallace Hawkins. And Wallace Hawkins married Mama Piggy’s sister, Valerie. Susie inherited Great Aunt Vallie’s reddish hair and blue eyes. 

Captain Jack and Mattie also had a son who was called Hub Hawkins and Hub could not talk plain, had a terrible stutter and might have been a little slow.

One day, I saw Hub coming walking down Murphy Street toward our house. Papa E, whose real name was Thaddeus Steele, or Thad Steele, and Dewey were in straight chairs, leaned up against the front of our plumbing shop. They were wearing their pistols in their holsters as usual, which Captain Jack always did.

At this time, Captain Jack was the sheriff, or head policeman. He was the big policeman of the town in that day.

Papa E said to Dewey, “You know, Dewey, if Hub ever got mad enough, he could talk plain as any man.”

And Papa E and Dewey pulled out their pistols and began shooting at Hub’s feet. Hub was, of course, furious. 

And as he was hopping up and down in the middle of the street trying to dodge their bullets, Hub yelled out, “D-Dod D-Dam you D-Dad D-Deele.” 

Flying Squirrels

When I was growing up, I had the most beautiful piece of furniture in the house. It was a handmade walnut chest of drawers and on top, there was a small glove drawer and a small handkerchief drawer, or collar drawer.

It was made by someone in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a relative, but I don’t know who. It would have been someone old enough to be one of my great-great grandfathers. I hope someday Mother will give the chest to me. 

In the glove drawer, I used to keep a little white cardboard jewelry box with a rattlesnake rattle that Papa E had given to me. Every time I came home from college, I would open the little box and shake the rattle, but the day finally came when I opened the little box and the rattlesnake rattle had turned to dust. Rattlesnake dust.

Papa E often gave me parts of little animals when he skinned them. He gave me many poofy little rabbit tails and furry rabbit paws. When I was 5, and we lived in a cabin, Papa E was taking care of me one day and we went hunting. Papa E shot two flying squirrels but first, he had me watch them and he showed me how they spread out their little arms and sailed from tree to tree.

After he shot the two squirrels, he wanted to continue hunting, but was worried about me in the woods, so he found a good playhouse tree for me and stationed me under the tree asking me to take care of the two squirrels and not to leave the tree. I collected a lot of acorn caps and made a tea set; I closed the little squirrels’ eyes and put them to bed for a nap at the base of the tree using dry leaves for blankets. I woke them up and gave them tea.

It probably sounds gruesome, but I had a wonderful time.

The Sock Drawer

The day I thought Papa E was dying. It was late in his life and he was lying in bed and he was wearing a van Gogh style beard and he was growing this beard as a hobby and it was irritating Mother. I loved his beard.

He called me to his room, motioned me to his bedside, asked me to lean down so he could whisper something in my ear and I was scared to death he was going to tell me goodbye for the last time. But he said, “Carole, look in the third dresser drawer, under my socks. Peach brandy.”

Daddy did something similar many years later. And when I bent down to hear what Daddy had to say to me, this was after one of his heart attacks, he said, “Catbird, go out to the Hudson, look in the floorboard of the back seat under a blanket. There’s a new rifle I bought. Your mother doesn’t know anything about it. Wrap it up in the blanket and bring it to me so she doesn’t find out.”

Testing the Edge

One of the funniest things about Papa E was, about the same time as the peach brandy, after he’d lost his leg, Daddy had built an addition on the house, that they called the Florida Room. it had the television and the dining table and chairs, the sofa and a couple of other comfortable chairs for watching TV. 

Mother used to work on the books for the plumbing company in this room at the dining table. And Papa E would watch television sitting in the recliner. And although he was watching television, his chief activity at this time was practicing casting his fly rod over mother’s head. That was the last of a long string of things he did that drove Mother nuts. Starting with Papa E’s guns.

Daddy was turned down by the Army and the Navy because the third finger on his left hand had been shot through at the knuckle near the fingertip. This happened when Daddy was a little boy and had picked up one of Papa E’s loaded guns. 

I remember at least two times in my childhood that Mother scolded Papa E about keeping loaded guns in our house, and Papa E would go get the gun and say to Mother, “This gun is not loaded. See?” as he shot a hole in the living room floor. Or a hole through the living room window.

Knife sharpening drove Mother mad, also. Every morning Papa E would sharpen his straight razor. So in the morning when he sharpened his straight razor, he would hone the edge on a leather strop and the strop would hang inside the bathroom. And he would step outside the bathroom and shave a thin strip of wood out of the kitchen doorframe to see if his razor was ready. 

When winter came, Papa E would leave us and head to Florida to hunt and fish with Uncle Jim and Dewey.

He would return to us with spring and when he did, he would push all the furniture out of Melvin’s room and pitch his tent in the empty room.

Papa E and the Pond

When Papa E and I walked in the woods, there was one special day that I realized Papa E was teaching me important things that he wanted me to remember.

He took me around to all the trees and had me rub the bark and sniff the bark, pull a little of the bark off and feel how wet the wood was underneath. He showed me the leaf shape of many different trees and I remember he told me that sweetgum twigs make good toothbrushes, and to find a sweetgum tree, to look up in the canopy for leaves that looked like stars.

He said, if I saw a tree in the woods that looked like a ghost, it would be a sycamore. There was a big-leafed plant he showed me, and he called it elephant ears. He also showed me what poison oak and poison ivy look like. And then, I found jewelweed and he told me it was a cure for poison oak and poison ivy.

He dug up a little piece of ginseng root and cut off the tip of one of the roots. It looked just like a little bloody toe. He said, he and great grandmother made a tonic of ginseng every spring. That it would keep you healthy.

But best of all the plants in the woods, and I think his favorite, too, was young sassafras. He showed me the three kinds of leaves: the mitten, the ordinary leaf, and a glove, I think. I’m not sure about the third leaf shape. We dug up the roots from one and using creek water, we boiled it in a tin can and then drank the tea. It was wonderful.

There was another thing that Papa E showed me that day about the trees. One was to take off some bark and pull out a wet strip of flexible hickory wood, make a slash in one end of the strip and cut a notched point at the other end of the strip. Then you could thread that strip through a piece of meat to hang a rack of meat strips over coals to dry the meat. As the hickory strips dried over the fire, they shrunk and held the meat fast. He said you could use hickory strips this way to fasten many things.

He also said, small hickory limbs, branches are the best for slingshots. Daddy often made slingshots and was a great expert in their use. Daddy could kill as many bullfrogs as he wanted to with the slingshot instead of a frog gig.

On this day, we stopped at a little black pool in the woods and we lay down in the pool on our stomachs. Papa E showed me how to lower my chin and nose into the water so that the water came up just beneath our eyes and then he said, now look. The top of the water had turned into something like a wonderful skating pond and there were dozens of tiny insects, many different kinds, skating across the water, hopping, taking off, landing and I knew this must have been his favorite game when he was a child.

These days with Papa E were the beginning of my lifelong love of the woods and the woods were my retreat. I was very proud that day because I did not feel like Papa E’s grandchild; I felt proud because I believe he found in me, a sister.