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Not every life-changing event happens on the road to Damascus: a blinding light, knocked to the ground, twitching galvanically. The death, the religious conversion, the falling in love. But there are smaller turnings also, often dozens of them in a life, perhaps passed unnoticed at the time, but nudging our lives on a slightly new heading. “As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined.” The butterfly in Brazil. These are also life-changing. 

In the summer of 1972, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a small exhibition in its downstairs gallery, behind glass doors. “Atget’s Trees” put together 50 photographs by the French artist Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget (1857-1927). Lined up on the wall in a darkened space, with brilliant track lighting that made each photograph gleam like a jewel, the photographs made my heart jump and my eyes happy. (That kind of lighting is now largely verboten in museums, as they adhere to a strict limit of only so much illumination to protect sensitive materials from light damage. Silver-image black and white photographs are largely immune to such light damage, so the restriction on lighting seems shortsighted and misguided; it dulls the brilliance.)

Atget (At-zhay) was an odd little man who taught himself photography in order to document art, architecture and decor that was disappearing as Paris and France entered the modern world. Originally, beginning in 1890, his work was meant for painters, architects and stage designers to provide models for their work, and he sold his pictures to them. But he seems to have become more and more interested in the details of his city for their own sake. He took thousands, maybe tens of thousands of negatives. Many were sold to various institutions interested in historic preservation, such as the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. 

In 1925, he met American photographer Berenice Abbott, who began buying his photographs and collecting negatives. In 1968, she sold her collection to MOMA, from which the “Atget: Trees” show was developed. 

The majority of Atget’s subjects were buildings, statues, door knockers, gardens and street scenes. No detail was too humble for his attention. There are photographs of doors, photos of stairways, photos of balconies and railings, of fireplaces, of courtyards and alleyways. His curiosity was omnivorous and ravenous. 

But through all, there was one subject he came back to over and over: trees. Most were in parks, like Saint-Cloud or Sceaux; some were at Versailles; others simply out in the countryside. He seems especially taken with ragged bark and gnarly roots. Often, he has photographed the same tree over and over, from very slightly different angles, or in different seasons. There is something sensuous in the growth and surface of trees that excited his artistic libido. 

Atget’s equipment and technique were already antique when he began, using an old bellows camera and large negatives, printing them on albumen paper and toning them with gold chloride. This gave his images a sheen (from the egg white) and rich, chocolatey tone (from the gold) that, in the right light, makes them jump from the frame with gem-like luster. 

And there I was, in 1972, ripe for the message they were giving me. 

You have to remember that 50 years ago, the art world — and especially the world of photography — was deeply buried in a type of snooty puritanism. We were taught you never “crop” your images, but framed them precisely in the viewfinder. Anything else was “sloppy” and perverted the natural uses of the camera. You must used archival paper and processing. Frames must be neutral, matting must be white or ivory.

And most of all, you were made aware that a photograph was all about photography. Art about art. Subject matter hardly mattered; it merely provided an armature on which to make your statement about the nature of photography and art. 

This was the art world the late Tom Wolfe railed against in his book, The Painted Word, where the deacons of art criticism slapped their hands down on a kind of outstretched bible of certainty: A painting must be flat, it must not mix genres, it must investigate the possibilities of paint and never, ever “illustrate” a story or event. Hellfire and brimstone of a different sect.  

This was the heyday of Ansel Adams and his Zone System of photographic exposure and development, to carefully control the results, which were by necessity “previsualized,” i.e., you were to know before you snapped the shutter, exactly what the end result would be, including its printed size and what sort of paper you would print it on. God, it was constricting. What a constipated way of approaching art. 

And here was Atget before my eyes, messy, uncoordinated, obsessive and obviously fascinated with the things of this world. 

Not that it made a dent in the attitude of exhibit curator John Szarkowski, one of the deacons of that puritan orthodoxy. Szarkowski was Director of Photography at MOMA from 1962 to 1991, and one of the most influential voices of the time. He performed many miracles for photography as an art at a time when the status of photos was still doubted in some corners of the art establishment. But he also issued some very dubious edicts. 

About the “Atget: Trees” exhibit, he wrote in a wall label for the show, “On the basis of a small and heterogeneous collection, the quality of effortless poise that identifies Atget’s work might easily be read as naivete. A study of his repeated investigation of the same or similar subjects, on the other hand, suggests a conscious and sophisticated concern with the ultimately formal problems of picture making. 

“Atget was acutely aware of the literally infinite number of images that are potential in a given ‘subject,’ and he knew also that none of them was true, in the sense that it shared a privileged identity with the object photographed. The subtle variations in framing included here among the six plates of the Beech Tree, St. Cloud, for example, make it clear that Atget did not confuse the subject with the object. He understood that the true subject is defined by (and is identical with) the picture.” 

That is art gobbledy-gook for, “Don’t think Atget was a bumpkin. No, he knew that the real subject of a photograph is the photograph itself, and the finished print, given to us, is the only actual goal of taking the thing in the first place.” (I especially note the condescending quotation marks around “subject.”)

And that, my friends, is a complete misreading of Atget and his art. 

What I came to realize, adoring those luscious trees on the wall of 53rd Street, was that what mattered was not the print, but the attention that Atget gave the world he loved. That, in fact, the subject does matter, and the photographer’s engagement with it was the photograph’s raison d’etre. The photo was merely a lasting and sharable byproduct of the artist’s attention. 

Atget was an indifferent craftsman. His photographs are often poorly exposed, a bit out of focus, show effects of lens flare from an uncoated lens; the prints are sometimes poorly processed and some are fading, or picking up spots and stains. In a Postmodern world, all these things might have been consciously introduced to make us aware of process in privilege over subject matter. But Atget was no such. The power of his work, and its attractiveness is in its naivete — or rather, its directness. Art theory cannot touch it, cannot sully it or soil it. 

Soaking in the MOMA show, I fell in love with Atget’s art, but even more, I learned to mistrust the vox auctoritate. Just because a respected and learned expert speaks ex cathedra does not mean he is right. After all, a scholar is shooting in the dark, just as we all are. Just as Atget engaged with the things he loved, I tried my best to engage with his photographs and not be led into believing orthodoxies that had little to do with what I actually saw. 

And this visit to 53rd Street also freed me to loosen my own approach to the camera and use it to engage with the things I love.

I have had many such life-changing encounters, small but meaningful. This was just one of them. 

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Rain_Steam_and_Speed_the_Great_Western_RailwayI grew up in an age when there was a distinct category called “Modern Art.” It was reviled by many and championed by the rest, and it was taken to be a complete break with the past — which is why it was both reviled and championed.

It may be hard to imagine now, but in the 1950s and ’60s, a large portion of the population actually believed “My kid could paint better than that.” In response, proselytizers mounted campaigns in support of Picasso and Kandinsky. When Life magazine ran a story on Jackson Pollock, it was an intentionally provocative act. “Is this the greatest living painter in the United States?” the story asked, daring its middle-class readers to argue back.pollock life magazine

Indeed, as late as the 1980s, a particularly condescending gallery owner in Scottsdale, Ariz., attempted to persuade me that abstract art was the wave of the future. He made the assumption that since I lived in Arizona, my tastes ran to cowboys. He wanted to “deprovincialize” me.

Modern Art was subsequently eclipsed by “Contemporary Art,” and after that the whole thing fell apart in a Postmodern disintegration. What we have now is “the trendy stuff at the gallery.”

But in my time, when I was a teenager whose personality was being forged, I had the immense privilege of living an easy trip to New York City and a subway ride away from the Museum of Modern Art, where my initial sense of taste was formed. I absorbed whole Picasso’s Guernica — which I always thought would be forever available to me — Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, and Van Gogh’s Starry Nightpollack 1

Turner catalogThe biggest single contribution to my growth, however, and the nudge that eased me into a life as an art critic, was the show in the spring of 1966 at MOMA of JMW Turner’s late paintings, called, “Turner: Imagination and Reality.” I was still a high school student and knew that there must certainly be a bigger, more impressive and powerful world out there than the one I knew in suburban New Jersey.

In that show, the English painter was dressed up as the precursor not only to Impressionism, but to such High Modernist painters as Mark Rothko. Turner’s watercolor washes were mere gestures with a loaded brush and implied an early morning sunrise barely seen through a frosty fog — hardly an edge or line in sight. turner rothko pair

Left: Turner “Pink Sky”               Right: Rothko detail

The show kicked off a resurgence in Turner’s reputation at the same time Vivaldi was getting a boost from the Baroque revival. It isn’t that either the Red Priest or the shaggy Brit were unknown or unappreciated, at least by those with their acquaintance, but that the wider world had largely — if not forgotten them, had relegated them to a “yes-them-too” sub-paragraph in the catalog. Turner emerged as not just a major artist, but a springboard for all the upcoming progress in art that resulted in — hooray — the glorious moment that is us.

That view seems quite laughable now, but we should instruct those X-ers and Millennials that came after us that the idea was that all of history was an inevitable march toward a single goal, and that in 1966, we had achieved it. The Age of Aquarius meant more than a bogarted doobie and a flower in the barrel of a National Guard rifle. We had reached some sort of checkered flag, some tape we had breasted.

Our history since then seems like a winded generation bent over with hands on knees, trying to catch a sweaty breath. It was Francis Fukuyama who was gasping.

Yet, if I can no longer see Modernism as some target bulls-eyed, I can still look back on that time, and that show, with a special fondness. It hit at just the right moment: my adolescence. I was ripe to be picked. turner cuyp pair

Left: Turner, “Calais Pier”               Right: Cuyp, “The Maas at Dordrecht 

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For Joseph Mallord William Turner kept two plates spinning. On one hand, he does seem to prefigure the Impressionist fascination with light and color. But on the other hand, Turner was yet one more British huckster of the Sublime. He began as primarily a marine painter of ships, sea and clouds, patterned after so many earlier Dutch painters, like Aelbert Cuyp, but soon joined those painters of vast and menacing landscapes based on biblical or classical themes. Plagues of Egypt, destruction of Babylon, Noah’s flood, the Trojan War — they all show up.

Compare, for instance, Turner’s first entry into the Royal Academy, in 1800, with John Martin’s painting of the same subject: The Seventh Plague of Egypt (although, Turner, not a religious man and a desultory reader of the Bible at best, mislabled his plague as the Fifth). Turner Martin Seventh (fifth) plague

Turner, left; Martin, right

(Just for fun, let’s see Martin’s trilogy of paintings on the Flood: Eve of the Deluge, The Deluge, and The Assuaging of the Waters. The last was bought by Prince Albert for his Queen.)Martin Deluge trilogy copy

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Martin’s grandiose paintings — clearly the inspiration for reels of Sword and Sandals epics by the likes of de Mille, Griffith and Giovanni Pastrone — are less competently painted and tend toward a darker palette of blues and blacks, while Turner’s paintbox veered increasingly to gamboge and flake white. Yet, his salability in the first half of the 19th century was based on his ability to provide the epic subject matter.

Consider the pair of paintings Turner made on The Deluge: Shadow and Darkness — The Evening of the Deluge, and Light and Colour — The Morning After the Deluge, from 1843.Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

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 So there I was, at the ripe, pimply age of 17, with all the world before me, and an ambition in my heart that transcended the possible, and there was Turner. I was being told he was the seed from which something important grew, but my primary and adolescent response was to the sublime — that sense that the world — nay, the universe — was grander, more intense and more alive than what I knew of Bergen County, New Jersey.

There were wind and waves, fire and brimstone, death and destruction, rocky precipices and roaring cataracts — Blow you hurricanoes, etc., etc. I was electrified at the idea that Turner had tied himself to a ship’s mast in a snowstorm to experience — like Odysseus — the siren call of destruction and death.snowstorm steamboat

Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1843

Author Lawrence Gowing, curator of the MOMA Turner show had written about the premonitory Impressionism in Turner, but in my saladgreen youth, that early seed was proof of Turner’s artistic heroism the same as his bodily courage he shows on the ship. Gowing was making an art-historical point; I was swept by the mythology. sharknado

Sharknado (2013)

It is the same impulse, I believe, that turns so many young men these days on to superheroes and supervillains and that whole genre of film where the planet is doomed by ice, fire, green monsters or evil multinational corporations. The FX movies that shake the separating walls of our cineplexes are the modern replacement for Byron’s Manfred and Shelley’s Prometheus.turner in studio movie still

I mention all this now because I have just seen Mike Leigh’s film, Mr. Turner, with Timothy Spall playing the painter, in a movie that advances with exactly the same pace and precision as paint drying. It is not a movie for the X-men crowd. Nothing blows up, no one turns the equator into an iceberg, and the earth doesn’t split into two.

Now as an adult, and with some 50 years under my belt since my exposure, I have a more sedate view of JMW Turner and his paintings. The film resonated with that: Turner had a living to make and catastrophe painting was his niche. Disaster was his shtick. That “vortex of obscurity,” those paint daubs. An avid public bought them up, and if some, such as John Ruskin, could see the work as the art of the future, most saw them as great, ecstatic expressions of the Romantic sensibility that was already passing into sedate and sententious Victorianism.  frosty morning

What MOMA chose to emphasize were the watercolors, primarily sketches for oil paintings. They were vague and washy and could more easily be seen as proto-Impressionism. The exhibit rather ignored the ships and sails of Turner’s more ordinary output. It also conveniently brushed aside that part of Impressionism that didn’t stoke the fires of Modernism: That Impressionism wasn’t just about paint and color, but about depicting the daily life of ordinary people rather than the grand mythology of the Academy painters. The present always chooses its past. At Petworth: Morning Light through the Windows 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

And what one sees in Leigh’s film is not some spiritual visionary, but a Cockney artist, largely inarticulate, who has found a way to turn a little trick of paint daubs into a lucrative industry. Yet, I don’t mean to denigrate Turner: There was some level of genius in his ability to elevate the Mad-Martin extravaganza into something personal, idiosyncratic and, yes, forward looking. Turner was no revolutionary; he was bourgeois to the core, yet, that combination of conventional and ecstatic give his work that extra boost into the pages of art history textbooks. It’s what separates him from Martin, Samuel Palmer, Henry Fuseli and the rest of that forgotten ilk.