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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

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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

How many is enough? Beginning in 1917, photographer Alfred Stieglitz began making portraits of his new squeeze, Georgia O’Keeffe. But he soon developed the idea that a single image could not adequately express the essence of a person. Over the next 20 years, he photographed the artist some 350 times, making what to Stieglitz counted a single, all-encompassing portrait of O’Keeffe. 

“To demand the portrait that will be a complete portrait of any person,” he claimed, “is as futile as to demand that a motion picture be condensed into a single still.”

As he took up the camera once more after several years of editing his magazine, he wrote: “I am at last photographing again. … It is straight. No tricks of any kind. — No humbug. — No sentimentalism. — Not old nor new. — It is so sharp that you can see the [pores] in a face — & yet it is abstract. … It is a series of about 100 pictures of one person — heads & ears  — toes — hands — torsos — It is the doing of something I had in mind for very many years.”

The series went well past the hundred pictures he mentioned, and became one of the signature events in the progress of American art photography. The photographs were shown in galleries and museums and a selection of them were published in a book issued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

He photographed O’Keeffe nude, surly, playful, artsy and in snapshot mode. He seems to have had a thing for hands. There are a boatload of hands, all very arty. Certainly, they are expressive, but they are also a bit arch. And do they actually tell us anything about O’Keeffe, the woman who kept her privacy like a recluse, so that even when she seems to be opening up to us, she is really just assuming a simulacrum of candor? She simply doesn’t want us to presume we might know her. 

But despite his intent, it is obvious that while 350 images may be more varied than a single portrait, it is no more complete. To achieve his goal, Stieglitz would have had to film every second of O’Keeffe’s life from birth to death and show it unedited. Attempting to capture a personality in any finite number of moments requires that some editing and interpreting will be necessary. Is Irving Penn’s portrait of Carson McCullers any less an accurate version of the author than Stieglitz’s O’Keeffe? 

In fact, I might say that O’Keeffe, even photographed by her husband 300 times, is more reserved, and lets less of herself out into the frame of the picture than McCullers does in one single instant. There is infinite sadness in those eyes. 

As a “control group,” we might include the three versions of Truman Capote made by Penn over time: First in 1948, then in 1965 and 1985. Does the grouping tell us much more than any of the single images? Only that Capote got old. We knew that. 

There is some kind of naive innocence in Stieglitz’s attempt, that there is a possibility of “capturing” a person in an image. 

The problem is that an image has a reality of its own, a separate reality, which may or may not partake of the person photographed. Irving Penn’s famous image of Picasso becomes a piercing eye, but then, so does the eye of Richard Avedon, also photographed by Penn. Or, for that matter, a portrait of Pam Henry I made in the 1970s. 

The image carries meaning in and of itself. Consider that 1968 image of Capote, eyes closed, glasses carried lightly between his fingers. Both John Malkovich and Philip Seymour Hoffman have sat for publicity photos mimicking the Penn photo. The pose trumps the person.

Or take Malkovich trying on the 1948 Capote. Again, the image is instantly recognized, and if you were turning the page quickly in a magazine spread, you might just well assume you had looked at the writer rather than the actor. 

Malkovich seems to have had fun doing this. He has mimicked many overly familiar images, from Hemingway to the migrant mother photographed by Dorothea Lange in 1936. 

Avedon often said that all photographic portraits — including and especially his — are really portraits of the photographer. It is the version of the subject transmuted by the picture-taker, and made into a vision of how the photographer understands the world. You look at that lineup of Malkovich parodies and you can as easily — or more easily — name the photographer as the name of the sitter. Top row: Irving Penn, Yousef Karsh, Philippe Halsman, Arthur Sasse; bottom row: David Bailey, Alberto Korda, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus. Each a distinct style; each a distinct image. 

Surely many a celebrity has felt defined and constrained by the immutable image that has usurped the actual life. Could Norma Jean live up to the image of Marilyn? Either the Bert Stern, the Avedon, the Eve Arnold or the Cecil Beaton version (l. to r.)? 

We run into the same problem we have with language. It cannot bear a one-to-one relationship with reality; it is rather a parallel universe, which can imitate our perceptions but never fully embody them. The image exists in another reality; we can name what we see, but the name is not the thing. The photo is not the person. Stieglitz’s attempts are heroic but doomed to failure. None of those 350 pictures of O’Keeffe is O’Keeffe, and the whole together is no closer to being her. 

We are left to enjoy them, then, as works of art. The eyes of Carson McCullers are not her eyes, but the sadness in the photo speaks to us clearly. That has to be enough. 

Click on any image to enlarge


Why do I do this?

The year I was born, the New York School of painters was coalescing. When I was an adolescent, they were ascendant. They were my boys: Jackson, Willem, Franz, Barney and Mark. 

(And they were boys. It was years before Helen and Lee were fully recognized.) 

During those years, the boys were flying high, but they still needed to be argued for. The mass of people continued to make fun of them. “My three-year-old could do that.” 

But to me, their power and meaning was manifest. During my teenage years, I spent many hours at the Museum of Modern Art, soaking in those great works. I spent way more of my time at MoMA than I did at the MET. 

They were called “Abstract Expressionists,” but at the time, for most people, abstract meant distorted. Picasso was the most famous artist in the world — the most famous abstract painter, and his subjects were still recognizable as bulls and guitars.

But for the New York School, it would be hard to name a subject. When Jackson Pollock was quizzed about what was his audience looking at, he said, “A painting.” 

There came to be a distinction made between abstract art and what was called “Non-Objective.” My boys were the latter. They weren’t imitating the world, but creating a new one. 

Yet, while I can honestly say I spent 10 hours at MoMA for every one I spent at the Metropolitan, the museum that became my spiritual home was the American Museum of Natural History. I didn’t just enjoy it; I loved it. I still do. 

At AMNH, I met the wonders of the natural world, from the giant blue whale hanging from the ceiling to the “Soil Profiles of New York State.” There were dinosaur bones and the colossal Olmec head. Rooms filled with rock collections and the great, illuminated theater of dioramas with their dramatis personae of stuffed bears and lions. 

I had the luck of growing up in rural New Jersey. While it was only a short bus ride to the George Washington Bridge and civilization, it was also a land of woods and streams — one ran through our property. Red fox and white-tailed deer would occasionally pass through our lawn. Tract housing and mini-malls had not yet taken over. 

So, I had these two very polar influences pulling me: On one hand, there was the manifesto of the art world that painting should be painting, and not an image of the world; on the other, I was in love with nature and the world of seasons, leaves, birds and geology. 

This tension still thrives in me. In 1998, I got to see the huge Pollock retrospective at MoMA and the painter’s 1952 masterpiece, Blue Poles, which was on loan from its home in Australia. The 16-foot-wide painting was intensely beautiful; I stood in awe — and that is not too strong a word, despite its current depreciation among the cell-phone generation, for whom even a cheese doodle can be “awesome.” 

Yet, on the same trip, I also went back to the Natural History Museum. Entering its dark and marble halls was an act of love — and that is not too strong a word. 

Since then, the art world has walked through several new rooms: Pop, Conceptual, Postmodern. And each of them seems to step further back from the physical sensation of the the natural world. 

Pop wants us to recognize cultural artifacts as worthy subjects for consideration — and they certainly are. 

Conceptual art removes us from even that, into a world of pure idea, and those ideas are often so removed from our everyday experience as to be unintelligible for the mass of people. And often kind of silly. Often the art would be better expressed in words. Write an essay. 

Postmodernism seems to tell us that there is nothing but rehash of old imagery, and what is more, even those are really about power relationships and keeping the little guy down, especially if he is a she or is melanin-enhanced. 

Certainly, there is among these isms, much art of value and meaning. And I often agree with the political ideas expressed. But I have always missed in them a sense of love for the things of this world — the smells, textures, colors, shapes of the things we use and inhabit. 

I have never given up on that. 

In some ways, this dichotomy is the difference between reason and empiricism. Conceptual and Postmodern art think their way through the world. What I value is experiencing my way through it. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. 

But I still have this memory lodged in my psyche of Pollock and Kline and Rothko and de Kooning. 

So, I have at times attempted a synthesis. I love nature. Rocks and trees and birds and bees. The ocean and lakes; the canyons and grasslands; the swamps and forests.

Ah, but even as I read that, I know those are words. It isn’t rocks and trees, really. It is the hardness and grain of a particular granite, the different bark of birch and yew. It is the spot upon which I stand at any given moment and what I feel as breeze on my skin, what sun glare I shade my eyes from. 

And in that granite or in that tree bark, there are shapes, textures, colors. I touch them. I see them.

There is a place I have visited many times in Maine. It is Schoodic Point, which is a part of Acadia National Park. The main park on Mt. Desert Island, is crowded and developed, but some 40 miles northeast, by road, there is the Schoodic Peninsula, jutting out into the ocean. At its tip, it is bare, hard rock and spume and surf. The wind is usually raw and comparatively few visitors come there, especially in the fall and winter. 

(The double-O in the middle of Schoodic is pronounced like the double-O in “good.”)

There, I can use my camera to record the abstract expressionist details that combine the emphasis on form and texture with an engagement with the natural world. It is a chance to reconcile those conflicting parts of my being. 

There is in some religions and mystical philosophies a contemptus mundi that I cannot share. The world is beautiful — not pretty, but beautiful; even its ugliness is beautiful. 

In 1928, the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch published a book in which his images of the world, both natural and industrial, found pattern and form in details excerpted from context. It was named, Die Welt ist schoen. 

That has become a watchword for me: When you engage with it as deeply as you can — and we are each different in this respect — when you so engage with it, you discover that Moses was not exceptional; every bush is the burning bush.

That is what makes those cypresses of Van Gogh so penetrating, the haywain of Constable, the waterlilies of Monet, the peppers of Edward Weston, the simple crockery of Chardin, the rabbit of Durer. Die Welt ist schoen. 

So, I cannot worry if my humble images are important art or not, or whether it is art at all. Muche wele stant in litel besinesse. 

This is my tiny translation of Schoodic into image, the finding of the same elements Pollock sublimated into his canvasses, but here extracted from the hard edge of stone.

Click on any image to enlarge

 

Boulevard de l’Hôpital

In the past post, I put together a group of pairings of the photographs of Eugène Atget and some of my own, noting the coincidental similarities (link here). I certainly didn’t want to make too much of it. It was just some fun.

Paris

But I had a surfeit of examples and I had to leave a bunch behind. So, I figure, why not post them, too. If I am taking up too much of your time by this surplus, you can always leave the page and find something more profitable. But even if you don’t care to enjoy the joke of this unintended mimicry, you might still enjoy the travelogue. 

Jardin des Plantes, Paris

My late espouséd saint and I spent weeks at at time driving around France, and exploring Paris. We never went to the Eiffel Tower or the Moulin Rouge, but instead found rooms in less frequented quarters of the city and tried to discover what it would be like to live there. We ate in local bistros and cafes and shopped in local stores. We got to know the people in our neighborhoods and enjoyed their friendliness (the celebrated French rudeness is something we have encountered no evidence of). 

Chartres

France is often called by the French the “Hexagon,” because roughly speaking, that is the shape of the nation on the map. We have been to all the corners and came to love them all, although, to be fair, Normandy and Brittany have stood out in our affection. 

Fontenay

These photos cover most of those corners. I could easily post a hundred, two hundred photographs, each distinct, but I have narrowed it all down to a mere 30 of them. 

Confessional, Rouen

As I said, you can look at them as a kind of travelogue — a black-and-white slide show of our vacations — or as a presumptuous comment on the work of Atget. 

Paris

I don’t present them as a serious labor of art, but as a kind of game: seeing parallels in my own visual record of la belle France to the city and countryside of a hundred years ago lodged on film by a man who also claimed no great esthetic achievement in the taking those photos. 

Vezelay

Atget was proved wrong; now his work is taken as art. I have no expectation that the same will happen for mine. It is enough that I had a good time making these images in the first place, and jiggering them around to mimic that of my progenitor. 

Notre Dame de Paris, Easter

Here they be. 

Montluçon

click any image to enlarge

WWI shell craters, Verdun

 

Musée national de la Moyen Âge, Paris

 

Concarneau

 

Apples, Hambye

 

Jardin des Plantes, Paris

 

Locmariaquer

 

Notre Dame de Paris

 

Paris

 

Angoulême

 

Noyon

 

The gods, Palais Garnier, Paris

 

Rue Mouffetard, Paris

 

Paris

 

 

Musee national de la Moyen Âge, Paris

 

Tuileries, Paris

 

5th Arrondissement, Paris

 

Les Eyzies

 

Rouen

 

Paris Opera

 

Bayeux

 

Paris

 

Tuileries, Paris

 

FIN

 

I didn’t do it on purpose. 

In my previous post, I wrote about the effect on me of an exhibit of the photographs of Eugene Atget I saw nearly 50 years ago. Looking at those images at the Museum of Modern Art in New York all those years ago eventually led me to loosen up my own approach to making pictures. 

Where I had been a disciple of Modernism in photography, from Stieglitz to Strand to Weston to Adams, I realized, looking at the Frenchman’s photos, that a looser, more direct approach to the art might be more productive. 

And, in fact, I gave up attempting to make precious jewel-like prints matted in perfect ivory mattes and framed in black aluminum section frames. 

But I had no intention of mimicking Atget’s pictures. Please believe me, I didn’t do this on purpose. 

As I look through the many images I have taken in Paris and in France, I find that there are so many parallels to the pictures of Atget. 

I found myself making records of so many curious and interesting corners of the city, so many details, so many textures and lines, so many storefronts and alleyways, that I could hardly help myself. 

Because I have come to find more interest in reacting to the world around me than in creating what receives the imprimatur of art. 

Being awake and aware of my milieu is what drives me, makes me happy, gives me esthetic fulfillment. 

So, here I have taken some of my photos and edited them, making them black and white and toning them sepia. 

I do not mean for you to believe I am trying to make art here, merely to play a little game, matching up images. 

Many others have taken their cameras around the city of light and consciously mimicked Atget’s work in an exercise of “rephotography,” a Postmodern trope. I am intending no such thing. 

I merely enjoy the little joke of finding in my work these unconscious rhymes with the work of a photographer I have loved for all these years, but haven’t given a whole lot of thought to in decades. 

Such is influence, I guess. You don’t always know it’s there. And you don’t consciously attempt to counterfeit your model. 

But somehow, it has worked its way into your bones, into the way you approach the world, the way you understand it. 

So, here are a group of parallel images. Those on the left are by Eugène Atget, those on the right are mine, albeit gussied up to amplify their similarity to my progenitor. 

I hope you find a twinkle of pleasure in this game. And it is just a game. 

Click to enlarge any image 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIN

 

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. 

Click any image to enlarge