“I’m trying to give human voice to people that most of society sees as monsters.”

It looks like, because of conviction and sentencing, the case of Joseph Hall is back in the headlines, and obviously it’s getting attached to an increasingly charged discussion about gun ownership and gun violence that’s ongoing in US politics.

It might be a good time to take a look back at Julie Platner’s coverage of the group in question. Here is a post at the NYT Lens blog which went up shortly after the killing. (We also have a post about Platner’s photography, although not about the Hall case particularly.)

Platner’s neo-Nazi photographs are something you should be looking at because they’re photographs of people, families, recognizable as such. That doesn’t make them less scary, but it makes them scary for more real reasons.

Pull it Down or Burn it Up

I’ve noticed a recurring theme in some of the stuff I’ve been reading and/or re-reading over the past few weeks, regarding the proliferation of photographic images, and how that proliferation changes the way we see and relate to images and to the world. It’s in some respects similar to the case of the 1978 Test, although it’s not nearly as cut-and-dried.

Here are the relevant bits:

Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Soundings from the Atlantic, published in the 1860’s:

Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please. We must, perhaps, sacrifice some luxury in the loss of color; but form and light and shade are the great things, and even color can be added, and perhaps by and by may be got direct from Nature.

There is only one Colosseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed — representatives of billions of pictures — since they were erected! Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves with the core. Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins and leave the carcasses as of little worth. (pp 161-162)

Wilson Hicks, writing in a 1950’s Aperture article, “Photographs and Public,” reprinted recently in Aperture Magazine Anthology: The Minor White Years, 1952–1976:

[The] public is inundated today by a vast flood of images which, as Lewis Mumford says in his Art and Technics…has “undermined old habits of careful evaluation and selection.” There is being waged, he reminds us, a horrific battle of man and machine from which the machine has emerged so far as the victor: witness the images mass-produced by still, movie, and television cameras and mass-repeated by the printing press. I say, “witness the images,” but you dare not do that. For, as Mr. Mumford says, if we tried to respond to all the mechanical stimuli which beset us we should all be nervous wrecks. Mr. Mumford asks whether being surrounded by a superabundance of images makes us more picture-minded, and answers no; we develop an “abysmal apathy” because “what we look at habitually, we overlook.” Moreover, he says, picture users, to get attention, resort to sensationalism — “make sensation seem more important than meaning” — and the shockers so prevalent today cause quieter, and better, pictures to suffer. Still further, the image producers have created a ghost-world, Mr. Mumford says, in which we lead a derivative, secondhand life in addition to our real life. This apparitional world is set and peopled with the artificial and the phoney (note many so-called news pictures). Thus in various ways are the sign and symbol of photography devaluated. (pp. 152-153)

Alec Soth, interviewed in 2010, from From Here to There:

I’m not actually killing the father, though I know that’s in there. But I am interested in killing that genre of photography going forward. It exists in the history of the medium that you shoot the mundane and make it beautiful, right? So people used to take pictures of old barns. Now we all see an old barn and we say, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” It’s a photo cliche so you don’t shoot that, but the world thinks they’re beautiful. That sort of goes on through time. And Eggleston took it to another level with a book such as The Democratic Forest. Just anything, and you can find beauty in it. And I agree with that. But the issue is now, in the digital age, it’s relentless. You have thousands of photographers working that way. it’s really hard to have that moment.

One thing I thought about on that little walk is the scene in American Beauty with the floating plastic bag. That scene has become iconic. I photographed a lot of plastic bags on that walk. In a way, they’re like the old barns. We find the floating bag beautiful now because of that movie, but it’s just harder and harder to do that. (pp. 143-144)

Nathan Jurgenson, writing recently, (via LPV):

Or: Given the proliferation of options, how should I document this cat?

For some, though certainly not everyone, this question is becoming increasingly difficult to answer. The most obvious answer is “don’t document that cat. Enough already.” I’m with you. I’m concerned about how social media documentation changes experience…I think there is good reason for why these types of documentation proliferate: most importantly, to be on social media in all its various forms is, for many, to exist. PJ Rey does an excellent job at explaining why it’s not so easy to just opt-out of all of this. In any case, this is not a post about whether this expansion in the ways of documentation is a good thing, but asking if there is a cognitive limit to all of this. So, again: How should I document this cat lying next to me?….

Can one simultaneously see the photographs, video, audio, and GIFs in front of them in real-time? Can documentary literacy be refined as to intuit between what is most shareable frozen-still versus wants to be stuck in the GIF loop? Can one see the fast Vine video in the sandwich being slowly consumed? Can we keep all of these documentary-affordances and potentialities in our head at once? Is there a limit?

To make this even more complex, we modern documentarians also need to keep all of the different audiences in mind. Indeed, that we now have been connected to large audiences to share our ephemera is in large part why we are being given so many documentary options. To see something as a potential snap (sent via Snapchat) is to already know the taste and expectations of each potential recipient. Vine users are different than your Facebook friends are different than your Tumblr followers and thus expectations multiply within the documentary consciousness.

As the complexities swell, might there be in this ecology of documentary consciousness something to keep mediums of documentation from proliferating endlessly? Is there a point of cognitive documentary saturation? Can we really all-at-once see the world as photographable, GIFable, Vineable, and whatever else comes next? And are those who reach that documentary saturation first at a disadvantage, missing out on the cultural and social capital that social media documentation promises?

Perennial millennialisms

As usually, photography’s chronic problem is to believe that its problems are acute. In this case, it seems that photography has, if not always, then from nearly the very beginning, been in the situation it is now: struggling to make sense of a staggering increase in the rate of production of photographs.

Much as with physical goods, I suppose, changes in abundance and scarcity precipitate anxiety about the value of things — compounded in the case of photographs by the dual impact of proliferating photographs on each other and on the world which those photographs represent. But unlike commodities, the value here is not a matter of monetary worth, but of meaning.

For Holmes, it is the value of real places, subverted by cheap access to photographs of them. (Note: Holmes was writing in a tongue in cheek fashion; he certainly was not anti-photography.) For Hicks, it is the value of “quieter, and better” images which is lost in the deluge — and a crisis in seeing itself, in which we dare not “witness,” because we know that “if we tried to respond to all the mechanical stimuli which beset us we should all be nervous wrecks.” For Soth, it is the aesthetic value of photographic subjects, eroded by our very appreciation (and therefore imitation) of it, which transforms the freshly discovered source of beauty into cliche. For Jurgens, it is the value of routine self-documentation (i.e., the successor technologies of the snapshot): for a given thing or experience, how should one record it — and is it even worth doing so anymore?

To put it in terms of Holmes’s signature metaphor: are there too many ways to “skin” a cat? Having perhaps achieved his vision of men who hunt all things worth seeing only “for their skins and leave the carcass,” are we now at the point where the traffic in those skins — what Hicks called the “derivative, secondhand life” of our visual “ghost world” — has also destabilized and devalued itself? It seems like Jurgens would object to Hicks’s dualism, but shares some of his John Henryesque concerns for the limits of the mind.

In summary, does the proliferation of images sometimes depreciate the value of individual images and/or of things? Is that depreciation a problem? And is that problem newly becoming acute and dire? The answers seem positive, but at least in the case of the third question, consensus is not necessarily supporting evidence when it occurs across time.

I am suspicious of millennialisms in photography, because they tend to recur perennially. (This is also the problem with actual millennial cults. If any of them were right, there would be much fewer of them by now.) Of course, just because the end wasn’t actually nigh all those other times doesn’t mean it’s not really nigh this time. But I am nonetheless inclined to follow the wisdom of Nick Fury: “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on.”

Tonight, on a very special…

My feeling is that anxiety about too many images takes its particular form from the specific technological and cultural situation at a given time, but is at heart more or less a constant: to put it crudely, the problem is that photography and related technologies have a disruptive impact on what is special. (There’s probably a better term, but I can’t think of it offhand.)

A special person or place, when subjected to mass reproduction and distribution in image form, may become less special, or the way in which it is special, and to whom, can be totally transformed. A special image — whether distinguished by technical innovation or the artist’s style or perceptiveness — is easily mimicked, which eventually removes the special, distinct quality of it, aside from its historical precedence. The stunning moment of beauty and insight becomes the standard subject.

Of course, this effect is inextricable from the basic appeal of photography in the first place, which from the beginning has included the (relative) ease, affordability, and reproducibility of the images it makes possible. The camera has always been a turnkey solution to the problem of the unique. It disrupts the economy of meaning that determines what is special, because it is and always has been a tool for exactly that purpose.

Of course, the presence of perennial problems and purposes does not mean the medium stands still. Rather, they play a persistent part in shaping its progress, for better or worse. I think proliferation anxiety tends to drive a kind of arms race of innovation — an always-escalating quest for new or new-seeming or newly-rediscovered subjects and techniques to distinguish the photographer who puts them to use before they have a chance to become cliches.

Unfortunately, different parts of the audience relate to the medium differently, and react to to its changes at different rates. A great deal of effort and attention goes into knowing what things to be over, and when. And when it comes to rediscovering the old — well, it can get awkward when one person’s current/continuing practice is someone else’s antique novelty. Under such conditions, it’s inevitable that photography’s audiences will grow farther apart, and their vocabularies, judgments, and desires become less mutually intelligible.

I think in the case of photography as art, the result is an incentive to move toward the abstract, the conceptual, and the technical, farther afield from the common use of photographic tools — and away from the devaluing impact of naive imitation by the masses. That certainly seems to be an implication (spoken or unspoken) behind some of the predicted futures of photography. (Alternatively, of course, the naive products of the masses can be laundered back into relevance through appropriation by some credentialed party.)

Stick to your knitting

Coming at it from another side, I wonder: how much of this fear of proliferating images, would be resolved by pulling art out of the equation? Or, rather, the artist? The obsession with the unique, the special, the distinguishing, and the fear for the fate of good images that may go unseen in the vast flood of others — it’s not really fear about the quality of photographs or the limits of seeing. It’s about the status of the photographer as artist and author.

In crafts, familiarity or commonality is not antithetical to worth. In that context, one cannot reasonably qualify a description of something beautiful or useful and well-made with a dismissive observation that it is also derivative. In folk songs and stories, the quality of performance often reflects an ability to skillfully iterate but does not require radical innovation. And while crafts, folk arts, traditional music, etc. may be perceived as belonging to the past, internet memes really work in much the same way — and like folktales and songs, they tend for practical purposes to come from a culture rather than from an individual author, even sometimes in cases where we can definitely identify such an author.

I think this is particularly relevant to the question of documentary consciousness/saturation — because I think it points to the fact that as we all become more and more skilled at producing images, and as we increasingly do so for the joy of it, we rely on the camera less as a documentary tool for memorializing moments and more to produce personal variations on standard subjects as an end in itself. Not to the exclusion of documentation, of course, but in conjunction with it. As with, say, knitting, the result is a practice that is partly aesthetic, partly utilitarian, and which imparts a satisfaction of creation without necessarily implying “creativity” in the sense of innovation.

(Please, nobody start pummeling me with your copies of Knitting for Anarchists; I know that many knitters engage in extensive design work, etc. But as far as I know, nobody points to someone knitting from a pattern and declares haughtily, “You are not a knitter.”)

Wait, really?

Well…no. Or, not exactly. In fact, I tend to be on the side of the “quieter, and better” image, too. And I’m copiously on record as resenting contemporary forms of the attention-seeking “sensationalism” Hicks derided, such as the photos that, through a combination of “wow” factor and SEO, rise to the top of Flickr’s Explore.

More critically, I’m concerned for the ability of photographs to let viewers partake of different perspectives (literally and figuratively). One of the most important functions of photography throughout its history is to form connections between people and between communities — even if they have all too often been simplistic and one-directional connections.

That function is not necessarily menaced by the proliferation of images. Take documentary photography, for example: the more universal, common, cheap, and easy photographic production is, and the more people are making photographs, and the more photographs they make, the more chances we have to avoid the great weakness of documentary photography: its dependence on parachuting white guys into any area that needs documenting.

But neither is there necessarily a positive correlation between a more a diverse body of photographs being made and more diverse, broadening photographic experiences for viewers. The increasingly elective distribution channels of the present are only as inclusive and interconnected as we make them. The walls formed by people letting their tastes guide them can be just as solid as those formed by institutional bias and myopia, and numbers alone will not scale them. Someone has to make windows and doors, or at least ladders. It’s a task that gets far too little love.

So anyway, please take about 2-3x the usual dose of salt with everything I’ve said here.

PS: I was also being extremely glib in my comparison of knitting to photography. I did not include fiber arts as an academic practice, or haute couture, which would likely have created annoyingly relevant parallels. Figuring out whether and how those parallels would have undermined my point is left as an exercise to the reader.

But most significantly, in knitting and in many other crafts, there is a direct relationship between the time one must spend in physical work and the result one achieves. Photography is by no means free of work, but the relationship between the time spent in it and the nature and quality of the result one achieves is wildly variable.

The usual read of that is that photography is faster or easier and therefore it upsets balances. I don’t think it’s that photography is faster or easier than other media, so much as that within photography, there is no consistent relationship between the amount, duration, or kind of effort one expends, and what one achieves. I think that inconsistency breeds media-wide insecurity at an hilarious rate.

PPS: This post took me a long time, and in the time between I started writing it and when I hammered into its present, vaguely publishable state, other things have been posted that I really should take into account. But if I stopped to do that, it would be another month before I got this out there, and then the situation would just keep getting more silly. So I’ll just say: read the posts linked here, here, and here.

Suburban Dreams

No one appears to be impoverished…these are not the ‘cool’ photos of down and out drug users, strippers and hookers. These are our own neighbors. We immediately recognize ourselves and our friends.

Amazon review by G. Rothman of Suburban Dreams.

"Colby (Colby’s Music), 2001." Beth Yarnelle Edwards

This weekend I stopped by the Oakland Museum to see "Beth Yarnelle Edwards: Suburban Dreams," an exhibition drawn from the California portion of Edwards’s Suburban Dreams series. (See here and here) The exhibit includes around a couple dozen photographs, as well as a handy binder containing reproductions of ephemera — samples of Edwards’s working notes, correspondence with subjects, etc. I went on the 19th for the talk by Edwards and curator Drew Johnson, which proved quite interesting.

Pictures authentic to the people

Edwards photographs subjects in their homes, in scenes that are staged but also intended to be “authentic” depictions of the family’s life. She follows a set protocol which includes showing subjects examples of her work, and asking if they are comfortable looking like the people in those pictures and interviewing them with intentionally vague, non-leading questions (e.g., “tell me something about your lives,” “what are your favorite things?”) Based on the interview, semi-improvised scenes are staged in which subjects act out some aspect of their daily lives. Specific poses are held for moderately long exposures.

It’s an interesting approach. Johnson contrasted it with the model of the “invisible documentarian,” and asserted that Edwards’s results can be “more real than a candid, unstaged photograph.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that, quite, but I find the approach appealing, especially in the context of my recent discussion of my hangup about portraiture. (I respond negatively to portraits in which the photographer seems to be fully in charge of what the subject means.)

Edwards’s very interactive way of working strikes a good balance: she’s producing images that have a great thematic and stylistic consistency and strong authorship, but her subjects are active in determining how they will appear. Her intention is to “make the pictures authentic to the people, not just use the people to illustrate my ideas.”

All of which is very appealing to me. But I find myself rather ambivalent about the actual photos.

Everyone can recognize

Part of my difficulty has to do with the type of photograph Edwards is making. My natural inclination is to read them as documentary, even ethnography, but that’s not really what they’re for. Edwards is actually emulating genre painting rather than making photographic documents. Her repeatedly declared intention is to portray her subjects as universal archetypes, which “everyone” can recognize. And that’s the second, larger part of my difficulty: the presumption of universality.

Edwards identifies as a cultural insider relative to the subjects she’s working with. In the California photos, the families are, while not necessarily her friends, within her extended social network — people who know people she knows, etc. In discussing her work, she used “we” and “our” often, apparently referring to a category inclusive of her subjects, herself, and those in attendance(?). (Although she also referred to the suburbs as an “aspirational” world, as seen on TV, and part of her motivation for the project is that she became “interested in the aspiration and what it meant.”)

I asked, given that she produced the work as a cultural insider, whether the photographs were intended for an insider audience as well, or whether they are intended for a different or broader audience — in short, who she thought the viewer of these photographs was. For whom are these archetypes “universal”?

Her response was that while the “stuff” is not universal, posture, gesture, etc. is. For example, a boy about to become a man will stand a certain way whether here or “two thousand miles away,” whether now or in a painting made hundreds of years ago. (The association of universality with the tradition of painting was a recurring and prominent theme.)

This jibes with her take on Europe. (The project includes several European countries, although what’s exhibited at OMCA is just from California.) She said that “increasingly, with globalization, a lot of European homes look like our suburban homes,” and in discussing distinctions between homes in Europe and homes here, she was careful to explain how what differences she did observe were in comparisons between homes of people in the same social class and professional status. And tellingly, when asked about the impact of economic recession on the people in her photographs, she pointed out that people who were doing poorly thanks to economic downturns would not be in the houses she was photographing — they would have left and been replaced by others.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on a specific social class — but I say it is telling because class is the parameter she did not use in talking about the trans-historical, trans-cultural range of viewers who are intended to be able to recognize the “universal” in her work.

(For examples of different relationships between a subject group, an insider or semi-insider photographer, and a viewership, consider Gordon Parks as “Mr. Negro”, which is a case of the photographer overtly acting as a bridge between one group and another, or Daniela Rossell, from whose Ricas y Famosas I think Suburban Dreams differs more in degree than in kind, except that Ricas y Famosas is perceived/used as indicting evidence against the subculture it represents.)

Family of (Upper Middle Class) Man

Jumping back a bit: part of the function of documentary and especially ethnographic photography is to explain a culture to an audience which is not presumed to have extensive prior knowledge of it. This is a function I know how to read in photographs (more or less). It orients the viewer toward the specific, toward information, toward the cultural context of the photograph. It helps the viewer to account for what they are seeing. And it does not presume that the viewer is an insider.

Now, that’s not the function Suburban Dreams is meant to serve, so not doing it is not an intrinsic deficit. But to the extent that the series presumes a relatively “insider” audience alongside its insider author, it is rendered less accessible and less useful to those who are not insiders. I believe Edwards that Suburban Dreams is about showing people as types that transcend place and time, but I think there is a real hiccup when it comes to class. As much as I like Edwards’s protocol and methodology, I think to some extent the photographs that result from them serve as family photographs of the upper middle class en masse: an internally directed self-depiction of people as they are willing to see themselves and be seen.

There’s nothing wrong with family photographs, and there’s nothing wrong with an insider producing something that is implicitly intended for the appreciation of other insiders. But there’s a potentially sharp discontinuity between that appreciation and the appreciation of outsiders. In the case of depictions of “universal” archetypes, the predictable outcome of crossing this discontinuity is that the archetype devolves to stereotype. The result is not an incomprehensible image, but an all-too-comprehensible one — stereotypes being always the easiest type to judge, read, and dismiss.

Our Own Neighbors

This aspect stands out to me particularly in the context of the Oakland Museum, which is located — well, here. If you don’t know what I mean, stop by some time, and walk a couple of miles in a couple of directions from the museum, and see what you see, including but not limited to, abject poverty, notable affluence, everything in between, and both urban decay and gentrification. There are few areas in California where class is more in need of socially critical interpretive context. And the rest of the museum — particularly the California history exhibits, but also plenty of the art — has that in spades.

Still, as I left Suburban Dreams, I wondered if maybe it was really just me — whether I was just personally/idiosyncratically insensitive to the universal in Edwards’s photographs. Would I find the same gazes, the same gestures, the same types, in, say, the photographs William Gedney made in Kentucky? Probably yes, at least in some cases. It’s likely that to some extent, maybe a great extent, my ambivalence toward Edwards’s photographs stems directly from my very real bias against the universal and toward the specific.

Then I went around the corner from Suburban Dreams, and I looked at photographs of Black Panthers and Diggers, and Dorothea Lange’s Richmond welders and Manzanar detainees. And I thought: images of well-off people at leisure, no matter in what posture or gesture, simply cannot be meaningfully regarded as universal representations of humanity, except insofar as rich people all look alike.

PS: To be clear, I am not presenting this as an comprehensive review — there is a great deal that one can get out of these photographs, although I think many of the best uses would go against their grain. (E.g., as records of a specific culture isolated in time and place.) What I am saying is that photographs like these do not get to casually or by default be for everyone, and if it is not clear whom they are for, it is questionable how much light they can shed on the suburban lifestyle, either as actual culture or as aspirational ideal.

Some Largely Unrelated Thoughts on From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America

1: America as Index

Glancing at a few posts from other folks about From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, it seems like it’s almost as obligatory for reviewers to talk about the book’s cover as it is for the essayists in the book to talk about Soth’s 8x10 view camera. It’s a fine and clever cover, to be sure, but I’m really much more taken with the book’s index. Not all photobooks have them — even ones that include extensive prose sections — and it’s always nice to see them. Indices are great because they’re a sign that someone on the other end of the book-making process remembered that books are for getting knowledge into peoples’ heads. The inclusion of an index respects a reader’s time and encourages repeated readings and extended use.

Of course, the index in From Here to There isn’t really an index. Or, rather, it is a fully functional index, but it’s also (mostly?) a joke about indices.

  • "Zen, photography as anti-, 142."
  • "Soth, Alec, business cards of. 222."
  • "2007_10zl0006, 47, 197"
  • "men, disconsolate, as theme."

In addition to being amusing, this is representative of the book’s stylistic approach, which throughout is clever and charming, although also sometimes just a bit much.

But actually it’s the regular “list what’s in the book” aspect of the index that I find the most interesting. It demonstrates part of the problem I’ve been having in trying to write usefully about this book and about Soth: talking about Soth means talking about everything.

Well, not everything. But gosh, it’s a pretty healthy percentage. Here, take a look:

Of course, one could make a list of connections like this about any photographer or artist — any person at all, really. But the index is a fair representation of the actual content of this book, especially the four essays about Soth and the interview with him that form the majority of the text. A tremendous amount of time is spent using comparisons and relationships to try to pin Soth down, to define his context — and by way of his context, to define him. Frank, Evans, Weston, Winogrand, Bresson (I mean, really?), Dijkstra, Wall, Ruff, Meyerowitz, Avedon. Wim Wenders, Amy Lowell, Malvina Reynolds. It’s a little like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, except instead of feeling the ears, the trunk, and the tail, we’re trying to determine the elephant’s species by way of his bibliography. And much the same approach is taken to Soth’s diverse subject matter.

Maybe that’s the only sensible way to approach Soth, whose photographic process is list-centric, after all:

[In Niagara:] From an initial search for subjects relating to the notion of love, “the realities of the place” quickly changed his perspective and parameters. He initiated the practice of driving with lists taped to the steering wheel that enumerated things to seek out (“…high school yearbooks, Polaroids, men in pajamas…). He also began to look for souvenirs: love letters and objects collected from subjects that would become a kind of “emotional scaffolding for the project. (Engberg, p. 44)

Perhaps itemization is a principle theme of Soth’s work; maybe it is only appropriate to try to understand Soth in this way. Or maybe it is just that a body of work like Soth’s, dense in meaning and reference, but also enigmatic, even inscrutable, needs to be cross-referenced before it can be talked about.

And yet, I have the sense with some of the essays in this book, that by the time the author is done with with the due diligence of tallying up subjects and influences and cross-references, that they’ve run out of steam for actually talking about Soth’s work itself. Or that the framework they’ve built out of those references is so ponderous that to actually get it pointed in a direction and make it move is just unrealistic.

Even Britt Salvesen’s essay, which is my favorite of the bunch, seems to begin seven or eight times, is largely about other photographers, and closes with what reads like a second or third paragraph composed mainly of nested lists:

Beneath an affectless surface, Soth’s work contains an aspirational core. Taking up such themes as community, connection, and middle America — so laden with political assumptions as to be nearly abstract — Soth presents viable options for art and life. Perhaps these are not the inevitable options, nor the cleanest ones, but he subtly indicates that choosing them will temper other, darker American tendencies toward cynicism, alienation, metropolitanism, and obscurantism on the one hand, and fundamentalism, conservatism, essentialism, and exceptionalism on the other. A man of his time, he externalizes the dilemmas he faces as an artist, a father, and a citizen. His respect for individuality allows him to posit collective identity. Our need for Alec Soth’s America makes it real.

I think it’s an excellent essay. But I think it demonstrates that Soth’s work as a whole is so…involuted, and so intellectually rich, that it’s difficult to approach both thoroughly and deeply.

2: This Swiss Guy

One of the pleasant surprises for me in this book is that Soth managed to sell me somewhat on Robert Frank’s The Americans, a book that I’ve always had a hard time liking very much.

When I first saw Robert Frank, it wasn’t this transformational thing for me the way it is for everyone else. I came to admire him much later. But I think I’m doing very similar things to what he’s doing in a way that’s quite different from, say, Joel Sternfeld. And this is where I’m able to distinguish these things, because Sternfeld is actually more of a social documentarian. He really is interested in the social issues of the day, looking at them and thinking about changes.

I don’t think that’s what Robert Frank was about. I think he was this Swiss guy coming to America, driving around, feeling enchanted and lonely simultaneously, and it just so happens that he encounters America and aspects of it and documents some of that. And then the work is read as a commentary on America. But the work is so much more about the tortured soul of Robert Frank. And that becomes super evident in later work. (p. 145)

I think this is spot-on. While The Americans has obviously played an influential role in the context of documentary photography, and photography as political critique, I don’t find it all that impressive or persuasive if directly examined on those terms. But it’s pretty damn good as a photo essay about travel, recording an experience that is mostly composed of alienation and surface perceptions.

(And yes, I appreciate that alienation and surface perceptions define America as well as the experience of travel — and that the uneasy road trip is as archetypal an American experience as anything. But the book makes much more sense if you keep the “enchanted and lonely” Swiss guy at the front of your mind. The photographs carry the weight of his story better than they carry the weight of a scathing social document.)

Of course, by providing this reading of Frank, Soth is also positioning himself as well. He tends to get — well, whatever the laudatory equivalent is of “tarred with the same brush.” I’m not sure why this is — and I’m as guilty of anyone of doing it. Maybe it’s just the power of American chauvinism in action that photos made in America by and about lonely drivers cannot help being read as social documentary.

3: Find Ourselves in These Pictures

Among the many freewheeling comparisons and connections between Soth and other notable photographers of America that populate this book, this one by Salvesen is probably my favorite:

Although beauty and grace suffuse many of his pictures, others are tough and resistant: Soth makes no deliberate attempt to be easy and pleasing. In this he resembles the predecessors mentioned above. Evans’ neutral frontality was puzzling compared to Margaret Bourke-White’s more sentimental depictions; Frank was a dark and infuriating counterpart to Steichen’s 1955 humanist paean The Family of Man; Shore was a deadpan riposte to bicentennial fervor; and Avedon was an East Coast urban dismantler of Wild West mythology. Soth, in his turn, does not pretend to the comprehensive sweep of A Day in the Life of America. Evans, Frank, Shore, Avedon, and now Soth have submitted American identity to serious questioning while ultimately contributing to it, even enriching it. The viewer cannot escape the challenge posed by these artists: if we want to believe in America as a democracy, as a collective of free and equal individuals, we must either find ourselves in these pictures or admit ourselves outside them.(p. 105)

I tend to dislike accounts of the value of a body of photography based on its function in calling into question American mythology, self-confidence, etc. It’s just redundant, like a gripping photo essay revealing the conspiracy behind the myth of Santa Claus. Demythologization is not bad, but it is rarely interesting in itself, and if it’s treated as a priority in art (either by the artist or by curators or critics) it limits the scope of its relevance to audiences who partake in the mythology or who like to chuckle at the foolishness of those who do. (Also, in the case of the photographers who tend to crop up in this particular conversation, one has to ask: to what extent can American identity be “submitted to serious questioning” by all and only white men?)

But Salvesen’s “we must either find ourselves in these pictures or admit ourselves outside them,” does something different (or at least additional) for me. It focuses not on the relationship between the photographers and the idea of America, but on the relationship between viewers and subjects. And while I can be as jaded and bored as I like about national mythology, this problem all Americans face — the problem of living together with other Americans — is as real to me as it is to anyone, and it is a concrete problem which is actually amenable to photographic investigation.

It’s a particularly good way to approach Soth, whose work, while often as narrow and provocative and judgmental as that of any other photographer of America, is also consistently empathetic, and genuinely interested in people as such. (And not only for their iconic or representational utility.)

For example, consider this photograph:

And Soth’s explanation of it:

But, over and over again, you do see real misery. So then you’ve witnessed the fact that, with these people, something’s broken and that more often than not, there is a real hunger to engage with me. So, if I were to really leave my life, I would desperately miss it, and people. It’s a case of grass is always greener. It’s both being attracted to it, and then when you’re in it, a bit repelled.

And on the issue of the swastika — I asked him a lot about that, and it was so clearly a case of being completely naive. I didn’t want to exploit that as a major topic because I felt like the religious impulse of becoming a monk or something is not that different. It’s just a different shade of the same thing, which is this hunger to latch on to some sort of system. Because there’s always a belief system that’s connecting you to other people.

But you know what’s really interesting about him? You know the older guy who I said lives on millions of dollars of mountain? He was the guy I was going to visit. That young guy with the swastika was living on his property. The older guy is a total hippie. Not Nazi at all. I think he’s gay, and likes having the young guy around. The young guy is a bit lost in life, and he hates his parents, but it shows you — in both cases — how they’re not alone at all. (pp. 137-138)

I think this sympathetic, detailed, and somewhat all over the place approach to his subjects is part of what makes Soth so hard to summarize or to draw concise conclusions about. We expect a narrative to generalize, to organize, to abstract. Because if it doesn’t do those things, it can’t explain. And if it doesn’t explain, we can’t account for its accuracy. I think Soth’s photography explains less about America than any of the other photographers of America to whom he is compared. Which is not to say that he doesn’t provide a true and useful view of it. I’m almost tempted to say that the leaving out the explanation of America makes room in the photos for more actual America.

Although…still only so much of it. Soth’s America is a very white America — not exclusively so, of course, and I don’t necessarily count it as a defect. I’m more concerned with the quality with which he shows what he shows than I am with the demographics of it. And if we’re talking about Soth’s work in itself, it wouldn’t even occur to me as an issue. But if we’re looking at Soth as a name at the end the list, ” Evans, Frank, Shore, Avedon, and” in terms of a tradition of photographers presenting America with challenging mirror images of itself — well, that’s a tremendously white guy list. Which doesn’t say a damn thing about who has made important and challenging photographs of America, but it does say a lot about who America is willing to be challenged by.

4: The Loneliest Man in Missouri

Probably the best part of Alec Soth’s America is the booklet The Loneliest Man in Missouri, tucked into a little envelope on the back cover, like a circulation card in an old school library book.

(Note: Spoilers ahead. No, really. If you aren’t going to buy the book (which I do recommend), you can view the series here.)

While From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America includes some of Soth’s most recognizable work from a number of series, mostly beautiful and reproduced with care, the photos in Loneliest Man are almost all unremarkable in appearance. They would have little recognizable value outside the context of their sequence, which opens with a man urinating against the cement base of a pole, a distant bird in a blue sky, and the handwritten words, “I spent a few weeks driving around Missouri, looking for the loneliest man I could find.”

What follows are mostly photos of solitary men in cars, men walking to or from their cars, eating their lunches, and going to strip clubs. Stylistically, they resemble some of the worst sorts of street photography: voyeuristic without being provocative or informative, and in almost all cases without apparent redeeming aesthetic virtue.

Some photos are annotated with simple captions, and some narrate Soth’s process, like, “I followed this man from a strip club to the casino. He was wearing some sort of complicated medical device,” or, “I think his mustache was fake.” Some of the men’s faces are covered with colored stickers. In between photos of the men, there are photos of related scenes or objects, often from parking lots.

Then, a few pages from the end, Soth finds his “loneliest” man, Ed:

I met Ed at Miss Kitty’s, a strip club in East St. Louis. He goes there 3-5 times a week.

I took Ed to dinner at Ruby Tuesdays. He told me that the next day was his 45th birthday. But he had no plans to celebrate. His parents were dead — no friends but strippers.

For Ed’s birthday, Soth hired one of the strippers from the club to come to Ed’s house, where she sang happy birthday to Ed and Ed read her TS Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The text of the poem is reproduced, and the sequence concludes with a photograph of Ed’s birthday cake.

Loneliest Man in Missouri is invasive, creepy, ugly, and pretentious. It is also moving, contemplative, and genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. And wonderful. It divorces Soth’s fundamental concerns from the beauty and high technical standards that characterize, say, Niagara. And it somehow — I’m honestly not sure how — manages at the end to humanize the subjects without obfuscating the squirm-inducing nature of the premise or Soth’s approach to it.

It’s not a documentary work. It doesn’t document anything, it’s certainly not evidence of anything. It doesn’t explain or account for anything. It’s a self-portrait by proxy* of a lonely driver. And it’s awesome.

*We’ve talked about Charles and the men in Broken Manual, but in many ways I am closer to The Loneliest Man in Missouri than I am to these people. I live in Minneapolis, I drive a minivan. It was going to be The Loneliest Man in Minneapolis at one point, but then I thought, that’s too easy. And I wanted to go even more to the middle by going to Missouri, but there is definitely a self-portrait aspect to this whole thing. (p. 145)

The End of Taste

I just got through reading Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which was suggested quite a while ago by Conscientious in his post on A Photo Editor's post on our post on a Salon post about “unliterary” and “literary” audiences. (Circularity, thy name is blogs.)

It’s a genuinely fascinating read — much more so than I would have guessed, since I have relatively little interest in music to begin with, and no interest at all in Celine Dion. What I was expecting is an attempt to make sense of “low” tastes from the perspective of “elite” taste. And the book certainly does deliver that. But what is also there, and what is even more interesting, is how thoroughly the book grounds its explanation of Celine Dion in class and ethnicity.

Part of this is going into Dion’s background, and into the demographics of her listeners — in essence, there are aspects of her music that would seem appropriate to US audiences in a black musician or in a country singer, but which can seem out of place in a musician hailing from the “null set” of Quebec, even though they’re present in Dion for much the same reasons.

But the second and even more interesting part is his discussion of schmaltz, which he identifies as more or less constituting Dion’s musical genre. Schmaltz, Wilson explains, has its roots in the contributions of immigrants to American music and theater (e.g., Irish nostalgia, Italian operatic melodrama), and derives its perishability in part from the process of assimilation.

Remember that “white” is a moving target: ethnic groups such as the Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Portuguese, fancophones, etcetera, eventually became “white,” but initially, to their British-descended neighbors, they were not. A genealogy of American schmaltz would probably track neither-black-nor-white cultures through decades of semi-assimilation. (p. 54)

Schmaltz…is never purely escapist: it is not just cathartic but socially reinforcing, a vicarious exposure to both the grandest rewards of adhering to norms and their necessary price. This makes it especially vulnerable to becoming dated: the outer boundaries of extreme conformity, of uncontroversial public ecstasy and despair, are ever-mobile. Schmaltz is an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived, which social change can pitilessly revise. And then it becomes shameful, the way elites of the late nineteenth century felt when they wondered what their poor ignorant forebears ever heard in light Italian opera. Likewise, as a specialization of liminal immigrants in America, it can become a holdover from a time “before we were white,” perhaps dotingly memorialized, but embarrassing head-on. (p. 61)

Wilson also discusses the increasingly bifurcated musical production and consumption of the upper and lower classes in the US, starting from a comparatively mixed/unified cultural landscape and ending in one where there are sharp divisions between what people of different classes are expected to know and enjoy:

Through most of [the 19th century] opera was popular music too, sung on the same programs as parlor songs and beloved among both high and low economic classes in English translation…Operatic songs, full of melodrama and romance, were sung alongside parlor songs at home and parlor songs would be dropped into productions of operas (often when rowdily participatory nineteenth-century audiences yelled out for them). Swedish soprano Jenny Lind’s first mid-century American tour, sponsored by P. T. Barnum, was perhaps the first “blockbuster” event in American pop culture, and Lind would sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” between Mozart and hymns…The same held true for passages of Shakespeare, another popular nineteenth-century commodity. It was only in the later 1800s that a consolidating upper class became wealthy and populous enough to shut out popular treatments of classics in the name of “culture” and “standards,” by building ritzy exclusive opera houses, condemning English translations, and turning against “light” Italian opera in favor of “high” German opera. This brought to an end the mixed programs of Shakespeare, opera, melodrama, parlor song, comedy, freak shows and acrobats typical of the earlier nineteenth-century stage. As Walt Whitman, an enormous Italian-opera fan, put it in 1871’s Democratic Vistas, with “this word Culture, or what it has come to represent, we find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy,” meaning the snobs and aristocrats of old Europe. (p. 56)

As Wilson explains, Dion “aspires to the highbrow culture of a half-century ago,” in terms both of musical styling and of symbols used in her performances. And the tacky, schmaltzy nature of her music, its datedness, is not just about being out of sync with better contemporaneous music — it has ethnic and socio-economic implications. Wilson attributes Dion’s polarizing tendency to the fact that she taps into this kind of “before we were white” schmaltz material without appearing to middle American listeners as an ethnic performer. That pastward orientation is also in a sense a democratic orientation — although not necessarily a progressive or positive one: “[Dion] stinks of democracy, mingled with the odors of designer perfumes and of dollars, Euros, and yen.”

I have a hard time not jumping from this to photography — but I also have a hard time pinning down on exactly what terms to set up the comparison. Photography differs substantially from music in terms of its age as a medium and how its producers and audiences think about themselves. And while race and ethnicity certainly have their own (sometimes complex) histories in photography, they’re not really analogous to what Wilson is describing about the history of music.

What does stand out for me is the association of perceived illegitimacy with historical displacement/datedness, and the increasing isolation and class-segregation of production and consumption. These things are certainly hallmarks of photography over the last half-century or longer. (And of course photography has always been a medium defined by anxiety regarding novelty and originality.)

And I suppose these things might go some way toward explaining why I (as something of a class outsider or outlier) tend to gravitate toward photography of the past — up to around 60’s and 70’s, about a half century ago. The ease of my appreciation diminishes as art photography is fully adopted into the academic world and as the production and consumption of art photography becomes more and more the province of the rich.

Now, I usually chalk this up to my near-total lack of formal training of any kind touching on art — which is certainly not wrong, but maybe it’s not complete either. Quite possibly I’m drawn to photography’s past not just because I never got an introductory course on it, but because I relate to some aspects of the medium better before it was “white.”

I suppose that begs the question, since we’re on an analogy to Wilson’s Dion, whether I am drawn to photographic schmaltz. It’s not a taste I would probably have thought of myself as having, and I’ve been pretty harsh in the past on photographic “porn” or what @vossbrink identifies as “kitsch,” which overlaps pretty well with Wilson’s definition of schmaltz.

But I wonder if what Wilson has to say about schmaltz doesn’t bear somewhat on my feelings about Roy DeCarava — especially in contrast to my feelings about certain other examples of well-known documentary photographs. I’m thinking particularly of how Wilson frames the opposition of schmaltz to irony:

…songwriter Stephin Merritt argued that “catharsis in art is always embarrassing.” It’s a common belief, though seldom so drolly expressed. He was partly drawing on Bertolt Brecht, who held that the purgative release of catharsis can defuse social criticism. But like many of us, Merritt transposed that political caveat to a personal one, a matter of style. His enjoyment, he claimed only half-joshingly, depends on having the embarrassment built into the art, as irony, which allows him to register emotion without the shameful loss of self-control involved in feeling it. (p. 130)

While it would be completely unfair to imply that there is anything at all unsophisticated about DeCarava (quite the contrary!), there isn’t a surplus of irony in his photographs, and certainly no attempt to defuse or diminish or sanitize their emotional intensity — and no attempt to provide either DeCarava or the viewer with any kind of safe distance. And those are the most powerful and important American photographs I’ve ever seen.

Of course, as justly as I can point to DeCarava’s work as offering catharsis which need seek no refuge in irony, it’s still obviously a bit of an evasion on my part. In no sense would it be fair to point to his work as “schmaltz.”

No, if we were going to pursue an analogy to Wilson’s Celine Dion, we’d really have to go for it, wouldn’t we? Really, if we were being honest, we’d have no choice but to go full Geddes. And I simply, honestly do not have it in me to do that. At least, not this week.

You’re welcome.

Document and Artifice

"Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal, May 8, 1994," by Rineke Dijkstra (via SFMOMA) and “Untitled #405, 2000,” by Cindy Sherman (via MOMA).

Note: as you may have observed, we are fantastically behind schedule. So, set your time machines for “several months ago,” and join me in a topical journey into our semi-recent past. In this case, I’ll be discussing exhibitions which I saw in April and September of this year.

There is a bit of a running gag regarding me and portraits, that I only like them if I can’t see the subject’s face. (cf. here or here) And while there is a lot of portraiture that I like, it’s true that I generally don’t have much to say about traditional portraits — when I do end up talking about portraits, it’s usually outliers. (e.g., here or here)

So it was a subject of some speculation how I would respond to SFMOMA’s Dijkstra and Sherman exhibitions — two bodies of portraiture (or pseudo-portraiture in the case of Sherman) that are technically great and conceptually…well, let’s say fraught.

I perhaps should have had an easier time with Dijkstra than Sherman. There is at least some semblance of a documentary function at work in her photographs, and in general the farther a photograph is from recording some actual subject, and the closer it is to presentation of a construction or performance, the less comfortable I am with it. Not in this case, however.

I found Dijkstra’s photographs deeply off-putting. It’s tricky to pin down precisely why, though. Taken individually, they’re blandly enigmatic, which I think is more or less the default for large-format color portraits these days. They’re well-executed, and executed in service of a substantial organizing principle: recording subjects in periods of intense transition. (Adolescence, childbirth, military service, bullfighting, etc.)

The implication is that a photograph of a person in such a state will somehow provide more information, or more insight, or more truth — either into the subjects, or into humanity at large. In other words, Dijkstra’s photography seems to be working along philosophical principles similar to those of Shan Yu. Which is to say, it’s (a) creepy and (b) horseshit.

In fact, the way that Dijkstra polices contextualizing details within the frame systematically renders them less informative and less revealing — or, rather, it renders them informative and revealing only about Dijkstra. (Which I regard as a bug, although it can also be regarded as a feature.)

Dijkstra’s photographs form an incredible artifice — which would not necessarily be objectionable if they were not presented as offering an appearance-transcending insight. They deliver the viewer a visceral stimulus sterilized of context and specificity, but with a branding of verisimilitude. A bit like pornography presented in the format of an anatomy textbook.

None of which actually quite accounts for how much Dijkstra bothers me. That litany of complaints really only adds up to “boring,” rather than “offensive.” What pushes it over the line for me is, ultimately, a personal hangup about portraiture, and in particular about the relationship between the photographer and the subject. It’s something I’ve never had a lot of luck expressing succinctly or completely — which contributes to my reticence to discuss portraits on 1/125. (There’s nothing more annoying than a bias you can identify but not fully account for.)

The simplest way I can think to put it is: I respond negatively to portraits in which the photographer seems to be fully in charge of what the subject means. I respond positively to portraits where the subject seems to be putting up a fair fight in determining how they appear and what that appearance signifies.

This isn’t something that has a uniform objective measure — it can be a matter of whether the subject has chosen what clothing to wear, how to pose, etc., or it can be a matter of irrepressible personality. But manifested in whatever way, it’s the sense that the person has decided (how) to appear before the camera, and that the subject is therefore in some part a coauthor of their own photographed image.

The nature of Dijkstra’s project effectively precludes this — in some cases by photographing people in circumstances where their appearance is effectively beyond their control, and in other cases (esp. adolescent subjects) through interpretation which reduces the individual to a type. The most we can really deduce about them in terms of their agency relative to the observed photograph is that they consented to appear in it.

In contrast to this, Cindy Sherman’s work — which I had never really been exposed to in a comprehensive way before, just piecemeal — was really refreshing. Which is a strange thing to say about something so extremely meta. I mean, come on: Sherman’s work is a classic example of a medium being fully up its own ass.

Well, it’s a classical example apart from one thing: it’s funny. It is at least some of the time fully laugh-out-loud funny, and while not everyone is going to appreciate it (no joke is truly universal), it has one of the hallmark features of good comedy: it scales well with regard to knowledge of what the joke is about. And as comedy, it can in some ways be more truthful or more honest than a factual treatment of the same subjects would be.

The nature of the comedy is also relevant to my issues with Dijkstra — Sherman is basically doing the polar opposite of what Dijkstra is doing, and the comedy in her photography springs from that.

Baker: What about humor? It seems like there’s more license to laugh in some images than others.

Sherman: I see humor in almost everything, in even the grotesque things, because I don’t want people to believe in them as if they were documentary that really does show true horror. I want them to be artificial, so you can laugh or giggle at them, as I do when I watch horror movies. ("Cindy Sherman: Interview with a Chameleon")

Sherman’s work is artificial, but transparently so, at least when presented in the correct context. (If encountered out of context, a viewer could easily mistake some of them for documents.) It is an honest artifice, which is infinitely superior to a dishonest document. And I say this as someone who is pretty ill-equipped, both in taste and in knowledge, to appreciate artificial and conceptual photography.

And in terms of my particular hangups, the performance nature of Sherman’s work is surprisingly appealing. It would be doubly incorrect to call them self-portraits, but they are a case where the person in the photograph is in complete control of the way they appear in the frame, and what that appearance means. Normally this is only true for certain kinds of model-photographer collaborations, and in the case of subjects who — intentionally or not, by choice of the photographer or against it — hijack the photo. Because this is not the norm for most portraitists, my experience in looking at portraits is usually hit and miss.

In the case of Sherman, I can see — well, if not portraits, portrait-format images — without the need for that little internal flinch that most portraitists trigger in me some or all of the time. And that really is a relief — almost a tangible weight being lifted.

"Ward 64, Precinct 11, Philadelphia, Pa., 2008," by Michael Mergen (via The Halls of Democracy: Places of Civic Responsibility - LightBox)

  After combing through thousands of polling sites on Excel spreadsheets, the photographer then chose stations located in private homes or unusual businesses; his journeys have taken him to pizza parlors, living rooms, garages, funeral homes and other eccentric spots scattered across Philadelphia. His eight years of work have yielded three revealing yet non-partisan series aptly titled, Vote, Deliberate and Naturalization, which collectively seek to underscore the importance of citizen-driven governance.

These are lovely series. They convey an absurdity inherent in our civic processes: momentous decisions made under circumstances that are banal or bizarre or both. But they don’t triviliaze them. They seem to me both solemn and reservedly hopeful. Also quite lovely.

"Ward 64, Precinct 11, Philadelphia, Pa., 2008," by Michael Mergen (via The Halls of Democracy: Places of Civic Responsibility - LightBox)

After combing through thousands of polling sites on Excel spreadsheets, the photographer then chose stations located in private homes or unusual businesses; his journeys have taken him to pizza parlors, living rooms, garages, funeral homes and other eccentric spots scattered across Philadelphia. His eight years of work have yielded three revealing yet non-partisan series aptly titled, Vote, Deliberate and Naturalization, which collectively seek to underscore the importance of citizen-driven governance.

These are lovely series. They convey an absurdity inherent in our civic processes: momentous decisions made under circumstances that are banal or bizarre or both. But they don’t triviliaze them. They seem to me both solemn and reservedly hopeful. Also quite lovely.

Sexual Assault Spree Caught on Camera: Or, “V-J Day in Times Square”

I’m always interested (and/or exasperated) when photographic questions come to my attention through non-photography-specific channels. In this case, a tweet from Annalee Newitz pointed me to a post at the blog Crates and Ribbons titled "The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture.’"

The post concerns the Eisenstaedt V-J day photo, which has been in the news lately because of a recent book offering evidence for George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman as the two subjects of the photo. (Quite a few people have been identified as the sailor and nurse over the years.)

The Crates and Ribbons post points out that the mainstream news coverage demonstrates (without recognizing) that the kiss in question might in contemporary terms be considered a sexual assault:

The articles even give us Greta’’s own words:

“It wasn’’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!”

“I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vice grip.”

“You don’t forget this guy grabbing you.”

“ That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”

It seems pretty clear, then, that what George had committed was sexual assault. Yet, in an amazing feat of willful blindness, none of the articles comment on this, even as they reproduce Greta’’s words for us. Without a single acknowledgement of the problematic nature of the photo that her comments reveal, they continue to talk about the picture in a whimsical, reverent manner, “still mesmerized by his timeless kiss.” George’’s actions are romanticized and glorified; it is almost as if Greta had never spoken.

For some additional context, I did a quick search, figuring that the wonderful Iconic Photos blog probably had a post about the V-J Day photo, and of course it does, including some contact sheetage

and quotation from Eisenstaedt:

I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I’d hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor’s dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.

So, if we define a nonconsensual kiss as a sexual assault, this photo is not a charming document of romantic celebration, but a visually striking slice out of a minor crime spree. (Also, note that Eisenstaedt is both observing the sailor’s kissing progress through the crowd but “hoping” and preparing for him to get to the unsuspecting nurse.)

Reactions to the Crates and Ribbons post are about what you’d think — some folks are disenchanted with the image, some dispute the use of the term “sexual assault”, some reject the idea of applying the term across generations, and of course some fall into the “feminism is dumb” camp. The comments thread is pretty interesting reading (both for good and bad reasons, depending on the comment), and I’d recommend perusing it, especially if you’re interested in splitting hairs over what is and isn’t sexual assault.

To phrase it in a less jargon-y way, the point is that what we’re looking it is not two people enthusiastically celebrating victory and the prospect of peace, but one person forcibly celebrating on another person. This is true if Friedman is in fact the woman in the photo; it is also true just going by Eisenstaedt’s account, regardless of who the woman was. And, as @Vossbrink points out, it is clear from inspection of the contact sheet: “The photo we know is the only one where it’s not obvious she’s fighting him.”

Friedman’s own interpretation of the photograph is very interesting. There’s a transcript of a 2005 interview with her at the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, which some of the commenters at Crates and Ribbons pointed to — it’s short and you should just read it, but I’ll excerpt some of the relevant bits. (Note: I cleaned up the formatting and fixed a couple of errors for the sake of readability.)

Patricia Redmond: When he grabbed you and gave you a kiss, what did you feel like?

Greta Friedman: I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss… it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of ‘thank god the war is over’ … it was right in front of the sign.

Patricia Redmond: Did he say anything to you when he kissed you?

Greta Friedman: No, it was an act of silence.


Patricia Redmond: What did you do the rest of the day, when you were off and celebrating?…

Greta Friedman: I went home!

Patricia Redmond: Did you think about “the kiss”…

Greta Friedman: Not until years later when I saw the picture.


Greta Friedman: …It wasn’t my choice to be kissed… (in 1945). The guy just came over and grabbed! (in 1980 for the reenactment of the kiss) I told him I didn’t want to redo that pose! We have the picture here, and it is kind of a reenactment of the pose and the sign on Time’s Square says, ‘It had to be you!’


Patricia Redmond: So Alfred Eisenstaedt has said that you two were indeed the kissing couple?

Greta Friedman: I don’t know if he really had such a great view of our faces. I think he was attracted more by the pose. It was a black and white shot, and as a photographer, he just knew that he had a good picture. It was an opportunity and that’s the job of a good photographer…to recognize a good opportunity.

Patricia Redmond: In the Frederick newspaper article, that told about the photograph and I quote: “It was an enduring symbol of the joy and relief felt by a nation at the end of the war.”

Greta Friedman: Right. Everyone was very happy; people on the street were friendly and smiled at each other. It was a day that everyone celebrated, because everybody had somebody in the war, and they were coming home. The women were happy, their boyfriends and husbands would come home. It was a wonderful gift finally, to end this war. It was a long war, and it cost a lot.


Patricia Redmond: How does it feel to be so famous?

Greta Friedman: It’s kind of fun, because it’s very accidental. Fame for just being there…being dressed right. Actually, the fame belongs to the photographer. He provided an art… I can’t call it a skill. He was an artist. I just happened to be there…and so did George.


Greta Friedman: …I think [George] was the one who made me famous, because he took the action. I was just the bystander. So, I think he deserves a lot of credit. Actually, by the photographer creating something that was very symbolic at the end of a bad period…it was a wonderful coincidence, a man in a sailor’s uniform and a woman in a white dress… and a great photographer at the right time.

I’m fascinated by how conscious and specific Friedman is in apportioning agency and intention between the parties involved, and differentiating between her experience of the kiss itself and the meaning and value of the photograph. It seems clear that her experience at that moment was sharply unpleasant but also fairly trivial and — until Friedman saw Eisenstaedt’s photograph and recognized herself — forgettable. It also seems clear that she values the symbolic worth of the photograph, which she treats as distinct from the circumstances of its creation and which she attributes entirely to happenstance plus Eisenstaedt’s ability to recognize an opportunity. (As opposed to the customary function of photographs for non-photographers — memorialization of a personally important experience.)

This is in contrast to the way Crates and Ribbons reads the photo — more or less as a transparent and instant window on the deed, the meaning of which is what matters and is under scrutiny. Eisenstaedt isn’t mentioned at all in the body of the post (although the photo is attributed and the post is tagged with his name), and there’s no speculation there about his intentions or actions before or after the photo. Just, “For so long, this photograph has come to represent that unbridled elation, capturing the hearts of war veterans and their families alike.”

And it is maybe worth thinking about how else the photographer could have proceeded, and with what results. Was Eisenstaedt aware of or concerned with the experience of the women of the sailor was grabbing? Is it reasonable (in that situation at that time) to expect that he should have been? Could he or his editors have selected a different frame from the sheet, or by framing, captioning, or other means should they have better indicated the nature of the scene? If so, would the result have been better photography? Would it have sold more or fewer magazines? And in a similar situation today, would or should a photographer be expected to do anything differently?

(Not to mention the question of what viewers can or should be expected to deduce, or suspect, or (hah) research when they view a photograph.)

The latest TIME cover has kicked up a bit of a response on twitter, and I am really enjoying it.

Here is the cover, Martin Schoeller’s portrait of Jamie Lynne Grumet and her son:

And here are some reactions:

Now, it’s pretty obvious what’s happening here. TIME is presenting a deliberately provocative photo, and people are being provoked. This is nothing new. But I’ve found the reactions — mostly dirty jokes, of course, along with a smattering of indignation — to be really refreshing.

Most of the time, lately, when people got excited about anything related to photography, it’s to do with things like digital manipulation, intellectual property, Instagram, etc. Many of these discussions fail the 1978 test. And even the ones that don’t are usually still really boring.

So, I just want to point out some things about a lot of the reactions I’m seeing to the TIME cover:

  • People are paying attention to what’s in a photo, not what tools were used to make it
  • People are making judgments about the content of an image, its concept, and the editorial process that led to its being put on newsstands
  • People are thinking about how a photo will differentially influence the later life of subjects in it
  • People are thinking about the moral agency of those responsible for creating and publishing a photo

Also, the jokes folks are making about this are way funnier than the jokes people make about Instagram. That’s a non-trivial win. One of the worst things about a boring controversy is enduring the boring jokes it engenders.

If you’re interested in the actual photo itself, TIME has a short post about it on its “Lightbox” blog. Not a ton of meat there, and it doesn’t come near addressing the decision to use such a bait-y image. The best part is that it includes this photo of reference images used in planning the shoot:

I am particularly fond of the middle image in the lower row. I would love to know how these images were gathered, and to what criteria, but, sadly, that is also not covered in the post.

Some Questions about Portraits

Hi, folks. I’m interested in your thoughts on portraiture. Specifically, I’d like to know one example each of:

  • A best/great/favorite portrait — something that you consider to be at the top of the genre
  • A portrait that is highly regarded or popular, but that you dislike

If you can also say a little about why, that would be extra awesome. Can be an individual photograph or a series, but should be more specific than just naming a great portraitist.

Also, if there’s any favorite writing (blog post, book, whatever) about portraiture that you’d like to point me to, that would be great as well.

Thanks! You can respond via tumblr, Disqus, email (kukkurovaca@gmail.com), or whatever.

Obligatory tumblr question mark…now?