Masks, Stress, and Selves

Unequally Yoked recently posted a well-phrased take on a theme relevant to my interests:

In C.S. Lewis’s Of Other Worlds, most of the selections in the book are critical essays, but there a few pieces of fiction included, one of which is a never completed novel that C.S. Lewis meant to write about Menelaus and Helen during and after the Trojan War. In the excerpt below, Menelaus stops fantasizing about torturing Helen if he regains her.

[H]e wouldn’t torture her. He saw that was nonsense. Torture was all very well for getting information; it was no real use for revenge. All people under torture have the same face and make the same noise. You lose the person you hated.

I was struck by this passage, since frequently discussions of torture (fictional and nonfictional) treat it as revelatory. In Firefly‘s “War Stories” Shepherd Book quotes Shan Yu — a fictional warrior whose philosophy informs the actions of that episode’s antagonist.

[Shan Yu] fancied himself quite the warrior poet. Wrote volumes on war, torture, the limits of human endurance. [He wrote] “Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.”

The idea that we are most ourselves under stress is prevalent. Hurt someone badly enough, and every decent drapery will be stripped away, and you’ll meet the authentic self they tried to mask. See also “It has been said that civilization is twenty-four hours and two meals away from barbarism” (from Good Omens) and the idea that wine and wrath lower inhibitions and reveal identity. All of this presupposes that anything we do by effort can’t be authentic, when I’d argue that our choice of mask and drapery is the best indication of our character.

When it comes to seeing someone, relating to someone, and in photography, when it comes to making a portrait, it’s more important to see and understand the masks they choose and how they use them than it is to try to separate them from those masks. This is why Dijkstra’s portraits are boring, but Meatyard’s Father Louie is fascinating.

The only rationale for trying to unmask a subject is an attempt at the universal — which generally and predictably results in a maximally banal depiction which, if it reveals anything, reveals the prejudices and assumptions of the artist. It also, I think, tends toward photograph as implicitly violent.

It is the fact that it is Vietnamese people themselves who are driving the project to get these pictures seen that is striking. I’ve written it before but it bears repeating that the full content of pictures is just as much made by those who see and use them as by the photographers (or camera operators) who did the original practical business. Pictures only really acquire any importance when they have something to do. Here is a fine example of a group of pictures which have found their purpose. Call it what you like: documentary, memory, perhaps even something tending towards conscience. Between a former diplomat with gentle eyes and a new generation of people who are hungry to be shown what they cannot recall, these pictures have quite suddenly become something. They’ve become an asset and a collection of stories and an invitation to understand more clearly. That’s what we call an archive of photographs, and it matters for all sorts of reasons which were not predictable when the pictures were first made. 

(via John Ramsden – Everyday Life Continued | Francis Hodgson) Emphasis added.

I really, really like this. Probably because I don’t care for the idea that art should be above having a purpose. (cf. This post on Evans’s “a document has a use, whereas art is really useless.”)

But I also like the emphasis on how, even though these are not necessarily presented as great photographs, they are also not presented as implicitly anonymous. (Of course, it no doubt helps that the photographer in this case is a white dude in a foreign land.)

One of the hopes I have for photography in the future is that we will see less and less treatment of “vernacular” photography as a special genre apart from others. As time passes, it is less and less necessarily true that “found” photographs are anonymous ones, and it is also less necessarily true that the people with the ability to reorganize and recontextualize works of art are curators and academics. My (probably unjustified) hope is that it will also be less necessarily true that the latter depends on the former.

The only problem with stories like Ramsden, Maier, Cushman, etc. (aside from in some cases exasperating repetition), is the exaggerated exceptionalism that is implied when we single them out to build stories around them. A lifetime of good photography is not all that unusual in the past, and will be even less so in the future. So let the question not be, “is it a good photograph,” but “is it a photograph we can put to good use.”
It is the fact that it is Vietnamese people themselves who are driving the project to get these pictures seen that is striking. I’ve written it before but it bears repeating that the full content of pictures is just as much made by those who see and use them as by the photographers (or camera operators) who did the original practical business. Pictures only really acquire any importance when they have something to do. Here is a fine example of a group of pictures which have found their purpose. Call it what you like: documentary, memory, perhaps even something tending towards conscience. Between a former diplomat with gentle eyes and a new generation of people who are hungry to be shown what they cannot recall, these pictures have quite suddenly become something. They’ve become an asset and a collection of stories and an invitation to understand more clearly. That’s what we call an archive of photographs, and it matters for all sorts of reasons which were not predictable when the pictures were first made.

(via John Ramsden – Everyday Life Continued | Francis Hodgson) Emphasis added.

I really, really like this. Probably because I don’t care for the idea that art should be above having a purpose. (cf. This post on Evans’s “a document has a use, whereas art is really useless.”)

But I also like the emphasis on how, even though these are not necessarily presented as great photographs, they are also not presented as implicitly anonymous. (Of course, it no doubt helps that the photographer in this case is a white dude in a foreign land.)

One of the hopes I have for photography in the future is that we will see less and less treatment of “vernacular” photography as a special genre apart from others. As time passes, it is less and less necessarily true that “found” photographs are anonymous ones, and it is also less necessarily true that the people with the ability to reorganize and recontextualize works of art are curators and academics. My (probably unjustified) hope is that it will also be less necessarily true that the latter depends on the former.

The only problem with stories like Ramsden, Maier, Cushman, etc. (aside from in some cases exasperating repetition), is the exaggerated exceptionalism that is implied when we single them out to build stories around them. A lifetime of good photography is not all that unusual in the past, and will be even less so in the future. So let the question not be, “is it a good photograph,” but “is it a photograph we can put to good use.”

Stan Banos’s “Forbidden Portraits”

There’s something of a running joke that I only like portraits where you can’t see the subject’s face. Well, this post certainly won’t buck that trend.

Last month, Stan Banos at Reciprocity Failure posted effaced or redacted versions of three portraits that are part of a series which he was forced to abandon. I won’t go into the details — you should definitely click through and read his whole post. But I find myself drawn to the portraits themselves in the redacted form in which he posted them:

And so I’m left with seven orphaned portraits- The Magnificent Seven; three of which I present here in their ghostly apparitions. Although I took care to get signed releases from each subject, I have no idea what the legal implications to showing the actual images are, particularly since it can now be probably claimed that I took them without authority. As proud as I am of these images, they have been as effectively gutted of their context, as they have of their details in this presentation.

There’s not no information visible in them, although there is very little. The shape of the subject’s body, broad strokes of their wardrobe — and of course the posture, which is the only trait that is preserved more or less fully intact.

These are essential aspects of a person’s image, and they give the portraits, even in redacted form, a degree of personality. It might be a greater degree than is found in the most frequently seen photographs of people — advertising photographs and news photographs. These often reduce the complexity and idiosyncrasies of their subjects to archetypes — the building blocks of simple, powerful, salable stories.

In (what is left of) these portraits, the specific person is invisible, and only the shadow of a type is suggested. No story, just a question. Which is the perfect illustration of the post to which they are attached, of course. (You did read it, right?) And it’s probably why I find them so appealing.

In a sense, it’s a more extreme case of what attracts me to old albumen prints — I like that photographs with incomplete information seem to leave more to the viewer’s imagination, interpretation, and judgment.

Of course, this probably isn’t a principle that can be followed to its logical conclusion, or else my favorite photographs would be totally blank.

The Seeing is Important; The Print is Not

The print, to [Cartier-Bresson] as to most European photo-journalists, is just a transition between the seeing and the publication. It is something to toss by the dozen into the laps of editors; it is nothing by itself…Developing and printing [Europeans] usually leave to a technician in a laboratory. Enlarging is routine, the technician following the photographer’s indications on the contact sheets. The image — the seeing — is important; the print is not, and to American eyes is execrable — not even half “realized.” The print to a European is only a proof; his image is not complete until reproduced where a million eyes can see it. If his intention then appears clear and forceful, he is content.

When a print is required for exhibition, Cartier-Bresson works directly with the technician, and works for a quality much like that of a good gravure. He chooses semi-matte paper, he enlarges to 11 x 14 or 16 x 20, and insists on tones like those of a wash or charcoal drawing.He wants his image sharp enough to be convincing, but the sharpness Americans find requisite seem to him a fetish, beyond and apart from what is necessary.

Nancy Newhall, “Controversy,” 1953. in Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years, pp. 129-130

I’m not going to make a big deal out of the World Press Photo of the Year thing, partly because it’s not all that interesting, but mostly because there’s a limit to how often even I enjoy pointing out the antique vintage of photography’s problem of the week. (Although yes, I did make a “90’s problem — more like 1890’s” joke when I first saw it circulating.)

I just want to point out the passage above, in which Nancy Newhall describes the characteristic European photojournalist’s attitude to prints in the 1950’s. The range of adjustments made or not made in printing a negative are in very much the same ballpark as the range of digital post-processing that is at issue in the Hansen photo.

Note the distinction between the image and its specific printed forms, which might differ significantly from one another. (And in the context of film, it goes without saying that none are the “true” or “original” or “unaltered” version of the photograph — when printing from a negative, there is no such thing.) Note also Newhall’s comparison to gravure, in relation to derogatory use of “illustration” in discussing “photoshopped” images. Note Newhall’s emphasis on mass reproduction. (And remember who the audience of news is supposed to be.)

I would also suggest comparing the Hansen image(s) (h/t Raw File) with the versions of a Bresson photo here and here (h/t @vossbrink. (Note: when I saw the Bresson exhibit at SFMOMA a while back, prints of the same negative with equal or greater degree of difference were on display at the same time. (More on that exhibit here and here, if you’re interested.))

It’s good to talk about photojournalistic ethics. But I think in the big list of ethical problems that journalism has to deal with, how photos are post-processed should be near the very bottom. Ultimately, it’s not really an ethical question at all — it’s an aesthetic question. And talking about aesthetic questions is good, but applying professional ethics-style thinking to them is maybe not so much. I think it tends to end in people conflating “tacky” with “false.”

Tall Poppy Syndrome

"Tree Line, Mollymook," Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar, from Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Wall in the Grand Canyon,” Timothy O’Sullivan. Wheeler Survey, 1871.

To make Tall Poppy Syndrome, Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar “embarked on a month-long road trip around New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. They set out to meet everyday Australians and explore their reaction to this cultural phenomenon,” which they summarize as “a term used to describe a social phenomenon in Australia in which successful people (the ‘tall poppies’) get ‘cut down to size,’ criticized, resented, or ridiculed because their talents or achievements distinguish them from their peers.”

(For background, have a Wikipedia entry. I knew the historical metaphor by way of Livy, but I wasn’t familiar with the modern usage with its connotations of envy/resentment/leveling.)

I’m not sure what to make of the book as a document of Australian reactions. The portraits in the book are mostly either deadpan or distracted. The book reads to me more as an extended riff on visual themes of height, stature, and proportionality, and the camera’s ability to render subjects as typical or atypical.

My favorite images are the ones which invite comparisons between the height of human subjects and the land around them — a sort of reversal of the old-school survey-style photographs in which humans figures are conspicuously included for scale. In the photographic history of the American West, the human figure was a measure of the vastness of geography; in Tall Poppy Syndrome, trees and rocks demonstrate the diminutive stature of human figures, while roofs and walls fall above or below the tops of their heads, like a height chart tracking the growth of children — or maybe more like one of those “are you tall enough to ride this ride” markers. But the way that Stein and Mehrfar persistently play with perspective and composition does not provide a fixed measure; the net effect is a sense that the size of a person is a constant question coming from all directions.

They make repeated use of uniforms — whether company-issued garb for workers, safety gear for miners, team uniforms for athletes, or the functionally convergent design of surfers’ wetsuits. These photos, alongside those of cattle and of parking lot trees, students in a classroom, committee members at a table, seem to pose a question regarding the relationship of a subject to its type. The camera as a documentary tool has always tended either to enshrine the specificity of individuals, or to record the instance of representative anonymous types. Stein and Mehrfar’s photos seem carefully ambivalent in this regard, again, posing a question.

These questions push back against the photographers and against the viewers, because they are really not questions about the subjects, but about how we see them — about how photographers see them through a camera’s viewfinder, and about how readers see them through the pages of a book. In many ways, the medium of photography is a process of determining poppy height. I’m inclined to take Tall Poppy Syndrome as a reminder to do so with awareness and care.

“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.