Wednesday, August 30, 2006

On photography

When I bought my first house I took to decorating it with art on the cheap. In a sale bin at the Library of Congress I found a print that fascinated me. I chose it for the kitchen.


I loved the symmetries and the ironies, also the mysteries: who lived in these houses? What did women walking down the sidewalk think of these billboards? (Touche to Ruby for best feminist comeback of the week.) It wasn't till sometime in the last year or two, when I got a postcard from Chapel Hill's Ann Stewart with this image on it, announcing the sale of it and others in much better quality in the Martson Hill digital editions, that I learned it was a Walker Evans. What strikes me now is that even though I didn't know it was a Walker Evans, Evans had trained me to see this image as the work of art that it is, for I was certainly, by then, familiar with his defamiliarizing style.

The Martson Hill prints are the subject of an exhibition on display at the UBS Art Gallery in New York. The NYT reviewer, Michael Kimmelman, has an issue with the liberties taken with Evans' originals. I don't know, though. As long as the new photographers are clear that they are playing with his work--and they are clear--I don't see the problem. Photography is all about mechanical reproduction, and that was true before the digital age. The genie of "originality" is well out of the bottle.

I'm more interested in the question of how to read these photographs: which do we weigh more heavily, the symmetry or the irony? It's an old question: the relationship of art and politics. Evans worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression, so it is hard not to see them as political. And yet, as the twentieth century lumbered along, photography of the deliberate intensity that Evans applied could not help being seen as art, a thing detached from its moment. Susan Sontag had something to do with this. "Photographs, which package the world, seem to invite packaging," she wrote in On Photography (1977). She commented on the "aggression" that the act of photography represented:

The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s (among them Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee) would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten the right look on film -- the precise expression on the subject's face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation and geometry. In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are. Those occasions when the taking of photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This very passivity -- and ubiquity -- of the photograph record is photography's "message," its aggression.

Burdened by his own "self-consciousness," in Sontag's view, the photographer became a producer of art.

But Sontag lived long enough to change her mind about photography: see her essay on the torture at Abu Ghraib. Prior to that essay, in 2003, she had published Regarding the Pain of Others. Here she says that her earlier position had "universaliz[ed] the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world." She had been to Sarajevo in the 1990s (where she directed a production of Waiting for Godot). She had witnessed the pain of others from very close angles. She now understood the political power of photographs, their ability to stir the emotions and even to stir one to action. She opens the book with a discusison of Virginia Woolf's use of photogaphy in Three Guineas, an extended essay addressed to an imagined man who has asked her advice on how to stop war. With the Spanish Civil War in the background, Woolf had these observations:

This morning’s collection contains the photograph of what might be a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But those certainly are dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house. A bomb has torn open the side; there is still a birdcage hanging in what was presumably the sitting-room, but the rest of the house looks like nothing so much as a bunch of spillikins suspended in mid air. Those photographs are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye. But the eye is connected with the brain; the brain with the nervous system. That system sends its messages in a flash through every past memory and present feeling. When we look at those photographs some fusion takes place within us; however different the education, the traditions behind us, our sensations are the same; and they are violent. You, Sir, call them ‘horror and disgust’. We also call them horror and disgust. And the same words rise to our lips. War, you say, is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped at whatever cost. And we echo your words. War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped. For now at last we are looking at the same picture; we are seeing with you the same dead bodies, the same ruined houses.

Sontag is quick to note that no one today believes that war can be stopped, "not even pacifists"--while adding that in the aftermath of World War I, it might not have seemed such an outlandish idea. What Woolf offered, in Sontag's view, was "the originality (which made this the least well received of all her books) of focusing on what was regarded as too obvious or inapposite to be mentioned, much less brooded over: that war is a man's game--that the killing machine has a gender, and it is male." She understands what Woolf is trying to do: to get her hypothetical male reader to identify with war's victims. "Look, the photographs say, this is what it's like. This is what war does. And that, that is what war does, too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins."

iraq civilians

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