Results tagged “Walker Evans” from this Public Address 2.0

Postcards

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Walker Evans: A Gallery of Postcards

I got this curiosity recently— an aluminum box filled with a small number of postcards, made by Walker Evans as a promotion for the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. At the time, he shelved the idea but it was released in 2000 to amplify the sort of hysteria that surrounds Evans:

Like a poet refining an idea word by word, Evans often clarified and intensified the meanings of his pictures by trimming his prints just slightly to present the leanest possible image. With the postcards he took that impulse to another level. Evans was a master of the edge and one of the medium’s greatest precisionists. . . . The postcard prints are superb examples of this philosophy, framing as they do virtually new and often “better” pictures from the photographs that already attested to Evans’ meticulous eye.

Jeff L. Rosenheim, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The essay accompanying the box shows the usual idolatry without providing much in the way of useful information. It says nothing about the fact that Evans collected postcards and found signs and objects, so obviously making his own version of these artifacts was hardly a stretch. It fails to mention that he also frequently trimmed his negatives with scissors to make sure that they were printed correctly at the FSA, a practice that annoyed the archivists there. There is little of interest in the “edge” manipulation of the examples presented, and only a couple of the photographs present singular details— the scenes pictured are hardly fragmentary in any way, and entirely in step with his visual approach of copious tiny parts that present a coherent whole. Actually, they are nearly indistinguishable from any of his other work, regardless of the technique or size.

I suspect that the real value of these 3x5 artifacts is that they demonstrate conclusively a sort of fractal self-similarity with his entire body of work, neither amplifying nor detracting from it. They are just Evans postcards, no more clear or ambiguous than any of his work, neither “better” or less important— they merely demonstrate the coherence of his decision making.

Matrices

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Fitful Dreams

I had such a horrible time sleeping last night. I’m reasonably certain it was the book I was reading: The Matrix of Modernism by Sanford Schwartz. A person likes to feel that they know who their friends are. I’ve made such a career of demonizing Eliot and Pound— and now I find myself sympathetic. I’m so confused.

Russell Murphy, editor of the Yeats Eliot Review recommended it to me years ago. He knew how much I loved Yeats and detested Eliot. I suspect he also knew that this book would strike at my weak spot— philosophy. I’m starting to find things to admire about the well-thought out nature of Pound and Eliot’s philosophical take on representation, and this is hard for me. Even if I still don’t care for their poems, I can’t think of them as total assholes anymore. That sucks. I’ll need new straw men to beat up on.

The other thing that sucks is complicating my view of metaphor right before I need to lecture on it. Gestating in my head is a new way to look at Walker Evans and James Agee— it seems like Evans overlaps a great deal with Pound, philosophically, and Agee overlaps with Eliot in the strangest ways. They form an interesting matrix of representation, which hopefully I can try to write out sometime soon. The world doesn’t really need another treatise on Evans, but the paradoxical nature of Pound and the paradoxical nature of Evans fit too damn well. It warrants at least a mention. Eliot’s “objective correlative” also fits with Agee’s endless inventories of household objects, and tension over his own subjectivity. My head’s a mess just thinking about it.

I’m beginning to narrow the focus of my thesis to captioning practices in the photographic books of the 1930s. It’s a small piece of the larger puzzle which might be more easily completed in the next year. Simply stated, it has to do with how photographs work as units of meaning in the format of the book. Evan’s rejection of the caption has much to do with his ideas of how reality, and photographs should be read. Though other books before Let Us Now Praise Famous Men refrained from captioning, the reason why Evans was resistant to captioning was far different. Strange to find even greater depth and complexity to that choice in a book which explores the theories of Nietzsche, Bergson, Hulme, and William James compared to the poetics of Pound and Eliot, but whatever works I suppose.

I suppose I should get used to having my world view altered radically by books I read every few weeks, but I never do. It’s a shock to the system. Damn, the last thing I really wanted to do is start liking Eliot!

Captions

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Walker Evans, Hale County Alabama, 1936

Aristotle on Captioning

I was reading Aristotle’s Topics, and was struck by his puzzling over the correct use of phrases:

Sometimes a phrase is used neither homonymously, nor yet metaphorically, nor yet literally, as when the law is said to be the measure or image of things that are by nature just. Such phrases are worse than metaphor; for metaphor does make what it signifies to some extent familiar because of the likeness involved (for those who use metaphor do so always in view of some likeness), whereas this kind of thing makes nothing familiar, (for there is no likeness in virtue of which the law is a measure or image nor is the law ordinarily so called). So then, if a man says that the law is literally a measure or an image, he speaks falsely; for an image is something produced by imitation, and this is not found in the case of the law. If on the other hand, he does not mean the term literally, it is clear that he has used an obscure expression and one that is worse than any sort of metaphorical expression.

Moreover, see if from the expression used the account of the contrary is not clear; for definitions that have been correctly rendered also indicate their contraries as well. Or, again, see if, when it is merely stated by itself, it is not evident what it defines— just as in the works of old painters, unless there were an inscription, the figures used be unrecognizable.

The core values of Aristotle’s conception of metaphor are conflicted— as Paul Ricoeur has noted— he uses a model of metaphor as resemblance in Poetics and here, in Topics, but is not nearly so stringent about it in Rhetoric. But it is interesting to me that he invest a great deal in the power of a caption to clarify an image. I think the confusion reflected in this passage plays itself out well in the development of documentary photography in the 1930s.

Aristotle is concerned about obscure expression— is a picture without a caption more confusing? Not if it is metaphoric or literal— if its reference is clearly one or the other, then it seems unnecessary. But what if the usage isn’t so clear? It seems that according to Aristotle, without the caption there is no way to interpret the image.

I am reminded of the two extremes of the photographic books I’m considering— Doris Ulman’s 1933 collaboration with Julia Peterkin, Roll Jordan, Roll uses no captions; neither does Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The strange thing is that Ulman’s photographs are meant to be clearly metaphoric— whereas Evans work is neither literal or metaphoric. Evan’s photographs fall into the strange zone that Aristotle is writing about here. Are his photographs obscure because of this? I think that is a point to ponder.

The cause for Evans’ avoidance of captioning was to avoid the rhetorical posturing in the interim works. However, what is the cost? Is it obscurity?

Pare Lorentz

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Government Issue

I finally got to see a couple of films I’ve been reading about for years: The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River by Pare Lorentz. I’m not sure what I think just yet. Maybe it’s my dislike for modern poetry, but I just didn’t find them as poetic as they’re cracked up to be. Visually, they are outstanding for the time. Verbally, they sort of grated on me— of course, the critics call them “Joycean.”

Maybe it was just the deadpan tone— sort of like watching one of those Prelinger Archive training films. However, the content was different. Not quite propaganda but certainly not objective, the first US Government funded documentary films are fascinating. I ordered them from a site called buyindies.com, which connected me directly with a company that consumptive (I think) linked to a few days later . . . . strange how all this works. But then I’m wandering.

I miss that. Wandering, that is. I’ve been feeling far too focused and industrious lately, rather than just rambling on with blog entries. Maybe it’s getting into the time-line phase with my research site that took it out of me. There’s so much I want to get down. But for now, I should stick to the topic at hand.

The Plow that Broke the Plains was my favorite of the films. It uses some pretty innovative montage techniques to contextualize the agrarian vs. industrial debate of the time. It reminded me of someone else I need to know more about— Ralph Steiner, who did the camera work. He was the man who trained Walker Evans in using the view camera too, by the way. The River was disappointing to me, but as I read through I’ll Take My Stand I can see how much it dealt with the problem of the south in relatively sympathetic fashion. The preface of the collection of Southern essays sets the opposition firmly: “Agrarian versus Industrial”

It amazes me how much these polemics miss the real point at stake— there is nothing inherently evil about technology. However, there are dehumanizing aspects to any technological growth which need to be highlighted and addressed. The controversy still rages today. I love to side with the humanists— but it is never an either or choice that must be made. Being a Luddite is no answer at all. The real problem is sucessfully integrating tools into our mode of living without losing something essential in the simpler mode that preceded it.

But even as I write that I wonder about the mythic “simplicity” of life close to the land. I personally find indoor plumbing to be much “simpler” than dealing with outhouse maintenance. Cooking with wood fires also seems to be much more complex. Maybe it’s just that the change from one mode to the other decenters us to the point where we always take the previous version as being simpler, when in reality it is not.

I’ll have to give Pare Lorentz credit for the slant of his films— he does not avoid the truly complex nature of the changes that the USA was dealing with in the 1930s. They are not monolithic pieces of cultural propaganda. His films are quite complex, and deserve much more than the scant words I’ve generated about them here. I suppose I should think about it longer, but damn it I miss writing!

Year's End

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Year’s End

I was looking back through my archived material and realized that I haven’t been able to clearly explain just what I’ve been working on since August. I’ve posted a lot of sketches which probably only succeeded in confusing people further. What’s been missing, for the people who only see this stuff on my weblog, is the constant explaining/defining that goes on as I move it toward the proposal stage at school.

I’ve sketched several introductions, and submitted one proposal that resulted in around thirty pages of text— all about the eighteenth century. I wanted to try to explain why I think it’s important as the year closes, as much for myself as for anyone else. It surprises me that I’ve only been researching it for five months. It seems much longer than that, mostly because I now have several feet of shelf-space dedicated to this material.

So forgive me if you’ve read some of this before, but I want to try and write it as concisely as I can to remind myself as I get lost in the myriad of tangents.

The research project began while I was writing a series of blog posts about Walker Evans. Researching Evans, it began to blow me away just how many miles of text had been generated about him. Of course, I’d collected a foot or so of material on him over the years, because he was one of my early heroes as a photographer. Evans disdained politics— and the art world. I empathized with that deeply. It seemed to me that Evans wanted to take pictures that were somehow free of the taint of both. Most of my knowledge of Evans came from a time long before I’d studied language philosophy or rhetoric. Now, his views (and my own for most of my career as a photographer) seem hopelessly naive.

As I bought more books on Evans and tracked down articles it seemed like anything that could possibly be said about Evans had been said— with only one minor hole— the literary influences. So I dug into Hart Crane and others, not so much because I imagined that I could do anything in the way of a thesis in Rhetoric about it, but because I just wanted to know more. As I explored the milieu Evans moved through in the thirties, I noticed a huge disparity in the sheer volume of words generated about him and his collaborator James Agee and all the rest— the difference is at least a hundred to one. It was understandable at first— I wasn’t alone in considering these men to be the “heroes” of documentary photography.

I remember how much Let Us Now Praise Famous Men changed my life. It wasn’t just Evans’ incredible photographs. It was Agee’s heartfelt text. When I moved to Arkansas around six years ago, I remember loaning my copy to a local poet. He gave it back with a note— “thanks for giving me the chance to deconstruct this crappy prose.” Recently, I’ve run across several references to Evan’s feeling that many parts of Agee’s text were “embarrassing.” None of this has shifted my admiration of the textual portion of the book— it’s naked, and raw, and not really about the supposed subject Evan’s photographs were meant to document. Agee’s text is really about the sheer futility of documentary, and about the self-deconstructing nature of valediction. Agee’s worst nightmares have come true— his text is neatly ensconced on the bookshelf of classics.

It’s easy to chalk up differences of opinion on Agee’s text as a matter of taste. The sheer density of critical writing about it, and the tension it provides for Evans’ photographs seems to assure that the book rests comfortably in a sort of cultural aporia, free from the Marxist dissection of the proletarian and nationalist rhetoric that was all the rage during the 1930s. Most of the commentaries on other works from this period are scathing and derogatory. I really started to wonder why. Why are Evans and Agee universally hailed as heroes? Just what is a damn hero anyway?

I was reading Aphra Behn, and was impressed by her plea to the audience in the preface to The Lucky Chance that she wanted to be a hero in 1686. William Blake, who I have spent many years studying, was intensely concerned with the overthrow of classic models of heroism. Perhaps our present concept of heroes was developed in the eighteenth century? As I started to fill in some gaps in my literature education (Fielding, Defoe, Swift) it seemed clear that heroic consciousness was dealt with in a nearly obsessive fashion— and the peak of the New Deal in the 1930s brought with it a new sort of proletarian heroe, where rather than favoring the individual as hero we want to erect effigies to whole groups— unknown soldiers, firemen, you name it— as if to be a hero in the classic sense was anathema.

Another tangent loomed as I stepped into Emerson and Carlyle’s concept of the “representative man”— I need to deal with the formative years in the American national identity in the early nineteenth century. I spent at least three months on the eighteenth century, and never really finished. I’ve spent a lot of time just gathering material too, as more and more texts from the 1930s come to light. This is big, and far too unmanageable for a master’s thesis. But now I have the lay of the land. If I want to explore heroic rhetoric, I really know where to look now.

But why? Because as I uncovered those other texts, I found many of them to be innovative, and deeply influential even though no one seems to be writing about them much. It’s as if there is only one channel of input into considerations of documentary pursuits— the heroic artistic outsider exemplified by Evans. Only Evans defied the “government stooge” represented by Roy Stryker, head of the FSA. Though a growing amount of material is being generated which heroizes the “file” of 100,000+ pictures now in the public domain generated by the FSA. I’m torn now about what I want to do. On one level, I want to deal with the photographers and writers lost in the torrent of texts about Evans and Agee. On the other, I do want to deal with the nature of the FSA file.

The FSA was the first and last government funded “commons” where creative materials were made open and accessible to the public, free of copyright. Recent research I’ve been doing has highlighted the “unmediated” nature of Franklin Roosevelt’s access to American public opinion through his fireside chats— the parallels with contemporary issues on the Internet are fascinating.

And then, there is the theory behind the concept of heroism. I do believe that heroism is not synonymous with “power” in the Foucaultian sense, or “cultural capital” a la Bourdieu— I think there are other forces at work, completely outside these concepts. The persistence of “heroism” is not addressed very well by other theories. Barbara Kruger (or Tina Turner, if you prefer) can proclaim all day long that “we don’t need another hero,” but as Thomas Carlyle argued in the early nineteenth century, apparently we do. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many books, films, and pictures made about it.

So that’s where the year ends for me— deep in the middle of all this, trying to figure out which piece to chisel off for a Master’s thesis. That’s where my “work” these days is. I keep sailing along this titanic central idea, brushing against icebergs that regularly rip open my sides and cause me to sink into yet another round of research.

Subway Portraits

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Walker Evans, from the subway portraits 1938-41

Struss'd out

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Advertisement of J. Déiré England’s dry plates, 1884

Struss’d out

Bobbi wondered if I laugh. Yes, actually I laugh all the time. Especially when things get really bad. It has always seemed to me to be a better alternative than crying. Though I sometimes do that too, it usually doesn’t last as long as the laughter. Sometimes people get the wrong idea. My sense of humor is rather dry.

It was downright embarrassing in document design class last week, as a matter of fact. I couldn’t stop laughing when I found a link on splinters to the Museum of Depressionist Art. There was just something about Caravangeo’s David with the Head of Godzilla and the well known Jerry Van Eyk’s portrait that made me explode uncontrollably. Okay, so I’m easily amused. Self portrait of the Artist with his Ex-Wives had a certain aura of truth to it as well. Fun for hours, I’m telling you.

Splinters is on a roll— another one today: Philosophyfootball.com. My favorite shirt is of course, Dada (number 0):

“Every man his own football”

Attacking down the left, a Dadaist was not an easy player to pin down, and allocating a squad number could also prove a problem.

Intrigued by the reference a few days ago to Karl Struss, I really Struss’d out today. Not only was the pictorialist an advertizing photographer, he also turned cinematographer working for Cecil B. DeMille. IMDB lists 139 movies to his credit. What a career! The weird thing is, they are listed in reverse chronological order so top billing is given to The Alligator People. “Her honeymoon turned into a nightmare of horror!” Could this be the same man from the Steiglitz circle? The future cinematographer of Kronos, Destroyer of the Universe? It seems so. Scrolling down, I see that he also filmed Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and the original silent Ben Hur of 1925, and a film billed as one of the best silent films ever made, Sunrise. It just goes to show you that even an artist has to make a living. Or maybe, it shows that I’m unusually inquisitive and easily amused.

But there was another weird connection. After all the time I spent writing about Hart Crane and Walker Evans and The Bridge, it was eerie to stumble on Struss’s photograph of Brooklyn Bridge. It seems like such a long strange trip from the Photo-secession to becoming the director of photography for My Friend Flicka.

Fuzzy Commercials

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From the Photo-secession to Commercialism

From 1913 to 1917, Karl F. Struss, the last photographer to join the Photo-secession, took pictures of interiors and model railroads for Harper’s Bazaar. He was among the first to promote photography as a commercial medium. In 1914, an unidentified author wrote:

The facility of its reproduction, the economic advantage it affords over other arts, its adaptability to personal expression, and its universal and understandable appeal are implements the intelligent users of the camera should employ in helping photography take its place in the world of illustrative art. For the illustration of stories and poems, there is no reason on earth why a photograph should not be desirable to a publisher.
[emphasis mine, from “Spheres of Usefulness,” Platinum Print May 1914, p.10]

By the end of the decade, there was a significant increase in the use of soft-focus photographs in advertising, pointing to the influence of the pictorialists. The world of commercial culture, disdained by Steiglitz, was nonetheless influenced by his circle. The rise in advertising over the course of the roaring twenties was also marked by an interest in using photographs to appeal to the public. Leonard A. Williams Illustrative Photography in Advertising was published in 1929. Williams stressed unity, with the logic of a modern day Aristotle:

Every writer of advertisements or short stories lives up to the rule— Have a single character, a single event, and a single emotion. Now, the illustrator, or pictorial publicity photographer, must have rules similar to the writer. His rule is— Every picture must have a border around the frame; within that frame a center of interest must be placed at what is known as the aesthetic center or A.C. point. Some call it the talking point.

Soft-focus commercial portraiture grew across the depression. The tension between the soft-focus work of pictorialists and the hard edges of modernism was strong. The industrial subject matter favored by modernists dovetailed with the emotional emphasis favored by pictorialists in the commercial universe of advertising. In 1933, the first Detroit International Salon of Industrial photography was held at the same time and in the same building as the cities second pictorial salon, drawing over 30,000 visitors. Leading pictorial photographers began to endorse photographic products around this time as well.

This material, abstracted from After the Photo-secession by Christian Peterson, provides an interesting subtext to the development of documentary photography during the same time period. The borderline between commerce and art seems to be much lower in the case of so called “artistic” photographers. No wonder so many people like Walker Evans felt the need to rebel against the theories flying around this age.

Familiar

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Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1, James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Art is upon the Town!— to be chucked under the chin by the passing gallant— to be enticed within the gates of the householder— to be coaxed into company, as a proof of culture and refinement.

If familiarity can breed contempt, certainly Art— or what is currently taken for it— has been brought to the lowest stage of intimacy.

The people have been harassed with Art in every guise, and vexed with many methods as to its endurance. They have been told how they shall love Art, and live with it. Their homes have been invaded, their walls covered with paper, their very dress taken to task— until, roused at last, bewildered and filled with the doubts and discomforts of senseless suggestion, they resent such intrusion, and cast forth the false prophets, who have brought the very who have brought the very name of the beautiful into disrepute, and derision upon themselves.

Alas! ladies and gentlemen, Art has been maligned. She has naught in common with such practices. She is a goddess of dainty thought— reticent of habit, abjuring all obtrusiveness, purposing in no way to better others

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, from Mt Whistler’s “Ten O‘clock”

I went to a lecture by an art teacher today, who asked us to read a selection from a book called Not at Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture. The theme seems so counter-intuitive to me. Modernism, as I know it (from a photographic perspective) was a celebration of the common object. Whistler’s pronouncement (from 1885) seems to herald literary modernism, the “art for art’s sake” nonsense and a turning away from the commonplace to serve that “goddess of dainty thought” who certainly wouldn’t demure to look inside anyone’s bedroom, let alone bathroom. But artistic modernism to me includes things like Duchamp’s urinal, and Weston’s toilet. It wasn’t exactly demure. To be fair, the premise of the book more specifically addresses images of homosexual domesticity, but I couldn't help but think of the larger context.

Also echoed in Whistler’s statement is the idea of a purposeless art, which would have made Walker Evans, among others, smile in assent. Reflecting on it, his cold steely tool studies were an effort to displace domesticity into the aesthetic realm, and much the same could be said of Weston or Duchamp. So I’m back at square one. Perhaps I need to read more essays from the book, but I think “suppression” is a later development, and even then, I question whether domesticity was effectively suppressed— rather, I think that the normalizing models of populux rhetoric merely marginalized homosexuals in a world populated by happy homemakers, who if they went to bed at all, closed the doors as they slipped between the sheets. This rhetoric wasn’t purposeless, and it certainly was a form of domestic art.

I was thinking about Warhol too, as most of the examples cited in the essay I read were post 1950— Brillo Boxes? Soup Cans? How domestic can you get? I think that the painters were just slow on the uptake in joining the swing to the commonplace; but even as these objects were shifted from the kitchen to the gallery, they are removed from utility into uselessness— except, as machines for thought. I think that is what has drawn me into documentary praxis. Representing lives, or artifacts from lives, is both distinctly serviceable and aesthetic. The dainty goddess never gave me the time of day. I always felt more like a historian, I suppose, providing a visual (now verbal) transcript. I started thinking about Walter Pater, one of those theorists that Whistler sought to overthrow.

All beauty is in the long run only a fineness of truth, or what we call expression, the finer accommodation of speech to that vision within.

— The transcript of his sense of fact rather than the fact, as being preferable, pleasanter, more beautiful to the writer himself. In literature, as in every other product of human skill, in the moulding of a bell or a platter for instance, wherever this sense asserts itself, wherever producer so modifies his work as, over and above its primary use or intention, to make it pleasing (to himself, of course, in the first instance) there “fine” as opposed to merely serviceable art, exists. Literary art is, like all art which is in any way imitative or reproductive of fact— form, or colour, or incident— is the representation of such fact as connected with the soul, of a specific personality, in its preferences, its volition and power.

Walter Pater, from Appreciations

For me, the best art has always been domestic. I just can’t see any time that it hasn’t been that way. The problem with such generalities as proposed by the title of that book is that they seldom hold up to scrutiny. The idea that all artists of a certain period automatically agree, or all members of a culture agree, is downright silly. I suppose it depends on what you consider serviceable— or better still, who you serve— is it a goddess called “art” or a personal memory? I have no problem with an art of the familiar, as long as it provides a means to think outside the familiar— to create a vision within. I think that Pater was closer to my point of view than Whistler could ever be.

Pull Down

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Pull Down and Pull Toward You

It was a good trip to Hot Springs. I saw four films, the latest paintings from Warren Criswell, and watched the freaks. Going down there is always like entering some sort of redneck time warp. I saw a grizzled guy wearing a Damn Yankees tee shirt, more Chuck Norris look-alikes on Harleys than I could name, and actually heard a car stereo or two. I remember my first impressions of Arkansas were based on the busy main-drag of Hot Springs. It was silent. No sound from car stereos, no music coming from the bars, no spill-over muzak, nothing— just the occasional horn or siren. No loud voices, no arguments, no struggles— just strollers, by the hundreds. It was more like a wake than a party.

The look this time was different. Film festivals draw a different crowd. Lots of people wearing square black-framed glasses. Lots of queer-as-folk. Lots of professorial types, and lots of people who seemed to be too-hip for their own good. And then there were the citizens, smiling friendly helping the tourists find their way around. I arrived just in time to rush into the theater to see Photos to Send.

It was a good film. There was a sense of discovery to it, as if the filmmaker allowed the chance happenings of the story itself play a role in the result. The theater was full when I got there, but I negotiated the balcony (which is a lawsuit waiting to happen) to find overflow seating at the front edge. I’ve never looked down on a film before. It was in progress, and I walked in to footage of a man riding a bicycle on country roads. You could hear the filmmaker say “I can’t believe it’s him!” repeatedly. A moment later, the original Lange photograph came on the screen. Yes, it was the same man on his bicycle that Lange had photographed. I got caught up in it, feeling much the same thing.

The director located and interviewed survivors, and relatives of survivors that Lange had photographed and juxtaposed it with quotes and pages from Lange’s journals. There were a few audio voice-overs taken from a 1964 interview with Lange regarding the project, and interviews with her son. The looks of the people as they saw for the first time photographs of their parents, and relatives that had passed on for the first time were priceless. What a great project. The faces of those people, looking at the photographs, reminded me of what I used to do. No amount of theory can strip away the power of the document to provide a window on the past. Photographs may be lies, but in a larger sense, so is life— and there are some lies we are compelled to embrace, to make it bearable. One of the fragments from Lange’s notebooks hit me hard:

Never straight-on. Always from the curves.

For years I struggled with the dead-on perspectives of Walker Evans and others. It was when I started to come at it from the curves that I really started to grow. There will always be artifice. The evidence of Stryker’s influence was all over some of the notebook passages, notes for things to research, like “Why no trees?” Ireland has changed since Lange was there, but as the filmmaker noted in the end— it was the things that had remained the same that were the most striking, not the differences. To see relatives sitting against the same backdrop as their parents, to see the continuity of life, seems to be one of those “lies” of photography that seems absolutely essential to living. As one of the descendents said regarding his farm, passed down for six generations— you get the feeling that you aren’t alone. Someone had been there before you. Somehow, that seems to be more important than the disruption and changes of time.

The second film I saw was David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge. It was outstanding, also. Several bits of information stand out, including Joshua Reynold’s portable camera obscura which folded up to be disguised as a book. I really liked the assertion that “intellectual property” was a part of life long before the juridical apparatus was there to support it. The technology used by the painters in the Middle Ages has been lost to mystery, however, because of this drive to protect it. However, as Hockney’s tee shirt proclaimed— optics don’t make marks. The idea that these painters used technology does not undercut their ability as artists. However, I’m not so sure about his proclamation that technology now will allow us to free ourselves from single-point perspective. Single point perspective is one of those comforting lies that I don’t see disappearing any time soon. However, the assertion that we are “in the world” rather than standing outside it looking in (the lie) is certainly food for thought as well. I remember seeing Hockney’s photo-collages on the beach in Venice, California in the mid-eighties. There was a sense of completion for me, in seeing this film. From the birth of an idea, to its fruition. Watching Hockney adjust the camera obscura, to sketch things at different points of focus reminded me of some similar experiments I was doing in the darkroom about that time too, trying to find new ways to see.

I wandered off after that to look at Warren’s latest at Taylor’s Contemporanea . Warren seems to be a bit time obsessed lately. There’s a little digital clock that keeps showing up in his paintings, always just after midnight. His sense of humor hasn’t dulled a bit though, Six Cent Still Life stood out to me, as did Books and Toilet Paper. Though the real connection is just a feeling that runs constantly through his work of flight. The web versions just don’t do the paintings justice— my favorite by far was Flash Flood. I walked the length of the strip, ordered a cappucino that came out of the same Krups machine I use at home, and went back to see the films we were supposed to see for the class.

Watching Daddy and Papa brought out memories of a different sort. The moment they flashed Anita Bryant on the screen, I started to get ill. Why can’t we just give Florida back to Spain? It might solve many of the country’s problems, though we would lose many fine beaches. It seems absolutely ridiculous to me that there is so much noise over gay adoption. It is so hard to find people who really want to be parents. Are group homes, filled with neglect really better “moral” environments for children? What a sham, and a disgrace. If people want to be parents, regardless of their sexual preference, I don’t see what the big deal is. Given the urge of children to rebel against their parents, it seems to me that if anything, it would increase the straight population.

The last film we watched was a real hoot. Georgie Girl is the story of the first transgendered MP in New Zealand. It seems to me that survival in such a difficult life role would be a guarantee of great political skill. The vintage footage of sex-clubs in New Zealand alone was worth the paltry price of admission. What was most interesting to me was a TV interview where the interviewer was just certain that there must have been a huge change in attitude once she had her genitals snipped. As if the root of identity was in a person’s genitals, and any change there must have had a profound effect. We went out for drinks afterward, and I’m sure I talked too much. It was a good day though. It’s just such a weird setting to see these films in. Hot Springs wants to be San Francisco (a few days of the year, anyway), but they really don’t have a clue. San Francisco is loud; open communities don’t come from silence and deserted shop-fronts.

In the bathroom of the restaurant where I ate dinner there was a towel dispenser that reminded me of an old album from the San Francisco band Hot Tuna: First Pull Up— Then Pull Down. It was named after the instructions on toilet seat protectors. The towel dispenser seemed more to the point: “Pull Down and Pull Toward You.” I like that advice better.

Higher Innocence

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Higher Innocence

The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true. as I have heard from Hell. For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite. and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.

This will come to pass by a improvement of sensual enjoyment.

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14

I read this for the first time when I was fourteen years old. I tracked it down once I found out that this passage, and not Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception was the root for the name of The Doors. Through the lens of age (and more in-depth study of Blake) it seems well worth revisiting right now. Several nuances need to be explored, beyond the sentimental rebellious perception of either myself, as a boy, or Jim Morrison’s limited understanding of Blake— The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not a sales pitch for psychedelic drugs. Blake was not a Satanist. Going back to the third plate, here is the definition Blake offers of Hell:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

Performing the easy substitutions (and noting the ironic nature of “Hell”) it is clear from this that Blake’s “infernal method” is caustic, melting away the “apparent surfaces” of things, to reveal the “infinite” that is hid. I would submit to my compatriots Duemer and Delacour that the infinite is not hid by sentiment, but rather through an underdeveloped notion of what “sentiment” really is— reverting to a Chaucerian definition— sentiment is deeper than sensation alone, and beyond the chinks of the cavern. The apocalypse of vision which Blake proposes shall come about by “the improvement of sensual enjoyment,” through the reintegration of body and mind. Revelation happens when the notion that “mind” and “body” are distinct and separate is destroyed. All discourse involves feelings; commonplace feelings, or sentiments, are really the first step on the ladder toward deeper ways of feeling— what Blake scholars call “higher innocence.”

My adulation of transparency, of dispassionate inquiry into representation using people like Walker Evans as idols has become deeply tempered by acceptance that all expression evokes— and includes— feelings which though easily exploited, are inseparable from art. Discarding the commonplace sentiments is an exercise which was for me essential to the pursuit— not of dispassionate knowledge— but of higher feelings. I know this is what Duemer and Delacour are really on about. I'm just playing with the vocabulary, obviously. The mode of inquiry which purges sentiment can be a trap as well, worse than anything that might be lost by too deep an exploration of sentimentality. Too much corrosion destroys the plate— it’s a delicate balance. Growth happens through “an improvement of sensual enjoyment” not the purging of it. That is what The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is all about (at least in part).

The oppression of sentiment does not really get you closer to truth— it merely promotes oppression, control, reason. Sentiment naturally fades with experience— it need not be purged. In Literature in its Place, James Britton cites some really beautiful evidence from the empirical study of reactions to poetry. Almost universally, adults reject poetry which contains powerful emotions— unless they are cloaked in complexity. Why this happens is hard to say— I suspect that it’s because of the social construction of identities that are trained to distance themselves from their bodies, their feelings— the rejection of sentiment is very pronounced as we reach adulthood. Using a group of poems, some “real” poems and some horribly sentimental fabrications, Britton charted the reactions of children from 13-18 years old. The fabrications were enjoyed by adolescents, but older children gradually began to prefer less overt expressions of emotion. Britton has an interesting theory about the cause:

We suggested at the time that under the strain of the emerging adult world, the adolescent may need to withdraw into some imagined world: when the strain is too great, it may be into the most docile and accessible world that he or she withdraws— a world represented by sentimental values. In matters of emotion, the familiar and safe kind of love— love of animals, pity— may be acceptable where passionate love is too threatening. (46)

The summation of that study, quoted in the book, echoes the sentiments of Warren Zevon and Charles Lamb that I quoted last night:

Such imagined experience— the stock response, the unoriginal, undisturbing type— gives time to recover balance, but does not itself allow for grown, reintegration, advancement into living. For this we must try to graft genuine poetic experience onto the counterfeit, regarding a taste for the counterfeit in adolescence as the first rung on the ladder rather than the first step to damnation. (47)

Feeling, or sentiment, is an important first step. It’s important that the progression from it to deeper and more complex feelings be natural and not forced. I like Britton’s usage of graft to describe the process of growing to appreciate deeper things. Many artists flirt with the sentimental and some (like Kertéz), have the depth to portray truly poetic experiences within the most commonplace of frames. This flirtation with the child-like, sentimental world— an improvement of “sensual enjoyment” is in many ways what I think Blake was on about regarding higher innocence.

Portrait of a Decade

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Gordon Parks, Washington DC 1942

Portrait of a Decade

I don't think anyone has done a really good “portrait” of the FSA decade (1932-42). But since I will be writing about it, I figured it would be a good idea to review some of the available books, both for their content and the mistakes I'd like to avoid.

Jack Hurley’s Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties (1972) is an excellent book in many respects. It has fresh, original research including first-person interviews with many of the people involved.

However, some of the basic concepts which it uses as a point of departure seem deeply flawed to me. Hurley ignores a lot of pioneering work through careful definitional exclusion. He feels that the Stryker was instrumental in enabling documentary work, work that would not have existed otherwise.

Edwin Rosskam gets a total of one paragraph. [I must amend— there are a couple more in chapter 6] Bourke-White and Caldwell are deprecated. The book follows a rather liberal party-line, where commercial=bad and all of the New Deal cheerleaders were the heroes. Evans is subsumed into this crowd, even though Hurley admits that it is an insult to him.

Intro. & Chap. 1
Chap. 2 — 9/1
Chap. 3 & 4 — 9/2
Chap. 5 — 9/8
Chap. 6 — 9/15
more to come later

Deep background in the “conventional” story sets this book apart. I like the book, but it is fairly shoddy scholarship. There are many errors, omissions, and travesties in the organizational structure. But it also has several leads I need to track down. The biggest problem is stripping away the obvious cheerleading to get to the meat.

neither

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neither

My first edition of An American Exodus by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor arrived today. I didn’t really need to splurge on this book, but I did. All the copies available in the continental US were $500 plus, but I got a copy from Ireland for $100. The modern version is virtually identical, but there is something about the smell, the yellowness that makes me feel closer to it. The end papers are filled with words from the people photographed, and the scale is jarring compared to the miniaturized version used in the modern copy.

I was reading the fine print, and noticed that Horace Bristol contributed a photograph to it. But more than that, I was struck by the concern over just what this sort of book was supposed to be. I posted my bibliographic essay on the Rosskams here just now, and Rosskam’s thoughts on the subject are still fresh in my mind. Both Lange and Rosskam wanted to sketch out a new category, a sort of none of the above, regarding their integrations of photo and text. This is how Lange and Taylor put it:

This is neither a book of photographs nor an illustrated book, in the traditional sense. Its particular form is the result of our use of techniques in proportions and relations designed to convey understanding easily, clearly, and vividly. We use the camera as a tool of research. Upon a tripod of photographs, captions, and text we rest themes evolved out of long observations in the field. We adhere to the standards of documentary photography as we have conceived them. Quotations which accompany the photographs report what the person said, not what we think might be their unspoken thoughts. Where there are no people, and no other source is indicated, the quotation comes from people we met in the field.

We show you what is happening in selected regions of limited area. Something is lost by this method, for it fails to show fully the wide extent and the many variations of rural changes which we describe. But we believe that the gain in sharpness of focus reveals better the nature of the changes themselves.

The ripples of You Have Seen Their Faces by Bourke-White and Caldwell are all over this book. There are multiple definitions of intent at work, from 1937 forward, and all these definitions of documentary photography are inherently rhetorical. Though Walker Evans’s photographs are usually taken to be the most “objective” they clearly are not. They are a highly subjective aesthetic reaction, combined with a ravingly subjective text questioning the very existence of objectivity. This compares directly to the “scientific” approach of Lange and Taylor, who realize however carefully they pursue their observations, they cannot contain the entirety of the changes in progress. Rosskam alone used multiple strategies, for multiple opinions, “to convey understanding easily, clearly, and vividly.” Rosskam’s incredible flexibility obsesses me.

A great find

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A great find.

More working notes. Silver Cities: The Photography of American Urbanization, 1839-1915 by Peter B. Hales published in 1984 is a great find. Hales did extensive research resulting in a sort of genre theory of early American photography. His argument for the importance of photography in cultural history mirrors much of what drives me regarding the period I want to focus most intensely on, 1937-41. Hale observes:

Surprisingly enough, little research has been done on the iconography of the American city, or on 19th century urban photographs in general. Most attention has been given to narrow studies of genres or to individual photographers like Arnold Genthe or Lewis Hine. In both cases, limitations of methodology and information, as well as aesthetic bias, have prevented the resulting works from suggesting models or wider concepts of study. (5)

I’m sort of taking my cues from Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740. McKeon argues in his summation:

The argument of this study has been that the origins of the English novel, whose climax is signaled by the Richardson-Fielding rivalry of the 1740s, consist in the establishment of a form sufficient for the joint enquiry into analogous epistemological and social problems which themselves had a long prehistory of intense and diversified public debate. Rivalry does not preclude agreement: the real fact of conflict only facilitated the recognition that the two writers were engaged in what was also a common enterprise. (410)

I believe that the same could be said of the dynamic duos of Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell vs. Walker Evans and James Agee. Several competing modes of photography were wrapped around the creation of a new form of expression, the photographic book. Obviously, aesthetically Evans and Agee won... at least sort of. I’d like to suggest a wider study of the rhetorical relationship which constructed two disparate heroic images: the artist raging against society, and the heroic American public facing adversity together. The form of the documentary photographic book, in the examples I'm considering, addresses the same epistemological and social problems, with completely different means and ends. In the end, two distinctly different modes of visual rhetorical practice evolved.

Intense

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Intense

I’ve been radically unsuccessful at anything resembling normal sleep for a couple of days now. I was supposed to be on the road to visit my parents, but I’ve ended up researching an idea. You see, in a few weeks I have to start writing a a book. I hadn’t figured out exactly what I was going to do. The course is “extended topics in nonfiction” and the quantity of writing involved will be massive. I feel much better dealing with something I’m comfortable with. Photography was my first choice, but specifically, what?

I’ll use the blog to string it together first. I like the idea of doing it in public; it will be like having advance reviewers. The working title thus far is Imaginary Heroes: The Rhetoric of Representation in 1930s America. Rolls right off the tongue, eh? I began to think of this while reviewing significant documentary photography books published between 1937-1941. The list was small at first, but it’s been expanded a bit with a few books that I wasn’t aware of until now.

The first on my list was the last published, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee. Big surprise, I’m sure. There are already tons studies of that book out there already. However, the context of those studies is mostly shallow and laudatory, in my opinion. It is one book among many. The first was You Have Seen Their Faces by Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell. It was a best seller. Evans and Agee’s book sold 600 copies of its first printing. Fortunes change. Currently, Evans books in print probably outnumber Bourke-White books by five to one, though she published at least ten times as many books in her lifetime. Curious, no? The rise and fall of critical reception is fascinating. Bourke-White and Evans exhibited together in 1932, and they certainly were an odd couple, aesthetically. Then there’s the wildcard from the West Coast, Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s An American Exodus, a distinctive book in its own right. And there’s another little known collaboration that had a huge impact. Horace Bristol and John Steinbeck originally planned to do a documentary book, but instead their trips into the San Joaquin Valley interviewing and photographing migrants became The Grapes of Wrath.

Additional research turned up Land of the Free by Archibald MacLeish (whose poetry was recently considered by Loren) and 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright. I haven’t seen those two yet, but I’m sure they’ll fit my plan. I’ve read about a three-inch stack of critical articles from proquest, and half of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road in the last few days, along with parts of a thick book on post-colonial theory. This will be fun. The objectification of the poor as the “other” living in the middle of the American dream during the depression speaks volumes to the construction of the national identity. It’s all rhetoric, Evans and Agee included.

Ultimately, each of these collaborations approached the problem of individual identity vs. the creation of “the public” in unique ways. Right now, I think most of the other works have been unfairly eclipsed by Evans and Agee. Popularity=bad seems to have done the most damage to Caldwell and Bourke-White, and I’ve discovered that Bristol went on to do some innovative experimental photo books while living in Japan that deserve at least a footnote in the story. Bristol was cheated most of all in the aftermath.

Obviously, there will be much more to come on these topics. But I had to spit something out before I lost the core ideas. What happened in the 30s is also deeply wrapped around romantic/pragmatic rhetoric, and I hope I can do sufficient research to bring the conflict to life.

Finding Fury

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‘Above all else: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art.

Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation has been beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

Really it should be possible to hope that this be recognized as so, and as a mortal and inevitably recurrent danger. It is scientific fact. It is disease. It is avoidable. Let a start be made. And then exercise your perception of it on work that has more to tell you than mine has. See how respectable Beethoven is; and by what right any wall in museum, gallery, or home presumes to wear a Cézanne; and by what idiocy Blake or work even of such intention as mine is ever published and sold. I will tell you a test. It is unfair. It is untrue. It stacks all the cards. It is out of line with what the composer intended. All so much the better.

Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body no longer has shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music.

Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.’

James Agee, Preamble, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Blame Delacour. I dreamed I was Walker Evans, but I woke up James Agee listening to Mummydogs through headphones most of the night raging loudly against the death of ideas. Wordsworth lived his prophesized death; Blake and Shelley didn’t. They went out singing, deep inside the music rather than gazing back at it with longing.

Open a Book

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Open a Book

I was stumbling around the Blake concordance yesterday and found a prose fragment I didn’t remember. Catherine Blake was instructed by a spirit to open a book to tell her fortune. Catherine’s fortune was a rather sexy poem by Aphra Behn. I thought about writing about that, but instead I opened another book. Oddly enough, I saw a photograph of the San Joaquin Valley. I grew up there. I certainly hope that isn’t my fortune. I'm tired of tumbleweeds.

I ended the night there. I had abandoned another post yesterday that ended up being a rant against Ansel Adams. That wasn’t what I intended. I deleted it. I didn't like the direction it was going. I wanted to write about landscape photography and some of the ways it’s changed. Right after I woke up I had a conversation about the same subjects with someone on the phone, and later, I opened up Ansel Adams: An Autobiography to find some commonality with Adams in a letter:

Dear Dorothea

Photography, when it tells the truth, is magnificent. but it can be twisted, deformed, restricted, and compromised more than any other art. Because what is always before the lens always has the illusion of reality; but what is selected and put before the lens can be as false as any totalitarian lie. While it is true that we get from pictures pretty much what we bring to them in our minds and hearts, we are still restricted by the content and the connotations of an image before us. If the picture is of a clam I don’t think about flamingos! The connotations of much documentary photography are —to me— quite rigid . . . .

I resent being told that certain things have significance; that is for me, as spectator, to discover. I resent being manipulated into a socio-political formula of thought and existence. I resent the implications that unless photography has a socio-political function it is not of value to people at large. I resent the very obvious dislike of elements of beauty; our friend Steichen has always shocked me time and time again by a self-conscious fear of the beautiful. Does he feel that way about painting, about sculpture, architecture, literature, or just plain nature? He does not. I am not afraid of beauty, of poetry, of sentiment. I think it is just as important to bring to people the evidence of beauty of the world of nature and of man as it is to give them a document of ugliness, squalor, and despair. . . .

Is there no way photography can be used to suggest a better life — not just to stress the unfortunate aspects of existence or the tragic / satirical viewpoint of the photographer? There must be . . . .

You happen to be one of the very few who has brought enough deeply human emotion into your work to make it bearable for me. I wish you would try and think of yourself as a fine artist — which you are; that is a damn sight more important to the world than being merely an extension of a sociological movement.

Love,
Ansel

The nature I grew up in was much closer to the Dorothea Lange photograph below, than any Ansel Adams landscape. The photographs displayed in an exhibition called “New Topographics” in 1975 are even closer to nature as I knew it growing up. As William Blake said, “Where Man is Not Nature is Barren.”

Ultimately, that’s where my affinities lie. I wanted to write about that, not pick on poor Ansel. I’m not afraid of beauty; it’s just that my conception of beauty is the polar opposite of Adams. Unlike Walker Evans, I’m not afraid of sentiment. Like Adams, that’s a quality I can celebrate. But unlike Adams, I never found documentary photography rigid— connotation depends on the photographer, not the genre. “Is there no way photography can be used to suggest a better life . . .” the didactic tone of Adams is quite close to Wordsworth, and that of social documentary photographers. Funny how these things fit together.

Perhaps I’ll return later to the Behn poem, and the photographers Henry Wessel jr., Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and maybe even Ed Ruscha. So many things to write about, so little time.

Moving and Changing

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From the collection of Walker Evans
Anonymous— from the collection of Walker Evans

Welcome to the new place. Much debugging and templating remains, but I'm getting Movable Type together finally. The old blog will remain intact, searchable, and unchanged. You see— it's more than just a move— it's a change.

Bug reports and comments are welcome. Font sizes are adjustable now, so if you don't like the size, resize it yourself.