Modern Wandering

Philological wandering

I went to the bookstore, because I wanted to see if there was a better monograph of Edward Weston’s work available than the scraps I have here to draw from. Though he’s definitely out of fashion these days, I have a soft spot for the sort of transcendentalist splinter of modern photography. I remember the first time I read Sontag’s trashing of him in On Photography, it blinded me to the good parts of her book. I notice there are some new things out, a collection of work from Weston’s last days in Carmel, and a really cool book which juxtaposes Weston’s photographs with some I hadn’t seen by Margrethe Mather. But there wasn’t a comprehensive monograph to be seen. No Paul Strand either. Their stock must be down, again.

They are sinking in the Modernist ghetto. Evans, on the other hand, seems to have triumphed as a poster-boy for the postmodern rewrite of modernism. Reflecting on things, it seems to me now as a case of, as Lefebvre put it, the “illusion of transparency” vs. “the illusion of realism.” Realism won. But is this manifest? It dawned on me that the word, so associated with modern aesthetics (via the manifesto), might actually provide some useful clues.

The OED notes its entrance into the language as a verb, in one of Chaucer’s translations of Boethius, in 1374: “Thinken ye to manyfesten yowre renoun and don yowre name to ben born forth?”

1. To make evident to the eye or to the understanding; to show plainly, disclose, reveal.

As the Middle Ages were ending, from 1508, the definition became one of certainty:

b. Of things: To be evidence of, prove, attest.

But more than that, it became a useful way of dealing with things

2. To expound, unfold, clear up (a matter).

But then, the term began to fracture as we entered the Renaissance, with a transcendental meaning:

3. a. To display (a quality, condition, feeling, etc.) by one’s action or behaviour; to give evidence of possessing, reveal the presence of, evince.

Refined in the 19th century to apply to things:

b. Of a thing: To reveal itself as existing or operative.

This is the territory that Strand and Weston operated in. But all the while, there was an underlying realist meaning:

4. To record or enumerate in a ship’s manifest.

I think that is where Walker Evans and James Agee ended up working. Making a list, of sorts. I suppose inventories have a greater resonance in the post-modern, information age. It was just a thought

It’s important to know the milieu that these voices came out of, and grew in different directions. But looking at most of the photographic work available in the 10s and 20s, it’s hard to see them as so far apart. That all happened later, but not much later.