Open a Book

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.


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.