Friday, July 31, 2009

Two skies

Sky 1

Jacob van Ruisdael, Winter Scene with Mill. Click to enlarge.

Pink with reflected light, the sails of the mill reach into the sky, not very far, and set its winds to work on behalf of Ruisdael's model civilization. On its mound, the mill stands by a road leading to our homes. On ground and slush and ice, people and building materials arrange themselves in an orderly pattern. They and the air and the water and the cold, they and the white and gray and pink, belong to one another. Every substance brought into being here -- flesh and cloth and snow, canvas and pigment and the warm motherly smell of linseed oil -- partakes equally of the sky. Everything that this sky comprehends is either weather or a comforting shelter from weather, and everyone is one flesh. There is no death.

Sky 2
Weegee, "Murder on the Roof," August 14, 1941.
International Center of Photography collection (,
accession no. 123.1982

In ancient Athens the people watching from their high roof would have been citizens of the polis, drafted into the chorus to ask what the chorus was created in order to ask: This that is happening before my eyes -- what does it mean? What does it teach me about how to live in relation to the gods and my city?

Here, though, the people on the roof are only an audience. They are separated from the drama of death and understanding by a void like the space in front of a stage which the audience is forbidden to cross. Behind them, too, the sky is blank canvas. Desert and tabula rasa of the air, it is a backdrop never to be marked by evidence of meaning.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Two grammars


The early twentieth-century social reformer Lewis W. Hine thought of his photographs as illustrations. He provided them with texts, and he intended those texts to bring another text into existence: a law banning child labor. Because such a law didn't exist at the moment Hine was writing, he wrote in the present tense. There in the present his annotations implied an optative content (May child labor cease!), but they themselves were rigorously indicative: a sequence of noun phrases and verb phrases, ceasing to signify as soon as they reached the frame which held them within each image. Here within the limits of this piece of photosensitized paper, say Hine's words, is what is happening: right here, right now. 

Here is one of the texts, for instance. "John Howell, an Indianapolis newsboy. Makes 75 cents some days. Begins at 6 A.M., Sundays. Lives at 215 W. Michigan St. August 1908." 

And here is the illustration that goes with it.

Library of Congress, via
Click to enlarge.

We'd like to think that the little boy in this picture isn't alone. Within the image, for the fraction of a second that it took for the image to enter history, he had a pair of companions: the shadows of Hine and his camera. The man's shadow, too, is comfortingly bulked by the shapes of an overcoat and a hat. Man, coat, and hat form one prone mass, black and solid on the solid sidewalk. Next to it lies the shadow of the recording instrument, solid and oblong on the tripod that holds it rock-steady. From there it can look down on the boy.

But of course that view of the image is only the literary effect called pathos. Within his image, the boy does not look up at the camera. There's no reason why he should, because there on his sidewalk it's only an extension of its shadow. Farther down the sidewalk, in sunlight, are some adults whose place in the composition fails to indicate that they'll buy the boy's newspapers. So there's no point in the boy's looking down at the newspapers either, or up at the mailbox which holds no news for him. All he has in the way of an idea to stand between him and the world is a cap, lopsided on his head to echo his sidelong posture and downcast eyes, and blazoned with two words which have nothing at all to say to the rest of their picture:

Celery Cola.


Hine's picture originates in the first person and extends to the second, bridged from the photographer's "I" to his legislators' "you" by the long double shadow of the man and his camera. Now compare Weegee's "Juvenile delinquent and press photographers."
Ca. 1940. International Center of Photography
collection,, accession no. 14017.1993

A fat little boy is crammed into a corner of an image. It isn't his image; the landlord of its space is that battery of typewriters, primed to accuse to the universe on the other side of the barred window. Behind them stand the photographers, looking down like Lewis Hine but with their faces showing. This time it's only the boy's face that can't, for the moment, be seen. When it is seen, in images illustrating texts written on those typewriters, laws already written will move in and obliterate the boy. Weegee's photograph presents its subject in the third person, historical present tense, but it also has an optative content, just like Hine's first-person image. It says, "May this boy disappear!" and its pathos is that it records the moment just before it effects the disappearance.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Imagine being remembered

Click to enlarge.

According to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, somebody from the Illinois Central Railroad once took the trouble to save these images in an album. Eventually deposited in the archive and cataloged with accession no. 97155, the railroadman's instinct to remember still survives in physical form. Its phototaxidermy still tells the eye, "Remember!" 

The pictures were taken on April 30, 1927, and not many people remember now. In the archive, however, the pictures remain silently at work, replacing vanished memory with the words of a history. This history will tell us that in early 1927 the southern Mississippi valley was devastated by flooding, but heroic action saved thousands of lives. Once it has a hero, too, history becomes a tale. The hero of the tale "Mississippi" was the tireless and selfless United States Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who organized the enormous rescue effort as brilliantly as he had organized the rescue of starving Europe at the end of the Great War. Two years later, he was President.

At the moment Hoover took on that power to make more histories, the editors of The Saturday Review of Literature tried to put his tale in its literary context. In an editorial called "Hoover and Literature," they wrote:
The moment in our political and social development where [Mr. Hoover] stands, and which he hopes to dominate, is deeply analogous to the moment in literature. Both are realistic, both point to a new idealism. It is increasingly clear that realism of the reportorial character is bankrupt. The interest in information dressed up as fiction and drama and poetry may go on for years longer — indeed there will always be such interest — but its literary possibilities are dead. The new writer is not going to make his literary reputation by discovering a new variety of prostitution, a new racial group not yet exploited, or a new domestic problem. Imagination — and a good deal of imagination — is going to be demanded of the next literary generation. (16 March 1929: 769)
Four years before the editors delivered themselves of that wish, Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, the grim and belated masterpiece of naturalism, had treated its readers to an entire chapter about collar-making machinery. In the era of the man who imagined ways of helping people on the scale of epic poetry, something more interesting than that didn't seem to be too much to ask of language. 

Well, we know what happened instead. President Hoover read his laundry list of an inaugural address ("Enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment"; "Public Health"; "Special Session of the Congress" . . . ) into the rain on March 4, 1929. Seven months later the stock market collapsed and the exhausted ironies of the naturalist era flooded back, off the page and on. The literary imagination conceived then of soggy, desperate titles like Jews Without Money and I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. And President Hoover was cursed in the language he had failed to change. 

But suppose we drop back to March 4, 1929, and contemplate this serene souvenir for the eye. Might it be capable of offering the imagination a second chance?

 The URL under this photograph is its link to a holding in the Library of Congress, where it is part of the National Photo Company Collection. The frost-like pattern it depicts is an artifact of the glass negative's deteriorated photosensitive emulsion. But how beautiful the actual trees are under their frost, black and gray on gray! The Library of Congress informs us that the trees had this picture of themselves taken in Washington on March 4, 1929. Above them floated the U.S. Navy's 656-foot-long zeppelin Los Angeles, soaring in silhouette over President Hoover's inaugural parade. That, perhaps, is another of the shapes we'll remember, as we manifestly haven't remembered the semi-nudes of Greenville, Mississippi, posed on their mule-drawn wagon before refugees.

I have tried to photoshop them back into memory. If I've succeeded, the nudes and the mules may now have their chance at a second life. But no, they can't compete with that obsolete mode of transportation, the dirigible, flying above trees and re-forming them into elements of a superhuman but not entirely inscrutable geometry. "Imagination -- and a good deal of imagination -- is going to be demanded," said the Saturday Review of Literature. "Cetus-like, O thou Dirigible, enormous Lounger / Of pendulous auroral beaches," replied Hart Crane later that year in the "Cape Hatteras" section of The Bridge, looking up from section 24 of Song of Myself toward the Los Angeles and finding a gigantic new sailor for himself on top.
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you!
Broad muscular fields, branches of live oak, loving lounger in my winding paths, it shall be you!
This wasn't the kind of imagination that the Saturday Review had in mind, perhaps. But the Saturday Review is as forgotten now as Hoover policies, while imagination has helped the great shape over the trees escape from forgotten truth into memory.

Note: I first found the image of Los Angeles at, a fascinating website devoted to old photographs.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Two shapes, part 2

Yes, it was vainglorious. In the first part of this post, I entered one of my own photographs in competition with an image by Bill Brandt. For that I can plead only education. In the context of my page on my blog, Brandt's picture of a gull seems to be a disinterested nature study: something to be seen by means of the pleasure-granting discipline of the eye that the ideological photographer Robert Adams disparagingly calls "icily aesthetic." In the context that Brandt gave it, however -- the context of a picture book about the British class system called London in the Thirties -- his gull belongs to the political ecology of a human empire.

[Source for the Adams quote: see my July 18 post "Body language."]

So Bill Brandt would probably have found Robert Adams companionable on that bridge over the Thames. You can train your eye to a didactic way of seeing Brandt's bird soar toward you through a cloudy dawn -- and for all I know, you can alert yourself to spot the teaching moments in my image too. I thought I was only taking a picture of a raindrop on a flower, but flowers and raindrops have connotations beyond my control, and so do I. The flower I photographed is an introduced species, for instance: an alien in Hawaii's fragile island ecology. My ideologically minded colleagues at the University of Hawaii turn biological data like that into political parables about colonialism. I don't. But after all, why did I take my apparently trivial, apparently merely pretty picture? In the nature of what it means to be human, I don't know my own motives. My life governs itself by an unwritten politics to which my language has no access. The curve and color of a petal share their mute citizenship with my eye in a domain on which my consciousness can never be more than a blundering tourist.

But what if I take my political tour in a world that has now been emptied of all its original meaning? A world that can now speak only to tourists like me, and only in our own tourist pidgin? A world, for instance, that died more than 3000 years ago?

(Joan Aruz et al., Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and 
Diplomacy in the Second Millennium BC.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Image from TLS 24 July 2009: 10)

"Who," as an old document educationally asks us, "are these coming to the sacrifice?" I see the image in an illustration provided to me by Yale University Press, a part of my culture; but I have no way of seeing within the image's own culture. I don't know what ritual significance the worshiper's hat and clothes are intended to communicate, for instance: their shape, their color. And the labor of archaeologists may be able to attach a name to the image's object of worship, but the only sense of adoration that the image can communicate to me now originates in its namelessness: the man's or woman's eyes, the gesture of the hand before the unspeaking mouth.

And what is it that covers the mouth? A beard, a chain, a garland?

In the unknowable I have to come to a stop. To react by saying something engagé such as, "The moral is, The looting of the National Museum of Iraq was a crime!" seems to me to overlook a tract of the void which the image has vouchsafed to open for us: a tract which (if it were open to exploration by words) might bear a sign bearing the fascinating warning, "Meaning inaccessible beyond this point." On that ground, all we can do is look at the curve of the idol's arm -- just look; and be grateful for its existence, since if it had disappeared it would have disappeared without a trace in memory; and then, if we can, love it.

And then, strengthened by love, go in search of another idol, one which may (if we're lucky) be sited just on our side of the border of unmeaning. For instance:

Bill Brandt, "Doss-house in South London."  
London in the Thirties, image 35. Click to enlarge.

The chamber pot in the lower left corner of this image is clean. Once, too, somebody in a factory stamped the curve of its outer wall with a small design. Almost exactly halfway along the diagonal from lower left to upper right, wrapped like an item of expensive charcuterie in a black box, lies a man's head above a startlingly white (night?)shirt. The whiteness, no doubt, is an artifact of Brandt's high-contrast print. Above the shirt we see the whorl and flange of the sleeping man's ear, and his hair, and then something else startlingly white: the wrinkled tonsure of his bald scalp.

When this picture was first published, in a magazine in 1939, it accompanied an article called "Unchanging London" which paired Brandt's image with Gustave Doré's "Scripture Reader in a Night Refuge," an engraving from 1872 (Haworth-Booth, introduction to London in the Thirties). The political information generated by that juxtaposition is obvious. For that matter, it could be generated just as easily now, seventy years past 1939.

Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold, London: A Pilgrimage
(1872; rpt. New York: Dover, 1970) 143

But the formal qualities of the two images are different. Like London in the Thirties, London: A Pilgrimage is a book about the extremes of wealth and poverty. Doré's engravings, however, luxuriate in a wealth of tonal range, regardless of their subject. For Bill Brandt in his last years, seeing was a matter of desperate extremes, all black or all white and little in between. To imagine a colored print of Doré's engraving is easy, but it's horrifying to think of the white scalp of Brandt's victim in the shade that Crayola used to call Flesh. Brandt, who was introduced to his teacher Man Ray by Ezra Pound, is an artist of the twentieth century: the era when photography first liberated painting from the idea that a picture has to be a picture of, and then liberated itself. The important thing about that scalp isn't the life circulating through it, out of the picture's ambiance; it's its pallor and wrinkled texture. So far as the picture is concerned, the man is only a scalp, and the scalp is only a thing to be sensed through the organ of sight.

Of course there's an icy horror in that icy aestheticism. As a human being, Bill Brandt, the great British documentarist of World War II, was so sensitive to social nuance that after he moved to England from his native Germany in 1931, he tried to make people believe he was a native Englishman. (Mark Haworth-Booth, "European Background" and "The English at Home." Bill Brandt Behind the Camera: Photographs 1928-1983 [Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1985] 8, 12.) But finally the shape of the man's head in his image is only that: a shape. Inside the shape there's no more meaning than there is in the desert which once swallowed and then yielded up a Babylonian image. What didn't resurface with the idol was the words it was intended to evoke. Our recovered treasure is only the geometry of the worshiper's hand and extended figure, gesturing before a mute mouth.

But that's a kind of treasure which not even Sotheby's can value. This treasure has its place in our own chests, in the surge that grows as we wait for the gull in Brandt's image to come to us.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Two shapes, part 1

White ginger, mariposa blanca, awapuhi keokeo, Hedychium coronarium: Honolulu, the rainy morning of July 23, 2009. Click to enlarge. From language to language, the flower's lexicon is as sharp and precisely outlined as the water drop, but to learn the word "tropical" as it extends through stem and petal into the darkness abaft the drop, we need a blurrier dictionary.
On The Masculine one asserts and fires the guns.
But one lives to think of this growing, this pushing life,
The vine, at the roots, this vine of Key West, splurging,
Covered one morning with blue, one morning with white,
Coming from the East, forcing itself to the West,
The jungle of tropical part and tropical whole.

-- Wallace Stevens, "Life on a Battleship," III

(But the awapuhi isn't a vine.)

Bill Brandt, "Early morning on the river."
London in the Thirties (New York: Pantheon, 1984), image 38.

London in the Thirties was Brandt's last project, completed just before his death in 1983: a high-key, high-contrast reprinting of some photographs taken half a century earlier. Visually, the change is striking. Now all is coal dark, set off only by glaring flashes of white. But the images are organized ideologically, not visually, and their political tropism is the same in both of their historical states, early light and late dark.

For its title and its table of contents make London in the Thirties unambiguously a book about the British class system during the Great Depression, with its laughing cockney girls dancing their swanky satiric dance, the Lambeth Walk, and its starched and bonneted maid bending rigidly at the waist as she takes the temperature of her master's bath. As Mark Haworth-Booth says in his introduction to the book, Brandt takes a "portentous view of the Baldwinian era -- wooden faces, iron closures." So the river bearing its dark, angular freight below Brandt's round and soaring bird in this image is probably political as well: the same imperial roadstead as the one that opens Heart of Darkness.

(But the bird seems to be flying toward us, toward our own hearts, above and away from the dark cargoes.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Body language: the muse of reading


Down the wall from me at the Detroit Institute of Art that day in the mid-1970s, a commotion was going on. The gallery was glowing with the small, intense lights of a traveling exhibit of Edward Weston prints, and a group of young black men was noisily reacting. A moment later, one of them walked up to one of the images that Weston saw of his future wife Charis in 1936 --

and took critical action.

"White bitch!" he shouted. "Ungh!"

And, inches from the contact print that had once been brought to life under Weston's hands, he delivered a karate kick.

In the Detroit of the 1970s, rapidly emptying of its population in the years after it hosted the most destructive race riot in American history, that kick was a reading of the picture's body language. A translation in Looking-Glass language was prepared a few years later by the photographer Robert Adams, who wrote about the same air view of a woman's body:

With the exception of two full-length nudes of Tina Modotti in Mexico, and five of Charis Wilson on the Oceano dunes (not many, considering the number of nudes Weston took), the pictures that supposedly resulted from Weston's love for his subjects are, relative to the rest of his life's work, unsuccessful; they are cold to the point of being dead . . . and thus unattractive on any but the most icily aesthetic terms. . . . [W]hat seems clear on the basis of the pictures is that Weston was inclined to treat the bodies of his lovers as things free of individual personality -- an inclination not too different from that of the pornographers, though the results are in some ways dissimilar -- and imperfectly related to Weston's statements of affection for his models. . . . The nudes record not desire, but a sad sort of invention and staring.

(Robert Adams, "The Achievement of Edward Weston: The Biography I'd Like to Read." EW 100: Centennial Essays in Honor of Edward Weston, ed. Peter C. Bunnell and David Featherstone [Carmel, CA: The Friends of Photography, 1986] 28-29)

Adams is right about the bodies free of individual personality, of course. My June 4 post to this blog gets its title from Weston's own reading of one of his abstract nudes: "Entirely impersonal, lacking in any human interest." Adams made an exception of the photograph of Charis for the same reason that the young black man did: because it can stimulate a body function and then instantly moralize it. Unmediated by what Adams calls the icily aesthetic, the reflex arc brings the male body into contact with the female body and leaves the female body tagged with a label.

'Next,' said M'sieur Pierre, 'we pass on to pleasures of a spiritual order. Remember the times when, in a fabulous picture gallery, or museum, you would suddenly stop and be unable to take your eyes off some piquant torso -- made, alas, of bronze or marble. This we can call pleasure of art; it occupies an important place in life.' -- Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading, trans. Dmitri Nabokov and Vladimir Nabokov, ch. 14
M'sieur Pierre, the man who delivers this lecture, is an employee of a totalitarian state with ideas about how its citizens' bodies should be trained to experience. The audience for his discourse about desire in art consists of two of his fellow educators and the pupil whose head, on the last page of the book, he will chop off. In 1959, Nabokov listened in once more on M'sieur Pierre's words and wrote, in his foreword to their English translation:
I composed the Russian original exactly a quarter of a century ago in Berlin, some fifteen years after escaping from the Bolshevist regime, and just before the Nazi regime reached its full volume of welcome. The question whether or not my seeing both in terms of one dull beastly farce had any effect on this book, should concern the good reader as little as it does me.
By "good reader," Nabokov seems to mean here a Weston rather than an Adams; that is, a reader for the icily aesthetic rather than a reader with a taste for the composite author-function that Nabokov calls, one paragraph later, "G. H. Orwell or other popular purveyors of illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction." Those illustrated ideas, after all, can be individualized to show as much piquant detail as their pragmatic function requires, right down to impish grin and frizzy hair.

( TLS 8 May 2009: 30)

But the whole point of the piquant details is that they are nothing but details. In the language of a book or an image, their function is rhetorical, not grammatical. Anecdotal images like this one out of Nazi Germany are designed with an inherently contradictory purpose: to serve as auxiliaries to words aimed at stirring us to wordless action. In Adams's view and the view of the young black man in the museum, Weston's image of Charis has a similar purposive function, even though it is too visually complex in itself to be reduced to a slogan (Auch du . . .). To viewers in search of a verbal paraphrase, a complexity of vision like Weston's doesn't matter; if the words of a slogan aren't printed on the image, they'll be imagined and then believed to have been seen. Seen in that pragmatic way, a woman's body will become an allegory: the vehicle of a tenor simple ("Let's go to bed") or complex ("White woman on expensive real estate . . . kill!")

But if allegory's emblematic tags (face, facial expression or bodily posture) aren't present to help the reading along, the readers who read for action will be lost. They'll have been stranded on the icily aesthetic.


Adams, who has a Ph.D. in English, seems dismayed that Weston, who never went to college, was better at taking pictures than at following their traces back to a source in himself or forward to a source in Robert Adams. "What I would really like to know from a biography about Edward Weston," he complains, ". . . is where the greatest pictures came from. I think they did not necessarily come from the sometimes foolish man who was a vegetarian but enjoyed bullfights, the one who believed in astrology and wore a velvet cape. They must have come from a more thoughtful person, one who suffered enough to learn" (26). Twenty-three years after writing those words, Adams still isn't as good a photographer as Weston, so the magical Erziehungsbiographie of Weston would appear not to have been written yet. Before a Weston image, we're still left in dumb contemplation. We can't explain it any better than Weston could. And that Weston lived with contradiction is, I should think, the least surprising, least original, least interesting thing there possibly can be to learn about him. In that one respect, reader, Edward Weston was just like you and me. It's only in the respect that he was a great artist that he differed -- and because you and I aren't great artists, we lack the art to understand his art.

What we can try to do, though, is carry out our dumb contemplation on Weston's terms. Twenty-three years after Adams's attempt at a demolition job, Weston's abstract nudes are still standing, and our culture is still responding to them in its own dumb ways. Weston may help us understand those ways, but of course those ways can't help us understand Weston. As Shelley said about Keats, he has outsoared the shadow of our night. "Sold for $1.6 Million Record," trumpets Sotheby's about the 1925 abstract nude print bearing Weston's talismanic signature. "The Packard exchange will mean a fifty dollar first payment of which I have but twenty-five," Weston confided to his Daybook on January 25, 1928, about a used car. "So far I cannot foresee from where the other half will come. And then how will I eat afterwards?!"

(The Daybooks of Edward Weston. Volume II: California, ed. Nancy Newhall [Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973] 46)

And no, we sub-Chelsea types aren't any better at understanding our way across the chasm than the art world is. After all, Sotheby's caption hasn't only changed the way we read Weston's signature; it has changed the way we see through Weston's picture to the idea of body. A million and a half bucks' worth of bankable prestige will go a long way toward warming up the icily aesthetic. On this image, too, there might as well be a slogan.

But cover the words and look at the shape: unreadable because unsayable, unsayable because not reducible to a simple, allegorized desire. It will never be enough for us, but that is its great promise: because you can never know me, you will never cease desiring.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Photographs by Man Ray 1920 Paris 1934 (1934; rpt. New York: Dover, 1979, as Photographs by Man Ray: 105 Works, 1920-1934), image 43:

the woman's head coming toward you like a prow.

"The Locomotive," 1923. Edward Hopper Etchings (New York: Craig F. Starr Gallery, 2008), n.p.:

the intelligent-looking boiler of the steam engine, preparing to leave its audience of tinies behind when it rolls forward into that low tunnel, headlight and running lights followed by smokestack followed by sand dome followed by bell, all entering the tunnel in sequence above the busy machinery below::

how did we grave the human and make it steel? How could steel assume the shapes of motion and prepare to live?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Windows: car as Facebook accessory and aid to narcissism

"The alienation of children, the almost catatonic state of family relations, the retreat into private worlds -- these phenomena are all written about in the Japanese press almost daily. The word for young people who resist all communication except with their laptops, or who become monomaniacally obsessed with a (usually electronic) game or some abstruse hobby, is otaku. An entire culture has evolved around otaku, in the visual arts, but also in the most popular form of fiction writing, stories of teenage self-obsession distributed through mobile phones. Text messaging is the favored form of communication among young Japanese. You see groups of friends sitting around coffee shop tables, each thumbing his or her own phone.

"Another popular otaku pastime, which has sublimated (and sometimes not so sublimated) erotic overtones, is costume play, or cosplay in Japanese-English. Young girls and boys dress up as characters from their favorite manga and get together to pose for pictures, taken on their mobile phones. As with manga, adults have shown a not always wholesome interest in this too."

 -- Ian Buruma, "Escape in Japan" (New York Review of Books 11 June 2009: 33-35) 34.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

One more for Charles Montgomery

Come to think of it, Charles, your comment on my post "Windows" is onto something. I believe some sociology has been done with the conscious infantilization of Japanese culture under the American occupation, starting with the famous photograph of General MacArthur towering over a doll-like Hirohito. But no, that doesn't explain Korea. On the day I saw the Cube on display at my Nissan dealer, the TV in the customer waiting room was tuned to The Price Is Right, and there I got to see a grossly out-of-shape MC dealing with a batch of contestants jumping and shrieking on command and looking pitiable because they too were grossly out of shape. Even the children were obese. That's the image of American working-class culture these days: a far cry from the lean faces you see in Dorothea Lange's or Arthur Rothstein's photographs from the last depression. The contestants on South Korean game shows jump and shriek too, but their body language is different. In the United States, everybody looks middle-aged, even the children. In Korea, grown men and women do their desperate best to look no more than 14 years old, with bangs on the boys and all, and the soundtrack is busy with a continuous amusement-park din of bells and buzzers and girls screaming "Oo!" in unison. And no, I can't explain it. Maybe something about life in a society making an abrupt and jarring transition away from patriarchal Confucian values?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Windows: car, drugstore, light

After World War II, one department of Japanese visual culture reindustrialized itself as cute. It became a powerhouse of cute, selling the world on Hello Kitty, the monster movies of Inoshiro Honda with their childish themes and boyish heroes, the sinister art of manga with its babyface graphics, and the fetish toys of Takashi Murakami. For 2009, it brought us the Nissan Cube.

In the United States, this inexpensive little car seems to be marketed almost exclusively to teenage girls. The floor model at my Nissan dealer, for instance, is placarded with impulse-buy copy tempting you to think how cute you'll look behind those round little windows. Of course it's merely poignant to imagine the teenager ten years after that impulse purchase, still driving her Cube because things haven't worked out the way she thought they would. But cuteness is a style of being, and style has a permanent claim to its own moment. The impulse toward style remains; only the accessories and the personnel change.

That's true of style in many genres beside fashion and automobile design, of course. From the high European-American culture of the 1950s alone, ubi sunt the music of Gian-Carlo Menotti, the novels of Carson McCullers, the philosophy of Colin Wilson? "We were obliged to confess," says stern Emerson in "The Poet," "that he is plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man." Menotti, McCullers, Wilson, and their congeners vanished for the same reason they throve in their season: they were stylish. They were mannequins helping purchasers visualize their era's distinctive mode for themselves. A mode is distinctive because it is different from the mode that preceded it, which is to say that is a part of an era immer schon changing and being devalued from immediate reality to mere history.

And genre itself has its eras. Every work of art is mediated by the labor of somebody working in a culturally conditioned technique. You could call that cultural conditioning an etiquette, and it does change with time as etiquettes do. Even photography, that semi-robotic art form, comes into being at the instant when a photographer listens to the voice of an etiquette in her head as she aims the camera. That instant is no different for the photographer than it was for Lily Briscoe at the end of To the Lighthouse, finally knowing (thanks to the manners of gracious seeing that she has learned from Mrs. Ramsay) where to place the last brushstroke on her painting. But here is something different that may be unique to photography: once the photographer has pressed the shutter release, control over the final work has been handed off to the camera. At that point, etiquette vanishes. From this second instant, all that is is seen, without editorship. That is the instant of photography.

Consider, for example, this catalog for an exhibition at the University of Michigan in 2008. It will be worth your while to enlarge the image by clicking, as it may not have been for the image of the cute little car in its Tokyo cityscape.

Morris Engel was the cameraman at the moment in 1938 when his camera took in this windowful of words, and Morris Engel was likewise the artist of an older genre, literature, who chose some of those words on literature's behalf to caption the look passing between the man and the woman. The words just under that steadfast gaze are "Sweet Evelyn," and thanks to Morris Engel's literary choice they now belong to the picture as a whole -- that is, to the picture translated from a wall in the Howard Greenberg Gallery to the cover of a book, and beyond that to the generalizing curatorial geography of the words inscribed under that picture, and beyond that to the visual busywork you, reader, are now engaged in with the picture. The picture, not the photographer or the curator, also provides itself with an alternative title. It's at the top of the image, in rebus, and below it is the rebus's own translation into a piece of literature about the picture and you: "EYES EXAMINED."

The fonts in which all those words are embedded date the image's historical context to the 1930s. So too do the man's sleeked hair and wide-lapelled suit. If Morris Engel's darkroom records or a curator at the Howard Greenberg Gallery or the University of Michigan can narrow the context more specifically to 1938, that's all to the good for us. That educational activity will press the style of an era into the service of helping us see historically. We can also make a useful detour from seeing historically to thinking historically when we open the catalog, where we'll learn that the educational purpose of this exhibition was to document the continuing influence of the New York Photo League, a "vibrant working-class space [which] served as a club, school and professional organization" between 1936 and 1951 for a group of young Jewish photographers.

Which is to say, as long as we're on campus, that "Sweet Evelyn," the picture, conforms to etiquettes of race, milieu, époque, just as Hippolyte Taine said, long ago, that literature does. But it hasn't aged away from its epoch in the way our mental image of the teenager in her Nissan Cube is sure to. It has even achieved its modest immortality without the aid of such cultural mascara as the impressive words "Grecian" or "urn." What it does have is photography --

photography, the art which says, "The image was there all along, waiting for its instant. Let the apparatus of seeing complete that instant. Let the camera work on its own, escaping any government by human etiquettes or human history." Edward Weston understood that vast, wonderful, and terrifying generalization in specific photographic terms when he wrote in his Daybook on January 30, 1924:
Some of the tragedy of our present life may be captured, nothing can be hidden under this cloudless cruel sky. She leaned against a whitewashed wall. I drew close . . . and kissed her. A tear rolled down her cheek -- and then I captured forever the moment. . . .

Let me see, f. 8 -- 1/10 sec. K I filter, panchromatic film -- how mechanical and calculated it sounds, yet really how spontaneous and genuine, for I have so overcome the mechanics of my camera that it functions responsive to my desires. My shutter coordinating with my brain is released in a way as natural as I might move my arm. (The Daybooks of Edward Weston. Volume I, Mexico, ed. Nancy Newhall [Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973] 46. Ellipses in original.)
The image that resulted from that triple communion between the bodies of the photographer, his model, and his camera is the one that the histories of photography now call "Tina Modotti with Tear." The tear itself is only a tiny glistening on a cheek -- ephemeral but, as Weston says, forever. Unlike the circumstantially specific window and subway entrance in "Sweet Evelyn," the woman's face has been reduced to an array of shapes. Even the top of the woman's head is missing, because it isn't necessary to the composition. Because of this elimination of the human, the shapes in Weston's picture are less busy than the words and gazes in Engel's picture, but they are paradoxically more complex because almost fully abstracted into a general form. Edward Weston, promiscuous in his relations with women, remained faithful to their form.

But one similarity between Weston and Engel is this: window. The only difference is a matter of the degree of window function. Engel's drugstore window is a display of words acting as the literary backdrop to a communication in body language. Thanks to its literary content, "Sweet Evelyn" is witty in ways that no picture by Weston is. The image is a vitrine full of history, like a poem by Pope. By contrast, the rectangular frame of Weston's blurred, truncated image of pure form is a a stolid, carpenterish thing, nothing but window. All it does is open and shut: open to light, shut to black.

But that is its wonder. Light and black are generalities whose grammar existed before we people came along to tailor them into the time-specific fashion statements of (for instance) a car. Light and black are pure transport. They are always there to be seen, but perhaps not by anything less open to them than a camera, or a man who has become a camera. For us human beings there are lesser technologies of understanding, such as the Cube. The Cube's windows are costume jewelry, and that's cute. Edward and his camera provide a different kind of transport.

Four days after he took this picture of Tina, Edward Weston climbed a mountain where he retrieved another famous image from the dark: the image now called "Manuel Hernández Galván, Shooting." After he descended, he complained to the Daybook (47), "My camera slowed me down." But then he added, without a break: "It is always so. I pay the price of my love,-- perhaps my only love."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Facelessness vs. masquerade: some notes and a question


The type photograph: an illustration in a surgical journal.

The distinctive characteristic: the blacked-out face.

The literary equivalent: "Names have been changed to protect the innocent."

The implication: a forensics of the image. Blacking out as a fiduciary duty; obliteration as an ethical responsibility. Obligation to a conception of the human outside the photograph's frame. The consequence of making the photograph: having been photographed, an individual becomes typical; that is, nothing but the paradigm of a category. The category is: unphotographed individuals who will eventually be operated on by surgeons who have viewed the category's paradigm photograph.


The type photograph: a fashion photograph.

The distinctive characteristic: unconcealed artifice; fantasy poses and Photoshop.

The literary equivalent: "It is myself that I remake" (Yeats). Hoaxes (Rahila Khan, JT Leroy, Little Tree . . .) as graffiti cosmetics masking the prior personality of their creator or (in the case of trickster hoaxes like the ones perpetrated by "Ern Malley" or Alan Sokal) of the creator's victim.

The implication: obligation to what has or will become of the individual after she enters the photographic frame. Masking as an aesthetic duty, a gesture of completion, a way of saying art's phrase, "The End."

The consequence of making the photograph: heroin chic, for instance. The distressing (drug addiction, self-starvation) aestheticized for a religious purpose: assurance for the viewer of the photograph that distress is for others, not for her. Photography as a promise of immortality; photography as a world within the frame which nullifies the extra-photographic.

The question

An illustration in a surgical journal and an illustration in a fashion magazine stand near the two extremes of photographic representation. The "little does she know" effect that's called dramatic irony accrues to most photographs that come to us as testimonies of change ("I noticed the Quick wore off those things, in a few days" -- Emily Dickinson, letter 268, about photographs). But the surgeon's undisguisedly anonymized image is essentially irony-free and the fashion photograph is so consciously ironic that it is immune to ironic views from outside its own frame.

Between those extremes, however, is almost nothing but irony. Is it even possible, for instance, to look at a nineteenth-century photograph and not see it as suffused with hints at a future that only we can understand? I certainly can't imagine myself exercising any claim to a vision free of the connotations I've been educated to. War on the way, I think as I look at the image from the past; environmental and economic change coming; at the least, old age and death. But little do the people and their world in the photograph know. The irony has me down pat. It won't let my sight get up and break free.

But can there be a general way of seeing that partakes of the freedom from circumstance and change that is promised by the fashion photograph?

Can photography become the masquerade of its formal elements? Can it be taught to dance within its frame until time, enchanted, tiptoes away into the surrounding dark?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Invisible empires: photography vs. narrative

Speaking of the kind of man who would write the word "wherein" in a love letter: at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006, the future Justice Alito told a joke. That isn't the kind of thing aspirants to the Supreme Court customarily do, but Judge Alito thought he had found a formula to neutralize comedy's subversive power, and he uttered that formula before he began uttering the joke. Unsmiling before the committee, Judge Alito judiciously intoned:
During the previous weeks, an old story about a lawyer who argued a case before the Supreme Court has come to my mind, and I thought I might begin this afternoon by sharing that story.
The story goes as follows.
("U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Judge Samuel Alito's Nomination to the Supreme Court, Part II of II."
Edith Wharton was having none of Judge Alito's silly self-referentiality in 1905. After all, one of the characters in her new novel, The House of Mirth, thought he had a moral duty to be boring, and no doubt he said "as follows" too. So when an editor asked Wharton to spell out the purport of The House of Mirth with an educational epigraph from the sardonic Book of Ecclesiastes on its title page -- "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" -- she said no. Spiritedly, she wrote back to the editor: "Even when I sank to the depth of letting the illustrations [from the serial publication in Scribner's Magazine] be put in the book -- & oh, I wish I hadn't now! -- I never contemplated a text on the title page. . . . I think the title explains itself amply as the tale progresses." ("The Edith Wharton Society: Illustrations from the first edition of The House of Mirth."

Spelling things out for the uneducated, then, is a vulgarity at the Alito level, and illustrations like the ones Wharton submitted to aren't much better. After all, they do little more than spell out the significance of the text for people who can't read very well. How would you feel, reader, if you were a vulnerable young woman and the married man who is your only source of money were to tell you, "You don't seem to remember my existence nowadays"? Don't worry, you don't have to think about your answer or grope for words. An artist has done the thinking for you, and it turns out that words aren't even required. All you have to do is click the picture to enlarge it.

Of course, for readers who read not for the words but for what they think is the real thing ("the message") referred to by the words, illustrations are all to the good. For such readers, words are simply a means of pointing to the message, and pictures are simply another. As part of its communication system, Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s message novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: A. Wessels, 1907) was illustrated in narrative style like The House of Mirth, and, so far as I know, Dixon never objected. In The Clansman, both the pictures and the words function as Peirceian indices, directing our attention toward a non-verbal significance in the way the word "this" does. But to the necessary extent that they illustrate Dixon's words instead of that non-verbal significance, Arthur I. Keller's pictures in the book are what Michel Serres would call a parasite. (In French, Serres's language, parasite translates to "static.") In this illustration, for instance, the formal design and the verbal caption are in competition. The words tell us not to feel pity for the bound and blindfolded man whose fingertips, as they touch his face, are still trying to do their innocent work of communicating a sense of himself to himself. But the pictorial static interferes.

But Keller's language pictures vanished into the archive at the instant when they were superseded by an art which triumphantly used and then superseded language: D.W. Griffith's apotheosis of some pure images from The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation. By the time Hollywood made its second great film in honor of the Klan, Gone With the Wind, the triumph of the image was so complete that the idea of the Klan could be communicated with perfect fidelity even though the word "Klan" was never spoken. The real, the enduring Invisible Empire, it turns out, isn't the Klan; it's the command that it holds over us by means of a few hours' worth of moving pictures.

Vice versa, if narrative is doing its job in the empire next door, it doesn't need narrative illustration. Consider, for example, this opening paragraph from a 1941 newspaper article.
In carefree, rollicking mood, several thousand Negro Odd Fellows and their families set forth yesterday morning for their annual excursion up the Hudson River. A delay in boarding the boat, caused by suspicion of counterfeit tickets, quickly transformed the crowd into a shouting, screaming, shoving mob. When police reserves finally quelled the disorder more than two hours later, three Negro women lay dead on the pier, and at least forty other persons had been injured.

-- "3 Women Are Killed in Riot on Harlem Excursion Pier." New York Times 18 August 1941: 1+.
As published, the article actually is accompanied by two photographs. But try this experiment yourself: read the photographs' captions -- "The pier at 132nd Street and the Hudson River, scene of riot caused by the attempt of thousands of persons to make their way to the vessel. Passengers are shown filing past smashed lunch boxes after order had been restored," and "A hysterical woman who had just viewed the body of one of the victims" -- and then ask: "Now that I know what they say, do I need to actually see the pictures?" If you aren't sure, narrative -- that word "say" -- has done its work.

But now consider this image. This image too may have accompanied a newspaper article. In the collection of the International Center of Photography (, accession no. 1020.1993) it bears a date -- August 18, 1941 -- and a title: "1250 decided to continue the trip." With the help of those two pieces of data, I was able to go back to the newspaper archive and reconstruct a forgotten piece of history. But the picture itself stands aloof from history. As a picture, it has no story to tell. It led me to a source where I learned something about the linguistic history of the word "Negro," but on the page, bearing only the photographer's inscription "No. 7," it is at one with the moving pictures Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind: all pure wordless form.

The picture was taken by Weegee, New York's great tabloid photographer of crime scenes in the 1930s and '40s. Glaringly lit by flash, with leering children cavorting around rich, dark puddles of blood, these scenes are a witches' sabbath out of Goya. But they are an abstract witches' sabbath. Their forms have flown free of the events the pictures ostensibly chronicle. The article in the Times will inform me that the boat in Weegee's picture was named State of Delaware, and it will give names as well to the three dead women: Marion Warrell of 214 West 63rd Street, Rose Grant of 454 Lenox Avenue, and Martha Murraine of 1700 Madison Avenue. For quite possibly the first time since 1941, someone has remembered them. It's possible that no one will remember them again, ever.

But the permanent and undying angle that Weegee's energetically puffing version of the boat makes as it leaves the pier, and the two policemen who remain behind, dark above their dark shadows on sun-soaked, orderly wooden planking. . . .

With this key / Shakespeare unzipped his heart

"You opened up a new chapter last week wherein I was happy and content just being."

-- Mark to Maria, Tue, 8 Jul 2008, 1:42 AM
"South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford: the emails sent to woman in Argentina.", June 25, 2009

Thinking of taxes and love, flying to Argentina,
Texting en route, saving on final approach,
He sends while he waits for his baggage, sends love in a brimful e-mail
Containing the word "wherein."