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."