Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pictures going silent

Roman Vishniac, "After twenty years with one firm, he
has been fired because he is a Jew. The boycott committee
demanded it." Warsaw, 1937. Collection of the International
Center of Photography, http://icp.org, accession no. 1992.1983.
Click to enlarge.

How universal the woman's hand-to-cheek gesture may be, I don't know. On the streets where I walk through my own culture, I interpret the gesture as a sign of distress -- a specifically feminine sign. The man and the woman in this image from a culture basically similar to mine are walking in step, and their complementary masculine and feminine body languages seems to communicate distress through an intimacy in which words are unnecessary. But the image is accompanied nevertheless by two sentences full of words, explaining. It's almost as if the photographer regarded the image as invisible in the absence of explanation.

But of course it is invisible in the absence of explanation. In fact, this image's general explanation preceded the image itself. In 1934, understanding from some words he had read that he would be witnessing the last moments of a dying civilization, the biologist and photographer Roman Vishniac made the decision to interrupt his scientific work and document Jewish life in eastern Europe before it came to an end. The image at the top of this page constitutes one of the experimental data which followed that protocol. After he had generated a composition as a photograph, Vishniac would enter it into a history of the future by paraphrasing it in words. Stringing themselves between the image he saw in the present and the idea that he hoped would take form in the future, Vishniac's words became a bridge extending toward language from silently gesturing figures, draining them of any other significance and reducing them to an illustration.

Our end of Vishniac's bridge is in a library, then, and we wait there for Vishniac's man and woman to cross over from their illustration and submit to being read about. We can't cross over to them, of course. Creatures of a depiction which entered the past a fraction of a second after it came into being in 1937, this photograph's man and woman speak a dialect which can be understood only by the dead. In Vishniac's image of that moment of change from life and significance to death and incomprehensibility, we see the moment when the human is reduced to an optical effect in historical space. The illusion, the man and the woman, are actually real now only in translation.

So Vishniac's image of this speaking, gesturing man and woman can never again be more than anecdotal. It is nothing more, now, than an illustrative figure attached to some words housed in a library. In the library they -- the words, the man and the woman -- can neither be heard nor seen but only read. Take away its wordy caption and the picture will go as blank as it is already silent.

Erich Hans Krause for the U.S. Works Progress
Administration, ca. 1936-1938. From http://vintagraph.com

These words, too, have originated in a library -- in fact, a medical library containing a technical term. But the words for the technical term ("Syphilis"), its significance ("May destroy your future"), and the course of action that it entails ("Have your blood tested") have shaped themselves into a font and a color scheme that are part of an image. They don't translate or explain the image's depiction of a wordless gesture of distress; they complement it.

Imogen Cunningham, portrait of Martha Graham, 1931.
Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, http://sfmoma.org

Martha Graham, shaper of a new body form out of textiles and mythologies, rewove the integument that her literary culture had clad her in. She still needed program notes full of references to Aeschylus and Hart Crane, but when the lights were up onstage or in Imogen Cunningham's studio it was too bright to read there, and too dark to read anywhere else. Nothing was left to see except a woman, gesturing. In the presence of her gesture, interpretation could never be more than a vulgar afterthought.

Strelitzia reginae

And if a dancer can succeed in putting off even gesture and sinking roots into still ground, there is no mime, there is no allegory to remind us of anything, there is no explanation to be had. A curve that once might have been thought of as resembling a human form now communicates only the geometry of itself. I deliver the quiet flower to Warsaw.