Saturday, August 22, 2009

Math quiz: what is a photograph?

At, the Fashion & Style section of the August 23 New York Times reports from France on a case involving Liliane Bettencourt, the 86-year-old heiress to the L'Oreal fortune, and François-Marie Banier, a celebrity photographer who is accused of abus de faiblesse in the amount of some 1.3 billion euros' worth of cash, life insurance policies, and art bestowed on him by Mme. Bettencourt.

The case will soon be in court, but in the run-up the parties are maneuvering in the media. Banier, for example, describes himself as an artist, but the attorney for Mme. Bettencourt's estranged daughter recently sneered, "Calling Mr. Banier an artist is a grand word. How many artists do you know who are sponsored for a billion euros? You could construct the Louvre with that. And Mr. Banier — with his little photos — he merits that?"

Well, the art world is all about spreadsheets, and Banier replied to the attorney in proper quantitative form. His e-mail summary of his oeuvre didn't begin, "Madamina, il catalogo è questo," but it might as well have. "500,000 photographs, 27 books and catalogues, 27 exhibitions," wrote Banier. And he added: "500 paintings, 1,200 drawings, 3,000 painted photographs."

So here's your quiz.

If an artist brings to realization one image a day, 365 days a year, it will take him approximately 1370 years to accumulate the record of 500,000 moments of vision. François-Marie Banier has recorded 500,000 presses of a shutter release. Since he is only 62 years old, those 500,000 recorded presses probably can't be photographs. They haven't had time to become photographs.

But what are they?

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,, 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

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,

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.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Duccio, Madonna and Child.
Click to enlarge.

Dorothea Lange's "On the road with her family one month from South Dakota. Tulelake, Siskiyou County, Calif. September 1939" is culturally encoded for viewing in an American system. In the Whitney, for instance, the Coca-Cola bottle that holds the baby's milk would signify only desperation, but in the Louvre it might just as plausibly signify American materialism or American vulgarity. In a European museum in 1939, too, the idea that a family could own a car yet be poor would require a large wall caption, explaining. And of course migrant labor wasn't of much aesthetic concern to Europe during the month when World War II began.

So Lange's image is culturally on its own, like the mother and children it depicts. In western art, we'll approach almost any image of a mother and her baby in the expectation of a view of the Christ, but Lange's madonna doesn't respond to our inquiry in either of the two traditional European ways. She looks neither out of her picture at us nor down within her picture at her child, but only forward through her car's windshield. In her glasses we can see, reflected, what look like utility poles along a highway. They lead our gaze out of the picture and on. With us, they are bound to the woman through the passage of a time measurable on the heroically human scale of miles per hour.

Library of Congress, from

To read the picture in that way is almost automatically to think of it as a work of American art -- specifically, of American art of the Popular Front era, when W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten were at work on an operetta about Paul Bunyan, Heroic Worker Turned Exploiter. But those lenses complicate everything. Under the Khmer Rouge, a need for glasses was a capital offense. Lange's woman from South Dakota may be a member of the bourgeoisie who has lost everything except a vestige of her former class taint, or she may be a kulak wealthy enough to own spectacles. In the cultural nationalist terms of the 1930s, either of those possibilities constitutes an aesthetic embarrassment. If the woman from South Dakota were being painted by John Steuart Curry or written about by Stephen Vincent Benét or composed about by Virgil Thomson, we can be sure that the artist would buff up her muscles and lose the glasses. But if the artist is a photographer, the embarrassments will have to stay in, and the second drafts of the artist's vision will have to be turned over to us spectators.


One of the twentieth century's iconic images of a woman in glasses lives on in our nightmares as an aftereffect of Eisenstein's Potemkin. Early in the film, a ship's doctor removes his pince-nez, folds the two lenses together to make a magnifying glass, and stares through it at a side of meat crawling with maggots which he says aren't there. Obligingly, the camera peers over the doctor's shoulder and transmits its view through the lens to us who sit in our theater. Yes, says the image onscreen, and Yes, we agree, passing judgment: those are maggots. The doctor's lens works for the camera, but it doesn't work for the doctor. No matter how much we may shout at the screen, he won't see. His officer's uniform is only a costume, his glasses are only costume jewelry, and the regime for which he obligingly refuses to see is only a movie. But then, in its Odessa Steps sequence, the movie Potemkin shatters a lens. I am not a movie now, it tells us. Look at me lensless. My eyes are undefended.

By contrast, the lenses in Edward Weston's portrait of José Clemente Orozco reflect light defiantly back from Orozco's face. Fully equipped, Orozco, an artist, will now deal with light on his own terms. The space beside him is empty. He needs no child; he needs no woman. When he goes pioneering, it will be into unlensed light, light seen on its own unmodified terms. And when light is in the hands of the shaper Edward Weston, it hammers the transparent and leaves it bulletproof.


As to Dorothea Lange's woman from South Dakota, we were probably used to thinking of her in photographic terms even before we were aware of her existence. In 1939, in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck told her story in the general terms of a myth, and the next year John Ford retold the story in a moving picture which is still showing in the American dream. But thanks to Europe in 1939, the historical substrate of that chapter of the dream has changed. Steinbeck's Okies and Arkies soon migrated from California's orchards to California's defense plants, and once they were there they ceased to be peasantry. Then, as their postures and their faces and their bodies underwent metamorphosis, some of the most beautiful among them began returning the idea of American photography to a European model.

Alfred Palmer, "Bombardier nose section of a B-17F
Navy bomber at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach,
Calif. October 1942. The B-17F 'Flying Fortress' is a later
model of the B-17." Library of Congress, from

The woman in this image, for instance, is post-Lange and post-Eisenstein. Even as she plays a part in a war, she is clean and made up, and wearing a ring and a golden watch. One of her fingers is bandaged, but her nails are manicured. Her eyes are modestly downcast, and her head is curved downward in the immemorial gesture of maternal love. Quietly living through her great adventure, she is safe. She is studio art. All around her, enclosing, nestling, is a great lens.

Like Duccio's madonna, this image entered history with a purpose. At considerable expense for 1942, it was made on 4-by-5 inch Kodachrome by one of many photographers working in a coordinated effort for the United States Office of War Information. Within that context, it would be anachronistic to say anything explicit about the function of the death-dealing thing through whose curved opening a woman emerges into black drapery. We are to think of that solid transparency only as a shell which encloses goodness. The madonna of this shell is a madonna not for eternity but only for the duration. Three years earlier, she may have been one of Dorothea Lange's migrants, but now she is a lady. After the war ends, who can say what she'll be? But for now, unfaded in Kodachrome, she lives on.

Perhaps more disturbing, so does the formal beauty of the photographer's composition, and so does the formal beauty of that streamlined shell, protecting the woman even as it delivers her into the lighting that bathes her form. Refracted by a methacrylate matrix, time bends and the duration reaches from 1942 forward to us and backward to Duccio. Would you like to drink to that? There may be some milk left in the Coke bottle just outside the image.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Our intense fear and loathing of the homeless"

Starting from a photograph in the New York Times, John Louis Lucaites helps us understand our problem here:

Friday, August 7, 2009


In class, I sometimes introduce the modernist era in literature with a pair of books that communicate poetic information through embedded portraits. The first portrait, richly filling the front cover of Lyndall Gordon's biography of T. S. Eliot (Norton, 1998), shows Eliot as a senior man of letters. His hair is sleeked, his little smile is suave, modest, and self-controlled, and his tie is white, with a wing collar. What all this couture communicated to the camera was a physical representation of a moment in transit from literary history to state history. The camera freeze-framed that moment on the day Eliot received the 1948 Nobel Prize for literature.

The second portrait records a different sort of transit. It is not a stand-alone image, like the picture of Eliot. We see it as part of the design of a book, where it occupies a central but small zone of the back cover, just above a big bar code. The portrait's subject, another modernist poet, is tieless in denim. Scowling, he glares at the camera. Eliot's portrait is an image of a man whose apparently solid knowability seems to illustrate the phrase "It goes without saying," but this other poet isn't dressed for such an occasion. His dishabille requires a caption. EZRA LOOMIS POUND says the caption provided, identifying the poet accordingly. Then come a date and a pair of abbreviations: MTO DTC. If we open the book in search of definition, an editor will step between the poet and us and explain that the letters stand for "Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Disciplinary Training Center." The Disciplinary Training Center was an American military prison, and the photograph records the moment when Ezra Pound made his transit there to the cage where he would be held until he could be tried for the capital offense of treason. The editor's explanation serves both the image's place in its book about poetry and its place in the archive of the state.

In his caption-bearing photograph, then, the poet's uttering mouth is closed. On the back of the book about poetry, that image is an island of significance surrounded by a no-word zone. When the shutter clicked at it on a day in 1945, the poet's mind was in the process of delivering the words of the Pisan Cantos into life. But the moment the poet's face became a mugshot in archival space, our ways of reading his poetry came under the control of the archive's state prose. Wordy token of infamy, Pound's signboard is a barred and blacked-out prose window between poetry and us, preventing us from seeing the poems as they might have been if Mussolini had won the war and Lyndall Gordon, Jewish biographer of the poet whose central poem Pound delivered, were dead.

Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity 1956-1946,
ed. Omar Pound and Robert Spoo. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1999. Click to enlarge.

In the undergraduate classroom, the difference between the two photographs becomes educationally useful. What I don't tell undergraduates, though, is that every other portrait is a mugshot too, and there are always bars before it. Gordon's T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, for instance, isn't just a revision but a complete rewrite of her two earlier volumes, Eliot's Early Years and Eliot's New Life -- a rewrite forced on her by the letting down of bars. Looking anew at the manuscripts of Eliot's obscene poems, for example, Gordon explains:
Long ago, when I came across lines here and there, I assumed these were puerile aberrations, but seeing how the full poems incite the common impulse to sexual violence, and finding recently from an unpublished letter that Eliot continued to circulate these loathsome things as late as his forties, I have to recognise that this was part of a larger problem: disgust with the flesh in conflict with repressed desire. So, I now look more closely at what Eliot's Early Years called 'vitriolic' jibes, expanding my initial focus on Eliot's misogyny to his anti-Semitism -- a prejudice common, almost automatic, in his time, but having in Eliot a special character determined by a lofty 'hatred of life' that he called 'a mystical experience.' (xi-xii)
And of course, as Eliot knew, the letting down of one bar can only reveal more bars.
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
There even exists a special class of images which confirm that thought in complete and rigorous wordlessness. These images are the mugshots as such. Taken behind bars, they communicate the poem of bars., July 8, 2009

Conceptual art from an archive, this celled array of mugshots was transmitted to readers in honor of the American national holiday, Independence Day. The human subject of each image was a captive recaptured in the course of being processed into a prisoner. And -- pedagogically useful irony -- the flag in the middle cell of the bottom tier is an early state of the original Star-Spangled Banner, the one that yet waves o'er the land of the free.

Is there a difference between these prisoners and Ezra Pound? Yes: the imprisoned poet is further imprisoned by his captors' words.

But is there a difference between the uncaptioned prisoners and uncaptioned T. S. Eliot? Yes, too. The prisoners have been self-captioned not with words but with a crude literary irony. Little did they know, as we say in the undergraduate classroom; little did they know, that morning when they put on their flag shirts in honor of the Fourth of July, that later in the day. . . . But we can't say "Little did he know" about the image of a poet who dressed up in white tie because he knew he was about to shake hands with the King of Sweden. After all, the impending royal gesture was meant to certify that there and then, at last, the contingency that once made T. S. Eliot's words into poems was over. At the king's sign (says the sign), words enter the canon of state. In the canon (says the sign), they can never again signify, "Little do we know." From now on, they will officially mean. They will have become Happily Ever After.

But even as they enter the canon, the words carry bars and signboards and cameras to present to wardens from a future state and a future poetry. Still celled in the archive of the human, what forms will the mugshots of future poets take?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"a sense of the struggle between a new language and a debased older language"

On his blog at

Jerome Rothenberg reposts his 2002 retrospect of his work along the borders between cultures and between historical eras. As a generalization about the arts and how they both reflect and change our ways of perceiving, this interview says some striking things.