PRINT March 1967


Photographers on Photography

Photographers on Photography, edited by Nathan Lyons (Prentice Hall [in collaboration with George Eastman House]), 256 pages, illustrated.

MR. LYONS HAS FASHIONED HIS BOOK in three parts: complete texts of the photographers’ articles; a carefully researched section of biographical notes and bibliographies; and his own comment, which consists solely of selected reproductions from the writers’ photographs.

These three sections are not independent; they interact to provide statement, context, demonstration and their permutations, the whole forming a symposium, an extremely successful example of that synergistic effect long advocated by the Newhalls.

The sections devoted to Berenice Abbott and Henry P. Robinson are excellent examples of the efficacy of this method. Miss Abbott’s level of writing (it is impossible to call this ill-considered nonsense thought), is so obviously at variance with her excellent photographs that the reader is forced into a further analysis of her work. After disposing of the gibberish, what emerges from her writings, as defined by her photographs, is a fervid espousal of the importance of recording that perceptually restricted portion of the phenomenal spectrum which she regards as being objective reality. The energetic commitment required to maintain this exclusive viewpoint managed to survive even the experiences of her association with Man Ray and having the Surrealists adopt her master, Atget, as one of their own. (It may even have been an impulse defined by a reaction to these experiences.)

What Miss Abbott has in effect achieved is the construction of a logical sequence. Her photos successfully eliminate the incursion of all evaluations but those necessarily inherent in a formal visual record. And, as in any logical system, success depending not on the truth of the premise but on its accuracy in determining the necessity of the consequences, her work cannot be faulted. Moreover since her individual photos contain no necessary meaning we are free to derive from them our own significance. Happily, the artifacts produced by this determinably reductive system frequently possess a magic rivaling those which resulted from Atget’s open wonder.

At the other extreme we are confronted with H. P. Robinson, the bete noire of serious photography, whose influence extended from the latter part of the last century well into this one. His photos exhibit all we equate with the worst values of their age; the pious moralizing, the artificiality, the impossible sentimentality. These values, and the pictorialism that was their expression, took on the proportions of a plague. The writings of this arch corrupter come, therefore, as something of a shock: they reveal a man who is witty, articulate, civilized, and remarkably intelligent.

Robinson’s style smacks more of Oxford common-room than of Sunday School platform. He appreciated quite clearly the possibilities of photography as an art medium. Unfortunately, he ascribed to the highest artistic ideals of his society, missing one vital point: that the elements of his era’s art were subordinate to its cultural values and those had been developed expressly to obscure the fact that its foundation was rooted in the ruthless exploitation of human beings. The ideated art produced by this obscurantist impulse was simply hopeless hypocrisy, actually baseless, and his acceptance of it left him without a tool for productions of any validity. If this argument is accepted, H. H. Smith’s statement that the English-speaking world did not qualify as an audience for photography until the Woolsey decision gains point.

These two examples are extreme. Most of the photographers included reveal a closer relationship between their thinking and their photographing. Ansel Adams’s very vocabulary sounds like his work . . . clean straightforward approach . . . underlying ethic . . . simple and direct personal vision . . . dignity . . . clarity . . . importance of high ethic . . . maintain clean standards . . . simplicity prime requisite . . . the craft.

Emerson’s elegance of intellect and argument here parallel his photos. His highly refined sensibility always to be applied or affected. The distance between his Self and that which affects it is kept inviolate. The depth of his exquisite grey photos invariably commences at mid-ground. Against this is Gene Smith, printing suffering humanity down into an additional blackness in a work of appalling bathos, or projecting his pathetic fallacy into a more acceptable mode, a landscape. This projection of his own hang-ups onto a subject cannot be divorced from an estimate of his journalistic work. The Spanish Village series remains his masterpiece not only for formal greatness but because the granite density of the subjects resisted their being used as vehicles, and forced upon him his own independent identity. Something similar occurs when he is forced to recognize the subject as being distinctly other than himself, as animals, or landscapes (or Schweitzer for that matter).

Certainly, however, it is not this which has kept Smith out of photojournalism for over a decade. It is rather his insistence on a responsibility for his own statement in a field which practices communal irresponsibility, vitiation by approximation and editorial distortion. The country’s leading photojournalist isn’t working simply because the country has no decent photojournals.

Having Steichen and Stieglitz side by side (the book’s arrangement is alphabetical) provides clearer insight into that curious association. Steichen has functioned for years as a one man photography establishment. Even his article sounds as if it had been composed by some institutional board. It is reasonable, open, non-offensive, adequately intelligent and manages to say precious little without being inaccurate. Steichen’s career is unique. He has always been abreast of those trends displaying the best and most advanced art of the time; from his introduction of Rodin and Matisse to America in 1908 to attending the opening exhibition of Peter Tangen’s shaped canvases in 1966. He had always been a dilettante in the best old sense of the word.

There are, however, always the odd contradictions. While he raised the rewards of commercial photography, receiving enormous prices for his work, after a decade and a half of his curatorship the Museum of Modern Art still paid in the range of fifteen dollars for serious photos. (He may believe virtue is its own reward.) His brilliant technique unquestionably aided early photographic efforts and later raised commercial standards, but its issue when applied to serious work is, as shown by the photo selected by Mr. Lyons, of the most devastating banality. It is reproduced opposite Stieglitz’s epiphanic masterpiece, The Steerage. Really a gratuitous turn of the screw. The Steerage, in its revelation of the exquisite geometry underlying representational art, belongs among a very select group of masterworks and few indeed are the photos which could stand beside it.

Steichen’s current reputation is based not so much on his early contributions as on his propagandizing of them, and on the indefatigable energy which he devoted to locating and associating with the sources of influence, in short, his political gifts. He proudly indicates his contribution to “the importance of the art of photography as mass communication,” i.e., the Family of Man theme show seen by some seven million people. Contrast this with Stieglitz’s “Popularization inevitably means low standards.” This is the crux of the misunderstanding. On Stieglitz’s death the mantle of his prophecy was assumed to have fallen on the shoulders of Steichen, his able lieutenant. Unfortunately, the message was not for the Romans.

(Stieglitz’s own high standards were sustained by the maintenance of a peer group whose membership entitled them to complete equality. Those falling short of these standards either of artistry or dedication were outside and not considered worthy of attention. What preserved this from insufferable snobbery was the exactitude of his judgments. The artists associated with Stieglitz and given his unstinting support were the finest in America.)

Finally, the book gives some indication of the diverse directions photography is currently taking. Siskind’s thought and work, both of the highest order, Robert Frank’s serious and somewhat ludicrous statement. Frank’s work, while excellent, has perhaps been somewhat over-estimated in Rochester as a result of his seriousness. He is very serious. He is Schwitzer-Deutsch. The time Frank devoted to movie-making has evidently born fruit as the reproduced photo of Orlovsky and Ginsberg witnesses. The work is unusual in that while its formal construction is strong, the activity of its subject is not decisive. It is an activity which refers to a time sequence which continues beyond the frozen frame of the photo. In other words, cinematic time. The subject is perfectly suited to cinematic treatment. We can hardly conceive of these poets without their audience.

Smith is represented by a statement whose lucidity and balance place it some distance beyond the groping articulations of his contemporaries. His photos as well utilize new abstract techniques with startling insight as to meaning. Two totally nonrepresentational works are titled Mother and Son, and Death of Punch, and raise the question of whether our historically symbolic themes are not actually consequences of sub-cortical apperceptions of formal significance rather than the converse.

Minor White, an unquestionably great artist, editor of Aperture and teacher of enormous influence is here well-represented by his superb photos and by characteristic examples of his thought which is a melange of muddled mysticism, intense sincerity and condescending proselytizing. (Unrepresented are his coherent explanations of valuable craft techniques, such as the zone system). This unfortunate presumption of being the bearer of the message, combined with disrespect for alternate modes of accomplishment, is particularly dangerous in a teacher. It is a manner better suited to seducing young minds than to providing for their enlightenment. Stieglitz’s peers have here degenerated to coteries. Perhaps his labored elaborations of Stieglitz’s “equivalents” formulation are the results of an attempt to free himself from the intentional categorizing of his botanical training. Equivalence as it emerges from the mists of his discussion seems to mean no more or less than the attempt to retain the limitations of straight photographic techniques while consciously employing the photo as symbol. Why this should be regarded as esoteric eludes me. While a symbol or its employer may be unique, symbolic function has certainly been adequately investigated from Pierce onward, including its possible heuristic function.

Mr. Lyons’ symposium only seems to miss those considerations notably neglected by photography’s leading practitioners themselves, such as the violence inherent in reification, which only Man Ray touches upon. As it stands, the book is a most pregnant introduction to the complexities and directions of serious photographic thought.

Arthur Bardo