PRINT January 1968



A discontent with the conventions of the selected frame, single moment image made Ray Metzker turn to an investigation into the possibilities of synthesis. His works, shown at the Museum of Modern Art, consist of overlapped, multiple exposed, or tonally controlled images, assembled in repeated vertical or horizontal strips—one might even call them modular collages. The overall juxtaposition of stark lights and darks, broadly calligraphic in design, is carefully balanced and manipulated, though at close range emphasis is on the subtle variations between the modular fragments. The idea is not to confuse these composites with cinematography (in which Metzker began his photographic career), but to present a kind of “mosaic for simultaneous viewing.” But an extremely nervous, flickering, sometimes cluttered surface in these assembled photographs does certainly remind one of a film that has jumped the sprockets and raced on ahead of itself.

These studies do require a shift of normal viewing procedure. Content per se is not at all of importance, giving way as it does to the graphic impact of the whole. At its worst, this transformation of subject into pattern becomes a decorative surface “look,” substituting a chic artiness for real depth and interest. Some of Metzker’s earlier single frame composite photographs (from which the present series is derived) I find more visually rewarding as the very elusive and ambiguous statements he hopes these new works will be. The combined panels at the Modern offer optical titillation, whereas the single works are genuinely interesting on more than a purely optical level. It is typical of the Museum’s recent photography exhibits to stress the most gimmicky, pseudo-avant garde features of a photographer’s work. This selection, whether or not Metzker himself determined its focus, doesn’t really do his achievement of the past few years much justice. Nevertheless, these seem to be tentative experiments toward the definition of a radically new pictorial form and structure, and the attempt at a means to find this is certainly important. Many photographers who have not wished to abandon still work for the well-endowed realms of experimental film, or who cannot work in color because of the prohibitive expense, are casting around for new and original ways to redefine the limits of black and white photography.

The most fascinating and subtle of the works shown was an untitled, strangely lit façade, dating from 1964. From a distance, one would almost guess that the dark, identical squares of gridwork in each of the strips represented the walls of a modern glass and steel skyscraper. Upon closer inspection, one finds this is not the case, but it is hard to tell exactly what this grid consists of. Being the most completely non-figurative or non-literal, and also the most unitary, yet ambiguous configuration, this was consequently the most successful in terms of Metzker’s synthetic aims.

I don’t mean to suggest that the reliance on pure visual, rather than on subjective or emotional effects is to be condemned. In fact, it is probably one of the few original or exciting areas left open to experimentation in still photography today. I am just not sure that Metzker has necessarily drawn the line between what is an enticingly artful treatment, and what will be of ultimate pictorial value for the future of his own work, or for black and white photography in general.

“The Concerned Photographer” is the rubric for a major exhibit of over 400 photographs at the Riverside Museum, sponsored by the Fund for Concerned Photography. This organization was established in 1966 by Cornell Capa, to foster and perpetuate the humanistic ideals and professional standards of Robert Capa, Werner Bischof, and David Seymour, all of whom died during the last decade while on photographic missions. Actually this theme of sympathetic involvement and commitment serves as an emotional common denominator for six one-man shows, including the diverse works of Andre Kertész, and those of photojournalists Capa, Bischof, Seymour (known as “Chim”), Dan Weiner, and Leonard Freed: Weiner also died in the service of his craft (1959), while the oldest photographer represented, Kertész, at 72, and the youngest, expatriate Freed, at 38, are still working. Perhaps the most exciting feature of the exhibit is that an entire museum (six or seven rambling galleries) has been devoted solely to photography, a rare occurrence in this city, where a dizzying too many forms of media have to bottle it out for attention. As Kertész pointed out, the gratification for both viewer and photographer here is that the photographs do not have to vie with painting and sculpture, as in most larger museum shows, nor with office lobby traffic, as with many commercially sponsored exhibits, for the different kind of perception which photographs require. On the whole, however, performance is uneven, especially in terms of the prints and installation quality. They range from Kertész’s exquisite small frames, made for their own individual beauty as prints, to indifferently hung magazine lay-out blow-ups for Seymour’s or Capa’s essay work. Selection, too, varies; one felt that for the most part, representation was adequate, perhaps overabundant in Kertész’s small gallery, and certainly insufficient for Seymour, where there was the distinct sense that many links were missing.

Being a “concerned photographer” is by no means an easy business in a culture where technological “dehumanizations” or just plain ennui are so much a part of contemporary reality. In a sense, these photographs represent a kind of humanist outpost in the welter of uses to which photography is put these days. But the Riverside show reveals the unresolved problems and the constant readjustment of the audience’s viewpoint, which humanistically oriented photographs must take into account. High points here are few and far between.

Swiss-born Werner Bischof was first a painter before he gained thorough training in photography. His prints are the first encountered in the exhibit, and one cannot help but be taken in by their flawlessly elegant organization and precision, and by their arty attraction. Although they are probably the least enduring and most superficial images, Bischof’s studies of famine in India, the traditional beauty of Japan’s gardens, pavilions, and ceremonies, and of women and children from Korea, Vietnam, and other parts of the world, are not without a directness of characterization and a notable graphic coherence But the fine mural sized enlargements tend to enhance these formal qualities almost at the expense of content.

Andre Kertész, one of the pioneers of “candid” photography and subjective reportage, began his career in 1912 while still in his native Hungary, where he worked until 1925, before moving on to Paris. He chronicled the historically vital milieu of Europe’s artistic capital during the next decade, doing his most creative and original work there—such as the well-known portraits of the leading artists (Chagall, Vlaminck, Mondrian, Calder, etc.), or his abstract studies of nudes. People are not so much message as poetic vehicles for the expression of his general joy in a life that is gracefully peopled, even when it is devoid of figures. The still lifes, for instance, always have a sense of human presence, almost breathing, when there are no persons to be seen in the pictures. The flâneurs, beggars and bohemians, the alleys and parks of Paris provided Kertész with his most sympathetic subject matter, when he was at the height of his own perceptive powers.

Although he would probably not admit it, once he came to America (1936), he was deprived of his richest material. His art, in my view, decidedly suffered from this shift in scene. While New York has no lack of the great characters such as those which inspired the Paris work, as an environment and artistic context, it is certainly less receptive than Paris to the type of gentle sensibility which informs Kertész’s photographs. (New Yorker Dan Weiner’s view of the City’s smugly grinning cops, bored and frustrated shoppers, tired subway-goers and aggressive crowds testify, at least, to this distinction.) Although Kertész considers everything, alive or not, as a potential subject, increasingly, it would seem from the evidence of the exhibition, he had to turn to the more material aspects of the city—Washington Square, backyard roofs, building walls, or occasional still-life compositions. He never followed up his great early experiments with figure distortions, or the warm and witty candids and portraits of the European years. These later pictures show a more concentrated formal vision, but are bereft of what seems to have been most consonant with Kertész’s greatest humanistic talents.

Dan Weiner’s work comes closest to Kertész’s in its frequently delicate detail, or, on the other hand, in the photographer’s acute sense of rhythm, both for composition and for the relationship between people and their physical context. His pictures have a solidness which is not softened by the kind of studied contrivance which often mars Bischof’s or Freed’s photographs. Boy on the Rocks, Nova Scotia (1951), backed by the brooding and wild looking beaches of that country, sensitive studies made in Italy during 1954, or several photographs taken of South African men and women, dancing with a truly infectious gusto, already define Weiner’s grasp of visual interest and social awareness. As with Kertész, Weiner’s New York photographs from the mid-forties and fifties were generally less interesting, less fine than the work done in other areas (though unlike the older photographer’s subjects, these focus on people). Boy in a Woodshed, Czechoslovakia (1958) or Russian Boy (1957) are really haunting portraits, the moods in perfect accord with the purely abstract structures of the photographs themselves. Weiner changed his compositional tactics along with his New York subject matter, becoming broader and more vigorous in his approach, but one senses that the concentrated and closer studies are more successful statements pictorially, as well as journalistically.

Robert Capa, the acknowledged master of war photography, is represented by some of the most familiar classics of this genre—such as The Falling Loyalist Soldier (Spain, 1936) or The Mothers of Naples Lamenting for Their Sons (Italy, 1944). Capa brought to his work an exceptional amount of energy and courage, always staying close to the front lines in Spain, Italy, Germany, Israel, and Indochina. This enterprise found its results in the powerfully grim impact of his images—indictments against the horrors, brutality, and also the pathos of war. But a strange phenomenon occurred in viewing these photographs; somehow they seem to have been robbed of their rawness and urgency, of that unremitting emotional “grab” they once had. This, perhaps, is more a comment on changes in our own outlook than on the work itself. These pictures really smacked of sentimentality, a very dated angst. This does not mean that the scenes of dying soldiers, grieving mothers, or lost and maimed children are less immediate to us now (they are chillingly so), but among other reasons, a generation of popular magazine photographers, who based their style on Capa’s, have slowly inured us to those dramatic aspects of war which were such a compelling feature of his pictures. When Life magazine fêtes its readers weekly with the technicolor splendors of the Vietnam jungles, rather than with honest, unflinching reportage, how can we react, but with a blunted sense of emotional commitment? Commercial photojournalism has abused Capa’s legacy, and although this may point up the quality of his achievement, it also cools a more sophisticated viewer in his appreciation of the visual and verbal message of the older documents. Almost nothing shocks us anymore.

The result of attempting to feature samples from all or most of David Seymour’s areas of activity—the arts, war coverage, Paris in the ’30s, the Suez crisis in 1956, Israel, etc.—was too much abbreviation to give a clear or revealing sense of his work as a whole. If, indeed, the selection was representative, it proves, to his detriment, that Seymour was no master of photographic editing. Working as he did, for magazine publication, he used an essay or story technique, but where each one of Capa’s prints could be seen as an essay in itself, though usually part of a larger framework, in these pictures almost any insignificant incident is raised to some ostensibly higher level of social commentary. The information communicated is negligible, in many cases, and one wonders why accolades have been accorded to such indifferent photographs. The prints of Toscanini, or the classic one of Bernard Berenson peering over a reclining marble nude are, admittedly, exceptional studies. But great personalities can cause great photographs by their very presence (almost all photographs of Picasso, for instance, are compelling portraits, often because the artist instinctively senses how and where to adjust himself, and what will produce a fine picture for the photographer). From the evidence of the other pictures shown, it makes the question of the debt owed to subject matter or to the photographer’s talents, somewhat problematical. The same is true of “Chim’s Children,” a series of post-World War II photographs of Europe’s spiritually robbed and physically injured youth, later published in a book by UNESCO. The images inspire sympathy, warmth or wonder, and of course it remained to the photographer to capture these fleeting expressions, but again, children can provoke these feelings at almost any moment, in rapid succession.

In the prints of Leonard Freed, the youngest man in the exhibit, there is a kind of breadth and sweep, favoring dramatic contrasts of black and white, but his vision on the whole seems to have been the least probing. The statements he makes are all too obvious despite some incisive notations. Freed has covered the ghettos of New York and Israel, and the “wars” being fought in them by society’s refugees. Freed has personally identified with many of the problems these people suffer, but curiously enough, this commitment doesn’t necessarily substitute for good photographs. I found his most graphically pointed comments weak, because they were often merely corny or not very important observations in terms of the context. The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, is such a case. The picture shows an orthodox, bearded Jew, his arms wound with phylacteries, back to back with a stocky, gun-toting Israeli soldier, standing in front of the Wall. The message of old versus new, tradition versus revolution, etc. etc. ad infinitum is so super-clear as to inspire nothing more than a passing interest.

The disappointing note is that if Leonard Freed stands for the best in the ongoing tradition of this type of photography, then it is not in a particularly promising state. Not that one should avoid the kind of dedication or commitment that these men represent. But one is apt to find oneself put off, rather than sympathetic to the retrograde sentimentality, and overt or literary symbolism which so many of the pictures contain. Photographs, by definition, say much. They are powerfully verbal as well as visual and as historical documents they are invaluable. But they do not have to be, and should not slide into mere illustration for the sake of specifying their meaning. The sophisticated or discerning viewer’s demands are for subtle comment, and a sense of independent discovery even within the representational limits of the medium. Most of the pictures in this exhibition, or at least too many of them, leave little room for this type of viewing experience. An easily come-upon, over-clarified message or emotional “punch” is better left to the lowbrow picture newspapers. It is certainly not appropriate to really meaningful, serious documentary.

“THE PEOPLE PROTEST” at Columbia University’s Crypt gallery is a photographic essay by a combination of known and unknown photographers who wished to “add their image” of the protest marches held against the war in Vietnam on April 15, 1967, to the ranks of the protesters. The exhibit, sponsored by the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee, included the work of about sixty photographers, and was as diversified in quality and scope as one might expect from such a conglomeration.

The marches are pictured from many points of view, expressing, on the one hand, the overwhelming solidarity of those who want an end to the war, and on the other, the attention getting opportunism of those individuals who will always take advantage of such an occasion to display their own brand of fanaticism or distorted patriotism—used, in many cases, to disrupt an otherwise orderly demonstration. In effect, what the two-hundred or so photographs reveal is that despite the massive and overriding effect of the protest, the marches were a gathering place for more than the ostensible motive of peace and protest. The symbols, poster inscriptions, costumes and groupings within the crowd seemed to have been balanced out by as many “hawks” as there were “doves” who participated. Burt Glinn’s shot of a group of people in Central Park holding aloft an effigy of LBJ as a grotesque hawk, above a mass of burnt and tangled branches, was an especially striking image in this context. Or maybe that balance in the photographs is deceptive, and it is simply that the flag-waving inflammatories were better at attracting the photographers’ attention than the more peaceful demonstrators. Nevertheless, if one thing emerges from these pictures, it is the incredible and impressive variety of types who were enough opposed to the war to have actively given form to their feelings—the angry, the normally passive, grandmothers and children, students, businessmen, executives, workers, draft-card burners, housewives, etc. Many of the photographs concentrated on this aspect of the marches, some of them stressing the forced “brotherhood” scene just a bit too much.

Bruce’s Davidson’s views of the Washington march were among the most effective pictorially, while Dan Budnick’s images had less on-the-spot actuality than poetic allusiveness, though they still captured a sense of what the march meant from so many differing points of view. Wolf von Dem Bussche’s combined scenes and multiple exposure prints gave a fine condensed feeling of the collage-like sequence of experiences which all of the other separate frame pictures tried to convey as a group.

One of the oddest effects in viewing this collection of images turned out to be that as an overall phenomenon the marches were strangely Surrealistic, even foolishly macabre dramas of sorts, perhaps even more of an excuse for individual histrionics than for mass protest. In this sense, Diane Arbus’s portraits of two gawky youths, sporting patriotic buttons, flags, and straw skimmers, which seemed to be at first somewhat isolated and beside the point, were actually a relevant comment on the essential freakiness which was so much a part of the whole affair.

—Emily Wasserman