PRINT February 1976

Photos Within Photographs

SUPPOSE THAT, OF ALL the things the camera lens scans, photographs, Kodak bric-a-brac, might be among them—caught by chance in a natural environment, a room to whose decor they contribute. We know that a photograph freezes a particular instant in time, continuously receding from something called “the present” (an ephemeral sensation of future viewers). A photo within a photograph emits a doubling effect that regresses inward. It marks off at least two instants in time, contained and containing. And sometimes the contrast between them, intentional or not, can be nostalgic, even poignant.

On the other hand, I thought of photography in perhaps its commonest role, as a reproducing agent. No one knows the percentage in illustrated books of photos taken of photos, often reproduced from other books. Where the original negatives or prints thereof are unavailable, images are passed on grainily to lead an unauthorized afterlife. As long as their frames seem to match, source and transfer carry on together some worn-out phase in their indefinite career of exchange between chemicals and ink on paper.

Such pictures are paradoxical. We look into them believing the wealth of things seen, but are in fact con-fronting only another photograph, whose physical surface has vanished. When it deals exclusively with its own kind, the photograph generally fails to establish any difference between itself and its subject. Only when a margin is included does an empty space open up between ourselves and any plane recorded. Only then, that is, do we realize that it is a page or a coated paper and not “life” that has been taken in the raw. Suddenly the depth of these photo appearances, relative to each other, is confiscated by a gap between the original and the new frames. The field simply snaps flat. Let the shutter open at some further increase in distance, revealing a clamp or someone’s thumb, and we’re jolted by the minute scale of that which we had taken to be . . . somehow ampler. (No, correction, that which we had forgotten was always small enough to be held in our hands.) In shrinking even a sliver to uncover its edges, the contained photograph ceases to produce a duplicate. Rather, it tends to suggest the circumstances in which we study that which encloses it. Something is focused upon, isolated, a rectangle with gray or colored tones, but simultaneously, we’re made aware of the visual field around it, composed of those same tones. The added perimeter can make a photographed thumb not only equal to or greater in size than a photographed man, but “real” as opposed to printed.

What delusions! For the unit that is one shot can well become a single instance of the many such units in another shot. Think of photographing a layout from an illustrated magazine. Think of a double stereographic card. Think of Muybridge’s motion studies in series. Think of any combination print or photo-montage. Think, finally, of a movie, which is a film strip of thousands of still photographic images. It turns out that there can be far more reserve than we might think, for separately photographed images or entities in one photograph, and that these entities can also be arranged as wholes, in a linear one-by-one sequence of indefinite length, the lot of them still understood as one photographic product. I have seen a reproduction of an old photograph from China containing 6,000 separately taken portraits of babies. And we are familiar with panoramic camera views of 19th-century cities, and later ones of the moon or the whole earth, the interior sections fitted together at their edges, rather as crumbled vases are reconstructed. It doesn’t matter if you pack the information from different negatives in one tight space or spread it out; not does it make much difference if you formalize the borders or not. These decisions will certainly affect the way anything is composed, and, of course, its intelligible message. But they will not defend the results against the encirclement of another camera with its message. No image can grow so large that it will resist the diminution implied in such encirclement. With the latter, we may have it, say, in hand, like or value it for some reason, frame and put it on the wall. At an unspecified moment in the future, this very artifact may sit for its portrait, and to a new audience gain in nostalgic depth what it loses in physical presence.

What I have been sketching so awkwardly above is not a dubious by-product of the medium. It is, rather, an incipient reversibility with which photographers deal. Were they to produce prime objects with heterogeneous surfaces, like most paintings, such dealing would be fairly self-reflexive, questioning the integrity of the field. Collage and combine paintings set forth dissonant but also cross-permeable internal boundaries for the activation of unlike materials, invented and manufactured. There is also a tradition in painting, that is representational painting, which in part depicts paintings: Vermeer, pictures of museums and art collections, Courbet’s L’Atelier, Degas, Matisse, and Magritte. Painted-in canvases are simultaneously there and not there, since they are materialized in paint, but are not themselves. Allusions to different styles for personal delectation (often involved in the setting of an interior), or for artistic homage, constitute a typical theme of this tradition. In paintings Of this kind, there tends to be a partial dissimulation of facture (that is, images handled as if not by the artist), and multiple quoting of motifs. Photographs do not do this, even when guided by the same objectives.

They do not quote, for instance, they reshoot; and they do not disrupt the surface, for no matter what they will, their surfaces tend circumstantially to be the same as their subjects. In fact, the esthetic of photos within photographs depends precisely on the constant fictitiousness of photographs as substance. Take away the “transparency” of the surface, and one also removes the magic of their image substitutions.

The disquieting aspect of Diane Arbus’s A lobby in a building, N.Y.C., 1966, resides in the co-identity of her tones with those of the photo-mural landscape that fills out all but a crucial bottom edge of molding. An electrical socket “floats” on the lake, in the quietest way affirming a wall that an interior decorator had wanted to negate by use of a medium that has parity with her own. I take this photograph to be concerned with more than the disjunction between the sparkling outdoor allusion within the artificially lit lobby, the sad, ingenuous taste of such a deceit. Because photographs are fragments in a way a painting is not (their imagery does or did continue in actuality outside the frame), it makes a difference whether we know we are looking at something about nine feet high, as here, or an illimitable sky. The element of closure in all photographs (once again, unlike that in paintings), acts as a potential blinder to scale. Depth often has to be specially interpreted because we are observing things photographed in space with no help from the comparisons of peripheral vision. In fact, we perceive as if through an invisible tunnel.

That is why a series like Duane Michals’ “Things are Queer,” 1971, is innately photographic—a giant naked foot next to a diminutive toilet and tub confuse us about the scale of the bathroom. This much, then, for openers. In successive images, the toy bathroom, with its “outsized” user, becomes a photograph in a book looked at by a man walking through a tunnel, which in turn is gradually shown as a photograph framed over the sink in the original bathroom. Michals demonstrates that what exists beyond the excluding sides of the photo suggests a visual mine field, at any instant as ready as not to explode the viewer’s orientation, his figurative whereabouts. We are so groomed to think normatively when we look at a photographed setting that we infer its visual continuity with its one-time environment, sometimes quite unwarranted by the piecemeal information the prints transmit. To trip up this illusion, the directors of horror films employ closeups, claustrophile perspectives, charging with possible menace anything not immediately in range. Michals, too, causes the enormous pressure of the unseen to bear down upon his frames, unremittingly, since even at the end any evident distance achieved by the spectator is returned and sealed off in the photograph one had originally wanted to back away from. Artists like Redon and de Chirico anticipated such a panic, but Magritte really brings it home. And Michals has echoed one of Magritte’s titles, The Human Condition.

. . . Home. But isn’t that merely another name for a receptacle of memories and a vehicle of dreams? In Vienna, in 1947, Ernst Haas saw released German soldiers, their faces relieved or still bewildered by their liberation, passing unheeded a supplicating woman who holds up to them a card-sized photograph of her missing son. For her it is a precious icon, and she offers it to the eyes of strangers, hoping that it will be matched by a memory. That photo becomes a pathetic subject, a link between the alienated outside world of the present, and the earlier, comforting internal one of the home. But home is more than a hearth. When they burned Evita Péron’s portraits in Buenos Aires in 1955, Cornell Capa witnessed the rage of those who were repossessing their homeland from an ousted dictator. The smiling Eva in the photo acted as a symbol of past repression, conveniently enlarged and thoroughly gruesome in its benevolence. In both these cases, the photograph documents the fetishizing of an image, the passion that would exalt or destroy it as if flesh itself existed in the print.

That kind of intimacy, with its highly personalized associations, communicates almost electrically because we are all photo-immersed, connected by our own talismanic snaps to faces and environments that saw us as we lived with them. A group of teenage girls looks fondly at a clear photo raised above them of the Moscow that stretches out ahead in the smoggy distance (Cartier-Bresson, 1955). Images of John Kennedy, boxers, and marriages contribute their puny uplift to the tawdry flats of East Harlem (Bruce Davidson, 1970). An old, framed picture of a Nisei baseball team, hung next to an American flag, points to another moral about home, as we turn to the photo of it in Dorothea Lange’s “Executive Order 9066,” illustrating the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942. In many of these and other examples, the artist’s politics collides with family life, turning what was innocently private into the public sphere of irony and disillusion.

Such an outcome could have been expected, since the theme broadcasts once-public images that had been drawn into the specific appropriations of the household and are now returned to the land of strangers. Used as we are to the “homelessness” of familiar, degraded icons, sprouting from everywhere and nowhere, it startles us to see them personalized, cherished even, in real places, living their remaindered lives. Like a preserved souvenir, survived from the glamour of its historical moment, a small photo of Marilyn Monroe, pasted to a column close within a show window, attracted the eye of Lee Friedlander (1970). But he has given it to us as a kind of self-portrait, or “I was there” situation, for his shadow surrounds the isolated clipping. Friedlander’s head, profiled by the sun again, looms over the face of a young, pensive black girl, framed in a studio photographer’s window. To have insinuated his own presence in many such prints was to have reflected on his activity as one who catches rejected or come-on images in some half-way stage in or out of their destined career. Aside from being a comment on the uncertain status of his re-imaging, this particular campaign also is an essay in mood, expressive precisely because it is about the decline of meaning, or the sheer random betrayal of it, once photos are dislocated from their original contexts. In a sense he is saying no one can ultimately “own” or control such imagery, which is simultaneously as privately anonymous as it is stereotypically accessible. And he will make a subject out of that very insight, anticipating the possibilities that will render his own work, with its more obscure—that is, more esthetic—purposes deliberately encoded with those of his vernacular motifs.

That does not mean that other photographers, while having more practical intents, such as covering the news, are less graphic, though they may certainly be less poetic, on the subject of homeless photography. I happened, for instance, upon a shot from the recent French election, in Life (The Year in Pictures, Winter, 1975). It showed Madame d’Estaing,obviously a most charming woman, pasting up the final section of a large billboard campaign photograph of her husband, doubtless a very urbane man. The photo was taken by a certain M. Delluc, credited to Viva magazine. Though extinct, Life makes periodic comebacks in the form of such “special reports,” culled, not from the assigned work of its own people, now scattered about, but from agencies, syndicates, photographers from other publications. The familiar Life format does not quite homogenize their results, which are a trifle askew, somewhat like Giscard’s jaw compared to his cheek. M. Delluc, perhaps, had no further aim than to take a newsworthy image. He may not have been aware of the unctuousness of that aim as it fell in with the shirtsleeve charade of this “well-cut” conservative. But of the prepossessing deadness of this giant campaign poster, he seems to have been entirely unconscious. Later, Life informs us, this sportif, outgoing and spontaneous president, “just plain disappeared on weekends, leaving only a sealed letter saying where he could be reached.” It’s not that real events outstrip the capacities or the promises of those elected to shape history. It’s just that public icons, by definition, have to be programmatically inauthentic.

Perhaps the most haunting statement of this theme, made without forcing the issue or focusing specially on it, is the photo called Coal Miner’s House, Scott’s Run, West Virginia, 1936, by Walker Evans. A small lad, barefoot, sits dreamily to the left; at center, a pinewood highboy blocks the corner of the room, shielding . . . it is a little hard to describe . . . a scalloped photo of two, happy middle-class women with a baby, cut perhaps from a billboard, as the Santa Claus at the right was scavenged from a drugstore. These contented creatures beam down from behind the cheap furniture and suffuse the room with a melancholy cheer remote from its actual circumstances. When Ulysse and Michelange returned from the wars, in Godard’s Les Carabiniers, they proudly took from their satchels their spoils of conquest: hundreds of picture postcards. For the miner and his brood, photography, too, lets them be tourists, in the land of cleanliness, health, and Christmas jollity, whose images were resurrected from failed or abandoned businesses.

I said, some while back, that there were at least two distinct temporal moments alluded to in the occasion of the photo within the photograph. These were the contained and the containing. With poignant regularity, the comparison favored the later moment, that of the present photographer, for his or her consciousness was enabled, in the very act of framing, to make a retrospective comment. Yet the images to which I referred are by no means typical of the overall output of their authors. They happened often enough in passing, or off to the side of something else that had arrested the eye. When the results came in, the click that had frozen them showed the product of another click. To members of a younger generation, the idea of planning rather than of discovering such comparisons has suggested itself. Because they are more involved with revealing how the photograph sees than what it sees, they have no particular compunction about retaining a naturalistic setting. And they have every right to feel that the integrity of the “whole” print could be partitioned and violated in the interest of questioning the facile unities that had been assigned to it. By fracturing the always very limited narrative potential of photography, they might be said to hope, thereby, to extend it. I mention this straightaway while acknowledging that “past” and “present” are often scrambled in such a context, whose purpose is nevertheless their overt juxtaposition. However they may once have been situated in specific places at definite times, the events recorded are made homeless by esthetic dictate.

What was, for example, accidental in a multiple exposure, is consciously taken advantage of. The recall of another scene that arises by implication when a shadow strays out of the margin is picked up and made the subject of an adjoining print. Insets interrupt and take away even as they provide new information. Sometimes the purpose is to invoke a certain madness by gaming with old photographs, reshooting and then reversing them side by side without frame. Jerry Uelsmann combines negatives from a seemingly limitless stock, using the facticity of the medium to convince us, say, that a meadow has turned into a pond, yet that both are in our minds, sealed off from any appeal to reason.

Needless to say, we wander here in the realm of invention. There have always been photographers who have wrongly claimed for their medium as much an inventive base as painting’s. For even the most extreme form of photographic manipulation acts upon what the camera has given. Guibert’s double portrait of Lautrec (the little man as painter and model), and Coburn’s vorticist Ezra Pound are tricked-up documents of an “invention.” Both prints show the same person in more than one location at the identical moment. One, Lautrec, is shown as simultaneous subject and object; the other, Pound, is revealed in dynamic movement through space. Behind all the more current researches in the field lies Eisenstein, with his theories of montage, and coincident with him are the photo-montages of Heartfield, Bayer, Höch and Citröen, etc. It is difficult to tell whether the later explorers of this mode are more enamored of freedoms suggested by the static medium of painting, or are in stilted competition with the movies. We can put it another way by saying that the imaginative license of pictorial form beckons them quite as much as the literary benefits of narrative or temporal modes. To both of these possibilities they have responded by the natural technique of including other negatives in the photographic whole—a whole they are in the process of redefining.

Self-consciousness, abetted by new techniques, makes photos within photographs a genre very much in search of itself, despite a long, premodern pedigree. When I say “premodern,” I mean the combination prints of the Victorians. A more apt reference, though, might be mass television, with its split images and its replays, its “cutouts,” and scale jumps (as seen in evening news reports, for example). No doubt the back-screen projection of the movies, designed, say, to situate actors out of doors when they are really in the studio, has played a role in these sometimes smooth, sometimes gauche relocations.

What makes developments along these lines in still photography very exciting, nevertheless, is that there is no tradition behind them. Nothing has been settled in the way we should interpret the central insets in Edward Grazda’s photographs of Latin American village scenes. Visually, with their black-lined frames, they read as if they are pictures on pictures; but psychologically, they suggest another moment in the vicinity—some action up or down the street, and at a different hour. (This last is important because it contrasts with the casual photo in the photograph where all images are seen at the same luminous instant.) Recalling the experience of flashbacks in the movies is of little help, because the cinematic device distinguishes past history bracketed by a present narrative, while Grazda’s decision blurs even as it alludes to the continuity of events in time. The photographer might be aiming, in fact, to bestow upon you the faculty of being in two related situations simultaneously.

Because still photography happens to be neither a temporal medium nor a freely created one, we remain far less physically and imaginatively omniscient as viewers when we see a photograph than when we consider a painting or look at a film. A photograph gives forth only one scene at a time, no matter how physically complex. By reason of these limitations, it cannot tell a story. Yet narrative pressure of the quietistic sort I am describing has encouraged a tendency to make photographic restrictions an intended content in its own right. Ken Josephson photographs his arms stretching out, almost, it seems, from the lens itself, toward the empty sea. His hand populates the horizon with a postcard of an ocean liner. Again, he displays for us a postcard of a palace in summer slightly underneath the actual palace in a colder season. In the first case, since the artist wanted something to be seen that wasn’t there, he shows it to you by means of a photographic substitute; in the second instance, the sight is there, but he confounds its scale by comparing it with a postcard image. In other words, though perfectly straight in his procedures, Josephson establishes the specific fictions of his medium by photographing them—that is, by making them literal. It is as if, to use a linguistic parallel, I were to write this sentence: “Look at the palace; now, look at the word ‘palace.’” However tactful, the effect of such photos is emotive, changing simple-minded puzzles into enigmas of association.

Obviously, allusion to time figures in such an enterprise as prominently as do space and scale dislocations. Wendy Snyder MacNeil rather mysteriously personalizes the dialogue between them in a photograph showing what appears to be a spectator at a gallery next to images of a woman at different stages of her life, multi-scaled, and not at all decisively arranged as if they were exhibits (they may well be inserted prints). On another track, we have the highly concentrated program of Jan Groover, who shows infinite patience at intersections or at roadsides tallying cars that zip by a vertical marker such as a tree or a lamppost. At first, nothing more complicated appears to be at work than the ordinary photographic activity of freezing motion. But when this freeze is extended in diptychs or even triptychs of small color prints (with their white borders included as negative markers), the fixity of our vantage in time is subtly overcome. If the same vehicles appear within different frames, it may be that they have passed by and come around again, or that she had a motorized shutter. (Either possibility changes the sense we have of lying in wait.) Eventually, too, the handsome cross-print or split-screen pattern relayed by the cars underwrites some doubt about the camera itself being stationary. In one pair of photos, a wide-angle lens seems to have distended the position of a corner across the way, but so indecipherably as to conjure up the experience of looking at a double stereographic card held outside the photo viewer. But we also realize the two images are never going to come “right” in depth, whatever the device we use. MacNeil’s tableau displays the ages of a woman. Groover’s cars demonstrate the relationships of events within a far shorter time span. But with both, the space that separates them is the space that only a photograph can reveal, as it compounds itself within a binocular frame we no longer know is physical or mental.

Max Kozloff