PRINT September 1976

How Others Live: Some Recent Photography Books

WE ALWAYS USED TO think of books of photographs as being better made and more expensive than a book of mere words. They were more substantial, physically, like the coffee-table picture book with its heavy, enamel-finish paper and oversized format. They were something that had to be wrestled onto one’s lap. The only trouble was that in every other way, as a work of intellect and imagination, books of photographs usually seemed so insubstantial. It was almost as if all that heft their publishers gave them was a sign of insecurity, an attempt to compensate for the books’ lack of real import and significance inside. Formidable as they looked, they usually were “read” cover to cover in a few minutes. They were like comets: massive and dazzling at first sight, but then, as we passed through, nebulous and lighter than air. Even if we purposely slowed down, looking at each picture with more care and attention, we felt very self-conscious and affected in the effort. What was it we were looking for, anyway? We had no idea.

As Ben Maddow’s book on Edward Weston demonstrates, photography books can still have imposing dimensions and forbidding price tags. Yet in a curious way that book also points up how our attitudes toward photography books have changed. In the Weston book, the unmanageable size seems a nuisance not because the book fails to live up to it, but because it makes the book’s real substance hard to get at. The text actually is intended to be read and the photographs to be pored over. We find ourselves wanting to page back and forth from the text to particular photographs, and feeling very frustrated because we practically have to mount the book on a lectern to do so.

The point is that a book of photographs has become, as a mental object, something more engaging and intimate than it used to be. From fake incunabula, these books have become, in our valuing of them, more a vade mecum, a part of our cultural baggage that we really do carry with us. The fact is, too, that the publishers of photography books (including Aperture, which did the Weston book) have recently been very aware of this changed status of their product. In the past 10 years, while the number of photography books has grown enormously, their size and price have (at least in relative terms) tended to diminish. Photography books have suddenly turned into something accessible, and this physical transformation would seem to carry with it the implication of a psychological one as well.

I do not wish to sound too sanguine about these changes, though. While the books may be more accessible, I am not sure that photography itself is, as a result. To a large extent I think we still do not know what to make of a book of photographs. We remain uncertain what we are looking for, or at. Indeed, I think that even the most successful photography books—or perhaps especially the most successful—reflect long-standing confusion we feel about all such books. Perhaps because we are still confused, we seem to prefer books of photographs that allow us to misconstrue their intentions and misappropriate their subjects. So far as I can see, there are three often mutually confounding ways of looking at a book of photographs, and we are often uncertain which way applies.

I should probably begin by trying to separate them as best I can. First of all, a book of photographs can be read as a social document of some sort, a work of ethnography or anthropology. This is what a book of photographs becomes whenever our interest in it is primarily an interest in its subject matter. We hope the book will give us some information, insight, evidence, truth or account of that subject which we did not have before. This anthropological function of photography books is perhaps the one we think of first because it was first, historically (as in Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, Thomson’s Street Life in London, etc.), and is still at least the ostensible purpose of most books of photographs.

The second kind of appeal that a book of photographs can have for us is, I think, a less conscious one. This has to do with our interest not in what the book can tell us about its subject, but in what it may tell us about ourselves. Thought of in this way, a book of photographs is not a lamp, but a mirror. Its function is mythological rather than anthropological, and its subject becomes less a subject than a metaphor. The subject loses its otherness and becomes an image for something in our own collective unconscious, some feeling shared by us as an audience.

Finally, there are times when it is primarily neither the subject in itself nor our own image that attracts us to a book of photographs, but the imagination of the photographer. It is what is going on inside his head, rather than our own or someone else’s, that we expect his photographs to reveal. In this instance we are not dealing with the book as a work of anthropology or mythology so much as, presumably, a work of art. Only recently has some photography come to be treated in this way, and here books of photography play a crucial role, since they show us enough work truly to disclose the individual—the artist—within the photograph.

As I said a moment ago, the anthropological uses of photography books are the most obvious and the ones that came first historically. Lucien Goldschmidt, who is conducting a study of the subject, has concluded that something in the neighborhood of 3,000 photo-illustrated books were published before World War I—a very large proportion of them travelogues, records of exploration or other forms of anthropological study. Like some of the most durable pioneer photographic studies, Such as Edward S. Curtis’ multivolume The North American Indian, which came out over a period of 40 years beginning in 1890, many contemporary photography books—Leni Riefenstahl’s The Last of the Nuba, or Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies—are works of ethnography.

Moreover, with the increase in self-pride among ethnic groups in this country over the past 15 years, the publication of ethnographic photography books has risen proportionally, the most numerous being those about black America. Strictly speaking, ethnography is the study of one racial group for the edification of another, and a high percentage of the recent photography books about blacks do seem intended to be read largely, or even primarily, by whites. On the one hand there have been revivals and rescues of older photography of black communities like Frances Johnston’s Hampton Album, or, more recently, a book of work by James Van Der Zee, the best-known Harlem photographer in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. On the other hand, there have been a great many books of new work issued, such as Judy Tomkins’ The Other Hampton, Eugene Richards’ Few Comforts or Surprises: Life in the Arkansas Delta and Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street.

Ethnography is often thought of as a discipline limited to the study of tribal cultures, but our idea of it must surely be expanded to include the study of any cultural group whose mores and situation are different from our own. Yet however small the number of classically ethnographic photography books may be, their significance is great because they seem the model for so many other photographic studies. We do not have to stretch our idea of ethnography all that far, for instance, to include the large number of photography books recently devoted to another “minority” group, women. Women have always been a prime subject of photography, and with some modifications an older, essentially erotic tradition of photographing them is continued in current books like Edward Boubat, Photographer and Gary Winogrand’s Women Are Beautiful. But alongside this tradition, and as a counterculture to it, a new convention has grown up that might be represented by Ron and Julia Adams’ Woman Times Two, Judy Dater and Jack Welpott’s Women and Other Visions and Starr Ockenga’s Mirror after Mirror.

These books represent a colder and more Circean vision of women than the others. There is no view of womankind that cannot be made into a form of pornography, and the one I am talking about now has its vulgarized form in J. Frederick Smith’s Sappho. But in the nude portraits done by the Adamses, Ockenga and Dater and Welpott, there is an attempt to rid nude photography of the lurid and even the beautiful. The subject of their books is not women, but womanhood, and their interest in the female form is not so much erotic or esthetic as purely sexual in an aggressive, even militant way. Nevertheless, as different as these books are from Winogrand’s or Boubat’s, they share with them an original impulse to describe a part of the human race in sexual terms much as an anthropologist might in racial, cultural, social or ethnic terms.

No matter what the subject is, or how posed and arranged it may be, any photograph is by its nature an anthropological investigation. It takes away part of the reality it records. It is evidence. It is an artifact, a document of the time and place where it was made. An anthropological function is therefore ubiquitous in photography. In the early days of photojournalism, this function was almost an archaeological one, for the slowness and awkwardness of the equipment usually limited the photographer to a study of the aftermath of events rather than events themselves. He took to the field after the armies had departed and worked over the ruins they had left behind as if he were working a dig. Perhaps because of the precedent those photographs set, subsequent photographers both in and out of journalism have also often produced pictures in which a social presence must be inferred from some deserted site or landscape. This has been particularly true in photography books. Many of Walker Evans’ photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and American Photographs are of this sort, and a lot of current books—George Tice’s Paterson, for example, or David Plowden’s Commonplace—favor deserted scenes and settings as well.

The ways humanity can be divided and classified as a subject for photographic books are innumerable. In Norman Seeff’s Hot Shots, celebrities become an ethnic group of sorts, just as they did back in the ’60s in Richard Avedon’s Observations and Nothing Personal. Pro and con views of soldiers and the culture of the war have been represented in recent years by Richard Stack in a study of Parris Island called Warriors and by Donald McCullin in Is Anyone Taking Notice? Acerbic and sympathetic views of the rite of life in American suburbs are taken by Bill Owens’ Suburbia and the book done in conjunction with the most recent show at the Museum of Modern Art, Bill Eggleston’s Guide.

Prisoners are the subject of Danny Lyons’ Conversations with the Dead, which not only reproduces Lyons’ photographs of life in a Texas penitentiary, but, taking anthropological documentation a step further, reproduces letters and drawings by prisoners as well. Occupations and preoccupations define subjects too, in Jill Friedman’s Circus Days, Peter Simon’s Decent Exposure, which is about nudism in California, and Andre Kertesz’s On Reading. In Kertesz’s Washington Square the transients in a single New York park, photographed over a period of 20 years, cohere as a cultural group, a tribe, a people. Being down and out from London to Tulsa is the subject of Nancy Hellebrand’s Londoners and Larry Clark’s Tulsa, which offers an insider’s view of the drug culture. The anthropological unit of study may be as small as a single family, as in Mark and Dan Jury’s Gramp, which records how an old man died at home, or it may be as big as the whole human race, as in The Family of Man, the book that capped Edward Steichen’s career as photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

The whole human race is, of course, the ultimate subject for such photographic anthropology. Steichen’s composite book, which grew out of an exhibition he did at MOMA in the mid-1950s, is perhaps the most popular photography book ever done, and each new season brings another series of imitations. Among the more recent are Ken Heyman’s World Enough, which was done in collaboration with anthropologist Margaret Mead, Mary Ellen Mark’s Passport, which is a sort of family-of-man grotesque, and Abigail Heyman’s Growing Up Female, which deals with the family of woman. With any of these studies that take an anthropological/ethnographic approach and apply it on a global scale, however, we begin to see that second function of photography books which I mentioned earlier: the mythological function. These books, insofar as they include all of humanity, include us, the readers, as well. By their very strategy such books show us ourselves as much as others. They are designed to make us respond to the sameness of peoples and places more than the differences. They symbolize what we already know and feel rather than showing us what we do not. They are myth far more than they are science, because they assume that all living people belong to the same ethnic group.

Steichen did not invent this sort of mythic appeal, but I think that with The Family of Man he permanently installed it in our expectations of photography. To see how this appeal has been at work in some photography books since Steichen’s, especially those under discussion here, we need only take into account the one other exhibition-turned-book that has approached Steichen’s in popularity: the posthumous show that the Museum of Modern Art gave to Diane Arbus, A comparison of the Arbus show with Steichen’s figures prominently in the series of essays that Susan Sontag was writing three years ago for The New York Review of Books. At the heart of Sontag’s attack on both exhibitions is the following:

In the Arbus show, a hundred and twelve photographs . . . impose a feeling exactly contrary to the reassuring warmth of Steichen’s material. Instead of people whose appearance pleases, representative folk doing their human thing, the Arbus show lines up assorted monsters and borderline cases—most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothes; in dismal or barren surroundings—who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not “one.”

The Arbus photographs convey the anti-humanist message which people of good will in the 1970s are eager to be troubled by, just as they wished, in the 1950s, to be consoled and distracted by a sentimental humanism. (NYR, vol. 20, November 15, 1973, p. 13)

Sontag was saying that both exhibitions functioned for their audiences as a form of what I have here been calling myth, and in the next sentence she admitted that “there’s not as much difference between these messages as one might suppose.” The fact is, though, that there is a far more fundamental similarity between Steichen’s show and Arbus’ than Sontag ever conceded. The remarks just quoted both misrepresent the content of the Arbus exhibition and, I believe, misjudge what its appeal was.

For one thing, Sontag’s description suggests that the bulk of the pictures depicts “assorted monsters and border-line cases,” but the fact is that in the book less than a third are transvestites, mongoloids, dwarfs, etc. Freaks may set the tone in Arbus’ work, and her distinctive photographic style may have a levelling effect that makes it easy for us to equate her photographs of freaks with the rest of the pictures in the book. But Sontag missed the point of Arbus’ work when she mistook freaks for Arbus’ main subject. On the contrary, a majority of the photographs in the book portray quite ordinary people—people who really are just “representative folk doing their human thing.” Not unlike The Family of Man, in other words, the Arbus book includes us.

What fascinates us when we look at Arbus’ work is not so much her freaks as the subtle, persuasive way freakishness is extended to the most normal and normative members of society—to us. If her photographs shock us, it is a shock to self-recognition. The more we look at her pictures, the harder it is to draw distinctions between the kooks and the rest of us. Next to the perverts and the mental defectives are the nudists, who are, aside from being nude, so conventional they seem reactionary. They are a demi-monde reflecting the haute monde Arbus photographed for fashion magazines, and next to them are the matrons, suburban families and white Anglo-Saxon children of our own world. The twins Arbus liked so much to photograph are emblematic of the similarities she saw among all her subjects.

The reason that I have dwelled so on the Arbus exhibition and book is that I think there is in their popularity a message for us about all the recent books being discussed here. As I have been saying, a great many of these books are ostensibly ethnographic in purpose. But I wonder whether they are not mythological in function in the same way that the Arbus book is. I wonder whether we do not look at the blacks in Richards’ Few Comforts or Surprises, the prisoners in Lyons’ Conversations with the Dead, the soldiers in McCullin’s Is Anyone Taking Notice? or the sampler of all humanity in Mark’s Passport, the same way we look at the freaks in Arbus’ work: as a metaphor for ourselves. The bitter popular wisdom that has come out of the last decade—out of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the recession—is that “we are all niggers now.” Those of us who are white and middle-class are, we now feel, as alienated as the most desperate ethnic minority we can imagine. Now we feel that we too have been either left out, passed over or messed with, and photography books about blacks in the Arkansas Delta or prisoners in Texas are offered to the rest of us as visual equivalents of our, own spiritual deprivations. The smaller, more isolated and more remote the subject of the book is, the more powerfully we are tempted to identify with it.

When we look at the pictures James Van Der Zee took in Harlem 30 to 50 years ago, I think our interest genuinely is an ethnographic one. The intense highlighting and superimpositions in his portraits romanticize black bourgeois life, making it into a never-never land, an almost religious aspiration. Since the success of a portrait photographer generally depends on his knack for realizing his clients’ ideal of their lives, I think we assume that that ideal is what his photographs are making available to us. It is only out of curiosity about hisclientele that we go back to his work today. But when we turn to contemporary work of the sort of Richards’ Few Comforts or Surprises, we are in a more deceptive photographic world. It is not to his subjects’ tastes that Richards’ book conforms, but to ours. Although Richards’ purpose in making the book was supposedly a documentary one, his pictures are, in their way, just as stylized as Van Der Zee’s.

The mythic tone is set by the picture on the cover, a picture that could almost have been taken by Diane Arbus. In it a black child, who is possibly blind, fondles the eyes of a white doll. The expression on the child’s face is happy. It is so smiley and bemused, in fact, it suggests idiocy. It is a vacuous expression too much like that molded into the face of the doll. Maybe this is why, although the child’s touch on the doll’s eyes seems gentle, there is also something menacing about it, as if her docility might at any moment turn to rage and her fondling to gouging. For the urban, middle-class, largely white audience at which this book is aimed, this picture is an exercise in cultural masochism, All the impoverished, persecuted horror of life in the Arkansas Delta is there, but it is a horror meant to be wallowed in, not set right.

The picture on the back cover of Richards’ book is an instructive one too. It is a picture of an old and broken hoe lying across two pitiful rows of some root vegetable pushing through a sun-baked crust of Arkansas mud. The instructive thing here is that a desolate landscape like this, reproduced to match the cool, metallic grays of Polycontrast F print paper, is to be found in some form or other in almost all the ethnographic studies being discussed. Barren landscapes of mud and sky are to be seen from Richards’ photographs of the American Middle West to Koudelka’s Eastern Europe in Gypsies, and in Plowden’s Commonplace a deserted urban version of the same thing occurs. The broken-down porch that is in the far background of the picture on the cover of Richards’ book is in the foreground, a primary setting, throughout Tomkins’ The Other Hampton. And so forth. The point is that the sameness we find in these books is not in the peoples and places that appear in them so much as it is in us. It is our ethnography that these similarities reveal.

While we seem to have come a long way from Steichen’s The Family of Man, the difference between it and these books, or the Arbus show, which lies at the center of the configuration these books form, has turned out to be a difference only in our own mood. Yet there is still an important distinction to be made between The Family of Man and Arbus’ work, and it is a distinction to which Sontag did not really do justice. Sontag lumped together both exhibitions and condemned them because they “rule out a historical understanding of reality” (NYR, vol. 20, November 15, 1973, p. 14). The irony of this attack is that it seems to rule out a historical understanding of photography, For both exhibitions seem to me to represent transitional stages in our thinking about photography and our uses of it. Both suggest that photography has indeed been subject to some historical change in the past 20 years.

As I said earlier, Steichen’s show seems to me to have established our mythic expectations of photography and photography books. Posing as an anthropological study of all mankind, it in fact proposed the myth of the global village that Marshall McLuhan was to promote ten years later. But if The Family of Man carried photography across a line in our public consciousness (or maybe our unconscious) from an anthropological medium to a mythological one, then perhaps the Arbus show took our disposition toward photography a step further, carrying it up to the next border, that between myth and art. Even in the way it was composed—as the epic work of many hands, of literally scores of photographers—The Family of Man is a myth form, like an oral tradition of a cycle. The Arbus show, on the other hand, both in the style of the pictures and the awareness of the public, was pointedly the work of just one imagination. It was, to use a term Sontag seized with derision, the work of an “auteur,” which is to say, at least implicitly, a work of art as well as myth. When we went to the Arbus show and afterward bought the book, what aroused our interest, we would have said if asked, was Arbus herself.

I said earlier that the three ways we might look at photography books are frequently contradictory, and I think that some of these contradictions become crucial when we look at such books as an art form. For what we expect from art, presumably, is the ability to intrude upon our thoughts rather than pander to them. If the Arbus book or any of the others discussed here really are an art form, then they have a self-integrity that resists the abuse in our response to them and will, in the end, force itself on our unwilling attention. They have a self-sufficiency that will outlast our moodiness. Where such durability must lie, beyond these books’ anthropological pretext and mythological context, is in the text itself. This is not to say that photography books have to be self-absorbed and neurotic, as Arbus’ is, in order to be art. An imaginative work truly functions as art for us not because the artist has turned in upon himself, but because he can turn the self out upon the world—because he can make his private experience public and available for the rest of us.

Whether photography books will achieve this remains uncertain, but over the years at least a few have suggested how it might be possible. Prime among these would be Walker Evans’ American Photographs and Robert Frank’s The Americans. Like Arbus’ work, these books have a constancy of vision that all art seems to possess. But beyond that, and beyond what any exhibition can achieve as an exhibition, the Evans and Frank books have what a filmmaker might call montage. There is control of the arrangement of the pictures as much as in the taking of them. They have intelligible sequence as images. Consequently, though determined by the times in which these photographers were working, the Frank and Evans books also make a statement which is unique and completely personal. Of the books that I have been discussing here, I think that Koudelka’s Gypsies also has this quality, and Plowden’s Commonplace to some extent as well. If we really had the sort of “visual literacy” we have heard so much about in recent years, perhaps we could read such books better.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr. is the film critic of Commonweal and teaches at The City University of New York.