PRINT April 1986


Our mind is a moving scene, which we are perpetually copying.
—Denis Diderot

AS ARTISTIC TRADITIONS GO, the Modernist belief in the autonomy of the work of art was of short standing but had a strong grip. No one over 40 has any trouble remembering the strictures against narrative painting; such bans on external references ruled the non-discursive arts in the mid century, seemingly unbudgeable rocks of purist principle. The serious Modernist could make signs and evoke symbolic meanings, but was prohibited from regressing so far as to tell a story. Here were strategies and gestures that asserted the work’s presence, its self-reflexive state of being, but that did not allude to any historical process. On no account was the Modernist work of art to be understood as an account, as an allusion to interwoven or sequenced events, or to human cause and effect.

The narrative way, of course, was the route taken in older culture, the middlebrow arts, and the media—in the movies, popular fiction, songs, mainstream theater, soaps, and the comics. And it was the implied structure of a great deal of advertising. Embodied by deeply coded and disjointed forms, Modern art stood in contrast to all these other modes. Nowadays, of course, the distinctions of “high” and “low” have been rendered thoroughly out of date. It is hardly news that contemporary artists have enthusiastically rediscovered pre-Modem traditions, or that some consumer imagery has embraced the “avant-garde:” And in this transforming sweep, the photograph was the chief catalyst. The dominant tool of visual production in the Modern age, the photograph accepts all cultural usages without being captive to any of them. High or low in its import, singular or multiple in presence, it can be endlessly recycled according to the desired context. Promiscuously making headway for itself through an image-hungry environment, photography is like a malleable substance able to remold genre types. Part of its success comes from the impassivity of the photographic image as a conductor of messages. There has always been a much greater social interest in maintaining photography as an expedient form of communication than in establishing it as a privileged, class-bound discourse. With such a cover, it is granted any occasion to be as obscure, banal, or disturbing as the world itself.

A while ago, I needed to step only the short distance to my local New York bus-stop to see this situation illustrated with considerable but ordinary depth. The ad-display case in the stop’s shelter housed a large, melodramatic photograph of an anguished little girl whose legs seemed to wedge open the doors of a refrigerator in the bottom part of the image (which had been turned upside down).1 There was no legend or caption, not one word to explain this upsetting tableau. Yet that absence acted as a kind of caption in itself, a sign that I was in the presence of art, the kind of art proud in its defiance of the tyranny of words. For, however "literary’ the image was thoroughly self-contained. Not only did it mute its own implied narrative, but, with subversive effect, the picture usurped a place normally given over to advertising.

Such photographic infiltrators crop up frequently in New York,a city where art and corporate communications coexist in such dense visual intimacy, chic by jowl, that it is one of the fine r spectator sports to see how they mimic each other. At one time or another,numerous artists have disperse d their work incognito along the city’s transport routes. Until recently the late Senator Joseph McCarthy admonished passersby—though to what end?—from his limbo at a Lincoln Center bus-stop.2 Where these art pieces differ from their commercial brethren is in the way they intimate bad news rather than behave as the harbingers of good news. Even as they decline to spell it out , they tell of a nameless malignance that surrounds us. Installed as normal examples of sign culture, they refuse to be assimilated by it, and this makes their mood all the more cryptic. Perhaps their function is to resist, delay, and foil the quick read that is our usual response to the fast sell. Wit h their odd mixture of the surreptitious and the overt, they might even warn that those who live under the sway of programed images are likely to be deadened by it. But this is to underestimate the cunning of publicity itself, which has never hesitated to turn art strategies to its own purposes.

The next time I took a bus, for instance, the photograph of the young girl in peril had been replaced by one of a young couple under stress. In a desiccated wood, a young man sat in a dejected and worn-out crouch, while his companion, with work-shirt floppily ope n to her naked chest, assumed a fully erect, heroic stance above him. They wore heavy-duty canvas gloves, and their denims were tom. For a moment, one might have thought such subjects were a blue-collar Hansel and Gretel who had lost their way, rather than highly paid models for Calvin Klein jeans, the cabalistic words that ran across the bottom of their frame. The scene illustrated a possible sexual contretemps that had been calculated to attract both genders. Before they appeal to men, the women illustrated in fashion advertisements must be attractive to women, that is, they must act as objects to their own sex. And the same goes for men’s fashion. It is not the opposite sex that buys the clothes, but it is for the approval of the opposite sex that the clothes are generally bought. Inevitably, sexually expressive fashion photography confuses the roles of the erotic viewer and of the potential buyer.

Asking us to speculate on the fascinating pass to which the couple had been brought, the image offered a narrative lure, only to switch it to a dis play of bodies that conveyed, in fact, the real message. Ours not so much to wonder about the history of this tense, mysterious pair as to acknowledge that wearers of Calvins are likely to have such a history. Suitably denimed, we, too (waiting for transport), could embark on sensual and other adventures. So called designer jeans, or cotton underwear, the only articles worn by sexy male and female models in other Klein posters, are not luxury merchandise, and Calvin Klein’s are only marginally distinguishable from those of a range of competitors. The advertisement , then, proposed a Singular gravitation for the consumership of these mass-produced articles—the illusion of a mildly kinky status, which could be purchased at a very reasonable cost. Alongside his advertising work, Bruce Weber, the photographer responsible for most of Klein’s celebrated advertisements, specializes in pictures of Aryan beefcake. The convergence of his “art” photography and the Klein campaign is located in the flaunting of ambiguous sexuality.

It used to be that fashion was exemplified through high social placement, or its illusion . At first, it looks as if the buyers of Calvins are being told they need neither birth nor wealth in order to enter a world of special perks. Consider these pictures once again. Epidermis alone, and cotton underwear, do not speak of an affluent life-style, yet something else about the images does.With its muscular arpeggios, the ruggedness of these figures is understood not as a biographical outcome of outdoor work, or of a sportive life, but more as an attribute of those who function as objects of private desire . The imagery asks its audience to speculate that Calvin Klein “people” are well taken care of. What they actually perform to earn their keep, and for whose benefit—these are matters that remain behind the scene. But the angle of vision, suggestively from below, combined with the exhibitionistic tensility of the figures, dramatizes their awareness of being surveyed, and not just by the camera. Or, rather, the camera is used to extol a presumptuous relationship between the one who sees and those who are seen in the picture.

Obviously, they are posing. Nothing about posing should surprise any observer by its self-consciousness. And posing—formal impersonation—happens to be a perfectly authentic activity if apprehended as a service provided for a visual occasion that could not be realized in any other way. Think of all those snapshot photographs made primarily to illustrate domestic attachments , telling of a history shared by photographer and subject. These are a question not of the machine holding the figures in thrall, or of a photographer calling the shots, but of a familiar person who would visualize some mutually asserted intimacy. Despite their poses, the subjects of such pictures are acting within their lives rather than as if disassociated from them. When such family-album photographs are publish ed for a general public, we feel we have been illegitimately invited into their private occasions. To view such material is mildly like opening someone else’s mail. Why, then, should the Calvin Klein ads , actually intended for public consumption, seem so indiscreet?

For one thing, they were designed to have that eruptive effect. What appear to be very personal memorabilia have been deliberately amplified and inserted in the public arena, where strangers mill around .The Calvin Klein ads might be just one more voyeuristic frill of the marketplace, except that the work suggests that a certain specific power has been transferred from the makers of the imagery to its viewers. It’s as if a bystander intrudes on, and can survey that phase of a relationship of which the photograph is a studied, seductive memento. Its softly pornographic display and diaristic mood are not in themselves provocative; what makes them brazen is being posted out in the street, for anyone’s fantasy.

Broken into by an indefinite number of gestures like the Klein campaign, the megapolitan street operates as a zone of illicit visual inclusions opening up fictional vistas into supposedly private lives. All citizens who circulate there receive such bogus intimacies as a joint, unearned experience. Nothing is more perverse than to find this reasonable, which most of us do. Some passersby, to be sure, are reluctant to be allowed indiscriminately into any picture’s confidence. Others are Simply tired of the visual solicitation . But nevertheless, psychic entrances or exits, if you will, are everywhere, and viewers cannot help being alive to them. At any moment the metaphorical insinuations of the imagery can be engaged with or sparked off, like magical phenomena, defined by Thomas H. Huxley as effects perceived to be visibly disproportionate to their apparent cause. One senses an intrigue, a feeling that the beautiful figures of the models are turning into the characters of some embryonic play And at this point, a rather unsettling question has to be asked: one wants to know to whom this phenomenon is addressed, and what it reveals about the contemporary mind. I am talking about strange matters—at least as far as photography is concerned: the power of the image to evoke an imagined episode, distinct from or even opposed to the moment of its execution; and of its ability to “insert” the spectator into that fictive zone. It is a power that can create a new kind of onlooker, in league with the camera but less innocent. To ask about this rather ill-defined viewer, still so little known, is to inquire into one of the key issues of the ’80s: how the media use the tool of narrative for psychic programing.

If I were interested in story line, ordinarily the last place to tum would be still photography The other arts commend themselves more easily for this purpose because they are fictive from the start , alternative or speculative constructions about what has happened, or could happen, out there . Like painted images, photographs are at a definite physical remove from what is figured in them, but nevertheless a photograph is implicated in the reality that it witnesses, for the image is traceable to a light that once occurred. It makes a great deal of weird sense to say that photographs are “of” (i.e., stem from) whatever it is they reveal, and that being the case, they can’t be “about” it—they can’t tell it. Narrated events, however, to deserve the name, cannot be “of ” themselves—cannot be identified with what tells them . In ordinary language, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask what a painting is about; the equivalent query of a photograph is to ask what it shows. For the photograph’s negative is characteristically factual from the start, never so ideal in its allusions as to escape being genetically splotched by the world.

When photographers want to complement what they show by the gesture of telling, they direct the scenario. In the directed image (or the directorial mode, as A. D. Coleman called it3) the subjects are beckoned out of their own moments to participate in a pseudomoment. Every person caught in such a moment functions as two people simultaneously: the one who is there, and the one who is impersonated. (As a rule, the more elaborate the role-playing, the more it conforms to media usage, whether official or commercial.) Rather than catching lightsome, fluid, unrooted appearances, the directed image gives us weighted presences projecting themselves for further scrutiny In these proceedings all the psychic forces seem to coalesce, as if aimed at a still point. Even when expansive, the directed pose (as opposed to the domestic pose in the family-album photo) is still a literally corrupted form of momentum. It can do no more than hold in one hopeful breath the sum of an individual’s rash desires to portray a role or distill character.

No one has proven that the photographic process itself represents the world, but some photographs, with the help of the pose, show us subjects involved in their act of representation. The act may be covert, as frequently in commercial genres, or acknowledged, as in portraits and family snapshots, but in either case it transforms the visual scene into a portal opened onto a narrative horizon.

A movie called Black Sunday (1977) contains an instance of someone stepping through that portal and losing his mind. A psychotic veteran , played by Bruce Dern, recounts his trauma over receiving a snapshot of his wife and children while he was a prisoner of the Viet Congo What should ordinarily have comforted him exploded his emotions. For us filmgoers, the shadow in the picture’s foreground would only have been that of a photographer. For the husband, that same form Signified the presence of his wife’s lover. The husband has opened his mail, only to discover, as he thought, someone else’s message.

As I’ve suggested, this is a common episode, more our lot than not when walking the streets. As long as we don’t know who precisely is being addressed by the solicitous face and smiling lips of the sitter, we are made dubious in our response to the image, for the smile declares the certainty of two sorts of recipients. Clearly, the expression was performed at the behest of the photographer, who acted rather like the first reader or editor of a manuscript. Just as clearly, the performance of the smile was for the benefit of one or more later viewers absent from the occasion. The prisoner in Black Sunday has discounted himself and transferred the smile back to the benefit of the photographer. Seduction for the wrong party, on the rebound, and vicious.

If visual narrative is the issue , the real object is far less an actual or fancied performance of a role than an inversion within the spectator’s mind. While I, the spectator, look at the photograph, my sense of the subject’s time must illusorily take precedence over the way I feel situated in my own; if it fails to, the image will not narrate. In the event that I am tempted by this time dislocation, I begin to be lured into the photographic occasion. It becomes reasonable to suppose that such a moment might have a past history, as well as an immediate future for those who collaborated in the production of the picture. Once I think that, my own placement in time is clouded over, and I am all eyes to that of the participants. The image is still the end product of the posed occasion, but instead of being removed from real life, the occasion takes a bow for a social reality that continues off camera and outside the frame. In the family snapshot, for example, no matter how inert, the poses are incipiently alive because they have emerged from a lived situation. From a narrative point of view this kind of photograph has a definite past, of which there may well be hints along the margins. Such was the focus of the character in Black Sunday, and it unhinged him. He represents an extreme case of wounded consciousness, forever unable to head off “what has been.”

This inability is endemic to the experience of still photography, for no other spatial medium functions in quite the same way—as a delayed record or trace of once extant appearances. The job of the narrative photographer is to suspend our sense of the irreversible lateness of our arrival at the scene depicted, and to try to resituate viewers within an apparently emergent process, still unconsummated at the moment of perception. Something like this is accomplished when stationary photo images are sequenced as if chronologically, and/or when the viewer is guided to their meaning with the help of titles and texts. Through these traditional aids, photography can adopt a quasi-narrative structure. It hardly needs to be pointed out what story-telling advantages are thereby programed into the photographic act, lending it an apparent narrative wholeness that individual and uncaptioned frames themselves can never possess.

Consider, for example, Erich Salomon’s suite of six photographs entitled Marlene Dietrich telefoniert mit ihrer Tochter (Marlene Dietrich telephones her daughter, 1930). It’s not only as a symbolic tribute to the subject’s profession, screen star, that the six frames are arranged as if on a filmstrip; the temporality of film is also suggested. The pictures run through a gamut of smallish events—changing facial expressions—that together comprise Salomon’s anecdote, spun out seemingly in real time. That the frames are somewhat distinct from each other, and the poses outrageously fewer in number than they would be in the actual script, is neither here nor there, for Salomon has submitted his posed images as occasions within a flux. Theatrical activity spills so easily through these pictures that Dietrich appears to have been onstage as much between Salomon’s frames as within them. No one gets the impression that the photographer obliged his subject to assume the role of warm-hearted mother on six separate occasions; let’s say, rather, that we think the photographic “moment” was dilated, as Salomon cut into the performance strategically, netting an attentive Dietrich here , a fond one there , and winding up with the young woman cradling her telephone as if relaxed in bliss.

The social motive of the Dietrich photographs, though journalistic, shades off more interestingly into publicity Supposed to document one of the first calls on the then-new transatlantic telephone cable, these pictures played into the hands of the film studio. The reputation of the photographer was that of someone who cleverly transgressed social boundaries, bringing to the public the off-guard and therefore intimate, “behind-the-scenes” behavior of the famous. The genuineness of his results was certified by their lack of authorization. For that reason, the instant that Salomon gained entry to Dietrich’s bedroom was fatal to his esthetic, since he was to collaborate with a woman who specialized in performance for delayed interaction. Literally embedded in what passes for her own domestic moment, Dietrich seems impossibly indifferent to the close-range presence of a stranger in her boudoir while she conducts her private business. This particular performance, then, is a little curious, because it invents and dramatizes a character modeled after someone who, though always present in the photographs, has in fact withdrawn further from us: Dietrich herself.

Let me turn from this experiment to a concrete example of a photographically illustrated short text, Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” depicted by Sarah Moon4 in a style unquestionably her own but also uncannily suggestive of Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. For narrative purposes, Moon’s still photographs are aligned with others to form a new composite in which no single picture is sufficient in itself, but rather is understood as a carrier of a meaning that may not be fully evident until the final frame. “Little Red Riding Hood,” as Moon correctly sees, is a paradigm of deceit. The wittiness of her illustrations lies in her detailed defections from a textual outline to which she otherwise adheres. Do the story’s events take place by day? She changes them to night. Isn’t the setting always understood as pastoral? She transforms it to the city. As for the wolf, instead of skulking through the wood, he drives an old Citroen over wet cobbled streets. Moon justifies the literal sense of the story by the manichaean darkness and lights of her scenes, spotlighting the little girl’s figure overwhelmed in portentous space. But this mock-naive straightness is broken at the point of the first conversation between Riding Hood and the wolf, when she tells him exactly where he can meet her again . . . at grandmamma’s. Here Moon gives us a close-up of the child looking directly at the viewer. Over Red Riding Hood’s sweet, angelic face plays what psychologists would call a "knowing smile From there to the conclusion of the fairy tale, I am reminded of what Djuna Barnes had to say about it in her novel Nightwood (1936): that children know something we don’t. They like to see Little Red Riding Hood in bed with the wolf.

It’s evident by now that one of the chief narrative instruments of the image is the way it materializes points of view, where texts verbalize them. The wolf is never actually seen in Moon’s photographic images; only his silhouette is intermittently visible. His role is given over to the photographer/viewer. Overtly, there is not even a suspicion of such transference in the original text, but Moon’s manipulation into self-consciousness of such literal insight ferments the story with sexual irony.

“How sour sweet music is when time has broken” This epigraph from Shakespeare opens Improbable Memories,5 a book in which Moon has collected her main fashion work. For magazines like French Vogue and Marie-Claire, and such firms as Cacharel, she constructs elaborate, gauzy fictions in which the loveliest and best-dressed women and little girls take tea with wild animals. Lest there be any question about the sex of these creatures, Moon places their heads on the bodies of gentlemen callers. (Reciprocally, in Perrault’s scary fable, Moon sees to it that the heroine is crisply gotten up and stylish, the daughter of a very fashion-conscious mother indeed.) This accent on haute couture in false peril is further ramified by variously staged effects indicating that these feminine doings are under outside surveillance, and the nervous edge given to the poses by this idea expresses some of the sexual tensions in the photographic experience. One eats well and smells fragrant in this prim, dainty world, but it has a hairy lining. Moon’s Red Riding Hood is a narcissist, and, with her weak psychic radar, she is prone to be a victim—but also to seduce. Of course, for Perrault, the seducer was the wolf: “ ’Grandmamma, what big arms you have!’ ’The better to hug you with, my dear’. ” The sheer extravagance of that drag imposture is famous for having worried but disarmed its childish readers, allowing them to externalize their fears. Moon accomplishes a visual ambiguity of her own with her epilogue shot of only a rumpled bed, which may signify either the site of the wolf’s tasty (and remarkably bloodless) meal, or that the book has been but a nightmare all along. From a viewer’s vantage, it is a howling success either way.

Even when figures are off-stage, props such as this bed can still speak in a narrative. To call attention to them is a characteristic genre utterance, for they have roles to play in the conveyance of mood, still the prime factor in the visual exposition of text. If a choice had to be made between either spelling out the nominal happenings of a story, or evoking them through details of facial expression, light, shadow, and surface, artistic—and commercial—photographers wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter. Significant omissions from a linear story do not jeopardize its overall import as much as failure of visual stagecraft and the consequent rupture of mood. As Moon conceives it, the mood of “Little Red Riding Hood” is one of enchantment, a state in which the headlights of a car can be fancied as glowing lupine eyes, and a rumpled bed can stand as an emblem of hallucination. Bound as they are by the immobile image, narrative photographers insinuate the sentience or animism of things, working their spell for what it’s metaphorically worth. When a writer hankers after that magical sense of the environment, the words used tend to be extraordinarily imagistic; conversely, when photographers introduce an object for the sake of its power of association, they inevitably hope to add a mental overlay to the material constraints of their art.

Something of this order is evident in the career of an overcoat in Duane Michals’ The Bogeyman, 1973. What appears to happen in this suite of seven pictures can be described in one sentence. A little girl stops reading to examine a large coat hanging near her, after which she returns to her chair, falls asleep, and is abducted by the coat, which has become a kind of monster. Instead of suggesting specific characters or even general social types, the figures in this story function simply as presences, human or otherwise, undergoing the drama of metamorphosis. We are not asked to care very deeply about them, one way or the other, but we are invited to reflect on a mystery. The artist has gone to some length to depict a kind of magnetic field whose poles are represented on the one hand by consciousness, with its belief in the world of physical surfaces, and on the other by dream, with its haunting by spirits. Not later than midpoint in many of Michals’ sequences, consciousness falls away and loses out to dream, the more powerful source of narrative attraction. And the dream in question touches both the figures within the work and the work’s viewer. When I dream that I am pursued, I am also, more vaguely, the pursuer; similarly when I witness the misadventure of the little girl kidnaped by the coat, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that I am close enough to share it, if only because I identify with the camera, the alter ego of my eye. Here I see not only the conscious activity of the little girl, but also into her dream, a vista that cannot be, unless I am projecting into the situation. And this is the conceit of Michals’ work, worthy of the art of Rene Magritte, which inspired it.

Discreet though Michals is, he is still a very “writerly” photographer. The medium he has chosen affords only the trace of literal surfaces, which he conceives it his job to penetrate. To do so, he superimposes a new mental frame upon the photograph. Michals needs only to announce that the scene depicted emanates from within the consciousness of another—it is the little girl’s dream—and you are made to understand that what you are seeing is not what is actually to be seen; rather, an idea is being screened in your mind. The major character falls asleep, and with that, a dissolve takes place, after which no one knows what is going to happen next, for the laws of causality have lifted away. For Michals, there has never been any possibility of a photo document; photography’s engagement with the real is only a pretense, a sham to be exploited. The consequences of such an attitude for narrative are plain to see. How little exists, Michals might say, apart from the way it is represented—that is, storied. As a result, objects are less palpable to us than thought, and fulfillment is less apparent to us than desire. Yet, if the proposal about objects is very metaphysical, the one about fulfillment is very worldly.

Many an agent in Michals’ tableaux is (or gets) stripped for action, but I don’t remember seeing any consummation in the flesh. The disrobed condition of his people is but a sign of the overall pithiness of his outlook. Very little material in any Michals sequence can be judged extraneous to the demands of his stories. Photography does not usually need to pressure us into believing what it shows. Its normal surfeit of detail—far more than necessary for any story—does wonders to guarantee its realism. Compare the clutter in Salomon’s photographs of Dietrich’s bedroom to the spareness in Michals’ interiors. The former is all realist triviality, the latter all idealist patterning. But, if that’s Michals’ game, why is he a photographer, why has he resorted even once to this profane medium? I think the answer must start from the fact that to give life to his treacherous ideas, he had to image them credibly If Michals’ theme is transubstantiation, he had to have substance to start with—and where better to credit substance than in the medium of record, photography? His interior monologues and flashbacks could wreak havoc all the more effectively because the impassive record had been established.

Above and beneath the frames of sequences like Take One and See Mt. Fujiyama, 1975, and The Enormous Mistake, 1976, Michals writes a kind of voice-over that determines the inner alarm of his characters and snares them into their fates. We “know” from what we read that this one’s excitement had turned to terror, and that that one “felt overcome with anxiety as he waited. Only his desire kept him from fleeing” The apprehensive men and women in the stories cannot hear this narrator’s voice, just as the actors in a movie cannot hear the music on the sound track. Yet Michals’ scripts work not so much as superior comment, orchestrated for our benefit, than as a metaphorical blanket that traps and amplifies the body warmth of his bedeviled players. Their supposed bafflement at the plight in store for them is usually charged by the issue in the texts of whether they can or should resist an erotic psychodrama just around the corner. However, it always works out that the energy or will needed to deny eros is in short supply. Where the camera cannot show it, words will indicate precisely the randy tropism of both people and their things.

In The Pleasures of the Glove, 1974, a young man’s hand approaches a fleece-lined glove in one frame and enters it in the next. Yet the glove, says the text, “ate his hand” Then, when the hand tenderly pinches a woman’s nipple, it’s the culprit glove that did “what it wanted to do” Explicit as they are, words alone cannot verify the physical presence of the object. Illustrative as it is, the image alone cannot activate a magical effect. In Michals’ work, it’s as if words and images reach toward each other in a surrealist folie à deux. Gloves, coats, shoes, cups: for Michals, all these plain, friendly, or protective objects, which we touch, touch us in turn. It’s a wonderful narrative conceit to imagine that they don’t know their place and can’t help themselves. As they are inspected, they slowly begin to fail their test for immobility Most often it’s the third person, the “he” or “she” of the script, whose glance innervates the surroundings; the artist, though, is not above slipping his proceeding into the first person, apparently without the text being the wiser. In Take One and See Mt. Fujiyama it can state that “the book was dull. He was bored,” while the picture’s point of view insists that the reading head is that of the viewer. This confusion of the first person and the third economizes narrative with powerful effect.

In This Photograph is My Proof, 1967–74, Michals provides a picture of a couple seated on a bed, she embracing him from behind and both looking outward, smiling. Beneath this little play, one reads,

This photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon when things were still good between us . . . and we were so happy. It did happen , she did love me. Look see for yourself.

With such words, the writer of the text is naturally identified with the man in the photograph. He is projected both as an actor who has figured in the story and as the narrator who now furnishes it to the viewer. The time of perception is the present, and the written message is autobiographical, distinctly a question of someone’s past. “What has been” was good. The tone of voice is a little desperate as the words urgently make out a case for memory As evidence, a photograph is produced to substantiate that memory. But the image is smothered and consumed by the text. It’s as if a whole life’s meaning is being staked on the interpretation of a particular moment, the moment, only, of a photograph. In all this we are moved not so much by the implicit feeling of loss, or by the hope of redemption from the past, as by the appeal to our belief (which is quite misplaced). “Look see for yourself.” What comprises the human need that wants to win us over in that way? Or, alternatively, who is it who would offer us such treacherous ground for such a large judgment? To ask such questions is only to be taken further into the narrative.

Nevertheless, Michals’ character is quite reasonable. After all, he has not said, “Look at my words, trust them, they show that she loved me”; everyone knows they do nothing of the sort. If we discuss writing, with pictorial experience in mind, we must say that words cannot display their allusions, as pictures can, and they cannot come imprinted extrinsically by the world, as photographs do. Of course, the world is partly manifested by writing because some of the world ’s ink is deposited there, but I don’t think the writer would be edified by that observation. As the photograph intimates, what motivated the character was hi s need to escape from the chronic egocentrism of telling, to be able to point at something issuing from outside himself . . . to show. A photograph is a form of witness, confirming itself by recording some trace of what was seen, and the text here apparently yields to the superior power of the image as evidence—a little sycophantishly, perhaps, but only to the extent that it’s in its interest to do so to further a concept. The meaning of the picture is vagrant until it is “possessed” in the Writing. In this sense, the priority of telling is affirmed even as the text confesses that it is helpless to convince readers by its own means.

I’ve dwelled on this issue in order to suggest how the esthetics of photography, and particularly narrative photography. are entangled with a kind of pleading for the capacity of the image to visualize fact. The art of Mac Adams incarnates this esthetic, perhaps not as elegantly as Michals: but with even more dispatch. During the ’70s, this artist produced a number of photographic diptychs that butt together two images for reasons not immediately apparent, though they do achieve a quick payoff in pleasurable anxiety. As I got habituated to these “mysteries,” as Adams calls them, it dawned on me that they anticipate or reflect, but never in themselves describe, the climactic violence that appears to be their subject. At the same time, they’re stringently controlled by an invisible text that insists upon the veracity of the material in the frame, its status as “proof” of foul play.

André Malraux once wrote, “The Dutch were not the first to paint fish on a plate, but they were the first to stop treating it as food for the apostles.”6 By the same token, it could be said of Adams that he was not the first to depict sinister objects, but that he pioneered an artistic idea of still life as incrimination. In general, on one side of these diptychs the things in his images are owned by victims; on the other, they are left as clues by murderers. The transfer of property in this world is grasping and ruthless, so much the out come of endless rip-offs, muggings, betrayals, rapes, and homicides that every object is tainted by its inclusion in the mystery. A woman’s scarf, first seen on her neck, is later glimpsed dangling from a stump in filthy water. Poison goes into a glass , and then, inevitably, down a throat. In the time it takes a toaster to brown a slice of bread , a woman in dishabille dies. Like a trademark, a perpetrator ’s watch gives the time frame for the stealthy, lethal deed accomplished between the first and the second shot. Bracketed densely at point-blank range , even when outdoors, Adams’ objects have something of the memento mori about them, and also of the Hitchcockian McGuffin. In this paranoid nightmare that has taken permanent form, there is no room for the indifferent existence of things , people, or situations. They all take on an instant, suffocating meaningfulness. Through a tantrum of showing, the photographer achieves an effect of telling, of story.

The principal environment in which it is possible to function safely as an unseen witness, at awful proximity to the throes of private obsession , is the world of cinema. Indeed, the melodramatic revelations and claustrophilic power of the film noir suit Adams perfectly. What his images lack in scale, sound, and action through time , they regain in the cryptic presence of the immobilized image. Adams profits enormously from the sense that his images are emergent from a plot. Without the filmic tag, what he shows would look arbitrary, and even incoherent; with it, we are given the role of voyeurs, keyed by the desire to make good on the invitational script. While the “mysteries” lack the absorptive power and fluidity of the movies , each of their still images has a sense of density that allows for committed looking. It’s not just that , with their fewer means, their material has to count for more than that in an equivalent movie frame. Rather, the density is realized in the degree to which the photograph makes us conscious of the intro spective work we exert in order to fill in or even to grant meaning. By riding piggyback on the thriller movie, Adams alludes to the absorptive dimension of film but operates with the density of the photograph.

Let us treat the men and women well; treat them as if they were real; perhaps they are.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The photographs I have discussed so far illustrate ways that viewers’ fantasies are lured into narrative photography. It is inevitable that the show-biz age of Ronald Reagan, with its media promiscuities, should amplify the manipulative potential of narrative modes.We have been taken all too well through the narrative portal.

Insofar as it is composed of photographs and the media that derive from or feed them, our public environment of the ’80s would recreate us all as functions of a vast image-machine. It is a perpetual lure, in which entertainment and alarm are but interchangeable faces of an illusion that continually sublimates real events. Our television, our film, and our photography typically aggrandize, or rather bloat, themselves on the sexiness of terror. The media at the same time agitate and spuriously pacify us viewers. Unmoored and disoriented, we are left with little but the nettlesome slickness of image culture as a guide with which to determine our values.

There has sprung up an acutely untrustworthy environment, an endless paranoid prospect of sign after sign, creating a dazzlement of semiotic misery. “Paranoia,” writes Norman Bryson, “is a representational crisis in which nothing can exist for itself or innocently. for everything is perceived as a sign. To the paranoid all existence is plot , not only as conspiracy but as narrative. . . . ”7 This is an apt enough picture of the way we are conditioned, and if we’re not rioting it’s because we’re being constantly diverted . As Neil Postman asks, “who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”8

This is, after all, the age of total media politics, whose impetus is carried by a flow of presidential imagery engineered on behalf of an ex-movie actor whose vestiges as a person were long ago incorporated into his role as public entertainer. Reagan’s sincere duplicity cannot be unmasked because there is nothing behind the mask. Once any detail of his performance is accepted on its own involving level of make-believe, there’s a likelihood it will take others into the charade. Whatever the public may believe, it subscribes to everything, for it feels itself in the presence of a performance that is naturally fictive, and exempt. therefore, from the normal accountability of doings in life. Our era has seen the rise of such debased narrative and ridiculous story as evangelism in the media. Calvin Klein, star-wars technology. and exhibition wrestling. The slop of this material has swamped the horizon of consciousness to fabricate a vacuous environment. a frameless prospect of sign after sign, produced according to the public’s desire for the fantasies it has been programed to want rather than the knowledge it needs.

Massively lured by images, we often seem to be living within the nightmare of an old movie. No document reminds us of this more graphically than Diane Keaton’s and Marvin Heilerman’s Still Life (1983).9 A collection of Hollywood movie stills and publicity Kodachromes from the ’40s and ’50s, the book recycles the promotional flotsam of a vulgarity that has not aged well. To leaf through it is to encounter a series of hyperformulaic postures, uneasy grimaces, and absurd group pantomimes which are like visual mummies of scenarios we see around us now. No one in a film still is in the throes of an actual performance; rather, they have lifelessly assumed its attitudes, as if they were performing. Hence the relation of such images to dioramas, tableaux vivants, waxworks, or, as the authors of Still Life declare, to taxidermy. It’s as if we were looking at some primitive, frozen anticipation of our own dilemma. More than their dated quality, it’s the immobility of these images that is fatal to their rhetoric, because it betrays the difference between what is represented and what is shown.

In Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan at Home, 1947, what is intended as a portrayal of a young, healthy, wholesome Hollywood couple of medium studio rank, enjoying the sun in their reclining deck chairs, wobbles off the mark. The tension of Reagan’s and Wyman’s eyes (clamped shut), the rigidity of their bodies, his sucked-in stomach, all reveal a strain that belies the two stars’ nominal leisure. On an oppressively sun-baked terrace bordered by an indigestible green hedge, the subjects are characterized more by the effort of their pose than by what the pose is meant to signify.

For that matter, on the strength of an equivocal frame showing Mia Farrow, Laurence Harvey, and Tom Courtenay in dignified but indelicate confrontation, I defy anyone to guess the plot thrust of the film A Dandy in Aspic (1968). One doesn’t know whether to be amused or saddened over the plight of these characters, over their pictorial bondage to fictional scenes or situations with which they exhibit not the slightest personal engagement. This is particularly evident in their eyes, which have gone dead, for they literally see nothing but fellow prisoners in a meaningless pretense. But my point includes more than the truism that time erodes art or media meanings that once were clear; I want to emphasize that such half-baked fictions represent a pathology of our own moment. For the kind of moribund acting out known to us from these low-grade movie stills has moved smilingly and fluidly to the center stage of public life, where it absorbs all distinctions between what really happens and what is represented. We viewers are given no choice; that is, no escape from escape.

It’s worth pointing out that the breakdown of narrative meaning in these movie stills is itself the inadvertent product of a surplus of narrative momentum. The producers of the stills didn’t care how many story nutrients they lost so long as they brought the idea of the story to a boil. The entire tale remained lodged in the medium that actually had time to store it, the film that was being pushed. The viewer of these spatial fragments was given the impression that they were somewhere a swim in a missing narrative. Which explains why as soon as I contact the image, it invariably gives me the sense that it’s already started.

Cindy Sherman and Eileen Cowin, two contemporary artists who use narrative to launch an acute criticism of our media environment, have revived the still to keep this sense of the image a swim in story. But they have inverted its reason for being. For them, the fantasies of the viewer are lured only to be exposed, and with that exposure the whole apparatus of media manipulation is incriminated. Movie stills ask us to believe in a static mock-up of a performance, which is in turn an interpretation of a script—in other words, an image at three representational removes from experience. Cowin and Sherman retain a great deal of the still’s habitual gestures and studio lighting, but they delete the genre’s faith in itself, its will to convince. If it had once stemmed from a parent film, the still is now orphaned. If it had wanted to conceal the theatrical filters through which it proposed its scene, these are now made self-evident. Using its own metaphors against it, Cowin and Sherman have exposed the living daylights out of a cheap entertainment mode. Yet these artists are not didactic. They simply assume that since the text or narrative from which the still sprang demanded inauthentic performance, it was corrupted before the poses were. This premise is expressively shown in their work, not told.

Consider the bather in Cowin’s Untitled (Woman in Orange Dress), 1981. This young man is clearly posed in a photographic scenario, though he isn’t so much acting as just being there, relaxed and apparently indifferent to the fact that he’s inside and can’t get any sun. Such a figure performs, to be sure, but he is somehow on the other side of charade, in a zone where the act has become an object of study. The situation is apparently controlled by directions so illogical and futile that behind them a subtext can be imagined. Whenever in Cowin’s photographs one finds gaps between the intention of the play and the performance of the role, it is clear that she has anticipated and staged them. In fact, that’s the only way her little theaters come to us, confess ing their stagecraft in advance. Within this totally exposed framework, she makes her social observations and finds her moral truths. That is, she becomes reliable, in a manner that transcends the duplicity she feeds off.

Essentially, all Cowin’s scenarios, usually multicharacter dramas of the American family, are enacted in the manner of television soap operas, and fashioned as if in the film-still genre. Sherman, on the other hand, investigates one character, herself, in dozens of guises borrowed from, for example, movies, television, magazines, adolescent comic strips, and cheap supermarket or drugstore romances. Both artists are exploring the great ubiquitous mass of cultural programing, of the most sentimental and cliched kind , from whose pulp they squeeze a melodrama that is ludicrous yet at the same time disquieting. While this photographic indictment of media culture is hard-hitting, it also remains poetic.

In Sherman’s work since 1981, narrative is understood not as a sequence of events that elapse within an assumed period, but as the lighting up of an inner life, so intense in its moment that the pose appears suspended in the brimming eyes of its own fiction. Often caught in some strained perplexity, sullen , moping, tense, disheveled, expectant, or with a vacant gaze suggesting that she is psychologically removed from where she is, this tough or vulnerable, dry or strangely wet young woman is ruled by the emotional poles of feminine self-sufficiency and helplessness, coded in a minimal range of body gestures and facial expressions. Sherman’s large single figure arrangements are void of noticeable incident, yet they tingle with action; just the same, if I were to list what is in them, I would be adding up features suggestive of portraiture rather than narrative. What we have here is a series of transparently fanciful self portraits, the creator a ventriloquist of the culture’s sentiments. The story may consist of the dialogue between the shadowy, behind-the-scenes creature who constructs the tableau , and the physical one who poses under her makeup and wigs. To invent others who may also be vaguely herself is the goal, but also to break down her self, the moving scene of her mind. By 1984, the characterizations have become manic and the costuming sketchy—any old rag—in the deepening Cibachrome murk. The sultrier poses have ebbed away, and outraged ones have come to the fore. This development might suggest the gradual assertion of a consciousness opposite to the narcissistic one that began the work. The Sherman who conceives the image is at growing odds with the female pawn and flunky who acts out the role. Sherman’s impersonations of passivity have lost ground to the notion of a person who has a firmer grip on herself, and who stares back, angry, at the impinging spectator.

Cowin also composes imagery in which she is personally embroiled as an actress. It is not absolutely necessary to know that the artist, her twin sister, her husband, and other members of her family perform in her “docudramas,” but such knowing enriches her scripts. It’s as if she has taken the lid off her own household—or, more accurately, removed one of its walls, creating a formalized viewing station for the proceedings. For all that it violates their apparent privacy, Cowin’s perspective does not often trespass on her characters’ space. Perhaps this is in deference to the actuality of her performers; the idea of the “docudrama,” after all, is to weave fictional situations around “real” people. Though they are often involved in marital squalls and adulterous trysts, these people rarely take on the guise of specific individualized characters, but are immobilized in general roles, and frosted with an almost allegorical presence: the mother. The lover. The victim. The husband. Cowin’s figures are no more animated than the withdrawn protagonists of a Robert Bresson film. In order to arrive at meaning, she seems to say, mood has to be purged and affect reduced. A fairly uniform deportment and a clear consistency of light tighten and restrain scenes with explosive implications. Sherman keeps the meretricious at bay by overcharging it; Cowin, by understating it. This is what knocks one off balance as one looks: plots of flashy indiscretions combined with reticent performances.

Many of Cowin’s tableaux collect miscellaneous activities that would not have taken place in that one time and that one room. Her characters are either astonishingly indifferent to each other, oblivious really, or else consciously estranged from their surroundings and from those around them. In Untitled (Frame and Red Rose), 1983, two standing people, kissing each other, are inexplicably isolated at head level by a suspended frame, while the man bestows a rose on a seated woman to his right and kids play Clue on the floor. In Untitled (Woman in Orange Dress), kitchen work goes on, along with sunbathing, house painting, and primping for some evening occasion. Many of these images are anthologies of narrative miscellanies pretending to be single situations. Loading the material in one shot, the artist achieves a phenomenal concentration, asserting that all the life one needs to know is quarantined in these Sheetrock rooms with their mat shadows.

Cowin’s bodily charades are hackneyed enough, and also complex; heightening them, she, and Sherman, too, employ a repertoire of sight-lines and eye contacts, converging or deflecting, that excites the interpretive appetite. In a Cowin scenario an intensity flares in a character’s eyes; someone else wants to parry it, or doesn’t pick up on it at all, while others show that they’re witnesses. We can see how people regard each other, what judgments are being made at close range. This graphic device, or rather insight, tells as much as it shows. It even happens that some subjects gaze off to the viewer with a look that suggests appraisal. Sherman is particularly bravura on this level; often she seems about to perceive someone just next to me, someone behind me or to the left. I am made to feel that my presence is part of the scenario, even that my being “there” ignites it.

Under no circumstance does this kind of charged perception of the viewer’s agency arise in the photos in the Still Life book, where the proceedings are self-enclosed. Sherman and Cowin embolden the glance, engaging viewers in an open situation where they see they have choices. The effect of Sherman’s stare is simultaneously to suck me into the story and, paradoxically, to break the fictive mold. Since the text is deliberately at variance with the performance, my belief in the drama is at odds with my subscription to it. Drawn into the scene, my will is weakened and detained in someone else’s imagination, but since the stare also reveals my complicity in the production of content, I am given an active role and can resist, deflect, or criticize what is happening to me. Both Cowin’s and Sherman’s art risks looking like its enemy in order to deflate the representations of what it opposes. The openness of the artists’ scripts induces me to regard their narratives in a problematic way. A comparison might be made with those novels that manipulate the word “you” to point to the reader. In such books the author transgresses, for varying reasons, upon the distinction between life and fiction, as if to appropriate the reader into the narrative, or to break the narrative into the reader’s world. As the writer solicits the reader, so does the camera eye solicit the viewer, insinuating itself as an alter ego of the viewer. Narrative greatly depends on this primitive transference, so that, case by case, the story formulates a personality for its spectator.

At times in this essay I have used the words “I” and “me,” and I want to leave no doubt that these pronouns function rhetorically. An essay devoted to examining the effect of particular images upon the psyche of a viewer would be a very strange exercise in self-cancellation if it did not recognize who is doing the viewing. Bodiless and affectless comment tends either to overawe readers by its authoritarian remoteness, keeping them passive, or to put them to sleep by its impersonal drone.

Obviously, the issue of “we” goes further—goes to the root problem we all face when confronted by our media culture. Do we accept the picture of ourselves that the culture gives back to us? To view our collective portrait as it exists in the corporate market of communications is to see how selfhood—and, with it, independence, authenticity, and finally our freedom—are put at risk.

The narrative photography looked at in this essay deals with the immanent personification of viewers, relayed through fed-back stereotypes of fear and desire. To look at Calvin Klein’s ads is to be assigned the role of a consumer titillated by voyeuristic intrusions. To look at Michals’ figures is to become a fellow adventurer in the course of their erotic teases, fabulous liberations, and final mundane reckonings. To look at Adams’ mysteries is to be characterized as a stalker, a connoisseur of sexual pathology—above all, one who does not interfere when the extremity of the situation calls for interference. To engage with Cowin’s and Sherman’s images is to be addressed by a gesture at once inviting and belligerent, so that viewers are literally forced to realize their stakes in the representation. Except for Klein, who focuses only on what he’s doing in the marketplace (in the Greek sense), all the others are engaged in acts of critical consciousness whose outcome, I believe, is a new sort of understanding of the challenges of self-creation (at least insofar as photography makes us reflect on shared experience).

I sense in many of these pictures a fascinated but also a wrathful look at theatricality as a closure of human potential. Nonetheless, this art bases itself on theatrical representation to expose psychological truth. I’ve been writing about the various poses used by people to represent themselves, including my representation of myself as author. Evidently our representations would have little point unless they were oriented by a fantasy, whether generated more from within or imposed largely from outside an individual. Perhaps the crux of the matter can be approached roundabout, with the help of an author investigating a related problem. Jonas Barish, at the end of his book The Antitheatrical Prejudice, writes,

We come into the world encircled by watchful eyes, to whose expressions we quickly learn to adjust our own. Our efforts at self-definition consist of our attempts to cope with this amphitheater of gazes—to accept it, without evasion, as constitutive of us in the first place, but then to refuse to bow to its despotic edicts. . . . The props are ready and the rest of the cast is mustered . . . but the script we must provide for ourselves.

He then goes on to talk about the choice made visible in this reckoning:

to settle for a hand-me-down part, one fashioned for us by others, which we ape by performing “gestures” . . . [or] to perform “acts,” to invent ourselves from nothing, neither shamed nor frozen into ineffectuality by the sea of faces that surrounds us.10

Whether the fantasy by which we are oriented is one of domination or one of succor, of rapture, of justice, of self-identity, of remembrance, or of havoc, it is found in representations, which give back to those who engage with them a measure of their own yearning. As it illuminates what is submerged, our yearning cannot tell itself so much as it demands to be told of, by images and texts held together in necessarily uneasy suspension. This is to talk about what is impossible to grasp except when it is put at a distance. What does the contemporary self know? What does it want? What does it need? The narrative photograph agitates these issues as its reason for being.

Max Kozloff is a photographer and a writer on photography who lives in New York. This essay is an abridged version of a longer study to appear in his next book, The Privileged Eye, scheduled to he published by the University of New Mexico Press in early 1987.



1. Lauren Roselli, The Door is Opening, 1984.

2. The image of McCarthy appeared in Dennis Adams’ Bus Shelter, 1983.

3. A. D. Coleman, “The Directorial Mode: Notes toward a Definition,” Artforum vol. XV no. 1, September 1976.

4. Sarah Moon, Little Red Riding Hood, Mankato, Minn.: Creative Education, Inc., 1983.

5. Sarah Moon, Improbable Memories, Paris: Delpire Editeur, 1982.

6. André Malraux, The Voices of Silence, New York: Doubleday, 1951, p. 470.

7. Norman Bryson, Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981, p. 40.

8. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, New York: Viking, 1985, p. 156.

9. Diane Keaton and Marvin Heiferman, Still Life, New York: Callaway Editions, 1983.

10. Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981, pp. 475–76.