New York

“Photography in America”

As if the point had not been made with sufficient clarity by Stieglitz and Steichen in the early years of our century, Robert Doty, a former curator of painting at the Whitney Museum, has mounted an exhibition of several hundred American photographs designed, evidently, to convince the observer that photography can have the same intensely personal introspection and stylistic sophistication that we have come to associate with Fine Art, especially since the Romantic period. The point is underlined by the artfully haphazard arrangement of photographs in the exhibition, which follows neither a precise chronological nor thematic order. It is emphasized again in the design, text, and layout of the sumptuous, elegant catalogue, and through the paucity of information conveyed about particular works exhibited and reproduced. In the foreword, Doty explains his choices:

Selection was governed by the inclusion of pictures made by photographers who intended above all that their work be informed by a conscious effort toward the perfection of an inner vision or by an avowed aesthetic content.

His catalogue essay sketches the history of American photography in summary fashion. In addition to a marked penchant for photographs which convey suave images of beautiful things, it is evident that Doty also values photo-graphs which express concern for the human condition, so long as observers will construe that concern in a vague and general way, removed from the specific incidents and issues which animated the photographer in the first place. This, at least, is the impression which I derive from such observations as these:

On Riis and Hine:
In their time, the photographs of Riis and Hine were intended as no more than evidence, but the humanitarian nature of the content and the quality of the image have assured their place in history.

On Strand:
Because of this grand passion for humanity, Strand’s photographs became a testament to the heroic condition of mankind.

On Evans:
Walker Evans was also deeply involved with human consciousness. . . . Evans used his camera for a dispassionate recording of material things, revealing form, line, and usage, and seeking spiritual and social meanings.

On Smith:
Assignments and stories created for the printed page were often the means of presenting memorable images, such as those of W. Eugene Smith, whose photography has been a crusade for better human relations and a record of all that is noble in man.

With all of these assertions about the photographer’s role as a humanitarian critic, one might expect Doty to seize the opportunity presented by the exhibition to detail this concern. Notes on the photographer’s subjects and stated intentions, if any, could have been presented either adjoining the photographs, as exhibited and reproduced, or printed with a checklist at the back of the catalogue and made available as a brochure to visitors. No such annotation exists, however, nor is there even the minimal technical information that one expects in an exhibition, and which, in the case of photographs, should at the very least include the actual size of the print.

Doty’s allergy to specificity has an adverse effect on our comprehension of those photographers who have been animated by, social and political concerns. For example, Smith’s Tomoko in her bath, Minamata, Japan, especially as reproduced in a double-page spread in the catalogue, looks disconcertingly “beautiful,” rather like a Renaissance Pietà. In this form, robbed of its particularity, it becomes one of those timeless expressions of human concern of which Doty seems to approve. However, in this form it is robbed of much of its original anguish and outrage, and, indeed, it may even serve to dull our own human concerns, our reckoning with “social and spiritual meanings,” by generalizing them and elevating them to a nonhistorical plane. Somewhere in the exhibition, or in the printed matter which should have accompanied it, the visitor should have been able to learn something about what Minamata is, and what happened there. Doty could simply have copied the description of the photograph composed by the New York Times for Deirdre Carmody’s reportage on Smith (Times, April 9, 1974):

This picture by W. Eugene Smith of a mother with her girl, 16, born retarded, paralyzed, blind and deaf, is considered by its maker to be one of his strongest. The girl’s ills resulted from the mother’s having been poisoned by mercury in fish that fed on chemical waste dislodged into the water at Minamata, Japan. The picture was taken shortly before Mr. Smith was beaten, virtually blinded and disabled at the chemical plant.

Some further details could be inserted: Chisso Corporation was eventually found guilty of negligence in polluting the waters, and made to pay $3.6 million to members of some 30 afflicted families. Smith maintains, however, that some 10,000 individuals have had their lives twisted by what has come to be called the “Minamata disease.” Smith’s own progressive pain and blindness were recently alleviated by treatment in America, sponsored by several photographer friends. He has now returned to Minamata (Times, July 16, 1974). A. D. Coleman, in reporting on the publication of Smith’s photo-essay on Minamata, made a perceptive observation (Times, March 10, II):

It seeks to be, and succeeds in being, not a product but a process, a tool for change. As such it challenges photojournalists to redefine themselves as moral and political forces in a world which is shaped in part by photojournalism’s description of it.

The complex process of interplay between the actual world, the photographer’s selection from it and interpretation of it, and then the resulting conditioning of public awareness of the “actual world” by photography’s description of it—with its deliberate inclusions and exclusions—is nowhere investigated in the Whitney exhibition. History exists, for Doty, merely to provide photographers with an opportunity to deepen their personal visions—an estimate of history which continues. to stultify the observations and publications of a good deal of art history, criticism, and museology.

The photographs in the exhibition which I respect the least are those which reveal their authors to be engulfed by art history, and apparently persuaded by its romanticization of a sacred “inner vision.” Unfortunately, in some cases this amounts to little more than a judicious assimilation of concepts drawn from other mediums with different traditions, potentialities, and limitations. In this category I would group such works as: Stieglitz’s Georgia O’Keefe (1921), a studiously fragmented figure with a clearly sculptural, and specifically Rodinesque, allusion; Chapell’s pedantically evocative Nude with Root Pattern, Santa Cruz (1972); Labot’s Inner Tubes (1958), an infuriatingly overt attempt to capitalize upon the observer’s expected awe at the artist’s discovery of beauty within banality.

Along with some judicious “abstractions,” such as those by Sheeler and Evans, the photographs which I respect most are those embedded in geographic and social history, some with and some without purposeful interpretation and commentary on the photographer’s part. These include: Currier’s Interior of an Office with a Banker’s Cage (c. 1900), an image which has the richness of an archaeologist’s find, but mercifully rebuffs the contemporary will to nostalgia; Lange’s The Defendant, less obvious, and perhaps stronger, than her celebrated madonnalike Migrant Mother; Arbus’s A Lobby in a Building, New York (1966), which, in the context of the exhibition, seems almost like a satire on the manipulative intent and effect of certain of the numerous bucolic landscape settings.

Hans Haacke recently called my attention to the fact that The Museum of Modern Art’s labels and illustrative materials for Guernica contain not a single reference to the actual event which stimulated the painting: for all the untutored visitor knows, “Guernica” is the name of an ancient god, hero, or victim. A similar disorientation, stripping image from event, separating light from time, afflicts Doty’s rendering of Photography in America.

Carl R. Baldwin