New York

Ralph Steiner

Prakapas Gallery

A troubling question always raised by strong beginnings like Zeke Berman’s is, what can he possibly do next? In the last issue of Artforum I wrote about Clyfford Still, a painter who has made an entire life’s work out of a single idea—almost a single image, really. Photographers as different as Atget and CartierBresson have done essentially the same thing, working out as style the one photographic idea with which they began. It may be that Berman will also be able to go on and on and on exploring the conceit upon which his first photographs are based, revealing continually new implications in what may at first have seemed like a one-liner. That’s what art is all about, isn’t it? Seeing infinite possibilities where the rest of us saw nothing remarkable. Yet many photographers do begin to fear their idea won’t be big enough to last them a lifetime, and they allow themselves to be seduced away from their own best work. At least one show last fall—Ralph Steiner’s—seemed to be a case in point.

When you walked into Ralph Steiner’s show, the first thing you saw was not a photograph. It was a statement. This arrangement made a certain sense. Although I wouldn’t put Steiner’s words before his pictures, one thing which distinguishes his career from most other photographers’ is that he’s articulate. He’s better than articulate. He’s a real wiseacre, a kibitzer on life whose somewhat derogatory remarks are usually directed at himself. One of his best-known portraits is of S. J. Perelman (with pistol). They must have gotten along famously. In 1977 Steiner published a “photo-autobiography” called A Point of View in which the photography, as good as it is, is not as consistent as the autobiography. As we learn from the statement that prefaced the show at Prakapas, “a most thoughtful and articulate very young man of Boston” reviewed Steiner’s book and said that his early work was “better” than the late. When this remark came to Steiner’s attention, he disagreed so completely that as a rebuttal he put together the Prakapas show with the pointed title, “Fifty Photographs—Fifty Years Apart.”

I hate to tell Mr. Steiner, but I think the young man of Boston is right. Among the twenty-five photographs in the show taken since 1960, there were some startling images—clouds that look like leaves of flame scudding over the water off Monhegan Island, palm fronds reflected in a pool whose stone edge cuts across the picture like a pinking shears across a piece of silk. But in the context of all Steiner’s work, lone images like these seem as isolated and free-floating as the subjects they depict. Steiner’s career has included portraiture, street photography, advertising work, and pictorial studies of grasses or laundry or trees or what-have-you. And each of these is good in its way. Each was worth seeing again at Prakapas. Steiner’s portraits are especially fine and might have been more plentifully represented. But taken as a whole, the one thing his work does not seem to have is the thing the title of his book would claim for it—a point of view. Steiner has always had an eye, but that’s not the same thing. He hasn’t had the sort of conception of photography that always comes out, in the very best work, as style.

The one time that it all seems to have come together for him was just after he began in the 1920s. In the show a series of 4 by 5 contact prints from negatives of that period were of tiny, distant subjects. At the very bottom of the first photograph stand two dumpy men in straw hats. Their backs are to us and they gaze out on a body of water that fills eleven-twelfths of the frame (I measured). In a second picture, a man and woman have run into each other on a sidewalk that they share with a fireplug, which keeps a discreet distance. The woman seems to rise slightly on the balls of her feet and extends her hand to the man, who grasps it daintily and cocks one leg. We are sure that in the next frame, she will curtsy, he will bow, and they will do a minuet. In yet another photograph, lamp standards writhe out on all sides of a rooftop as if the building—a garage—were a schlock modern sculpture of the Medusa.

My favorite photograph from this ’20s series is one in which a weensy bicyclist and his shadow make their way across a vast, featureless, deserted street. In the lower right-hand corner, a couple of iron balconies jut into the picture space; on the other side of the street, about 500 miles away, a row of buildings sulks briefly in shadow. Somewhere out beyond the cyclist, a couple of other people are also taking their shadows for a walk.They are so far away from him, they might as well be in another universe. Shot from high above with a rectilinear lens, Steiner’s photographs of this type use distortions to make mischief. Their effect on us is at first pure amusement, but then the tickle begins to turn keen and ache a bit. The smallness of everything, from the photographs themselves to the figures in them, gives Steiner’s work a uniqueness in this period. (After all, Minimalism was still some way off.) The smallness amidst emptiness in these pictures makes them both whimsical and desolate. Here is where I at last get to meet in the photographs the same Ralph Steiner I can listen to in the autobiography. Now I recognize him.

What happened to him after 1929 is simple. Paul Strand happened to him. Strand’s influence fell on Steiner’s tiny, tentative, comical images like a ton of bricks on a capering mouse. In the Prakapas statement Steiner tells us that he met Strand in• the late 1920s and “was bowled over by the strength of his work [which] made me know that I had not the right to call myself a photographer.” What a shame that a photographer who was just realizing the value of understatement in his work should have overstated so the importance of Strand. In A Point of View the next section after the ’20s is called “Post-Strand” and begins with a Strand post, a picture of barbed wire wrapped around gnarled and weathered wood. Awful. Part of genius is the ability to recognize your own best work, and further it. Steiner passed over his to go on to images that, though occasionally powerful, are basically derivative. When he writes, Steiner sounds like the kind of man who knows exactly who he is, but I guess he wasn’t always so sure as he sounds.

Since one adverse remark by a reviewer prompted Steiner to do this whole show, I’ve been a little reluctant to add my own criticisms. If they get back to him, who knows what big guns he might crank out this time? (I wonder whether Perelman left him that pistol.) I probably don’t have to worry, though, because—and this is the real reason one hesitates to criticize Steiner’s work—he is such an affable, easy-going man. You hate to say anything that might hurt his feelings. I’ll just have to hope he’s as resilient as he seems. He must be. How else would he have made it to the age of eighty? At the end of the Prakapas statement, Steiner warns us gamely, “Reader guard yourself! Stand Firm! Do not let me or anyone else push your eye and heart where they do not want to go; . . .” That’s just what I did, Ralph. I took your advice. So if you don’t like my opinion, you have nobody but yourself to blame.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.