New York

“France Between The Wars: 1925–1940”

Zabriskie Gallery

At the time that the show “France Between the Wars” was at the Zabriskie Gallery, that title might better have been on the banner flying outside the International Center. The Zabriskie exhibition was a group show of nineteen photographers with a few pieces of sculpture of the period thrown in for atmosphere. With rare exceptions, the photography faded away beside the sculpture that was supposed to set it off. The blandness of the show can probably be attributed to its having been based on Charles Peignot’s magazine Photographie, which was published primarily during the ’30s. Though I have only a fleeting acquaintance with this publication, the last place I would look for the history of photography is in some contemporary journal devoted to the subject, especially the sort that is interested in “creative” photography. They invariably get the emphasis all wrong. They feature the work that’s going to be forgotten in ten year’s time, and slight whatever will have transformed the medium by then. Does anything look and sound more old-fashioned today than yesterday’s avant-garde photography journal? Nowhere are you less likely to find out how photography was influencing the dominant esthetic ideas of our time.

Even at their best, photographic journals are great levellers of taste. They make all the photographers they reproduce seem equally important, and therefore equally unimportant. The Zabriskie show had the same effect. Since none was represented by more than five images, we couldn’t tell very much about any of the photographers included, and all became interchangeable in a sense. The Eiffel Tower graphics of Ilse Bing seemed indistinguishable from Germaine Krull’s “Engineering Study.” Emmanuel Sougez’s close-up of a pineapple blended in with René Zuber’s of pots. Amidst this fellow’s solarizations and that fellow’s photocollages and someone else’s rayogrammes, Andre Kertesz’s famous “Distortions” looked like just so much more flim-flam. The show did introduce me to some photographers I’d never seen before whose work looked promising, if that’s the right word for work done fifty years ago. But photography is not painting; and group shows which act as if it were—as if a few images can be representative of an entire career—finally make little sense to me.

The impression that a photographic journal is trying to create at any given moment in history is of course not blandness, but completeness. The editors want to suggest that they already know about any photography that matters, and that anything they know about they are sophisticated enough to take in stride. In each period they see the contemporary photography as being at the crest of an historical wave, at the moment of crescendo where all the strains of the symphony are at last played together. What was really going on in France between the wars was much more dissonant and disconnected, however. Reduced to essentials, what went on was that Atget died, and Cartier-Bresson was born. It’s amazing, when you think of it. The man who was the culmination of photography in the 19th century died without ever realizing that’s who he was. Then, quite independently, one of the first people to pick up the new Leica hand camera, which was the great innovation of the 20th century, became its ultimate master almost at once. No journal or group show could have dealt with the fact that two crucial events pointing in dead opposite historical directions were occurring at practically the same time. Such craziness just doesn’t fit into the requisite historical schemes of things.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.