New York

“American Images”

The first thing you notice about the show “American Images” is that the photographers are listed in alphabetical order. In a sense, you never get beyond dealing with the show on that level. There are 20 photographers. On a commission from A.T.&T. administered by N.E.A., each photographer contributed 15 photographs reproduced in three portfolios. Two of these are to be deposited with museums while one is retained by A.T.&T., presumably as a hedge against inflation. (Now let’s see: that’s 15 photographers taking . . . no, no, no: 20 photographers taking 15 photographs each. That’s 300 photographs all told, right?) But only eight of the 15 photographs originally taken by each of the 20 photographers actually appear in the exhibition. And only eight photographs are reproduced in the catalogue, too. Except that they’re not the same eight that appear in the show, except in one instance. With the other 19 photographers, there’s a discrepancy. Between the first photographer, Robert Adams, who has three duplicates, and the last photographer, Stephen Shore, who has five, the mean is Nicholas Nixon. He has four and four.

Have you ever noticed that Nicholas Nixon and Stephen Shore both have alliterative names? Do you think that might be why their photographs are so similar? Actually, their photographs aren’t all that similar, but they ought to be, since their names are. Looking at a show like this one, you begin to spin the kind of historical theories that became popular after President Kennedy’s assassination, when whole books were based on the fact that Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln, and Lincoln had one named Kennedy, and both were succeeded by vice-presidents named Johnson, and so forth. These are the sort of facts a computer comes up with if you give it no priorities, and a show like “American Images,” where so much energy is required just to sort everything out, has a similar mentality. The opportunities for irrelevant free association are endless.

And yet there are things to be learned precisely because this show seems like a random walk. You find in contemporary photography certain kinds of wholeness, or at least sameness, that no other presentation could have revealed so convincingly. If you organized an exhibition of 19th-century photography in this mechanical way, with no art-historical point of view, it would make no sense. It would be like providing a telephone book for a necropolis. But for contemporary photographers whose work is in medias res, it’s appropriate. Whatever history may be here is inchoate anyway. Organizing the show as if it were mere data, evidence, is the only way not to be presumptuous.

The show isn’t really a neutral cross-section, for Renato Danese of the Visual Arts Program at N.E.A. selected the photographs with a clear bias. He wanted his “American Images” to be of the American scene. He therefore shied away from pictorialists, fantasists, and anyone else who does highly manipulated images of inner, private worlds. Even so, I would guess he got some surprises. Each photographer was free to think up any project he or she wanted, and this once again introduced the element of chance. If Danese had any misgivings about the moody, subjective interior characteristic of Linda Connor’s work two years ago in the show “Mirrors and Windows” at MoMA, he was probably relieved when she moved outdoors to do Western landscapes for “American Images.” On the other hand, though he may have chosen Jan Groover on the basis of the details of urban exteriors which represented her work in “Mirrors and Windows,” by the time of “American Images” she had switched to micro-close-ups of fork tines.

Jan Groover’s photographs could serve as an example of the way in which certain revelations are a by-product of this exhibition. Groover’s is one of the two sets of photographs where it is hard to figure out which pictures in the show are the same as the ones in the catalogue. They all look alike—as like as their titles, which are all the same title, “Tybee Forks and Starts.” There is a message for us in the indistinguishability of her photographs. It’s the same message that’s in Richard Misrach’s photographs in a Hawaiian rain forest, which also have the same titles, and the same indistinguishability. I’m not sure what the message is, but it’s in there, somewhere. Groover and Misrach make their photographs in opposite ways, and yet the exhibition proposes this underlying similarity between them. It suggests with a perverseness only unintentional comments can have that the distinction these photographers would make between themselves is false.

Groover’s compositions are very carefully controlled. The advantage stainless steel utensils have as a subject is that the photographer can impose her will on them, rearranging them, playing light on their surfaces, envisioning them. No color is allowed to come directly into these small, precise color photographs. Only in soft-focus reflections or backgrounds is the uniform, gray colorlessness of the steel contravened. Where Groover’s subjects are domestic, tiny and delicately placed, Misrach’s are wild, enormous and intractable. Misrach doesn’t try to control the photograph itself, either. He sticks his camera into the jungle at night and fires blind using a strobe. Here the only escape from lush, chaotic color is where the flash has blown it away. As different as his pictures obviously are in method and intention, however, they still share with Groover’s the tendency to be hard to tell apart. Both photographers’ compositions work by analogy to abstract painting. Unwittingly, Misrach’s photographs confirm what Groover says of her own pictures, which is that “Formalism is everything.” Maybe it is, in photography. Misrach uses the camera as if he were driving a bulldozer into the jungle—Groover as if she were enamelling miniatures. But in the end there’s no difference. No matter what you do, photography creates design, order, statement. It’s indiscriminate. Could this be the message coming to us toll-free over A.T.&T.’s wires?

Despite such oblique comments on photography as an art form, the wholeness of contemporary photography which this exhibition suggests finally has little to do with art or esthetics. It takes time to tell which photography is art and which isn’t. But it’s always apparent that photography is social myth. Although “American Images” is intended as a showcase for the young photographers in it, that’s not its effect. A show with so many photographers and so few pictures by each doesn’t really encourage us to look at any of them as individuals. It invites us to see instead the collective statement to which each contributes. It makes us recognize our own “Image,” our collective unconscious as Americans, reflected back at us from the photographs.

Again, chance guides us. Being first in alphabetical order, Robert Adams is the first photographer we come to. (This is true in both the exhibition and the book. After Adams, though, alphabetical order breaks down in the exhibition. It’s as if the catalogue were a play which the exhibition was trying to perform, but had not rehearsed enough. Having begun on cue with Adams, the exhibition loses its place in the script.) Adams’ photographs are the place to begin because both his subject and his approach seem to pervade the work of other photographers. It is in his work that we come to the main clause of the collective statement made here. Adams’ subject is the landscape of the American West, particularly that area where the prairie gives way to mountain or desert. It’s the same subject chosen by four other photographers in the show: Lewis Baltz, William Clift, Linda Connor and, to some extent, Frank Gohlke. What makes Adams’ pictures unique is the authority and deftness with which he states themes being pursued by all these photographers.

The landscape in which Robert Adams works is the one staked out almost two generations ago by that other Adams, Ansel. But Robert has inherited from Ansel neither his name nor his ideas about photography. The photographs William Clift has made of La Bajada Mesa in New Mexico are, in this show, the closest thing to Ansel Adams’ brand of pictorialism. When we see Robert Adams’ work next to Clift’s, we realize how it departs from that esthetic. The very first image in both show and book is the only Adams picture we would be likely to mistake for a pictorialist’s celebration of the grandeur in nature. Made from atop a foothill in Green River, Wyoming, the photograph reveals in the landscape those geological strata which are so typical of the West and, even in black and white, so beautiful. But after we admire the picture for a few moments, we realize that one of the strata running across the middle of it is a highway.

This is Robert Adams’ real subject, not the landscape in and of itself, but the vestigial traces man leaves on it. In every picture there is some telltale evidence of the presence of man—tire tracks on the desert, a trailer huddling in the brush or a housing development far in the distance, a telephone pole among the trunks of dead trees. This is the West not of Ansel Adams and the Sierra Club, but of Gary Gilmore. It’s the West of homesteaders who’ve gone bust, spiritually, a hundred years after settling on the land. The truth is that they never did get it settled. On the contrary, it unsettled them and drove them off again. They never even managed to populate it except in the sparsest way. What we see here is how little a mark they have made on it. Their presence has become residual in Adams’ photographs. We hardly notice they were here, now that they’re gone.

The vision Adams has of America isn’t restricted to that quarter of the photographers in the exhibition who have chosen the same subject as he. A landscape which seems to be reclaiming the land from its inhabitants can also be seen in John Gossage’s pictures made on the other side of the continent. Though he works in the populous suburbs of Washington and Baltimore, Gossage’s pictures suggest, like Adams’, that civilization is being swallowed up again by the wilderness. The substantial homes in most of Gossage’s photographs are only glimpsed through the screen of a magnolia tree or the stalks of a dense, exotic bed of flowers that is faintly sinister. Nature overgrows human habitation here. If Adams’ West looks like some plateau whose Mayan temples have long been abandoned, Gossage’s Eastern Shore might be the jungle surrounding Angkor Wat

Were these photographs in color, we might see that Gossage’s is the same, menacing jungle which Misrach is trying to hack through or push back—to stave off—with his strobe. In Bill Eggleston’s color photographs of it, this jungle looks only slightly less fatal. The signs of death and decay are still to be seen everywhere amidst the foliage—in shriveled flowers, in dead mosses turning to straw, in a brown edge slowly creeping up a leaf and killing it. In these photographs the nether end of nature’s cycle is ubiquitous, inevitable. If there are almost no signs of human presence, we know it is because this natural process has obliterated them. In one picture a lawn gives way to undergrowth so dense it looks impassable. The grass is littered with dry, brittle leaves, and finally we do see a little section of iron fence there, rusted now the color of dead vines. Noticing that fence takes us as long as it does to see the highway or cluster of houses in one of Adams’ photographs.

Even in cities, where we might expect to find people around, more signs of life, we don’t. The lone woman who walks toward the skyscraper entrance in one of Harry Callahan’s color photographs is pale and bright against the dark, flat, green stone. Her form seems to detach itself from the picture. She couldn’t look more out of place, more like a ghost, if she had been stripped in on the negative. The lone woman who also has her back to us in Roy De Carava’s opening picture looks equally unreal. The only person to be seen in a half a block, she too takes on a ghostly brightness against the drab stone of ghetto house-fronts. In another picture, night has descended on Harlem with such absoluteness that we can barely make out whether someone is there in the window or not. Even in broad daylight, the light in De Carava’s pictures has a thin, dim quality, as if the sun were about to go out.

The streets in Jonathan Green’s Miami are empty as well. To keep their spirits up, the people here paint everything they own in colors as garish as the ones nature itself has in this climate. They do it as if to camouflage their possessions against nature’s encroachment. But it doesn’t work. Behind a Miami Beach hotel, the discarded patio furniture lies overturned in heaps like the carcass of some prehistoric reptile that was unable to survive a change jn its environment. Along walls where the paint has worn off, the moldering process of decay described by Eggleston has taken hold in Miami, cracking and pitting the concrete.

In these “American Images,” the course of decline and fall has gone too far to be reversed. The comparability of most of these images is a juggernaut sweeping along with it even those few photographers who seem to be trying to get out of its way. Joel Meyerowitz, for instance. No photographer keeps his sense of humor better than Meyerowitz. He’s incorrigible. His plate-camera pictures of the Empire State Building are full of life. There are often people on the streets and colors that clang together like cymbals. Yet this show dampens the spirit of his pictures somehow. On the front cover of the book is an Eggleston photograph of a field somewhere in the South. Though plowed, the field seems to lie fallow, barren, untended. On the back cover is a Meyerowitz picture of the Empire State Building seen over the roof of a diner on Manhattan’s West Side. In the foreground the diner sits shuttered, closed-up, perhaps abandoned. It is as forlorn as Eggleston’s field.

Robert Adams’ photographs reduce the human presence in the West to little more than a glyph, a tenuous mark that might have been carved on the landscape by some primitive people who vanished long ago. Glyphs like these—“petroglyphs,” as they’re called—are the actual subject that Linda Connor has frequently sought out in her photographs of that landscape. Connor’s is a more metaphorical but more explicit statement of Adams’ theme. Her interpretation of it begins to take on overtones of Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods. Americans have always thought of themselves as Children of Destiny, and they are determined to keep on thinking that way no matter how crazed the thoughts become. In Connor’s photographs, as in Von Daniken’s book, we can feel our collective self slipping under the influence of some mad vision of history, some desperate need to get back in touch with primordial forces. We feel ourselves as a class, a race, a nation, going over the brink of our apocalypse. It begins to dawn on us that we too might disappear from the face of the earth like the unknown ancestors who left behind these scratchings in stone. In Bevan Davies’ photographs, American monuments like Constitution Hall take on an identical aspect. Their granite facades come to seem mere glyphs on the face of history. The shadows are long and deep and hard. They make these buildings seem impassive and implacable, more like the facades of sealed tombs than viable institutions. We are seeing how America will look after the neutron bomb has hit.

The modest frame houses that Frank Gohlke has photographed in rural Texas have the same look about them. In one of the pictures, the front porch and even the windows have been completely covered with lattice work. These windows have the look of dead eyes, a look already familiar to us from the windows of skyscrapers in the color photographs Harry Callahan has taken with a telephoto lens. Like the lattice work over the windows in Gohlke’s picture, the grid of plate glass encased in concrete in Callahan’s might make us feel we are looking through the bars of a mental institution. In another Gohlke picture, the dead bush and tiger lilies in the front yard and tufts of grass breaking up the walk remind us of Eggleston’s more tropical South. The screen has come off one window and another looks as if it may have been boarded up. Does anybody still live here or in the tightly shuttered house in the next picture? We can’t tell. There are only two Gohlke pictures that have no sign of man at all. One is of “Flood debris caught in a tree near Comfort, Texas.” The other is of “Marsh fire, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas.” As the flood waters recede in the one picture and the fire advances toward us in the next, we can see that Gohlke, like almost all the makers of these American Images," still believes implicitly in the covenant God made with Noah thousands of years ago:

And God gave unto Noah the rainbow sign.
No more water, Noah. The fire next time.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.