Two of Four Books

Four Books

On a recent trip to Moe’s, I picked up three books:

  • Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye, ed. Gilles Mora and John T. Hill
  • Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition, ed. Nancy Newhall
  • Andre Kertesz: His Life and Work, Pierre Borhan

I’ve started working on these, and also been finishing my first pass through John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs.

I haven’t gotten to the Weston yet, and I’ve just scratched the surface of the weighty (and so far as I can tell well-executed) Kertesz volume. However, I did wrap up the Szarkowski, and I’m far enough along in Mora’s and Hill’s text to offer some initial judgments about that.


I bought Looking at Photographs after reading this post in The Online Photographer, and after listening to Jeff Curto’s excellent class session on Szarkwoski. If you don’t already know who Szarkowski is and what Looking at Photographs is, by all means, follow those links; I won’t pretend to try to do a better job at explaining it.

The reproductions are fantastic. There is one per photographer, each accompanied by a facing page of text providing a fragment of Szarkowski’s perspective on and understanding of the photograph and its creator. The result is not, of course, an all-encompassing tour of the history of photography — although I think it pairs of nicely with Beaumont Newhall’s general history. Instead, Szarowski gives the reader just enough information to prevent a casual viewing, to force the reader to really look at and into the photographs, and enough of a context to appreciate that each photograph has a place in history, even if that place isn’t laid out completely.

For the most part, it works fantastically well. Szarkowski’s style is a bit pedantic, and in those few cases where I have anything approaching a basis for judging the accuracy of his statements, I actually have some disagreements. However, to say because I think he’s wrong about this or that aspect, the book is less valuable, would be to miss the point; Szarkowski isn’t arguing positions, but sharing his vision of these photographs and photographers. The reader is obliged to form his or her own vision.

The only case where I feel Szarkowski fails outright is in his passage on Roy DeCarava. Szarkowski presents him as a chess player or theater director, an ingenious manipulator of archetypes. This is not just an inadequate characterization but an almost totally irrelevant one. Talking about Roy DeCarava — even in the few paragraphs dictated by the structure of Looking at Photographs — without mentioning race, anguish, or jazz begs the question: Why include DeCarava at all?

If you doubt me on this point, get your hands on a copy of any book of DeCarava’s work (The Sound I Saw is one I see on a lot of remainder tables) and then read what Szarkowski put on page 178 of Looking at Photographs. If you can figure out what the one has to do with the other, please let me know.

However, that is the exception. A few of the passages which are more the rule:

Most photographers of the past generation have demonstrated unlimited sympathy for the victims of villainous or imperfect societies, but very little sympathy for, or even interest in, those who are afflicted by their own human frailty. Robert Doisneau is one of the few whose work has demonstrated that even in a time of large terrors, the ancient weaknesses and sweet venial sins of ordinary individuals have survived. On the basis of his pictures one would guess that Doisneau actually likes people, even as they really are. (p. 172)

What it is that makes a photograph truly work is in the end a mystery, as success doubtless is in any art. Finely hewn critical standards may help us explain the admirable, but between the admirable and the wonderful is a gulf that we can see across, but not chart. (p. 192, re: Paul Caponigro)

The popular formulation of this convention was expressed int he claim that the camera does not lie. The question of mendacity was of course not to the point; the relevant question would have been, Why were the camera’s innumerable truths so fragmentary and so apparently contradictory. (p. 196, re: Ken Josephson)

Photography is full of time-honored problems that have, like rocks in a stream, been worn smooth by the endless fumblings of countless photographers and writers. Szarkowski has a knack (not always reliable, but reliable enough) for breaking then apart and finding astonishing new problems inside…

This cannot be said of the authors of the Walker Evans book, however.

Mora and Hill on Walker Evans

Books of or about photography can be divided more or less into three types:

  1. Books created and edited by photographers
  2. Books — like Looking at Photographs — which contain photographs by one or more photographers but which as books are the original work of a talented editor.
  3. Books which collect the work of a photographer, assembled in an academic manner (typically chronological), and accompanied by a text, such that the text is an original work but the book is not an original work.

Books of the third type are, in my admittedly very limited experience of books of and about photography, by far the most likely to suck. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it is a function of the sort of personality which is drawn to create them, or perhaps it is the lowered expectation applied to the readability and literary excellence (or, rather, the lack thereof) of academic writing.

Of course, some books of this kind are excellent and invaluable. Peter Bunnell’s Minor White: The Eye That Shapes features extremely fine scholarship which I think is essential to understanding Minor White and his work.

Sadly, this does not seem to be the case with Gilles Mora and John T. Hill’s Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye.

I should admit before going farther that I have only just started this book, and it’s entirely possible that at some point before its end, it transforms into something worthwhile. But if the writing thus far is any indication, that outcome is highly unlikely.

I feel a little uncomfortable dismissing what the writers argue about Evans’s work out of hand, not so much because I think they may really have something to say, as because they seem to say very little. What tiny nuggets off actual content they provide are so deeply and inextricably embedded in the most execrable prose that I have difficulty evaluating it. Of course, I have no background in art history, so it is entirely possible that I am substantially missing the point in regards to the scholarship here, but even if we assume that — there’s no excuse for this writing. My notes in italics.

Walker Evans was a man with an innate sense of wit, which is not to be confused with comedy or humor. (God forbid we should think wit meant humor.) A keen understanding of irony and satire (Which presumably have nothing to do with humor or comedy.) was a constant in his life and in his work….

Wit could be a grossly scaled sign spelling “Damaged” being hoisted onto a truck. Wit could be attempting to capture and fix an evocative moment with a 35mm camera held out the window of a moving car. Wit was the nonchalance of denouncing the impossible vulgarity of color photography while making color photographs. Wit was the irony of taking up the Polaroid SX-70 camera as a tool for serious work. (p. 7)

Yeah, nothing says “wit” so much as holding a 35mm camera out a window. I don’t know what Evans was really like, or how he would have defined wit, but Hill appears to define it as condescension.

The first things that interest us about photographers are the photographic problems that their work presents, resolves, and reformulates, and by which the photographers are sometimes defeated. Other questions belong to biography. (p. 9)

In addition to being eye-rollingly pretentious and crappy prose, this would be a profoundly inane observation even if it wasn’t the beginning of what is fundamentally a work of biography.

Walker Evans fascinates. (p. 10)

My margin note reads: “Thanks for letting me know, dipshit. I thought I’d just bought a book about someone boring.”

Of a comment by Szarkowski on Evans, they write:

And while it may be true, the statement does not go far enough, since it ignores the direction in which Walker Evans opened up photography, taking it to the far side of modernity.

The appropriate response to Szarkowski is not to try to be more arch, pretentious, and arbitrarily declarative.

The Hungry Eye intends to contribute to this broader understanding of his work by showing another Evans, a man who was one of the most intellectually stimulating practitioners of modern photography. (Good thing they keep reminding me that he’s interesting. I keep forgetting. I wonder why that is.) In order to give some account of the richness of this work we have tried to make it visible by giving it a structure, using the same method Evans had in mind when he spoke of “the photographic editing of society.”

Pause and read that again.

This passage is immediately followed by the revelation that they have presented the images in chronological order.

Now, I don’t know what Evans actually had in mind when he spoke of “the photographic editing of society,” but I’m guessing it wasn’t just putting it in fucking chronological order.

Not that there’s anything wrong with chronological order — it’s often the best, even the only, way, to present content. But there’s nothing marvelous and innovative about it, nor does using it magically link them to Evans’s method.

They also constantly feel the need to drop names of other photographers, both before and after Evans, in the history of photography. These name-droppings (my margin note is “these guys drop names like a pigeon shits on statues”) are almost always followed by an explanation of how Evans is fundamentally more awesome than virtually every other photographer in history.

They demand we acknowledge that his early work is better than the early work of Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz, that even a fraction of his oeuvre “would assure his place among the great photographers,” and proudly point out how he casually “killed off Edward Steichen in passing” in an essay.

Now, I believe that Evans is a very important, and very great, photographer. But the volume with which they make these comparisons has me doubting that belief a bit. It’s as though these writers have taken up Walker Evans as their penis, and they must reassure themselves continuously that he is a very fine penis, and much longer than all the others.

I won’t provide quotations for this point, because it would take forever.

And, in fact, I’m getting pretty tired of this whole exercise. Just a couple more quotes, though:

A photographer, he referred constantly to literature.

Good, because I had totally forgotten Evans was a photographer. For a minute there I was sure he was famous as a writer of short stories. Or an insurance executive. Also, remind me — was Evans fascinating? I forget.

In what way would “He referred constantly to literature” be less informative without identifying him as a photographer?

Also, just how constantly was he referring to literature? Pretty often, as they proceed to emphasize. And re-emphasize. “Evans Repeated, time and again, ‘I am a man of literature.'”

You know, maybe Evans really was a dick…

If so, that would go a long way toward explaining this otherwise inane and meaningless line:

He took a frontal approach to reality. (p. 15)

Obviously they mean a “full-frontal approach to reality.”

I think I may have to skip the rest of the damn text and just peruse the reproductions, which are of acceptable quality. I should also see about having a cock-punch-o-gram delivered to these writers, care of Harry N. Abrams, Inc., the publisher.

All right, I need to go do something that doesn’t make me feel so indignant for a while. I’ll put up a later post if anything else interesting comes up in the Evans book, and also as I get into the Weston and Kertesz ones….

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