Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

Materials against language

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

At the laundromat today, I was reading _Japanese Photobooks of the 1960’s and 70’s_, and I came across this delightful passage from the manifesto of _Provoke_, an influential publication of the time.

>The image by itself is not a thought. It cannot possess a wholeness like that of a concept. Neither is it an interchangeable code like a language. Yet its irreversible materiality—the reality that is cut out by the camera—constitutes the opposite side of language, and for this reason at times it stimulates the world of language and concepts. When this happens, language transcends its fixed and conceptualized self, transforming into a new language, and therefore a new thought.

>At this singular moment—now—**language loses its material basis**—in short its reality—and drifts in space, we photographers must go on grasping with our own eyes those fragments of reality that cannot possibly be captured with existing language, actively putting forth **materials against language and against thought**. Despite some reservations, this is why we have given Provoke the subtitle “provocative materials for thought.”

I found this notion quite striking. I’m sure it appeals to me in no small part because I find it so hard to combine photography and written language. Writing about photography is incredibly difficult for me. Writing around photography is easy. We do this all the time by taking up peripheral topics like equipment, technique, biography, and social commentary. All of which is very useful if your interest is in being able to make small talk while looking at a photograph, but not necessarily so useful if you want to actually say something about the photograph.

Another popular approach is, of course, to fall back on artspeak, which I don’t do a lot of mainly because I don’t really know artspeak. I’m sure if I was fluent in artspeak, I would make regular recourse to it. Of course, it’s really mostly still talking around photography, but on the plane of abstract concepts rather than the plane of physical facts and realities. These concepts give us handles by which to manipulate the photograph and make it give up its secrets. Or, rather, they appear to do so.

Often, the manipulation of those concepts doesn’t really take us any farther than the recording and recitation of the technical data related to the photograph’s creation. One is fooled in very much the same way as one is fooled when one thinks, “If I use the same camera as he did, and the same settings, and stand in the same place, I will make the same photograph.”

Of course, there are also photographs which can be truly and exhaustively understood with recourse to mere ideas, just as there are photographs which can be truly and exhaustively understood with recourse to mere technical details. But both types are essentially worthless, except insofar as they can be sold for money.

All of which is just to say, I am used to thinking of language as inadequate for describing and understanding photography. But that _Provoke_ manifesto–I’m not sure that I had ever thought of the photographic image as being or becoming the _enemy_ of language. It is immensely appealing in the way that anything which explains away an incapacity is appealing. And it is, in a peculiar way, rather optimistic, presuming the authors were serious about the prospect of a new language and a new thought emerging.

However, I think I rather approach which I had relied upon previously, and that is Simone Weil’s way of interpreting our speechlessness in the face of art:

> Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.

But I have always been susceptible to mysticism…

Two of Four Books

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

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….

Snap Judgment: Harvey Pekar’s version of Studs Terkel’s Working

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Note: This isn’t photographic, but I think it’s sufficiently relevant since some of the problems are problems familiar to photography.

I came across this today while browsing at Moe’s. I was immediately intrigued, because I love Terkel, and I’ve been reading more and more comics lately. I’m always in favor of combining things I like, even when it results in what can only be called questionable meal choices.

However, in this case, I think it’s a mistake. Images should never have been added to these words. Terkel’s peculiar magic is to present us with peoples’ stories in such a way that we feel part of this intimate discussion. When reading Terkel, it’s hard not to lean in closer to listen and not miss anything.

The artwork — while not necessarily objectionable in itself — breaks the spell. It prevents us from imaginatively reconstructing these slices of history, it intrudes, it breaks the dialogue by introducing a third party, a third wheel.

It rather reminds me of the reading The Maltese Falcon after first seeing the Bogart film. I love the movie, and the book, but the incredibly vivid black and white experience of the film totally prevented me from experiencing Hammett’s sometimes vivid color descriptions. And that was years later; I wasn’t contending with illustrations grafted onto the prose itself.

book mini-review: Bresson: Europeans

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

This is the second in a series of short reviews of photography books. See the first, along with disclaimer, here.

Bresson: "Europeans"

* Title: Europeans
* Photographer: Henri Cartier-Bresson
* Wikipedia
* Text: Jean Clair, tr. Anthony Rudolf
* Publisher: Bulfinch
* Date: 1998
* Librarything
* Size: About the same as a MacBook
* Paid: $40.00 (Used)

This books collects images taken in various countries in Europe over a period of fifty years, grouped mainly by country. It’s the first volume of Bresson’s work that I’ve encountered — although obviously it’s not my first exposure to photographs by Bresson. The images are, of course, fantastic, and the reproduction quality is very good. (As is the construction of the book.)

There’s a great deal to the photography — far more than I can speak to with my more or less nonexistent grasp of art history. As someone who has handled a camera, however, it’s not hard to divine from his work how skilled, committed, and attentive Bresson must have been. I was, of course, aware of the concept of the “decisive moment,” but I think I had understood this merely as a matter of good timing. But it is not (or at least not just) a matter of capturing the right instant in a series of instants for a moving subject. It’s more a matter of a truly impeccable sense of composition (coordinating the relationships of landscape, architectural, human, and symbolic elements) being extended to include time as well as spatial positioning and relationships.

I’m not sure how much farther I want to go in describing the photography. If you’ve looked at Bresson’s photography, I’m sure you already know, and if you haven’t, there really isn’t a substitute for doing so. At some point, I would like to try to articulate more of what I’m seeing, particularly in comparison to Doisneau, and particularly regarding their senses of humor. It seems to me that there is a great deal of human comedy in Doisneau, whereas in Bresson, there is often a sort of sublime, absurd, and inhuman humor arising from the juxtaposition of elements which is only observable from the very specific place and time which are chosen; with Doisneau, there are moments which are familiar and which you feel you might share with Doisneau, or anyone else, if you happened to be in the vicinity. With Bresson, there is often the feeling that only by being Bresson and standing in his precise position could you have fully participated in the joke, and thus his images give more of a sense of looking through his particular eyes. This makes it sound like I think there is more to Bresson than to Doisneau; I don’t know that that’s really the case, however.

Bresson: Europeans"

The only complaint I have with the book is the text by Jean Clair. As mentioned, I do not have any background in art history, and I don’t suppose I’m qualified to judge the text. On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that if I can keep up with Foucault and Nāgārjuna and at least fake it with a smile when confronted with Zizek, then the horror I feel at reading Clair’s prose can’t just be a question of it being over my head.

I mean, is there any degree of specialized knowledge which could possibly justify this passage:

What is it that speaks to us in a European landscape if not this invitation to walk across it, the thrill of crossing it, of penetrating it on foot, so unlike those landscapes of India or America which you can barely traverse with your eye and seem eternally elusive?

Or this,

Did [Proust] not also say genius…that its owner has the power to turn his personality into a mirror, ‘genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected’? An axiom which a follower of the Tao would not deny, for so strongly does the writer insist here, not on the brilliance of an intelligence, the grandeur of a culture or the worldly quality of a mind…but, to the contrary, on this somewhat passive power, on this ability of the body to reflect — unhindered by refraction — the image of life passing by.

If there is some context in which this effusive, almost masturbatory prose registers as good writing, I don’t want to be a part of it. And what relevance does this have to the photography of Bresson? I cannot see Bresson (at least not in the photography in this volume) as a symbolic “penetrator” of landscapes. (Although some photographers certainly are.)

And while I may know next to nothing about art, I feel comfortable guessing that Clair knows even less about Taoism. Surely someday we will reach the point past which westerners no longer feel comfortable pointing to any particular quality/idea/sense/brainfart that strikes their fancy and dub it “Tao” or “Zen”?

Also: “Unhindered by refraction”? Please.

This is why people hate the French.

Note: This is a translation, so some of the douchiness might be the fault of the translator. However, I doubt it; the majority of the douche factor here is coming from the content rather than the particular arrangement of phrases.

Book Mini-Review: André Kertész: The Early Years

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

This is the first in a series of brief book reviews. There are blogs (like 5B4 and The Photo Book) devoted to reviewing photography books, and I’m not going to try to achieve the the level of depth they can provide. Nor am I in any way qualified to review a photo book, except inasmuch as I am a reader of them. Consider yourself disclaimed. (Usage fail, I know.)

Andre Kertesz: The Early Years

I figure it makes sense to start off with my newest and smallest photo-book. Vital stats:

* Title: André Kertész: The Early Years
* Photographer: André Kertész
* Wikipedia
* Editor: Robert Gurbo and Bruce Silverstein
* Publisher: Norton
* Date: 2005
* Librarything
* Size: Little. (A bit over 5″x5″)
* Paid: $6.00 (New)

I picked up the book on a whim while I was browsing at Moe’s today. I suppose my attention was caught by the small, squarish form factor — this is also true, by the way, of one of my favorite works of fiction, Kay Boyle’s novella The Crazy Hunter. When I opened it, I found to my amusement that the images contained within are scale reproductions of contact prints.

Andre Kertesz: The Early Years

This is an awesome idea. The usual paradigm for photographic reproductions is that bigger is better, and this has certainly led to some aggressively sized photobooks. These usually wind up sitting on my floor, because they don’t fit comfortably onto my shelves.

This isn’t just a novelty thing, however. Gurbo goes into the history underlying the form factor:

Many of the ealry photographs are simply of family gatherings on the porch or out in the countryside, yet within this period André also created a number of images that would later be considered among his masterpieces.

At first, without an enlarger, the brothers made only contact prints. In a 1912 diary entry, Andre describes one of these prints as a “tiny picture, but sharp,” which he “could stare at endlessly.”

If there’s one thing I can respect, it’s the creative value of economic restraint. : )

The photographs themselves do not seem to be, for the most part, my cup of tea. They’re certainly significant for their historical value relative to Kertész’s later work, and the book is well worth buying for that reason. And it is certainly worth buying as an antidote to huge reproductions of heroic landscapes…

But before I can reach a final verdict, I’ll need to go over it closely a few more times, and perhaps do a bit more “endless staring.” I’ll post an update if appropriate.

By the way, miniature reproductions of photographs seem potentially quite relevant to contemporary popular photography, since so much of the photography we see online is presented via flickr or similar sites, and appears in thumbnail or near-thumbnail size….