August 4, 2007
Art Or Propaganda? Postwar American PhotographyBy Allan Nadel
Not since Socialist/Heroic Realism in the 1930's has a mode of art been so rigidly constrained to a political orthodoxy, as photography has been for the last 40 years.
Art is, I'm told, is supposed to invoke some kind of thoughts or feelings in the viewer. Since I'm sadly bereft of an artistic sensibility (as my brother frequently points out) I'm quite unable to judge the artistic merit of a painting or photograph. I might look at, say, a photograph of a certain pepper and think: "My, what an unusual pepper; I've not seen one like that at the Stop'n'Save." So I haven't in the past concerned myself much with artistic matters.
However, last winter I bought myself a big black camera. In an effort to learn how to use it properly I came across a group of photographers that attained considerable prominence in the years after World War II. This group includes Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and in a way culminating with Diane Arbus. I found out more recently that all but Frank were protégés of John Szarkowski, Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art from 1962-1991.
American Photography, 1890-1965, From the Museum of Modern Art, New York displays a representative sampling of the work of these four artists. An introductory essay by Luc Sante describes their project. He writes:
Graham Clarke, in The Oxford History of Art: The Photograph has a similar viewpoint:
As does Mike Johnston in The Empirical Photographer:
And Brian Appel, in Art Critical
Well, we're all in agreement here. Certainly many aspects of life, and American life in the 1950's, were not all sweetness and light. There are in fact tired sullen workers, petulant waitresses, lonely stretches of highway, and overfed businessmen; all of which deserves to be recorded. Robert Frank is an artist, and is entitled to his viewpoint; someone with the all-encompassing vision of a Shakespeare comes around only once in a millennium.
Here's my problem: Looking through the pages of MOMA's postwar collection, the vision of Robert Frank is just about all I see. You don't believe me? More from Luc Sante:
Graham Clarke has a lot to say about Diane Arbus. He discusses A Family on their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester:
A whole culture's condition? That's a bummer.
Here's another interesting photograph, by Helen Stitzer:
The reason why there's no citation for that paragraph is that I made it up myself. The photograph is really on page 7 of The Joy of Life, a collection of photographs from the magazine celebrating (from the Table of Contents) A Child's World, Growing Up, Loving, Simple Pleasures, and so forth. My brother (the artistic one) briefly looked through it the other day and pushed it away as if it were a radioactive turd. I'm pretty sure that none of these photos has the artistic merit to be included in a MOMA exhibition. So I need to learn: why not?
Who the hell is Helen Stitzer, anyhow? Maybe there is a typo in the credits, she doesn't even come up on Google. No MOMA exhibition for her! Why not? Well, I don't have an artistic sensibility, remember, so I don't know. Maybe, Unlike Graham Clarke's description of Ms. Arbus, Helen Stitzer fails to
Clarke lauds a photograph's "capacity to probe and suggest larger conditions, which underlies the notion of an image's potential ‘universal' appeal and international language." Well, I guess this photo doesn't cut it. After all, it's just a guy and a baby. Just a simple, sappy, snapshot....
Snapshot? Did someone say snapshot? Funny you should bring that up. Toward a Social Landscape has examples of five contemporary photographers including Friedlander and Winogrand. From the introduction by Nathan Lyons:
He goes on to quote Duane Michals:
Oh, I guess there are snapshots and then there are snapshots.
Let me try another one from The Joy of Life. Three girls, about 10, engaged in passionate conversation.
Copyright Ken Heyman/Woodfin Camp/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images. Used with Permission.
Look at their facial expressions; the girl on the left probably had the exact same expression thirty years later when told that plaintiff's counsel rejected the settlement offer and wants to go to court. The body language follows the facial expressions, the interactions of the three girls adds another layer, and the juxtaposition of this adult behavior to the fact that they are all holding dolls gives yet another dimension, suggesting a profound yet enigmatic meditation on the meaning of childhood and the evanescence of time. (Whoops, getting carried away again.)
This photograph is by Ken Heyman, who as it turns out actually was shown at MOMA, in 1963. Apparently that was before he fell off the wagon, and got involved in projects like The World's Family series. From Publisher's Weekly:
And anyhow that was only the second year of the tenure of Mr. Szarkowski as Director of Photography and sometimes museum exhibitions are planned well in advance.
You don't care much for either of those pictures? Fine, I can live with that. But do none of the photographs in The Joy of Life have artistic merit? And if not, why not? Is it because of their composition, their lighting, their I-don't-know-what? Or is it their subject matter?
What exactly makes a photo by Frank, Freidlander, Winogrand, or Arbus so much superior to a Stitzer or a Heyman? The artistic merit of the former is not always perfectly obvious. Concerning Winogrand, for example; this is by Mike Johnston, in The Empirical Photographer:
(It would be strange, one suspects, to describe a someone who has never mastered
the fundamentals of calculus, doesn't bother to calibrate his instruments, and is notorious for drawing erroneous conclusions as "one of the great experimental physicists of his generation" but I guess that just proves that the rules are different in Science and in Art. Other thoughts here.)
So can someone please explain to me what kind of people are so enamored of the Chronicles of American Vacuity by the dyspeptic quartet of Frank, Friedlander, Winogrand and Arbus--- that they are willing to cab it up to 53rd Street and fork over twenty bucks for an opportunity to view their pictures? To return to my original theme, what thoughts and feelings do these pictures invoke?
Oh, I think I know the answer, and it's not a pretty one.
After food, clothing, shelter, and physical security, people have a craving to feel superior to other people. Intellectuals are smarter, Japanese have their ancient traditions, high school jocks are cooler, and religious people of various faiths are going to heaven (but you're not).
The people viewing the works of Frank, Friedlander, Winogrand, and Arbus enjoy a smug sense of satisfaction: first, because they are the kind of sophisticated artistic people that can appreciate that sort of thing; but more importantly, they are not the kind of lonely, sullen, apathetic losers that Robert Frank photographed, let alone the freakish subjects of Diane Arbus.
There is nothing wrong with this warped, bitter, and one-sided picture of America if it were balanced by another point of view...but it is not. In American Photography, 1890-1965, From the Museum of Modern Art, New York it is only balanced a single photograph: a group of happy teens posing in front of a refrigerator with their ice skating paraphernalia. This Kodak Advertisement by Ralph Bartholomew, was included (I think) only to evoke a feeling of disdainful irony. How dare these ignorant and callow youths smirk and simper at the very moment when the dark night of fascism is about to descend?
I am so ignorant, I think that at least a few of the photographs that grace the pages of The Joy of Life are the equals, in every way, to those hanging on the hallowed walls of MOMA. Their only fault is that they fail to present a uniformly dismal, pessimistic jaundiced view of mankind, and of American culture in particular. Therefore they do not appeal to the intellectual snobs that have such an intense craving to feel superior to other people. In other words, they're not "artistic" enough.
So who cares? I certainly don't care if someone wants to spend his or her free time gazing at "a vast expanse of unmodulated red paint." But in photography the same aesthetic that informs this worldview spills over into the political. Here is Brian Appel again; the title of his piece is Beauty and ‘the Beats'-- Robert Frank's "The Americans" (1955-56): Poised for New Highs in the Age of Bush?
So once again it's time to call on the brave but pitifully small army of photographers, armed only with their cameras (preferably Leicas) but willing to defy the establishment with all its soul-crushing conformity...