Response to Allan Nadel's article (updated with author's response)

Dear Editor,

As one of the critics quoted in Allan Nadel's shallow and badly skewed article "Art or Propaganda? Postwar American Photography," I feel a corrective is in order. I should begin by saying that Allan and I have corresponded and are on cordial terms.

Nevertheless, I don't agree with his essay at all, or like it. I think he should have stopped at paragraph two.

I've been reading these sorts of benighted uncomprehending middlebrow attacks on artists for as long as I've been reading about art. "Why can't they make it pretty? Why can't they take pictures of cute, pleasant things that people want to look at?" they seem to be saying. Which completely misses the point. 

This is probably too stinging (I don't have a "patience switch," I'm afraid, except with young people), so let me back up and name a few concrete objections. Dr. Nadal is setting up straw dogs for the purpose of knocking them over. In fact, photography is not and has never been dominated by any Szarkowskian norm. The artists he names can't accurately be described as Szarkowski's "protégés"; the curator (who died in June) was just the first to show several of them (I don't believe he ever showed Frank, and he never showed Arbus after that one show in the mid-'60s if memory serves -- and he and Friedlander were not on good terms for years at the end of Szarkowski's life). So the author hasn't demonstrated his main proposition.

Next, lacking broader knowledge of photographic history, he doesn't (or can't) put any of what he says in context. Context would most probably reveal that the situation was about the opposite of what he complains about! The elevation of the darker vision of the artists he's concerned with was itself the reaction -- photography at the time was dominated by The Family of Man, LIFE magazine, Eisenstadt (Mr. Happy, in person and in his work), midcentury superpower civic heroism, and just the kind of happy snaps Dr. Nadel is striving to defend (not that there's anything wrong with Ken Heynman). Context would also immerse him in the 1960s in America, which were a whole hell of a lot darker than the sappy retrograde nostalgia machine wants every citizen to believe nowadays. Race riots, cities burning, generational strife, dead Kennedys, Viet Nam on TV...that was the context. And, far from the dippy flower-child hippie stereotype, the angry, left-leaning counterculture was deeply disturbing to traditional Americans, for which we're still paying the price today. In light of what was going on in the zeitgeist at the time, smiling babies and clatches of 'tween girls just no longer seemed very relevant.

Finally, there's nothing wrong with anyone going ahead and enjoying the kind of photography Dr. Nadel obviously enjoys. Get yourself The Family of Man, Witness to Our Time, a good book on Margaret Bourke-White, perhaps Yosemite and the Range of Light, Newhall's history, some of the many Annuals of the era, and one of WIlliam Mortensen's books, and you'll be happy with "American Century" postwar photography. When Szarkowski showed Arbus, most people would certainly have said that LIFE had far more power and cultural influence than MoMA. LIFE's advocacies were already in force; claiming that its outlook should have been getting attention in the academy is disingenuous. Why should any postwar curator have simply mimicked them? (I've concentrated on Szarkowski here simply because he's the only real connection between the artists that Dr. Nadel disapprovingly links together, and because the first draft of the article you published was preoccupied with criticizing the curator.)

Finding a few quotes (even mine) to defend simplistic points doesn't constitute an argument. Well, it does, but not a deep one. As far as I can tell, Dr. Nadel doesn't appear to have engaged adequately with the work of any of the artists he's trying to put down; I don't think he's engaged adequately with Szarkowski (I can't remember how many shows Szarkowski mounted at MoMA but it was something within a long toss of 100; if he was the first to show Arbus, he also championed Helen Levitt. Also, Dr. Nadel doesn't take into account the influence of Lincoln Kirstein or Walker Evans or any of Szarkowski's other benefactors). Until he really takes in the sweep of Szarkowski's advocacies he doesn't really understand his legacy, and even if he manages that, he hasn't begun to prove a hegemony. Szarkowski got a great deal of criticism in his time, and other curators loved to disagree with him.

If AT readers are interested in a bit more nuanced information about some of these issues, I recommend Jonathan Green's book American Photography: A Critical History (Abrams), especially Chapters 7 and 8, Bill Jay's excellent essay "The Family of Man," which can be found in his book Occam's Razor: An Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography (Nazraeli Press), p. 85, and my own article "Photography's Quiet Giant".


Mike Johnston
(A link to my book mentioned in the original AT essay)

Update: Allan Nadel responds:

Dear Mike:

You seem like a very nice person, and you obviously are a very intelligent person.  I'll be the first to agree that my appreciation of photography is shallow and badly skewed.  However, your letter made me sad because it suggests that your entire world view is shallow and badly skewed. You wrote:

"Context would also immerse him in the 1960s in America...Race riots, cities burning, generational strife, dead Kennedys, Viet Nam on TV...that was the context....smiling babies and clatches of 'tween girls just no longer seemed very relevant."

Many people seem to think that the 1960's in America was the most turbulent decade in history.  Ignoring the 30 Years War, the Black Death, and so forth we can skip to the twentieth century: World Wars I and II, the Great Depression.  During all of these periods babies were born, old people got sick and died, children grew up, people fell in (and out of) love.  For most people alive in the 1960's these events in their own lives were far more important than what was on TV.  Do you know anyone who is 39 years old?  They were born in 1968, the annus horribilis.  I think a smiling baby was very relevant to their parents.

I understand now why you and I differ.  We both agree that photography should be about life.  Can we possibly view life so differently?  My guess is that you don't really believe what you wrote.

In friendship,

Allan Nadel

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