Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Photographic history is still such a fresh topic, less than 100 years old, basically, that to survey it seems downright capricious, even as it has merited some truly fascinating chroniclers. What is it? Is it a technology? Its economic underpinnings reveal quite a bit about industrialization, & also how industry intersects & affects daily life. Or is it an art? Various attempts to define its formal qualities have also illuminated its visual impact in modern society. What is this weird thing which has made imaging a daily practice, seemingly without a script? A gesture we all do. & yet many of us don't. Is it special or ordinary? Or both? What a paradoxical instrument.

The Museum of Modern Art has been exemplary in collecting & exhibiting photography throughout its history. Along with the publication of texts by Beaumont Newhall & John Szarkowski, as well as that consummate bestseller, The Family of Man, it gave an institutional imprimatur to otherwise disparate materials. Without being hyperbolic, I would suggest that MoMA created the official artistic careers of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander & Garry Winogrand (the 3 participants in MoMA's "New Documents" exhibition in 1967). Another exemplary show & publication were the POP reprints of the unknown E.J. Bellocq by Lee Friedlander - another truly extraordinary gesture. & then going back to the 1930s - there is the truly seminal publication by Walker Evans, American Photographs.

What an outrageous claim for any museum: It basically created its own subject.

The current installation of the permanent collection is an attempt to make a revisionist outline if the very history it wrote initially, but using examples only by women photographers. As a teacher of photo history I have often made fanciful allusions to such a narrative- also stating that it would be curious to make a trajectory out of Black, or gay photographers - or changing continents entirely - a narrative based on Asian or African photographers, as opposed to the French-British-US monopoly of such an imperial timeline. This was a caprice on my part & I was very curious to see the MoMA reinstallation, which will be up for a year. MoMA has truly enviable, deep collections. What would they do w/ such a prospect?

I don't know if the collections show anything we haven't seen before & there is little narrative disjuncture from any previous history, but again, one can see such fine work on display. Among the 19th century work there are examples by Anna Atkins, Clementina Lady Hawarden & Julia Margaret Cameron. Lady Hawarden in particular has emerged in more recent times w/ what were considered private "artistic" views of her lovely daughters, to instead be looked at as a somewhat radical, intense image-maker - is she a dilletantish aristocrat or someone who made distnctly unsettling & proto-expressionistic photography? Part of the fascination of photography is its blurring between professional & amateur skill sets & results. In the long history of criticism this also distinguished Julia Margaret Cameron - often viewed primarily as an eccentric, as opposed to someone who very consciously played w/ the craft of wet collodion negatives & albumen printing, utilizing chance (irregular surfaces, uneven printing, the effects of "accident" in the process) which would be overlooked as an artistic strategy until Diane Arbus began to exhibit prints w/ stains & uneven borders in the 1960s & 1970s. This aspect to Arbus' printing is often overlooked in lieu of her strong subject matter, but is I think integral to its conceptual power - an almost Brechtian sense of the print as itself a kind of meaning. One is always aware that the print is a kind of screen - the image is not direct, although one sees perhaps too much.

My greatest delight may have been in an album by Gertrude Kasebier, who I would regard as among the greatest Pictorialist photographers. Kasebier was both pragmatic & aesthetic, working professionally as well as in an artistic sphere. Kasebier, along w/ Cameron & Hawarden came to photography as a middle-aged person. One could cite that much of her work follows the visual schemata of that time, but I would point out its very tactile sensuality as a transcendence of any convention, & there are some images of a Native American model, Zitkala-Sa, which are amazingly contemporary looking. Consider the source: a middle-aged woman in Brooklyn, working for cash money. Kasebier's resources are so ordinary, but look what she did. MoMA includes a portrait of the self-styled "Baron" de Meyer, born Adolf Meyer - himself an excessively fey, elegant self-creation, looking quite chic & other-worldly, years prior to when he would adopt the spiritualist name "Gayne."

The 20th century view of "women photographers" is much more extensive & includes: Dora Maar, Lee Miller, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, & Nan Goldin. I placed these names in a chronological order. Maar & Miller were overshadowed by their romantic affiliations in their lifetimes, but both have done photographic work which merits attention. Maar is often viewed visually as the prototype for Pablo Picasso's "weeping woman" of the 1930s, most prominently appearing in the painting Guernica but also appearing in innumerable other images.Picasso may be the ultimate male artist who besides having "periods" of styles, could also make a timeline of his career using his various lovers as calendars. In any literature, Dora Maar, emerges as a very strange, troubled character, who went from being a member of Breton's surrealists to following the Catholic Church. As someone whose partial education was by French communists who were also devout Catholics (merci, Mme Tool et aussi Sylvie Carduner), I can understand this, although I would say it perplexes me somewhat. Maar's photographs have been seen primarily since the 1980s exhibition of surrealist photography at the Corcoran Gallery curated by Rosalind Krauss & Jane Livingston, "L'amour fou." One cannot locate a distinct style in the images, or a consistency between them, but they can be quite compelling to look at. Maar had been trained as a commercial photographer - regardless of the skill set involved, there is a lively & strong visual intelligence to the work

Also in terms of writing history, I would say history is rewritten, not written - it is a continual process of reinvention & "the history" of photography made by women is but one prism of a multi-faceted crystal.

For sheer extravagance the career of Lee Miller warrants the various books & exhibitions that have been made of it. Miller would be known simply by the many gorgeous photographs made of her, primarily by Man Ray, as well as her presence in the Jean Cocteau film Blood of the Poet.. A girl from Nyack, NY, she had been a fashion model before becoming involved in the Parisian demimonde in the 1920s. While one could cite her role as an artists' model as her primary achievement, a look at her photography, which as a war correspondent in WWII was fairly extensive, shows a very distinctive presence.

War photography is so strange: how does one judge it? by formal qualities? Does that suffice? The gravity of most war photography is very intentional - it has an agenda & it was for a particular publishing purpose. If one were to look at possibly more eccentric examples wherein graphic qualities are brought in - I would cite the work of both Cecil Beaton & Lee Miller. Beaton as a kind of aesthete managed to make highly beautiful pictures of the UK military, as well as ultimately becoming a kind of in-house portraitist for the House of Windsor. Beaton's soldiers are hot - their asses are round & delicious. One gets distracted by their exoticism & their eroticism. Beaton's images are about erotic & aesthetic possibility - his colonialism is as erotic as it is military.

Lee Miller made what is in my estimation one of the greatest photographs ever: her self-portrait, taking a bath in Hitler's bathtub, after his death, in his bunker. Visually it isn't so much, but the absolute weirdness & egotism of it are I think a truly special moment. It is pure concept. & it intersects w/ a global history - most of us feel quite shy about such things. Who enters such a sphere of power via the bathroom? & then treats it as a photo op?

The photo ops of various governments (such as that used by the various Bush administrations) can't hold a candle to this, although they warrant their own study. Lee Miller distinguished herself w/ a social aplomb I cannot imagine (nor do I expect to ever be in proximity to Hitler's bathtub or its equivalent, in my time).

I am curious to see how the years reveal Diane Arbus, now that her archives are at the Metropolitan Museum (which also houses the archives of Walker Evans). My sense is that there is much more work there than one would expect. Arbus was a working magazine photographer, with constant deadlines. The 2 official documents of her work - the 1972 MoMA catalog, & the Met publication Revelations are 2 very discontinuous books. The MoMA catalog is one of the seminal photographic publications & events of the late 20th century. Contemporary students seem a bit unimpressed, but I would cite its publication as one of the truly important moments of photographic history - for my generation (already too young, a full generation later) it was one of the most provocative photographic occurrences available. Lucky are we to have it. Given the potential tediousness of most photography books, this was so skewed, so in depth & so incorrect (outlining all sorts of visual taboos) & it offered no way out - it was entirely unredemptive! LIfe is miserable & strange & if you're lucky, you're retarded! I hate to put it in such bald terms but when I think of what is important about it, is its absolute lack of propriety.

Given the apolitical formalism of much 1960s art, it's emphasis on form, the work of Diane Arbus is like a a kind of mold eating away at any structure. The apartments she looks in in NYC are dirty w/ nicotine residue, they are populated by unhappy sorts. it sucks. NYC is a miserable global city of people who are never quite settled there & are barely in control of themselves. Everyone is in a kind of lumpen hell. If I make may one suggestion, it would be that Arbus' social orbit could be seen as well in the context of the New American Cinema, promoted by Jonas Mekas. The Ken Jacobs film Little Stabs at Happiness may be the most interesting cinematic parallel. But Jacobs & also Jack Smith offer a more holistic vision, & honestly, that's saying something. Neither Jacobs or Smith could be accused of being so hopeful.

There is so much to see in the show. I don't think it realizes any deep revision of photography, but it offers some stunning examples of some great women photographers . . .let's hope that the next history will change history.

Is It Really So Strange?

A few recent viewings of William E. Jones' documentary about Latino fans of Morrissey have brought to mind: Where was I?

As I try to study Morrissey & The Smiths I realize I let a few decades intervene & any reconstruction of what would have been is perilously provisional. My one justification is that in the period in which The Smiths released albums was also a period of extreme poverty for me & one in which I was establishing myself in New York City, in which I was remote from omnipresent media. How The Smiths would have helped me in such a dire situation is unknown, lost, alas. Listening now to The Smiths/Morrissey is pure nostalgia, for something I didn't experience, in which I can wallow in comfortably. I feel like I missed something wonderful. This would have been a tonic I would have craved.

It also reminded me of how technology has become part of the everyday experience. The soundtracks of our lives may be a different & richer experience than that which is viewed.

William E. Jones' film is fantastically delicate about the subject. It is done in a simple format of mostly talking-heads interviews, w/ an array of subjects from the deeply engrossed to the almost supercilious. As someone who knows zilch about the The Smiths/Morrissey I found it to be fascinating. Those interested in WEJ's films may find it of interest for its anomaly among his film work in being shot by him entirely, as opposed to the use of of appropriated imagery which distinguishes his work.

The film addresses the technological phenomenon of fandom. This is played out as well in tabloids & other venues of junk culture. While it can emphasize the tawdry & the fabricated (I think of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon books as an example of hateful wish fulfillment in this), what hasn't really been addressed is the potential for mass media being an actual conduit for change, or that there could also be an important message being conveyed (does mass media have to negate any gravity, any importance in its utterances?). In my august aloofness of utter solipsism I would assume it would be impossible, but maybe not.

This is touched on briefly in the Todd Haynes' film Velvet Goldmine, in a scene w/ the middle-class journalist Christian Bale confronting his mother w/ the fact that an emotional fissure in a stable straight life exists in the sensual, extravagant forms of glam rock pop music, confronting her w/ his ambisexual glam-rock music. He screams at her, "this is ME!" How can mass media, in this case, pop music. extend an message both general & unique? In both Todd Haynes' film & WEJ's there is an understanding that a social sea change can actually occur within the utter dross of mass media, that significant messages can leak through an otherwise rigid autocracy of mass media. Beyond any overt propaganda value, there are social values being stated. The everyday can be reconfigured, in rather seductive terms

While pop music now seems so utterly corporate, fascistic & tasteless to the nth degree, I am reminded that there is a potentially redemptive aspect in what is for the most part nasty business. & that it could have incendiary moments regardless of its economic structure.

WEJ's emphasis on the fans of Morrissey, as opposed to Morrissey himself, is an acknowledgement of the richness in each voice included. This is an admirable form of documentary which explores its depths rather than conforming to a schema. Its simplicity & directness could be seen as an essay in the morality of looking at the world & trying to extract meaning from it; documentary as a subject can be mislead by heroic tendencies, by an overreaching attempt to make a big statement, bigger than the subject at hand. WEJ's film is generous & kind, & lucky for us in our technological age in being able to watch it over & over again, which I imagine, for the fans of Morrssey, must seem like old hat. The song played over & over again, the near ritual of such a habit, so common as to be overlooked. Where are we? What does it mean?

Also I have to bring up the queerness of the subject. While there may be normative-heterosexual responses to Morrissey's music, Morrissey still reads as gay as Christmas (to use a very recherchez expression) in his brooding melancholy. I am so so sorry I missed this in my own brooding melancholic past.

In May I was in Los Angeles. One afternoon in Highland Park I stepped into a coffeeshop on York Blvd at 51st (?) to get an iced horchata w/ a shot of espresso (it was recommended). The song This Charming Man (the only song included in Is It Really So Strange?) was playing. I got goosebumps. As ephemeral as the occasion may have been, there was a grace to it altogether lacking, usually, in my estimation of the everyday. The sun was shining brightly, there were college-age girls giggling behind me in line. I thought: as precious as this very ordinary moment is, it is already lost to me. I took some photos but they alas are simply proof of lost time. How can one express happiness beyond its temporality?