Sunday, August 28, 2016

Szarkowski Tells Story Behind 100 Pictures from MoMA Collection

John Szarkowsi's book, Looking at Photographs, is the earliest (1973, 1999 revision) of three fabulous studies, including Susan Sontag's scary-brilliant On Photography (1973-1977) and Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment (2005).

Thaddeus John Szarkowski (December 18, 1925 – July 7, 2007) was a photographer, curator, historian, and critic.  From 1962 to 1991 Szarkowski was the Director of Photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
A decision was made in compiling this book that no more than one contribution per photographer would be accepted.  So Steichen, Stieglitz and Weston, 3 pics, that's it !  The book cover photo is especially interesting as it is a photo by Alfred Stieglitz of his niece Georgia Engelhard (daughter of Agnes Stieglitz and George Engelhard). 

Some random thoughts:

The early daguerreotypes were virtually 100% portraits as opposed to landscape.  So there exists a large collection of anonymous people captured by this art form.  The photos reveal an unworldliness when compared to modern images.  Hill's photo of W.B. Johnstone, a Scottish cleric, is eerie at best as his facial features just look different.

Most people know Mathew Brady and his photos of the Civil War.  Most of the photos were actually made by staffers.   One who let was the Scottish-American Alexander Gardner, who protested he never received photo credit or profits.  His work is in Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War.

Peter Emerson got caught up in the issue of artistic merit between photographers and painters.  He insisted on the issue of artistic status for photographers, while his followers were deferential to painters.  After 5 years, he recanted in a pamphlet stating that photography was only a very minor art.  Ultimately, he became the Luther of the schism.

In 1872, the former governor of California, Leland Stanford, a businessman and race-horse owner, hired Eadweard Muybridge for some photographic studies. He had taken a position on a popularly debated question of the day — whether all four feet of a horse were off the ground at the same time while trotting. In 1872, Muybridge began experimenting with an array of 12 cameras photographing a galloping horse in a sequence of shots. His initial efforts seemed to prove that Stanford was right, but he didn’t have the process perfected. The same question had arisen about the actions of horses during a gallop. The human eye could not break down the action at the quick gaits of the trot and gallop. Up until this time, most artists painted horses at a trot with one foot always on the ground; and at a full gallop with the front legs extended forward and the hind legs extended to the rear, and all feet off the ground.  Stanford sided with the assertion of "unsupported transit" in the trot and gallop, and decided to have it proven scientifically. Stanford sought out Muybridge and hired him to settle the question.

Galloping horse, animated in 2006, using photos by Eadweard Muybridge
Between 1878 and 1884, Muybridge perfected his method of horses in motion, proving that they do have all four hooves off the ground during their running stride. In 1872, Muybridge settled Stanford's question with a single photographic negative showing his Standardbred trotting horse Occident airborne at the trot. This negative was lost, but the image survives through woodcuts made at the time (the technology for printed reproductions of photographs was still being developed). He later did additional studies, as well as improving his camera for quicker shutter speed and faster film emulsions. By 1878, spurred on by Stanford to expand the experiments, Muybridge had successfully photographed a horse at a trot;  lantern slides have survived of this later work.  Scientific American was among the publications at the time that carried reports of Muybridge's ground-breaking images.
Stanford also wanted a study of the horse at a gallop. Muybridge planned to take a series of photographs on 15 June 1878, at Stanford's Palo Alto Stock Farm (now the campus of Stanford University). He placed numerous large glass-plate cameras in a line along the edge of the track; the shutter of each was triggered by a thread as the horse passed (in later studies he used a clockwork device to set off the shutters and capture the images). The path was lined with cloth sheets to reflect as much light as possible. He copied the images in the form of silhouettes onto a disc to be viewed in a machine he had invented, which he called a "zoopraxiscope". This device was later regarded as an early movie projector, and the process as an intermediate stage toward motion pictures or cinematography.
The study is called Sallie Gardner at a Gallop or The Horse in Motion; it shows images of the horse with all feet off the ground. This did not take place when the horse's legs were extended to the front and back, as imagined by contemporary illustrators, but when its legs were collected beneath its body as it switched from "pulling" with the front legs to "pushing" with the back legs.

Alvin Coburn was focused on photography as a creative art.  Szarkowski opines the fundamental stumbling block seemed to be the medium's uncompromising specificity.  The camera described not Man but men, not Nature but countless biological andgeological facts.  The artistic spirit of the time preferred an idealistic view.  Coburn's friend Ezra Pound, writing about Coburn's abstractions, invoked Walter Pater's dictum that "all arts approach the condition of music" (i.e. the arts seek to unify subject-matter and form, and music is the only art in which subject and form are seemingly one), which appeared in his 1873 book The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry.

E.J. Bellocq was a commercial photographer in New Orleans.  After his death 100s of photos were found of prostitutes.  His portraits are highly individualized and the women have realized themselves in pictures.  Lee Friedlander bought them and printed the plates.

Aerial reconnaissance  photographs are featured in the collection.  Daumier said that photography depicted everything but explained nothing.  Traditional painting explained everything but described nothing.

Brassaï (Gyula Halász) pronounces his name "bra sigh ee."  Same as French spelling of Haiti: République d'Haïti; Haitian Creole: Repiblik Ayiti,   He took his name from the town of his birth, Brasso, in Transylvania, then part of Hungary, later of Romania, and famous as the home of Count Dracula.  Published his famous book Paris de Nuit in 1933.  Brassaï gained notoriety as 'the photographer' in Tropic of Cancer (1934) by his friend Henry Miller. 

Paul Caponigro is best known for his landscape works and for the mystical and spiritual qualities of his work. He is often regarded as one of America's foremost landscape photographers.

Ardara Dolmen, County Donegal, Ireland, 1967

Robert Doisneau, At the Cafe.  Szarkowski reads so much into this photo.  "The girl's secret opinion of the proceedings so far is hidden in her splendid self-containment; for the moment she enjoys the security of absolute power.  One arm shields her body, her hand touches her glass as tentatively as if it were the first apple.  The man for the moment is defenseless and vulnerable; impaled on the hook of his own desire, he has committed all his resources, and no satisfactory line of retreat remains...This pair, if less romantically conceived than the lovers on John Keats' urn, are equally safe, here in the picture, from the consequences of real life."

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Geoff Dyer's Irreverent Insights on Photography Astound

Susan Sontag opens her seminal essay with the Plato's Cave allegory, Dyer follows with an equivalent compelling literary metaphor referring to Borges' 'certain Chinese encyclopedia.'  It is the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, said to divide animals into "(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in the present classification, (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that look like flies from a long way off."  Dyer is using Borges' fictional taxonomy as an eccentric template for organizing his book.  Dyer's approach is aleatory, released from the tyranny of chronology.  Dyer has written The Ongoing Moment as a single, 254-page chapter, as if to emphasize that the sense that all photographs are one; or at least linked in a huge electronic tapestry.

Ultimately the categories look like:

blindness (inc Arbus - Borges and Avedon - Borges)
Diane Arbus
photographing thought/fasion models
 photographs of photographers
suicide in people's faces
Weston / Charis
people's backs
airial views
empty beds
streets/desert roads
gas stations
barber shops
open doors

The question underlying The Ongoing Moment is "What can one do with the time facing a photograph, or facing anything else for that matter?" (Stephen Mitchelmore).  Dyer expresses the question writing about Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of Fifth Avenue around 1901: “To think, there was a time, over a century ago, when this moment was now!”. He imagines the caped figure walking towards the camera looking back to see himself no longer there. But this is impossible: “it is his peculiar destiny … never to arrive at that backward looking vantage point, but to be rendered, momentarily and perpetually, as patient as the waiting horse and the buildings which are still there too.”

Borges' "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins"

"The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" is a short essay by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and is a critique of the English Philosopher Wilkins' proposal for a universal language and of the representational capacity of language in general.  Borges also examines a bizarre and whimsical Chinese taxonomy quoted by Foucault and also Geoff Dyer in his 2005 photography study The Ongoing Moment.

Borges begins by noting John Wilkins' absence from the 14th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica and makes the case for Wilkins' significance, highlighting in particular the universal language scheme detailed in his An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668). Wilkins' system decomposes the entire universe of "things and notions" into successively smaller divisions and subdivisions, assigning at each step of this decomposition a syllable, consonant, or vowel. Wilkins intended for these conceptual building blocks to be recombined to represent anything on earth or in heaven. The basic example Borges gives is "de, which means an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a part of the element of fire, a flame."

Examining this and other second-hand examples from Wilkins's scheme—​​he did not have access to Wilkins' actual work, but based his comments on the others' comments on it—​​Borges believes he finds "ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies", concluding "it is clear that there is no classification of the Universe not being arbitrary and full of conjectures." He fancifully likens Wilkins's classification scheme to a "certain Chinese encyclopedia," likely fictitious, called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, said to divide animals into "(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in the present classification, (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that look like flies from a long way off." Borges' point is the arbitrary nature of such taxonomies, regardless of whether they form a language or just a way of understanding and ordering the world. He challenges the idea of the universe as something we can understand at all—​​"we do not know what thing the universe is"—​​much less describe using language.