David Lynch has an ongoing relationship with still photography which the past decade has seen emerge into public light. The Los Angeles Review of Books presents Lynch’s commentary on 99 pictures taken by others. Listen to him describe his viewing approach—that of a voyeuristic, all-feeling detective—and you’ll never look the same way at curtains, women’s shoes, stone Buddhas, and festering sores again. Lynch selected these favorite 99 photos from the thousand presented at 2012′s Paris Photo, the international photography fair that happens each November during the European Month of Photography.
I will be shot with a rifle at 7:45 P.M. I hope to have some good photos. —Chris Burden
Chris Burden, Trans-fixed, Venice, California, April 23, 1974
Burden: © the artist/courtesy Gagoslan Gallery, New York
Melanie Bonajo, Furniture Bondage: Hanna, 2007
Bonajo: courtesy the artist/P.P.O.W Gallery, New York
There is something iconic about the images of performance from the 1960s and '70s. The photographic documentation of fabled Happenings and other actions—by the Fluxus artists, Viennese Actionists, Nouveaux Realistes, and individuals associated with these groups, either closely or by influence: Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic, Carolee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta, Vito Acconci, Yves Klein, Adrian Piper, and others—may strike us today like rarified chronicles of some lost tribe's obscure rituals. Wounded arms, conversations with dead rabbits, leaps into the void, self-inflicted bite marks, profane orgies, scrolls unfurling like viscera from the recesses of the body . . . such actions have gained a prolonged life through photographs; they are now burnished in the imaginations of artists, critics, and art historians, to the point that at least some of them seem to be permeated by an unmistakable air of the sacred.
Photography serves performance in many ways: by saving the ephemeral instant from disappearance, by compOSing a moment at its narrative and symbolic zenith, and sometimes by banishing from the frame all that may have distracted the actual witnesses of the event.
Chris Burden's 1974 riff on Christian martyrdom, Trans-fixed, lasted barely two minutes at the Speedway Garage in Venice, California, and was seen by only a handful of people from across the street. The image of the artist's body splayed over the roof of a Volkswagen bug—to which Burden's hands had been nailed by an assistant—represents the masochistic excesses of body art of the 1970s and has come to symbolize the violent ethos of its time. Burden's subsequent ironic presentation of the hand-piercing nails in a glass-and-velvet vitrine, as in a saintly reliquary, has not diminished the legend or the conceit of extreme self-sacrifice in the name of art.
Ana Mendieta's performances seem to reference pre-Christian iconography. Although the body and the earth were the sites of her actions, she relied on photography to frame and transmit her ideas. We are invited to imagine her actions as they unfolded, but in effect, for most of us today, the photograph is necessarily the prevailing work. Much of Mendieta's performance imagery is so straightforward and seemingly absolute that we do not envision how or under what conditions they were made: it is as if the image came into existence as an apparition, or a kind of virgin birth. The reality, of course, was less miraculous; just outside the frame of Imagen de Yagul (Image from Yagul; 1973), for example, Mendieta's fellow graduate students at the University of Iowa were chatting and keeping an eye out for security guards, while her teacher Hans Breder danced around with camera in hand, taking multiple shots. Breder later said of this process: "Ana's work translates beautifully into photography. The original action was not always riveting, but the process of photographing transformed the work."
The goal of much performance and Conceptual work of those years was the dematerialization of art: an attempt to separate art from precious materials and pretentious institutions so that it could exist in more pure, less compromised forms. Photography was understood and utilized as a functional medium meant to produce an affectless record, without the taint of style or authorship. That photography was a distinct discipline with its own history and aesthetics was rarely considered; for many, it was seen simply as a means either to document transitory actions or to separate the viewer from direct engagement with an object. (It is of course important to distinguish this utilitarian mode from the performance images by photographers such as Peter Moore and Dona Ann McAdams, who well understood the cultural significance of performance art and the necessity to document its events, personalities, and trends—and who did so with rigorous creativity.)
As curator Ann Temkin has pointed out, the ongoing power and influence of Marcel Duchamp's 1917 Fountain is largely transmitted through the images Alfred Stieglitz made of the "original" urinal. Beyond photography's documentary utility, its ability to distill and embellish the aura of radical process is one reason photographs are essential to the history and posterity of performance. Perhaps the days of groundbreaking body art are in the past, but the documents of that era have been transformed from visual marginalia to images that are every bit as foundational for today's artists as the canvases of Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso were for earlier generations.
So if photography has affected performance, how has performance affected photography?
A performative attitude may be seen in the widely diverse works of Nikki S. Lee, Vik Muniz, Steven Pippin, and Katy Grannan, to name just a few contemporary artists who produce "photographs" as if the word should be framed by quotation marks. That is to say, they embody an attitude toward photography that is informed more by Conceptual art than by the lineage of Great Photographers. In Lee's case, it is impossible to peel away the performance from its documentation. Whether hers are "good" photographs by conventional standards is more than irrelevant: the very amateurish quality of her pictures is essential to her investigation into establishing identity through the mundane ritual of the snapshot.
The distinction between the documentation of live performance and of actions staged specifically for the camera is often deliberately blurry. Indeed, taxonomy begins to fail us as we seek to peg certain works under identifying rubrics: the elaborate tableaux imagery—curator Jennifer Blessing terms it "performed photography"—of Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, Roger Ballen, and Cindy Sherman, among others, for example. But clearly these photographers' works have more in common with both the legacy of fine-art photography and the narrative concerns of theater and cinema than with the visual archive of performance art.
Parallel to the growing ambition and ubiquity of narrative-scenario photography over the last couple of decades has been an incremental (but significant) shift away from the "heroic gesture" in performative imagery toward something more relaxed and playful. Most contemporary artists do not appear to aspire to the mythological status attributed to the founding figures of performance (Matthew Barney is a clear exception here). There is a lighter touch, for example, in the works of Gabriel Orozco, an artist who flits between materials and media like a modern-day trickster. Yet even though the camera has become an indispensable tool in his transformation of the everyday, Orozco has expressed a lack of interest in the conventional concerns of photography. Instead, photography for him is a way to erase the line between the found and the arranged. Cumulatively, Orozco's seemingly casual imagery offers an inventory of minor delights. These arise not only from the whimsical nature of his "finds," but also because it is unclear whether the arrangement of objects within the frame is the result of the artist's intervention or if he is just the luckiest and most sharp-eyed flâneur in the world. His shuffling of products in the supermarket, where cat-food cans balance on watermelons, for instance (Cats and Watermelons; 1992), is sweetly hilarious, showing just how easily the categories of the prosaic world can be undermined and reimagined. And the humbly elegant Extension of Reflection (1992), which depicts the transient marks of a bicycle's tracks through a pair of puddles, is astoundingly economical in its evocation of things both earthly and celestial.
Yves Klein, Leap into the Void, 1960.
Klein: © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS). New York/ADAGP. Paris/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Art Resource, New York
Intrigued by the canonical status that many performance images have attained, and by how these often chaotic and impromptu events had been formalized through photography, Hayley Newman created a faux archive—she calls it an "aspirational portfolio"—for a nonexistent performance career. One action, Crying Glasses (An Aid to Melancholia) (1998), was purportedly created over the course of about a year, during which the artist traveled by public transportation in England and Germany while wearing dark glasses equipped with a pump system to deliver a constant stream of tears trickling down from beneath the lenses. The work was actually photographed (by Newman's collaborator Casey Orr) over the period of a week, but by utilizing varying cameras and photographic materials, and supplying the work with evidentiary texts in which the dates, locations, and circumstances are fabricated, the artist creates a seemingly larger performance, in the vein of those by Adrian Piper and Bas Jan Ader. Here, the document is unreliable evidence, a masquerade on at least two counts: this is neither a woman truly weeping on the subway nor is it a record of an authentic yearlong performance. Remarkably, despite its deceits, the image remains affecting, evoking both compassion and wry acknowledgment of the power of photographs to compel in spite of their artificiality.
Melanie Manchot explores the boundaries of trust and intimacy in a range of works in performance, photography, and video. Gestures of Demarcation (2001) is a series of six photographs in which a naked Manchot faces the camera in a variety of urban and rural environments, while an androgynous figure, facing away from the camera, tugs at the artist's naked skin. Like a contemporary Saint Sebastian, Manchot seems unaffected by the repeated violation. Yoko Ono's Cut Piece comes to mind (a Happening first enacted in 1964, in which audience members were asked to join the artist onstage and cut away at her clothing with a pair of scissors), as do several of Marina Abramovic's performances, in which viewers were invited to interact and even violate the artist's body with an assortment of implements. By contrast, with Manchot's works, although we may experience a visceral reaction to the intrusion, the event is enacted solely for the camera and not for a live audience: the viewer is thus never personally implicated in the breach of the artist's physical boundaries.
To paraphrase Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the body does not occupy space like an object or thing, but instead inhabits, animates, or even haunts space. In Erwin Wurm's "one-minute sculptures," the body performs or experiences a slapstick rebuke of personal space and social etiquette. Wurm cloaks his Conceptualism behind the deadpan nature of the snapshot in pictures such as Looking for a Bomb (2003), in which a kneeling man reaches deep into another man's pants; Inspection (2002), in which a woman sits with a friend in a restaurant while stoically enduring a man's head thrust deep into her blouse; and the self-explanatory Spit in Someone's Soup (2003). These rude interventions in the everyday are part of Wurm's larger project Instructions on How to Be Politically Incorrect.
If all we saw of Lilly McElroy's work was a single photograph of a young woman frozen in midflight, we might construe it as simply an embarrassing moment of drunken excess. But the cumulative effect of her series I throw myself at men (2006—8) transforms an indecorous act into a playful riff on late-night desperation. McElroy describes the series as "loving and cruel . . . literal and clumsy, a cross between physical comedy and earnest confessional." That's a fair assessment of these deliberately awkward moments in which the artist/protagonist flings herself toward apparently unprepared male subjects. Like Girls Gone Wild meets Yves Klein's Leap into the Void (1960), I throw myself at men combines low-rent barroom behavior with a performance artist's bravado. The cheap spectacle is made all the more pathetic by the pedestrian style of the photographs, in which the flash fills and flattens every reckless action and grimy barstool.
William Lamson is unique among this group in that he was an accomplished photographer who produced finely composed portraits and landscapes in the social-humanist tradition before deciding to spend more time in front of the camera than behind it. Crediting Roman Signer's "action sculptures" as a catalyst, Lamson now works in sculpture, video, and performance, as well as photography. His performance-inspired photo-series Intervention (2007–8) could be described as documents of temporary urban earthworks. As if to convince us that the world is full of these lesser epiphanies if we would only open our eyes to see them, Lamson's simple and direct photographs allow us to imagine stumbling upon random poetic collisions of materials, such as a helium-filled balloon strategically placed to blind a surveillance camera; a ladder made of twine and bananas, scaling a tree; a discarded mattress pinched into a bald tire like an elderly man squeezing into his old military uniform.
Ana Mendieta, Imagen de Yagul (Image from Yagul), 1973
Mendieta: © Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection/courtesy Gaterie Lelong, New York
Joseph Beuys is said to have consciously drained his performances and installations of color in order to distance his work from real life, desaturating his actions to make them more like black-and-white photographs. Beuys understood the photographic document not simply as a necessary footnote to the main event; rather, the image had the talismanic authority to transmit his disembodied power through time. Nonetheless, viewing the iconographic record of 1960s and '70s performance art, you get a sneaking sense that if you were not there, you were sinfully absent from a hallowed event—you missed Jesus walking on water because you were too young, not hip enough, lived in the wrong town, or were just too lazy to go out that evening.
It is a paradox that photography and performance, tied as they are to the transitory, fused to create such an august archive of dramatic images. The utopian themes that were circulating in the 1960s and '70s were often embodied in the redemptive gestures of performance art. The shine may have faded on the messianic promise of image and action—but in fact it may be healthy not to indulge such romantic fantasies anymore. Mia Fineman writes of Orozco's photographs: "At times, it seems like he is simply adding punctuation to the prose of the everyday." This notion articulates the more earthbound ethos that marks our diminished expectations of art and life.
Some of Melanie Bonajo's photographs, for example, reveal an attitude that finds temporary solace in the humor of dispirited futility. With echoes of Charles Ray and Martha Rosier, Bonajo's Furniture Bondage series (2007–8) presents an array of young women, trussed to the saddest assortment of generic domestic items. Unencumbered by any duty to the heroic, yet still capable of provocation, Bonajo's photographs present a cruel joke, as if Ikea had promised salvation but delivered only unrelenting boredom. We laugh, and then an uncomfortable shudder of recognition chills our bones.
Melanie Manchot, Gestures of Demarcation II, 2001
Manchot: courtesy Robert Goff Gallery, New York
Lilly McElroy, I throw myself at men #14, 2008.
McElroy: © the artist/courtesy Thomas Robertello Gallery, Chicago
Erwin Wurm, Inspection, 2002
Wurm: courtesy Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
Gabriel Orozco, Cats and Watermelons, 1992
Orozco: courtesy the artist/Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
William Lamson, Intervention 11/14/07, 2007.
Lamson: courtesy the artist
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"In my mind, they're one-third photography, but the other two-thirds are just as important," says Sam Falls, looking at the poster-size compositions pinned to the walls of his Bushwick, Brooklyn, studio. From across the room, the works on paper resemble pastel abstractions, with creamy oranges and blues layered in thick bands over pink and navy grounds. But a careful look reveals a more complicated story.
"First I photograph something—for the more abstract ones, I'm photographing construction paper and backdrops," says Falls, 26, who shows at Higher Pictures in New York. "I scan the film and work on it in Photoshop, usually with the paintbrush tool, masking certain areas and sampling colors to apply digitally," he explains. Up close, some washes of color appear too precise, too perfectly transparent, to have been made by hand. Other places show marks of impasto brushwork. "I make the final print, and then I go back and work on it with paint and pastel. It's like this pastiche or collage of mediums."
Falls is part of a growing contingent of studio-based photographers who have little interest in traditional distinctions between mediums and genres. Taking up whatever materials and techniques fit their needs, they work with Photoshop and the chemical darkroom and often shoot with large-format cameras. They also incorporate found imagery culled from books, magazines, and the Internet. They build their pictures with wood and mirrors, fabric and plaster, ignoring differences among mediums. While these artists don't adhere to a particular sensibility or look, they share a set of tools and are reacting to the same forces—including the changing nature of photography itself. "They're asking, What does it mean to see the world through a lens?" says Eva Respini, associate curator in the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. "Anyone looking at photography in the last several years has noticed artists increasingly working in the studio. They're collecting, assembling, manipulating materials," she says. Respini chose six artists working in this way for the museum's exhibition "New Photography 2009."
"I don't think artists today are asking themselves, Am I a photographer? Am I a sculptor?" says Tina Kukielski, a curator for the 2013 Carnegie International and former senior curatorial assistant at the Whitney Museum, where she organized contemporary photography shows. "It's more about fluidity and the flexibility it creates."
That fluidity is possible in part because of photography's mainstream status in the arts. "Before the 1970s, photography had a separate market value, separate galleries," says Respini. "For these artists, it's never been a stepchild."
In the '70s and '80s, Pictures Generation artists such as Richard Prince referred to images from magazines and advertising, pointing out their ubiquity and questioning the creative role of the artist. But for this new generation, says Respini, "appropriation is no longer a political act. It's a nonissue." Elad Lassry, who makes slick, magazine page-size C-prints and films of banal still lifes and publicity shots, has described his work as having a "post-Picture Generation approach." Lassry undermines the commercial quality of his shiny, kitschy objects, animals, and food by using frames painted to match each picture and employing subtle double exposures or Photoshop tweaks. Last year his work was included in MoMA's "New Photography 2010" show, as well as in solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Museum of Saint Louis and Luhring Augustine, his New York gallery.
Although they may not be recognized as a group or a movement, artists working in this way have been gaining recognition. For "New Photography 2009," Respini chose works by artists who work in a studio but have wide-ranging concerns. Her selections included assemblages made from historical and personal photos by Sara VanDerBeek and Leslie Hewitt, Daniel Gordon's pictures of figural sculptures he built with images of body parts taken from the Internet, Carter Mull's metallicized prints of newspapers and magazines, Walead Beshty's cameraless abstractions, and Sterling Ruby's hybrid pictures combining graffiti and Photoshop manipulations. Last year's "Greater New York" at MoMA PS1 included several artists bending the conventions of photography, as did Higher Pictures's survey of young artists, "50 Artists Photograph the Future," which featured Falls. A 2008 show at Gagosian, "Untitled (Vicarious): Photographing the Constructed Object," exhibited young artists alongside some of their predecessors, such as Vik Muniz and Fischli & Weiss. "The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography," organized by the Aperture Foundation in 2009 and currently at the Cornell Fine Arts Museums in Winter Park, Florida, showed artists such as Barbara Kasten, who has been building and photographing abstract scenes since the '70s.
Kukielski, who curated VanDerBeek's solo show at the Whitney in 2010, had presented Corin Hewitt's Seed Stage, in which the artist worked in a combination laboratory-kitchen-studio, at the museum in 2008. During prime visiting hours, Hewitt could be seen preserving vegetables, composting leftovers, and composing still lifes of canned carrots arranged with colorfully patterned clothes. He photographed and printed the results and exhibited them on the gallery walls. As the audience watched, Hewitt acted out a form of studio-based photography, emphasizing how the finished images were the result of an elaborate process.
Many of these artists call attention to how their images are made. "Photographs are odd because, unlike a sculpture or a painting, when you do something to a photograph, people are going to retrace your steps," says Lucas Blalock, who was included in the Higher Pictures show. Blalock makes pictures of household objects with a view camera and Photoshop that he hopes "can't resolve easily." In a recent work, the image of a football-shaped sports cup was repeatedly copied and pasted in Photoshop until the object became unreadable. "The viewer is going to have to walk back out to make it a natural picture again."
To retrace the steps that Jessica Eaton takes to make her large C-prints requires patience and an understanding of photographic technique. The Canadian artist explores the fundamentals of optics, color theory, and illusion in photographs that refer to painting and film. Experimenting with custom-built camera equipment and props, she sometimes works for six or seven hours on a single negative from her large-format camera. For her series "108," which can be thought of as an analog-film approximation of digital pixels, Eaton made a set of 108 metal plates to use as dark slides. Whereas a normal dark slide protects film from light, Eaton's slides each contained a small square hole. When the slides were inserted one at a time in the camera's back, adjacent patches of film met the light, creating a negative made from 108 separate exposures. For 108_21 (2010), Eaton aimed her camera at a wall of multicolor blocks. Between each exposure, she knocked the blocks down and restacked them, making a picture that looks like a wild rainbow plaid. It's a record of chance over time and, according to Eaton, enacts Sol LeWitt's remark that the "idea becomes a machine that makes the art."
Before going to work in the studio, Eaton sketches her ideas for prints using a computer program such as Adobe Illustrator, trying out compositions and color combinations before re-creating them on film. But the textures and imperfections inherent to film and wood and paper are essential to the final piece. In her digital models, "everything is so cold," says Eaton. "They lack spirit."
The influence of digital photography, whether photographers like Eaton use it or not, is front and center. "I see it reflected in their retreat to the studio, in this hands-on, tactile approach to photography," says Respini. "They're interested in the materiality of photography, in light, paper, process."
In contrast to Eaton, who sketches with a computer but makes her finished works on film, Falls uses Photoshop in a way that is "very painterly," he says. For Falls, working as a retoucher during graduate school at the International Center of Photography–Bard changed his approach. "When it came time to work on my own photos, I really didn't want to keep doing what I'd been doing. I realized how inane it was to take pimples out of someone's face. I wanted to sort of do the opposite using the same tools." Retouching had meant removing supposed imperfections, so Falls instead began adding elements to his pictures. Aside from the abstractions built from colored paper, his recent series, which will be on view at Higher Pictures through March 19, consists of sunny Southern California landscapes, still lifes, and portraits that are all treated with a mixture of Photoshop brushwork and real-world paint and pastel.
For Falls, the unexplored possibilities of these materials push his work. "If we're dealing with a contemporary medium where there's still room for experimentation and new printing processes, I think that should be leading to different esthetics. I'm interested in archival-pigment printing and painting on the photograph, being loose with Photoshop, and incorporating it all—in using all the tools."
If Falls is looking forward with his materials, Sara VanDerBeek, 34, is more concerned with the past. With scaffolding and armatures built to hold images culled from magazines, books, old newspapers, and her own portfolio, VanDerBeek's elegant works function like diagrams of memories. A Composition for Detroit (2009), which she made for "New Photography 2009," consists of four large prints, each showing a series of tall interlocking frames against a dark blue background. Set within them are sections of glass dripping with white paint and images that refer to sunlight and darkness: a solar eclipse in pink and blue or patterns of light through blinds. The structure of the work was inspired by a bank of broken factory windows, says VanDerBeek, who shows at Metro Pictures in New York and will have an exhibition this fall at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. "A lot of the images were taken from publications that were distributed during the time of the riots. They were quite frail and yellow, and I really wanted to convey that texture, to get a sense of this fading image. The images might be folded up in someone's drawer and kept as a marker of this particular event," says VanDerBeek. For her, the work is about "how one image may loom larger than another, and how things shift in memory."
"To Think of Time," her 2010 exhibition at the Whitney Museum, consisted of 29 cool-toned photographs, arranged in sections named for poems from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Many showed vertical, architectural plaster forms that VanDerBeek cast and then photographed in the warm light of dusk and dawn; these were interspersed among blue and gray photographs of the scraped cement foundations of houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. VanDerBeek cites the structure of Whitman's work as an influence, noting the way it moves "back and forth, with these shifts of scale, from personal, internal perspectives to larger, universal views." She is also interested in American history from the time Whitman was writing. "I went to New Orleans because that was such a formative place for Whitman," says VanDerBeek, "but also because it was rich in the development of the history of this country." For her, the plaster structures refer to classical forms, especially Greek and Roman friezes and sculptures and Greek Revival architecture from Whitman's time.
While she was constructing the casts, VanDerBeek would ask herself why she shouldn't simply put the objects themselves in the gallery. "Why is that act of photographing them so important?" she recalls wondering. But the process of turning her plinths into two-dimensional renderings proved necessary to preserve the light in the studio she set up in her family's 1868 Baltimore home, which she felt was essential to the work. "Something about capturing them at a particular moment—an hour in the afternoon or morning—really changes the situation and changes the object. I think they function better in their photographic form than they do just sitting there."
Like her peers, VanDerBeek stretches the definition of the medium. "What I think is amazing about photography is that it can be so expansive. It can take all of these different forms. I wanted to explore the idea of breaking my practice open."
Rebecca Robertson is photo editor of ARTnews.
Image:The Destroyed Room 1978
Transparency in lightbox 1590 x 2340 mm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 1988
Cinematographic photograph © The artist
Text: By ARTHUR LUBOW, The Luminist for the New York Times, February 25, 2007
By ARTHUR LUBOW
On a damp winter morning, 20 weather-beaten men waited at a bleak corner in east Vancouver. You can find scenes like this in most cities: places where laborers gather, hoping that a van will pull up with an employer offering cash in return for a day’s work. This scene, however, was riddled with curious anomalies, starting with the middle-aged figure dressed in black who stood behind a tripod-mounted camera and patiently watched the men wait. And what were the men waiting for? Not a job. That they already had, courtesy of the photographer, Jeff Wall, who had hired them at the actual “cash corner” where they normally congregated and then bused them to this spot he preferred a half-hour’s drive away. No, they were waiting for Wall to determine that the rain had become too heavy or the light had grown too bright or the prevailing mood had turned too restless for him to obtain the feeling of suspended activity and diffused expectancy that he sought in the picture. He was prepared to come here, day after day, for several weeks. On any given morning, typically after three hours elapsed, he would adjourn until the next day, authorizing the men to receive their paychecks of 82 Canadian dollars and get back into the bus. Until then, all of us — the men, Wall and I — waited for something to happen that lay outside our control.
Photography has always involved waiting. When the technology was young, slow-acting emulsions required both photographer and subject to wait motionless for the image to register. The introduction of fast film changed the way a photographer must wait. In the tradition of documentary photography that arose, the photographer is understood to be waiting for the right convergence of subject, lighting and frame before clicking the shutter — waiting for what a master of the genre, Henri Cartier-Bresson, famously called “the decisive moment.” Lee Friedlander, another great street photographer, compared this anticipatory state to the hunting alertness of a “one-eyed cat.” The metaphor of the hunt has seeped into the essential language of photography. You don’t click, press or squeeze a picture; you shoot one. Walker Evans wrote of his “subway series,” the portraits of unaware New York train passengers that he began in the late 1930s: “I am stalking, as in the hunt. What a bagful to be taken home.” And Diane Arbus’s friend and mentor Marvin Israel said after her death in 1971: “The photograph is like her trophy — it’s what she received as the reward for this adventure.”
One thing that Wall knew for certain when he took up the profession in the late 1970s is that he would not become a photojournalistic hunter. Educated as an art historian, he aspired instead to make photographs that could be constructed and experienced the way paintings are. “Most photographs cannot get looked at very often,” he told me. “They get exhausted. Great photographers have done it on the fly. It doesn’t happen that often. I just wasn’t interested in doing that. I didn’t want to spend my time running around trying to find an event that could be made into a picture that would be good.” He also disliked the way photographs were typically exhibited as small prints. “I don’t like the traditional 8 by 10,” he said. “They were done that size as displays for prints to run in books. It’s too shrunken, too compressed. When you’re making things to go on a wall, as I do, that seems too small.” The art that he liked best, from the full-length portraits of Velázquez and Manet to the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock and the floor pieces of Carl Andre, engaged the viewer on a lifelike human scale. They could be walked up to (or, in Andre’s case, onto) and moved away from. They held their own, on a wall or in a room. “If painting can be that scale and be effective, then a photograph ought to be effective at that size, too,” he concluded.
However, judging from the record of his three decades of work, which is the subject of an exhibition opening today at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (and traveling later to the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), I suspect that what Wall found most unsatisfying about photography when he took up a camera was its marginal position in the art world and in art history. There was an established roster of great photographers and classic photographs, which embraced, among other things, the uncannily empty Paris streetscapes of Atget, the formally inventive New York skylines of Alfred Stieglitz and the austere Hale County studies of Walker Evans. The canon led right up to the street photography of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. “I couldn’t get into ’60s art photography — Friedlander, Arbus and Winogrand and Stephen Shore,” Wall says. “These guys were in a photo ghetto. They were into their own world, with photo galleries and their own photo books.” Ambition also colored his thinking. For an energetic young man, what appeal was there in a genre whose practitioners seemed to have already taken their best shots?
Wall thought big. When he emerged in 1978 as a fully formed artist, he presented photographs that demanded equal status with paintings. In sheer size, they were measured in feet, not inches. He produced them as unique objects, not in editions, and their aura was heightened by the mode of display: enormous transparencies lit from behind by fluorescent bulbs, a “light box” format that was typically used for advertising. Like a commercial light box, a Wall photograph grabbed you with its glowing presence, but then, unlike an advertisement, it held your gaze with the richness of its detail and the harmony of its arrangement. You could study it with the attention you devoted to a Flemish altarpiece in a church, and you could surrender yourself to its spell as if you were in a movie theater.
In his methodology, Wall sidestepped altogether the central challenge preoccupying the street photographers, of how to impose a satisfying formal composition on a subject captured instantaneously. Rather than hunt for material to photograph, he manufactured his subject matter in the studio. He was creating what he depicted, not merely the depiction itself. His first cataloged photograph, “The Destroyed Room,” shows a strewn heap of women’s clothing in a ransacked room that a careful observer can detect (and is meant to detect) was constructed as a set for the photo shoot. Equally clear, in this tableau of violence directed against a woman’s possessions, is the tip of the artist’s hat to the feminist art criticism of that time. However, what even a well-educated viewer might have missed, without Wall’s printed exegesis, is the reference the photographer was making to a great 19th-century painting, “The Death of Sardanapalus,” by Delacroix, in which an Assyrian king, his armies defeated, languidly commands the pre-emptive destruction of his court and harem. As significant as any of these allusions is Wall’s insistence that you recognize them. He was pushing his claim to belong to the great tradition of Western art as hard as he could.
How things have changed. Photography no longer needs to clamor for a place at the table; at times, it seems to be hogging the meal. One of the great shifts in Western art over the last three decades is photography’s move from a subsidiary position, akin to the one still occupied by drawings and prints, to a central place alongside painting and sculpture. Literally, it has ascended. Anne Tucker, curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, recalls that in the ’70s, photos were found “on the way to the restroom or the restaurant in every museum.” She adds: “We’ve left the basement.”
The commercial arena has also registered photography’s elevated status. Last year, an Edward Steichen moonlit pond from 1904 set a record for a photograph at auction when it fetched .9 million at a Sotheby’s sale. Even in the context of the art-world bubble, that was eye-popping. Denise Bethel points out that in 1990, when she came to the Sotheby’s photographs department she now runs, the record at auction for a painting was held by a van Gogh portrait of Dr. Gachet, which sold that year for .5 million, and for a photograph by an Edward Weston study of a nautilus shell, which brought 5,000 in 1989. What has occurred since? “The record for a painting at auction today is Picasso’s ‘Boy With a Pipe,’ for 4 million,” she says. “Over 15 years, you have gone from .5 million to 4 million, which could just be inflation. In photographs, the record was set here at Sotheby’s with .9 million for a Steichen photograph. In 15 years, from 5,000 to .9 million — that’s not inflation. That gives you some idea of the explosion in photography.” The explosion continues: Earlier this month, Sotheby’s London set a new record by selling Andreas Gursky’s giant diptych of a 99-cent discount store for .3 million.
Whatever his rueful ambivalence about the art-world sales mania, Wall can take some credit for the recognition of photography as a full-fledged art form. (As for his own prices: While a large Wall photograph infrequently appears at auction, his dealer’s price — and remember, a gallery generally charges much less than an auction resale brings — is about a million dollars. The typical buyer is a museum or a major private collector.) “His best pictures are so good and so original and so fabulous, nothing else today looks like them,” says Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at MoMA, who has curated the current exhibition with Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Singular as Wall’s achievement may be, his ambition has inspired a wave of younger photographers. You can see the influence of his huge images and studied compositions on the Düsseldorf group led by Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Candida Höfer. (Gursky has cited Wall as “a great model for me.”) You can see it as well in the man-in-the-street pictures of Philip-Lorca diCorcia — done with a large-format camera, strobes and unwitting passers-by — which continue Wall’s reworking of the documentary tradition. The recent staged portraits of derelicts by an older photographer, Boris Mikhailov, in which the unfortunate actors are playing themselves, also owe a debt to Wall. Gregory Crewdson’s elaborately staged tableaux of overwrought small-town Americana are a mannered extension of Wall’s cinematographic use of performers and sets. The list could go on indefinitely. Wall doesn’t like the work of all of these photographers. He is critical of pictures that are unthinkingly big merely for the sake of being big, of sensational subject matter that is “too remarkable and too interesting” and of photographers who “want to nail something” and “hit it square on and make it impressive,” where he himself would “rather miss the nail and leave it crooked.” But he likes the notion that he has extended the possibilities of photography — and of art.
One of three children born to a physician father and a homemaker mother, Wall, who is 60, grew up in a comfortable neighborhood in south Vancouver, where his parents encouraged his early ambition to be an artist. Although all four of his grandparents were Jewish immigrants from the Ukrainian city of Odessa, and he has produced two photographs set in a Jewish cemetery, he says that his parents “weren’t religious, weren’t very observant of anything,” and that Judaism “is not a subject that I’m that obsessed or fascinated by.” An intense, clever boy who loved to read, Wall especially enjoyed perusing art publications. Magazines and books were the way the best contemporary art could be seen in Vancouver. Wall remembers his first view of important abstract paintings at the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 as an “overwhelming” experience. “I came back and painted 18-foot canvases,” he says. Later, studying art history at the University of British Columbia, he continued to make art.
Through his interest in contemporary art, Wall awoke to the possibilities of photography — realizing, like many other young artists, that photography offered a way out of the cul-de-sac in which painting had lost itself. The Modernist credo that the artist must not indulge in illusionism but should instead call attention to his bag of tricks — which for a painter included the support of the canvas, the surface of the paint and the two-dimensional flatness of the image — had led to the monochrome paintings of Minimalism. “I had done monochromes to the point where I was painting on the walls with transparent varnish,” Wall recalls. “Some would have a little bit of gold in them, so it would glitter in the sunlight. There was a clear surface of shiny nothing. There was no place you could go beyond that.” The only plausible next step — and this is where the art world had moved — was to renounce the physicality of art entirely in favor of conceptualism. Committed to political and artistic radicalism, most conceptual artists sought to avoid making artworks that might function as commodities, mystifications or palliatives that helped sustain the status quo. In its purest form, conceptual art shunned the baggage-encumbered media of paint or wood and instead manipulated language. “As soon as it was clear that a piece of paper that said it was an artwork was art, then anything was an artwork,” Wall says.
It was under the cloak of conceptual art that photography in the 1970s emerged from the photo ghetto and entered mainstream art galleries. Photoconceptualism often took the form of documentation — either of workaday urban structures and other undistinguished sites (typically accompanied by deadpan, off-kilter texts) or of ephemeral performances. The perfection of the image and the print, so crucial to traditional photography, no longer mattered. The photographic image had been reduced to a kind of thought-illustration, and the artists taking the pictures regarded themselves not as photographers but as artists using photography. Wall himself scored a precocious success as a conceptual artist in 1970, when his cheaply produced booklet, “Landscape Manual,” of nondescript Vancouver places that he photographed from a car was included in “Information,” a hallmark conceptual art exhibition held at MoMA in New York. Still, this was not what had drawn him to art, and it did not hold him for long.
In 1970, Wall stopped making art. With his wife, Jeannette, a native of England whom he had met as a student in Vancouver, and their two young sons, he moved to London to study art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Wall spent much of his three years in London watching movies and reading critical theory. After the family returned to Vancouver in 1973, he earned a living as an instructor; while teaching studio art and art theory, he wrote screenplays and fantasized about becoming a filmmaker like the auteurs he admired — Hitchcock, Bresson, Fassbinder and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Friends warned him off. “I kept saying to Jeff, knowing he was a control freak, ‘Hitchcock was able to have a lot of control over the images in his work, but you won’t be able to go to Hollywood and have that kind of detailed control in a movie,’ ” recalls his early mentor and close friend, Ian Wallace, a postconceptual artist who has had a long and interesting career combining photography and monochrome painting. What apparently cured Wall of the filmmaking bug was the experience of collaborating on a failed movie with Wallace and a mutual friend, Rodney Graham, who has since gained a reputation of his own as both an artist and a musician. The Hitchcock-influenced film followed a woman who steals clothes as she shops. “Jeff was a powerful personality and had all these ideas,” Graham says. “It ended up being totally his film.” Actually, it ended up being no film at all. Wall was unhappy with it and ditched the project, leaving Wallace to salvage stills as large blowups.
The art that Wallace was creating on his own, Wall says, seemed more successful. Wallace produced very large photomontages that he would cut up and paste, rephotograph and hand-color. Sometimes he would stage modern-dress versions of classic paintings, in which his friends would assume one or — with the benefit of montage — several parts. (When I asked Wall whom he played in Wallace’s rendition of Caravaggio’s “Calling of St. Matthew,” he replied: “Jesus. I probably wouldn’t have settled for any other role.”) In the way that a calorie counter might admire a gourmand friend, the finicky Wall respected Wallace’s loosely constructed images. “They looked really good, really rough too,” Wall says. “He was very free. There were no precedents.”
As he well knows, that’s not quite true. The history of photography is stocked with precedents, dating back to its earliest days. You think there is something new about seamless photomontages? In the 1850s, Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson made elaborate composites from multiple negatives. Or staged tableaux? Hippolyte Bayard depicted himself as a drowned man in 1840, and photographers have been staging such shots ever since, with F. Holland Day’s hammy impersonation of Christ at the end of the 19th century anteceding Wall’s more restrained performance in the role. Yet the use of photomontage and the staged tableau seemed fresh to Wall, Wallace and their friends because they were using these techniques in the self-reflexive Modernist spirit of their age. Their versions were patent contrivances, calling attention to their artificiality.
Wallace’s work was strongly in Wall’s mind when he took his family on a trip to Europe and Morocco in the summer of 1977 and first visited the great collection in the Prado in Madrid. As he has sometimes recounted the story, the impression made on him by the Velázquez paintings in the Prado reverberated with the advertising light boxes that he encountered on the side of bus kiosks as he traveled, setting off an explosive artistic reaction when he got back to Vancouver. “I saw the Velázquez, Goya, Titian — I loved it and wanted to be part of it somehow,” he told me. “Every time the bus stopped, you were looking out the window, and there was a sign in a light box. I began to think, It’s luminous, Velázquez was luminous, I’ll try it. I thought, It has a certain vulgar quality, a rough quality, a slightly uncivilized air they brought to high painting.” The paintings in the Prado exerted a galvanizing impact a century earlier on Manet, one of Wall’s heroes; the parallels must have been irresistible. Even before these bus-stop epiphanies, however, Wall had been considering light boxes as a way of avoiding the distressing deterioration of photographs over time. “I was always interested in permanence,” he says. “It’s really important to me that art gets old.” Far more than most oil paintings, color photographs degenerate. Cibachrome printing, which uses metallic rather than organic dyes, is more durable than the alternatives. Unfortunately, the dyes are embedded in a shiny paper that Wall loathed. By printing the pictures as transparencies in light boxes, he avoided that drawback.
When he came home, Wall started working at a furious pace on the light-box transparencies that inaugurated and continue to characterize his mature artistic career. It was a turbulent period: Jeannette had left him, an estrangement that lasted a dozen years. “I did a lot of work between ’78 and ’79,” he says now, with the uninflected tone and ruminative evenhandedness that are features of his conversation. “Even though I wasn’t that pleased about the situation, I wasn’t that displeased on another level.” He was ready in late 1978 for his first one-man show, which took place at the Nova Gallery, a small exhibition space devoted to photography that Claudia Beck, an art historian, and Andrew Gruft, an architecture professor, opened in Vancouver two years earlier. Wall interviewed them before agreeing to the exhibition, to make sure they were versed in the latest art discourse. “His attitude was, ‘I don’t want to show with you if you don’t have the right ideas about things,’ ” Beck recalls. Soft-spoken and exceedingly polite in his normal interactions, Wall has a razor-sharp mind that can slash through artists and critics he disdains.
Presenting his exhibition as an “installation” rather than as a photography show, he placed “The Destroyed Room” in the storefront window of the Nova Gallery, enclosing it in a plasterboard wall. You could see it only from outside, where, especially after dark, it resembled an actual vandalized room. “Cars would jam their brakes on at night,” Gruft says. “I think we had a few near misses.” Before the show closed, the piece was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada, a rousing send-off to a young artist’s career.
Although Wall’s early light boxes reflected what was happening elsewhere in the art world, some of the resemblances were superficial. By using himself as a model, he was playing with the idea of performance that photographer-artists as diverse as Urs Lüthi, David Lamelas, Hannah Wilke and the just-emerging Cindy Sherman were exploring; yet unlike these artists, he didn’t care to make points about social role-playing or identity formation. His use of a light-box format that is derived from advertising suggested a radical analysis of the spectacle of consumer culture, but in what may be revisionist hindsight, he maintains today that when he chose to make Cibachrome transparencies, “I was not especially interested in doing a critique of advertising — it was an accident.” His fastidious concern with the physical beauty of his images also set him apart from most of the contemporary avant-garde photographers and closer to the painters he revered.
For, attuned as he was to the ideas that preoccupied conceptual artists, Wall cared more about the pictorial issues that have historically governed painting. In the contemporary painter’s crisis, he found an opportunity. He thought photographers could undertake the mission that many painters were neglecting: the depiction of how contemporary people talk, dress, work, quarrel and play. He understood just how strange it would be for an artist with Modernist credentials to resuscitate ambitions that had been largely moribund since the passing of Manet. Nevertheless, there are qualities specific to photography that might prove advantageous to the depiction of quotidian reality. Where a painter must employ tricks of foreshortening and tonal gradation to simulate what the eye perceives, a photographer need only point the lens to have everything emerge in instant perspective. Although a smooth photographic surface may be less tactilely pleasurable than a textured layer of paint, it arrives unburdened by the weight of art history. “There’s just a whole lot of problems that photography doesn’t have to engage with,” says Michael Fried, a prominent critic and art historian who has championed Wall’s work. “The photograph shifts the register to a different place. The missing ingredient is everything to do with touch and sensuous surface. It’s a big price, but by paying that price there’s a lot that is sidestepped.”
But staging a street scene and then photographing it as if it had “really” occurred: Wasn’t that a pretense that betrayed the honest parameters of photography? Shouldn’t a photograph be a document of things the photographer found in the world? Not necessarily, Wall thought. “What an artist could do with photography wasn’t bounded by the documentary impulse — but that other part was underdeveloped,” he told me. “Painting could be topographical realism or it could be angels — in the same medium. Why couldn’t photography do the same?” Many earlier photographers, like Brassaï and Bill Brandt, occasionally set up shots that appeared to be candid. Unlike them, Wall and his like-minded colleagues, including Sherman and diCorcia, were unashamed of their fakery. For them, it was one mark of their artistry.
In his early work, Wall self-consciously emphasized how weirdly hybrid his enterprise was. He overlaid allusions to great 19th-century painting and to current feminist art criticism in studio pictures that showed off their artificial construction. For example, in “Picture for Women” (1979), he reconceived Manet’s masterpiece “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” by changing the setting to a photographer’s studio. In Manet’s painting, the central figure, a barmaid with downcast eyes, is visibly the object of a male gaze, emanating from a customer who is seen reflected in the mirror behind her and who is located in a perspectivally impossible position that approximates the one occupied by the viewer of the painting. When he composed his photograph, Wall set his camera, seen (like Manet’s gentleman client) as a mirror reflection, at the center; an attractive young woman stands at the left, coolly contemplating the camera and the photographer beside it, who is none other than Wall himself. In a clever inversion, the camera and its operator have become the central subject of the picture and the object of feminine scrutiny. If it were merely a didactic exercise, “Picture for Women” would hold limited interest. However, the beauty of the seven-foot-long glowing image enthralls even viewers unfamiliar with the art-historical allusions. If you do recognize how Wall converted the receding globe lights of the Folies-Bergère bar into regularly positioned overhead bulbs, deepening the pictorial space in his photograph as Manet did in his painting — well, so much the better. But your enjoyment of the picture doesn’t depend on it.
Over the course of Wall’s career, which numbers only about 130 pictures, he has restlessly resisted repeating himself. Very soon he moved out of the studio, where he often spent months on a picture, to photograph landscapes and street scenes. “I tried to open several paths at once, knowing there were several you could follow,” he says. For landscapes, his main challenge was locating places he thought were worth photographing. The pictorial tradition of Vancouver rests on sublime scenery, either celebrating its majesty or deploring its destruction. Artists of Wall’s generation shied away from that. “We’re all interested in the fissures and cracks in the city, not in the romantic, beautiful notion of the city,” says Christos Dikeakos, a photographer. “Sometimes, we like to think of ourselves as National Geographic photographers who have gone off assignment.” Although residents of Vancouver who see Wall’s photographs will recognize their city, with its distinctive overhead electric wires and encircling mountains, Wall asserts that the sites he seeks are the generic nondescript ones. “This is a drab strip, I love it,” he said one gray morning as we drove down a commercial thoroughfare, coming back from the day-laborers shoot in an eastern suburb. “It has a lot of potential.”
Having chosen not to live in an art capital like New York or London, Wall professes that he could just as easily have lived anywhere, with little effect on his work. “One thing I hate with small cities is the myth of their specialness,” he says. “It’s like in Europe, everywhere has its own ham, its own wine, its own cheese, and they’re all nice, but it doesn’t interest me.” He is after “the indeterminate American look,” which he says he can find by not looking for anything in particular. “You have to forget about the idea of the spirit of the place,” he says. “It’s one of the big, consoling myths of people who live nowhere.” Starting in 1980 with “Steves Farm, Steveston,” in which he photographed a subdivision marching onto agricultural land, Wall has, in his landscapes, zeroed in on an equipoise between the natural and the man-made. In a Wall picture, the industrial structures that inhabit a harbor or the lofty pine that has survived suburban sprawl is no more or less “natural” than the other aspects of the scene.
While no impediment to shooting landscape pictures, the laborious setup of a large-format camera on a tripod loomed as a critical constraint in the genre of street photography, which is traditionally done by a quick-moving lensman toting a lightweight 35-millimeter Leica. Beginning in 1982, through the re-creations that he calls “cinematographic photography,” Wall circumvented the problem. Typically, he would see something, often a small event with compressed human drama and political overtones: two working-class women absorbed in a heated conversation; a man making a racist gesture to an Asian passer-by; a dejected Vietnamese man standing beneath a tree. Rather than snap it, he would go home, think about this glimpse of everyday life or popular culture and then, if he wanted to proceed, hire performers to re-enact the scene. He argues that the sharpness of his resulting image comes close to what the ever-adjusting and -compensating eye perceives, a precision that usually eludes the documentary photographer. We have grown so accustomed to the grainy, blurry pictures of Robert Frank, Weegee, Cartier-Bresson and other great documentary photographers that we extol the deficits — the lack of clarity and detail, the patches that are too bright or too dark — as the hallmarks of authenticity. “You’d have some loss, and that would be interpreted as life escaping film,” Wall told me. His pictures display a different loss. “You have to accept the fact that it is not a snapshot and can’t have those qualities,” he said. “It is a semblance of life occurring on the fly, but it is a semblance. A semblance has its own value.” He pointed out that in the visual arts only photographers and cinematographers are criticized for staging rather than directly recording scenes, since the other arts can never offer anything other than re-creations of the outside world.
Rather than employ professional actors, Wall usually prefers to hire people like those they are portraying. It’s a device he lifted from cinema. “One of the things I liked about Italian neo-realism was just using people as they were, in situations similar to their real situations,” he says. “If you’re interested in the actual, it’s the closest to the actual.” In later years he has tried to elide the distinction to the vanishing point, engaging actual art restorers in “Restoration,” field anthropologists in “Fieldwork” and day laborers in “Men waiting,” the picture I watched him shoot. The performers are playing themselves. However, they are also clay in the hands of the artist. The risk in these “cinematographic” pictures is that Wall will overmanipulate them, until the figures stultify into lifeless puppets. Technological progress exacerbates the danger by giving him greater powers of control.
At the beginning of the 1990s, enlisting the aid of new advances in digital technology, Wall went on holiday from the actual to explore the realm of fantasy and allegory with elaborate montages. “I thought the computer was an escape route into the unreal,” he says. To deflate the grandiosity of these photographs, which he constructed as elaborately as the grandes machines of French Salon 19th-century history painters, Wall injected a sharp black humor. In his studio he staged a vampires’ lawn picnic and, even more extravagantly, a conversation among resurrected Soviet soldiers slain in Afghanistan. He imported Hollywood special-effects consultants as part of his team. “I used up a lot of blood,” he says. He quickly grew tired of these outlandish subjects, but computer technology remains part of his artistic arsenal. By converting his film exposures into digital files, Wall can then superimpose them invisibly and endlessly, often assembling a final image on film from many different shots. The technology freed him from the tyranny of the shutter click and allowed him to build a photograph in the way in which a painter makes daily additions and adjustments to a canvas. For an elaborate work like “A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai),” depicting a group of men who react as a wind blows away papers and leaves, he used more than a hundred shots in the painstaking composition of the final 12-foot-long picture. “The historical irony,” says the critic Michael Fried, “is that at the very heart of what these guys are doing when they use advanced computer technology to assemble a photograph pixel by pixel is this point-by-point labor that predates Renaissance brushwork and goes back to the earliest panel painters, where you put the paint on dot by dot.” Wall has reconsidered two earlier pictures that he made before the availability of advanced digital technology and, with the agreement of their owners, revised them with material from alternate takes. “The problem in the old days when you were working with one piece of film is, it’s like triage,” he explained to me. “You had to take the least bad.”
With computer montage, Wall can also surmount some of the stumbling blocks that bedevil photographers who want, as he does, to reproduce the way the eye sees. It is virtually impossible to photograph a room with daylight streaming in the windows unless you either underexpose what’s inside or white out the exterior view. In “Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona” (1999), he was able, through seamless montage, to depict the detail of the shadowed pavilion interior and what lies outside the glass wall that a janitor is washing. He could similarly accommodate the wild variety of incandescence in “After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue,” an over-the-top re-creation of the light-festooned basement dwelling of the protagonist of Ellison’s novel. The use of photomontages is invisible without being truly hidden.
In an implicit acknowledgment that the walls of the photo ghetto had fallen, around 1990, in a series of still lifes, Wall began directly engaging with photographers as he had done with painters. “He felt he had to go away from photography to build this whole castle, using cinematography, using the painting tradition of Delacroix, Manet, Velázquez,” says Peter Galassi. “Now into that castle he has found a way to introduce all the photographic material he excluded originally.” Although Wall is still obsessed by the longevity of his work, he no longer restricts himself to light boxes. He began making large, beautifully gradated black-and-white photographs on paper in the mid-’90s (“Men waiting” is in black and white) and ink-jet color prints more recently still. Over the last decade, he has acquired four small buildings in a convenient if drug-infested downtown district. There, with the help of two full-time assistants and others as needed, he can develop and print all of his work.
“Men Waiting,” with its cast of 20, its two-week shoot and its on-the-street location, is a small-scale Wall production. Not long before, the artist devoted a full year to “In front of a nightclub” — a picture of young people standing outside a Vancouver club at night. The shoot took so long because the club Wall found, on a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, could not be photographed as he wished. There was no place for him to stand with his tripod and large-format camera. So he had the club exterior — the columns and grille-work of the facade, the gum-spotted sidewalk, the concrete curb — reconstructed in a studio. One assistant worked for six months dressing the set. “Of course, you can’t see everything he did, but that doesn’t matter,” Wall says. “There is dirt and moss growing in the cracks where the bottom of the building is crumbling, but you can’t see it. The discoloration of the sidewalk is extremely accurate, and it took many layers of application. My son and his friends came and chewed gum. That was their job for two weeks.” He placed his strobes in the precise locations occupied by the street lamps and other lights that shine opposite the real nightclub. Concealed in a van with blacked-out windows, he and his assistants parked outside the actual club on several nights and, using a telephoto lens, took 300 or 400 snapshots of the kids gathered there. Wall scrutinized the photos for characters and clusterings he liked, then he hired 40 extras from a casting agency. Dividing them into two groups and giving them general directions, he photographed them over the course of a month on alternate nights. (“People’s metabolism is different at night, their coloring is different,” he explains.) For each group he finished with only one frame that satisfied him. “You only need one,” he points out. Using digital technology, he combined the two photos of the crowd with a third one of the building into his final picture.
Wall enjoys going to extraordinary lengths. “The artistry of doing something is just fascinating,” he told me. “If you don’t like the artistry, why be an artist? It’s fun.” For another picture, “The Flooded Grave,” he kept an oversize custom-built aquarium in his studio for more than six months. The concept of the photograph was to depict a watery world within a freshly dug grave. In his quest for verisimilitude even in this hallucinatory picture, Wall retained two marine biologists who fished out sea anemones, sea urchins and octopuses from a single offshore spot. “I wanted to make it just like a moment in time undersea, not a compendium or display,” he explains. “I wanted to make it as real as I could.”
While in his early pictures Wall openly displayed his contrivances, now he would rather not discuss them. “It doesn’t make any difference,” he says of the nightclub picture reconstruction. “Because what you are seeing here is an exact replica of the place. People get all hung up on the process, and they don’t see the picture.” Some critics who supported Wall at the beginning of his career say that he himself has gotten hung up on his process — seduced by the elaborateness of his techniques and the gorgeousness of his images into abandoning the effort to make viewers think hard in a Modernist way about the gaps and distortions inherent in perception. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, a leading art historian and critic who was an important friend and backer of Wall 25 years ago, says that “Jeff’s shift into narrative representation and Pop versions of subject matter in the light boxes was a strategy to make conceptual art more communicative. It became eventually so grand and so glamorous, it aimed so much at redeeming pictorial traditions, that the original intention was lost.” In place of the former critical approach, Buchloh and like-minded commentators argue, Wall is trying to do as a 21st-century photographer what 19th-century painters like Manet and Seurat did in their elaborate depictions of contemporary life — an historically absurd undertaking. “His claim to be a new history painter is very problematic for me,” Buchloh says. “The pictures have become very overwhelmingly spectacular objects. There is a kind of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk quality. You have the set and the narrative; all we are waiting for is the sound.”
Wall himself asserts that without conceptual art’s exploration of documentation, performance and manipulated language, his career is inconceivable. Indeed, he argues that the sustained attempts by conceptual artists to expose and undermine the pictorial claims of photography ultimately opened the way for a resurgence of depictive art. “How could the iconophobia of the mid-’60s not have on the flip side of the medal someone like me?” he says. “If that phase hadn’t happened, I would be trying to be like Seurat or Manet or Cézanne, and that would be a big failure, because you can’t be someone not of your time.” Significantly, being of his time to Wall no longer entails an obligatory nod to critical art theory in his pictures, nor the need to write theoretical essays as he once very successfully did. “My love of depiction is just affectionate,” he told me. “I’m a more affectionate person than I thought I was. I like trees or I like people’s faces. That’s one reason I think my work has changed. I realized I wasn’t interested in filtering my affection for things through certain levels of mediation.” Yet the Modernist demotion of subject matter’s importance resonates for him more strongly than ever. “Believing in the specialness of what you are photographing is a disaster,” he said. “Then you think the photograph will be good because of what is in it. Cézanne taught me that that is not true. An apple is not very interesting. He expunged any attachment to the subject matter, except what he brought to it. In the painting he would bring it back to life. Only by believing that his painting it is what would enliven it could he make it happen.” Over the last 15 years, Cézanne has replaced Manet as Wall’s cynosure.
Wall is most comfortable discussing his pictures in terms of their formal composition and their broad underlying themes. “He likes being sober,” says his friend the photographer Roy Arden. “He enjoys having a clear mind.” When I asked what interested him in the subject of day laborers, Wall told me that he was fascinated by “the physical animal energy that is present on the street and waiting to be disposed of.” Yet he also, with minimal prodding, acknowledged that the subject matter of his more politically charged early pictures is linked thematically with the recent work. The germinating idea for the nightclub picture, for example, is the solitary figure of a rose seller who can be seen unobtrusively working his way through the line of young clubbers. The rose seller is a quintessential Wall character, as is the small boy who watches at the edge of the room in “A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October 1947” and the down-on-his-luck Native American standing near a dumped shipment of spoiled lettuce in “Bad Goods.” For that matter, “Men waiting” could easily have been called “Band of Outsiders.” “I think Jeff identifies with these figures,” says Wall’s friend Ian Wallace. “They become an allegory for his own sense of difference. He’s created those figures to mirror his own alienation or sense of exclusion.” When I asked Wall how he related to these marginal types, he first explained how single figures break up a formally boring clump, but then readily conceded: “My pictures are obviously related to my own life. Why would I be interested in them otherwise? I’m not a sociologist. I must identify with these figures, even though I often don’t like them, I don’t even feel that sympathetic to them sometimes. But I must identify with them in some way because they keep coming into pictures that I want to make.” One of his less successful pictures, “The Goat,” depicts four boys tormenting a fifth; it was shot in a lane near Wall’s childhood home. “I don’t see that as autobiographical, although I was probably an outsider kid in some way,” he said. “But I wasn’t the loner kid in school. I never got ostracized from anything. In ‘The Goat,’ I would more likely be part of the gang than the other guy, although I wouldn’t be proud of it and I would probably identify with the other guy.”
A more startling piece of autobiographical material lies buried (or out in plain sight) in “The Destroyed Room,” the breakthrough light box that depicts a woman’s brutalized bedroom. Wall made the picture in 1978, which was the year his wife, Jeannette, left him for another man. (After that relationship ended, Jeannette returned to Jeff, bringing with her a third son, whom they have raised together.) To construct the scene in the picture, Jeff used Jeannette’s clothing. “I borrowed her clothes because we were still on good terms and she had the good clothes,” he told me. For all the talk of allusions to Delacroix and feminist art criticism, I wondered if the most crucial piece of subtext for “The Destroyed Room” might revolve around a spurned husband’s rage. “You’re probably right, but it doesn’t feel right to me,” he said. “I don’t remember feeling particularly angry at that time.” He acknowledged that he “might express a feeling through a series of mediations.” But the subject didn’t intrigue him. “I don’t find my own experiences very interesting,” he said. “I find my observations interesting. Maybe that’s why I’m a photographer. Maybe an observation is an experience that means more to you than other experiences.”
Wall has been accused of being a control freak who smothers the life out of his pictures. He certainly is a man who likes to plan for all contingencies and command a situation. Yet he has chosen an art form that is characterized by uncontrollability; even with digital editing, accidents will occur. Sometimes they are happy accidents. In the course of shooting “Men waiting,” for which he had prepared in his usual meticulous way, he changed the frame of the picture. One of the reasons he liked the location he had selected (to double for the less formally complex if admittedly authentic “cash corner”) was a scraggly little tree that had shed its leaves for winter. Further down the street was another tree, a giant fir. After taking five days to find his camera position, he concluded that he couldn’t eliminate the unasked-for fir from the picture, but by including only part of the trunk, he would minimize it. On one of the first days of the shoot, the rain increased, and several of the men huddled beneath the evergreen for shelter. When that happened, Wall realized that the fir had a role to play in the picture after all. He changed the camera setup to encompass the entire trunk, allowing the crowd of men to continue to the edge of the picture and, by implication, beyond. “That tree bothered me all along,” he told me. “If it hadn’t rained hard, I might never have noticed it. Now I’ll just include it. It’s stronger for it.” Throughout the shoot, he would perceive undirected movements — an umbrella stuck in the mud, a hooded head lowered — and choose to keep them. Speaking softly on a walkie-talkie, he would ask his three assistants to adjust the position and behavior of the waiting men. The final picture was structured by his intelligence and artistic sense, but it was animated by the unpredictability of his living subjects. “You can’t make these things up,” he said.
I asked Wall about “Polishing,” a photograph of a young man shining his shoes before he goes off to work. The picture had required many experiments to arrive at the correct angle and position of the camera and subject so that the hand applying the rag to the shoe looked the way Wall envisioned it. “If you want to get a photo like Garry Winogrand, you go to a shoeshine stand and you fire away, and either you get it or you don’t,” he said. “It’s the same problem, but I get to do it over and over again until I get it right. The level at which the rendering must be done is ratcheted up. If you’re in the street and you get it right, great. If you get it almost right, that might be O.K., too.” No sooner had he said that, however, than he retracted it. “No, I don’t think that’s true. If the hand is wrong in a Winogrand, he would probably reject it.” He mused for a moment about all the pictures that the great street photographers must have missed to their frustration. Then, comparing documentary photographers of the past with the digitized, artifice-friendly practitioners of today, he said something he would never have said when he started out 30 years ago: “The more you think about it, there are fewer differences than you might think. It’s all photography.” Thanks in part to Wall’s pioneering pictures, “artists using photography” no longer feel a need to distance themselves from others in their medium. They have emerged from their clumsily confining, defensive chrysalis.
Arthur Lubow, a contributing writer, last wrote for the magazine about the singer Thomas Quasthoff.
A day is a difficult thing to photograph. Not because of the duration involved — it’s certainly possible to capture a long period of time in a single shot — but to be able to deduce the flow of time in a composition that makes you really feel it, well that’s a different story. Suffice it to say that Greek photographer Chris Kotsiopoulos nailed it. This shot was taken over a 24 hour period, from Dec 30 – 31, 2010, when the resolute artist remained in the same spot for total of 30 hours. A veritable marathon. Um, yeah.
Take a look here for his description of the process, which, as I expected, seemed pretty complicated, not only because of his use of something called an intervalometer and the possession of an astrosolar filter but because of the need for long and short exposures, the location of exact cardinal points and 24 hours of cloudless sky.
Below is an explanation of what’s going on in the above shot.
In Shinchi Maruyama’s photographs, handfuls of water tossed into the air become flowerbeds or perfect cylinders. An amalgam of sculpture, performance, and photography, Mauyama’s work reveals how much beauty can occur in the blink of an eye.
Shinchi Maruyama was born in 1968 in Nagano, Japan. After graduating from Chiba University in 1991, majoring in film and photography, Maruyama began taking photos for his personal project “Into the Spiti Valley,” a documentary work about Tibetan culture in India. The exhibition opened in 2001 along with the publication of two books, Into the Spiti Valley and Spiti. Maruyama moved to New York in 2003 where he created his two latest series, “Nihonga” and “Kusho.”
How does your work as a photographer relate to traditional Japanese painting and calligraphy?
The only art series of mine that has been inspired by Japanese traditional calligraphy is Kusho. As a young student, I often wrote Chinese character in sumi ink. I loved the nervous, precarious feeling of sitting before an empty white paper, the moment just before my brush touched the paper. Those childhood moments have undeniably influenced my work in that series, however, my respect for the Japanese ability to find the beauty in the imperfect (the essence of wabi-sabi) is the main source of inspiration that is found throughout all of my work.
You describe the images in your photographs as water sculptures, how do you make these sculptures?
By my hands and glasses of water.
How do you then document them?
I use a Phase One P45 camera and a Broncolor Strobe to capture them.
These images—or sculptures—are so exciting, fleeting, and unique. How do you determine or control the shape of the water or ink?
Just keep throwing the liquids for the sake of it.
It seems there’s a definitive moment of performance in your work, though this be said of all painting and sculpture. Are you more aware of the event or moment of your sculpture because the final result is a photograph?
I think I am more aware of the moment recently after many years of experimenting with liquids. But no matter how many times I repeat the same process of throwing it in the air, I never achieve the same result. And I am so fascinated by this unexpected interaction of liquids colliding, which happens fairly infrequently, that I am overwhelmed by its beauty.
Was your process for making the Garden images different from that of the Kusho or Water Sculpture images?
Yes. For Garden, I’ve pictured shapes and colors of the liquids in my mind first, and tried to re-create it on the shoot. It is said that a Zen garden represents the minds of high priests who achieved enlightenment. I always attain serenity by just being in a Zen garden. It makes me forget every temptation, evil thought, or news from outside. I’ve tried to represent this feeling I get from Zen gardens in these photographs. Although I am still far from those enlightened monks, my actions—throwing liquids for the sake of it and photographing them over and over endlessly—could be considered spiritual practice to reach enlightenment.
E-ISSN: 1548-9930 Print ISSN: 0191-1961
DOI: 10.1353/mis.2010.0043Clues to a Lost WomanThe Photography of Francesca Woodman Kris Somerville
From Space2; 1976; Providence, Rhode Island
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As a teenager Francesca Woodman started keeping a journal. She filled old ledgers with her scratchy handwriting about the minutiae of her daily life composed in a restless, excited style. Her "pirouettes of speech" were fashioned after her favorite Modernist poet, Gertrude Stein. She carried her pages of "Steinwriting," as she called it, with her everywhere in an oversized bag. She enjoyed playing with language, perhaps as much as she did experimenting with the properties and limitations of photography. The yellowed pages of her journals are filled with oddly turned phrases: "just-breath summer," "sand thoughts all from the sea" and "I get immersed in fog and grey monotones."
Sometimes writing in her journals in third person, "Francesca" extols her love of food and cookbooks, fancy used-clothes stores, sleep, the ocean, Victorian novels and her current romantic interest. More frequently she recounts her artistic failures and successes. Her attitude toward her photography is dire, urgent, passionate but also full of self-doubt and insecurity. She worries that she isn't getting [End Page 80]
Untitled; 1975–1978; Providence, Rhode Island
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enough work done, that it's not good enough and that her technical skill is lacking—the typical concerns of a dedicated, determined artist. The finest moments are when she reveals her inventive spirit. Many of the entries are notes on photos she plans to stage. In 1973 in her journal dated August 9 she writes, "I think when I get home I should take pictures of objects: purse, hand, etc. 'clues to a lost woman.'"
Since Francesca's suicide in January 1981 at twenty-two, admirers of her photography have sought answers to her sudden, tragic death in the details of her eight hundred black-and-white prints, mostly self-portraits. Why would someone so young, talented and beautiful take her own life? The fact that an audience continues to ask questions about her life and art nearly thirty years later speaks to her work's powerful capacity to evoke emotions and curiosity. "Hypnotic," "ethereal," "ephemeral," "enigmatic," "haunting," "luminescent," "liminal," "infinite" are words often used to describe her oeuvre.
To scour Francesca's pictures for biographical insight would be to miss the performative nature of her work, the playing-dress-up quality of it all. Woodman took pleasure in the theatrical staging of her photos; she placed herself, often nude, at the center of a scene. She knew exactly the effect she wanted to create in her constructed images and the parts she wanted to play. In her studies of the female body she sometimes adopts the guise of a grown woman posing provocatively in antique lingerie or silk slips, while at other times she is a demure girl in a cotton floral dress and Mary Janes. The pictures are haunting, Francesca materializing and dematerializing like an apparition. Often she seems to dissolve into the mise en scène of her photographs: a magician's expert disappearing act among stained, peeling walls of decaying interiors. Always there is a felt presence in her absence as she explores the slippery nature of reality.
Indulging her love of the Gothic, she dressed in vintage frocks and posed in abandoned buildings and houses strewn with secondhand furniture, quilts, mirrors and glass shards, odd bits of sculptures, animal furs and plants, or in cemeteries among sinking mausoleums and headstones. Through careful arrangement and optical trickery, her face is frequently [End Page 82]
Untitled; 1975–1978; Providence, Rhode Island (RISD)
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My House; 1976; Providence, Rhode Island
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House #3; 1976; Providence, Rhode Island
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blurred or obscured, her body a shrinking presence in a darkened corner, or she's erased completely by brilliant rays of sunlight. She also likes to edge out of the frame, leaving only fragments of herself behind. Whether this is suggestive of a young woman bent on self-annihilation is impossible to know, yet the images do indeed seem revelatory of a dark, complex inner life—an inner life that continues to puzzle and fascinate.
Closer examination of her photographs forces the viewer beyond the obvious fabrications and set-ups to studies of the limits of photography. Many of the photographs are masterful in their manipulations of the boundaries of pictorial space. Through shadows, reflections or long exposures, she segments her body, blurs its movements, merges it with objects and spaces or blends it with elements of architecture, resisting the confines of a single, still image.
Woodman's tragic biography draws comparisons to the life of the confessional poet Sylvia Plath, another artist whose fictional personae are interpreted biographically in attempts to link life and work. A thanatological urge is clearly present in Plath's work; images of death and rebirth were part of her personal mythology. She also had a well-documented history of suicide attempts. However, it's unclear whether the same was true of Francesca.
A more interesting and less recognized similarity between the artists is their wry humor. In an untitled photograph, Woodman crawls into a curio cabinet among taxidermy birds and small animals and becomes her own specimen. Her Charlie the Model series features a nude, middle-aged man who strikes unabashed poses despite his girth. There's a joyful reciprocity between photographer and model as he plays with mirrors and large pieces of paper in the open space of a rundown loft. In Three Kinds of Melon in Four Kinds of Light, she places two sliced melons on a wooden table before a topless model, satirizing our obsessions with breasts. Wit also infuses the speakers of Plath's poems. They poke fun at themselves and the world around them. Both Plath and Woodman were sensitive, self-aware, preternaturally gifted [End Page 86]
Untitled; 1977–1978; Italy
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Untitled; 1979–1980; New York
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artists. Each pushed the limits of her medium in a quest for professional success. Neither lived to see the fullness of her achievements.
Francesca Woodman was born on April 3, 1958, in Denver, Colorado. She was the daughter of successful artists. Her father is a well-known painter and photographer whose work is part of the Pattern and Decoration Movement of the late 1970s. He taught painting and art criticism at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her mother is a successful ceramicist. Her brother, Charles, became a video artist and professor of electronic art. The Woodmans' contemporary house at the base of Flagstaff Mountain was filled with books, music, pottery and visiting artists.
Francesca's was a childhood of travel and museums. Her parents owned a second home outside Florence, where the family spent their summers. Francesca became fluent in Italian and cultivated an appreciation for the city's moodily atmospheric buildings.
When she was a teenager, her father gave her an old Yashica camera; she started taking complex, interesting pictures right away. Self Portrait at Thirteen shows her precocious talent in a photograph of herself sitting on a bench dressed in a bulky cable-knit sweater, her face hidden behind a curtain of hair. She also had an early appreciation of Dada and Surrealism. She worked on her photographic skills at Abbott Academy in Massachusetts, where teachers and classmates recognized the prowess and originality of her work. After high school she attended from 1975–1979 the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the best art schools in the country, and studied in Rome as part of its honors program.
In 1980 she was an artist-in-residence at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Friends from school and fellow artists remembered her as a charming eccentric who spoke in a quick, high-pitched voice, donned theatrical ensembles and rode a beribboned bike. But beneath her slightly nutty facade was a shrewd, ambitious perfectionist who took herself and art seriously.
At the conclusion of her residency, she moved as a penniless artist to a cold-water flat in New York's East Village to make a career in photography. She filled the studio with props. The space quickly took on the look of a well-used workshop. She left the crumbling concrete walls unadorned, preferring to use them as backdrops for her photos. Temperamentally she was much more interested in the quiet act of solving photographic problems than in artistic celebrity and the marketability of her current projects. Still, she worked hard at self-promotion. [End Page 89]
Photographically, Francesca was a dissenter of form; her work was at odds with the formal realist tradition of the 1970s. The era's mainstream "straight photography" prized unmanipulated, natural image, whereas she chose to create contrived, dramatic situations both for theatrical effect and to challenge ideas of how to render a subject truthfully. She had begun to exhibit her work in group shows but was dissatisfied because she felt that her career was not moving ahead fast enough.
Artists are seldom the best judges of their own work. This is indeed true of Woodman. At the time of her death she was still experimenting with technique and composition and did not view herself as a fully realized artist. Yet her body of work has made her one of the most original artists of the 1970s and among the most influential photographers of the late twentieth century. Despite a career of less than a decade, Francesca left behind a considerable body of work infused with the emotions of loss and longing.
Some Disordered Interior Geometries was printed as a limited-edition booklet in 1982, a year after her death. The book was as original and enigmatic as she was. Francesca mounted photos of a female body in a variety of positions on pages of an Italian geometry primer. In the margins are handwritten notes that vacillate between diary entries and poetry. In her photos she was always hiding—under wallpaper, behind masks, in cabinets, engaging in an endless game of hide-and-seek. Yet what she reveals most clearly in her book, as she did in her journals, is an artist who valued and believed in the enduring power of words and pictures. [End Page 90]
Untitled; 1977–1978; Rome, Italy
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By the early 1940s, the infamous crime scene photographer Arthur Fellig—better known by his adopted name "Weegee"—was firmly established as an American icon. While his photos of gangland murders splashed across New York tabloids, Weegee's own face appeared regularly in the press. His career provides a rare instance in the history of news photography in which the figure behind the camera achieved as much notoriety as the pictures he shot. Indeed, his persona often overshadowed his individual images, and if we step around the corpus of scholarship valorizing him as a naive psychic-savant with a Speed Graphic, we find that Weegee's success depended in large part upon his calculated deployment of a hard-boiled autobiographical narrative. Skillfully exploiting a wealth of visual and written media, he utilized every opportunity to publicize a dynamic life story that capitalized upon the era's fascination with hard-boiled tropes. An examination of his career affords a stunning view of how the wisecracking masculine discourse popular in the two decades before the second world war formed a nexus between entertainment genres, such as pulp novels and Hollywood crime film, and the informational media of American newspapers.
To a twenty-first century viewer familiar with hard-boiled literature and its cinematic siblings, the personal look Weegee sported now seems comically over-determined. In publicity shots, he affects the unshaven nonchalance of film noir's homelier men—Peter Lorre, Edmund O'Brien, or Edward G. Robinson (see Figure 1). Like Robinson's chubby gangsters, Weegee punctuates his tough guy persona with a cigar. His fingernails are dirty, a sign that he, unlike the impeccably groomed gangsters he often photographed, makes an "honest" living. His hand is unburdened by a wedding ring. Straight ahead he stares, his own Speed Graphic set with a flash attachment ready to fire, as if he were engaged in a representational shoot-out with the photographer taking his picture. Below the photograph, a caption reads "Weegee and his Love—his Camera." Penned by Weegee himself for the frontispiece to his first book, Naked City (1945), the caption anchors the meaning already intimated by the photograph—that this [End Page 21] man, similar to the pulp fiction detective, lives for his work and finds erotic pleasure in the violence circumscribing his job.
In fact, Weegee's career bears important chronological parallels to the histories of crime fiction and film. His vocational entry was simultaneous with the birth of hard-boiled literature. In 1920, just four years before he took a job as darkroom operator for Acme News Services, H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan founded The Black Mask. The first pulp magazine to specialize in crime and detective fiction, it introduced its premier literary detective, Race Williams, in 1923. Created by writer Carroll John Daly, Williams engendered a line of dry-humored, steel-fisted detectives who, like the persona Weegee projected, are typified by flagrant violations of social and professional conventions.
During the heyday of the gangster film genre in the early to mid-1930s, Weegee left his job at Acme to become a freelance photographer specializing in night-shift coverage of fires, accidents and murders. In 1944, the year that witnessed the release of Billy Wilder's quintessential film noir, Double Indemnity, Weegee's crime scene photographs were on exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art. Finally, by 1958, while the excesses and uncertainties of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil signaled the end of a certain type of Hollywood representation of crime, Weegee's photographic work had degenerated into optical trickery and soft pornography. Having relocated from New York to Hollywood, he drifted into a slow oblivion from which he never recovered.
As we will discuss in Part One of this essay, Weegee was not alone among newsworkers in playing up the parallels between his life and that of the hard-hitting heroes in pulp fiction and crime film. During the same period, a whole cadre of lesser-known press photographers also began generating autobiographical narratives about their dangerous exploits working to acquire news images. Because tabloid work in particular was so denigrated, it behooved photographers to develop a thick skin about their experiences in the industry. Like Weegee, many of these men shaped the professional disadvantages they faced into narratives that reframed their hardships as hard-boiled adventures. Meanwhile, the popular media was liberally borrowing from the tabloid press, at times recasting actual tabloid news stories in fiction and film, at other points offering dramatic heroes associated with news work. The result of this interchange was a dynamic symbiosis between informational and entertainment media.
Part Two extends these broader observations about press work and hard-boiled tropes to reconsider Weegee in a new light—as an autobiographer. In his essay "Weegee's World," Miles Barth remarks that Weegee's photographs function as "part of an autobiographical project."1 Barth's comment implies this "project" encompasses more than the photos themselves, and indeed, a key trait distinguishing Weegee from other pen-wielding news photographers of his era is the sheer [End Page 22] scope of his autobiographical venture. While his late prose memoir Weegee by Weegee (1961) is rightfully given less critical attention than his earlier work, its main shortcoming is its haphazard regurgitation of autobiographical material he had already circulated decades earlier in more compelling ways and through an astonishing array of forms, including interviews, articles for camera magazines, commissioned publicity photos, and the superb Naked City. Our reading of Naked City argues that this seminal collection in the photojournalism canon must be reconsidered as both a consciously crafted narrative, and as autobiography.
Finally, our essay concludes with a brief third section, "Voiceover." Borrowing its title from the film trope whereby events are narrated in retrospect as if, all along, they have been fated to occur, we consider the implications of America's fin-de-siècle love affair with film noir which, as James Naremore has thoroughly demonstrated, extends well beyond cinematic perimeters to include fashion, music, and advertising. Using Weegee as a case in point, we posit that the current vogue for noir imagery is a middlebrow mode of both legitimizing a fascination with crime while simultaneously distancing that interest from the tabloid media, which over the past two decades has assumed new prominence through the proliferation of TV tabloids. Because they market sensationalized crimes and other social taboos to a working class and largely female audience, the tabloids have been derided by the educated elite throughout the twentieth-century. It is only recently that they have begun to be appropriated as a subject "worthy" of scholarly attention. And while insightful critical studies of the tabloids have been written, most notably by Kevin Glynn and Elizabeth Bird, the overwhelming perception of this media remains as negative as it did in the 1920s, when Silas Bent in The Nation referred to it as "the prankish and irresponsible illegitimate child of journalism."2 By ignoring crime films' allegiance with the tabloid and locating film noir's influences elsewhere in culturally respectable sources such as German Expressionism, Freudian psychology, and Cold War anxieties, critics have overlooked the tabloids' significant impact on crime
cinema. Our essay seeks to redress that gap, identifying the current "noiressence" in American culture as a class-conscious way of enjoying the visions of crime now canonized by museums and academia. At the same time, this noir fetish disassociates those images from the decidedly lowbrow contemporary tabloids bursting from grocery checkout isles and dominating the television screen.
Film critic Frank Krutnik has observed that the popularity of the hard-boiled mode "involved not merely an Americanization of the classical crime or detective story, but also an emphatic process of masculinisation."3 [End Page 23] This insistence on gendering crime became apparent not only in fiction and film of the late 1920s through the 1940s, but also in the seemingly more removed realms of the news industry. As a matter of fact, one of the most famous journalism exploits of the era exemplifies how tough guy activities had become part of the day's news work. Eager to get a picture of the 1928 execution of murderess Ruth Snyder in the Sing Sing death chamber where cameras were banned, the New York Daily News—the reigning tabloid of its age—brought in Chicago photographer Tom Howard. Howard entered the prison with the rest of the press corps, a small hidden camera strapped to his ankle. When the executioner pulled the electric switch, Howard extended his leg, pressed a shutter threaded through his trousers on a long cord, and snapped his shot. Assisted by a team of reporters, he rushed the graphic photo of Snyder's death-throes back to the paper, where it ran the next morning under the caption "Dead!"4
The Snyder photograph set off a furor over decency in the press, and remained notorious in large part because of the illicit way it was obtained. It also triggered a roughly twenty-five-year period during which public focus on press photography shifted from images to something else that assumed surprising importance: the photographer's words. For the first time, elaborate narratives were generated about the act of acquiring news pictures, and American audiences were encouraged to be as interested in the sensational story behind the photo as in the image itself. Instead of paying attention to the documentary powers or aesthetic merits of particular pictures, these narratives were far more concerned with proving that the shot might have cost the photographer his life.
By our estimate, well over one hundred hard-boiled accounts of news photographers' careers, in the form of book-length autobiographies, feature articles, newspaper columns, and photo-essays, appeared between 1927 and approximately 1950.5 Crossing the purlieus of photography into authorship, Weegee and his contemporaries crafted stories of ultra-virile prowess that might have emerged right out of crime fiction and film. This deployment of tough guy style became an efficacious means of legitimizing the male news photographer's activities, image, and profession. On a larger scale, these photographers' narratives attempted to transform the field of photography itself into an ideal site for the enactment of a variety of masculine postures. They thus participated in a general twentieth-century trend to sever photography from its Victorian associations with idleness, social and artistic marginalization, and effeminacy.6
Given that much criticism about Weegee tends to accentuate his supposedly "maverick" and "naive" style of photography, it is easy to forget that he spent nearly a quarter of a century in New York City as a news professional working for press agencies, tabloid newspapers, [End Page 24] and magazines. He began his career as a part-time darkroom assistant for the New York Times in 1921, where he dried prints for the paper and their syndication service Wide World Photos. Later that decade, he landed a job as a full-time darkroom operator for the Acme news agency, a source of photographs for three of the major New York dailies, the Daily News, the World Telegram, and the Herald Tribune.7 He worked at Acme for roughly ten years, often substituting during his last five years there for staff photographers who refused to work late-night shifts covering murders and other crimes. Though he embarked on a career in freelance photography in 1935, he continued to take crime photographs for the daily newspapers and, in 1940, was hired as a special contributing photographer for PMDaily, a progressive newspaper where he was employed until the paper's closing in 1948.
We bring up these stages in Weegee's employment in order to stress that this "forceful photographer with a unique style and personality" was squarely situated within the highly visible and gendered sphere of New York news culture, which taught him not only how to photograph, but how to define, describe, and promote himself through storytelling.8 His news work coincided with a period of great energy and development in the business. Both straight newspapers and tabloids enjoyed enormous circulation; at the same time, journalism itself was being molded by other media, particularly Hollywood film. Indeed, between 1928 and 1948, the year Weegee himself relocated to Hollywood, nearly nine hundred films were produced about the news industry.9 In part, Hollywood's fascination with newspaper operation had to do with the steady stream of ex-journalists—including such well-known figures as Ben Hecht and Mark Hellinger—who migrated to Hollywood as screenplay writers. Moreover, the notoriety of news photographers like Tom Howard placed the profession in the public eye. Perhaps most importantly, films focused on the news industry because it offered a direct link to criminal behavior, thus satisfying Hollywood's exhaustive efforts in the 1930s to exploit its leading moneymaker, the gangster film, by extending its reach into new narratives. As critic Thomas Doherty observes, the urban desperado-hero was a top-seller, and "adroit screenwriters wedge[d] gangsters into newspaper films, courtroom dramas, and women's melodrama."10 As the wealth of news-oriented films from that decade demonstrates, the reporter's beat could be as effective as the cop's for framing crime stories.
Many films produced about the news business during these years spotlight the activities of the press photographer on assignment. In them, the very characteristics for which he was generally derided and the limitations he faced as a professional are romanticized. As media historians like Barbie Zelizer have demonstrated, the news photographer of the 1930s faced a host of liabilities: he generally received scant [End Page 25] pay (even less than his underpaid fellow reporters), was given little or no formal training, and was the frequent object of professional and public antagonism. Reporters generally regarded journalism's increasing dependence on photographs with ambivalence, recognizing that images enhanced news appeal while at the same time fearing they had the potential to circumvent the power of the word. Consequently, photojournalists of the 1930s often had to work in embattled environments. Subject to prejudice within the newsroom, they often fared worse while on assignment, their cameras still associated with the exploitations of yellow journalism rampant in the first two decades of the twentieth century. If these hardships were true for news photographers in general, they were especially so for the crime news photographer who, as David J. Krajicek so colorfully puts it, has always been regarded as "the catfish of the newsroom."11 Indeed, as a crime photographer, Weegee was part of a group of news workers with a reputation for being the "roughest" subculture within the industry. An occupation that required being on call twenty-four hours a day and frequenting places like bars and whorehouses, crime photography had a reputation for appealing only to those men who couldn't find employment in other areas of news work.12
To make matters even more difficult for Weegee and others in his field, crime photography was integrally associated with the tabloid industry. During the 1920s and 1930s, most crime photographers worked for tabloid newspapers, which, unlike their "serious" counterparts, featured numerous graphic pictures as part of their daily fare. These papers attracted widespread censure, particularly from religious groups and the canons of journalistic officialdom. Samuel Taylor Moore of the Independent described tabloids as "an unholy blot on the fourth estate—bawdy, inane, and contemptible."13 Another writer published a list of "Tabloid Offenses" in the Forum.14 In short, the general consensus was that the tabloids "reduce the highest ideals of the newspaper to the process of fastening a camera lens to every boudoir keyhole."15
Tabloids came under such derision partly because they appealed to the working classes. By the year of the Snyder murder, the three tabloids that had most closely covered the case—the New York Daily News, the Daily Mirror, and the Evening Graphic—each boasted a circulation rate surpassing that of most official newspapers. This is particularly remarkable given that all three had only been founded a few years earlier. The Daily News appeared in 1919. By 1927, its circulation rate had neared 1,000,000 readers, the largest of any newspaper in the nation. The Daily Mirror reached a circulation of 400,000 by that same year, due in part to its inside coverage of the famous Hall-Mills murder case in the summer of 1926 and to the hiring of notorious gossip [End Page 26] columnist Walter Winchell in 1927. Widely regarded as the most disreputable of the three papers, The Evening Graphic (known to its critics as the "Porno-Graphic") attracted 600,000 readers at the height of its popularity in 1928. "None of the other New York papers had lost circulation," explains historian Simon Bessie, "yet, in less than seven years three tabloids had acquired 1,500,000 readers, apparently conjuring them up out of the blue."16 Tabloids thus created an entirely new set of readers, listed by one writer in 1928 as "shop-girls, stenographers, housewives, lower theatrical folk, laborers, immigrants, and—what is most serious—school children," who apparently had never read newspapers before.17 It is this popularity with the lower classes, as much as its interest in crime and other social transgressions, which has led to the tabloid's reputation as a déclassé and "trashy" medium, argues scholar Kevin Glynn.18 It wasn't simply that the Snyder photo or crime scene imagery offended the aesthetic or ideological sensibilities of elite readers; crime photography was strongly associated with the working classes, who were then, as they are now, the tabloids' most avid readers.
Yet as a number of films of the period demonstrate, this association between the tabloid crime photographer and the working classes could be used to promote the photographer as a hard-boiled hero, someone rugged and unpretentious enough to be the intermediary between "ordinary" readers and the news. A stunning example appears in The Picture Snatcher. The third film from 1933 to cast James Cagney as a violent, ruthless, and immoral character, The Picture Snatcher suggests that these three traits are essential not only for mobsters but also for news photographers. Cagney plays Danny Kean, an ex-racketeer trying to make good. He stumbles into a tabloid office—the one place where a lack of proper education, a working-class background, and even a criminal history actually prove advantageous. Immediately hired as a "picture snatcher," Kean's job is to secure photographs of victims by whatever means necessary, whether it involves posing as an insurance agent or stealing pictures when a grieving widower has left the room.19 Kean's willingness to work for the paper implies his continued allegiance with criminality, despite his ostensible efforts to reform. And in direct allusion to Tom Howard's snapping the Ruth Snyder photograph, Kean sneaks into an execution and takes pictures for his paper.
The Picture Snatcher demonstrated how appealing the press photographer could be if he was presented as brutal, nefarious, and thus, hyper-masculine. Other representations in a variety of media followed over the next decade. In 1936, Black Mask published "Murder Mix-up," by George Harmon Coxe. Featuring news photographer Jack "Flash" Casey, the story valorizes both Casey's ability to get photos on his own terms and his refusal to be bossed around on the job. When [End Page 27] asked by his editor where he and his assistant have been, for example, Casey responds: "We get paid to take pictures, and we take 'em. How we get 'em is our business."20 Casey went through a number of incarnations, appearing in the 1938 film Here's Flash Casey, then later in Casey, Crime Photographer, a popular radio program that aired nationwide in 1943. Meanwhile, Coxe went on to publish novels about another crime photographer, Kent Murdock. An employee of the Boston Courier-Herald, Murdock moonlights as detective. A stereotypical tough guy hero, he possesses a "lean hardness of body" and a "solid, angular jaw." And although "well mannered, intelligent and well educated, he could talk the language of cops and bookies and gamblers and circulation hustlers as though he understood them."21 Special interest hobby magazines such as Minicam Photography, U.S. Camera, and Photography also cashed in on the appeal of the punch-throwing picture man. One article, entitled "The Hard Boiled School of Photography," narrates the "legend of Skippy Adelman, PM's Picture Ace." Described as having a "tough wiry figure" and the "hands of a boxer," Adelman embodies all the ideal traits of the street-smart protagonist. Much is made, for example, of Adelman's childhood poverty and ironfisted upbringing: "The early years of Skippy Adelman's life made him sick and unhappy, then coldly, bitterly furious. He started taking pictures simply as a means of earning a living, and then suddenly discovered his camera was a graphic instrument."22 According to the tenets of hard-boiled fiction, the protagonist's knowledge of the city is a legacy stemming from a working-class childhood that serves as a first-hand introduction to urban violence. Published in April 1945, the article appeared two months before Weegee's Naked City.
It is against this backdrop of actual hardship and popular representations of news work that we must consider the press photographers' impulse to craft written narratives that effectively turned tribulations into manly conquests. This is especially pertinent to discussions of Weegee's work. Even in the wake of recent photographic scholarship, with its attendant interest in post-structuralism and cultural studies, he is often still viewed uncritically as photography's noir hero, his images currently enjoying a resurgent interest as film noir assumes greater ubiquity in American culture. Take, for example, Allene Talmey's description in a 1997 essay, which introduces Weegee by way of pulp clichés: "He used his camera not to celebrate the people he photographed, but to make a living, a narrow, spare living. What he wanted was the freedom to be Weegee: some fame, some money (but not much) and women were the triple peaks of his desires."23 Or John Coplan's "Weegee the Famous": "There is a frantic edge to Weegee's imagery. He worked at a pointblank range and at a desperate pitch, the better to catch people in the raw. . . . His own tawdriness led him to where few other photographers were willing to go. . . ."24 [End Page 28]
First and foremost, Coplan's last statement is simply wrong. A glance at the online Daily News archive or the recently published New York Noir: Crime Photos from the Daily News Archive shows that, in fact, from the 1920s through the 1940s, news photographers were flocking to exactly the same type of crime scenes Weegee covered; in some cases, to the very same corpse.25 Furthermore, Talmey and Coplan simply repeat the rhetorical conceits Weegee adopted in his own writing, thus perpetuating not only a romanticized perception of the photographer but, more troublingly, an ahistoricism endemic to the field of journalism itself. Problematically, as scholars like Hanno Hardt have recently argued, "journalists have never acquired a collective sense of themselves" and journalism as a field still suffers from a profound and deeply ironic "lack of historical consciousness."26 In large part, this is because media critics, biographers, and autobiographers have glossed over the daily conditions of news work in the interest of presenting it either as a celebration of media institutions or as a dramatic account of star reporters and photographers.
Rather than succumbing to such glamorization, we gain a better appreciation of Weegee's work if we consider the representational exchange that emerged between news photographers and the popular media from the late 1920s through the 1940s. While popular fiction and film were casting the photographer in the role of city tough, news photographers were re-appropriating this image and using it to give credence to their work. What's more, they were adopting it as a mode in which to write their own autobiographical responses to the mean streets. On the surface, autobiography bears a compelling parallel to newspaper photography: both are genres utterly dependent upon the appearance of spontaneity and unmediated documentary veracity. The news photograph purports to offer a decisive moment untainted by obvious manipulations; autobiography is what Jacques Derrida calls "the ear of the Other" into which the teller can recount events truthfully.27 Despite this appearance of unmediated telling, however, autobiography obviously allows its author much control over what will be recorded and how the tale will be told. It is not surprising that Weegee and his contemporary news photographers were interested in this genre, then, for autobiography allowed them, at last, an unprecedented degree of control over the words describing their images. In the first half of the century (and to a large extent even today), the press photographer generally had no say over the captions that accompanied his photographs. Nor would he have been allowed to voice an opinion about any other aspect of the image's utilization. Typically, his photos were enlisted to illustrate "good stories": stories about crimes of passion, revenge, love betrayed or restored. Consequently, according to A.D. Coleman, press photos are "likely to be stereotypical and ephemeral. Their most logical vehicle, thus, is the ephemeral publication, [End Page 29] particularly the daily newspaper."28 Writing accounts of his life and work thus provided a news photographer with some promise of durability; if his photographs were destined for the trash bin, his written accounts, in book form, might remain on readers' shelves. Furthermore, writing an autobiography validated the photographer's identity by bringing into view what generally remains hidden behind the camera: his body itself. In these autobiographies, we find repeated assertions of the masculine physical presence, one associated with intrusiveness, transgression, and even violence. Each of these photographer-cum-authors depicts his adventures in rough-edged language and imagery, placing himself as a maverick within the drama of the city's crimes. No longer simply dispensable "picture snatchers," Weegee and other photographer-authors locate themselves prominently within the frame.
A number of features in these news photographer's autobiographies clearly situate them within a hard-boiled literary tradition. Most obvious is a valorization of a masculine realm unsullied by feminine activity. Like their contemporary male pulp novelists who, as scholar Erin Smith puts it, were trying "to wrest control of a specific section of the literary marketplace for men and manly fiction from the women who had dominated the field," these autobiographers aggressively staked out territory in a genre that, because of its associations with self-reflection and soul-searching, could be construed as womanly.29 Thus, many of them overtly insist on separation from feminine company, which is presented as stultifying and claustrophobic. Norman Alley's I Witness (1941), for example, is dedicated to "the five who stayed at home—my mother, my wife, Dexter, Noreen, and Janet."30 These words invite us to see the author as a male adventurer away from the crowded, girlish household. Sammie Schulman's dedication in Where's Sammy? (1943)—"To Gertie, who let me out of the house, so that some of these things could happen"—performs the same function.31 Each of these autobiographies is composed of two types of narratives: those in which the photographer works or travels alone, and those in which he engages aggressively with male colleagues and members of stereotypically masculine professions such as prizefighters, police, military men, and gangsters. Little mention is made of female reporters, editors, or other photographers, and when women do appear, they are generally wives and mothers, or, alternatively, "dolls" and "cupcakes."
It is interesting to note that many times these autobiographies flagrantly aggrandize the work of the photographer as being much more blunt, and therefore manly, than that of his intellectually emasculated reporter colleagues. Take, for example, Schulman's explanation of how a reporter is able to gloss over the messiness of life: "A reporter can write around a story; a reporter can soften a blow by a simple twist of his typing finger. He can surround with the luster of adjectives and [End Page 30] fine writing an individual or event that has no intrinsic luster. He can make a bum out of a great person, and vice versa. That's because the human mind is so much more versatile, and inexact, than is the camera. When you pull the trigger on a news picture you are recording the unadorned truth. You get the works; there's no way to change things, or pretty them up or make them worse. There's no 'x' key on a Speed Graphic. That black box we wield is a terribly revealing weapon."32 According to this description, reportorial writing is not only a feminized practice—it "softens," and, like a woman's furniture polish, adds "luster" when needed—it is also dishonest. Photography, on the other hand, possesses all the brutal facticity of death. Like committing a murder, taking a photograph is irreversible and absolute. Ignoring the very common practices of photographic touch-ups, composites, and other types of manipulation in press photography, Schulman deliberately casts photography as a medium of absolute reliability to denigrate the rival medium of written reportage. The irony, of course, is that he is writing his autobiography as he makes these claims.
Akin to this denigration of reporters is the marked tendency of these photographers to downplay a lack of formal education while simultaneously advancing news work as the ideal site for streetwise, practical learning. Smith remarks that hard-boiled writing "often ridiculed high culture, pointing to the superiority of practical knowledge possessed by working men."33 Like the hero of pulp fiction, the photographer-author insists he gets his knowledge of the city first-hand. This anti-intellectual, naïve stance towards photojournalism is in fact one of the dominant traits of Weegee's writing. It ensures that the reader understands both the photographer and his work as authentic, untainted by literary or academic concerns.
Many of these photographers also adopt a pose of wry irony toward all they survey, including themselves. This detachment signals an unwillingness to confront the emotional and psychological demands placed upon the photographer by his profession. Schulman, for example, explains that "Early in my career I had to learn to choke off all thought of personal consideration, of myself or the subject to be photographed."34 When Schulman introduces his story about watching a suicide victim stand on a ledge for nearly twenty-four hours only for him to "hit the pavement with a thudding crash that was sickening to hear," he describes the victim in typical hard-boiled language as a "nice looking guy with a bad case of mopes."35 Furthermore, as an extension of this distancing effect, these authors rarely allow any expressions of self-pity or complaint. For example, after a twenty-one hour work day, Alley writes: "Thus ended another day that already had advanced well into the next. Night work, for a newsreel grinder, is all in the day's work. I decided to call it a day as I yawned, put on my hat through a fatigue-fog, and headed for my own little Shangri-la."36 In [End Page 31] prose that could have been lifted right out of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, the news photographer describes how he, like the private detective, ends his workdays in the middle of the night, heading for the marginal space of his bachelor apartment as a temporary retreat.
The "picturesque line of vernacular and professional lingo" that one critic in 1929 observed in Hammett's fiction makes full appearance in these autobiographies.37 Choppy syntax and slang abound, and figurative language tends to be wisecracking. Alley, for instance, opens his chapter on China by describing Shanghai as "wrapped up like a cheap gift in cellophane."38 Schulman says he "felt like a chained homing pigeon," and at another point remarks that "There was a war coming. Even the dogs in the street knew it."39 Furthermore, each of these autobiographies exemplifies critic Greg Forter's observation that hard-boiled description moves "from object to object with a certain restless but alert rapidity . . . it quickly exhausts the thing that it sees, takes it in at a glance, and swallows it whole."40 Schulman's details of a bordello are a case in point: "There was a special section set aside for the Japanese whores. The odor of spices, sandalwood, and cheap incense overhung it. A long line of red and white lanterns marked its location . . . . Every pay-as-you-enter guest who partook of the geisha goodies was required to park his footgear on the bamboo threshold."41 Many of the descriptions in these autobiographies aim for a kind of objectivity that one might, in fact, describe as an attempt to mimic the operations of a camera, the camera serving as a metaphor for these writers' interest in direct and seemingly neutral description.42
Formally, these autobiographies utilize an episodic, picaresque structure, their narratives entirely shaped by dramatic accounts of how the author managed to get—or occasionally lose—difficult pictures. Rarely are the merits of any photographs themselves mentioned, nor are photographic techniques much discussed; what matters instead is the photographer's sense of enterprise and courage. And yet, for all this seeming attention to the photographer's actions, there appears to be an even greater emphasis—as there is in detective fiction—on how the photographer's insight and sheer physical presence enable him to procure what he wants. Stephen Knight identifies this trait in Chandler, observing that his detective's "personal value, not his active detection, is the structural focus . . . ."43 Nowhere is this more evident than in Weegee's notorious promotion of his supposed ability to predict impending accident, fires, and murders.
Finally, these autobiographies often end with a notable absence of closure, encouraging us to read the conclusion as the opportunity for the photographer to get back to the "real" work of picture-taking. John Sturrock observes that "Autobiography is written in times of respite from an immediate experience of the world, the autobiographer having found a provisional asylum from the gross intrusions on [End Page 32] his consciousness of both history and humankind."44 Yet the news photographer implies at the end of his narrative that writing his autobiography has been a somewhat painful respite, since it has distracted him from the more active, manly work of photography. At the end of his autobiography, Schulman catalogues a list of over twenty photographic projects he wants to make, finalizing his book with the question "Who's going to stop me?" Weegee ends Naked City with a chapter on photographic tips, as if the act of writing an autobiog- raphy needs to be legitimized by a return to practical matters of photography.
While no record remains to tell us if Weegee read any of his contemporaries' autobiographies during the years he was expanding his own hard-boiled narratives, we do know that as a boy he consciously shaped himself after pulp icons; in Weegee by Weegee, he tells us: "I tried to model myself after Horatio Alger, who as a newsboy went from rags to riches. But I soon came to the conclusion that Horatio must have been a phony . . . . So I stopped reading about Horatio Alger and turned to Nick Carter. The famous detective became my new hero. . . ."45
His rejection of a higher-culture literary model in favor of a hero whose hard-knock life more accurately reflected his own experiences aligns Weegee solidly with the working class men whose reading habits Smith reconstructs in her study of American pulp fiction between the wars. Smith argues that men in Weegee's social class—white, blue-collar workers with little formal education, frequently speaking English as a second language—turned to hard-boiled fiction because it gave them, in Kenneth Burke's words, "equipment for living." These readers appreciated that "hard-boiled detective stories were centrally concerned with the loss of workplace autonomy, the appropriation of white men's historic privilege by women and uppity ethnics, and the diminished importance of production work compared with consumption. . . . If one were still enmeshed in the dense networks of kin and culture that defined ethnic enclaves, hard-boiled detective stories addressed one as a man for whom work was all-consuming and family and community ties almost completely absent."46 If hard-boiled literature, and by extension, its filmic counterparts, offered an escape from the anxieties of blue-collar labor, it is easy to see why it would appeal to Weegee and his fellows in the news trade who often lived hand-to-mouth, were rarely granted a photo credit, and were viewed as machines churning out images for rapid consumption by the news public.
With the lessons he learned from the tabloids about hyping a story and using images and text to create dramatic appeal, Weegee was ideally [End Page 33] positioned to project a bravado persona in a variety of social settings and across multiple media. "Weegee was always busy creating Weegee, constantly in the midst of a long campaign of self-improvement, engineering a bigger and better Weegee," remarked his editor and friend, Louis Stettner.47 One of his first moves towards creating this "bigger and better" self was to adopt a punchy new name, one that worked as a singularizing gesture. In the 1930s, an age when gangsters wore monikers like "Bugs" Moran, "Baby Face" Nelson, and "Bugsy" Siegel, he adopted "Weegee," and announced he had an instinctive, almost paranormal ability to be on the scene before a crime took place. For him, as well as for these gangsters, a jazzy appellation provided a means of projecting a celebrity persona. At the same time, it suggested a domain of perpetual male youth, a closed system in which men were familiar and playful enough with each other, as well as confident enough in their masculinity, to use such designations. Such name recognition was remarkable in a period when most news photographers never received credit for their photos and easily slid into anonymity.
Weegee also carefully commodified his own physical image during these years, appearing in well over a hundred publicity shots. Showing him in his seedy apartment, in paddy wagons (see Figure 2), and on dark streets, these images not only recall the lighting and composition of his own work, but also function as literal illustrations of the yarns he was always spinning about himself in interviews and articles. Moreover, in most of these images Weegee is pictured holding his Speed Graphic camera, thus asserting that even while subject to another photographer's objectifying gaze he is busily engaged in his own acts of domination. Several publicity photographs depict Weegee operating out of the car that he purchased in 1938 to gain more mobility as a freelance photographer (see Figure 3). This car became an integral part of the myths he circulated about his success; the only news photographer actually to have a police radio wired into his automobile, he boasted constantly about the "shiny, new 1938 maroon-colored Chevy coupe."48 During the 1920s and 1930s especially, gangsters like Al Capone and Meyer Lanksy were often pictured alongside their automobiles, which functioned as visible signs of their wealth and capacity for stylish consumption. Like the gangsters of his time period who kept their cars fully equipped with machine guns and other tools of their "trade," Weegee loaded his with his own ammunition: "My car became my home. It was a two-seater, with a special extra-large luggage compartment. I kept everything there, an extra camera, cases of flash bulbs, extra loaded holders, a typewriter, fireman's boots, boxes of cigars, salami, infra-red film for shooting in the dark, uniforms, disguises, a change of underwear, and extra shoes and socks."49 Thus, while his personal appearance bespoke a marginalized lifestyle, Weegee's flashy automobile was meant to announce to the inhabitants [End Page 34] of New York—particularly to other news workers—that there was nothing shabby about his accomplishments. All of the settings in these publicity shots are noir spaces. Just as we cannot picture Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade out in the countryside, we cannot imaginatively locate Weegee working anywhere beside these sites. In this sense, the photographs operate on an almost cinematic level; each shot places him in a slightly different scenario, yet each functions as part of the ongoing chronicle he was perpetually creating about his life at the center of urban chaos.
|ART:21:||We were talking earlier about the possible connections between growing up and living here in the Midwest, in Ohio, and an aspect of your work that deals with being simultaneously at the perimeter of something and at the middle of what's going on. Could you talk a little more about this?
|HAMILTON:||I think a lot of the very abstract quality of my work - and the literal quality of it - is always dealing with a state or a place or an edge, a border, a threshold, a place that's in between. And I think that's the place that I occupy within my work and that perhaps the work occupies. And so it's interesting to me to think about needing to work at that edge, but then actually living physically in the middle. I had never really even thought about it that way. It's just like if you think about the hair in the project at the Dia Center or the way the pink powder sort of leeched and sought the perimeter in Venice. Any number of pieces - it's always the skin of the architecture, or the material is always seeking the border, remarking upon the border. And that's not just a physical one; it's also the way that we think about things, how we establish the habits of categories and you know all that, those classical categories we inherit out of anthropology: the raw and the cooked, the container and the contained, what is inside and what's outside. You know, we as bodies inherit ourselves as both containers and as being contained. And the paradoxical structure of my work is often to engage that place of in-betweenness; to engage it, not to make a picture of it, not to make it its subject, but actually to try to work at that place in a way that demonstrates it, that's demonstrative, that occupies it. You know it's very abstract, but concrete.
|ART:21:||Could you talk about the notion of the perimeter and the center in relation to the work you've been doing with pinhole cameras?
|HAMILTON:||Well, there are a couple of threads of work that come together in the pinhole. One of them (is that) I can look at where my work took the shift from being a total surround, so that when you walked in you're physically immersed in whatever the material piece is. And I think it's actually this other stuff - the mouth as being the room. And I first started doing it when I was actually taking self-portraits. I was wanting to capture that moment of, I guess, unselfconsciousness, when you're so absorbed or immersed in an activity, whether it's reading making something that might have some rhythms, so that it becomes an immersive experience. And what do we look like when we're not concerned with actually how we look or what we project? And so I started thinking about when you're really immersed in what you're doing, often your mouth falls open, and you know you're never supposed to have your mouth open in public. Like you don't see people standing around, you know...(LAUGHS). It's a vulnerable position; it's a place where you've relaxed and you've let yourself be open and vulnerable in a way. And so I started thinking, "Well, I want to take my own picture in that situation."
So I devised, over a number of years (it was sort of something that was in the background for a long time) a way of making pinhole cameras, which is very simple, but to make my mouth the aperture. I don't go into the darkroom and load the film in my mouth and then come out and do it, so it is actually still an object that's inserted into my mouth - but to have the orifice of the place where speech exits the body actually become the eye, and to just play with that. Then it was in the process of actually taking those pictures, seeing what they looked like, seeing in fact how the shape of the mouth is very much the same shape as the eye, and seeing myself become almost like the pupil within. The image of my head becomes almost like the pupil in the middle of the mouth, which is eye-shaped. Then, through another set of "what if" questions, I started thinking that it would be very interesting to turn and not face oneself, but to face another person. And so, with Chris here in the office, and Brenda, we started trying it, and in the act of actually doing it, it became very interesting to register this time of standing quite still, face to face with another person, and to make oneself vulnerable, in fact, to another person.
In some ways, I think of my earliest work, the very first piece I did when I was in graduate school: I had taken a generic, gray man's suit and covered it in toothpicks, so that the whole hide, the whole skin of cloth, became like a hide. It looked like a porcupine. And then I stood very still wearing this, which was how it came to be presented. It wasn't until I was actually standing there in a social situation where I was on display as an object, that I realized how interested I was in that live time of standing very quietly, and that, in some ways, you put yourself on display. And maybe it's a way of making yourself vulnerable, but there's another kind of strength that comes forward in allowing yourself to occupy that position. So that was the last piece that I did where I actually stood and faced the audience. And now, what is it, fifteen years later, after doing a lot of works in which there's been a performative element or I've been live as part of the projects, but always, in a way, you came from the back to join the activity of the person, or you entered from the side. I'm now turnntermediamfa.org/imd501/resources/js/tiny_mce/themes/advanced/langs/en.js">ing in the work and standing face to face, as I did in that first project, which is an interesting thing to me, to then wonder where that will go.
I think the other thing about it is that I'm in the middle of, or the beginning of, working on this project with Meredith Monk, and I have long loved her work. And I think there's an aspect of my work which is wanting to give voice. So how do I literally make the place where song, as well as all other words, exit the body become my voice by becoming my eye? So to sometimes invert the location of one sense to another part of the body, those kind of dislocations or slippages is one way then we come to see something differently. That's been a way that my work has actually grown and moved at different times.
|ART:21:||How do you feel experiencing the other person in this way - taking their portrait with your mouth?
|HAMILTON:||Well it's very interesting. I think it's not so different than other experiences when I work with a lot of people, or working with a crew. You know when you're making anything, even if you don't sit and get someone's sort of autobiographical story, very early, very quickly, when you work side by side with someone, you have a sense of their presence and their weight in the world. And a sensibility that is not something that you can sort of name, but is the quality of someone, how they occupy space. And...you know, we have all sorts of words, we say, "Oh, they have a such-and-such presence, or such-and-such presence."
And I think that I was very aware and really enjoyed that part of my earlier work, when I worked with very large groups of people, and often a lot of volunteers that would come and work these long dedicated hours for an intense period of time. And how quickly in those moments you come to know someone, even if you know nothing of their story. I think taking the has some of that same quality. Obviously, if I work with Chris or someone in the studio who I work with all the time, we already have a relationship. But, even in situations where it's more or less a stranger, that being willing to stand face to face or to turn and and allow that kind of odd, formal, but very intimate act - that it's about opening. I mean, I don't know if it's like soul to soul, or if that would be a word I would use, but I would say it's about revealing something that's not the surface stuff that we usually allow out to the world.
I think some of the pictures, some of the images that come out of this that I'm most interested in, have a sense of registering something other than someone's physical features. And yet when I stand, especially those very long exposures, and sometimes have that exchange, you can have what feels like a very profound, oddly profound, moment, and yet you know there's nothing of that on the film. So you know it's kind of a bit of magic, I suppose - what you actually end up holding in your hand as a result of that.
sourced from: http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/hamilton