Books: Snakecharmers in Texas — Pictures in Silver | clivejames.com
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Pictures in Silver

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard

The flow of photographic images from the past suggests that what we are already experiencing as a deepening flood in the present will seem, in the near future, like a terminal inundation. Most of the theoretical works purporting to find some sort of pattern in the cataract of pictures only increase the likelihood that we will lose our grip. But occasionally a book makes sense of the uproar. Appearing in the author’s native language just before his death, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, now published posthumously in English, will make the reader sorrier than ever that this effervescent critic is no longer among the living. Barthes was the inspiration of many a giftless tract by his disciples but he himself was debarred by genuine critical talent from finding any lasting value in mechanized schemes. By the end of his life he seemed very keen to re-establish the personal, the playful and even the quirky at the centre of his intellectual effort, perhaps because he had seen, among some of those who took his earlier work as an example, how easily method can become madness.

Whatever the truth of that, here is a small but seductively argued book which the grateful reader can place on the short shelf of truly useful commentaries on photography, along with Walter Benjamin’s Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, John Szarkowski’s promotional essays and the critical articles of Janet Malcolm. Also asking for a home on the same shelf is the recently published Photography in Print, edited by Vicki Goldberg and including many of the best shorter writings about photography from its first days to now. As well as the expected, essential opinions of everyone from Fox Talbot to Sontag, there are such out-of-the-way but closely relevant pieces as a reminiscence by Nadar which suggests that Balzac pre-empted Benjamin’s idea about photographs robbing an object of its aura; a stunningly dull critique written by one Cuthbert Bode in 1855 which shows that photography has always generated, as well as a special enthusiasm, a special intensity of patronizing scorn; and a brilliantly turned Hiawatha-metre poem by that fervent shutterbug Lewis Carroll.

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the second book of Euclid.

There is, of course, a much longer shelf, indeed a whole wall of long shelves, packed with commentaries which are not particularly wrong-headed. But they are platitudinous, and in the very short run it is the weight of unobjectionable but unremarkable accompanying prose which threatens to make a minor art boring. The major arts can stand the pressure.

Barthes at his best had a knack for timing the soufflé. The texture of Camera Lucida is light, making it suitable for a heavy message. The message is heavy enough to be called subversive. Barthes finds photography interesting, but not as art. An awful lot of would-be artists are going to be disappointed to hear this. But before they smash up their Nikons in frustration they should hear the argument through, because if Barthes is disinclined to treat photographers as artists he is uncommonly inclined to examine what they do with an intelligently selective eye. “A photograph is always invisible,” he writes, “it’s not it that we see.” Barthes says that what we see is the subject matter: “the referent adheres.” Barthes airily dismisses all talk of composition. Indeed he goes a long way towards saying that a photograph hasn’t got any formal element worth bothering about. He claims for himself, where photography is concerned, “a desperate resistance to any reductive system”—pretty cool, when you consider the number and aridity of reductive systems his example has given rise to.

Barthes says that what he brings to the average photograph is studium—general curiosity. What leaps out of the exceptional photograph is a punctum—a point of interest. In Kertész’s 1926 portrait of Tristan Tzara (unfortunately not reproduced in this book), the studium, says Barthes, might have to do with a Dadaist having his picture taken but the punctum is his dirty fingernails. In William Klein’s photograph “Near the Bowery” (1954), you and I might have our attention drawn by the toy gun held to the smiling boy’s head, especially if the scene arouses an echo of the Viet Cong prisoner being summarily executed in one of the most famous pieces of news film footage to have come out of Vietnam. But Barthes can’t help noticing the little boy’s bad teeth. Barthes is not always startled by what the photographer finds startling and is never startled by what the photographer rigs to be startling—abstract and surrealist concoctions leave him cold.

A photograph, says Barthes, does not nostalgically call up the past. Instead it shows the past was real, like now. Photography proves the past to be a reality we can no longer touch. Instead of the solace of nostalgia, the bitterness of separation. Photography is powerless as art but potent as magic. Thus his little book concludes as it began, with a confident emphasis on subject matter.

When John Szarkowski, in his 1966 critical anthology The Photographer’s Eye, showed that for every master photographer’s laboriously created definitive statement there was at least one amateur snapshot equally interesting, the photographic world had the choice of inferring either that the artists weren’t artistic or else that the amateurs were artistic too. On the whole the latter course was taken, mainly because Szarkowski so persuasively extended the range of what it was possible to discuss about a photograph, so that the mere business of selecting what to shoot stood revealed for what it is—an artistic choice at some level, however diffident.

Similarly Barthes’s potentially devastating re-emphasis is mollified by his willingness to concede that the selectivity involved is not just his own unusually receptive eye for the punctum. The photographer is allowed the faculty of selectivity too. Barthes does not seem to allow even the best photographer much more, but perhaps he just never got around to developing his argument, which nevertheless is an attractive one as it stands. If one famous American classical photographer’s photograph of trees has ever worried you by looking indistinguishable from another famous American classical photographer’s photograph of trees, here is a way out of your dilemma. The identity of subject matter tends to render the alleged compositional and tonal subtleties nugatory in each case. There is no reason to feel guilty just because we have got one of the Westons mixed up with one of the others.

The composition of a photograph can be analysed usefully, but not as long as it can be analysed uselessly. As with a literary work, there is a line to be drawn between the critical remark that yields meaning and the analytical rigmarole which tells you little beyond the fact that some ambitious young academic has time on his hands. Barthes’s thesis is a refreshing simplification. But a fresh look doesn’t always simplify. In Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography, the catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art exhibition which will next be seen in Los Angeles and Chicago, Peter Galassi cunningly advances the deceptively simple thesis that some paintings prepared the way for the invention of photography by manifesting “a new and fundamentally modern pictorial syntax of immediate, synoptic perceptions and discontinuous, unexpected forms.”

Galassi’s argument has already been examined at some length by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner. I will not rehearse their analysis beyond saying that they find Mr. Galassi’s achievement as impressive as I do. They argue that Mr. Galassi gives an incomplete account of perspective. Galassi says that over the centuries the original pictorial strategy, to make a three-dimensional world out of a flat medium, gradually reversed itself, and became the new pictorial strategy of making a flat picture out of a three-dimensional world—at which point photography, which might have been invented much earlier if anyone had really wanted it, finally showed up in order to answer the new need. Rosen and Zerner recommend that Galassi should take into account the implications of the empirical representation developed by the fifteenth-century Flemish painters. No doubt they are right, but I can think of someone else who might fit Galassi’s theory even more instructively—Velázquez.

As Ortega explains in The Dehumanisation of Art, Velázquez was the first to look into the distance with a dilated pupil and so blur the focus of things near. That is why foreground figures in some of his pictures—one thinks particularly of Las Meninas—look so strange. They are strange because they are the unexamined familiar. They look the way things look when we are looking past them, as if they were floating, converdidas en gases cromáticos, en flámulas informes, en puros reflejos. Converted into chromatic gases, into formless flames, into pure reflections. (Ortega’s writings on aesthetics are so poetic that they constitute an aesthetic problem in themselves.)

Unless I have got it hopelessly wrong, Ortega uncovered in Velázquez a concern with focus and depth of field which presages just those aspects of the photographic vision. No doubt Velázquez developed these perceptions out of a desire to mimic how the eye actually sees, but Galassi seems to be saying that the photographic pictorial strategy developed out of just that impulse, away from conceptual ordering and towards the randomly inclusive. Ortega, who said that you could see a Velázquez in one gulp, even has a vocabulary that seems ready-made for Galassi’s thesis. Ortega says that the closely focussed analytic vision is feudal and that the distantly focused, synthetic vision is democratic.

Doubtless other readers of Galassi’s essay will have their own ideas, not just because his argument is the kind that makes us recognize something we already suspected, but because so many of us have a head full of references. By now Malraux’s musée imaginaire, the Museum Without Walls, has transferred itself from books of reproductions into our own skulls. But a brain which already has a few hundred of the world’s great paintings arranged inside it is likely to panic when asked to take in several thousand of the world’s putatively great photographs as well. Yet we can retain the notion of the photographer as artist without feeling obliged to accept his every creation as a work of art.

By and large that is what John Szarkowski does in his excellent introductory essay to The Work of Atget, Vol. 1: Old France, the magnificently produced and highly desirable catalogue volume for the first of what will be four Museum of Modern Art exhibitions devoted to Atget’s work, the cycle being due to complete itself in 1984. The material will take a long time to show and took even longer to get ready. Berenice Abbott gave the museum her collection of about 5,000 Atget prints in 1968. Maria Morris Hambourg, Szarkowski’s co-scholar on the project, has been occupied with nothing else since 1976. Together they have performed prodigies of research, but one expects no less. Less predictable was the way Szarkowski, while diving around among all this visual wealth like Scrooge McDuck in Money Barn No. 64, has managed to keep his critical balance, something that a man with his capacity for enthusiasm does not always find easy.

Echoing the useful distinction he established in 1966 between documentary and self-expression, Szarkowski is able to divide Atget’s work up into the large number of photographs which are of historical interest and the smaller number in which the historical interest is somehow ignited into an aesthetic moment—in which, that is to say, the studium acquires a punctum. But the viewer who finds his attention not only attracted but delighted by some of these pictures will be hard-pressed to decide where the punctum is. Is it in the plough or the well, the overhanging tree or the doorway in the wall?

It soon becomes clear that the best of Atget’s photographs, while they are unlikely to hold your interest as long as paintings might do that are nominally of the same subject, nevertheless owe their aesthetic authority to much more than an isolated piquancy. They really do imply some kind of controlling artistic personality, however attenuated. The notion of punctum, while necessary and welcome, is too limited a critical criterion to be sufficient. On the other hand, Barthes’s other and larger notion, the one about the thereness of the past and the lost reality which rules out nostalgia, is underlined with full force. Leaving aside the soft tones of the albumen process, here is Old France looking close enough to touch and as irrecoverable as the Garden of Eden—an effect only increased by Atget’s reluctance to include human beings even when the exposure time would have allowed it.

On a smaller scale but still good to have, The Autochromes of J. H. Lartigue shows us an unfamiliar side of another indisputable artist—his work in colour. The autochrome process has the effect, when the prints are reproduced today, of making everything look like a pointillist painting. Since Lartigue’s sensibility was so like Seurat’s anyway, the echo effect is often uncanny, but in fact Lartigue was no more likely than his predecessor Atget to ape painting. In his late teens when he started shooting autochromes, he kept it up from 1912 to 1927. The best surviving results are given here, prefaced by a typically charming interview with the master himself.

It is a small book but makes a substantial supplement to his indispensable Diary of a Century, which chronicles his work in black and white and proves him to have been the first great lyrical celebrator of human beings at play. In black and white the relatively short exposure time enabled him to capture movement. In autochrome he couldn’t do that, but his joyous personality still comes bubbling through. He had an inexhaustible supply of pretty girl acquaintances trying out new scooters, dashing brothers who built flying machines, etc. Perhaps other photographers were similarly blessed, but Lartigue knew exactly what to include in the frame and when to press the button or squeeze the bulb. Highly endowed with a knack for what Cartier-Bresson was later to call the guess, Lartigue could see a punctum a mile off. He could see puncta in clusters. In other words, he had a self to express.

As time increases the total number of photographers and it becomes increasingly obvious that there is no room for all of them to express themselves, it may become permissible to suggest that documentary interest is a sufficiently respectable interest for a photographer’s work to have, and that if a photographer can go on getting good documentary results for a long time then he is artist enough. To have such a point conceded would make it easier to save some of the masterly but less than outstanding photographers of the past from an otherwise inevitable public revulsion against the indigestibly strident claims made for their seriousness.

The Photography of Max Yavno, for example, is a book well worth having. Yavno has been taking thoughtful photographs since the 1930s. Not all of them are as striking as his famous 1947 picture of the San Francisco cable car being swung on the turntable by its balletically swaying attendants. The picture adorns the jacket of this book, is superbly reproduced in a plate within and features in just about every anthology of photographs published in the last thirty years. It should be possible to allow a man a few such happily sought-out and taken chances without trying to find the same significance in the rest of his work, which the law of averages dictates will be more studium than punctum. Luckily, the mandatory prose-poem captions (once again it is hard to suppress a blasphemous twinge of regret that James Agee and Walker Evans ever got together) are largely offset by an appended interview with Yavno in which he reveals himself to be admirably, indeed monosyllabically, unpretentious. Except when generously reminiscing about his fellow veteran practitioners, he keeps things on the yep-nope level, Gary Cooper style.

Much the same applies to Feininger’s Chicago 1941, in which Andreas Feininger, in a lively introduction written forty years later, keeps his ego perhaps excessively within bounds. Forgetting to inform us that he was a Bauhaus-trained intellectual who personally invented the super-telephoto camera, Feininger gives humble thanks that he was obliged to view Chicago with the fresh eye of the displaced European. Here are parking elevators at a time when cars were just about to lose their running boards, Union and Dearborn Stations when the silver trains still ran, Lake Shore Drive before Mies van der Rohe built his apartments and the kind of skyscraper that Stalin copied and that now exists nowhere except in the Soviet Union. Feininger presents his lost city without any accompanying verbal elegies.

The Weston family tends to be less taciturn. Cole Weston: Eighteen Photographs enshrines the colour work of one of Edward Weston’s sons. Like Brett Weston, another son, Cole seems to have inherited from his father a deep sense of mission. As is recounted in Charis Wilson’s introduction to this volume, Edward Weston had Parkinson’s disease and young Cole had to help him work the camera. It’s like reading about Renoir père et fils—an apostolic succession. On the other hand it is not like that, since the painter and the filmmaker each had a separate, fully developed artistic vision which makes their blood kinship remarkable, whereas one suspects that for photography to run in the family is no more startling than for carpentry to run in the family, as a craft to be learned rather than an inner impulse to be bodied forth. Nonetheless, here are sumptuous colour prints of California surf, Nova Scotia fishing coves, Utah aspens and similar Americana. A close-up of rust on a water tank looks like abstract expressionism, showing that painting still has its pull despite all the disclaimers. Also a nude lady seen from the same angle as the Rokeby Venus reclines on an old stone staircase in Arizona. She looks exactly like a confession that the staircase would not be very interesting without her.

Cole and Brett Weston take you back to Edward Weston, to Paul Strand, to Minor White, to Ansel Adams—to every master photographer, in fact, who has ever gone out into the American landscape and tried to isolate a clean piece of nature within his metal frame. Some of the results are collected in American Photographers and the National Parks, edited by Robert Cahn and Robert Glenn Ketchum. The pictures are arranged chronologically, starting with a William Henry Jackson study of Yosemite Falls in 1898. Jackson got a terrific action shot, in colour, of the Yellowstone Great Geyser in 1902. Edward Weston’s Zabriskie Point picture of 1938 reminds you of just how good the old man was at waiting for the right shadows. The Ansel Adams pictures will be familiar to most readers but still stand out. They don’t stand out so far, though, as to convince you that subject matter is anything less than very important. Even for Adams, to pursue too closely the light patterns on a cactus was to court inanity. In Barthes’s terms, the referent adheres. If it doesn’t, you’ve got nothing.

Adams deserves our lasting respect for the reverent skill with which he photographed a mountain, even though a modern amateur with up-to-date equipment might fluke a picture not entirely risible by comparison. After all, Adams knew what he was doing, and could do it again. So could Paul Strand when taking pictures of clapboard houses. Nevertheless New England Reflections, 1882–1907 features, among other things, enough clapboard houses, photographed with more than enough verve, to set you wondering whether that particular form of architecture ever needed Paul Strand to bring out its full beauty. All the pictures were taken by the three Howes brothers, who formed themselves into a commercial outfit and toted their tripods around New England persuading people, obviously with profitable results, that great moments in life should be permanently recorded. The glass-plate negatives having miraculously survived to our own day, here is the permanent record. It is a fascinating little book which Richard Wilbur honours with a foreword that you might wish were longer, since Wilbur’s distinguished, visually fastidious sensibility is exactly what such material requires to give it a proper context. But Gerald McFarland provides a useful historical introduction and anyway the pictures are so rich themselves that you would be drowning in puncta even if you didn’t know where and when they came from.

All seems in order, even the home for the handicapped, whose inmates have formed up for a serene group shot as if Diane Arbus did not exist—which, of course, she as yet didn’t. Here is the irrecoverable past only a few inches away. Some of the buildings are still intact, so that inhabitants of New England who buy this book will be able to stand in the right spot and look through time. Paradoxically, the Howes brothers were just going about their everyday business, with not much thought of preserving a threatened heritage, whereas Atget, who had a Balzacian urge to register his epoch, saw much of what he photographed destroyed within his lifetime, and if he were to come back now would find almost nothing left.

If a photographer wants to express himself but fears that his personal view might be short on originality, originality of subject matter is one way out of the trap. The only drawback to this escape route is that the number of subjects, if not finite, is certainly coterminous with the known universe. Already most topics are starting to look used up. In Man as Art: New Guinea, Malcolm Kirk has persuaded an impressive number of New Guinea natives to pose in full warlike and/or ceremonial make-up and drag. Thus we are able to observe, in plate 74, that a Western Highlands warrior male called Nigel resembles, when fully attired for battle, Allen Ginsberg in blackface with a Las Vegas hotel sign on his head.

Some of the pictures are stunning, or at least startling, but there is no denying that the natives have shown at least as much invention as the photographer, whose skill in lighting them and pressing the button can scarcely be compared to theirs in caking their skins with clay, inserting bones in their noses, and pulling on their grass skirts. Nor, more damagingly, is there any denying that we have already seen most of this in the National Geographic, albeit on a smaller scale. Much of the justification for these big picture books is that they give you big pictures, but there is also the consideration that what looks appropriately dramatic when bled to the edges of a full page in a magazine starts looking emptily pretentious when pumped up to folio size. Not only is it bigger than the negative, it’s bigger than the reality. In real life you would learn all you need to know about Nigel without going quite so close.

Still on the National Geographic beat, Rajasthan: India’s Enchanted Land comprises pictures by Raghubir Singh which suggest that its title might not be a complete misnomer, although for at least this viewer the puncta which are obviously meant to be bursting out of such a picture as “A Gujar Villager, Pushkar” remain defiantly quiescent. Far from being amazed that a man with a turban is wearing a watch and smoking a cigarette, I’d be amazed if he were not. More exciting, or less unexciting, is another shot in which all the village males, after a hard day’s work supervising the women, are rewarding themselves by sucking popsicles. There is a foreword by Satyajit Ray to remind us that for Indian artists of all kinds Rajasthan is a fairly resonant part of the subcontinent, but you can see how a foreign photographer with a reputation to make might want a more jazzy angle.

In Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, Mary Ellen Mark shows how this can be done. She moved in with the eponymous hookers, became part of the scenery and ended up by reaching such a level of acceptance that the girls and their clients allowed her to photograph them in flagrante. The results are unlikely to put you off sex, with which the activities in Falkland Road seem to have only a parodic connection, but they might well put you off India. The girls work in cubicles the size of packing crates and perform their ablutions in a bucket. Hepatitis hangs in the air like aerosol spray. For the alert customer the whole deal would be a bit of a downer even if Ms. Mark were not poised in the rafters busily snapping the action. The intrepid photographer contributes her own introduction, in which she spends a lot of time conveying her deep affection for the girls without ever raising the topic of whether she, too, might not be said to be drawing sustenance from the sad traffic, and in a much safer way. Still, Cartier-Bresson photographed whores in Mexico in 1934.

Already responsible for nine books, Ms. Mark was born in 1940 and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Susan Meiselas, author of Nicaragua, is a Sarah Lawrence graduate who does not give her age but can safely be adjudged even younger than Ms. Mark. Both women are getting well known fast, not because either of them is Gisèle Freund or Lotte Jacobi reborn but because they both know how to get in and get the story. Ms. Meiselas’s story is the Nicaraguan version of with-Fidel-in-the-Sierra, down to and including the berets, Che moustaches and .45 automatics triumphantly raised in adolescent fists. “Yet unlike most photographs of such material,” says an accompanying note from John Berger, “these refuse all the rhetoric normally associated with such pictures.” Not for the first time one wonders how Berger, inventor of the purportedly illuminating concept “ways of seeing,” actually does see. His eyes certainly work differently from mine, which find Ms. Meiselas’s every second picture laden with rhetoric. But despite more recent reports from Nicaragua, one concedes that the rhetoric might be, in this case, on the side of the angels. Nor can it be gainsaid that people calling on themselves to be courageous often behave rhetorically. Who looks natural when nerving himself for battle?

Photographs, according to Barthes, never entirely leave the world of words. In Visions of China Marc Riboud’s photographs taken between 1957 and 1980 constitute, even more than Eve Arnold’s recent volume on the same subject, a reminder that if we know nothing about the background we might well make a hash of interpreting the foreground. Orville Schell’s introduction makes much of Riboud’s supposed ability to see past the rhetoric to the reality beneath. Certainly Riboud got off the beaten track and managed to hint that not all was harmony, but it should not need saying—and yet it does—that he got nowhere near recording the full impact of the Cultural Revolution, which we were allowed to see nothing of in the form of pictures and have since had to hear about in the form of words. Most of these words were emitted between sobs, since those victims who survived are often unable to recall their sufferings with equanimity.

This fact should lend additional significance to such a photograph as plate 89, “Student Dancer, Shanghai, 1971.” It shows a radiantly happy girl being inspired by the mere presence of Mao’s little red book. But in this case the punctum, instead of crossing from the photograph to the viewer’s mind, travels in the other direction. Today’s viewer will have heard that the Chinese ballerinas were sent by Mrs. Mao to have their muscles ruined in the fields. The dancers were already suffering at the time when Shirley MacLaine, a dancer herself, was wondering, in her television documentary about China, why the Chinese looked so happy. The viewer haunted by these considerations is unlikely to look on Riboud’s photograph of a Chinese dancer as being anything more edifying than a pretty picture.

But where any pictures are hard to get, all pictures have some value, even if they seem to point in the wrong direction until interpreted. So it is with China and so it will probably always be with the Soviet Union. Vladimir Sichov’s The Russians deserves immediate notice, since the standard of photography in the Soviet Union is so blandly low that any attempt at realism looks like a sunburst. Sichov was born in 1945 and in 1979 was permitted to leave for the West. He brought 5,000 rolls of film out safely—his whole archive. The full effect is of a dowdiness so comprehensive that it becomes almost enthralling. Unfortunately Sichov seems to have concentrated on the routine dowdiness of old women in shapeless coats rather than the more interesting dowdiness of young ones in the latest fashions from GUM. The true visual squalor in the Soviet Union resides in what is thought to be chic, a fact which Sichov has subsequently had ample opportunity to realize, because he is nowadays an ace catwalk photographer for the Paris fashion shows, a task to which he brings the hungry eye of a man raised during a famine. Photographers brought up on a visual diet in which swimsuits look as if they have been cut out of motel shower curtains tend to be especially grateful for what Yves Saint-Laurent hangs on Jerry Hall.

William Klein makes America look almost as scruffy as Russia but in the case of his collection William Klein much of the flakiness is due to inky printing. Klein has issued a protest about how his publishers have treated him and if later copies look like my early copy then he is right. Some of the pictures look like action shots of a black cat in a coal bunker. In the ones you can see, however, puncta proliferate. The snap Barthes liked of the little boy with the toy gun to his head is here spread over two pages, making the bad teeth more attention-getting than ever. But most viewers will probably still take the gun, rather than the teeth, to be the main point. Mainly because he runs forward to involve himself instead of hanging back to be objective, Klein is very good at catching the vivid moment. There are also pictures taken in Italy, Russia and elsewhere, but really Manhattan, where he was born, is Klein’s precinct. He can see the casual calligraphic symmetry of window signs offering breaded veal cutlets for $1.05. So could every American urban photographer back to Weegee and beyond, but the thereness never fails to grip.

More involved even than Klein, more involved even than Hemingway, almost as involved as the soldiers themselves, Don McCullin gets his camera into the war. An Englishman, McCullin started by photographing his own country’s dark underside, but he was not alone. Covering Cyprus in 1964 he discovered his own bailiwick, up where the bullets were flying. Since then he has been in all the wars, most notably Vietnam, where his work was on a par with that of Philip Jones Griffiths. But his eye is not so spoiled by the adrenaline of action that it refrains from dwelling on the aftermath. Dead soldiers in every variety of contortion and civilians in every stage of starvation are duly recorded.

Scanning the worst of McCullin’s horrors, you find yourself wishing that Barthes were less right about the past really having been there. But anyone not capable of realizing that these things happen will not be much struck by the photographs anyway, so John le Carré’s introductory exhortations about McCullin’s mission to “appall the comfortable” are themselves somewhat cosy. It is a characteristic of the English intellectual middle class to believe that the mass of the public is uninstructed in the world’s grim realities and needs waking up. McCullin is too bravely independent to share so smug an attitude but it has helped make him famous—the most dazzling current example of the photographer singled out by subject.

Not many photographers would have the nerve to follow reality as far as McCullin does in search of their own territory, even supposing that there were any territory left. The alternative has always been to take the reality nearby and fiddle with it. By now I think it is becoming clear that for photographers abstraction and surrealism are a dry well, partly because, pace Galassi, painting always seems to exert at least as strong a pull on photography as photography does on painting. The moment the photographer starts treating the objects of experience symbolically, the referent ceases to adhere, and what he composes gravitates seemingly inexorably towards something already made familiar by the painters.

Herbert List: Photographs 1930–1970 collects the best work of a photographer with an impressive intellectual background. Trained by Andreas Feininger, List consorted with the visiting English writers in the Germany of the early 1930s and after leaving Germany in 1936 he became the leading purveyor of surrealist-tinged photographs to the slick magazines. But in this collection it is precisely the portrait photography which looks permanent and the surrealist compositions which seem to have been overtaken by time. Barthes should give us the courage to confess our difficulties about getting interested in the artificially arranged punctum.

Most of List’s cleanly lit and composed surrealist confections flare to life only when they include a couple of strapping young men standing around in G-strings. Immediately you get interested in the life going on off camera. Stephen Spender evokes some of it in the introduction, which like everything he writes about the Germany of the time makes you sorry not to have been there. He is much better than Isherwood at giving you some idea of the mental excitement. Isherwood, even today, concentrates on the physical excitement.

Drawing on their memories, writers can pursue their own tastes into old age. For photographers it is not so easy. List gave up after the war, feeling that once he had explored the limits of his own technique he was through as an artist, always supposing he had ever been one. Some of the portraits are good enough to make you think he judged himself too harshly, but there is no getting away from the fact that even with them the interest resides at least partly in the identity of the sitter. It is Morandi, Cocteau, Chirico, Picasso, Montherlant, Auden and Somerset Maugham who lend List renown, and not vice versa.

Anyone who finds it hard wholly to admire List is going to make heavy weather of admiring Robert Rauschenberg. Robert Rauschenberg Photographs shows what he has been up to in a medium to which he is not new, since he started off as a photographer. Having achieved fame, and presumably fulfilment, as a painter, he has recently revisited his first passion.

Rauschenberg’s chief trick in any medium is to juxtapose ready-made images. I can remember wondering, when I saw his exhibition of paintings at the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End of London in the early 1960s, why he didn’t juxtapose them more tightly, suggestively—in a word, wittily. I liked what he was doing but didn’t think he took it any distance, and resented the suggestion, made on his behalf by eager commentators, that the grubby white space left in each of his large canvases was meant to give my own imagination room to work. My own imagination was already at work, wondering how much of Rauschenberg’s allegedly selective creativity was doodling.

All the same doubts go double here, where there are not even a few swipes of paint to indicate personal intervention. In plate 45 a Mona Lisa tea towel hangs over the back of a canvas chair which is also variously draped and decorated with discarded clothes and a folded newspaper. If you buy the theory that a pure response to the Mona Lisa is no longer possible, here is food for thought. But for anyone to whom the Mona Lisa is still the Mona Lisa whatever happens, the inevitable reaction is a fervent wish that Rauschenberg would paint his own pictures and leave Leonardo’s alone.

“So what?” is not necessarily a philistine reaction. Sometimes it is required for the preservation of sanity, especially when one is presented with the intentionally meaningless and told to find it meaningful. John Pfahl’s Altered Landscapes shows us how a competent photographer can beautifully photograph landscapes in the same way as any other equally competent photographer can beautifully photograph landscapes, but pick up extra, reputation-making acclaim by “altering” them, hence the title. A picture taken in Monument Valley includes a piece of red string squiggling along the ground, which enables it to be called “Monument Valley with Red String.” Some of the pictures generate a sufficient frisson to make record album covers. Rock groups with metaphysical proclivities often favour the sort of album covers in which a line of large coloured spheres marches across the Sahara: altered landscapes for altered states.

Sam Haskins, it hardly needs saying, is better than competent, especially when photographing pretty young girls, for whom he has a hawk eye. But Sam Haskins/Photo graphics reveals a desire to be something more than the kind of craftsman whose output the uninitiated might mistake for soft porn. The term “photo graphics” calls up Moholy-Nagy’s photograms. Think of a Moholy photogram, add colour, focus the composition on the exquisitely lit, plumply swelling pantie-cupped crotch of a young girl lying back thinking pure thoughts about a sky full of roses, and you’ve got a Haskins photo graphic. You have to take it on trust that the picture bears no relation to a hot paragraph by Terry Southern. This is a meticulously produced book by whose technical accomplishment Haskins’s fellow-photographers will no doubt be suitably cowed, but the sceptical viewer could be excused for wondering whether a picture of a rainbow shining out of a pretty girl’s behind might not be a more direct indication of the artist’s state of mind than the circumambient surrealist trappings.

With Bill Brandt: Nudes 1945–1980 we are in another, less ambiguous, part of the forest. The model and inspiration for the young British photographers of the 1960s, the one home-grown loner they could admire without reserve, Brandt dedicated his career to photographing Woman in a way that would resolve her sensual appeal into a formal design. Hiding the lady’s face and applying every device of elongation, distortion and convolution, he pushed the formal design towards the abstract. But it approached the abstract asymptotically, as if Brandt were aware that when the referent ceased to adhere the result would be not just no woman but no anything.

Brandt’s hermetic commitment cost him a great deal and won him deserved admiration. Looking at these pictures, even the most clueless viewer will sense himself in the presence of a rare concentration of thought and feeling. But it is still possible to say, I think, that in treating the human body as a sculptural form Brandt was unable to avoid the gravitational pull of sculpture itself. Warm bottoms become cold Brancusis. Hips turn into Arps. Finally, in his most recent phase, Brandt unexpectedly and shockingly starts to load his nudes down with ropes and chains, as if it were his new ambition to take a studio on Forty-second Street or set up in partnership with Helmut Newton. It looks like a despairing confession that whereas a painter can significantly change the woman in front of him and make her part of something more significant, a photographer can’t significantly change her without destroying her significance altogether. But with all that said, nobody should mistake this book for anything less than the work of a unique isolated master photographer.

In the long run the photographers who glorified women individually, rather than rendering them all symbolically impersonal, stood a better chance of being called artists. The Hollywood portrait photographers rarely thought of themselves as much more than craftsmen, but John Kobal’s essential book The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers has no doubt given the survivors a higher, and well-merited, estimation of themselves. Likewise assembled by Kobal from his unrivalled archive, Hollywood Color Portraits is the colour supplement to the black-and-white standard work. Less weighty than its predecessor, it is still well worth having. Not only was colour less adaptable than black and white to subtle lighting; it was also much harder to retouch, so in this book you see some of the stars as they really looked, right down to the enlarged pores and—in Burt Lancaster’s case—the five o’clock shadow of Nixonite tenacity.

Theories of the hunger towards realism suffer a setback when faced with this order of evidence. Black and white was the ideal, colour was the real, and the ideal looked realer. Bob Coburn’s colour picture of Rita Hayworth in 1948 is just a pretty girl. “Whitey” Schaefer’s 1941 black-and-white portrait of her is an angelic visitation. Yet surely the black and white is the more true to the way she was. Not many of us who are grateful for her talent can look at such a photograph without feeling the bitterness of the irrecoverable reality that Barthes talks about. There was a day when supreme personal beauty was impossible to capture fully and so could fade without its possessor being too forcibly reminded of its loss. That time is past—one certain way, among all the conjectural ones, in which photography has changed the world.

For reasons of space and self-preservation I have had to leave many current books out of this survey. Nor are all the books I have included likely to prove essential in the long run. But A Century of Japanese Photography I can confidently recommend to any institution concerned with photography and to any person who can afford the price. Compiled in Japan and presented for Western consumption by John W. Dower, the book is a treasure city, a Kyoto of the printed image. Barthes would have been so shot through with puncta that he would have felt like Saint Sebastian, or Toshiro Mifune in the climactic scene of Throne of Blood. Peter Galassi will find his theory simultaneously borne out and borne away, since so much of Japanese painting led up to photography (what else did Hiroshige and Hokusai do with their winter landscapes but bleach out the inessential?) and so many of the Japanese master photographers are drawn back into the established pictorial tradition.

Since the Meiji restoration the Japanese have been photographing one another and the inhabitants of every country they have invaded. They seem rarely to have decapitated anyone without getting some carefully framed before-and-after shots. The level of violence in the book is made even more terrifying by the degree of delicacy. You feel that you are at a tea ceremony with Mishima and that he might behead you and disembowel himself at any moment and in either order.

The photographs of war put McCullin’s work in its proper perspective. McCullin might be trying to awaken our dormant psyches but for the Japanese the gap between everyday tranquillity and stark horror seems always to have been only a step wide. And just as readily as they photographed the violence they inflicted, they photographed the violence inflicted on them. Elegantly judged, Pompeii-like photographs of the charred bodies after the Tokyo fire raids may be edifyingly compared with similar studies obtained in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Proudly saluting from the cockpit, a kamikaze pilot taxis past a class of schoolgirls waving cherry branches in farewell. Words are needed to tell us where he is flying to, but once we know that, the picture tells us that he was there. Probably some of the schoolgirls are still alive and can pick themselves out in the picture. They were there too. Reality is the donnée of photography and sets the limit for how much the photographer can transform what he sees into a personal creation. For the artist photographer the limit is high but it still exists. To think it can be transcended is to be like Kant’s dove, which, upon being told about air resistance, thought it could fly faster by abolishing the air.

(New York Review of Books, December 17, 1981;
later included in Snakecharmers in Texas, 1988)

Postscript

Like writing about television, writing about photography was a chance to talk about everything. If someone had taken a photograph in China, I could talk about China. Doing a round-up of all the world’s books about photography in the past and present, I could go on for pages about time, space and the history of the world. But I couldn’t go on for long about photography itself, because apart from the technicalities there isn’t much to discuss, and criticism based solely on technicalities is doomed to famine. It can sound impressive, but so can an actor pretending to be a doctor. The specialist photography magazines are full of articles specifying shutter speed, focal length and what have you. No doubt it all means a lot to the adept, but it leaves the layman facing the same void as he always does when an aesthetic event is discussed in mechanical terms. A solo by Darcey Bussell, for example, can be registered on the page as a set of steps and poses with French names. Unfortunately every member of the corps de ballet can do them too. So the writer has evoked precisely nothing. In the case of photography the problem is exacerbated by the remorseless industrial effort to get all the relevant expertise into the camera itself, and out of the fallible hands of the goof holding it. There is indeed a miracle of creativity involved, but it is all inside the mechanism: more than a hundred and fifty years of intense technical development, none of which, if it were all forgotten tomorrow, even the most gifted photographer could begin to recapitulate.

Making a television programme about a safari in Kenya, I was supplied by my producers with the very latest Nikon. All I had to do was point it and twist the bit that stuck out until something I could see through the little window was in focus—anything. I can’t even remember if I had to press a button. Perhaps it pressed its own button and told me afterwards. Anyway, I got a close-up of an angry lion’s face. The lion was angry because the car I was in woke it up, and some idiot human sticking out of the top of the car was pointing a sinister-looking box of tricks at it. When the photograph came back from the chemist’s, I was as open-mouthed as the lion. Cartier-Bresson would have swallowed his hyphen with envy. The photograph was as sharp as a tack, impressive as the crack of doom, frightening to chill the mind. It could have gone straight into a glossy magazine, full page, bled to the edges. There is a lot I could say concerning that photograph. I could talk about my fear and the lion’s nobility, Africa’s tragedy and the pathos of civilization. But there is almost nothing illuminating to say about the technique with which I secured it. With a camera like that, the lion could have taken a photograph of me.

Art is safe from such developments. We aren’t, but it is. At once primitive and infinitely protean, art wasn’t born of consciousness: consciousness was born of it. As long as human life lasts, art will go on being the one activity for which no amount of calculation can provide a substitute, and the job of the critic will be to explain why this is so. The ability to realize that he can never attain to an exhaustive analysis of the thing he loves best is the indispensable qualification for signing on. What he has to offer is his life, of which his learning can only be a part: the more he knows the better, but if he thinks that nothing else counts then he will count for nothing. Primum vivere, deinde philosophari is a rap that nobody can beat.

(Reliable Essays, 2001)