Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Julie H, Aug 26, 2017.

  1. .............
    "These are simply documents I make."Eugene Atget

    What I hear from people about photo-documents is:

    "They're just documents."
    "Documents are boring."

    Do you find documents boring? Do you find Atget's pictures boring? Why?

    "The document was a fundamentally practical picture that lay at the bottom of visual culture as a base line, a point of departure, an objective pole. The document lived out its time quietly in the basement, many floors below the storied academic hierarchy, well below genre, well below still life, way below landscape. It was not considered worthy of discussion and it never generated any kind of theory.

    [line break added] Yet in the late nineteenth century the document was fast becoming something more than a preparatory step for buildings, paintings, and ornamental details. Whether drawn or photographed, the document was playing an increasingly important role in the elaboration of scientific and historical proof. It became a standard way of expressing knowledge; it became a means to knowledge; and it put together pictorial forms of knowledge, though they were not yet taken up as aesthetic forms and exploited for their own sake. That would come later."

    "... When Atget called his pictures documents he was explaining that they circulated in the closed channels of painters' cartons, decorators' folios, and libraries' files, where individual pictures counted for little and the quality of the file was measured by its scope. Unlike Matisse and Baudelaire, he saw a dignity in this kind of picture. This puts Atget's ideas against the grain of so many others that it bears stopping to consider how to put this technicality together with our preconceptions about culture."

    "... each of these archives hoped to establish its own special relation to a kind of knowledge, and sometimes to more than one kind. Each exercised its own power over its own strand of knowledge." — Molly Nesbit writing in Atget's Seven Albums (1992)

    I hear people say: "Documents are boring." Or if they don't say it, they show it by their actions; what they look at, what they shoot, what they buy, what they talk about.

    Documents are knowledge.
    Is knowledge boring? If so, what makes a picture not boring?

    Do you enjoy looking at photo-documents (tell the truth)? What kind of photo would you rather be looking at? Why?

    Do you see any "dignity in this kind of picture" (documents)? Do you agree that "Each exercised its own power over its own strand of knowledge"? But they're still boring (tell the truth)?
  2. ............
    Here is some more from Molly Nesbit for those who don't find the knowledge from documents to be boring:

    "The assertion ["These are simply documents I make"] is unambiguous, reiterated by Atget himself, recorded by those who knew him, and read out of the pictures by those who did not. Atget's claim for his pictures can be taken at face value: the photographs are documents, in the first and the last instance. The assumption does ask for more evidence, although it would do well to state it plainly now: fundamentally Atget was content with his cultural lot.

    [line break added] Atget's assertion that his pictures were documents was hardly naïve; he knew of the existence of other possibilities, like pictorialist photography, but kept his distance from them, just as he had shrugged off the kind of highbrow cultural dissent practiced by the Surrealists. Those who knew Atget well have all spoken about this tenaciousness, his tendency to dispute, his strong opinions, his temper. His concierge, who was in addition one of the best friends of Atget's mistress, could not overemphasize the point.

    [line break added] In 1928, Calmettes, his best and oldest friend, put it succinctly, "In art, in hygiene, he was absolute. He had his own ideas on everything and he imposed them with an unspeakable violence. He applied this intransigence of taste, of vision, of processes, to photography and from it came marvels." It is therefore important to understand why Atget persistently kept to his documents and kept his pictures moving along a specific layer of the cultural zone, not the public exhibition of Salon painters and galleries but the field of the archive and the printed page. This is not the familiar Parnassian ground of art history, but then neither is the document."

    [ ... ]

    "While Atget was working, the work of art and the document were like night is to day and not to be confused.

    "The document's relation to knowledge was neither natural nor trivial. It held knowledge that in turn would be used to produce more knowledge, usually in a more advanced state. So a document of Vieux Paris would inform an antiquarian's account of a seventeenth-century political event; a document of a lampshade salesman might inform a genre painting meant for Salon exhibition. And yet the document was not the source of power; it was not representing its own noble order; rather it spoke from the position of the peasant who harvested for the lord, or the worker who produced for the capitalist."

    [ ... ]

    "Knowledge merged and converged in Atget's photographs in a way that reveals much about the relations between knowledges and much about the nuts and bolts of modern visual culture. However, and this is extremely important, Atget's pictures were not completely identified with these knowledges. Most of the time his photographs were breathing down the outsides of one kind of connaissance or another, their forms addressing the knowledge yet to come, their relation to power unsteady, ambivalent. And that was hardly the end of it."​

  3. Szarkowski's exhibition of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand was called New Documents. To emphasize the point and as he writes in the introduction text that these weren't the type of documentary photographs made out of a social cause which is what documentary had been up until that point but that these were personal documents driven by the photographer's own sensibilities and look on the world (and their beingness in it), but in a way that still remains true to the way that the medium itself renders and documents the world and isn't a 'pictorialisation' of it. Among the three Friedlander has been the most influenced by Atget, from looking at the photographs (and I think Friedlander himself is also the most influential among the three).

    Szarkowski's words on Atget in the link pretty much sums it all up perfectly.
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2017
  4. "There remains a sizable part of the art world that simply does not get photography. They get artists who use photography to illustrate their ideas, installations, performances and concepts, who deploy the medium as one of a range of artistic strategies to complete their work. But photography for and of itself—photographs taken from the world as it is— are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory documentary tag." - Paul Graham

    I kinda agree with Graham though at the same time it's also true that actual documentary photography which was done neither for art nor for photography for and of itself has also found its way now into the gallery and art circuit because of the changing media landscape and the loss of relevance of in depth documentary stories in printed media.
  5. ............
    Before getting into the nitty-gritty documents about 'Documents' here's a little bit of snarky museum gossip about the New Documents MoMA show from Arthur Lubow's biography of Arbus:

    "Arbus's photographs dominated the notices of the exhibition. 'The press was all about Diane, it was as if Garry and Lee didn't exist,' Papageorge commented. He thought Avedon [Diane's friend] was manipulating the journalists behind the scenes. Certainly Avedon was a master of public relations, but even without intermediary maneuvers, Arbus's work tugged at spectators as the work of the other two did not. Newsweek devoted two-thirds of its review to Arbus; the writer credited her with "the sharp, crystal-clear, generous vision of a poet" and quoted Avedon's remark, "She has taken photography away from the sneaks, the grabbers, the generation created by Life, Look and Popular Photography and returned it to the artist." (As 'sneaks' and 'grabbers' were unflattering names for street photographers such as Winogrand and Friedlander, this comment — coming from a fashion and portrait photographer — was heavily loaded.)"​


    Now, still in Lubow's book, here is how he describes Szarkowski's take on 'New Documents':

    "Instead of wanting to improve the world [as the WPA documentary photographers had], the new generation sought to understand it. Or so Szarkowski argued. The three photographers he selected for the exhibition — Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus — worked in very different idioms, but each had reshaped the form to suit a personal agenda.

    [line break added] What made their photographs, in Szarkowski's view, 'like absolutely the first breath of spring air coming through the smoggy city' was the depleted state of documentary photography, which 'had gotten so leaden, tired, boring, dutiful, automatic and Pavlovian' that it was 'dreary' and 'distasteful to look at,' as uninspired and uninspiring as a campaign speech. These three photographers were using the documentary form 'to explore their own experience and their own life and not to persuade somebody else what to do or what to work for,' Szarkowski said." [emphasis added]​

    Szarkowski thought Winogrand was the more influential. Again, from Lubow:

    "Winogrand — whom Szarkowski would later judge to be 'the central photographer of his generation' — typically tried to compress the maximum of chaos within a frame without collapsing into incoherence. Friedlander mediated his images with cool, cerebral irony. Arbus infused individual portraits with her psychological preoccupations, erotic longings and mythic fancies."​

    Szarkowski does agree with Phil that Friedlander was the one most influenced by Atget (whereas Arbus < Sander; Winogrand < Frank).

    But how can any of these photographers be reconciled with Atget, who, after all, worked very deliberately to make documents for clients?

    I'll use Winogrand to address that issue in my next post.
  6. From a photographer's and formalist point of view Friedlander is the most visually complex and sophisticated. I can see why Arbus would draw the most attention, the subject of her work being more palatable also for non photographers to look at.

    Avedon clearly didn't know what he was talking about when he missed to see the art in Winogrand and Friedlander simply because their photographs didn't look pictorially artistic or their subject matter wasn't as obvious as Arbus. That's how influential Szarkowski also was when he brought attention to their work and recognized in it something that was just as much proof of an authorship and while seemingly similar also very different than what had came before in terms of the type of documentary or photography that Avedon was dismissing.
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2017
  7. ...............
    How does one reconcile the New Documents with Atget's 'documents'?

    First some descriptions of what the New Documents generation, and Garry Winogrand in particular,were trying to do or not do. All of this is from John Szarkowski, writing in Winogrand: Figments of the Real World (1988):

    "It would not be a gross exaggeration to say that, in the eyes of the young turks, a photograph that was sharp all over, that was fully exposed in the shadows, and that was not visibly grainy was insincere. To add artificial light to the scene was worse, it was simple fraud.

    "In rational terms this was nonsense, but in artistic terms the question was not so simple. To the new photographers the old pictures seemed planned, designed, conceived, understood in advance: they were little more than illustrations, in fact less, since they claimed to be something else — the exploration of real life."​

    Atget did illustration. He made pictures with the specific intent of selling them to artists, set designers, the building industry, amateurs of vieux Paris, and publishers. His work was planned, conceived, understood in advance, at least in the sense of knowing what he wanted and what it was intended for. This puts him on the wrong side of the New Documents attitude.

    Back to Szarkowski:

    "The term 'snapshot aesthetic' was coined to give a name to the open-ended character of [Winogrand's style of] imagery, so different from the familiar ideal of good pictorial design, with its taut assemblage of interlocking shapes. Winogrand thought the label idiotic, and pointed out correctly that the prototypical snapshot was — at least in intention — rigidly conceptual, even totemic. At a deeper level, however, there was perhaps some justice in the term, for the snapshooter and Winogrand agreed that the subject was everything. The difference between them was that the snapshooter thought he knew what the subject was in advance, and for Winogrand, photography was the process of discovering it."​

    Once again, we find Atget on the wrong side of this 'new' document. He surely 'knew what the subject was in advance.' He was not, in any sense, a snapshooter.

    Back to Szarkowski on Winogrand:

    "The work of his immediate predecessors now seems in comparison almost simple, and has receded into the security of history, where problems seem clear and solutions inevitable. Winogrand';s work in contrast remains difficult and problematic. It is possible that his vision of photography's potential finally led him to problems too complexly difficult to allow rational hope of success. Photography is based on the faith that there is a relation between aspect and meaning, but how does one describe the meaning of chaos without submitting to it? Younger photographers may retreat a little from such Faustian ambition, in exchange for the reassurance of a greater measure of control. Even so, Winogrand will have made their problem more difficult, for his work has demonstrated that photography can give visible and permanent shape to experience so complex, unpredictable, subtle, and evanescent that one would have thought it uncommunicable."​

    Ahhhh ... now I think I see how Winogrand backing up, bumps into Atget, who, also backing up, meets him from the opposite direction.

    Atget to follow, next.
  8. Well, they're all influenced by Atget in one way or another through the influence of Walker Evans who took over Atget's typology and formalism and applied it to American culture. Evans too had a lot to say about documentary and stressing that his work was not documentary but documentary style.
  9. Atget was not a snapshooter. From Molly Nesbit's book:

    "Atget worked sometimes on commission, but generally on spec. Typically he addressed sectors of clients. These sectors defined themselves for Atget. The painters most often referred Atget to other painters; the members of the building industry referred almost exclusively to each other; with the set designers and the Vieux Paris amateurs the same clubhouse attitudes held. These would have encouraged Atget to think along the lines of the various professions and to map out his documents according to their functions. As he did his business, Atget was led to think in categories. These were the categories of practical vision.

    "All this meant that Atget produced documents in kind. The variations in his market caused some fluctuations in the way Atget ran his business but in essence the work was standardized, the documents were regular. He was always working for the same kinds of clients, with the same requirements for documents."​

    Sounds like the opposite of Winogrand or Friedlander so far. But when working for artist and set designers, he would do 'backgrounds.' Continuing with Molly Nesbit:

    "For an artist they read literally as scenes waiting for action. The fact that Walter Benjamin, reviewing the first Atget monograph in 1931, did not see Atghet's pictures as études but instead felt them to be vacant like scenes of a crime (or by some translations, action) reinforces the point. The photographs in their capacity as documents asked for a narrative, dramatic action, a relation to a larger whole; they anticipated a look that would pirate; they also expected a look that would supplement. Each kind of document however worked off a different profile of possibilities; the nature of the supplement varied with the genre. This much can be said of all documents for artists: they anticipated a look that would see ahead to fully brushed and well-populated landscapes, characters, narrative action, and punch lines, the horizon of expectations in the artists' practical vision. Space in those documents left room for a look; more than that, it signified absence."​

    Now we're seeing Atget knowing in advance that he will not know in advance. I think he's leapfrogged over Winogrand to be one hop ahead of him in the not-knowing department.

    Even when not purposely leaving scenes open and ambiguous, Atget made room for the unexpected because of his diverse clientele:

    "For Atget brought his documents to the different professions, each with its own sense of how to use its eyes, each with its own register of form and its own procedures for making form tell. All of the professions took the document into the very early stages of their work. Atget therefore always found himself at the dawn of the knowledges, before they had actually broken forth into discourse, while they were still cogitating, recollecting, pulling thought together, preparing a weave, and he operated in this half-light between the knowledges, in a space which was by and large outside them all."

    " ... Just because it fell into the space of regular work did not mean that it came unnuanced and clear; that idea of transparency in ordinary practical communication is a cliché invented in order to give all the nuance to literature and art. Documents too could be guarded, opaque, and as patterned as sonnets."

    "... The space of Atget's operations was composed of a crisscross of outer spaces, at the beginning of others' labor, before the archive, in and out of legally defined culture, on the gray ground of the marketplace, wherever that was. The outside was not a pure blackness, not an abstraction to be conjured up when all other images failed. The outside had its own kinds of solidity, materials and potential. Atget understood its subtleties and benefits well. From the outside he would deal with the connaissances. His documents would subordinate culture to knowledge; others could do with this knowledge what they liked."​

    Those last three paragraphs could as well have been describing Winogrand or Friedlander. From different directions, I think I recognize influence.

  10. What makes Atget a pioneer of modernism in photography (and therefore so influential) is his increasing concern and eye for the whole picture plane. Atget could have easily fulfilled all the requirements of his clients without addressing such concerns visually, and where the subject of attention was simply photographed and the photograph itself wasn't to be the subject. Atget knew what he was doing or grew into knowing what he was doing even though at one point he might have described that what he was doing was simply making documents for artists. The later pictures or 'documents' taken at the parks also begin to show a more expressive side.
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2017
  11. Evans's modernist frontal style, neutral objectivity / personal selectivity:

    South Carolina, 1936

    Great reply by Paul Strand when he photographed essentially the same subject but slightly off axis and cut off on the right and top:

    Vermont, 1944
  12. ...............
    Questions for you, Phil. In a brief introduction to the book that accompanied a 1968 Brassaï show at MoMA, Szarkowski wrote this:

    "The photography of continental Europe during the past thirty-five years has been polarized by the work of two dominant figures; one is Henri Cartier-Bresson, the other Brassaï. Between them they seem almost to have pre-empted the possibilities of the art in their time and place. Cartier-Bresson has been the classicist, imbued with the French love of measure, valuing balance and clarity and the sophistication of the great tradition — as though he too had decided to do Poussin over again, this time with photography.

    "Brassaï, the Parisian from Transylvania, seems in contrast an angel of darkness. His sensibility dates from an earlier age, and delights in the primal, the fantastic, the ambiguous, even the bizarre. Yet the most distinguishing characteristic of Brassaï's work is its profound poise and naturalness, its sense of easy permanence. Looking at his pictures, one is not aware of the act of photographing; it is rather as though the subject, through some agency of its own, reproduced itself."​

    Szarkowski makes no mention of Atget. How would you say Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï fit into this discussion of 'documents,' and how would each relate to Atget, if at all?
  13. An odd bit of trivia:

    In the Szarkowski book on Winogrand, he talks about Winogrand's first wife, repeatedly spelling her name 'Adrienne Lubow.' The recent biography of Diane Arbus is written by 'Arthur Lubow.' But the Wikipedia page on Winogrand spells his first wife's name 'Adrienne Lubeau.' Okay, okay, who cares, but I'd like to know if Arthur happened to be in the family, just because.
  14. ...........
    Dresser Drawer, Ed's Place, 1947 by Wright Morris

    "If, for example, one should decide to open, and then to photograph, the top drawer of an uncle's chest of drawers one has not set oneself a very difficult technical problem. The light should be right; a soft, enveloping light, without hard shadows, will be best for describing clearly the strange miscellany of stuff in the drawer. A way must be found to support the camera rigidly in the right place. The right place is the place from which the camera best sees the contents of the drawer.

    [line break added] Once the camera is in the right place, the exposure should be close to correct; after that, the darkroom parts of the process should be done well and with sensibility, so that the viewer of the print is persuaded momentarily to suspend disbelief and think that he is looking at the contents of an old man's drawer, the odds and ends of an old man's life, rather than at a piece of paper covered with a pattern of molecular silver.

    [line break added] If the result of all this is a failure, one can return to the motif and may, with luck, find that the subject is still similar to what it was, and try again. None of the component parts of this process is very difficult, and, in fact, a person of average intelligence and sensibility should be able to learn in six months time to execute the whole sequence of procedures successfully most of the time.

    [line break added] One might way that it should be no more difficult to make a good photograph than to write a good sentence. This is not to say that the student will produce photographs of such elegant technical finish and precision of expression as those of Paul Strand, say, or Ansel Adams, or Harry Callahan, but rather that their pictures are likely to be made as well as their thought deserves. This brings us to the more difficult and the more important part of the problem.

    "It would be unfair to say that the important part is having the right uncle. ... " — John Szarkowski writing in Wright Morris: Origin of a Species (1992)
  15. ...............
    getting colder

    "Morris had praised Walker Evans, and it seems clear that his own photography owes a debt to the older man ... "

    "Morris' photographs relate more clearly to those of Evans than to any other earlier body of work ... "

    "The differences between the two men are not so easy to describe. In 1967, I arranged to have prints made from a selection of Morris negatives made a quarter-century earlier, one set for Morris and one for the Museum of Modern Art. When the prints were finished, I shared the pleasure of them with Edward Steichen, who was visiting the Museum. After looking at the prints we tried briefly to puzzle out why Morris' photographs — so similar if described in words to many of Evans' — were in the flesh so different in feeling. Our effort to analyze the difference did not get far. 'Evans feels cooler,' I said. 'Colder,' Steichen said." — John Szarkowski

    If you look at Wright Morris's work, I think you'll agree with their assessment. I think that Evans and the New Documents work moves away from warmth. But I think Atget's work is never cool.
  16. .............

    Here is Szarkowski working on the similarities in Morris and Evans work:

    "... both men are most at home with architecture and found still life, and with what one might call the anthropological landscape. In all of these areas each is attracted to the kind of beauty that is commonly called character, meaning (in Horatio Greenough's terms) the record of function, a record that closely parallels the record of loss."​

    Here is Wright Morris, himself, talking about character:

    "The word beauty is not a Protestant thing. The Protestant word for that is character. Character is supposed to cover what I feel about a cane-seated chair, and the faded bib, with the ironed-in stitches, of an old man's overalls. Character is the word, but it doesn't cover the ground. ... It doesn't cover what is moving about it, that is, I say these things are beautiful, but I do so with the understanding that mighty few people anywhere will follow what I mean. Perhaps all I'm saying is that character can be a form of passion, and that some things, these things, have that kind of character. That kind of passion has made them holy things."​


    The Memory Cabinet of Mrs. K. …. 1960
    by Susan Stewart

    [ ... ]

    Middle Drawer
    ……… Hammer and picture wire; flowered pajamas; cross-stitched
    dresser scarf; kimono, missing belt; velveteen sandals from
    Panama, huts and palm trees carved into the heel; a squirt
    gun; detachable collar with lip print; postcard from the
    Poconos; pack of cards; a trivet made of popsicle sticks.

    Bottom Drawer
    ……… Souvenir pillow from Watkins Glen; presser foot; zipper
    foot; flywheel belt; an ink bottle, rubber stopper askew;
    inside a bevy of charred wings rising, over a black, but
    moonlit pond
    ; extension cord, box of bobbins, belt for
    a blue kimono; diploma; certificate of perfect attendance.​

  17. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    Indeed, if it only wasn't for the presence of typos. But what is the photographic equivalent of a typo. An exposure dial nudged slightly to the left, or to the right. Or maybe a 2 degree tilt of the horizon in an upward, or downward, direction. Do such errors really diminish the photo, even if left unchecked, to the same degree that typos diminish a sentence, any sentence or only those that are supposed to educate?

    E&OE :)

  18. HCB is a photographer of the single image whereas Brassaï's work depends equally on the interconnection between individual images and the work as a whole. HCB doesn't have a Paris de Nuit. I remember in an interview Avedon saying that he considered HCB to be the greatest photographer of the 20th century (interesting since I think HCB is closer to the type of photography Avedon was dismissing than Winogrand and Friedlander are, even though HCB thought of himself as a surrealist). HCB is perhaps the quintessential photographer of the small format camera which use resulted in a new way of seeing the world compared to the large format that was used by Atget. While the large format negative and print adds an unmistakable clarity and depth to the surface of the world in terms of its strict documentation when compared to the small format (which can be more expressive), the large format contact print precisely because of its potential clarity as a photographic document can intimate to more than what it shows.

    The words used by Szarkowksi and Steichen to describe Evans also points to how they themselves were different and looked at the world and photographs differently (both as photographers and as critics). Cooler seems to suggest a mode of expression while colder seems to suggest a lack or lessening of expression.
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2017
  19. ...............
    My feeling is that they might just as easily have looked at Morris's work as 'warmer' and 'hot' leaving Evans to be the standard of somehow 'just right' instead of the other way around (where Evans is the one noted as being off).

    To my eye, I can understand 'cooler' when looking at Evans work, but that's just an immediate, on-arrival description. I think Evans' work is more challenging (therefore 'cooler'); it's harder, and intentionally so. It's like a big fat nut with its shell still on. You have to suspect there is meat inside, and work to get it. There's just as much there, but it's given to you whole, not shelled.

    I'm still thinking about that, but I will say now that I believe large format difference has at least as much to do with how it forces the photographer to behave as it does with what the camera does or doesn't do with/to it's negative.
  20. ..........
    If you agree with this from Molly Nesbit:

    "... Atget was not interested in any and all differences, differences between individuals for example were not important to him, although they could easily have been. Atget's idea of putting together sixty views of ordinary, private apartments, identified by a few, unspecified facts and without any human presence, was altogether unusual in a public context. Normally portraits like these, of unpeopled rooms, were seen in private places, in family albums alongside other views of the home and family life, each of which had special personal significance."

    "... The individual was not allowed out of the album [< Atget's project/collection]. Cécile Sorel, already a public figure famous for her Célimène, her Marie-Antoinette nose, and her extravagance, was there [in his album] as a rich and famous actress, not as herself. The album took what might in another context be considered a family photograph and presented it as a document where nostalgia and delusion were excluded by the technical sign. The individual was submitted to knowledge. There were no exceptions."​

    ... if you agree with that — "the individual was submitted to knowledge," — then you might see Wright Morris and, oddly, Lee Friedlander as falling into a fellowship. But, interestingly (to me), Arbus and Winogrand turn out to be sort of anti-Atget's in the sense that they show things that refuse "the knowledge." They show the individual(s) that refuse to submit to knowledge. They show the cracks, the failures, the exceptions. They do it by the same means, via the document, only this time turning Atget's process inside-out. They both see the same border; one approaches it from the side of knowledge, the other from the side of the failure of knowledge.

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