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

  1. "He practiced photography not to express what he knew and felt, but to discover what he might know and feel."

    It's said that when Walker Evans saw Atget's work Evans was already doing work in a similar way and seeing Atget's work was the confirmation that he (Evans) was on to something.
  2. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    really. is that what documentarians do? or was Atget a special case?
  3. ..........
    Returning to Evans vs Wright Morris, here is Alan Trachtenberg writing about their differences:

    "Sincerely respectful of the older man's pictures, undoubtedly educated by Evans's unerring eye for the revealing scene or detail, Morris took pains to clarify how their motives and purposes differed. Silent about the great variety, complexity, and many-sidedness of Evans's work, the wit and ironic interplay of word, picture, and thing within many of his pictures, Morris understandably stressed differences in motive in order better to differentiate his own accomplishment. The key difference in his mind was how each of them felt about his subject-matter.

    [line break added] In an essay Evans published in 1969, a series of pithy commentaries on selected photographs, he said of Morris's Straightback Chair, The Home Place (1947) that the picture had 'imprinted' in it 'some of the shoddiness and all the heartbreak of the century ... a perfect example of photography's habit, when guided by a master, of picking up searing little spots of realism and of underlining them, quietly, proportionately. Morris's detailed comment is a waft of rather pleasant melancholia.' In 1975, the year Evans died, Morris demurred from this judgment. He wrote that Evans saw the photographed chair as 'expressive of the cruelty of rural environment, its stark shearing off to what is minimally human ... . But to my eye and nature the poignancy of that deprivation is moving and appealing. I love the chair.' "

    "... Often [Morris] used the term icon to describe the near-magical effect on him of such objects as that chair. 'Through human contact' they achieve 'expressive form'; they possess a 'concealed life.' Evans, in this view, sought signs of human activity, of history and culture, while Morris was after a different kind of aura, evidence of 'the dominance of the past in all aspects of the present, the palpable sense of time as a presence.' The past for Evans, Morris would say, was less a sign of time, the inscrutable dimension of human life, than of the accumulated residue of which history is made. 'I wanted evidence of man in the artifacts that reveal his passing,' Morris wrote, the emphasis falling on passing, a key word in his lexicon of assumptions, part of the process of loss and gain.

    "... Evans took the picture [Straightback Chair] as a brilliantly transcribed historical fact, a record of a culture, its 'shoddiness' and 'heartbreak.' It is not just that Morris loved what he thought Evans sneered at. Loving the chair, the worn, patterned, linoleum floor, the plainly carpentered door and jamb and hardware-store knob and latch, Morris took the picture not as a document of culture, but as the occasion to hear a voice, someone's voice."

    "... A final thing to say is that like the world of Walker Evans, Morris's is a realm of human artifacts, handmade objects jostling the store-bought, the mass-produced: the world's body, redeemed. His pictures make the commonplace monumental, raising the inconspicuous to conspicuous grandeur: stark, gaunt, world-weary, and world-awakening."​

  4. ............
    This next may seem a little OT, but I think it's relevant to the idea that photographs are 'documents.' Documents of what?

    This is Ralph Lieberman writing about Wright Morris's use of both photo and text (Morris was a writer and poet before, during and after he was a photographer):

    "... in Photographs and Words [by Morris], he recalled a drive through northern Mississippi in 1940, on which he 'passed a field where a harness-patched plow horse, white as Moby Dick, stood luminous in a piece of over-grazed pasture, his heavy head bowed. I should have stopped to photograph it. That I did not is why I have forever borne it so vividly in mind.' The idea that by not photographing something he remembered it better was a notion Morris continually reconsidered, and ultimately he came to the conclusion that 'the camera is the first obstruction between us and experience. I think this is both subtle and inevitable. When you become lens-oriented, the object itself is secondary and you wait to see later what it is you've done.'

    "In Solo, the second of his autobiographical volumes, Morris describes crossing to Europe on a freighter in the late summer of 1933:

    Near the mid-Atlantic, we had some bad weather, with seas so high they spilled into the gangway. I wasn't really sick, but the thought of food made me stand in the gangway, the spray in my face, breathing in deeply until I felt better. What I wanted to know, and had a chance to find out, was the difference between a real storm at sea and reading about a storm in [Joseph] Conrad. When I came to know the difference, however, the sea had calmed and it was Conrad's storm that I remembered."​

    " ... 'First we make those images to see clearly: then we see clearly only what we have made. In my own case, over forty years of writing what I have observed and imagined has replaced and overlapped what I once remembered. The fictions have become the facts of my life.' "​
  5. Having read through the entire thread a couple of times, I find myself confused by the original proposal, and by most of the responses.
    Atget's pictures (thank you, Julie) are interesting and important to all of us, as a peek through the keyhole of history.
    To refer to them as "documents" today may be accurate, as it is to refer to the "Declaration of Independence" can be considered by some factions in the United States.
    These pictures are scenes that Atget wanted to capture, of a society and world that he saw changing, and that would soon be unrecognisable.
    These were definitely NOT snapshots. The people who we see, now long gone, were well aware that they would be seen by others, and were appropriately prepared.
    But these were ordinary people, in ordinary settings. These pictures, and all pictures made in the same spirit, must be cherished and preserved and viewed.

    Snapshots? Not really, at least not most of them.
    Documents? I wouldn't use that term, but as a window into the ( admittedly antiquated and no longer acceptable ) norms of society, possibly;
    similar use of the term, referred above, is used for "documents" which are equally
    antiquated and no longer acceptable.

    My thoughts, yours will probably differ.
  6. I hope so! That's what leads to a good discussion.

    Danny, in the OP I was asking if a viewer (you!) finds 'documents'* boring. If you were leafing through a history of photography, or an anthology of photography, and an Atget page flipped by, would you stop? Would you want to look at it before the other pictures, if not first, then at least tenth? Or would you figure that glimpse was enough?

    Pick out an Atget picture that you like looking at and tell me why you like looking at it (not why it's good; why you like want to look at it). Why is it not-boring?

    [*please note that 'documents' does not mean documentary. Atget used it to separate his work from art. He's, in effect, trying to say, "My pictures are [something] but they are not [surreal] art [like yours]" >> he was addressing Man Ray.]
  7. .............
    Here is Walter Benjamin trying to figure out what a 'document' is by using a list:

    I. The artist makes a work...............................................................................................The primitive expresses himself in documents.
    II. The artwork is only a document. ................................................................................No document is as such a work of art.
    III. The artwork is a masterpieces. .................................................................................The document serves to instruct.
    IV. On artworks, artists learn their craft. .........................................................................Before documents, a public is educated.
    V. Artworks are remote from each other in their perfection........ .....................................All documents communicate through their subject matter.
    VI. In the artwork content and form are one: meaning. ..................................................In documents, the subject matter is dominant.
    VII. Meaning is the outcome of experience. ...................................................................Subject matter is the outcome of dreams.
    VIII. In the artwork, subject matter is a ballast jettisoned during contemplation. ...........The more one loses oneself in a document, the denser the subject matter grows.
    IX. In the artwork the formal law is central. ....................................................................Forms are merely dispersed in documents.
    X. The artwork is synthetic: an energy center. ...............................................................The fertility of the document demands: analysis.
    XI. The impact of an artwork increases with viewing. .................................................... A document overpowers only through surprise.
    XII. The virility of works lies in assault. .......................................................................... The document's innocence gives it cover.
    XIII. The artist sets out to conquer meanings. ............................................................... The primitive man barricades himself behind subject matter.​

    Molly Nesbit immediately disagrees [re Atget] with the word "primitive": "... the relations between form and knowledge at the level of the document, though primary, were hardly primitive. They depended upon intermediaries, contingencies, that could be blocked or turned, that might or might not let knowledge in." But I think Benjamin's list is interesting anyway, if only in stimulating me to think about why I don't agree with (parts of) it.

  8. "At the core of Surrealist aesthetics, the marvellous was sometimes revealed rather than created. Always on the look-out for quirks of fate in everyday life, the artists sought this notion in the most unexpected places, in the banality, even triviality, of everyday life. The relationship between Realism and Surrealism was gradually transformed, showing that the surreal could be an inherent part of reality itself. The real and the marvellous became "connected vessels" as André Breton put it. From that point, the frontiers between work of art and document became blurred, the artist turned into a wanderer, a collector of "finds", of "petrifying coincidences", incessantly questioning the familiar order to unearth its "bewildering strangeness"."

    Dream City

    Paris18_by Philip Sweeck.jpg
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2017
  9. ..........

    "Atget had his own view of the sun. Not Man Ray's, not Zola's. His lines would fall on nonaesthetic ground. His prospects were not theirs.

    "It is more than ironic that Atget's place in history was secured by the very same Surrealist circles he had not so delicately skirted in 1926 and that his work is generally seen now in light of modern art. ... Whether it is possible to recover Atget's optic of difference and all the standards and distinctions by which his work can be judged is of course debatable, but the basic lines, the differences, can be deduced."

    [ ... ]

    "They [Desnos, Man Ray and their friends] admired his pictures for their qualitative cultural difference; they could tell that those photographs stemmed from another, immensely sensitive, stubbornly popular culture, alien and at the same time half-familiar, strange and desirable, pensé and impensé. To have known this was one thing, to explain it quite another. Their account of that popular culture, and their account of Atget as well, could only be made from their own position — not exactly inside popular culture (their clothes were a little too fine) and not quite outside it either ... They wrote about it all as Surrealism; they saw it from the threshold of their class. Sometimes they tried to make the popular over in their own image. ... But Atget was not, like the young Aragon, seeking out the low life of the passage de l'Opéra in order to rectify philosophical error; nor did his image of the city rise from the real of ruby lips. Atget's work slipped away from those recently converted to peasantry."

    [ ... ]

    "Aragon played a peasant of great sophistication. His dream-work would be done after having left the café — dreams and wine were the consolation for having been stood up. But his dreams, if under the influence, were quite literary, a siren-prostitute singing in the canes, a window that was both an ocean and a Rhine, and an ideal that mocked his cry, his poor, instinctive reaction that was nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. Aragon's odyssey had brought him to the low life that he wanted to join, but it was a life told by bourgeois images and clichés. They moved through his dream like a vaudeville act, a spoof of Verne, a pantomime, a silent screen."

    "Of course he [Atget] did not share their approach. Atget proceeded toward the au-delà using documents and their conventions for obtaining savoir. He was still interested in the measurement of culture; difference itself was not being fetishized, nor was the delectation of the form the point. Aragon and company, on the contrary, were trying to assess popular culture by seeing it according to the conventions by which art was usually understood: they did not go outside their own habits of thought when they crossed the border that Kandinsky called kitsch ... . None of them trusted practical vision to do the job alone. The difference between the practices of culture and savoir, the difference that was not supposed to stand out so plainly, separated Atget and the younger men [the Surrealists] like oil and water. That difference was at the root of all the friction between him and Man Ray that day in 1926 [when Atget insisted that his photographs were "documents" not art]." ​

    All of the above is from Atget's Seven Albums by Molly Nesbit (1992). Bolding in the last paragraph is added by me.
  10. The problem I have with Nesbit's take on Atget's take of his own work is that it seems to presuppose art to be everything other than knowing or knowledge (in the way those terms are often understood in context of the objective record or document).

    A viewer can never know a work the way the maker of it does. From the perspective of the creator the work is always a document of a certain private knowledge, but it's also the same kind of knowledge the viewer recognizes and reflects on when experiencing a work of art.
  11. I agree, but I do think (IMO) that Nesbit is correct in insisting that he was not only not a surrealist, but that he very much wanted to actively resist any tendency to see his work that way. I think that his connection to the real, to history, to the multi-layered public reality that was very real, not at all surreal, was essential to his way of seeing.

    Also, Nesbit has an enormous amount of documentation that she gives in the book to back up her take on Atget's work. I tend to think, as you do, that she pushes too hard away from any idea of "art" but maybe that's necessary to resist the opposite tendency (to take him as an artist).
  12. Surrealism isn't one single thing. Surrealism in photography has precisely to do with the photograph's uncanny analogy and relationship to the 'real'.

    Atget's work took on a more contemplative and subjective dimension (but still without ever straining for an effect to paraphrase Weston) towards the end of his life in the photographs of trees and those taken at the parks.
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2017
  13. Reality is often surreal and a good documentarian might very well include that in his work.

    For example, how could a documentarian studying the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism in the U.S. today avoid surrealism? It would be dishonest.

    Reality has become the nightmare!
  14. "but maybe that's necessary to resist the opposite tendency (to take him as an artist)"

    The best tendency to me isn't about taking Atget as an artist but about taking what his pictures reveal in terms of seeing and looking as art when recognizing the artistic in that which is obvious and plain for all to see and in what Atget saw when he positioned his camera *that* way and on *that* spot.

    Why Atget? Why not all other documentarians too if documenting was all he was doing. If not to do with seeing art it must have something to do with the art of seeing...
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2017
  15. Phil, I think we're getting into two separate tangents here. There's what Atget himself thought his work was about (historical), which is what Nesbit is sorting out; and then there's what we are able to do with his work, regardless of whatever it was that he thought he was doing, which (our using it as it moves us to use it) I think is perfectly valid.

    The thing I like (I'm not saying anybody else "needs" to like it too) is his noticing, and stating strongly, the difference between responding to the social/cultural layering all around him, as opposed to wanting to play with or inside of his own personal world. I think that if photographers don't notice this explicitly while working, it's easy to slip-slide around between the personal and that which is there without you, that doesn't "need" you as part of the play. Knowing which or whether you are doing one or the other or not gives a cleaner vision, IMO. Atget knew, IMO. IMO IMO IMO ...
  16. Atget insisting that he was making documents* is something that I don't see any different than Weston insisting to be called and addressed as a photographer and not as an artist. I know simply by looking at both of their photographs that such an insistence didn't come from a lack of artistic ambition or a lack of conscious artistic seeing. That Atget kept his distance and independence as a photographer from the circle of surrealists and artists is precisely why he's also considered to be a pioneer of modernism in photography, where photography is its own thing and as a medium doesn't depend on art in order to make something of artistic value.

    It's through the documenting and collecting of cultural motifs that Atget also became more aware and started to document something about the nature and language of the medium itself. He must have sensed that this something didn't need the crux of art, neither aesthetically nor conceptually.

    *The sign outside his door read "documents pour artistes". Documents for artists. Not for accountants, for artists. This can be read any number of ways beyond its intended meaning. A document too doesn't exist in a vacuum and its meaning depends on the context the document is being used in (what the surrealists were after).
    Last edited: Oct 22, 2017
  17. .............
    I agree. That's what I was trying to say in my previous post. I also strongly agree that photography's difference is the source of most of our (interesting!) discussions or explorations of this art-document intersection.

    Nesbit notices that, too, and I think the following long passage from her really illustrates what we've been trying to sort out. Nesbit reads this as a further elaboration on his pursuit of the 'document' of what he knew. I (and I'm guessing you) can easily see this as very much the attitude of an artist at work even if he didn't notice (or care) about how he had metamorphosed at this point in his life. I think he was so much a photographer that he lived inside of the medium.

    Here's the Nesbit passage ('technical' means, more or less, showing the things in a useful way for prospective clients):

    "Around the pond called the Octogone six statues remained, 'most of them terribly damaged: a Rape of Persephone, a Conquered Gaul killing himself after having slit his wife's throat, a sturdy Orestes and Pylades group, an Apollo and a Daphne, and Electra and Orestes, an Orator.' "

    "Atget's work at Sceaux fit into an album, the usual sixty pictures, which took the park at different times of year, looking at the way nature had eroded human achievement, destroying the classical line, the clear form, the pensée. His Orestes and Pylades were shown from behind, not because they were better seen or studied that way, but to show the characters from the past contemplating their own bitter fate. The classical past seemed to be surviving by a thread. In his documents the technical signs had been so bent and disregarded that they could not even lend ideological support. These gnarled, opinionated, technical signs kept the document in that space before knowledge, as if trying to hold it there indefinitely, away from the modern state.

    "Atget moved his documents toward closure in the 1920s, closure that would have various functions and various forms. Closure became Atget's last way of locating his positions, making the distinctions, dividing points of view from one another, disputing with notions of universality, positing a class consciousness. Albert Valentin and Pierre MacOrlin tried to pin down the qualities, giving them names, the fantastique, the au-delà. The line of demarcation itself is perhaps more interesting. It was where the author could express his power, his desire, and his contempt.

    "Atget expressed all of this repeatedly in the last section of the Paris pittoresque. In the 1920s that series had been continued, without benefit of a project comparable to the Bibliothèque Nationale albums to guide it. In 1921 Atget put the prostitutes that he had begun to photograph for Dignimont there and then worked hither and yon on shop fronts, docks, circuses, manikins, the details of the populaire. The separations he was building between it and bourgeois culture continued in the direction he had begun in his albums, but he worked the extremities of the populaire with an urgency that grew cynical. ... The players were diverse, the manikins macabre. But their theater was popular, their tale immaterial, the point was their longue durée even as Paris mechanized, modernized, à 'lameréicaine. Atget gave Gilles without Watteau. An exclusive low, a pure low, a low that held itself away from knowledge and financial speculation. Just like the Orestes and Pylades. A low without a high.

    "Low culture, popular culture was, like death, not a concept to be absorbed and filed away. Atget's point was made. It was a point with a politics, of course, but it was not made using the forms with which political culture was usually expressed, not with a social realism, not with an art social, not with a celebration of the worker's body or the folklorique. The forms Atget used were those native to the document."​

    I think that last sentence is a lot of what makes Atget so interesting to me, beyond the beauty of his pictures. He's finding, exploring, what *is* native to the photographic document.
  18. Yes I agree.

    A portfolio of lost Atget prints was recently discovered. The prints have been auctioned. One print was sold for only $1200! Given the chance I would have bought that print in a heartbeat, imagine owning an Atget print or stumbling on this portfolio of lost prints, I would build a shrine for it, lol. One print of mannequin dolls went for a bit more at $110.000

    Video: Eugène Atget’s lost photographsof Paris | Christie's’
  19. Holy smokes! We missed it! Find out where the new owner lives, check the weather for a dark night, and we'll put on our black woollies and reappropriate that little beauty. Nobody should be allowed to have a real Atget for $1200: we would only be setting things right ...
  20. Did you watch the Sudek video linked on the Atget-video page? I've always wondered how Sudek managed to use his 8x10 with one arm. They show little glimpses of him setting up the camera, which are amazing (to me) and they show a little blip of him in the darkroom, but not the thing I really wonder about which is how he could get the dark slide out of the film holder with one hand. When I did that with an 8x10, I definitely needed both hands. Maybe his were looser than mine (Liscos).

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