ARTS Documents and Dreams

A look at the year’s best photography books.

The most important photography book of 1979 was published 20 years ago. Robert Frank’s The Americans, now
reissued in a larger format by Aperture Press ($25), marked the appearance of a blunt, disturbing, highly personal
style of documentary photography that thumbed its nose at most of the formal conventions of the genre. Instead of
grand themes, Frank concentrated on juke boxes, convertibles, lunch counters, and other mundane subjects that he
considered to be modern America’s true iconography. Compared to the elegant and exquisitely printed photographs of
masters like Weston and Stieglitz, his work seemed curiously haphazard. Heads and feet were regularly cropped off,
scenes were shot from cockeyed angles, entire situations seemed tentative and unresolved, as though Frank had showed
up too early or too late to record what was really going on.

He hadn’t, of course, but it took time for the public (and the critics) to grasp what he was up to, namely creating
a psychological profile of America that made sense of the familiar surface phenomena. Despite our preoccupation with
speed and glamour and high technology, his photographs said, America is a desolate place, far more responsive to the
flickering images on a TV screen than to real human needs. If the message wasn’t new, the style certainly was. No
previous photographer had thrust himself so squarely into the frame as Frank, becoming inseparable from his material
the way the narrator of a novel becomes inseparable from his tale. When Edward Weston said that photography was a
means of making inner feelings visible, he probably didn’t have someone as opinionated as Frank in mind.

Describing the development of American photography in terms of a shift from documents to dreams has the benefit of
simplicity and the drawback of half truth. But it’s no more misleading than most other generalizations that pass for
gospel in these matters. Few could deny that America has been weaned on documentary photographs, to the extent that
for most of us they are synonymous with what photography is – a lifelike, unambiguous record of something “out
there,” usually a moment of general historical significance. Whether we’re looking at Brady’s photographs of the
Civil War, or the Depression chronicles of Lange and Evans, or last week’s issue of Time, we assume that the
lens sees what is there. A photographer is a witness and a recorder of truth, and certainly far more reliable than
painters and writers, who are constantly wrenching facts into conformity with some subjective vision.

An excellent introduction to these assumptions in action is The American Image: Photographs from the National
Ar
chives, 1860-1960 (Pantheon, $20). Here are nearly 200 photographs taken specifically for the record,
in this case the U.S. government’s record of wars, explorations, social movements, and public works projects. If
you’re curious about coal mining in the 1890’s or cotton farming in the 1920’s or what the Colorado River looked
like at the turn of the century, here’s the place to find out. These photographs were taken to answer such
questions, to supplement the written record by preserving the tiny human details that usually slip through the nets
of historians and sociologists. If art results, as it does in Matthew Brady’s portrait of General Sherman and Lewis
Hine’s photographs of child laborers, so much the better. But art and self-expression are not the primary goals. The
photographer is a dispassionate witness, a finger on the shutter release.

None of which, by the way, detracts from the appeal of The American Image. It is an emphatically democratic
book that concentrates on ordinary working people rather than superstars. At the same time, it provides the same
kinds of pleasure as an old scrapbook. Side by side with the work of Hine, Lange, and Russell Lee we find perfectly
composed photographs of slaves and soldiers and parades, all taken by “photographer unknown. ” That credit turns up
frequently in The American Image, as a reminder of the importance of utility and self-effacement in so much
traditional documentary photography.

In looking at the work ot Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson, we know that we’ve crossed the line between
straight documentary photography and fine art. Yet it remains direct, accessible, non-intimidating art. Their
photographs still look the way photographs are “supposed” to look – clear, lifelike, tightly composed and balanced.
They deal with conventional subject matter (landscape, family life) and don’t depend on tricky camera angles and
darkroom legerdemain for their effects. Again, we’re confident that what the lens sees is what we get.

Adams’ lastest book, Yosemite and the Range of Light (New York Graphic Society, $75) summarizes a lifetime’s
encounter with the Sierra Nevada. He first went there in 1916 and has returned at least once a year to photograph
some portion of its splendor. He is our foremost landscape photographer, the high priest of Half Dome and Muir
Woods, whose work differs dramatically from that of illustrious predecessors like Jackson and O’Sullivan by virtue
of its almost mystical reverence for nature. “These photographs recreate moods, realities, and magical experiences,
” he says in his introduction, “and have been selected for these reasons, not for their physical description of the
great western range. ” His West is a country of the spirit in which private visions find expression in form and
texture and subtle gradations of black and gray. And it is precisely because Adams is such a classicist, intent on
rendering each scene as clearly and accurately as possible, that his reveries never degenerate into an inscrutable
private code. He speaks a universal language that can be understood by people whose only experience of wilderness is
the weekly episode of “Little House on the Praire. ” In Yosemite and the Range of Light, we see him at his
most eloquent.

Like Adams, Cartier-Bresson believes in recording things as they are, except that for him “things” means ordinary
human events rather than vast unpeopled landscapes. He’s spent a lifetime traveling to all parts of the world, Leica
hidden beneath his jacket, waiting patiently for all the elements of a scene to come into perfect balance, and then
clicking the shutter. He insists on capturing a complete picture on the spot, and never retreats to the darkroom to
create what he actually missed.

Now he has collected the best of his work, covering 50 years, in Henri Cartier-Bresson: Photographer (New
York Graphic Society, $50), as sumptuous an art book as has appeared in several years. All of the famous prints are
here – two grinning prostitutes made up like circus clowns; the gaunt figure of sculptor Alberto Giacomet-ti
crossing a rain-slicked Paris street; a young boy walking on his hands down a country road in Greece. Each
photograph reveals Bresson’s impeccable eye for line and composition, while also revealing how far beyond formalism
his work goes. “A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels, ” he says, by which he doesn’t mean
something as direct and obvious as ideology but rather an intuitive response to the inner meaning of an event. The
great photographers, he insists, are those with an eye for the “decisive moment, ” in which all the elements of a
situation come into perfect, and temporary, balance. Feeling, in this context, is the product of patience and close
observation rather than something that a photographer imposes on his material. We’d be hard pressed to find an
ideological line in Bresson’s work, yet we’re never in any doubt that it is his.

Which, of course, is where he parts company with Frank and his fellow travelers such as Garry Winogrand, Lee
Friedlander, and Diane Arbus. In one way or another all of them are social critics whose attitudes and experiences
are as much a part of their photographs as the declared subject matter. Whereas Bresson and Adams strive for an art
that conceals art, Frank and his disciples flaunt technique as a way of calling attention to their own point of
view. They take the same liberties with facts as poets and fiction writers, deforming reality in order to express a
mood or an idea. Collectively, they have taken documentary photography into another dimension, where the
photographer as social critic and psychologist takes the place of the photographer as impartial observer and
recorder.

Judging from the evidence of American Images: New Work by Contemporary Photographers (McGraw-Hill,
$35), the Frank line is considerably less influential among young photographers today than it was a few years ago.
Of the 20 photographers commissioned by Bell Telephone for this project, only three (Larry Fink, Harry Cal-lahan,
and to a lesser degree, Lewis Baltz) appear to be following Frank’s lead, and then more in general outlook than
style. The others seem content to rework traditional ground – architecture, landscape, portraiture – in cautious and
traditional ways. Compared to the work exhibited in “Photography as Art, Art as Photography” last year at Allen
Street, there seems to be little interest in technical experimentation or in photography as a process. Jan Groover’s
color series on knives and forks is fresh and suggestive, and several of William Eggleston’s landscapes are rich and
seductive, like memories of warm summer nights. Otherwise, most of this new work looks like old work; technically
proficient but, like the project’s sponsor, plodding and predictable.

One can hardly say the same thing about One of a Kind (David R. Godine, $30), a selection of recent and, for
the most part, stunning Polaroid color photography by Arnold Newman, David Hockney, Lucas Samaras, and a number of
lesser-known photographers, including the late Jack Caspary of Dallas. The Polaroid camera has simplified
photography to the point that, literally, idiots and two-year-olds can take pictures. All of the customary technical
problems have been solved by Dr. Land. No light meters or f-stops, no negatives, no questions about developing and
printing. The obvious benefits, other than instantaneous gratification, are spontaneity – aim and shoot; if you
don’t like what you get, shoot again – and freedom to concentrate exclusively on the image.The subject of most of
the photographs inthe book is color, specifically SX-70 color,which is intense and voluptuous, unfaithfulto the real
world but perfect for renderingfantasies and dreams. Which is preciselywhat many of these photographers are doing,
taking their cues from traditional still-life painting. Lucas Samaras, for example,creates collages out of bottles,
knives, pencils, and other found objects that explodewith color. Marie Cosindas does similarthings with fabric and
china dolls. TheFauves would be delighted. Even thosephotographs which are ostensibly about theexternal physical
world have a lambent,dreamlike quality that suggests that theyare really extensions of fantasies. It is especially
intriguing that these photographers,heirs to a hundred years of technologicalinnovation and stylistic shifts,
shouldfind their source of inspiration in painting.At the turn of the century, when Stieglitzand others were trying
to establish thelegitimacy of photography as an art, theyfrequently made prints that imitated paintings, usually
Impressionists or Old Masters.As photography slowly established its owndomain in the public world, this
practicedeclined. Now photographers are returningto it with the kind of enthusiasm reservedfor some astonishing
technical breakthrough, which confirms the traditionalwisdom that the arts advance only by constantly rediscovering
their origins.

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