Unreal Nature

January 21, 2015

The Raw Feast

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… The story I have chosen to tell is of the unprecedented love affair — taking place in the 1960s and 1970s — between a nation and its photographic art. It is the story of the canonization of the heroes who took the pictures.

This is from the Preface to The Last Photographic Heroes: American Photographers of the Sixties and Seventies by Gilles Mora (2007):

… In May 1958, the influential amateur photo magazine Popular Photography published a list of the world’s ten greatest living photographers, as determined by a diverse jury of 243 “eminent critics, teachers, publishers, art directors, consultants and working photographers.” The list encompassed a carefully consensual spectrum of fashion photographers and portraitists (Richard Avedon, Philippe Halsman, Yousuf Karsh, Gjon Mili, Irving Penn); fashionable photojournalists (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Ernst Haas, W. Eugene Smith); and, inevitably, Ansel Adams. Neither the names of Walker Evans (then working for Fortune) nor of Robert Frank (already well-known in the photography world, having published The Americans in France earlier in the year), nor of photographers Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, or Paul Strand, who were still very active, were anywhere to be found.

Though largely shaped by a popular approach aimed at a broad readership of amateur photographers, the picture painted by the list is worth considering, for it sums up the general parameters for the work of an American photographer in the late 1950s. There were two outlets for photography: illustration and information. Beyond that, nothing. Ironically, the ranks of this somewhat reductive Top Ten revealed the limits of photography in a country that had made every effort since the beginning of the twentieth century, and the appearance of Alfred Stieglitz, to free the medium from its utilitarian and commercial restrictions and elevate it to the status of a full-fledged artistic practice.

There was another reality hiding behind these illustrious names, along with a genuine lack. In 1958, only New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and a handful of other venues offered photography an escape from the curse of the applied arts in the United States. Twenty years later, the situation would be dramatically reversed, with a profusion of platforms for serious photography. What had happened in the intervening years? The story I have chosen to tell is of the unprecedented love affair — taking place in the 1960s and 1970s — between a nation and its photographic art. It is the story of the canonization of the heroes who took the pictures.

[ … ]

… “His place is in the street, the village, and the ordinary countryside. For his eye, the raw feast: much-used shops, bedrooms, and yards, far from the full-dress architecture, landscaped splendor, or the more obviously scenic nature. … The photographer’s eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts. This man is a voyeur by nature.” [Walker Evans] One can imagine the invigorating effect this type of statement had on photographers such as Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, who were working in a similar spirit and had both been encouraged by Evans when they were starting out.

… In his introduction to the brief pamphlet-catalogue published to coincide with the [1967] exhibition [New Documents featuring the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand at MoMA], Szarkowski wrote: “In the past decade, a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends. Their work has been not to reform life, but to know it. … What they hold in common is the belief that the commonplace is really worth looking at, and the courage to look at it with a minimum of theorizing. … These three photographers would prefer that their pictures be regarded not as art, but as life. This is not quite possible, for a picture is, after all, only a picture.”

To be continued …

My previous post from Mora’s book is here.

-Julie

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