Unreal Nature

July 15, 2015

A Babel of Tongues

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:11 am

… What is photographed is often more impressive, more moving than the photograph itself. … It is the material of art, not art itself.

This is from the essay ‘On Photographs of Mexico ‘ by Leo Hurwitz, found in Paul Strand in Mexico by James Krippner (2010):

… Photography has in the short time of its history become a universal medium of tremendous range and speaking power. Photography has squeezed between the moments of time and recorded the face of a man about to die, the stained microbe, the crew of a sinking vessel swarming into the sea, the corona of an eclipse, the boy as he stole the bottle of milk, the crown of water formed by the splash of a drop, the diver leaving the pool and ascending to the edge of the diving board, the body charred and hanging from a tree.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] It has brought news and information of a new kind; it has taken people where man has seldom or never been before; it has brought the actuality along with the description and interpretation to men’s eyes. It has found thousands of uses in journalism, in science, in play, in love, in family biography. It has discovered for itself diverse channels for experimentation, potentialities for novel techniques. It is a single language which all can understand. But it has become a Babel of tongues.

It’s all photography. The audience, the publishers, the photographers themselves, make so little distinction between the basically different purposes, the differing ends and emotional sources of the spheres of photography, that a deep confusion exists. It is as if no clear distinction were made between the sphere of Hemingway and Christopher Marlowe, and the other legitimate uses of the written language such as medical prescriptions, news stories, advertising copy, letters to the editor. Or, between the work of Orozco and El Greco on the one hand, and the many other uses of the graphic medium such as comic strips, economic graphs, movie posters.

This confusion has penetrated everywhere and has resulted in the degradation of the photographer’s vision, of technique, print quality, materials, methods of reproduction. … [Even] where much valuable work has been done, the confusion of so many years during which all spheres of photography have been so to speak boiling in the same pot, has frequently limited its results by a careless unintegrated approach. What is photographed is often more impressive, more moving than the photograph itself. The photograph is generally something to be read, to be searched into, the essentials dug away from the irrelevancies. It seldom speaks out as an organic whole. It is the material of art, not art itself.

Hurwitz’s essay was written to accompany the 1940 publication of Strand’s portfolio, Photographs of Mexico. Needless to say, the essay goes on to praise Strand’s work in contrast to the above criticism of photography.

-Julie

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