Unreal Nature

April 20, 2016

“Is This What You Want to See?”

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… “I don’t like voyeurs, people who don’t experience the experience, who view life from the outside.”

This is from the essay ‘Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe’ by Arthur C. Danto in Mapplethorpe (1992):

… It is interesting to contrast Mapplethorpe’s art with that of another artist of the period, one who found favor, even great favor, with the arbiters of photographic taste, namely Garry Winogrand. Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Janet Kardon, Mapplethorpe observed that his pictures were “the opposite of Garry Winogrand’s.” This is nowhere more apparent than in the albums each produced of photographs of women.

[line break added] Women are Beautiful was published by Winogrand in 1975. Some Women, by Mapplethorpe, was published posthumously in 1989, but was put together in consultation with his friend and colleague Dimitri Levas before his death. The difference between the visions of these two artists, made palpable in the two collections, lays bare a number of the basic variables of photography as an art.

Women are Beautiful shows anonymous women bent on private errands, crossing streets or striding down sidewalks, singly or in pairs, alone or as part of an urban crowd. It is an exceedingly personal book, even if, or perhaps because, the subjects are all perfect strangers to the artist, for it is dense with longing and what the viewer senses is a kind of sexual desperation.

[line break added] It may someday serve as a document of how women dressed in the Sixties; how they wore their hair and made up their faces, but it also documents the role they play for Winogrand as a photographer, his yearning for them. None of the subjects consented to being photographed. The camera caught them in mid-trajectory, and their expressions are uncomposed and natural, as the photographs themselves seem uncomposed and natural. … “Winogrand was uninterested in making pictures that he knew would succeed,” John Szarkowski wrote in evident admiration. “One might guess that in the last twenty years of his life, excepting his commercial work, he never made an exposure that he was confident would satisfy him.”

“In general, women disliked the book,” Szarkowski added, and it is not difficult to see why. Winogrand was as much interested in the tactics of getting the pictures as he was in the pictures he got. He may have been more interested in that. And for his own ends he violated a certain code of civility — the right of privacy. The women are fully clothed, but they are seen as female flesh. “He finally admitted,” Szarkowski observed, “that women impaired his critical faculties. He as an easy mark for the rhetoric of women’s bodies.” At the same time, the images are extremely aggressive toward the women for whom the artist hungers.

… The women in Mapplethorpe’s Some Women, by contrast, are not anonymous.

… The trust that was a morally and artistically indispensable component of these sessions is palpable in the images in Some Women that explicitly provoke. Lara Harris, for instance, bares one breast, underscoring its visibility with her lowered arm. And she stares out at the viewer, as if to say, “Is this what you want to see? Here, have a look.”


… The people in these photographs are demonstrating something they have allowed the artist to witness not as a voyeur, but as the agent through which the ordinarily hidden is revealed in art. the images are disclosures of sexual truth.

It might occur to someone that the formality of Mapplethorpe’s photographs of women is a metaphor for his detachment from women as sexual objects, in the way that Winogrand’s agitated approach is a metaphor for his own yearning. It is true that Mapplethorpe confessed to finding women unexciting as subjects, and this doubtless can be explained by the fact that they had ceased to engage him sexually. But the relationship Mapplethorpe entered into with his female subjects is not that different from the one entered into when his subjects were male …

… “Doing things to people who don’t want it done to them is not sexy to me. The people in my pictures were doing it because they wanted to. No one was forced into it. For me, S&M means sex and magic, not sadomasochism. It was all about trust.”

… It is this that finally sets him apart from photographers like Winogrand or Cartier-Bresson, or even Diane Arbus. With Arbus, one feels, over and over again, that she found ways of betraying the trust that permitted her to get the pictures we see. There is something vaguely exploitative about her work.

[line break added] Cartier-Bresson was primarily a stalker, an eye attached to a marvelous set of reflexes, which enabled him to pounce when reality disclosed something truly extraordinary — when reality opened up, one might say, with the speed of a shutter, to reveal a glimpse of some kind of underlying objective magic, or what his artistic peers designated surréalité. In order to do that, one feels, Cartier-Bresson had to make himself virtually invisible. He was almost metaphysically an outsider, and the men and women in his photographs don’t acknowledge that he is there.

Mapplethorpe was never outside the human reality of the photographic transaction. For him the transaction was a bond and presupposes a bond. That is what enabled him to produce some of the most shocking and indeed some of the most dangerous images in modern photography, or even in the history of art — for the kind of relationship he succeeded in realizing would have been unavailable before the invention of photography.

… In a sense, Mapplethorpe undertook to establish the kind of relationship with others that he had toward himself. His photographs in both cases were explorations and revelations and risks.

… At the same time it is important to stress that Mapplethorpe, even early on, had no illusions about the power of certain images to arouse sexual excitement, in contrast with the power of art to elicit whatever feelings of aesthetic transport it is alleged to be capable of arousing. His ambition was to create work that really was pornographic by the criteria of sexual excitement, and really was art. And it incorporated the “edge.”

… “I recorded it from the inside … I guess all photographers are in a sense voyeurs. But I don’t like voyeurs, people who don’t experience the experience, who view life from the outside.”

I don’t agree at all with what Danto has written about Winogrand or Arbus. Nevertheless, I am interested in the point he is using them to make about Mapplethorpe.




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