Unreal Nature

February 22, 2017

In the Metropolis of Strangers

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… we have the unaffected display of somewhat battered human organisms in random moods.

Continuing through New York: Capital of Photography by Max Kozloff (2002):

… As a powerhouse on a phenomenal rise, and as a national symbol, New York had an identity problem. For many Europeans, twentieth-century Manhattan epitomized the America of their dreams, the signature metropolis of the New World. From the vantage of Middle America, though, the island often looked like a foreign enclave. … Certainly by the late nineteenth-century it had a foreign character, polyglot beyond compare. This was embodied by an inflow of poor Southern and Eastern European immigrants speaking a babel of tongues.

… [Lewis] Hine took many … pictures of immigrants at Ellis Island. In these images, he addressed himself to moments in which the voyagers, even as they face the camera, seem to be looking inward, their features luminously and tenderly modeled within an impersonal background. Many of them reveal a nervous dejection, characteristic of those obliged to wait around for unexplained reasons. In Slovak Mother and Slavic Immigrant detained women are loaded down with their few belongings. In Young Russian Jewess, the protagonist is seemingly transfixed by her solitude.

[line break added] The shadowy atmosphere emphasizes their feeling of transitory homelessness, loss, and hope. Hine extended himself toward such introspective phases, seeing them as states of vulnerability, and part of a historic adventure. Without concern for an entity called ‘New York,’ he nevertheless attended to a decisive stage in the evolution of its democratic consciousness. Hine was a practitioner of “enthusiastic endorsement of difference … viewed as a necessary condition of human flourishing, one that offers to individual men and women the choices that make their autonomy meaningful.”

… [Jacob] Riis intended viewers to sense the sordid world he described as threatening to impinge on their own territorial way of life. For Hine, by contrast, the industrious poor did not comprise the ‘other’ half at all. In his work, he sided with them and he centered them, casting bourgeoisie to the social margin. He would disclose their burden of long hours, low pay, brutal production quotas, and dangerous conditions as a grief imposed on them by the self-interests of the real others, the invisible employers profiting from an unregulated economic system.

[ … ]

… [Alfred] Stieglitz and his friends lived in a closeted, salon atmosphere. They were socially and emotionally indifferent to the life of multitudes, whom they depicted as nameless crowds. Although Hine’s stance and Stieglitz’s position would appear to have been incompatible, between them passed on person who, learning from both, changed the emotional weather of the photography of New York.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) had been a student at Ethical Culture and a member in 1907-8 of a camera club organized by Hine. Stieglitz’s 291 gallery was an appreciated stop on the club’s field itinerary. Though imbued with Hine’s ethical principles, Strand did, in fact, come of age as a latter-day Pictorialist. Such was his progress that by 1915 Stieglitz regarded him quite accurately as someone who would take Photo-Secession to a more advanced level.

strand_blind
Paul Strand, Blind, 1916

… By means of a false lens attached at a right angle to his real lens, he was able to face away from his subjects who were thus unaware that he was taking their picture within their personal territory. Hine continually maintained an equity of power between himself and his sitters; Strand gained a voyeuristic advantage over them, even at point-blank range. The result was a startling group of heads framed so close that, though they obviously breathe the air of the city, all physical evidence of the place itself has been removed.

Instead of a narrative about ‘conditions,’ subtly implied, we have the unaffected display of somewhat battered human organisms in random moods. The blowsy Irish washerwoman, the watery-eyed old Italian man, and above all, the awesome beggar woman in Blind — each bears the unreflective experience of that moment and no other. It is the apotheosis of the present, with all its “cruel radiance,” to quote James Agee.

[line break addedStrand reduced story content in order to obtain an elemental rawness of view; his abrupt treatment of these underdogs confers on them a great power of earthiness and sorrow. To look at these stolen street portraits is to be drawn into an uncomfortable complicity with the photographer’s voyeurism, yet even as his pictures effect a great intimacy, they short-circuit any feeling of connection — a very urban kind of dissonance. This tough approach may not have derived from any social judgment. Rather, it seems to have come to Strand as detachment, reflecting his claim to an asocial freedom of perception that could be developed only in the metropolis of strangers.

My previous post from Kozloff’s book is here.

-Julie

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