Unreal Nature

August 23, 2017

Following No Script

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… the picture seems to brood uncertainly about this modernist dream.

Continuing through Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (2015):

… In the 1890s, photographers of artistic ambition responded to the technological watershed of their day by redoubling their efforts to overcome the mechanical aspects of the medium. The challenge was formidable. Decades of effort had largely failed to elevate photography to the status of a pictorial art, and every innovation making photography easier to practice left would-be artists a steeper hill to climb. With the introduction of the Kodak process, photography had lost even its lowly standing as a craft. It had become a diversion, like riding a bike. Not only did it require no traditional artistic skills, it seemingly required no skill at all.

… No one answered the challenges of these new circumstances more brilliantly than Stieglitz.


Alfred Stieglitz, Impression, 1892

… By using a handheld camera on the streets of New York to depict its vapors clearly, Stieglitz made a new subject of modern atmosphere. His approach implied that the materiality of gases mattered as much as their modulation of visibility. He underscored the point in Impression by representing the emission of vapors at their industrial source and associating them with the transformation of the street. Held fast by his apparatus, these vapors do not belong vaguely to nature or even to modernity; they belong to a particular city at a particular time.

… In the early 1890s, the scientifically informed Stieglitz had multiple reasons to distance vapor from the saccharine mysteries of the countryside and the soft focus of pictorialism.

[ … ]

Stieglitz recommends combing the city for a visually promising site, and then waiting patiently there for the good fortune of witnessing a compelling configuration of figures. His approach makes the city into a scattering of more or less accidental outdoor stages, outfitted with propitious lines and lighting. Happenstance then populates these stages with anonymous actors following no script but the responsibilities, habits, or whims of modern life.

[line break added] In the 1850s, Oscar Rejlander had sought to make photography into art by stitching posed scenes into a theatrical whole; forty years later, Stieglitz advocated taking a setting from the street and letting the unpredictable dynamism of city life supply the drama. The players — his “figures” — could be vapors as well as people.

[line break added] In making many of his early pictures on the streets of New York, the moment when “everything [was] in balance” was when the unpredictable flow of atmosphere turbulence and human bodies had inadvertently become a picture. One moment before and one moment after, everything would be different. Serendipity came in the click of a shutter.


Alfred Stieglitz, The Terminal, 1893

Stieglitz’s reworking of Romanticism brought it to a high pitch of ambivalence. On the one hand, he evidently wanted photography to partake of Charles Baudelaire’s redemptive dream of finding accidental beauty on the streets of the modern city. In his famous 1859 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire writes: “For any modernity to be worthy of one day taking its place as ‘antiquity,’ it is necessary for the mysterious beauty which human life accidentally puts into it to be distilled from it.”

[line break added] In The Terminal, Stieglitz distills an aesthetic power rivaling that of antiquity from the unpredictable circulation of bodies and vehicles of his city. On the other hand, the picture seems to brood uncertainly about this modernist dream. Enshrouded in vapor, the man and the horses seem vulnerable to dispersion or disappearance.

[line break added] At issue in The Terminal is not only the modern transience of the street, that endless kaleidoscopic unfolding of chance encounters, but also the historical transience of the social and material constitution of the street as such. The turbulent vapors of the image, in other words, speak as much to the evanescence of horse transportation, of labor as a kind of humane caretaking, as they do to the unexpected pleasures of the everyday.

My most recent previous post from Kelsey’s book is here.

-Julie

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