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Tuesday, 27 July 2010


Amateur modernists

“The quest for vernacular photography … has been like an archaeological expedition digging around Cold Comfort Farm that unearths the Palace of Knossos - and can’t quite grasp the significance of the discovery.”
Janet Malcolm; Diana and Nikon; The New Yorker. April 26, 1976

Unidentified photographer, Turkish Soldier, C1940-50

One day in the late 1940s or early 1950s somebody decided that their photograph of a Turkish soldier would look more interesting if they crouched down to shoot up and tilted the camera 45 degrees. Were they aware of Alexander Rodchenko’s portraits of Soviet soldiers and peasants? Quite possibly; whatever the Turkish Government’s official line, a lot of its citizens were, shall we say, interested in what was happening across the border. Then again, the idea might have come to the photographer out of the blue. “What if I do this? What does it look like?” About the same time another Turkish person liked a family portrait so much they decided to take a photograph of it. They probably weren’t aware that over in the US Walker Evans was taking photographs of photographs – particularly family portraits of poor white farmers – as an ironic counterpoint to certain entrenched ideas about truth and representation. Is this a portrait, or is it simply a photograph of a photograph?

 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, C1940s

Modernist photography was easy to recognize, harder to define. Alfred Stieglitz is called the father of American modernism but, frankly, his early work looks dated; more 19th century Pictorialist than 20th century avant-garde. Etienne Jules Marey’s chronophotographs are indubitably modernist in appearance except he was a scientist working in the 1880s who couldn’t have cared less whether people thought his images were art or not. But that is one of photography’s great gifts; it screws with definitions and one thing the modernists agreed on was that image and representation were never the same things. Rodchenko’s photographs weren’t of peasants but Soviet idealism, the titles that Moholy-Nagy gave to his photomontages were deliberately abstruse and Evans insisted that his photographs of buildings and deserted streets were portraits of people in their absence. This is not a photograph of a drugstore. If you think about the person who should be behind the counter and the people who should occupy the stools, it’s a portrait of mid-west Americans.

 Unidentified Photographer, USA, C1940s

In April 1976 Janet Malcolm published an article in the New Yorker titled Diana and Nikon, a reference to one camera favoured by amateurs and another by professionals. It was one of the first articles to extrapolate on an idea that had drifting about for a while, since at least 1964 when John Szarkowski first published The Photographer’s Eye, namely that fine art photographers were much more influenced by vernacular photography than anyone had realized or let on. Today that’s a given; Jeff Wall spends months setting up a photograph that is supposed to look like a spontaneous snap and the Met put on an exhibition last year dedicated to Evans’ collection of postcards. Both are bookends to an argument that sometimes throws out dubious claims; that the snapshot is the ‘purest’ form of photography (whatever that means) or that the snapshot deserves equal ranking with other forms of photography, which can lead to the logical conclusion that many great photographers are no better than amateurs. Something the argument overlooks is that the relationship is mutual. Professionals influence amateurs. Every serious amateur and budding professional has taken a snap and said to themselves, “My God, that’s as good as anything by Ansel Adams. (Insert photographer of choice here.)” Even more pertinently, they have headed into the street searching for that Cartier Bresson and Kertész moment, seen something like it and fired.

 Unidentified photographer, unknown, C1930s

The distinguishing point about all the images in this post is that they are conscious attempts by amateurs, if not to emulate great photographers then a modernist style just as they would have seen in magazines like Life and Vu. They have played with angles and lighting, interrupted the composition with elements that shouldn’t be there according to their camera manual and otherwise tried for something more interesting than a formal snapshot. So, if it’s the case that amateur snapshots influenced professional photographers like Evans and Kertész and then amateurs were influenced by the professionals, does that say something worthwhile about the history of photography? Is it possible to write a history of photography showing the mutually causal links between amateurs and professionals?

Unidentified photographer, Turkey, C1950s

The project sounds daunting; one that would suit an academic comfortable with fearlessly defending shaky claims. The problem with – actually another great thing about - vernacular photography is that it eludes historical analysis. A photograph of a Turkish soldier may look like something Rodchenko would take but that doesn’t prove any influence. The historian would have to examine literally thousands of snapshots to establish skeins of influence, all the time aware that since the amateur is anonymous there is no way of knowing their thought processes. Deciphering the Voynich Manuscript would be easier. Still, there is a nagging feeling that forces are at work in these photographs. Amateurs are looking at modernist photographs, picking up their cameras and going out to take snapshots, conscious that the way they look at the world has changed.

 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, 4/11/1943
 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, 1940s
 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, C1950s
 Unidentified photographer, Unknown
 Unidentified photographer, unknown
 Unidentified photographer, Bulgaria, C1940s
 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, C1950s
 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, C1940s

1 comment:

  1. I'm very glad to have come across this blog. Your writing is intelligent and thought-provoking, and you've chosen some rather great snaps to post, too!


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