And furthermore ...

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Thursday, 19 August 2010


A Turkish photographer in the US, C1940s

"It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight."
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

If a picture paints a thousand words, the 56 photos this unknown Turkish photographer left behind make up a decent sized book, but it’s barely a story. It has gaping holes in it. We don’t know his name, why he travelled or what he did when he wasn’t taking photos (he wears a suit; presumably he wasn’t on holiday). We can only say that sometime in the late 1940s he went to California and fell in love with America.

Or perhaps he was already in love with it, with the idea of America anyway. Most of his snapshots are of the very stuff that identified the country in the 1940s; Hollywood, a Fourth of July parade and a baseball game, wide, palm lined suburban streets and the detached Californian bungalows. Even the wealthiest Turks would have envied these symbols of middle class America. These are photographs a man takes when he already knows what he’s going to find.

 We all do it. America is a country so familiar to foreigners that it always meets our expectations while rarely exceeding them. Barring those who don’t have access to television, cinema, books or radio, everyone knows it so intimately that the most surprising thing about America is that it turns out to be exactly how we imagine it would. Every tourist who goes there with a camera ends up taking snaps that celebrate the things they recognize. It’s impossible not to. 

About the same time the photographer arrived in the States, Vladimir Nabokov was starting work on Lolita. The second part of the book especially, when Humbert Humbert and ‘Dolly’ are moving from one cheap and gaudy motel to the next, has something in common with these photos. In both cases we get a list of symbols that identify America. Nabokov took a more sceptical and sophisticated view – his America was highways, neon lights and cars – but like the photographer he was compiling details that revealed a particular optimism about the country. Post war, victorious America was the bastion of democracy and however dubiously some Americans regarded that idea, outsiders from states that couldn’t live up to those claims weren’t going to quibble. Forget McCarthy and segregation, America was the land of Betty Grable, Joe DiMaggio, Walt Disney, hot dogs at the baseball game, Cadillacs in the garage and tennis on Saturday afternoons.  

Neither Nabokov nor the photographer went to America intent on being social critics and needless to say, anything the photographer witnessed that contradicted his idea of the country wasn’t going to be put in front of the camera. What he brought back was evidence of an idyllic society where leisure was the highest ambition and easy to obtain at that. But, being fragments of a story, these photographs don’t tell us what we really want to know, which is what happened when the photographer returned home. If he went with preconceived ideas that were quickly matched, did he learn anything? Do we when we go there? It’s hard to say. The country has always laid itself bare to the rest of the world. It has no secrets beneath the thin crust of its surface. We’re always lured into seeing the things we already know we will discover.


Monday, 9 August 2010


Zoo Photographs
“Pigs are not corrupted by the Higher Imperialism. Tigers have no spiritual pride. Whales never sneer. Crocodiles are not … in the least bit hypocritical. On examining their exterior, it is difficult to understand why anyone ever gave them credit for so vivacious and ingenious a quality.”
G. K Chesterton.

"The jungle band of followers - F Carter(?)", albumen print, C1900

Captain Dickinson’s With Rifle and Camera (1910) was specific about its hierarchies; first the gun then the camera. To be fair, photographing animals in the wild was arduous, if not actually pointless in the 1900s. The photographer would have had to trek through wilderness to find the creatures then hope didn’t bolt in the ten minutes he took to set up his camera and tripod. His subjects were so much easier to deal with when they couldn’t move. Not surprisingly, Dickinson’s photographs turn out to be of people and villages. Those who couldn’t afford expensive photographic equipment, let alone an expedition into Africa, had to make do with the zoo, which wasn’t such a bad place to photograph nature. Some of the most vivid photographs of animals have been taken in zoos. The cage doesn’t just give us the leisure to set up a shot, it provides a context. Whether huddled in a corner or snarling at the bars, a caged lion looks defeated and wretched and good photographers have long known they can make a point about us by shooting animals.

Lion, unidentified photographer, C1940s

In 1855 the Comte de Montizon went to the zoo in Regent’s Park to take his famous photograph of the newly arrived hippo. Shooting from across the pond, he may not have been aware of the irony that from his vantage point it was the spectators who were behind the bars. If he was, he deserves credit for an idea that has now become a cliché, made better if the animal is studying the humans. Though the message may be hackneyed, when it works it’s still effective. Just over a century later Garry Winogrand saw the opposite. He gave us a photograph of a European brown bear with its face obscured, only its lower canines jutting through the cyclone wire underneath the sign labelling it. The utter impotence of the caged animal was on display.

Brown Bear, unidentified photographer, C1940s

Most of us aren’t great photographers and we wouldn’t be prepared to go to the zoo every Saturday for weeks on end like Winogrand was. The proof sheet with the photograph of the bear also shows he was willing to wait around and shoot a dozen or so frames till he got what he wanted. Spontaneity can require rigorous planning, which isn’t to say that only great photographers can take great photographs at the zoo. As subjects, wild animals are inherently interesting and don’t need to be doing much to hold our attention. As a genre the zoo picture stands up on its own even when there is no apparent message.

Carl Hagenbeck's Tiergarten, Germany, C1930s

Any discussion on zoo photographs has to consider the influence of National Geographic. For most of the 20th century it dictated the rules on how animals should be photographed. Anthropomorphism was a cardinal feature. We had to feel the animals’ pain and joy and also recognize that the love a songbird showed her chicks was pretty much identical to a human mother’s. A great wildlife photograph showed an animal at the high point in what could be a very human drama. Today, when decent zoos construct natural environments for their specimens and sophisticated camera equipment fits in our shirt pocket, it’s easy to get that National Geographic moment. Lean over the fence (good zoos don’t have bars these days), zoom in on the tiger resting in the bamboo and that photograph could have been taken in India.

Elephant, unidentified, no date

It’s churlish to criticize this, especially when a lot of people can’t and never will be able to afford a trip to Corbett National Park, but something has been lost. In the days when cameras were bigger and zoos had cages, the knowledge that the animal was behind bars was important to the photograph. It confirmed the differences between them and us; a point anyone arguing for animal rights has to begin from. It was more honest too and it permitted the photographer and the viewer to make interpretations.

Zebras at Taronga Park Zoo, 1936

Apart from the first photograph of course, all the images here were taken at zoos. They may not qualify as great but it is apparent that the settings are unnatural and the animals out of place. How we read the images is up to us. For some the brown bear will be lonely and isolated, it certainly doesn’t look thrilled to be in this cement prison, but what about the polar bears? Maybe they will accept living among the ridiculous fake slabs as fair compensation for regular meals. We can tell when animals are depressed or playful but we don’t really know what they think. People who claim they can understand them at a deeper level have as legitimate a claim as the old big game hunters whose self proclaimed knowledge of animal consciousness never stopped them from thinking the best place to see an antelope’s head was on a wall.

Monkey with cat, amateur snapshot, C1940s

Carl Hagenbeck's Tiergarten Germany, C1930s

Carl Hagenbeck's Tiergarten, Germany, C1930s

Giraffes, Taronga Park Zoo, 1936

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


Existentialist photography?

 "At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face."
“Being is. Being is in-itself. Being is what it is.”
Sartre, Being and Nothingness
“Do Be Do Be Do.”

An exhibition at Recontres de la Photographie in Arles is dedicated to existentialist photography. Based on the reviews, Shoot! is mostly concerned with the parallels between cameras and guns and ‘existentialist’ is as valid a description as several other philosophical terms. Is there such a thing as existentialist photography?

It would help if we had a universal definition of existentialism. Unfortunately the people who set out to define it, particularly for the benefit of non-philosophers, admit difficulties trying to sort out its various manifestations. Anybody who pondered the contradictions involved in contemplating existence could be labelled an existentialist, so Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are prototypes but one of the most famous existentialists, Camus, denied he was one and Genet, who Sartre anointed an existentialist, never thought of himself as a philosopher. Anyone who has meditated on the absurdity or the paradoxes of their life could be said to be engaging in existentialist philosophy but then we must define terms like absurdity, angst and alienation because they meant different things to various philosophers. One way to begin is to find a single idea and work off that regardless of whatever disagreements it raised at the time. So if Sartre argued a case and Camus refuted it we can ignore Camus for the time being (or take his side). 

One of Sartre’s key concepts was that we could only know ourselves through the other. Franz Fanon only thought he was black when white Europeans labelled him as such and Genet only decided he was a thief when law enforcers labelled him one. Since so much of existentialism is concerned with freedom and responsibility, those two examples are problematic; they immediately suggest there is no freedom, except that presumably Sartre’s existentialist hero was someone who could subvert their label. Being regarded as a thief gave Genet permission to steal. 

This idea of the ‘other’, the ‘gaze’ or the ‘look’ is where photography comes in. We can make the argument that any family snapshot is an existentialist artifact. When we look at a snapshot of a family picnic we base our judgement of the entire event on that one instant the shutter was pressed. If someone in the photo is yawning, looking away or in some other way out of sync with the rest of the group we can base our entire assessment on that single detail. It’s no longer merely a family picnic but one with particular tensions at work. Likewise, someone blinks as the flash goes off and in the photograph they look stupefied or drunk and no protests on their part can deny the evidence.

There are always three people involved in a photograph; the photographer, the subject and the viewer. When we don’t know who the photographer or the subject are the viewer’s point of view becomes all important. Existentialist photographs, those that adhere to Sartre’s concept, are the snapshots where the anonymous photographer and subject’s intents becomes misconstrued by the viewer. Anybody who has ever looked at thousands of snapshots knows this disruption between the viewer and the photographer is actually rare. In most images we see exactly what the photographer and the subject wanted us to. In the photograph above, a woman, most likely the mother, took a photograph of her children and stood with the sun behind her. The children shielded their eyes against the glare. In the result an enormous shadow looms over the children who cold be backing away in terror. An ordinary snapshot of a day in the country? It doesn’t look that way. The shadow the photographer casts is sinister., In the photo below, it’s the boy’s third birthday but there’s something a little miserable about this scene. If this is a party, where are the other children? Why is the table set for adults, and why does everyone look a little strained, ensconced in a gloomy darkness? 

This then is one form of existentialist photography; those images where the relationship between the photographer and the subject are broken for the viewer. We can come up with three rules for defining it. One is that photographer and subject should be anonymous amateurs. Professionals will always show us exactly what they want us to see. Knowing nothing about who took the photograph or when and where means our response is completely subjective. A second rule is that whatever event was being recorded, it should be very ordinary. The existentialist hero is always a commoner consumed or trapped by the mundane problems of everyday life. Thirdly, a detail disrupts the scene and turns an everyday event into something else. Though we may be aware that this disruption could be the result of bad timing or poor camera skills, we don’t let that interfere. Our judgement reflects the absurdity the existentialists argued was the conundrum of modern times. Like the bureaucrats in Kafka’s The Trial, we base our decisions on misinterpretations and in the process condemn people to being what they are not.