The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire
We've always been fond of Dada. Not only are the Dada-ists silly, they don't seem intent on inflicting any harm, on anyone (other than each other), for any reason whatsoever. They are inordinately fond of putting out noisy manifestos, which make no sense at all, and which are immediately superseded by another manifesto, and then another, by yet another anarchist collective.
Our favorite lines in what was reputed to be the Original Manifesto were these:HAS DADA EVER SPOKEN TO YOU:
about women's pants
about the fatherland
about Art (you exaggerate my friend)
what a horror
about sleeping with Verlaine
about the ideal (it's nice)
about the past
about genius, about genius, about genius
about the eight-hour day
about the Parma violetsThis is an exquisite volume from MIT Press. There are dozens of photographs, including sixteen in color. The text is a bit Dada itself, circling around the main point several times --- that critics have neglected the origins of the movement that came from "the East." But the poems and pictures and the narrative make one long for a time when the world could accept such complete nonsense in good spirit, a time where even the staid Swiss would accept the playful carryings-on without a blink.
Masterworks from the
Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Metropolitan Museum of Art/
Yale University Press)
Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen were the two true geniuses of early 20th Century photography, creating what some might think of as the Art School of American Photography. Their works often included misty shots on pale swirls of naked bodies against dark backgrounds; bodies, often, floating there with washed-out edges, vague patterns off there in the distance, the very objects that others de-emphasized in early photography (sharp focus, sharp features, formidable contrast).
Stieglitz was also fond of clouds, would photograph them and give them filmy titles like "Music No. 1" or "Equivalent." He was also a bit unfocused on the subject of Georgia O'Keeffe (aren't we all?): he loved her much too much (don't we all?) and lived with her much of his life when he wasn't fighting with her or at war with the other important photographers in America.
O'Keeffe might well have been included in the title of this book because Stieglitz took over three-hundred photographs of her during his long career. Sixteen are included here, including her face, hands, feet (pretty gnarly), toes, breasts (beautiful), backside, frontside (gorgeous!), throat ... with several additional pictures of her staring at the camera (and the photographer) (and us) and doing her hair, caressing the hubcaps of her Ford V-8 and ... also ... fondling a horse skull. Which is OK by me because I have always found the camera art of her body and her personality far more engaging than those strange paintings of flowers looking more like intimate body parts than tulips and begonias.
The Comedy of
Artistry in Motion
For those of us who are insight junkies, Comedy is full of these artful twists. In one footnote, the author cites Julian Smith on the two most famous scenes in The Gold Rush: cooking work-boots for lunch; two dinner rolls in ballet on the table. Smith says, "At Thanksgiving, his shoe became food, now dinner rolls become little shoes." Kamin suggests that the vague machinery in the factory in Modern Times "shown in a cutaway" is like that of "a giant film projector." He concludes, "The factory is a film factory."
Later scenes in Modern Times show a true albeit comic portrait of prison life, with gay prisoners and drugs. In the dining hall sequence where Chaplin imbibes "nose-powder," one of the other prisoners is "ludicrously effeminate, walking with his hands bent upward at the wrist and swiveling his hips and shoulders."
Because the viewer is riveted on Charlie revolving in his stoned state, this fellow invariably goes unnoticed in the several shots in which he appears.
This is, I believe, a book that will be treasured by Chaplin fans, though some of the facts may be disturbing. We find, for instance, that there are many differently edited editions of each of his movies. While we may think we are watching the only one, there may be dozens of alternative takes floating around out there. "Like other major stars of the day, Chaplin shot every scene with two side-by-side cameras operating simultaneously."
Because of the great popularity of Chaplin's films, hundreds of prints had to be struck, so in some cases three or even four versions of the films were prepared, using the best alternate takes from each of the two cameras.Edmund Yaghjian
(South Carolina State Museum)
Edmund Yaghjian got his big show in South Carolina four years ago and I missed it and I'm sorry, but, fortunately, there is this slim volume with its reproductions to show us what we lost out on. What I missed most of all were the neo-primitive Van Goghesque paintings from 1950 - 1975 which have a nice touch of claustrophobia and crowding with things tipping over on each other, chairs ready to dump you onto the floor, stoves angling precariously forward to pitch stuff on your lap, colorful twists and turns of utensils and heaters and other ho-hum appliances brought comically to life. Van Gogh with a smidgen of Looney Tunes.
Or a basement room with stairs so canted that you could never make your way up (or down) what with tools and bottles and drums littered around, lamps and tires and corkscrews and spiderwebs ready to launch themselves at you as your make your way past, even an old overcoat and hat hanging there hunched over in sheer weariness, the walls canted this way and that, the window-panes askew, knots in the floor ... the very floor itself tilted so that you could never walk over it without being sent sprawling --- in all, a cockeyed assemblage that shows no need nor place for humans, building tension by the very angle of it all.
Yaghjian was born in 1905 in Harpoot, Armenia. Harpoot! I swear --- at least that is what it says here, and I doubt the curators of the South Carolina State Museum would make up such a name. (It also says that he married a woman named Candy and even had a girl named Candy II. Or Candy Two. Or Candy Too.)
The earliest oils and watercolors shown here are pretty much pro forma 1930s Manhattan: tugs on the East River, snow on 56th Street, buildings on sky-line, taxis in Times Square. Then, the artist moved to Columbia, South Carolina in 1945 which --- if you knew Columbia, South Carolina in 1945 --- was a fairly insane thing to do.
I mean, from the Rhode Island School of Design and the Art Students League in New York City to the Arts Department in Columbia Soggy South Carolina, home of mosquitoes as big as bats, with grits and corn-pone for breakfast, turnip greens and fat-back for dinner, and Spanish moss and strange fruit hanging on the live oak trees.
The outdoor scenes from the south mostly concentrate on black life, and are very beguiling; there are a couple that may have made a few eyes bug out there in Columbia. One from 1950 is so charming I'd like to have on my living-room wall: four black guys shooting craps under the willow tree, a smart young lady stepping smartly out of the corner grocery store and another lady in bed up on the roof just lying there, buck-naked: maybe just a vision. The colors are a treat and the guys ogling her are a kick.
What did the chairman of the art department have to say about that one? Nothing. Yaghjian was chairman there at the University of South Carolina.
The last exhibitions are dated 1972, the last paintings shown come from 1975. Yaghjian apparently lingered on until 1997. We will never know if he got nailed for this ever-so arch, serio-comic "folk" art: so lively, so fine.Bernard Maybeck
Architect of Elegance
Mark Anthony Wilson
There's the First Church of Christ, Science, on Dwight Way, in Berkeley. Wilson compares it to the great Gothic cathedrals of western Europe --- sees it as "one of the world's great houses of worship"... and from the brilliant color photographs shown here, he just may well be right. The double page spread of the auditorium shows a space with the typical transcendent Maybeck ceiling:
One's sight is drawn upwards along the elegant curves of the ornate cross-trusses towards the apex, where the two arcs meet in the center ... These trusses rest on four massive concrete squared pillars, which stand about 40 feet apart. Although the height of the ceiling is only about 30 feet at its peak, Maybeck's creative use of industrial technology wedded to the visual richness of his details creates the impression of a much taller space.
The trusses, called the "Pratt Truss System" is a familiar pattern we see on old railway bridges, and indeed, there is a touch of the industrial in the arches here. But Maybeck threw in a bonanza of colorful rococo tics to make us forget the mechanical, with sea-green and gold and dots and spikeheads and playful snake-like figures among bolts and daubs and arabesques on the windows, even the initials of his wife thrown in for insiders.
Most of us are familiar with Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco ... the Beaux-Arts world's fair pavilion with its lurid Corinthian columns and Roman entablature and sub-tropical lush plantings, a mish-mash of Greek, Roman, and Renaissance all out of proportion (and pink columns, even). One would have to be a dangerous romantic to find this "architrave and corona of the colonnades" beautiful, but I suppose its very gaudiness will ensure that it has fans through the centuries. Still, I suspect that we are better off across the Bay praying to the strange divine that lives on in Mary Baker Eddy's divine auditorium.
Speaking of divinity: this volume runs 230 pages with more than 300 illustrations, mostly in color. Editor Wilson wanted only to include the still-existing buildings designed by Maybeck, but there are few black-and-white photographs of those structures that have gone in a blaze, one of California seasonal fires that can do urban renewal on whole neighborhoods.
What's worse are the scandalous developers whose ignorance of California architectural artistry can bring a tear to the eye. Los Angeles's Packard showrooms --- built for Earle C. Anthony --- fell on the sword of redevelopment. May the perpetuators of these evils forever dwell in architectural hell, in, say, a lifetime in the third floor of a cheap condominium designed and built by Donald Trump.Silence
50th Anniversary Edition
Kyle Gann, Editor
John Cage was much taken with silence. And noise, too. According to Gann, he was able to mix the two with no effort. His apartment once had a malfunctioning fire alarm "that beeped all night." No one slept but Cage.
I remained in bed, listened carefully to its pattern, and worked it into my thoughts and dreams; and I slept very well.
He told Gann that a baby crying in a concert hall --- especially during a concert of modern music --- was there to be enjoyed.
It reminds us of Joseph Goldstein's story, about studying in India. Some workmen were making considerable noise with their hammerings and yelling right next to his meditation space. When he went to complain, his master asked him, "Did you note it?" Of course, how could I miss it, he thought. The question was repeated: "But did you note it?"
For fans of Cage, this book is all she wrote of note. Also, because it is by Cage, much of it makes no sense whatsoever, but then again, there is still a fair distance between Silence and Dada. Dada is a babble; Cage's presentations seem to be a babble with purpose ... so much so that it often irritated his audiences. A recent article by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker tells us that "Sometimes I thought that if I heard Cage or one of his followers banging a stick on a stick or blasting static on a sound system one more time I would run screaming from the theatre..." And earlier on, one of the parts of Cage's Lecture on Nothing was "the repetition, some fourteen times, of a page in which the refrain, If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep." Cage reports that
Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way though, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, "John, I dearly love you, but I can't bear another minute." She then walked out.
Anyone who has studied the techniques of Milton Erickson knows that a sentence, with the word "relax" or "sleep," repeated enough times, will put people in a trance (or to sleep). Or, alternatively, out the door.
§ § §
Many years ago, Folkways issued Cage's Indeterminacy --- a two-disc record being a series of koans, all delivered by Cage, each one lasting a minute. If the story was short, he would slow down the telling so that it fit exactly into a sixty-second track. If it was, long, he speeded up his delivery, racing through it.
This one would be rather slow:
George Mantor had an iris garden, which he improved each year by throwing out the commoner varieties. One day his attention was called to another very fine iris garden. Jealously he made some inquiries. The garden, it turned out, belonged to the man who collected his garbage.
This one runs about the same:
An Indian woman who lived in the islands was required to come to Juneau to testify in a trial. After she had solemnly sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, she was asked whether she had been subpoenaed. She said, "Yes. Once on the boat coming over, and once in the hotel here in Juneau."
There are also charming stories of people who passed though his life: D. T. Suzuki, Harry Partch, David Tudor, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Henry Jacobs, and the artist Morris Graves who attended one of his percussion concerts and created "such a disturbance that he was thrown out."
Cage can't speak about his friends without sticking in yet another koan. This on Morton Feldman: "We were driving back from some place in New England where a concert had been given. He's a large man and falls asleep easily."
Out of a sound sleep, he awoke to say, "Now that things are so simple, there's so much to do." And then he went back to sleep.
Forty-Seven Remarkable Stories
From the Animal Kingdom
Jennifer S. Holland
Ms. Holland has culled photographs of birds and beasts (and in a couple of cases, fishies) who one would never think of as being best of pals. We find a horse and a baby deer in Montana, a French poodle and a deer in Ohio, and an owl and a gorgeous spaniel that we could fall in love with as well ... if we only lived in Cornwall, England.
There's a wolf and a Rottweiler (playing with sticks), a polar bear and a sled dog in Canada, a leopard and a cow (India, naturally), a rhesus macaque and a ringneck dove in the Guangdong Province of China, a guinea pig and a rabbit in Missouri, and most fetching, a tabby and a macaque in Bali.Cats, if we are to use this book as our guide, are apparently willing to tolerate (if not love) most anything: not only do we find them paired with dogs and a macaque ... but a black bear, a cockatoo, a gorilla, and an orangutan. No rattle-snakes or jelly-fish, though.
There are a couple here that might be more a case of flirting than real love. A family in Oregon claimed that their golden retriever fell for a koi --- an overbred carp --- although the dog had been trained to bring food to the pond which may have had something to do with their love-affair.
And a diver by the name of Sean Payne was filming some groupers off the coast of Florida, and got groped by (and he in turn groped) a manta ray. "As he ran his hands over her skin, her wing tips vibrated like a dog's leg during a particularly good belly scratch."
Her skin felt like velvet cloth stretched over ribs and muscle, an incredible texture.The Bestiary
Or, Procession of Orpheus
X. J. Kennedy, Translator
(Johns Hopkins University Press)The twenty-six animals in The Bestiary get four or five lines each, plus a woodcut by Raoul Dufy. Despite the translator's kind words, the poems are really not worth writing home about, being somewhat childish (as all good bestiary poems should be). For instance, "Cat"
I hope I may have in my house,Le chat
A sensible right-minded spouse,
A cat stepping over the books,
Loyal friends always about
Whom I couldn't live without.
Je souhaite dans ma maison:
Une femme ayant sa raison,
Un chat passant parmi les livres,
Des amis de toute saison
Sans lesquels je ne peut pas vivre.
Outside these homely verses, there are Dufy's woodcuts. They are thick, gorgeous, perfectly enclosed, sinuous and whimsical. The book design is obviously a work of love ... leisurely, exquisite. Poems set on the left-hand side; woodcuts are centered to the right, the whole being bound with lavish care.
We've been entranced over the years with the works of X. J. Kennedy, and, outside of merely translating, we detect his fine hand in this fine morsel. It's a book to love, a treasure-trove for people who care too much for great woodcuts, plus cats, dolphins, doves, and rabbits --- not to say grasshoppers, flies or fleas ("Fleas --- friends, even lovers, / How cruel are those who suck / Our blood in loving us, and those / Best loved are out of luck.")
Apollinaire almost got his friend Picasso to illustrate the original edition (one sketch is included in the frontispiece). Thank the muses that the artist opted out. Picasso's animals shown here feel protean, stunted, uninspired. Dufy's cuts on the other hand are gorgeous, make the whole worth it, make life worth it. Fleas, jellyfish, carp, whales and all.Cuba:
Art and History from 1868 to Today
Moraima Clavijo Colon (Curator)
Nathalie Bondit (Director)
(The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/
The editors have arbitrarily divided Cuban artistic history into five sections, which more or less follow the political fortunes of that benighted island. The first is "Depicting Cuba --- 1868 -1927," 1868 representing Cuba's first spasm of attempted Independence from Spain, the Ten Years' War, and the successful revolt that lasted from 1895 to 1898. The photographs of the Ten Years' War were commissioned by the colonial authorities for the "Album Histórico Fotográfica de la Guerra."
The second part is titled "Arte Nuevo" and "the Re-creation of Identity" (whatever that means), and parallels the ruinous regime of Gerardo Machado y Morales. "Cubanness," roughly parallels that reign of Fulgencio Batista (1938 - 1959). "Within the Revolution" would, naturally, be concurrent with Castro. "The Revolution and Me" concludes it all between 1980 - 2007.
Twenty-one critics take on thirty-four essays in cinema, fine arts, photography, and literature. I am left with the conclusion as I often am in massive books of art like this that the editors have drafted experts to comment on various aspects of art, knowing that words are just words, and the ultimate reward for the consumer are (in this case) the bleak, or gorgeous, or gaudy, or subtle, or flamboyant pictures. Ads for the Tropicana Club (vulgar) are interspliced with wonderful photographs by Raúl Corrales and Ocaño Odio of the poor sleeping on the streets of Havana.
A painting by Carlos Enríquez called "The Happy Peasant" (1938) seems to echo the "Screaming Pope" of Francis Bacon. The thirty photographs by Walker Evans include a haunting shot of eleven dockworkers, faces black from their job of loading coal at the malecón at Havana. The accompanying essay by Jeff Rosenheim, "Walker Evans and The Crime of Cuba" --- referring to a book put out by J. B. Lippencott in 1933 --- is one of the few I could make it through without passing out (or on).Weegee
Photographs from the
J. Paul Getty Museum
Judith Keller, Editor
(J. Paul Getty)Weegee, they say, stole his name from the Ouija ... like the one that talked to my poor old Mum. That's how you pronounced it (Ouija was thought up by one William Fuld in 1892. In those days, it was known as the "Talking Board.")Weegee's real name was Arthur Fellig. But he took on "Weegee" starting in 1935, in New York City, because whenever there was a tenement fire, a shooting, a drug bust, an accident --- anything with gore or scandal --- he was johnny-on-the-spot with his huge Speed Graphic and flashbulbs, taking the pictures before anyone else arrived.
Weegee was a parasite, a creature that fed off the pain of others --- perhaps creating some of his own (how would you like to get out of the police car and have a big old guy with a cigar flashing bulbs in your face, fixing your image for a million readers worldwide?) In fact, from this book, now we know who it is that got the quick shot through the windshield, a photo of the woman who has just smashed into a truck and killed the driver. Now we know who it is who snapped the picture of a gorish body, a cop standing over it, dazed, pistol in hand. It was Weegee who put his huge lens right up to your face as you look down for the first time at the body of your late husband shot down in the middle of Flatbush Avenue. And, in the two photos of him included in this volume, not a hint of shame on his puss --- he was just doing the news, right?
He was a parasite, at a time when we romanticized parasites and Runyonesque characters who boozed it up and beat each other up, getting vengeance with a black-jack or a pistol, and --- if caught --- hiding behind a hanky or a black fedora. Weegee, the wonder with his Speed Graphic, was always there, right in the thick of it, behind the ambulance or there the moment the Black Maria arrived at the police-station ... low-lifes prodded out to get their mugs shot by the omnipresent, untouched, untroubled Weegee ... before the other mug-shots.Go to the complete
Of the Atom
Peter C. van Wyck
(McGill-Queen's University Press)The Dene tribe of Canada had the singular misfortune of sitting atop a fortune. Next to Great Bear Lake in the North-West Territories there was (and presumably still is) a large outcrop of pitchblende.
Pitchblende is the mother of radium, what author van Wyck identifies as "the most valuable commodity on earth" (during his narrative, the price topped out at $25,000/gram). It is also the half-brother of uranium.
The Dene, being a sensible folk, were not interested in building bombs to flay innocent citizens, so the pitchblende was ignored; indeed, they stayed away from it. According to a report in Macleans magazine, it was to be avoided mostly because it smelled bad: "Indians of the area traditionally insisted that there was a peculiar smell to the atmosphere at LaBine Point."
The Highway of the Atom isn't your typical tale of wise primitives coming in contact with greedy white folk ... although there are elements of that. It is not even primarily a discourse on radioactivity and an indigenous community now suffering with far more bodily ills as a result of that greed. Better, it is an exploration of responsibility ... such as, for example, who among us is responsible for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It also treats the art of telling a story (there is a fine story here) and the place of accidents and the hazards of chance in our world. Also, there are elements of history: how history does (and doesn't) work; how to rewrite the past; what is to be done with leakage (of water; of cold; of radioactive materials).
Moko Maori Tattoo
(Edition Stemmle)In The Piano, that delicious, dramatic movie that presented us with another startling view of 19th Century colonialism, the Maori of New Zealand are always in the background: carrying the piano, the luggage, working --- but it is a bizarre (and uncommented on) background. Their faces are graved with lines, designs, figures --- permanent line drawings on the skin that emphasize or contrast the shape of eyes or nose or mouth, and contrast sharply with the mostly pale-white ghostly faces of the colonialists.Ta moko is the traditional facial decoration of those of Aotearoa, New Zealand. The authors of Moko --- Maori Tattoo tell us that it is not only tattoo,
It is also a name used for lizards throughout Polynesia, and it carries all the mythical associations attached to such creatures...It was inevitable that the Christians who invaded the island three hundred years ago should attempt to ban the process, since it was an homage to the Maori divines.Ta moko was kept alive by older women who lived in remote areas beyond the pale of European condemnation. In the 70s, young urbanized Maori in search of powerful symbols of ethnic identity rediscovered the art, and moko found a new generation of skin.
One guide, who assisted with this volume, said that with his moko, "I will never pretend I am white again." Indeed, many of those who appear in this book do not see themselves as "exotics" or "natives." There are students, workers, soldiers, and businessmen and most, apparently, are deeply religious. Statements that accompany many of these photographs are Maori translations of passages from the Bible --- hinting that an ingrained ancient culture has merged, to an astonishing degree, with the Christian.Go to the full
You Should Know
We all know Matthew Brady, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the publicity conscious Richard Avedon, the in-your-face Robert Mapplethorpe.
But how about Seydou Keïta? Malick Sidibé? Hiroshi Sugimoto? Wolfgang Tillmans?
I suspect the toughest task in putting out a volume like this is not what you include but what you don't. How about Brady's dead confederate soldiers, asprawl in the fields of Antietam? Should the rightly famous stark beekeeper by Avedon be in or be out? Dorthea Lange's "Homeless Mother?" or "White Angel Breadline?" Robert Capa's soldier flinging back his rifle on the fields of Spain during the civil war? How do you pick-and-choose, especially, when we know that the last three probably, between them, fielded hundreds of thousands of shots? The volume of material available but not to be included should drive any sane editor to the edge of distraction.
Rather than give us an exhaustive history of photography early and late Peter Stephan has chosen to give us an overview. He has the advantage of the cut-off number --- only fifty masters --- along with the natural limitation of his working space (13"x13"). He has --- through the publisher --- had access to superb reproduction from the firm Druckerei in Germany.
The layout is perfect, and is perfectly managed. Each of the masters is presented with timeline at the top of the page, one large representative photograph to the left, brief succinct essay to the right, 2"x2" photograph of the photographer (how do you shoot the one who shoots us?) and chronology. Where and when was André Kertész born (Budapest, 1894)? Where did he show (Paris, New York)? What did he publish (From My Window, Hungarian Memories)? When did he die (1985)? Are there any other books about him? (Yes, at least two).
All this information is presented in modest agate type because you and I know that the payoff here are the photos: in Kertész' case, three large, two small. Indeed, he sports more than most: Stieglitz only gets three ... one of Georgia O'Keeffe (naturally --- one of the 350 of her because Stieglitz and O'Keeffe were sweeties).Go to the complete
The Klondike Quest
A Photographic Essay: 1897 - 1899
(Boston Mills Press)There were three ways to get to Dawson in 1898: up the White Pass Trail, up the Chilkoot Trail, or down the Yukon River from Alaska. It is estimated that 80% of the stampeders went via the passes, the other 20% by way of Alaska.
The impetus, according to Berton, was not so much gold fever as the fact that the United States was --- in the midst of the so-called "Gay 90's" --- engulfed by a panic. That was the word in those days for what we now name "economic depression."
There was nothing gay --- in the older sense of the word --- about the journey. The White Pass was called "The Trail of Dead Horses" because 3,000 horses died en route. Chilkoot Pass was scarcely better. But the worst impediment to the stampeders was not so much the weather, which was dreadful, nor the passes, which were almost impassable --- but the Canadian government.
The route north to Dawson was in the hands of Canada, although uneasily so. The U. S. claimed part of the Klondike, but was busy fighting the "white man's burden" at other venues ... namely Cuba and the Philippines. It was not an appropriate time to make war on our neighbor to the north.
There was a rule, a sensible rule if you think about it, enforced to the hilt by the Northwest Mounted Police. The rule was that if the stampeders were going into a place of ice, snow, trees, and nothing else, that they could not enter "without a year's supply of provisions."Go to the full
Long Time Coming
Of America: 1935-1943
<Michael Lesy, Editor
The Farm Security Administration photography division was charged with taking pictures of all of America ... the farms, the cities, the markets, the streets, and most of all, the people. In its eight years, the FSA compiled 145,000 photographs, all in black-and-
white, with sixteen full-time artists out on the road, including such worthy visionaries as Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans.
The man in charge of this was Roy Stryker --- one who, Lesy tells us, was not much of a connoisseur of photographic art, but a man who was an artist at what was important then and now in Washington --- of maintaining the funding and finding ways of doing what needed to be done without bringing down the wrath of the elected officials on your shoulders.
Included in Long Time Coming are directives, letters, and notes by Stryker to and from those who were working on the FSA project. And a very strange collection of marching orders they are, too. This from 1937 to photographer Arthur Rothstein: "Where are the pictures of the corn town?... Here are special things you ought to watch for now. Raking and burning leaves. Cleaning up the garden. Getting ready for winter." Or this to Russell Lee in Corpus Christi, Texas:
Every so often, I am brought to the realization of the ruthlessness of the camera, particularly the way we have been using it: A lot of those people whose pictures you took do not realize how they are going to look in the eyes of the smug, smart city people when these pictures are reproduced. Of course, we could turn around and put the camera on the smug, smart city people and make them look ridiculous, too.
The thrust of the narrative portion of this book is that most of the people involved --- including Stryker and his immediate superior, Rexford Tugwell --- didn't know what the hell they were supposed to be doing. Were they to show the bright side of American life? Or, as so often happened, were they to present to the world the dismal and depressed, the rootless, the poor, the hurting. We find in the work of Lange and Evans and John Vachon and Russell Lee the most appalling, fly-specked, belly-rumbling, shirt-torn, sad-eyed, bent-backed misery. At the same time, we have here sections with titles like "Amusements and Distractions," "Hometowns," "City Life" which convey the most ordinary of lives and pleasures and normalcy --- people hanging out, kids dancing in the streets, old people at fairs, the obviously well-off at the races, four grannies playing bridge in White River Junction, Vermont, a girl swinging next to the street in Woodbine, Iowa, a boy selling newspapers in Montrose, Colorado.
Photographs from the
J. Paul Getty Museum
Anne M. Lyden
(J. Paul Getty Museum)In his long life, Paul Strand was comfortable photographing machines, faces, naked bodies, old men and women, and the people and buildings and farms of France, Italy, Scotland, Canada. He spent sixty years learning his craft from the likes of Lewis W. Hine and Alfred Stieglitz, hanging out with artists like John Marin and Georgia O'Keeffe.He also spent several years making films in Mexico, working for the Mexican Secretariat of Education. Which, along with his other neo-socialistic activities, is probably what got him in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Such that Strand got out of the United States in 1950, moved to live permanently in southern France. (One can't help thinking of this period being notable in that we threatened our best artists with jail time so they'd get gone: Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Nabokov, Berthold Brecht, Paul Strand, the Hollywood Ten. Keeps the country safe from untoward criticism; separates the supposed traitors from the supposed loyalists).
Less than a third of the 186 black-and-whites Strands owned by the Getty are shown in this book, and we have chosen three of them for viewing here because they are, as the juveniles would say, awesome.
One is of Kate Steele from the Hebrides, 125 years or so of age. She comes to us three times. She's on the cover; she turns up on Plate 44. Finally there is a photo of a photo (of a photo ... it's all copies: there is no reality, even in the world of photography.) This last shows Strand hidden by his huge camera, the sweet toothless old granny sitting in the doorway, awaiting her fate (or her upper plate), complete with daughter off to one side and cat looking at camera #2, the one that is making the picture of the picture. The only soul made nervous by all this except me seems to be the cat, who might be preparing to run up Strand's leg any moment now.Go to the
reviewShooting from the Hip
Photographs and Essays
J. Don Cook
(University of Oklahoma)
There are thirty-three essays that accompany the photographs, some with romantic titles that might make one think this is a sunny life out there, taken from a brochure put out by the Norman OK Chamber of Commerce: "Summertime," "Memorial Day," "An Old-Fashioned Haircut," "Daughters." But, too, there are titles like "Tornado Victim," "Double Drowning," "A Deadly Shootout," "A Ruined Life." Theoretically, Cook is showing us the polar opposites ... but to this viewer, the photographs mostly deliver a sunny view of things. The close-ups of the wrinkled old faces are weathered, startlingly lined, but benign. The children are curious, smiling, almost always clean. The shot of a kid getting a haircut looks like something that Norman Rockwell would have painted ... as are children shown with snowy rabbits, boys with water-hose, youngsters with Sno-cones.
Cook says that one of his mentors is Walker Evans, but Evans was scrupulous about keeping sentiment as far away as possible. For Evans, there was always an edge of pain; but it was the pain of understatement. Cook is rarely understated. When he shows "A Drowning in August," it is of a father carrying the body of his seven-year-old child, the man's face is in a shocked, contorted spasm of grief.
As a good action photographer must, Cook asks himself if he should be photographing such things. He tells us that he even wrote "a first person essay for a national magazine about the experience of having to document the suffering of people I knew --- resisting the urge simply to leave and not photograph."
There I was, the professional part of me documenting this human tragedy while the lives of two families, neighbors, were shredded beyond repair.
And there you have, in its starkest form, the paradox of choosing (or not choosing) to record tragedy. Many of us would turn away, or try merely to help in whatever way we could. Cook takes pictures of what most would consider a private grief and throws them out for the world to have and to hold: photographs set forth in a very public space called, perhaps ironically, Shooting from the Hip.
Susan Snyder takes us back to the halcyon times of early camping. She opines that it was slow to catch on in America because in the 19th Century, camping was all there was. When you wanted to get from West Virginia to Missouri, and from there to Oklahoma, and from there to the Nevada Territory and California, you camped your way across the country.
Sleeping under the stars and cooking over an open fire had been matters of necessity and expediency in trackless wastes that concealed wild beasts and nightmare sounds. Wilderness had been the formless enemy to be conquered and crossed at all costs.
"Now," she writes, "the trailblazers became pleasure trekkers, and trails that had been the routes of arduous travail become the paths of holiday jaunts."
Ms. Snyder has collected here over a hundred photographs to delight the soul: people dressed to the nines, posed formally outside their white-and-blue striped tents; three young fellows on high-front-wheel bicycles of the times, their packs carefully hung from the steering bar; a booted ruffian in a pork-pie hat standing before a wood-plank lodge marked WELLS FLAT; a "Silver Dawn" Sauerkraut can cut at both ends to serve as smokestack.
She has also culled readings from camping books of the day, advertising copy from the magazines filled with hints ("To dry matches: Carefully blot off as much water as possible with a soft cloth and then pass them through the hair a dozen times"), and clippings from those who ventured out into the wild:
"We ate our supper of cold venison and bread, and whittled from the sides of the wooden barometer-case shavings enough to warm water for a cup of miserably tepid tea, and then, packing our provisions and instruments away at the head of the shelf, rolled ourselves into our blankets and lay down to enjoy the view."
After such fatiguing exercises the mind has an almost abnormal clearness: whether this is from within, or due to the intensely vitalizing mountain air, I am not sure; probably both contribute to the state of exaltation in which all alpine climbers find themselves.
This entry by geologist Clarence King concludes: "The solid granite gave me a luxurious repose."
Revolutionary Art and
The Mexican Print
(University of Texas Press)The artists of Mexico who lived through the ten-year Revolution were lucky. Not only did they survive upheaval, starvation, and the ruination of the country, but then they had the chance to experience the glorious artistic explosion that followed.We are speaking here of the years from 1920 to 1940, the time of Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, José Orozco, Frida Kahlo, and the talented practitioners of Mexican engraving: Jean Charlot, Ramón Alva de la Canal, Pablo O'Higgins, and, probably the greatest of them all, Leopoldo Méndez.As opposed to the politically and socially castrated American artists of the 20s, Rivera, Siqueiros, Méndez et al were deeply involved in the politics of their country, if not the world. Many were also involved in government projects to bring Art to the People. In the United States, and belatedly, this was administered by the WPA. In Mexico, it was brought about through the ægis of the Ministry of Education. Méndez himself spent a year or so as a teacher in villages of Central Mexico.
His main shtick, there in the sticks, was to get rid of Oscar Wilde's notion of "Art for Art's Sake." Art was, as he and Rivera and Siqueiros saw it, to free the workers, to lighten the burden of the campesinos, to uplift the poor, to unburden the rich of their excessive wealth.Bound and Gagged
Pornography and the
Politics of Fantasy
(Duke University Press)Ms. Kipnis has put together an astounding thesis. She has evidently immersed herself in no small amount of lurid literature in order to deliver the message that the reaction of most of us (sneering, shutting our eyes, calling the police) means that we are missing the vital truths that pornography can give us.
For instance, in the chapter entitled "Life in the Fat Lane," Ms. Kipnis points out that
There is a higher concentration of body fat the lower down the income scale you go...According to the National Center for Health Statistics, almost 30 percent of women with incomes below $10,000 are obese, as compared with 12.7 percent of those with incomes above $50,000 a year.
She points out that fat is "a predictor of downward mobility:"
If fat, you have a lower chance of being hired, and if hired a lower chance of being promoted....Researchers studying the psychology of body image report that fat is associated with a range of fears: from loss of control to a reversion to infantile desires, to failure, self-loathing, sloth, and passivity. Substitute "welfare class" for "fat" here and you start to see that the phobia of fat and the phobia of the poor are heavily cross-coded...
Ms. Kipnis discusses magazines that you and I have probably never dreamed about, much less read --- for instance, fat pornography publications like Dimensions, Plumpers and Big Women, Bulk Mail, along with hard-core videos like Life in the Fat Lane, Jumbo Jezebel, and Mother Load and I. These are "a safe haven" for the defiance of social norms and proprieties, she tells us:
in fat pornography, no one is dieting. These bodies aren't undergoing transformation. Cascading mounds of flab, mattress-sized buttocks, breasts like sagging, overfilled water balloons, meaty, puckered, elephantine thighs, and forty- to fifty-inch waistlines are greeted with avid sexual enthusiasm. The more cellulite the better.
Ms. Kipnis is a hell of a good writer; even better, she has a very important tale to tell. For this reviewer, the high point of Bound and Gagged was the excellent chapter "Disgust and Desire: Hustler Magazine." Remember --- to report is not to love; Kipnis walks the fine thin line of telling the truth without hectoring, scorning, or idolizing. She points out that it was Larry Flynt --- not The Washington Post, or Time, or even Playboy --- who forced the courts to make far-reaching and significant rulings opening the doors to freedom of the press. And she is not shy in pointing out that for the rest of the magazine/newspaper establishment in America, it was an embarrassment to having Flynt carrying the torch for them. But even more interesting to contemplate, there is the revolutionary aspect of Hustler:
The catalog of social resentments Hustler trumpets, particularly against class privilege, makes it by far the most openly class-antagonistic mass-circulation periodical of any genre. (After all, class privilege is the dirty little secret of all national and electoral politics: face it, no welfare moms, homeless, unemployed, no blue-collar workers represent the nation in those hallowed legislative halls of our 'representative' democracy.)
Ms. Kipnis compares Flynt and his magazine to the 16th Century satirist, Rabelais. For, in opposition to the Playboy/Penthouse body, "the Hustler body is often a gaseous, fluid-emitting, embarrassing body..."
Ms. Kipnis says that we are in a strange place with our pornography, or ersatz pornography: "Museum curators are put on trial. Parents are arrested for taking naked pictures of their kids. Sex and AIDS education are under assault. The National Endowment for the Arts is defunded by Congress..." She calls it a panic --- and sees it as a particularly ironic one, since movies, TV, and advertising are constantly stealing the techniques of pornography to sell their wares.On
(University of Iowa)The poems avoid, mostly, that moist sentiment that we get when people start talking about the Send-Off. Ishmael Reed tells of the closing of a bank branch in his neighborhood and having, instead, to go to the place in town with "latte cafes" and "art cinemas," and the bank "will make phone calls to / See whether I am who I say..."
Grace Paley writes, "Here I am in the garden laughing / an old woman white heavy breasts / and a nicely mapped face." The "old guy" in Wesley McNair's poem is "stunned by the failure of his heart." "Spy with me," writes Klipschutz, "on this train going nowhere,"
I keep losing
"I know the future, / that iron door, / will be there waiting / no matter what / I have baking in the oven."
It gets harder for us to drive from here to there. All those fuzzy dials: we can either see the road or we can see how fast we are going, but not both. That's all right. It's the Heisenberg uncertainty principle --- you can know where you are, or you can know how quickly you are getting about ... but you can't know both.
I'm a little uncertain myself about my driving, but I don't want to scare the clients (the children and the grandchildren and soon-to-be-gone friends); I see that they put on their seatbelts with an alacrity they didn't have a couple of years ago. We just don't have the power we once had; it dribbles away so easily, so silently.
The young: they get sick, get well, fall, break an arm, but it all comes back together in an amazingly short time. Carolyn Kizer writes about them:
Eyes closed to news we've chosen to ignore,
We'd rather excavate old memories,
Disdaining age, ignoring pain, avoiding mirrors,
Why do they never listen to our stories?
Susan Elbe says "In the too-bright bathroom light
I splay my starfish hands"
the rambling veins now
less like fine-penned blueprints
and more like bare-branched trees.
And for Stephanie Cohen,
Our children turn into adult strangers
holding babies, who wave goodbye.
This is a brave and good and funny compilation. It won't mitigate our fears, but at the very least it will convince us that we are not alone.