How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers, Ian Jeffrey (2008)
I’ve looked at this book to ask myself an important question again. Is photography art? My answer is still: No, it’s a skill, not an art. Art should be ex nihilo or ex parvo: creation out of nothing or little. I don’t think there’s enough choice and possibility in photography for photographers to be called “great” in the same sense that painters or sculptors or novelists are great. There’s less genuine art in even the best photograph than in even the worst painting. Or the worst painting that aims at some kind of realism, that is. But then good photography has been responsible for a lot of very bad art. Photographs mirror reality very quickly and cheaply and artists began to stop competing with them in the nineteenth century. Ars est celare artem, runs the old Latin saying: “the art is to conceal the art”. You aren’t supposed to see the brush-strokes in pre-photographic art or its modern heirs. But some artists asked: if you don’t see the brush-strokes, how do you know it’s Art-with-a-capital-A? And how do you know that we’re Artists? Yes, the rot that started with Impressionism and quickened with abstract art has reached high putrefaction in conceptual art and mountebanks like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
Colour photography only made the flight from realism faster, but almost all the photographs in this book are monochrome, sometimes by necessity, like the ones from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, sometimes by artistic choice, like the more modern ones. There’s often more power in a monochrome photograph: colour is more exciting and eye-catching, but also more distracting. The viewer isn’t presented simply with shapes and outlines, with light and shade. That’s why some photographers choose to eschew colour, even in the twenty-first century. All photographers choose to eschew another distraction: motion. Unless, like Tomatsu Shomei from Japan, they represent it in a blurred photograph, like the B-52 he captured on Okinawa in 1969. Colour or monochrome? Still or blurred? Yes, there is a lot of choice in photography, but it’s the choice of the right moment, the right light, the right angle, the right combination of images, not the much longer and more difficult choices made in painting and sculpture. That’s why I call photography a skill rather than an art. True, photographs can be more memorable and thought-provoking than some traditional art, but they’re memorable and thought-provoking in a different way. A painting is rather like a cooked meal; photographs are more like raw ingredients that you cook for yourself.
One of the things you can cook from them is a sense of ephemerality-in-permanence. On page 46 there’s a photograph of two young German cadets taken by an unknown photographer in the springtime of 1914, “just” before “the outbreak of the Great War”. One of them is grinning with his hands in his pockets. It’s a happy moment in a life that may have ended a few weeks later. Or a few decades later – who knows? What we do know is that the young cadet is certainly dead now and certainly did not stay young if he survived the war. The photograph has frozen him permanently in that happy, carefree moment: ephemerality-in-permanence, as I said. But photographs can be ephemeral too, if they exist in single copies. In his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God (1987), the Mancunian writer Anthony Burgess describes another early photograph:
My mother left the stage and became a shopping housewife on those thoroughfares [in Harpurhey]. Just before the War of 1914-18 began, she gave birth to my sister Muriel. I had a photograph of the two of them, long since eaten up by Malayan humidity and termites, and it showed a firm-featured woman of considerable blonde beauty and a promise of similar beauty in the daughter. (Op. cit., pg. 16)
Burgess’s mother and sister both died in the influenza epidemic at the end of the war, so the photograph was one of the few things he had to remember them by. A drawing or painting, unless he had made it himself, would not have been an emotional loss in the same way: it would have been a meal cooked by someone else, not raw ingredients to cook for himself. Unless you know some of the people or scenes in this book personally, you aren’t likely to be affected by the photographs in the way Burgess must have been when he looked at his lost mother and sister. But some of the photos are affecting precisely because you don’t know their subjects and couldn’t ever have known them. The photograph called “The Mountain Nymph” on page 22 was taken in 1866 by Julia Margaret Cameron, for example, and Cameron herself died in 1879. The girl in the photograph is attractive, but sad for an unknown reason. She’s also long dead, so the reason will remain unknown. Overleaf is another powerful photo by Cameron: “Iago. Study from an Italian” of 1867, which shows a stubbly, unattractive young man whose face is nevertheless full of character and interesting lines and curves. He’s also long dead. So, apparently, are the luminosity and richness of these nineteenth-century photographs and the almost sacramental care with which they were created.
The chemicals got much cheaper and easier to use later, so photographs lost the aura of Cameron’s work or of “The Broken Wave, Sète”, taken by the Frenchman Gustav le Gray in 1857. It shows a shore, a ship and some sea, with a wave breaking on rocks in the foreground. It’s simple, but it casts a spell. As photography got easier, it got more informal, but informality has a power of its own, like the unposed street-scenes captured by Louis Vert and Paul Géniaux in Paris at the turn of the century. Second-long slices of vanished life and vanished lives: the children are gone just as the adults are. The trees captured by Gustav le Gray in his “Study of Tree Trunks, Fontainebleau” (c.1855-7) may be still be there, but the sand-patterns and bird-tracks of Edward Weston’s “Dunes, Oceano” (1936) may not even have lasted out the day on which he photographed them. The mathematics behind the patterns is still at work, though, and so is the male gaze that will feast on the female “Nude” lying on the same dunes and photographed by Weston in the same year. It’s an interesting study in contrast: firm flesh and shifting sand; dark hair and white skin. It’s not a pornographic photo, but the girl is naked and her breasts, thighs and pubic hair do supply some of the “Opium of the Peephole” so widely available in our ever-more voyeuristic culture.
The girl on page 301 made her living from supplying that opium: she’s a “Topless Dancer in Her Dressing Room, San Francisco, California, 1968”. Wearing a blonde wig and sparkly, cut-away dress, she has, in the immortal words of the Finnish stoner-rockers Erotic Support, “Tits to Die For”: large, shapely and firm, as one delicate index finger held against the left breast subtly indicates. She’s touching her chin with her other hand and looks both attractive and slightly bored or melancholic. Did the photographer Diane Arbus ask her to adopt that pose? Yes, I think so, because her index finger echoes the raised index finger of St Thomas in a Leonardo print propped unobtrusively on the dressing-table behind her. Ian Jeffrey, who wrote the text for this book, calls this “a curious reference” and you could speculate for a long time about its meaning. I don’t think you need to speculate about the opium of the peephole in this photo or the male gaze that absorbs the opium. The photo’s subject is a topless dancer after all and her breasts, slightly above the centre of the square photograph, dominate the scene, partly because they’re breasts, partly because they’re spectacular, and partly because they’re paler than the sun-tanned skin above them.
If the photograph were in colour, it would be nearer pornography, but it’s monochrome, so it’s a study in shape and shade, not in biological reality. It’s an interesting study too: the dancer’s glamorous clothes and breasts, at the height of their natural perfection and beauty, contrast with the back-stage drabness and clutter of the dressing-room. But in a wider sense, all the photographs here are about contrast. Why choose that moment rather than another? Why photograph that face rather than another? Sometimes it’s hard to see why, sometimes it’s easy. Memorable or mediocre, contrived or compelling, photography altered culture for ever with its chemical chiaroscuro – and chromaticism – but I’d still claim it’s a skill rather than an art. Even the most skilful photography doesn’t match the art of a painting like The Roses of Heliogabalus, but what it couldn’t match it could undermine. Photography and moving pictures haven’t been as destructive as automobiles, modernity’s “mechanical Jacobins”, but their importance in history is partly or even largely negative, in my opinion. Now that they’re here, few of us would want to be without them, but that’s because the opium of the peephole is nearly as addictive as real opium. But it isn’t as inspirational to art or artists.