Back in the day, before everything went all postmodern-like, a feller could look at a picture without having to wade through a moat of chatterbox theory before deciding if he liked it or not. Nowhere is this truer than with photography, a field that seemed to turn overnight from sumptuous formalism and virtuosic craftsmanship to either a) stilted tableaux vivants with poststructural cross-references out the wazoo or b) barely competent jet-set pedophilial snapshots. Hey, to each his own, right? But a couple of current museum exhibitions — one at the Huntington and one at the Getty — serve as reminders of the long stretch of the last century when photography wasn’t taken seriously as an art form, and photographers were free to go out and look at the world, record part of it, then return to their darkrooms and tease out a jewel-like shard of imagery with a delicate, laborious alchemy.
One of the masters of this art of rhythmical secular contemplation was Edward Weston, whose dramatically lit close-ups of peppers, cabbage sprouts, seashells, egg slicers and nudes were hugely influential icons of Modernism’s leveling formalist gaze — sometimes you have to read the label to know if you’re looking at a vegetable, tree stump or human torso. Most of these familiar images — a group of which open the Huntington’s “Edward Weston: A Legacy” — were created in Weston’s studio during the late ’20s and early ’30s. In subsequent years, until 1948 when Parkinson’s rendered him incapable of working, Weston turned his attention outward — directing his finely tuned sense of composition, value and textural detail to the landscape.
At the height of the Depression, when his portrait-studio business had practically petered out, Weston hit the jackpot as the first photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Free from financial responsibility for the first time in his career, he traveled along the California and Oregon coasts, into Death Valley and Yosemite, New Mexico and Arizona, documenting sand dunes and snowdrifts, twisted desert junipers and tide pools of kelp, ice patterns, shattered windshields, crumbling architecture, castoff work clothes, dead animals, and his 22-year-old lover, Charis Wilson (Note to the Gap: Secure the rights to this photo!).
After two years of travels and darkroom work, Weston chose the Huntington as the repository for a collection of 500 images selected and printed by the artist himself, consisting largely of the Guggenheim period but including examples of earlier and later works (though, curiously, no nudes). Weston was a master printer (most of his works now in circulation were produced by his sons), and the almost 150 immaculately preserved examples included in “A Legacy” are almost hallucinatory in their focus and detail. In one of his shots of the white sands of Oceano, made up of seven receding dunes, I was amazed to see minuscule ridges on the farthest dune as clearly focused as those on the closest — as if a baby had left a tiny fingerprint on the negative.
There’s something familiar about Weston’s landscape vistas, and my initial reaction to this survey was that Weston’s work tended toward the cookie-cutter sublime of his friend and colleague Ansel Adams, whose vision of the West has gone beyond all art critical grasp to enter popular visual mythology. But my take didn’t hold up — Weston’s work is too idiosyncratic, too coolly graphic to be said to be serving any sentimental preconception. Then it hit me: These carefully framed portions of swirling, seething patterns of parallel lines, transverse sand ridges and high-relief wood grain were straight out of the late-60s-early-’70s period of psychedelic photography, when darkroom tricks of solarization and melted emulsions were harnessed to convey the heightened awareness of altered states of consciousness. Which is ironic, because Weston himself eschewed all such gimmickry, emphasizing the power of focused attention to transform reality and reveal the “quintessence” of things in the world. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the persistent influence of Weston’s visual obsessiveness.
Across town at the Getty, “Strange Days: Photographs From the Sixties by Winogrand, Eggleston, and Arbus” straddles the period when Weston’s Zen-like reductivism morphed into the narrative-driven voyeurism we know and love today. Most significant from a historical perspective are the rarely seen, never-reproduced B&W photos by William Eggleston. He is, of course, best-known as the photographer who first broke the color barrier, exhibiting his saturated snapshots of vernacular Memphis in a landmark solo show at NYC’s MOMA in 1976, and opening the floodgate for color photography to be considered “artistic.” (Who makes up these rules?!) Eggleston’s most famous images range from the verging-on-abstract light bulb on a red ceiling to the verging-on-social-commentary image of a rich white man in a black suit attended by a black servant in a white suit at a Southern funeral.
Eggleston verges a lot, and the works gathered for “Strange Days” seem to verge mostly on his approaching breakthrough into the realm of color. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some spectacular images here — the scowling lady at the mall next to the kiddies’ elephant ride, the kid in the driveway playing with his shadow, the decisive moments captured in coffee shops and candid family snapshots — but, rather, that hindsight allows us to see that Eggleston’s best work was yet to come.
Of the three photographers included in “Strange Days,” Eggleston is closest to the all-encompassing visual curiosity of Weston, and as a consequence both have been misinterpreted for their inclusiveness. Weston’s later work contains frequent images of death and decay as aspects of the natural order of things, which contemporary (and subsequent) critics labeled “morbid.” Eggleston’s work, which at its best combines the improvisational genius of his hero Henri Cartier-Bresson with the Technicolor hypersaturation of Hollywood auteur Nicholas Ray into a dreamlike intensification of the everyday world, has been improbably accused of everything from anti-formalism to exploitative voyeurism.
The true founder of the school of exploitative voyeurism (Weegee aside) would be Diane Arbus, represented here by a powerful cross-section of the Mexican dwarves, Jewish giants, nudists, headless sideshow attractions, and transvestites whose company she sought out after the fashion industry proved too freakish for her. Several of Arbus’ classic images are here — the “Identical Twins,” the “Puerto Rican Woman With a Beauty Mark” and the “Boy With a Straw Hat Waiting To March in a Pro-War Parade” — but the show also includes such lesser-known works as the previously unexhibited “Woman in a Rose Hat” and “Cliff Gorman in Lenny.” Arbus killed herself in the bathtub shortly after photographing the latter (not that there’s any connection), and her martyrdom has lent an air of perversity to her oeuvre that may not be deserved. It seems more likely that Arbus was personally exploring the threshold where social convention compels us to look away, and granting visibility to the unmentionable castes.
Like Arbus, Garry Winogrand usually constructed his images around social situations, but tended to find his subjects in more public spaces: demonstrations, be-ins, crowds of people at parks and zoos, and clusters of people in the streets. One of the most compelling images in “Strange Days” is a perfectly composed and timed shot of a family — probably tourists — scuttling past a wheelchair-bound beggar at the corner of Hollywood and Vine in 1969. The interplay between the abstracting effect of the reflected diagonal sunlight and the awkward electricity of the captured interaction (or lack thereof) is exploitative voyeurism at its best. Winogrand, emerging from a photojournalist background, tended to privilege content over form but was usually able to accommodate powerful doses of both.
In subsequent years, such high-wire balances between style and substance have proved unnecessary, as more and more artists have found that a poorly crafted snapshot of a mentally retarded performer or underage junkie excites as much controversy and attention (and garners as much critical, collector and curatorial support) as a photographic masterpiece. “Strange Days” finally comes off as a document of this aesthetic turning point rather than as a précis of countercultural turmoil. With the rise of narrative fictional mise en scène photographers like Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall, and the advent of digital technologies like Photoshop, you don’t have to actually exploit any real people to get that sensationalist sensation, or have any interaction with the real world for that matter, or ever see the inside of a darkroom.
EDWARD WESTON: A Legacy | At the BOONE GALLERY AT THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, ART COLLECTIONS AND BOTANICAL GARDENS, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino | Through October 5
STRANGE DAYS: Photographs From the Sixties by Winogrand, Eggleston and Arbus | At the J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM, 1200 Getty Center Drive | Through October 5
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