Tuesday, January 10, 2012

from the bus

Several years ago at ICP I heard Walter Rosenblum lecture. Rosenblum began his lecture with a rhetorical question to the audience, asking who there had gone into debt for an education? & Rosenblum saw that as a problem, that for a photographer, to do that, it put one in a permanently vexed situation: there would always be a debt to repay, and a certain amount of obedience to a paycheck, which would inform any voice that the photographer may have, whether directly or indirectly.

Walter Rosenblum was speaking long before our artificial bubble of prosperity broke. In a certain sense his alarm at the excesses of credit was not dissimilar from what I had heard as a child as a "Depression mentality" which was considered commonplace for the world of my grandparents, & a residual effect for my parents' generation: a distrust of banks, a suspicion of credit, a fear of losing what little there is. In the bright illusory lights of the post WWII boon economy, extended decades further into the excesses of our recent times, this all could sound a bit dour & old-fashioned.

By the same token this could also be perceived as a way to apprehend the world. One of the themes of Robert Frank's The Americans was the contrast between an unreal boosterism almost wholly missing yet still informing the streets & highways traveled in the images: Is it poverty or alienation which is depicted? & whose alienation? In Frank's photos the suggestion that it is a near universal, that there is a shared abjection, behind the godawful illusion of America, which floats like an European colonialist concept of deliverance & domination gone amok, like some sort of cruel deity. (I can hear a line which is repeated in a few of Mike Leigh's films, "We're on the top of the world" which is uttered when that idea seems all too pathetic).

On a visit to the Metropolitan Museum the other day, in the galleries for Drawings, Prints & Photographs, I saw a gorgeous Frank print from his series "On the bus" . But what is beautiful about this? It is a scene from a street, presumably New York City, & the composition is based on chance, randomness, it has no distinct order or scenario, it is fragmentary, it reveals nothing.

On a physical level it occurred to me: Frank isn't shooting through the glass of a window, he could open the bus window. The street is a thoroughfare but it also is not pure moving traffic, either. These people are using the space of the sidewalk differently. It's not just a passage, or a passage which is without anything other than flow. New Yorkers can mention "pedestrian rage" with blitheness: it must have been worse then!

On the other hand, what was lacking then was the systematic planning and design which turn every second in a public sphere into a kind of utility. We live now in a world that is not dissimilar from the futuristic fantasies of total planning, in which every process of being in a place becomes part of a calculated system. Well maybe it's not a new concept at all - the Hausmannization of Paris did this as well, but without the excess of sensory prosthetics which now determine our everyday. All of us, including the wealthy shoppers of Fifth Ave are marching in step now, to the greater order of the official street. Our machines turn us off to the actual world around this, & the camera itself is implicated in this.

Perhaps that is what seems strange & engaged about the Frank photograph, & also the current show at the Jewish Museum, The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951: what one sees is the camera as a conduit of emotions. There's a sense of commonality in the idea of the photographic image which is social as much as it is personal & particular: it can reflect both & it can be shared.

The Photo League itself was a small scale, grassroots organization, which facilitated the work of people who became professionals as well as those who could be categorized as "hobbyists". As I understand it, there was a lot more ambiguity about the distinctions between such forms - perhaps because of the small paycheck involved. At the Photo League class cost between 4 - 7 dollars & it had no glamour, no sex appeal, & no class - it was there for those who were interested. & in its brief fragile history, one could have encountered the likes of Lewis Hine or Paul Strand - it still boggles my mind that I have met people, like Morris Engel, who learned from them.

At this point in our sordid economic history this now seems implausibly enchanted. While the streets of New York were never far from darkness - never far from the Poe story, The Man of the Crowd, with its conclusion of never-knowing, of pure "modern" chaos incarnate facing us down, it still managed to have a presence, even when it is stylized such as in William Klein's New York book, or the early Stanley Kubrick film Killer's Kiss (filmed in Times Square, Washington Heights, Chelsea), which in our virtual world is now ignored. Attention to the world at hand seems possible in this work.

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