Encounters with Anonymous: Tractatus Suburbio-Dilectus

Because it presents a cipher to me, I keep coming back to this photograph. As many times as I’ve looked at it, many things about it remain unclear or downright mysterious. Take a look.

I’ve left it uncorrected from my scanner.

The photograph is dated May 1963 on the recto. There is nothing on the verso side of the photograph beyond the usual Kodak markings, so I have no reason to doubt it is from early 1963, maybe a month earlier than May depending on when the photographer actually bothered to send the film to the lab.

The sun is coming from the left side of the frame (note the shadows), and is fairly high. It’s almost a neat 45 degree angle. This is probably around 2 pm or so. The picture is slightly out of focus. The camera seems to have produced a slight defect in the address numbers particularly, almost a kind of double strike. The picture is also quite wide in aspect ratio. The print as I hold it is 3.5″ by 5.25″. This is a highly unusual size. Standard 35mm film has an aspect ratio of 1.5:1, which at this size print would be an even 3″ x 5″ like an index card.

The only roll film I know to be this size is Kodak 828, which was produced by omitting the sprocket holes of standard 35mm, thus increasing the size from 28mm by 35mm to 28mm by 40mm. Very few cameras could take 828 film. I know of two by Kodak, three by Coronet in England, and one by Hoei from Japan, plus a handful of cheap plastic roy cameras. Zeiss made an adapter for their Ikonta but those are far from common, too. Likely this was a picture from a folding Kodak Bantam or a Kodak Pony.

From this I conclude that the picture is not taken by a professional with a tripod, but rather more likely by an amateur who saw something worth capturing.

But what? It isn’t obvious on first glance.

The picture isn’t in two equal halves, but it’s close. Generally this implies a comparative technique: i.e., one side says this, the other says this, etc. But if there’s a comparison here it is subtler than most. The houses are extremely similar. The garage doors are identical both in size and design.

The house on the left of the frame has an even roof height from the main dwelling area to the garage. The house on the right has a broken height; the garage roof is clearly lower than the main dwelling area. Is the garage itself an addition? It’s possible, but unlikely. 1963 is well before the rise of DIY home improvement following the publication of Time-Life’s book series in 1977. I don’t see any tell-tale joint in the paint or wood that would indicate this is new. More likely the roofing over the main house is a different design. It’s supported by poles.

The middle of the picture interests me. On the left the house has a fenced back yard. The house behind it is hard to make out, because the vanishing point of the photo is behind it, but on the right it’s clear there is another house with the exact same shaped garage as the first house in the foreground — the roofing brackets are identical — and, what I presume is across a street from it, yet another garage with the exact same garage door and gutter downspout. But these are far in the background.

The lawn of both houses are angular, shaped by the contour of the poured cement. The grass is low. The greenery (such as it is), knee-high and recent (it has not grown together). There may be some roses alongside the garage on the right, but I cannot make out the flowers.

Stable lines dominate the overall composition of the photograph. Virtually everything here is vertical or horizontal. Oblique lines are small and hidden either by contrast or other shapes. The only thing resembling a curve in the image is the slight hump in the gutter formed where the two driveways meet the street. Everything is bright and high-key beneath the midday sun. The subdued tonal palette and the array of lines create the impression of stability and human artifice.

All of this is visible. But the question stays: Why would someone take this photograph?

The more I look at it, the more I begin to decide that this is a picture of, and about suburbia. These houses are certainly part of the post-WWII era of tract housing. The “reverse assembly line” housing construction model of Levitt & Sons construction had already given the nation Levittowns in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey by this time, and a new one in Puerto Rico was just about to be finished at the time of the photograph. The Interstate Highway System signed into law in 1956 by President Eisenhower was beginning to stretch across the nation and create a massive network of roads that would soon lead to people moving even further out of dense urban areas into nowheresville settlements. To sell this “dream” to Americans required Americans to believe that this was “safer” and more stable than the chaos of large cities.

Amateurs tend to make the nominal subject matter of a picture dead center. Here what’s dead center is a third house way in the background. What’s largest in the frame are the two houses in the front and their driveways. The houses are new but not brand new. The house on the right has what looks like an immaculate driveway and freshly mown lawn. The house on the left has a driveway that has tire marks and other stains; its grass is cut, but nowhere near as manicured as the house on the right’s. The house on the right has a garbage can right at the garage door, put there as if to suggest that any mess in the front yard or driveway would be immediately cleaned up and disposed. It also has greenery and flowers along its perimeter. The house on the left has neither.

I have come to believe this is the point of the photograph. The house on the right is better than the house on the left. Cleaner, neater, greener, more lavish, more well-maintained. I think this is most likely a photograph taken by one of the inhabitants of the house on the right to prove their calm superiority and to inspire envy in others. They may not have a fenced-in backyard like the neighbors, but they have so much more. This image is all about minor variations. In this sterile, rigid suburban environment, those minor variations are all one has to separate oneself from the Joneses next door.

Encounters with Anonymous: Camera I

Photo: Circe Deyner. CC0/Public domain license.

At last September’s MoMA gathering where I spoke about digital criticism and such, I had the pleasure of spending time talking with the former curator of the George Eastman House Alison Nordström, whom I’ve always admired. We were chit-chatting about one of those exasperating moments of censorship, when she suddenly asked me, “Why do people hate photographs so much?”

That question has been on my mind ever since. One needn’t look far to see evidence of photographic suspicion and hatred in the gallery/library/archive/museum sector, certainly. But it doesn’t stop there. The hatred of photographs permeates our culture in even the most banal ways.

The latest example came last month when I was asked to color correct two portraits that were intended for an online staff page. After correcting them, I received the reply that my pictures had been nixed. Reason? Because the organization wanted staff pictures that looked “natural.”

I hadn’t used a healing brush, or filter, or even a selection tool. So what was unnatural? Going to the organization’s website, I looked at the staff page and quickly noticed that every single picture was underexposed. Not one of them had a significant highlight. Most of them were not sharp. Indeed I had to squint multiple times to see various individual’s facial features. Most of the pictures had a shocking color cast, either yellow-orange or cold blue.

Translation: a “natural” photograph is a poor photograph, straight out of a phone.

My contention is that such photographs are not “natural” at all, and my argument is simple. If any non-color blind human had been in the position of the camera at the time these photographs were taken what would they have seen? They would not have seen anything like these pictures. Scientists have already proven this repeatedly in color modeling.

  • The human eye/brain would have immediately corrected the color casts and perceived whites as white.
  • The human eye/brain would have immediately corrected the contrast ratio, and adjusted shadows and highlights to fall within human visual range.
  • The Bayer array these cameras use for their recording of information automatically softens/blurs a picture, so a human eye/brain would have seen each of them as sharper. (In fact, most cameras include a sharpening algorithm precisely because of this.)

If the human eye is the measure of what humans consider natural — and it is — these pictures are not natural. Quite the opposite. Yet here I was, being told that the image that came from thoughtlessly pushing a button and accepting whatever a brainless machine cranked out was natural, and that any attempt to make an image appear something like a human being would actually have seen was unnatural.

This sort of nonsense is as old as Elizabeth, Lady Eastlake’s 1857 essay on photography, in which the camera is relegated “to give evidence of facts, as minutely and as impartially as, to our shame, only an unreasoning machine can give.” But the “evidence” of a camera is bodiless. Being as William Ivins says “without syntax,” that “evidence” has no context of its own, and thus the picture tends to run away.

This picture offers an example of the problem.

It’s one of those pictures in which a notable landmark appears, but relatively small in comparison with the rest of the subject matter. I’ve been here myself, so I can positively identify the subject matter: this is the landscape around Neuschwanstein Castle. If you’ve seen The Great Escape, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or any of a dozen other films, you’ve seen it. It’s one of the top tourist sites in Europe. If memory serves, this is likely taken from the palace access road, looking south-southwest.

Without the castle in the frame, about 5/8th of the picture would be gray negative space where the fog has set in. The remainder would be an landscape of indistinct trees, lost in shadow. On the right, the tallest tree stands out because it is leafless. The rest blend together. In the lower left of the frame is a trapezoidal shape that I take to be the window of an automobile (a VW camper van would be the cliché assumption).

It’s difficult to date the picture. It’s in color. Kind of. The color is well faded. The verso isn’t helpful, either.

The three-line greeting “This Paper Manufactured by Kodak” places the print in the 1970s-1980s, but that’s pretty much all. The foliage suggests that the photograph was taken in autumn. Beyond that, there are very few clues because the subject matter exists in still time. This photograph depicts a moment that could just as easily be a hundred million other moments.

What then drove the anonymous photographer here to make this photo right there, right then?

I think it’s because the photographer saw something that no photograph could convey. This picture was almost certainly not the one in mind. The processing lab has done the photographer no favors either, but the real problem is that when asked to portray what the human eye actually saw here, the camera is like the law in Dickens’ Oliver Twist: a ass, a idiot. Consider the scene in words:

The van drove along the country road. The nearest city was miles behind them, and they’d had to drive slowly out here because visibility was limited by the thick hanging fog. It still hung in the distance, but the mist began to lift and one could now see the forest below. Where it had been all grey for the past two hours, now the landscape reflected the colors of autumn: red, orange, magenta, yellow, evergreen. As they rounded the bend, the passenger called “Stop!” to the driver. Pulling off the road, the car stopped, and the passenger jumped out. There it was: just visible through the fog in the distance was Mad King Ludwig’s castle. They’d only seen it in movies, and the cheap replica at Disneyland. But there it was: stark, white, immense, dominating the landscape.

Now this is a bit of speculative fiction, to be sure, but the description fits the facts of the picture. Given that little bit of prose, one will likely conclude that the original picture here does it absolutely no justice. Had normally-sighted persons read this story then seen the original picture, they’d be severely disappointed. Had they themselves been at that viewpoint in this scene, they would have seen something more like this:

This is a modest color correction. It restores the shadows, which the human eye would have seen, and some of the color variation, while adding a bit of sharpening. It’s far from a fantastic image, but this comes from an amateur photographer with a 35mm camera who wasn’t much concerned with art. The correction is a whole lot closer to what a human would see, and from there it becomes easy to surmise — or at least to imagine — what a human may have thought.

Oddly, the photographer turned the camera to portrait instead of landscape ratio. Usually portrait ratio emphasizes size, especially height, but that does not happen here. So why use it? I have no idea, especially as I think this picture works much better as a landscape.

Whatever the rationale, one thing is clear: the camera did not reason similarly. The camera did not choose a frame. It did not choose portrait or landscape. It did not see deep into the shadows with the high contrast ratio of the human eye. It did not sharply focus itself on the most interesting object. It failed to be impressed that it was photographing Neuschwanstein Castle for the very first time and so did not make the castle larger in the frame. Instead, being a truly dumb machine, it spit forth a most unnatural-looking picture that no human being would accept as what they saw there.

Poll one hundred people and you will get one hundred people saying that the corrected picture is more natural. Because it is. It is more akin to how human beings see. Those who academically argue that the camera is “correct” are barking up the wrong parapet. Their argument is that a colorimeter measured the ambient light at the scene and it proved that shadows were bluish, and that the trees were dull in color, and the sky was much brighter than the ground, et cetera et cetera et cetera. But the argument is foolish. The colorimeter is not the audience for photographs; human beings are. And human beings visualize the Abney effect, the Helmholtz-Kohlrausch effect, the Bezold-Brücke hue shift, and a dozen other perceptual phenomena. Remember what Humpty Dumpty replied to Alice:

The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

In my anthropocentric world, the human is always master. Human beings use colorimeters. The colorimeter does not use human beings. To imagine it the other way around is, when it isn’t silly, utterly barbaric.

On the technical level, one corrects a picture to look more like what a human would see if one’s eye were in the position of the camera. But the technical level alone isn’t enough. The corrected picture is a damn sight better than the original — every human being will agree. It looks more natural, which is to say more like human vision. The thing that the corrected picture cannot do, however, is provide the missing ingredient of human memory. No picture could.

Photographs elude fixed human context. No amount of visual “evidence” will answer a viewer what the anonymous photographer above actually saw. Even less likely is finding visual “evidence” that will match, word for word, the stories the photographer would tell, either about the picture itself, or using the picture as a prompt. The photograph will not behave like a nice art-historical artifact that reveals all its secrets with just enough scholarship. Instead, it floats like a wave-particle in some visual equivalent of the luminiferous ether, waiting to attach itself to any context that is handy.

And that, I think, is the beginning.

After years of pondering it, I think I have begun finally to form an answer to Ms. Nordström’s question.

Why do people hate photographs? Because they are like the A.I. machines of the 19th Century.

Created by humans for human purposes, photographs have proven to be too useful. They are so useful that they have infiltrated nearly every human endeavor from art to zoology. They appear everywhere. They reproduce effortlessly. They accept any outfit, repeat any statement. And they obey no rules of proper conduct as they do so. The same photograph can be the source of maternal pleasure, evidence of someone’s history, or child pornography, and the maker of the image has no say in the matter. They are autonomous artifacts that, once created, cannot be controlled.

Just as people fear that A.I. machines will take on lives of their own and put them out of jobs before ultimately exterminating them, they fear that photographs too will take on lives of their own, and destroy civilization from within. (Consider the NEA flaps of the 90s.) But rather than take a growth mindset toward them, most humans have thrown in the towel. Pictures are bad. Pictures happen to us without our consent. Pictures are authoritative — and natural — and there’s nothing we can do. The Photographic Singularity is inevitable.

No wonder people are frightened. And out of fear, hatred.

Encounters with Anonymous: The Spectacle of the Quotidian

Photo: Oiluj Samall Zeid. CC-BY-NC-ND

With the exception of a couple stints in South Asia and Europe, I’ve lived in Seattle all my life. Snow is rare. The annual average is 5.9 inches, compared to the national average of 26.3 inches. In 168 years since the formal founding of the city, there have been eight truly “big snows.”

Snow therefore serves as it does in many other mild temperate climes the purpose of spectacle, not least of which is the spectacle of people daring to drive the 23% grade hills while we wiser natives sit back with popcorn and smile.

Perhaps it is the deep human memory of the last great Ice Age that leads so many people to be photographically obsessed with snow. There are certainly enough “snow pictures” to turn it into a veritable sub-genre, both of landscape and of portraiture.

This anonymous photograph belongs to the former classification: landscape/snow-covered. One can instantly recognize it as “one of those pictures.” Immediately familiar. Completely quotidian.

This particular picture may look even more quotidian than most. Its color has faded. The picture area is 3 1/8″ by 3 1/8″ in the so-called square format. Squares tend to balance and make everything appear at rest and without motion which makes it difficult to compose subject matter dynamically. This is not a dynamic picture. The only oblique or irregular lines in the entire picture are the radial lines of the trees deep in the background and the slight arch of the roof which leads the eye up and out of the picture. Well over half of the picture is white from the snowfall, including the entire bottom half of the frame, and though the picture is in color, this is about as monochromatic as it gets. Combined with the picture’s dominant horizontal lines in the house, and the repeated rectangles of the wall, window frame, chimney, lampshade, and porch, the overall composition emphasizes silent stability.

Such composition also makes it difficult to date this photograph. Because it depicts what Stephen Shore calls “still time” in which nothing is moving or could even have moved on its own, the picture could exist in almost any place, almost any time. There are very few clues otherwise. On the verso of the picture, there is no handwriting. The only marks are the faint “A Kodak Paper” words repeated in pattern. That, and what looks like an old-school grille antenna for television reception on the roof, tells a viewer that this is from the mid 1960s at earliest, and perhaps as late as the early 1980s, though this is doubtful.

I wager, however, that the date is unimportant. The important thing is the snow. It takes up about two-thirds of the whole picture. This photograph is not likely taken in the Seattle area, but if it had been it would depict a most unusual level of snowfall. The brick wall of the porch shows snow piled up on it that is about a fourth of the total height of the wall. This indicates, for a four foot wall, at least a foot of snow has fallen. None of it has been disturbed. There are no footprints, no tire tracks, no ski skids, no trails carved out by dint of a shoveling. There is, about a third of the way up from the bottom of the picture, a change in tonality and what look to me like two fairly gentle curves, but this strikes me as a marker of where the house’s yard ends and the sidewalk and street begin. The rest is plain: A very dark house is surrounded by a very bright unbroken blanket of white snow.

It would be a little too simple to say the purpose of this photo was, to its maker, merely to provide evidence of the snow. No doubt evidence exists; like all photographs this certainly provides “proof.” But the complete absence of writing on the photograph suggests that evidence is not required. I think, rather, that this snow was so unusual to the photographer that even a fairly poor picture would serve its function.

That function is to jog the memory.

There is no writing on the verso of this photograph because there need not be. All the photographer would need here would be to see the picture, even with its vagueness of detail, and the photographer would instantly remember, “Oh this is that one winter where we came back from Christmas vacation and the house was buried in the biggest snowfall I’ve ever seen.” Or some such tale told with great certainty and animation as though it were the most important story ever told.

Lots of pictures are taken purely for evidence — consider how many photograph there are for licenses, membership cards, profile pictures, etc. Lots of pictures are understood by most people to be nothing more than this, a marker of the presence of something/someone before the camera lens at some time. But as anyone who’s ever sat through a paternal slide show or a maternal kvelling over a photo album has seen, this is not their main purpose. The main purpose of photos like this is to serve as a token, with that token later to be spent on personal storytelling.

Disciplined photographers learn to “see within the rectangle.” What is not in the rectangle does not exist, as the wisdom goes. Untrained photographers get caught up in their own 3-D recollections and push the button on their cameras thinking that the image they see will correspond exactly to what is in their heads. And because human emotion is strong, and humans’ immediate need for confirmation is even stronger, most photographs will seem to be what the photographers had in their heads. But only till the immediacy wears off. As memory grows and immediacy declines, one is left with an image that is disconnected.

The only way to reconnect those images is through personal narrative, either spoken or written or both. That’s the purpose behind the old slide show, or the Facebook Timeline that is its immediate descendant. Cynics suggest that these things serve to “curate” one’s public image. I’m inclined to think, rather, that the more immediate function is personal.

Surely I’m not alone in having the experience of a friend or relative say, “Remember that one time with that girl where we did that one thing?” as one looks on in quizzical disbelief. What is always missing in exchanges like this is the image in the other person’s head. If one only had that picture, everything would make sense.

People photograph — even the most inartistic, sloppy, banal, barely discernible things — not as evidence but as prompt. Those pictures connect one’s own personal memory to the other participants in the story as an act of sharing, both for confirmation of history and communion of emotion. They become stitches that sew together personal narratives.

Anonymous photographs have lost all of their connection to personal narrative. They mark where stitches of time and memory have come undone. The current trend is to try to bring them back into the religious fold of gallery, archive and museum culture by turning everyone into curators, with of course the established gallery and museum curators telling everyone how it should be done.

I think this trend is vulgar. The unknown photographer who photographed this snow-filled picture did not need the approval of museum curators or even their low-level versions as “camera clubs.” The photographer saw, wanted to remember how to begin to tell a story to another person, pointed the camera, clicked the shutter, and sent the film off to a lab. No permission asked, no permission necessary.

Encounters with Anonymous: Art and the Ordinary

Photo credit: Hans. CC0/Public Domain license.

I’m thinking about history.

Especially, I’m thinking about how any “art history” of photography must account for the massive number of ordinary, vernacular photographs. And not only account for them: it must begin with them, and end with them.

But what, then, is the the relationship of the vernacular to the art?

I am thinking about this as I come to this picture again: A straightforward tourist photograph of an area outside Sedona, Arizona. Or so it’s marked on the verso.

It’s written twice, in fact; once in pencil, once in pen. My guess is that it was written hastily in pencil first, then later in pen to make sure the photographer or user had a permanent notation that wouldn’t be erased accidentally. So the picture may have some personal importance.

The picture as I hold it is quite wide, 7 cm by 11.5 cm. This aspect ratio is much wider than 35mm. Given the pose of the shadow with its arms akimbo, this is likely taken with a waist-level viewfinder and a medium format TLR camera. The camera could be any one of a number of box cameras, possibly a Brownie. The picture size is typical of 116 or 616 roll film which has a history going all the way back to 1899 and was only discontinued in 1984. The last 616 cameras were manufactured in 1948, but this picture could have been shot any time with any of fifty years’ worth of cameras. This makes the picture difficult to date.

Within the picture, the signs offer a little more help. This particular version of the Conoco logo was used from 1930-1970. The Goodyear logo narrows it further to 1942-1968. The Shell logo narrows it even further, as it wasn’t used until 1955. Shell would change their logo again in 1961 and again in 1971. It’s possible but unlikely that even so remote a location as this would be two logos behind the times. This would accord with the other two logos and their lifespans. Therefore this picture is probably taken between 1955 and 1968.

Within the picture frame itself, the print is an untinted monochrome. There is no real background; the sky is completely blown out and the hills are largely middle-ground, with the exception of the buttes on either edge of the frame that are covered in haze and much farther away. The shadows are quite long and angular, suggesting that the sun is low (early morning or late afternoon). The overall focus of the picture is rather soft. The bricks of the foreground fence are not sharp. Neither are the rock strata in the background, or the sage that covers them. The letters on the signs in the foreground are legible but they aren’t sharp either — note the Conoco logo. The picture is slightly tilted relative to the horizon; the slight oblique angle of the rock strata tip one off to the overall slant.

The nominal subject of the picture is, I think, the red rock formation in the middle ground. I say “I think” because it is centered on that oh-so-magical golden ratio line on the right hand of the frame, and its triangular shape stands out against the blank sky. But it’s not sharply focused. Nor does it contain the point of highest contrast. And the physically largest object in the frame is not the hills but rather the signpost and its signs, which are located on the other vertical golden ratio line. Even the mundane motel in the foreground is larger and has more contrast.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Sedona, but my memory of these hills is that they are brilliant red-orange in the late afternoon sun, and dotted with dark green sagebrushes that contrast in both shape and color with them. But this picture shows them as bland. Instead it calls attention not to nature but to the man-made: the signs, the fence, the rambler building. The shadow of the photographer here is large and noticeable and itself points to the signpost and signs, re-emphasizing the human presence.

The entire picture can be easily read from these clues as a parable of the human attempt to subdue nature while simultaneously preserving its spectacle, to carve and mold it, to fabricate every relationship with it neatly so that people can have a place with “a view.”

Indeed this is the story of the Southwest United States. Art photographers like Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, and Robert Adams would pick up this theme throughout the 1970s as part of the New Topographics movement. Remove the shadow of the photographer, and this picture evokes the idea of a human-altered landscape no less crisply than John Schott’s photographs of Route 66 motels, or Henry Wessel’s pictures of Tucson (Wessel may even have left his shadow in the photograph like the amateur photographer here).

Robert Adams, Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973
Copyright Robert Adams. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery.

Yet this picture predates the New Topographics exhibition. Just as surely the photographer here had no pretense of creating “art photography.”

In his essay for the In Sequence: Photographic Sequences from the Target Collection of American Photography, Leroy Searle wrote that one of the primary lessons of photography is restorative: namely, to teach that “the ordinary is the true topic of all art.” I’ve always thought so myself. Yet art historians refuse to accept this. Consequently, they wind up writing about art history upside down. Obsessed with the Romantic notion of art as an individual force of will that wrests a full-grown creation from the indifferent nothingness of the universe, they concentrate on precious masterpieces and dismiss the rest as derivatives.

Of course this is absurd. In truth, the reverse happens. There were plenty of mundane living spaces built in Florence before Brunelleschi’s Duomo came along, and plenty of Madonna and child icons before Raphael. In any art, first come the myriad creations that are functional, occasional, evidential; only then does a creation come along to receive the dubious honor of being called “art.”

While histories of the seven classical arts routinely ignore this reality, the history of photography cannot. Photography’s largest uses have always been prosaic. While it’s true that there is a short period in photographic history when it was the sole province of chemists and their investors with the occasional moneyed dilettante, by 1853 there were over 3,000,000 daguerreotypes being made every year. I wager very few of them were thought of as “art photography,” whatever that vague term means. I would equally wager that the scientifically minded gentlefolk at the beginnings of photography had no pretenses toward “art,” either.

Photography’s purpose is not to be reified as “art” the way the seven classical arts have been. The silly debates of the late 19th Century about whether or not photography was art or science illuminate this unintentionally. The argument could only start once people accepted a definition of art that excluded the ordinary as a matter of course. Yet the highest art in the Renaissance and Baroque periods was considered to be architecture, an eminently ordinary art recently elevated in stature. The highest arts of other cultures outside of the European patronage model of art tend to be handicrafts and very ordinary indeed. Arthur Symons noted the connection in his book Studies in Seven Arts as he lamented how effete much so-called art had become:

Painting is cultivated as an art, an exotic thing, a toy for rich people; but the arts that must arise, if they arise at all, out of the need of beauty in daily life, the arts of architecture and of handicraft, have either died out of our midst, or survive, like the large and small trinkets of the Arts and Crafts, for a mockery and a warning.

One could easily include photography in this list. Photography is the art par excellence of the ordinary. What other art serves so well and so universally “the need of beauty in daily life”? The billions of ordinary photographs taken every day prove the point. But they scarcely rate a mention in the art history world. The only time vernacular photographs like this are mentioned as “art” is when people decide to put price tags on them at auction and hoodwink people into thinking they’re curators. Yet the artistic language of photography develops from them. It’s time to start rewriting art history the right way around. That history will include vernacular photographs, and not merely to dismiss them. After all, they are the actual background against which so-called art photography takes place.

Encounters with Anonymous: Occupy

Photo: Robert Couse-Baker. CC-BY 2.0

This 4×6 monochrome print exhibits some tropes of amateur technique. The sky is non-existent, blown out completely to white without detail. The buildings that occupy about one-third of the picture space are extremely bright, and also blown out in many places. The cobblestone road in the foreground is largely without detail as well. Thus here is a picture where well over half the frame is almost pure white where it should not be. A professional making this print to print in her own darkroom would probably have exposed for the buildings/street, and probably used a mask of some sort to bring the sky back under control while “printing up” the shadowy figures to achieve a more consistent light throughout the picture.

The only two oblique lines in the picture are those formed by the curbstones and the rail tracks, both calling attention to the lower middle third of the frame where there are five human figures and three automobiles of some sort. Otherwise the composition is largely horizontal, emphasized by the landscape orientation of the frame. The highest point of contrast in the picture is a negative space surrounding the figure in the foreground about one-third of the way into the frame from the bottom and one-third from the right, but the figure itself is actually the smallest in size within the frame. The corners of the frame are largely uninhabited but in the upper right of the frame the corner is truncated by what appears to be a French flag.

The picture is heavily weighted toward the lower right corner which is occupied by three figures: a male figure walking away from the camera, a female figure walking toward the camera, and what appears to be another male figure cut almost perfectly in half by the frame border. The first man is the largest human figure in the whole picture. The female figure is the only one whose face is really visible in the picture. The only word I can discern in the picture — Pouteau — together with the hats of the figures seems to confirm the location of this image is somewhere in France. The three loosely grouped figures to the right of center, however, appear to be wearing service dress blue uniforms and “Dixie Cup” caps that would indicate United States Navy enlisted men. The verso side of the photograph is perhaps more mysterious than the recto.

The print bears multiple stamps. One, marked Regal Magic Eye Enlargement, Feb 26 1945, Aemex 310, Quincy 69 Mass.” The single line “Velox” stamp all across paper suggests that picture is genuine and that the date is likely correct. Along with a quotidian lab stamp “190C” whose significance is lost on me, there is another printed stamp that reads “Passed by US Army Examiner, 26382” over which is written the words in cursive “For personal use only, not for publication” and signed by what looks to me like “ML Rupe, CNO.”

So what is this a picture of, exactly? The figures are too small for this image to belong to the category of “portraiture.” But the landscape, such as it is, has received little to no attention from the photographer. The cobblestones and buildings and sky are so washed out/blown out that they are almost as abstract as a constructivist painting. I can discern thirteen human figures in the picture, roughly in four groups that bear no relation to each other spatially or thematically. The most remarkable feature is the group of three sailors, who wear white hats while everyone else’s hats in the picture are dark. I cannot tell if they are walking away from the two men just left of center or not, but everyone else seems oblivious to them.

Throughout the picture there is a quiet emptiness: rhythms are regular (like the arrangement of windows and stones), dynamic lines are nonexistent, and spaces are filled with a light that bleaches all character and detail so that all that remains is figures suspended in space, barely held down by the overall composition. The stamps on the verso of the picture offer both clues and mysteries.

As accurately as I can tell this is a picture of somewhere in France, either in late 1944 or early 1945. This would therefore be an image of France after the Liberation of Paris in August of 1944. But it was not printed in France. It was printed by Regal Magic Eye Enlargement, PO Box 310 Quincy, Massachusetts 02169 (to modernize it slightly for post-1962 ZIP coding).

I’ll start with a quotation from Marvin Heiferman’s essay “Now is Then: The Thrill and Fate of Snapshots.”

As a result, snapshots actually contradict all that their name has come to imply — a quick and objective overview of a situation. Snapshots, even the most seemingly spontaneous and informal, are premeditated and fussed over. When a snapshot is about to be made, all parties prepare for what’s about to happen; concentration, self-consciousness, and desire heighten. Photographers previsualize the outcome and then position themselves in front of what they hope to capture. Subjects — with a sense of what is expected of them and how they want to be seen — pose.

Heiferman opens his essay by talking about how sophisticated, elaborate and dense snapshots are then talks about how they are spontaneous and therefore thoughtful and then how they are posed. The logic implies spontaneity = sophistication, and elaborate previsualization and posing = also sophistication. Furthermore in the spontaneous “snapshots” that Heiferman spends so much time talking about there is, by definition, very little previsualization possible, undermining the other branch of that argument.

It’s not just him. One can read the same sort of specious rhetoric in other books on anonymous photography. Among other reasons, I dislike the phrase “snapshot photography” especially for this lack of clarity. I accept “vernacular photography” despite certain reservations. But “snapshot” has an easily identifiable problem. No one really knows what a “snapshot” is. Pick up any one of the books on “snapshots” you can find and note that everyone of them contains a mixture of posed and unposed portraits, human and inanimate subjects, clearly professional and clearly novice technique.

Unfortunately for writers like Heiferman this lack of definition destroys their attempts at argument. To the extent that definitions of snapshot are nonexistent or inadequate, writers have simply made up ad hoc statements to prove their pet hypotheses: the photograph as cultural evidence, sociology, accidental art, connoisseurship — you name it, the photograph will absorb it. Using the anonymous photograph from above, for instance, would Heiferman claim that “all parties have prepared for what’s about to happen”? Doubtful. Not one of the human figures seems remotely interested in the presence of the camera, if they are even aware of it, and the buildings and cobblestones assuredly couldn’t care less about human machinations. This picture is about as close to unposed as it can get.

Equally absurd is the suggestion that this picture was “previsualized.” I daresay any photographer previsualizing this scene would have previsualized a proper exposure for the highlights. I’ve heard and read variations on Heiferman’s bold, broad statements ever since Susan Sontag’s On Photography came out. And all of those variations, like this one, remain pure speculation — speculation which rarely if ever actually refers to the factual basis of any photograph.

Heiferman also assumes that “snapshots” in the analog are different from “snapshots” made digitally. He doesn’t bother to prove this, merely states it as fact. I am convinced he has no proof. The uses to me seem virtually identical, as do the techniques. Ask a contemporary user of a cellphone camera how often they “previsualize” an outcome and one is likely to be met with blank stares, just as surely as your uncle boring you with his vacation slides would be dumbfounded if you asked whether or not he saw those images in his mind’s eye before they came back from the lab. If there is anything different it is the fact of the physical print itself, yet writers like Sontag and Heiferman rarely refer to the physicality of a print before launching into their exhortations. They are so keen to prove that photographs offer a glimpse into industrial capitalist reality that they cannot be bothered with the evidence of pictures themselves.

For a moment, let me assume that this picture above is “evidence” and a glimpse of “reality.” The immediate question I would have to answer would be: whose? This particular picture has two handwritten phrases on it: “For personal use only” and “Not for publication.” Usually, however, when I see these words on the verso side of a photograph they are part of an official stamp that looks like this:

This stamp indicates that a photograph, or letter has been read by the United States Office of Censorship, or in this case the censor’s office for the European Theater of Operations. All amateur film by US military personnel had to be developed under clear censorship guidelines. Film was to be processed exclusively in territories controlled by the US Army, under direct military supervision, and marked “Confidential” until they were approved by the Theater Censor. After the Theater Censor approved the film, it was then subject to further censorship by the unit command and base censors if the film traveled by post.

This wasn’t simply for pictures taken by soldiers. Every photograph mailed by post in the country had to pass through the same filters, and even more filters if the letter were international. At their strictest, the US Office of Censorship even forbade discussion of the weather or evidence thereof. In short, every picture taken by Americans from 1942-1945 went through a strict regimen of filtration and selection of which the photographer was largely unaware and could not control. To suggest then that such pictures are “evidence” of anything except what the US Army wished to be known is a tenuous suggestion at best. And they are even farther away from “reality” than they are from “evidence.”

To return to my unanswered question, “So what is this a picture of, exactly?” I offer a tentative answer. I think this is a picture of a France without German soldiers. A France where American GIs can walk around in the streets, unremarked. An unoccupied France that didn’t exist a year before this picture was printed. Even the US Army (and Navy) would approve of this. There are other mysteries in this photograph, to be sure. For instance, why was this printed in the United States rather than in Europe? Was it a GI on leave who printed it? Was it sent back to Quincy by the Army itself because someone was already going there? Probably no one alive knows.

There’s an old artistic judgment handed down on high from Charles Blanc. Et si la photographie est une invention merveilleuse, sans être un art, c’est justement parce que dans son indifférence elle montre tout et n’exprime rien. It’s often quoted as “photography describes everything and explains nothing” but I translate it as photography shows everything and expresses nothing. Which is to say, photography has no words or emotions (expressions) of its own. Blanc meant it to consign photography to the oblivion of science and solve the “Is it art? question for good, but his statement simply makes things more complicated. He assumes that because the camera is “indifferent” that its user is therefore indifferent, too. “Where there is no choice there is no art,” he says.

Yet any given class of high school photography students will prove to you that the same camera focused on the same nominal subject matter produces different photographs in different hands, precisely because its users are not indifferent and are exercising choice. Every photographer exercises choice anytime she presses the shutter button. But it’s a long, long way from saying that because a photographer exercises a certain level of choice that his work is therefore rich, complex, and architectonic in its planning or meaning as Heiferman does when he writes pure bunkum like “Amateur photographers do not take pictures like professionals, but the pictures they produce are often no less dense and multifaceted.” Often? Hardly.

Writing about anonymous photography like this is all too common. It’s the flipside of Charles Blanc’s dismissal of photography. If photography isn’t art — and only a truly passionate visionary would argue that anonymous photographs all tend toward something called “art” — well, then it must be valuable because it’s an “artifact” or “evidence” or cultural proof or feminine recordkeeping or expressions of a world of simulacrum or whatever else. It stems from a desire for photographs to be anything other than what they are.

In my more cynical moods I often think that all of the tommyrot written in the last decade about anonymous photography stems from a combination of cultural boredom and the desire to gentrify even the most banal art, to prepare it as “serious” art for the wealthy epicurean palate and therefore as worthy of being collected by museums and written about in Artforum. In truth, anonymous photographs are worth studying because they are photographs.