At the end of a photo-filled century, can the camera still see?
Viewed from the close of a media-saturated 20th century, Baudelaire's prophecy has proven at least partly true. With photos now surrounding us by the millions, we lose the energy to choose any one of them and end by ignoring--at least consciously--all of them. Aside from the occasional, sentimental flip through the family album, we tend to take photos for granted. Who took the picture, and how, are questions that rarely come to mind when we're flipping through a magazine. And as to why the picture was taken, we hardly have to ask: for the money.
But as three new books reveal, Baudelaire was wrong to think the photo could not be art--even in an age when photography has been suffocated by its own bulk. Photos, and their subjects, still have stories to tell. Though we can never know what it was like to witness the birth of photography, we can still see its unique power in action, especially among those who have yet to be overexposed to the idea that a captured moment in time can bear an eerie likeness to reality.
The Anthology of African and Indian Ocean Photography (Revue Noire, $85), a perfect blend of short historical essays and images, sets out to be no less than 'a first general exploration of the photography of a continent.' Tracing the birth of African photography back to the late 19th century, the book chronicles the seemingly universal sense that the camera captures a glimpse of intangible realms. According to South African photographer Santu Mofokeng, photos in early 20th century Africa were seen as 'a world between the real and the imaginary . . . noted and pulled out of context. Moments reduced to simple apparitions, flashes of reflected light captured and stored in the film's memory.'
The reader is cautioned early on not to regard African photography as a single style--a point reinforced by the stunning array of pictures from many different countries, ranging from early portraiture and postcard work to modern, politically charged photojournalism. Early African photographers were regarded less as artists pursuing their own brilliant visions--the Western model--than as community members working to portray their subjects in the way they wished to be seen.
Now that many African-born artists are studying in Europe and the United States, the modern photographer's role is changing. 'My work is experimental; the result is often a surprise and there is a high factor of chance,' writes the young Angolan photographer Rui Tavares. 'Witch doctor? Magician? Alchemist? I don't know. . . .' The history of African photography may be steeped in portraiture, but the future promises to be more diverse.
Even today there are communities that do not want the camera to invade their lives. In the photo-essay Hutterite: A World of Grace (Edition Stemmle, $75) photographer Kristin Capp manages to chronicle such a world: the Hutterite agricultural colonies of eastern Washington state and Saskatchewan, Canada. Capp's remarkable record evokes what may have been the original effect of the camera on a people as yet unschooled in, or immune to, its intrusions. Like the Mennonites and the Amish, the Hutterites--a sect with roots in 16th century radical Protestantism--observe strict codes of behavior and dress. Reproducing one's image is generally discouraged among the Hutterites as an idolatrous attempt to mimic God's perfect creation: man.
In the preface, Rod Slemmons, a photography scholar, links this aversion to a wider wariness toward the camera. 'Even when we photograph our own families, or make self-portraits,' he notes, 'we must momentarily leave moral and emotional reservations behind and accept partnership with the cold lens.' Modern culture may have forgotten that such a partnership exists, but it's vividly clear in Capp's photos. Few of her camera-shy subjects communicate with the camera in the knowing, even jaded way most of us now take for granted. The result is some of the most stunning photography seen in recent years.
Finding this sense of newness and revelation in an image is rare in our culture, where photography is nearly synonymous with celebrity. Yet even celebrities have more to tell us than what they wore to the Oscars last year or whose hand they were caught holding last week. In Portraits (Aperture, $35), Bruce Davidson's celebrity photos from 1957 to 1999 may appear at first to be just another chance to indulge the guilty pleasure we get from peeking into the lives of Pretty People. Here's Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1965, having a snowball fight while still perfectly coifed. A 1957 picture of Allen Ginsberg makes the celebrated--and highly eccentric--poet look as normal as the boy I had a crush on in eighth grade. The most impressive photo is a 1964 shot of playwright Samuel Beckett, who seems so unaware of Davidson's presence that he looks straight through him and directly into us.
Davidson manages at times to capture the essence of his subjects as well as Capp does, pushing beyond their fame and physical perfection. In fact, these photos often reveal their imperfections. Both Davidson and Capp help us realize that, regardless of the thousands of images we may see of any person, we still can't begin to know what it's like to live anyone's life but our own.
The beauty of photography--even the horrendous pre-teen picture of you that your family refuses to take down from above the fireplace--lies in the fact that a frozen moment, otherwise lost, can be infused with so much meaning. Like the camera's earliest subjects, we still believe that it somehow captures a bit of our souls and reflects it back to us. A photograph allows itself to be scrutinized, searched through. It sits and waits patiently for us to react. Its only requirement is that it indeed be still, and in our frenetic culture, stillness is a blessing.
BOOKS FOR THE ALTERNATIVE COFFEE TABLE
End Time City, photographs by Michael Ackerman (Scalo, $49.95). Ackerman's view of street life in the Indian city of Benares is at once unforgettably beautiful and nightmarish, a work that falls somewhere between documentary and apocalyptic vision.
Michelangelo: The PietAs by Antonio Paulucci, with photographs by Aurelio Amendola (Skira, $65). This gorgeous study of three sculptures, each from a different point in Michelangelo's long career, highlights both his unparalleled gift and the camera's astonishing ability to reveal it.
Full Moon by Michael Light; essay by Andrew Chaikin (Knopf, $50). The great unclouded triumph of the American Century--landing men on the moon--is revisited in these spectacular shots selected from NASA's vast photo archive of the Apollo era.
Baraka: A Visual Journal by Mark Magidson (St. Ann's, $65). Drawing on the work and vision that led to his 1993 film of the same name, Magidson surveys the forces at play in a world inexorably shaped by both destructive fury and sublime grace.
Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory by Bill Bamberger and Cathy N. Davidson (DoubleTake/Norton, $27.50). The other side of today's economic boom, a story seldom told, is captured here in a simple but powerful photo essay on the last days of a century-old business in a small factory town.