After Image

When photography first began to fascinate the public in the
mid-19th century, many painters feared the new ‘foe to graphic art’
would put them out of business. Meanwhile, those on the other side
of the lens sometimes feared for their souls. The French poet
Charles Baudelaire thought that true art gave something to the
human soul, which photos could not do. Mistake this wondrous
recording tool for art, he warned in 1859, and both art and viewer
would be the worse for it.

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.

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