the limits of photographic character: images you thought never existed

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.
–diane arbus

so i lied earlier, when i said that photography hadn’t done anything for me lately.

i have seen quite a bit of art in the last year, and in several genres that are not my focus, especially: dance, performance, theater and new media. like my experiences with photography, some of it has been morbidly bad. some of it sublime (heiner goebbel’s eraritjaritjaka springs immediately to mind for the latter category). photography though, for all its hits and misses, is the mistress i return to, and will continue to write of.

there are images that once seen, you know will follow you; that certain ideas you maintain will be punctuated now by this new collective visual unconscious. that the word which sprung into your mind when you saw this image will be recalled by you whenever the image appears suddenly and unbidden. that such images are what form each of our highly personal and subjective inner galleries.

i would imagine that the images which fill my private gallery space contain a single continuous thread: those images which i’d like to imagine some other version of myself might have taken. which is not to say: images i wish i had taken or images that i wish i had the capacity to take. no, i mean the images which, given a different set of priorities or choices made, are those that i (perhaps delusionally) know are things i could have seen myself seeing. as if these images, when i encounter them, are an aha! moment of negated destiny.

alack and alas, we all choose (and keep choosing) who it is to be and who it is we want to become. and in the choosing, so many paths-not-taken fall to the side. this notion of self-identity and awareness of that self has got me thinking about a schematic construct i once encountered, thought was incredibly important, and over the succeeding years had nearly forgotten all about. considering my abiding interest in art, art-making and art-makers, it was alarming to me that it had nearly slipped through the cracks. i’ll get on more about it later, but as an initial tease-of-thought the idea i’m speaking about is that of photographic character.

it goes something like this:

Projects + Ideology + Temperament + Social Group + Psycho-biography
photographic character

to understand photographic character is to (1) enter a similar frame of mind [as the photographer’s]; (2) experience their photographic experience, and (3) understand it [them] in a total way. once you understand what a photographer would never do (e.g. walker evans would never make a nude), you can begin to understand the parameters of a given artist’s photographic character.

diane arbus. self-portrait, pregnant, nyc, 1945.

it seems like that at a certain age it is very fashionable to like the work of diane arbus. and that age would be a young, coming-of-age age, when her raw inquiry and love of a gritty new york–which arguably doesn’t exist anymore–finds in your impressionable youth a receptive and captivated audience member. if, as you age, you further develop an interest/practice in photography, the bell curve will complete itself and it will become equally fashionable to dislike the work of diane arbus. to claim her output as that of an exploitive, voyeuristic depressive, and to attribute her status among the art-elite as having something to do with how still, to this day, culture is intoxicated with the myth of the mad genius, the maker-of things. your attitude of her may fall within this framework, outside of it, or be of the persuasion to have simply never given the matter much thought.

my conception of arbus changed when i encountered the above photograph. i’d like to imagine that what i find in it goes beyond my own photograph-as-confession voyeurism, and that it isn’t simply the peak into the obvious personal that gives me pause. beyond my first flush of shock and thinking that this is a photograph i’d never imagined she’d make, i have come instead to see that this image is really a prelude to all the other photographs that i have come to know as arbus’s–touching, vulnerable, a little skewed–as if she made this one imprint of herself before she went out seeking the same in the world over the next twenty-odd years.

arbus is 22. pregnant with her first child, doon. her husband is in military service in india. it is 1945, and she is living with her parents. this will be one of a series of images that she will make and send to her absent spouse, and one of the only self-portraits of diane arbus that i’ve ever known.

the words that come to mind in looking at this image: tender. vulnerable. uncertain. firsts. spare. and that head of hers, cocked over to one side, as if in appraisal of herself, the fact of her first pregnancy, the oddity of taking a photograph of oneself naked in front of a mirror. as if in that look she gives herself she’s trying to get at some essential core, some thingness that differentiates her, or this moment, or herself in this moment, apart from all others and all other moments. this going within to extract and reveal something that will remain occluded, fantastic and a quiet secret. and i realized in looking at this that it’s the same feeling i get as her intention in any photograph that i had ever seen that she had taken of someone else.

Our baby is a girl…curious and even a little funny. I simply stare at her. I expected to feel a deep recognition but I don’t. She isn’t like either of us but lovely: very alive with very beautiful shoulders. I love our lack of connection: that she doesn’t feel anything towards me and i feel such an odd, separate way about her.

I expected great changes (first, I expected it from pregnancy, then when it didn’t come, I expected it from birth), but I’m glad I didn’t change or at least feel changed. I trust myself better as I am. It was very simple–I have forgotten most of the bad part because of the anesthetic–but I still know it was simple. I guess events are always simpler than people–which is good.
–letter from Arbus to Alfred Stieglitz

the retrospective show where I saw this image has been hailed as everything from landmark to overtly worshipful (“why are we in her panty drawer?” critic David Spiher wrote of the MOMA show). While I can appreciate the sentiment driving the latter criticism–that of turning the spectacle of photography into the spectacle of personality (or, more precisely, maximizing the dollar potential of the former by elevating the latter)–I believe that it is too easy to dismiss the value of the inclusion of the personal in a show such as this. Whatever the intentions of the curators–displaying cameras, collage-walls, notebooks and even a recreation of her studio–the inclusion does end up lending some insight to a particularly hard-to-get-at aspect of both the photographer and the critical process. having the ability to peruse this at leisure lends us fodder to contemplate arbus’s psychological biography, which in turn could further inform us about her work, processes, artistic project via her artistic boundary conditions. one could argue that the gallery or museum is no place for such inner critique, but i think that would be a mistake. for all that we have projected onto the work of diane arbus and what we think from that we can assume about her, having a sustained moment with her letters, diaries, jotted-down-dreams et al. lets her speak her psychology back at our projections.

it seems there has always been the argument of “appreciate the art and keep the artist out of it,” but is that really viable? to consider the character of any given photographer seems hopelessly outmoded, anachronistic, but i would argue for this practice in any genre where we would exercise a critical model or mode of thinking. even of (perhaps especially of) critics themselves.

douglas nickel‘s notion of photography and photo-history as being a discursive, social practice based on an entire set of discourses and commentaries in our lifetimes can serve as a basis for understanding how to approach the notion of photographic character. photographic projects should be viewed with these questions in the back of our pockets: what were they trying to do with photography here? what of their character is evinced in their photography–what have they put of their person in here? what was their attitude? what was their disposition?

where one points the camera is where your psyche pointed it. if a photographer does not deal with that thing the psyche is putting forth, the psyche will in turn relentlessly keep pointing them there. an artist that is aware of what they are doing and what motivates their actions are serving the rest of us with tasks and life-lessons to follow: Know Thyself. ideally: be able to speak cogently about what it is you do and why, without having critics and curators proffer meaning in your stead. often when an artist fails at this, it is motivated by two cross-purpose actions: deferral and denial: defer the meaning and realization of what it is being sought in the work, and deny the reasons why it is being done through photography. noble projects versus neurotic ones.

a noble project can simply mean one in which the photographer is self aware to the degree that she knows what her tastes and predilections are and why, makes no apologies for them, and makes images based on what conceptual visions interest her. sometimes this can involve an agenda, sometimes not. either way, the approach will be open-ended in terms of strategy, with no pre-conceived notion as to what the final product will be. ideally, the work will not be viewed as a “product” at all, but in terms of a means by which to better understand something.

the image above of arbus pregnant is not such an image. it is instead a photograph taken by someone so known to my image-repertoire that the existence of this image stretched my understanding of what i thought i knew about her work. it actually ended up expanding it. the pregnant artist is not the culminating work of an open-ended teleology or practice, but this particular image is, i would argue, the beginning of her starting to think like one who could posses such a thing.

5 thoughts on “the limits of photographic character: images you thought never existed

  1. Pingback: A Practice Without Center: the Work of Sophie Calle | the space in between

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