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Heavy Slices of Existence

The new wave photographers marks the coming of age for photography as an independent visual art

Robert Frank, photography

American photographer Robert Frank holding a pre-war Leica camera, 1954

Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty

Last year, it was making movies. This year, everyone is simply taking pictures. A revolution is rapidly changing the face of the most tradition bound of visual media. All of a sudden heavier things are happening in photography than in practically any other visual art.

Traditionally the poor step-child of art schools and college art departments, photography is drawing new students in record numbers. Photographers are getting unprecedented exposure in museums, galleries and less formal showplaces, and in new photography publications, notably San Francisco Camera.

Most important, a new operation with a new vision of photography has risen to challenge the tyrannical influence that Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Minor White and Aaron Siskind have exerted on so-called “art photography” for decades. With an artistic credo shaped by Antonioni’s Blow Up, a way of seeing defined by Marshall McLuhan, they regard photography less as an art than as a means of communication. As oblivious to the traditional fine points of sharp-focus technique and formal composition as they are to the cliche abstractions of plants, sea shells and ghost town walls, their photography emphasizes people and human values: walls that look like walls rather than cubist abstractions, nudes that look like nudes rather than glistening sculptures. It runs the gamut from radical darkroom experimentation to straight photography of a snapshot casualness, sometimes running almost to pointlessness.

Today’s new wave photographers in many ways mark the coming of age for photography as an independent visual art. Photography began as a documentary medium capable of making the “real” more “real” than could painting or drawing. But while the invention of photography liberated painting from fidelity to subject matter and launched it on the course of abstraction, “art” photography in recent years has grown more and more subservient to the influences of painting. Photographers have waged a long, self-conscious and paranoid battle to elevate photography to the prestige status of an art form, and they have done so largely by emulating the qualities developed by abstract painting: rigid formal composition, tactile textures, a rigorous focus of vision.

Today’s photographers have a different idea of photography’s role as an art form. “They don’t give a fuck,” said Jerry Burchard, chairman of the undergraduate photography department of the San Francisco Art Institute (where enrollment has jumped from less than 40 to more than 100 in the past year). “They don’t care about imitating painting. They have all seen that painting today is taking its cues from photography rather than the other way around.”

In addition to the use of photography by painters —– as stencils, college elements, or as models for their painting –— various new art forms can be recorded only by the use of photographic documents: earth work sculpture, happenings. Says happening-master Allan Kaprow, who regards photographs (often with a cheap polaroid) as an integral part of his events: “Photography puts a frame around things and you see them differently. In getting out with a camera, you see parts of the city you never saw before. And you meet and talk with people as never before.”

The ancestors of new wave photography are largely the great technical innovators like Man Ray on the one hand, and on the other the great photo-documentarians who shared a highly personal, human point of view: Lewis Hine, Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange (“In her photographs you can tell what her subjects had for breakfast and what she had for breakfast,” says Burchard).

Its reigning old masters are Jerry Uelsman, associate professor at the University of Florida, and Robert Frank, freelance photographer and sometime cine- Continued on Next Page matographer from Czechoslovakia who a decade ago filmed Jack Kerouac’s Pull My Daisy.

They define two distinct categories of new wave photography which are largely determined by how a photographer feels about the confinement and tedium of darkroom work; for some, it is not confining and tedious at all, and they achieve most of their effects through various laboratory manipulations; for others, the mere thought of a darkroom is total trauma, and they pile up roll upon roll of film and piles of negatives before they finally get around to processing it, making images that look pretty much like what first confronted the camera.

The two categories share in common a free use of recent technical innovations and a broad vision which differs radically from the “art” photography of the past in that it has no traditional “focus”; where photography formerly zeroed in on its subject in sharp close-ups and gave images primary and secondary emphasis by means of traditional perspective and proscenium arch framing, the new photography has a non-linear, all-over structure and a sense of simultaneous space and time. It uses collage, multiple-exposure, serial images, contact strip sequences, an open-ended straight photography filled with seeming randomness and accident.

Uelsman is one of the most highly-skilled technical experimenters in contemporary photography; another is Robert Heinecken, who teaches at U.C.L.A. Both usually “take pictures,” but the bulk of their imagery is formed in the darkroom (“post-visualization,” Ueslman calls it). Uelsman is a first-rate photographer who achieves most of his often haunting, surrealistic effects by superimposing images, direct negative printing and subtle manipulations of light. Heinecken’s experiments are more varied, ranging from darkly funky collage photograms to sets of geometric blocks which can be manipulated by the viewer into different combinations of imagery.

Other experimenters have been working in various combinations of photography and graphics, especially silk-screening; color solarization and high-contrast. Color solarization, with its suggestion of acid-trip, light-show liquidity, and high-contrast, with half-tones filtered out to create vibrant, energized fields of blacks and whites, have been especially influential in rock posters, album covers and other promo material. One of the best West Coast experimental photographers is Thomas Weir, who sometimes combines high contrast with fish-eye distortions to create highly stylized portraits and figure photographs. Weir also combines fish-eye with color in sensual studies of nudes in lush surroundings.

The problem with much experimental photography of this kind is that it often gets as super-slick and gimmicky as any conventional portrait studio work. Most young photographers, particularly on the West Coast, have some interest but little sympathy with the extremes of technical experimentation. Their work is diametrically different.

Robert Frank is the father of contemporary straight photography, although most new wave photographers bear about the same relationship to Frank as Frank does to Cartier-Bresson. Frank’s most famous series of photographs, “The Americans,” charted a Lolita-style trip across the United States with pictures which at first glance seemed to focus on nothing in particular; his frames opened out to bring in all sorts of peculiar images from off the sides, and gathered everything into a montage that documented the ironic juxtapositions, the real-life surrealism of the urban American landscape.

Frank’s dead-pan, often satirical expression effectively concealed his profound humanism from many traditionally-oriented critics. Recently, Frank has been working more directly with photography as a medium of communication, and even of rehabilitation, in collaborating with patients in mental hospitals. Frank’s photography, for all its seeming careless and all-inclusive vantage point, is always carefully directed and technically polished. These qualities are also true of the work of such older-generation straight photographers as Bruce Davidson and Danny Lyons. Davidson’s photographs of urban litter and ghetto life are always rigidly organized, often highly posed, and comment-oriented. Lyons, with his series on Chicago motorcycle gangs and a current project involving inmates in a state prison, is similarly concerned with subjects that are important because of their uniqueness, rather than their ordinariness.

The freshest photography today is coming out of the West Coast, particularly the San Francisco area, where it closely parallels the “funk movement” in art. For the most part, it is steadfastly dedicated to the ordinary, and the more ordinary the better, in an uninhibited style that sometimes combines elements of experimentation with the straight image, and retains the direct, often nonchalant look of snapshots.

Students at San Francisco State College specialize in a relatively controlled form of photography that emphasizes dramatically posed figures in dark and expressionistic settings, and often reflects the work of its two most influential teachers, Jack Welpott and Judy Dater. Welpott poses nudes in cluttered Victorian interiors or photographs somber black shapes in strange outdoor settings for an effect that is highly contrived from any naturalistic point of view, but is often moodily evocative. Judy Dater’s photographs are studies of drab, musty interiors; sometimes, they include portraits of people, but they are always portraits of barren, dusky rooms.

Photographers at State have also turned out strong comment pictures on the recent campus riots. Several have explored the current motorcycle mystique, and a few work within the tradition of nature photography under the influence of another of State’s teachers, Don Worth.

Photographers associated with the San Francisco Art Institute are generally much looser and more freewheeling; they give more emphasis to an ecological relationship of subject to setting, and their work has more balls. The Frank influence is pronounced in the work of more technically polished students such as Ken Graves, who has done a series on San Francisco’s financial district that portrays its chill sterility in terms of empty building lobbies, furnitureless offices filled with extension telephones, people caged in buses.

A number of Institute students reflect the extreme casualness of Burchard’s photography; in a recent group show, Burchard displayed only two pairs of contact prints, almost accidental slices of nocturnal city streets under strangely glowing lights shot at seemingly random angles and nonchalantly mounted.

At the other end of the spectrum are snapshot like pictures of figures and groups, often nudes, posed in the most contrived fashion: In strangely surrealistic, melodramatic mise-en-scenes, in hieratically frontal, rigid groupings that resemble rock group promo photos, mugging and gesticulating at the camera. They have the ingenuousness and directness of the snapshots chidlren take of each other when one of them gets a new camera. New photography often resembles snapshots, but, as much as any traditional photography, they are usually snapshots with point. Observes Burchard: “If someone wanted to take a picture of people sitting in front of a building, he used to worry about whether the columns formed a vertical frame, whether a passing car might get partly in the way. Now, we take it a it is, and allow for intuitive energy forces to enter into it.

“It is such a casual thing that everyone understands it. It also revives a sense of the sheer fun involved in taking pictures.”

Many new photographers take obvious delight in the magical qualities of picture making; their pictures have the instinctual feeling associated since primitive times with the depicting of figures and other graven images. They exploit the magical properties of new, high-speed film —– “if you can see it you can shoot it” —– and the instant feedback of Polaroid. They are less interested in the traditional motion of durability.

Burchard, in fact, foresees the time when silver supplies will be exhausted and traditional photographic film will no longer be available. If this ever happens, he figures photographers will still be active with tiny transistorized television cameras feeding into miniscule, portable receivers. The instinct to put a frame around things is deeply rooted, and almost always, it transforms even the most ordinary images and slices of existence into the vocabulary of human communication. 

In This Article: Coverwall

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