Heavy Slices of Existence
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.