When I first became aware of the recent release of Bruce Davidson’s Los Angeles 1964 through an online article, I was intrigued by a few sample pictures, and I sort of imagined a bricklike physical object housing a vast trove of a master’s unpublished archive. So when I saw it at the Strand one day, I was surprised by how thin the book was. There are just 25 images, a couple of title pages, and a single paragraph by the photographer.
In that text, Davidson says that Esquire sent him to L.A., but did not end up using his pictures, and he “had to return home with a big box of prints,” which was then forgotten. I admire the discipline that he has shown in editing the contents of that big box. Each picture that ended up in the book is a first-rate example of classic street photography. But that’s not why I’m considering it here; rather, it’s the book’s concision that makes it a striking success.
To expand on my thought before seeing the book in person: a title like Los Angeles 1964 obviously signals that a geography and a time are common to the pictures inclusive; it generally equally signals that that may be all that connects them. And when that’s the case, we’re more likely in the company of a catalog than a photobook with a cogent narrative. Both are cool, but they are different. And to be honest, the Davidson book is a catalog: but one so deftly compressed that it somehow creates a set of relationships between pictures that are otherwise not terribly strongly connected to one another. Even upon repeated readings, it leaves me wanting more, but knowing also that excess would spoil the fun.
The import of the title is brought into sharp relief when we consider another admirably short book, also of apparently older photographs: Henry Wessel’s Incidents. There are 27 pictures in this book, and no text. (I hope this latter is a lesson to us all.) Here again, each picture is fairly discrete, a distinct occurrence. Yet the title is ingeniously effective in creating the reader’s perception of cohesion within the book; it suggests that the experience of the reader herself is the narrative glue, and not the subject matter. We become perhaps a voyeur or a detective, and if we start to imagine those dark occupations, then Wessel’s sun-drenched images – the polar opposite of noir – become even more perversely delightful.
In the case of Incidents, brevity is key because of the work the pictures demand of us. Another definition of “incident” is: “something dependent on or subordinate to something else of greater or principal importance.” In this book, we are made to puzzle out that something of greater importance, and I think it’s crucial not only that the subordinate events not only not overwhelm, but that they leave us tantalizingly unfulfilled: a clue or two shy of a solution.
Of course, in general, it’s that lack of a clear solution that pleasingly distinguishes the short story from the novel. We sacrifice detail and drawn-out development for a desirable ambiguity created in quick strokes. And then there’s the sort of writer – people say this often of Alice Munro, for example – who somehow brings the feeling of novelistic weight into the short form. I can think of one photobook that fits this bill.
Clare Richardson’s Beyond the Forest is a remarkable work, regardless of length. But I remember the first time I saw it (and loved it): a friend asked shortly afterward: “You know that’s only 17 pictures, right?” What an eye-opener. A reading of this book does not seem long in a temporal sense, yet a density of experience lingers. Surely much of that owes to the large-format color pictures, which even simply on the surface offer detail and dimension that are different in kind from the 35mm black-and-white work of either Davidson or Wessel.
But it’s also the chosenness of the pictures. One can sense a narrative among them without reference to any title and also without reference to the (admittedly short) text in the book that seems too twee by half in comparison to the rigor of the pictures. A strange thing happens: whereas in Los Angeles 1964 or Incidents, where each pictures is compressed like coal into a diamond, Richardson’s pictures expand like sponges and seep out into one another. There are only four true portraits, and their common shallow depth of field and relatively tight cropping make the surrounding environment incidental; yet each is thoroughly suffused with atmosphere by the landscape pictures elsewhere in the book. It’s a neat trick: the book is laconic, but the pictures are not, and the result is a particularly rich experience manifested in the seemingly slightest of gestures.
I sat down to write my first blog post for the Camera Club intending to pursue an entirely nontopical subject, as is my custom. But first I had to check the New York Times website, as is also my custom when I open my laptop. I get nervous whenever the Times uses that very largest typeface of theirs on the main headline, and of course it only got worse as I came to understand the news from Paris.
I’m going to guess that most of the readers of this blog know someone who was in the city for the photography-related fairs. My small photobook publishing company was being represented at the Offprint event by my two business partners, the brothers I never had. (A jury duty that could no longer be postponed kept me in Brooklyn.) And there were numerous other beloved friends – more than I could recall in my panic – in Paris. The (blessedly few) minutes before I got responses to my frantic texts were excruciating.
And of course, even with one’s friends safely accounted for, it’s still excruciating. I have nothing very meaningful to add about France and Paris and the people there whom I have consistently found to be gracious and welcoming, and in general the profoundest and most joyous lovers of life. They are far greater than these senseless events, and they will undoubtedly persevere.
So my personal relief was nonetheless made heavy by the general loss, and I was grateful to spend time later that evening in the company of some new friends at a reception for an exhibition of paintings by Helen Oliver Adelson. (An aside: my trip into the city was punctuated by a phone call from my mother that I was able to take because the Q train was on the Manhattan Bridge at that moment. She was concerned about my safety in the city. To be a guy looking out across New York Harbor at the illuminated Statue of Liberty – that great gift from France – and knowing that his mom still worries after him after all these years; well, I guess there’s not much more that needs to be said about how we feel when the global and the personal connect.) The show was at the Carlton Arms Hotel, the kind of bohemian old New York place that seems a glorious impossibility these days, and the crowd matched the hotel. I had been invited by Edgar Oliver, the playwright and poet and brother to the artist, and he introduced me to many of his friends – writers, musicians, artists, and more likely than not combinations of those.
Although we naturally couldn’t avoid discussing the news, we agreed to have a good time together. That is after all why the people in Paris were communing at the Bataclan and the Stade de France, or just dining out. But even with the wine flowing, it was hard not to reflect soberly on life in a large city, with millions of folks literally piled up on top of one another and speaking god knows how many languages and often not even understanding people who speak the same language and yet somehow we’ve made some sort of truce or contract or whatever that allows us all to get along on what is apparently the very flimsiest of foundations: mutual trust based on a shared idea of the value of life.
And then there’s this whole other level of being artists or loving art, which can seem frivolous in times like these. Beyond Paris, when one is reminded of similarly painful events in Beirut and Baghdad and so many other places, it’s easy to wonder if energy shouldn’t be spent in other ways that might alleviate the palpable and present suffering of far too many people.
A question: do you know the unique pleasure of being cheap and skipping a cab to take the train home and being mostly alone in the car late at night or actually really early in the morning? And maybe if you’ve had a few drinks? This is serious thinking time. (If you’re not a New Yorker or a resident of a city with similar transit options, I am sorry.) All the stuff I’ve mentioned was going through my head and it was a jumble and the thought crossed my mind “Why even photograph?” and but then of course I knew exactly where to turn.
When I got home still buzzed I didn’t even need to get any further than the foreword to Why People Photograph, the essays comprising which Robert Adams says “have a recurring subject – the effort we all make, photographers and nonphotographers, to affirm life without lying about it. And then to behave in accord with our own vision.”
Well now: 1) To affirm life. 2) To behave accordingly. A pretty damned simple formula, one worth rallying around, and also eerily apposite in the negative to the events of the day.
I had pulled Beauty in Photography down from the shelf as well, and as I was revisiting the tables of contents of both books, I was not surprisingly drawn to the essay “Photographing Evil.” My Adams books are pretty heavily underlined and annotated, so I found the part I wanted relatively quickly. I have always loved the way that he pivots away from dealing with evil simply as subject matter in art (i.e., “concerned photography”) and instead towards a bigger and much more crucial project: art, through form and regardless of subject matter, as a bulwark against meaninglessness and the sort of devaluation of life that surely engenders evil.
I want to leave you with his words on this topic because they rather well answered my questions of the miserable and momentous evening, and because again I find myself with nothing meaningful to add.
[We] know firsthand that all art is the product of concern. [We] believe as a consequence that it has social utility – it is designed to give us courage. Society is endangered to the extent that any of us loses faith in meaning, in consequence. Art that can convincingly speak through form for significance bears upon the problem of nihilism and is socially constructive. Restated, photography as art does address evil, but it does so broadly as it works to convince us of life’s value; the darkness that art combats is the ultimate one, the conclusion that life is without worth and finally better off ended . . .
Perhaps this is what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote that “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” We have all had the sad opportunity to watch that. And though poems and pictures cannot by themselves save anyone – only people who care for each other face to face have a chance to do that – they can strengthen our resolve to agree to life.