Yesterday, browsing at the St. Marks Bookstore, I picked up a copy of Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright, a biography of Dare Wright, the author of The Lonely Doll, a children’s book published originally in 1957 and currently in print. I had had a copy which I had given away & it seemed fortuitous to pick up another copy, hardbound, to replace it.
I was not aware of Dare Wright or her numerous children’s books, illustrated with her photographs until well into my adulthood. My good friend K. was the first to mention The Lonely Doll to me, as it had been a beacon for her in her childhood. & then subsequently others I knew mentioned this as well.
I’ve been rereading The Lonely Doll & other books by Dare Wright. I am struck by how Edith, the lonely doll of the title, encounters & addresses serious issues: isolation, separation, doubt. The appearance of Mr. & Little Bear is a kind of wish fulfillment & also a plateau in which Edith’s sensitivities can be played out, in determining her emotional perimeters. Written w/ a laconic sweetness, it is nevertheless resonant w/ indications of trauma – loss, rejection, abjection.
Dolls can be quite serious. I can think of such oddities as the doll of Alma Mahler that Oskar Kokoschka made as a kind of effigy, or the mutating poupees of Hans Bellmer, but perhaps more for understanding Dare Wright we should think of the tableaux of Laurie Simmons, or the use of dolls in the Todd Haynes film Superstar – the Karen Carpenter Story. In either case dolls & a doll world are miniatures of an ideological structure which can be apprehended as such in its shrunken state.
Children are anarchists, surrealists, & clairvoyants before the fact: they can see the tree from the woods & then some. The images of The Lonely Doll & its sequels are in a sense quite spare & shocking, given their photographic sources. The amateurishness of the tableaux is more than obvious. As an adult this may seem somewhat paltry, but for children it allows the child to enter in the fiction & finish it, which may be part of the power Dare Wright’s books have, in addition to fairy tale aspects of the narratives. The Lonely Doll culminates in a potential trauma in which Edith the doll & Little Bear transgress Mr. Bear with their uncontrolled behavior. Edith fears rejection & the loss of her only friends, which is assuaged in Mr. Bear’s forgiveness & a swearing of unconditional love. Given the simplicity of means, this is a remarkably complex situation which addresses primal insecurities. I think I can understand the truly vehement passion of my various friends who have grown up with this book as it touches on the intensity of separation & isolation for a child.
Jean Nathan’s biography of Dare Wright is a very sensitive assessment of Wright’s life, which was remarkably circumscribed & controlled. In lesser hands maybe there wouldn’t seem like anything to write about, or perhaps the macabre aspects would stand out more. Dare Wright’s career as a children’s book author is almost accidental – she had been an acting student, a model, & then had branched out into photography, all the while living w/ her scarily controlling mother. All her life Dare Wright was like a doll herself, made up in fantastic configurations of impossible, untouchable beauty, except by dear old mom. In terms of The Lonely Doll, here is where some parallels become a bit too disturbing: the doll is named Edith, after the mother, Edith “Edie” Stevenson Wright. The doll Edith wears a wig that is identical to Dare Wright’s bangs-&-ponytail hairdo. If anything, the reason to get the hardbound copy of The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll is its cover which features a truly sick contact sheet of 6x6cm images of Dare Wright fidgeting w/ a Hasselblad, until the last frame of Edie, mimicking the same.
Looking at photographs of Dare Wright in her youth & adulthood I am struck by her poise, by what seems a kind of visual self-possession. Her demeanor was urbane, bordering on bohemian, but w/ a backbone of proper. If anything, reading about her life w/ mother, I am reminded of the end of the Hitchcock film Marnie in which the mother screams at her lying, stealing, pathological daughter that Marnie was raised to be “decent.” & so was Dare Wright. Or along more pop lines, Dare Wright was raised to be like the Nat King Cole hit “Mona Lisa.” Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep/They just lie there and they die there/Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?/Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art? Beautiful, inscrutable & untouchable. Wright’s story is a story about proper manners as a kind of perversion, an ill-fitting mask over psychological oddities. It’s all about what wasn’t said, what wasn’t done & what didn’t happen.
After the mother has passed, as Dare Wright entered old age, this became a paradigm of extreme self-destruction. Her later years had been spent in a apt on E. 80th St., & she spent a great deal of time in Central Park, often sleeping there, or bringing people she met there to her home. Ultimately, Dare Wright died in a public hospital on Roosevelt Island.
Given Dare Wright’s timeline, I along w/ my friend D., another avid devotee of The Lonely Doll, realized that in her proximity to the Metropolitan Museum, & Central Park, along w/ our own – either one of us could have seen her, potentially often, without knowing it.
I must give Jean Nathan credit for telling a macabre story in a sensitive, respectful manner, without sensationalism or a sense of spectacle. It could also be perceived as a potentially slight story – ultimately little happened in a very circumscribed life – & again Jean Nathan opens this up to a sense of the profundity of just that. The story is almost Victorian. As a biography it’s all sadness, but one must look at the books, the ability to create them, as being the true achievement.
Larry Sultan’s work is most familiar to me from books: Evidence, Pictures from Home, and The Valley. The work also exists as gallery prints & has been used in magazines spreads. My personal attachment is to the books & the experience such a form offers: private, on my own time.
Evidence, made with Mike Mandel, is a collection of industrial photographs, which as a collection, leads to a kind of non-sense of imagery. Nothing relates, nothing really means anything, but the viewer is face-to-face with “evidence” of something somehow. There is a dry humor in the residue of corporate imagery, it’s utter obscurity & obsolescence, but it is also a kind of psychic downward spiral, a tension between the kitsch of execution & a horror of banality.
Unlike a lot of work which uses vernacular imagery often as a kind of nostalgia, or a collection used to codify forms, Evidence uses imagery which traffics between the institutional & the ridiculous – as archaeology, the imagery is ultimately embarrassing in its weirdness, its cryptic passages between intention & effect. We can see the flotsam of bureaucratic engineering, of attempts at social delineation and control, and also it’s limited shelf-life, it’s temporal lapse into nothingness.
There is an agitational quality to Sultan’s work, an unrest, a meta-critique of the uses of photography which is most apparent in Evidence, in which the imagery is found, but which also informs the 2 long-term projects, Pictures from Home, which deals with the suburban culture of Sultan’s parents, and The Valley, which is “behind the scenes” of the adult film industry.
Pictures from Home uses both Sultan’s color photographs of his parents, living on the edge of a golf course, in southern CA, along with frame enlargements of home movies made by Sultan’s father. The home movies are predictably bucolic & idealized – vacations, fun, high points. Sultan’s photographs seem much darker in comparison, although in extremely lush color, in the brilliant SoCal light, in their acute focus & detail (contra the pictorial inexactitude of the home movies). Sultan’s parents are used as kind of a test-case of post WWII prosperity & its retirement, figures placed in an artificial new world of synthetics, hovering in an ahistorical constant present. Sultan’s parents become the post WWII nuclear family, severed from kith & kin, adrift in a sea of commodities.
In comparison, the images in The Valley seem the most illustrative, juxtaposed with both Evidence & Pictures from Home. The images can be read easily in either magazine or on a gallery wall: the behind-the-scenes of the adult film industry, on location in rented McMansions in the San Fernando Valley. The images concentrate on the absolute clutter of the houses as sites of filmmaking, in terms of the logistics of the set-ups as well as everything that is necessary to sustain the shoot. Also the images deal with the hours of waiting behind any film project – hours of tedium distinguishing the work involved. While it has some of the romantic appeal of a film like Boogie Nights& a general fascination with the adult film industry in our culture (a Puritanical vision of carnality at its most commodified, i.e. sensible form), the real subject seems to be the conformity & dullness of work, any work. The hideous McMansions of the Valley photograph extremely well: settings of baroque vulgarity, impersonal except for the particularities of bad taste from house to house, & even then nothing is ever unique or outstanding. Everything is prefabricated, mass produced, & strangely empty. The models for the films reiterate the alienation of the architecture & decor in their utter displacement from it. Everything looks kind of awful & inexplicably expensive.
Larry Sultan’s photographs for The Valley, printed large, fit comfortably in art galleries, wherein large color photographs are a kind of contemporary salon painting. Akin to PL DiCorcia’s images of pole dancers, or the more obscure images of porn sets done by Jeff Burton, which seem more about distraction & daydreaming on the job (Burton was also working for various companies). Still, Sultan’s images have a kind of distancing & self-consciousness which keeps them from being pure commodity. The images are rehearsals for images, attempts, auditions, lapses, distractions. The models look mechanical & bored. The theme of scientific management seen in the images of Evidence is sublimated but constant throughout The Valley.
From Evidence to The Valley: dealing w/ corporate imagery, the family, suburbia & sex. Such an engaged & challenging use of the camera & the photograph.
In two current shows in New York, Still Life, curated by Jon Feinstein, at the Camera Club, November 5 – December 19, and Surface Tension: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection, curated by Mia Fineman, at the Metropolitan Museum, I am struck by the insertion of historical work placed in proximity to contemporary images.
The title Still Life is a pun: still life as an artistic term is meant to be arrangements of things, often humble and domestic, such as Dutch 17th century painted floral studies or tabletop displays. The French term, nature morte, is even more explicit in a tacit understanding of that which is viewed being wrenched from the world of the living to a static collection of some sort. In Jon Feinstein’s show, the work is all portraiture, which in conventional terms is the antithesis of the still life: the portraits are presented as a series of masks, as formal, technological constructions. The title “Still Life” also alludes to the stilling of life, which reminds me of the panic of the portraitist in the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Oval Portrait” in which the finished portrait enacts an occult death of the model, to the horror of the artist. Or, as Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1859, about the stereograph, “Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it.” There is also a Barthesian sadness to the title, as it alludes to the morbidity of the photograph – all we see in a photograph no longer exists as such.
Still Life includes studio work by two former members of the Camera Club, Louis S. Davidson and John Hutchins. Davidson was also a former president of the CCNY. Hutchins was also a dramatic coach who had worked with Cary Grant, Genger Rogers, Tallulah Bankhead and Lauren Bacall. He also lectured on photography through the US.
Working with models and elaborate studio lighting represented refined skill sets and photographic knowledge at its acme when these images were made in the 1940s. In hindsight, what we see now are images of great plasticity but adrift from any context beyond their surfaces. Sixty-some years does not necessarily represent much on a time line but in terms of the contexts we need to sustain meaning in photographs, it is apparent how simple and easy it is for such armature to disappear. What we are left with is the aesthetic experience of a mask, as a cipher to what had been.
A sense of future archaeological inquiry informs the selection of the contemporary work, of the portrait as a mysterious other, which can be confirmed in its formal arrangements, but otherwise evades our prying eyes.
At the Metropolitan, the show Surface Tension brings together mostly contemporary photographic artistic work which explores the “thingness” of the photograph, it’s intersections with that which it records or traces. This can include a 1:1 replica, such as a digitally stitched image of pavement (by Matthew Coolidge), physical actions upon the photographic paper by hand (Marco Breuer) or light (photograms by Adam Fuss), or light leaks which disturb a conventional image but which make it a unique thing (Wolfgang Tillmans). The show makes a case for looking at some contemporary practices, with their meta-consciousness of forms, as echoes of earlier photographic forms.
This is done with a remarkable vitrine in which there is a copy of the first photographic book, Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae – Cyanotype Impressions, self-published in 1843, which predates William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, published in 1844. Atkins’ images are all photograms – the algae specimens are identified by their forms, which are seen in negative on the blue field of the treated paper. The images circulated loosely & were bound by their recipients. There are less than 20 known copies of the book. What I find so resourceful & simple to the book is that the images constitute the pages. Atkins was a botanist and amateur photographer – such an elegant solution to bookmaking.
Also in the show is a remarkable salt print facsimile of a medieval religious text, by Roger Fenton. Both Atkins & Fenton used “originals” to trace something which then be reproduced. One can’t help but see this as an aspect to a lost “golden age” (or perhaps more appropriately “silver”) of photography when it existed as a new technology and as such could be used in a remarkably fluid manner.