The darkness that art combats
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.