Someone once said that in general, and I paraphrase, we as photographers are bound to the thing in front of us. We depend on light for our camera machines to make a record of what we choose to frame of the world. In reading an essay by Robert Adams on Eugene Atget, I was motivated to re-visit after many years the wonderful four volume series in my collection that the MOMA published in the 1990s. Although I know I owe a huge debt to Atget’s vision in my own photography I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t set the stage for much of photography for the rest of the 20th and now well into the 21st century.
The joy of juxtapositions
As I have been struggling with making sense of my own work, to establish its iconography, I am reminded that the principal themes I learned from Atget, reinforced by Friedlander, the world of ordinary things is merely the shadow on the wall. The world I put before my camera is layered, filled with collages, and contains sometimes humorous juxtapositions. In the Atget series, the curator John Szarkowski makes the point that Atget’s work takes the subject on its own terms.
In our image-intoxicated world, where the boundary between public and private has all but disappeared, the perfection of his point of view belies the sophisticated directness of his regard. It is easy to imagine what a difference a few centimeters either to the right or left would have made. And so in a very direct way, it is possible to see Atget’s photographs as portraits of the every day. Ones that invite repeated viewing and, when placed along side one another, suggest that while on one hand, there is a joy in discovering uncanny juxtapositions, on the other, the world is far less random than we think. At the same time, I find it difficult to ignore the overall affect (sic) of his images.
We are now aware of the implications of the documentary style (and of photography itself for that matter), one of which acknowledges the well-known idea that a photograph of something essentially freezes its current state for all time and thus a photograph also acts as an archive of the thing itself. One may argue therefore, and this is a point made by others, that Atget’s work taken retroactively acquires a rhetoric that is highly metaphorical. Why would we want to keep these images in our galleries and museums? They are a record of an earlier time and place and as humans we have a nostalgia for things of the past; a desire to belie the temporal nature of our own existence. At the same time, we take pleasure in objects well-made, something well-seen. And so while Atget’s images embody both the archival and the aesthetic, they are also educational tools for subsequent image-makers. Our visual language expands as these lessons become incorporated in our vocabulary (e.g. display windows). Finally, collecting and contemplating these images also become part of the building blocks of a culture.
The modern fascination with the self which, in Atget’s time was still in its relative infancy with the discoveries of Freud and his colleagues, remains outside the scope of Atget’s eye. The stillness of his vision allows the object of his gaze to take its rightful place in our minds and our hearts so that we feel a quiet joy in rediscovering the ordinary. The development of a visual language depends on the work of those artists who see the world in new ways, even if those ways appear to be free of any obvious rhetorical language. Does not photography then reflect whatever ideology is currently prevalent? In our post-modernist world, the dominant way of thinking it seems to me focuses on self-identity and whatever self-image we wish to project.
It is well known that there is no such thing as an objective record. Even the all-seeing Google camera depends on the driver to choose which way s/he will arrive at a particular destination. In spite of looking at photographs I have taken over the last twenty-five years, the process of choosing images that work together has given me pause. And filling this space has meant looking at these images now with a different eye, one less satisfied with the thing itself and far more interested in what it is all about. While it is still paramount the images I do select be technically as good as they can be, the image itself must speak to me. To paraphrase slightly Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space: it is in the accumulation of life’s contradictions that life is most keenly felt.