Snap Judgments

Owen Thomas wrote this intelligent, and quite cheeky view of photography in Incomplete Education. I agree with his assessment on most parts, and it is a very engaging read.

No one really knows that much about photography, and no one is even particularly sure what he likes. The history of the medium is so short—Nicéphore Niépce made the first photograph, a grainy litde garden scene, in 1827 (though if you point out that Thomas Wedgwood might have been first, in 1802, many will be impressed)—that its salient points can be picked up in an afternoon. And the exact nature of photography is so much in dispute that you can call it an art, a fraud, or a virus without much danger of being provably wrong. Indisputably, however, there are categories, giving such comfort as categories do, and here’s what you ought to know about each.


Not long ago, everything you needed to say about landscape photography was Ansel Adams. The straight, somewhat unimaginative wisdom holds that Adams is the greatest landscape photographer ever. The revisionist stance is that Adams is passé by about a century, and that after Timothy O’Sullivan photographed the West following the Civil War, landscape was played out as a theme anyway. Neorevisionism, however, says it’s OK to like Adams even if he is the Kate Smith of photography. Or you can end the discussion by saying that the only great landscape pictures nowadays are being made by NASA robots in the outer limits of the solar system.

A trendy group of landscapists now shows up at environmental disasters like Weegee homing in on a gangland hit in 1940s New York City. Poisoned horses and sheep, shot and skinned deer, and other gloomy slices of outdoor life are what the full moon rises on in the pictures of such as Richard Misrach and James Balog. It pays to know that nowadays, pretty pictures of awful scenery are a lot hipper than plain old pretty pictures.


Though it was discovered only recently that fashion photographers might be artists, no one has ever mistaken them for plain working stiffs. The first fashion photographer of note was Baron de Meyer. His title was suspect, but useful nevertheless; he created the archetype of the social photographer, the inside man who not only knew about haute couture, but knew the women who could afford it. Then Edward Steichen came along and did a better de Meyer. (Steichen always did everything better; when in doubt, say Steichen.) Then a Hungarian photojournalist named Munkacsi appeared in the mid-Thirties and revolutionized fashion photography by making his models run along beaches and jump over puddles. Then Richard Avedon got out of the Coast Guard and did a better Munkacsi. And from then on, wannabes like Patrick Demarchelier, Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, and Steven Meisel have been raking in mind-boggling fees trying, unsuccessfully, to do a better Avedon. Only Avedon could really manage that trick, however, reinventing himself right up until his death in 2004.


The answer to the tedious and irrepressible question “Is photography art?” is yes, but almost never when it thinks it is. Most of the avowed art photographers of the nineteenth century are considered quaint at best, grotesque at worst, while the pictures that have pried money out of the arts endowments look like what Fotomat used to promise not to charge you for. The great photographic art has been made by people doing something else: by Eugène Atget, trying to document Paris, or August Sander, trying to codify all the faces in prewar Germany, or Irving Penn (arguably America’s greatest artist/photographer since Steichen) dutifully helping fill the pages of Vogue. It’s perfecdy safe, then, to dismiss any art photographer as hopelessly misguided. Except Man Ray, who was really a painter, and so can’t be blamed for his failures. And Lâszlo Moholy-Nagy, who discovered that the more things you did wrong, the better the photograph looked.

The great muddler of art photographers is also the medium’s most revered saint, Alfred Stieglitz, who, early in this century, encouraged his fellow Photo Secessionists to blur, draw on, scratch, or otherwise manipulate their pictures to ensure that the hoi polloi would know they were artists. Stieglitz, by the way, was not Steichen, though even people with vast collections of lenses continue to think so. Steichen was a disciple of Stieglitz who fell out of favor when he began to make a bundle in advertising. (Stieglitz, being a saint, was not much fun.) In 1961, Stieglitz discovered Paul Strand’s unmanipulated masterpieces, decided that his followers were hopeless and misguided, and consigned them to oblivion. The resulting confusion has never quite cleared up.

The photographers most likely to be granted acceptance by the haute scribblers of the art world are those who have been careful to stay clear of the low-rent precincts of the world of photography. David Hockney, whose cubist collages of Polaroids command rapt respect, is one of these drop-ins. And William Wegman, a painter who makes unspeakably kitschy dogs-as-people pictures, is another. As is Cindy Sherman, high priestess of high concept who time-travels through female stereotypes with a few props—wigs, go-go boots, girdles—to create provocative reflections of the American psyche. My advice: When a photographer uses the word “artist,” reach for your gun.


Abstract photography is a disaster, invariably boring. Though photography is by nature an abstract of reality, it’s always of something, so attempts to make it of nothing seem silly. The viewer wants to know what he’s looking at, leans closer and closer, and ends up frustrated and peeved. The closest thing to true abstraction a photographer can manage is to take something and make it look like nothing. Most grants are awarded to photographers who are good at doing that.


The most overrated still-life photograph in the universe is Edward Weston’s jumbo-sized pepper, made in the classic More-Than-Just-a-Vegetable style that has since accounted for more than half a century of abysmal amateur efforts. (Weston is probably the most overrated photographer, too, in large part due to the efforts of sons, lovers, and half the population of Carmel, California, to keep the legend alive.) The real contest for World s Greatest Still-Life Photographer is between Irving Penn, who studied drawing and illustration with Alexei Brodovitch in Philadelphia, and Hiro, who worked as a photographer for Brodovitch at Harpers Bazaar. (Remember Brodovitch—he was tough, selfish, often drunk, said, “If you look through the viewfinder and see something you’ve seen before, don’t click the shutter,” and was guru to two generations of great photographers.) Everybody knows about Penn; his prints are at least as good an investment as Microsoft stock. Few people know about Hiro except the knowing.


This is the most problematic kind of photography for everybody, especially Susan Sontag, who couldn’t bear the idea that the camera might tell an occasional fib. It’s what most people think of when they think of photography at all, and what most photographers start out wanting to be, and then spend a lifetime trying to retire from. The word—an awful-sounding hybrid (why not “journography”?)—was invented by Henri Cartier-Bresson so that he wouldn’t be accused of making art while he made art, and it wrongly implies that one or more photographs can tell a story. Without words—usually a thousand or more—pictures are powerful but dumb.

Life magazine started the whole myth of photojournalism’s storytelling power, but in truth Life was just a very good illustrated press, in which photographs were never allowed to wander unattended. The patron saint of photojournalists is Lewis Hine, who made pictures of child laborers and sweatshops at the turn of the century. Its greatest hero was W. Eugene Smith, who combined an honest concern for human suffering with a canny eye for dramatic composition and lighting, and a very cranky disposition. Now the reigning saint of the form is Sebastian Salgado, whose harrowing coverage of starving Ethiopians and miserable Third World workers manages, somehow, to be as glamorous as any high-fashion shot. When the question arises about whether this sort of agony ‘n’ ecstasy is ethically and morally proper, it’s best to mention Picasso’s Guernica, which ought to derail the conversation long enough for you to slip away.


Cartier-Bresson (not to mention Coco Chanel) observed that after the age of forty, we have the faces we deserve. Portrait photographers tend to divide up between those who hide the evidence and those who uncover it. Bachrach and Karsh represent the first group, Avedon and Penn the second. Portraits of known people are more interesting than all the rest because we have a chance to decide whether what we see jibes with what we think we know about them—thus the outrage and/or delirium caused by Avedon’s warts-and-all celebrities. The best of the nineteenth-century portraitists, and one of the best ever, was Nadar, a Parisian hobnobber whose pictures of that great self-imagist Sarah Bernhardt are unparalleled. Then again, since faces are the landscapes of lives, the best portrait ever made is probably mouldering in your family attic. Should an argument develop over who is the Greatest Portraitist of Photography, come down staunchly on the side of the aforementioned August Sander, a German who wandered the Wàlder before World War II, chronicling his countrymen in a series of haunting stereotypes. Add Manhattan neurosis and the Age of Anxiety and you have Diane Arbus. Throw in mud-wrestling sitcom stars, body-painted movie stars, and the blithe belief that anything celebrities do, however silly, is worth recording for the ages, and you have Annie Leibovitz. Pile on hype and homosexuality and you have Robert Mapplethorpe.


In one way or another, all photographs are documentary, so all photographers are documentarists. Some, of course, are more so than others. A documentary photographer is a photojournalist whose deadline is a hundred years hence; posterity is the point. The first great large-scale documentary work was done by Matthew Brady and a group of photographers he hired to cover the Civil War (including Timothy O’Sullivan, who, as has been noted, later played the first, best notes in what has become the Ansel Adams songbook). The most famous and exhaustive documentary project was the misery-loves-company team put together by Roy Stryker to photograph sharecroppers, sharecroppers, more sharecroppers, and occasional other types during the Great Depression. This led to the discovery of the bribe in photography: If we take everybody’s picture, maybe they’ll go away and leave us alone.

Ironically, one of the great working-class heroes of documentary photojournalism was Walker Evans, a patrician sort who did much of his paying work for Fortune magazine. It seems highly likely that Evans viewed the whole idea of photography with some embarrassment, since many of his pictures show empty rooms, or people photographed from behind. Much of the devotion and energy that used to fuel documentary photographers has been co-opted by television. Generations X, Y, and Z figure that it’s way cooler to gather up old photographs, film them, add music and the voices of movie stars, and get famous. After all, Walker Evans never won an Emmy.


In one way or another, all photographs are surreal, too, since that isn’t actually Uncle Frank smirking on the beach, but just a little slip of paper coated with chemicals. But some photographers insist on being official surrealists. The harder they try to put things together in odd and unsettling ways, the more miserably they fail. Jerry Velsmann’s cloud-covered ceilings are pretty obvious stuff. The problem is that life as we know it is already odd and unsettling. So for true surrealism, we are right back with documentary photography—especially when done by people who know where to look for the kind of juxtapositions the rest of us pretend we don’t see.

Robert Frank is one of the great unofficial surrealists (his shot of a glowing jukebox certainly has the Magritte touch), as was Diane Arbus. Bill Brandt wasn’t bad, though the credit is due mostly to the fact that he’s a genius at the terrible print. The reigning king of the form these days is Joel-Peter Witkin, a masterful monster monger with a disturbing taste for amputees, dwarves, and severed heads. Somehow, Witkin presents your worst nightmares and makes you want to shell out big bucks to take one home. Surreal, isn’t it?


The best of all women photographers is my aunt Isabel, who for several years was the only person on earth who could take my picture without causing me to vanish instantly.

Other notable women are: Lisette Modell, one of the world’s smallest photographers, who had such a gravitational attraction to large people that her first pictures made in the resorts of southern France look like monuments come to life. As is the case with certain gifted photographers, Modell was as good as she would ever get on the first day of her career. She has been called the mentor of Diane Arbus, which she used to admit and deny at the same time, for reasons known only to her.

Imogen Cunningham, who lived so long that rumors circulated that she had been archivally processed. Like photographs, photographers almost inevitably benefit from great age (although they fade, their value inevitably rises). Cunningham was never better than just all right, but she had covered so much time and territory that eventually she became the art-photography world’s unofficial mascot, a position she labored at by becoming adorably “feisty.” As a result, feisty old Johnny Carson displayed her to the world on The Tonight Show, shocking the millions who thought women photographers looked like Faye Dunaway in The Eyes of Laura Mars.

Berenice Abbott, who made the best portrait ever of James Joyce, single-handedly saved the work of Atget from the trash bin, and who, whether she liked it or not, became an institution without ever being a great photographer.

Helen Levitt, almost unknown, shy, brilliant, virtually invisible in shabby coat and furtive mien, who crept around New York for forty years or more taking in street life. She’s a genius in black-and-white or color, and when you state emphatically that Levitt is America’s greatest woman photographer, you will have the rare pleasure of being both esoteric and right. The natural inheritor of Levitt’s mantle (and shabby coat) is Sylvia Plachy, a Hungarian immigrant with a wry, Frank-like eye but a far kinder heart. For years Plachy chronicled life at ground level, from sex workers in Times Square and tourists in Central Park to peddlers in Romania and refugees in war-torn Eastern Europe. Today, Plachy has moved uptown from the Voice to work for the New York Times, but she retains her edgy downtown sensibility, cranking out images that are sharp, surprising, and slightly off-kilter.

Finally, we’d better mention Nan Goldin, a photographer whose body of work is the antithesis of Plachy’s (and who has famously shed her coat—as well as the rest of her clothing—for a series of nude, postcoital self-portraits). Goldin has internalized the personal-is-political mantra of Sixties feminism to spin intimate stories shot in tight, interior spaces. Drawn to the social underbelly, she explores it through pictures of herself and her close friends; her photo diary is both an intimate snapshot and the portrait of an era. One Goldin series documents the trajectory of her relationship with an abusive partner; another chronicles the demise of a friend from AIDS; still others capture the world of drugs and drag. The beloved poster child of the seedy counterculture, Goldin is not likely to age into an adorably feisty guest on the Jay Leno show.


Last and least among photographers are the paparazzi. But while it’s perfectly all right to hold them in contempt, it’s not OK to ignore them; they know where life is going, and for that matter Life (or what’s left of it), People, and Vanity Fair. Andy Warhol predicted that someday everybody would be famous for fifteen minutes—the paparazzi work hard at reducing that to l/125th of a second. Valedictorian of all celebrity photographers is Ron Galella, who has been sued by Jackie Onassis, punched by Marlon Brando, and deplored by even the most deplorable of his subjects. None of this has affected him adversely. Jackie and Brando are gone, and Ron, whose photos have recently been legitimized by an expensive art book, a major gallery show, a museum retrospective, and the sheer passage of time, now gets star treatment himself. Let’s face it—celebrity snappers may be pond scum, but pond scum evolved into the likes of Albert Einstein and Greta Garbo, so there’s still hope. On the other hand, in the age of Rupert Murdoch and reality TV, the ever-smarmier paparazzi would have to catch Al and Greta doing the nasty in the back of a Hummer to win a few minutes of audience attention. So much for evolution.

68 thoughts on “Snap Judgments

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