PHOTOGRAPHY WITHIN THE HUMANITIES (Janis and MacNeil, Ed.)
Evening Lecture at Wellesley College

John Szarkowski, pp.78-95
1977

I would like now to show you examples (slides) from three bodies of work, very different in their motivation and appearance. I’ll ask you to judge for yourselves whether or not their content is separable from their aspect. I will show you a group of classical newspaper photograph (Weegee), some pictures by the great French photographer, Eugene Atget, and some recent photo postcards by a young American photographer named Bill Dane. Four or five years ago, a young California painter named Bill Dane discovered photography and set out to practice it with enormous enthusiasm and generosity. The generosity expressed itself in the form of a massive barrage of photographic postcards which he sent without obligation and, I suspect, often without acknowledgment, to what would seem to be anenormous mailing list. This is not the manner in which artists have traditionally subsidized their public so it is perhaps not surprising that when a few critics did begin to take cognizance of Dane’s work, they tended to be more interested in the fact of the postcards than in the pictures that they carried. But the real reason that I like Dane’s postcards is the fact that they have, I think, beautiful pictures on them, pictures that define new subjects. It seems to me that the subject of Bill Dane’s pictures is the discovery of lyric beauty in Oakland, or the discovery of surprise and delight in what we had been told was a wasteland of boredom, the discovery of classical measure in the heart of God’s own junkyard, the discovery of a kind of optimism, still available at least to the eye.

The trouble and the good part is that these new subjects are defined in visual terms, and no matter how patiently we thumb through our thesauruses, we will not quite reconstruct them with words. The same thing is, of course, true of the news pictures (Weegee) and those by Atget: but in those cases, at a slightly greater historical remove, it is easier to pay the pictures the compliment of affectionate and knowing gossip. Much of the of the content of these pictures is concerned, I think, with a kind of visual play, and therefore with agility, surprise, balance, unexpected moves, and grace. The subjects of the pictures are these virtues in themselves, and also the fact that these virtues can flower in such unlikely circumstances. At first aquaintance, the pictures might seem casual. I believe, on the contrary, that their very point and purpose is order. Like much of the best photography being done today, they concern photography’s ability to know and rationalize reaches of our visual life that are so subtle, fugitive, and intuitive that until now they have been undefinable and unsharable.