Leo Rubinfien
Summer 1978

The ironic stance which has characterized much of the best American  photography was succinctly defined by Diane Arbus when she said,  referring to the grotesque subjects of her portraits, “I hear myself saying,  ‘How terrific,’ and there’s this woman making a face. I really mean it’s  terrific. I don’t mean I wish I looked like that. I don’t mean I wish my  children looked like that. I don’t mean in my private life I want to kiss you.  But I mean that’s amazingly, undeniably something.” Horrific subjects like  hers are extreme ones, it is true, and the ambivalence she expressed is  the necessary, probably inevitable, response to these dwarfs and drag  queens, denizens of New York City’s tawdriest social backwaters. Yet the  same ambivalence, an attraction and repulsion--a fascination--is to be  found in the work of artists who addressed the less-than-horrible. Walker  Evans discovered America’s crass and tasteless landscape of gas  stations, billboards and diners some time before Robert Venturi did. He  attacked these things with an eye that at once saw them as intolerable  and found in them the precious core of the issue. The work of Ansel  Adams and his followers notwithstanding, this basic Evansian irony has  been the central theme upon which later American photographers have  variously devised their works. Much American camerawork has been a  chronicle of love-hate relations with an unlovely milieu. In photography  since the 1930s we have a series of gestures—threatening, cajoling,  pleading, sarcastic, bitter and bewildered—toward a landscape that hardly  cares how it might be turned into art, its primary concern all along having  been how to turn itself into money. Why art should be mined in the icons  and events of an artless age and place is a question each photographer  answers differently. At the very least, America is home for American  photographers, and they may only neglect it at the risk of their art’s losing  its grasp on life. In the broadest sense the American landscape,  ungraceful but rich in metaphor, has continually pressed its artists to ask  whether, or how, beauty might be found in desolation.

Tod Papageorge’s recent exhibition (curated by David Travis) at the Art  Institute of Chicago represents this fallen scene in what may be the most  pristine terms possible. On one hand, the 6-by-9-centimeter camera  Papageorge most frequently employs enables a rendering that is clean,  precise and absolutely smooth. On the other, his pictures are marked by  an abhorrence of loose ends, an effort to have every object be meaningful,  every gesture pure, every passage in space unobstructed and fluid. Such  hunger for purity seems appropriate and natural to Edward Weston  marshalling peppers on black backgrounds, but photographers of the  American social scene have chosen, more often than not, to compromise  with clutter. They have tolerated, and even mimicked in form, the swirl of  perfunctory and superfluous objects that constitutes American scenery.

One thinks of the photographs of Robert Frank, their deliberate crudeness,  wayward frames and opaque bursts of light from inscrutable jukeboxes.  Though his work contains some pained and dolorous love for jukeboxes  and a wandering, ill-dressed, car-cultured citizenry, it regards dreams of  the perfect and heroic as thoroughly irrelevant. Cowboys, perhaps the  most glorious heroes in the American pantheon, are displaced, outcast  bystanders in Frank’s cities. Unhorsed, one of them slouches against a  trashcan in Midtown New York. His Stetson, spurs and engraved belt- buckle become mere affectations of dress. His legendary bravura endures  only in the movies.

The best of Papageorge’s work revises the irony that Arbus, Evans and  Frank have variously shared. Rather than announcing that the imperfect is  our paradise, his photographs assign an idea of the perfect to a world we  are used to seeing as vulgar and chaotic. Yet Papageorge does this not by  reducing the world to a few succulent details: his pictures are not a  formalist’s parquets. He insistently embraces the extremist profusion of  facts and goes on to order them with virulence.

Plastered across the frame in his 1976 photograph of Coast Guard cutters  on New York’s Tall Ships Day is a quantity of detail too dense to be  credible. One sees more at one time in the picture than one can possibly  focus on in life, and far more than one can comprehend. The well- scrubbed ships themselves jam a good part of the frame with a fantastic  intricacy of radar masts, guns, lifeboats, gangplanks and flags, while  small crowds—actually crowds of hundreds—seep in at the edges and  clamber over the immense machinery. Beyond all this, the ungainly towers  &Western, Avon and New York Telephone rise in casual disarray.

Papageorge has blocked this sunny picture out into distinct, nearly  autonomous patches. A pride of masts—some baroque with electronic  ornament, some slender and spare as diagrams—marches evenly  across the frame, defining and commanding its plentitude. For all this  photograph’s profusion, might a celestial fête rather than a human one,  and a delicate halo atop the central radio mast blesses the scene. Yet  there is finally a potent tension between order and disorder here. The strict  design of masts, boats and crowds continually dissolves into a plethora of  detail and then reappears. One has the sense of an impulse to order that  is in angry contest with an overly abundant and disparate world. Quantity  and diversity are opponents, not to be complacently approved by the artist,  but to be struggle against.

Photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand in fact set forth an  heroic ideal of sorts, but they have done so by extracting extraordinary  items from the quotidian fray, and isolating them in austere frames.  Connotations of the heroic—of some grand fortitude of character or  boldness of aspiration—are intrinsic to Strand’s noble peasants and  Stieglitz’s soaring skyscrapers, and in a sense these artists operate by  simply pointing out such charged subjects. Papageorge’s pictures  function in the opposite manner, undertaking material that is scarcely  heroic—it is common and even, at time, ugly—and imposing the ideal  upon it. His picture of the Coast Guard ships is, among many other things,  a backhanded challenge to Stielglitz’s venerated The Steerage of 1907. It  argues that the heroic, which is manifest here in the motion of some  consummate, imperial festival, can be believable only when tested  against America’s standard landscape of debris.

Papageorge has one photograph of cherubic children gracefully reclining  on boulders at Mt. Rushmore, in dappled arcadian light. Yet his cherubim  are really five suburban kids in sneakers and sleeveless T-shirts,  languidly waiting upon paunchy, aging Dad. These most middle of Middle  Americans, probably no more than 20 yards from their Winnebago,  possess an athletic purity of gesture that belongs entirely to another world.  They seem to move freely from here to there, aided by the caressing  sunshine and shadow in which they bask. The same metamorphosis of  the banal, by which this particular family assumes a quality of the angelic,  is at the center of Papageorge’s best work. Perfection of the craft, an  insistence on the photographer’s ability to master the world of contingency  as surely as the painter can, is the source of the transformation. But it  finally represents a perfectionism whose implications are far more  profound—one that is esthetic and also moral.

For the craft perfection of Papageorge’es photographs makes them  candidly artificial. One sees that the athletic, angelic quality of the Mt.  Rushmore children is not naturally theirs but exists only fleetingly, in the  crystalline moment the photographer has seized. As Papageorge strains  continually after such moments—in which people of awkward physique  become impossibly graceful, in which an icehouse in the Badlands  exudes mystery, or in which every figure on Malibu beach is an erotic  paradigm—his work demands of the American scene a degree of the  sublime that it rarely owns. He perpetuates the American photographer’s  classic love/hate relation with his landscape, but where previous artists  have foregone any hope for a perfect world—their clarity of purpose and  design, their purism. This quality is the special property of a sensibility  educated by and submerged in art, one whose allegiance might well  attach more to tradition than to the present, more to Europe than to  America. Yet, at the same time, the very fact that a quest for the heroic,  perfect and pure should be conducted in the least elegant of milieu  denotes a tenacious desire—a need—to live in the present time and place.

Papageorge’s photographs argue that we could love the American  landscape, were it beautiful enough, and they charge the individual artist  with the task of making it so by force of will. The general sense of  Papageorge’s work is that he has fought the American scene to a draw.  These are angry pictures, for all their smoothness of surface, gentle light  and benign subjects, and they are hardly romantic, for they neither attempt  to delude us with an absurdly glorified America nor wistfully recall some  lost, more beautiful time. They argue a ferocious estheticism as the viable  response to an artless age, and they stand, anomalously, somewhere  between two strains in American photography. Stieglitz and Strand  denatured their world in purifying it; one might even say they took flight  from it. Conversely, the ironic stance of Papageorge’s closest  predecessors—Evans, Franks et al.—has always meant a plunge,  whether grim, compassionate or joyful, into the unrefined, tawdry,  tasteless grotesque or the animal. None of these artists has described  such intense embattlement as Papageorge does.

It comes as no surprise, then, that this photographer fights authentic  beauty to a draw as fiercely as he challenges the unlovely. Several of his  strongest works occur when he encounters the genuinely gorgeous. In  one Central Park photograph, a graffito of a stag and deer face-to-face  mimics the photographer’s confrontation with “Sonia.” This is a woman of  awesome sexuality who, with the utmost irony, wheels a bicycle with a  straw basket, evoking maidens in flowering meadows. She meets the  photographer with a stare that both invites and forbids, while his, incarnate  in his own shadow, encroaches halfway up her body just between her  legs.        

The encounter is nearly apocalyptic. At the least, it matters considerably  more than God, for we find the legend “JESUS is near” obscured in  shadow some way down the wall against which Sonia stands. Pointed  and cryptic blips of graffiti spring from the haywire mural behind her, in  explanation of the event: “Love Bug,” “Sting Ray,” “Light,” “Buy,” “Javelin,”  “Scorpio,” “Ram” and “Thus Now” are there, along with the sun, the  moon, hearts and a grasping palm. From one moment to the next, Sonia’s  countenance will be furious and then warm. With this photograph  Papageorge concedes that beauty exists, but discovers that it cannot be  possessed.

One thinks of the picture as being beyond love and hate, noting that such  traditional emblems of romance as the heart and the moon are nothing  here but pubescent scrawls. One reflects on Arbus’ famous “I don’t mean  in my private life I want to kiss you.” Sonia, Central Park is not far from that  sentiment, yet it is, at once, as lustful as any photograph ever. The point is  that the stringent estheticism that we find in Papageorge’s work counts  natural, artless beauty to be as much of a threat as common kitsch. The  hope that beauty might allow for love is alternately opened and  confounded here, as long as Sonia’s glaring eyes continue to waver  between desire and disdain.

Writing on Robert Frank’s The Americans in 1958, Walker Evans quoted a  passage by George Santayana that is entirely relevant to my theme:

I suspect that my feelings are secretly shared by many people in America,  natives and foreigners, who may not have the courage or the occasion to  express them frankly…. Which there was very little, was supposed to be  kindled by beauty, of which there was a great deal; perhaps moral  chemistry may be able to reverse this operation and in the future and in  America it may breed beauty out of love.

It seems obvious that Papageorge stands on the former, European side of  Santayana’s idea. But the great irony of his work—and the nearly  antithetical turn he works on his predecessors while remaining thoroughly  American—is in his effort to breed love out of beauty in this country, where  there is not so very much beauty to begin with.

The ironic mode which so many American photographers have employed  is, it seems, almost endlessly resilient. In Bill Dane—whose pictures  were the subject of a recent exhibition (curated by Thomas Garver) at San  Francisco’s De Young Museum—we have an artist who follows the  program Santayana sets for Americans, but does so, in at least half his  work, in countries rich with art and grand monuments. Since 1972 he has  frequented Europe, Japan and the Third World. Once abroad, he  underplays the diversity of these places, preferring a melange of  architectural and ornamental styles that is characteristically American. By  now, of course, this clutter virtually amounts to an international style. Yet  the Coke signs, mannequins, movie posters and bastardized classical  and modernist statuary that abound in Dane’s Cairo and Bali stubbornly  recall that Walker Evans found in the Deep South of 40 years ago, on the  façades of provincial Main Streets, in gas stations and crossroads general  stores. Cathedrals and pyramids are at best marginal in Dane’s pictures,  amid this vast effluvium of Americanization.

Hardly purist, Dane’s work strives for an appearance of the extremist  casualness. His photographs are large and very grainy and are even more  loosely structured than the locales they portray. They relax nonchalantly  before their landscape, as if to outdo it in inelegance. In this his work is  more typically American than Papageorge’s, and shares much with its  subjects. For both Dane’s pictures and, say, modern Accra work hard to  embrace and reconcile the gaudiness of the motel strip.

Let us consider the photographs of Evans and Frank once more, along  with Santayana’s argument. The work of both artists was predicted on a  belief that it was important to see and to show America, unbeautiful as its  inhabited parts are. If we choose not to trivialize that belief by ascribing it  solely to politics, we can only say that these photographers loved America.  Given love, however perverse it might have been, they would go on to find  American beautiful when it re-emerged in the dim light of their darkrooms.  A jukebox, or a spree of tin tobacco ads on a Southern storefront could  become lovely if one identified with it closely enough.

Whether or not America has become less beautiful since 20 and 40 years  ago, jukeboxes and tin signs certainly became picturesque as of the  careers of Evans and Frank. Thus Dane, whose sensibility is not too far  from theirs, must address what is still unreconciled, what Santayana’s “moral chemistry” has not yet converted. The extreme to which he must go  appears in one consummate photograph of a backlot Lovers’ Lane,  Hollywood, California, 1974. Here the artist has intruded upon four  grotesquely gilded plaster couples, who waltz and soon oblivious to him. It  is a horribly ersatz crowd. Crudely and incompetently sculpted, a young  man in the foreground grimaces as he leans to smooch with his partner.  And, as if their golden skin, angelic wings and twinkletoes were not  enough, we have the hideous, ornate mirror behind these vapid  characters to remind us just how vain they are, just how well they love the  way they look.

This painfully rococo picture is the most bitter travesty of romance in art I  know of. Yet it is not merely satirical. As with most every photograph in the  Evansian grain, its irony is not to be taken at face value. A deep sadness  exists beside the grotesquery of Dane’s couples, for they represent a  myth—the ridiculous but ever-popular myth of moonlit nights on the beach  at Rio—relegated to the storeroom (relegated there for good, one might  add: we can hardly expect that a revival of Busby Berkeley’s stage décor is  immanent). One begins to attribute some courage to these couples, who  persist in dancing even on the scrap-heap. Perhaps, indeed, their  sentiment is genuine. And with this we find romance revived by Dane,  even as it is being undercut. At once exhausted and fresh, vacuous and  full, unbearably saccharine and, finally, perfectly beautiful, the myth  persists.

Elsewhere in the vast international town he photographs, Dane maintains  traditional myth in the same manner. While he tends to show the Sphinx  and the pyramids knee-deep in a morass of tourist souvenirs, it is this that  overlays the monuments with the “now.” And the maze of haphazard,  modern objects in which we live can even be gentle and comforting in  some of Dane’s pictures. In Tokyo, where the photographer pursues a  young woman along a delicate tracery of sidewalk stains, confusion is all  around. Huge wreaths of flowers on striped poles gleam garishly through  plastic wrappers; cars, trucks, indistinct pedestrians and haggard trees  tangle half the scene; raucous bits of alien language dangle in the picture’ s crevices.

Yet every one of these objects is really quite benign, and all are suffused  in the soft, even light of the photographer’s flash. It is Dane’s frame that is  largely responsible for this sense of things being gentle: misaligned (or,  rather. Centered on an utterly perfunctory and trivial beer truck) it relieves  the scene of all urgency. The woman he follows and the clutter that  surrounds her appear to be little more than the objects of a casual glance.  Thus what is strange and unlovely in this picture is also exceedingly  normal, and even, as with the plastic-packaged daisies, almost pretty.

If Dane’s esthetic is in alliance with that of Las Vegas—and both work to  assimilate the foreign and exotic and classical in a sweeping, eclectic  mix—then this artist nevertheless stands, in the most gingerly way, on the  side of the beautiful. Where the togaed, false marble statues outside  Caesar’s Palace Casino are brazenly shoddy replicas, it is significant that  Dane frequently goes for the genuine item, as he finds it still in situ. In this  respect he is unusual among American photographers, for until very  recently, very few of Evans’ descendants have traveled outside the United  States. The authority of the program Evans laid out for American  photographers is such that they have felt bound to reinvestigate the  provincial incessantly. Thus the obligatory cross-country car trips that mark  the work of Frank, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Papageorge, Dane,  and numerous young artists for whom these trips are almost a rite of  passage. Of course what Dane photographs, ultimately, are the new  American provinces, those which the United States acquired as an  imperial power. A Coke ad in Accra cannot be so very different from what  the tricoleur was once in Pondichéry, or from what Carole Lombard was,  in Evans’ 1936 photograph, displayed against impoverished Atlanta  clapboards on a billboard that offered “Love Before Breakfast.”

One aim of the ironic mode that began in American photography with the  work of Walker Evans was to contrive a viable way for us to love America.  Yet this was only one aim. Its corollary was to show just how difficult a  proposition loving America could be. A measure of how well that first  purpose has been met can be taken in current attitudes toward Evans.  Today he is commonly conceived as a simple connoisseur of American  style, a sort of prototype for “American studies” scholars. We have tended  to lose track of the ambivalence and the contempt with which his eyes took  the American scene, much as we have forgotten how to find the irony that  T. J. Clark or Robert Herbert will remind us of in Manet. (One may refer to  Lincoln Kirstein’s 1938 Afterward to Evans’ American Photographs for a  sense of the harshness they contained when new.) The outgrowth of this  misreading is any amount of current photography that naively (and  perhaps inadvertantly) celebrates suburban tract houses, prefab factory  buildings, or the oil skyscrapers of downtown Houston.

The work of Papageorge and Dane is considerably more complex that  that. It has continued to trade in the old dilemmas, proving just how useful  they are and, finally, how authentic. In fact, we can find an irony that is not  at all dissimilar to that of these photographers in the novels of James and  the poems of Whitman. Its lineage is long for good reason; one has to  abjure much about America before one can love the remainder. With all  the respect, then, we might revise Santayana’s lines and say that love by  itself breeds, in the United States, only the most transitory sort of beauty.  Beauty that endures better has come as much, in the work of this county’s  photographers, from the conscious lack of love. Those who have  persisted in dwelling at the center of this irony, from Evans onward, have  had the most to teach us about how we may live in the world that we  create.