Bill Dane Photographs Outside And Inside America
Introduction by Ann Swidler (1993)
These photographs of near and distant places explore what it means to be American. In them, a laconic cowboy sensibility confronts the the puzzlement of being an outsider, when just shooting-em-up won't do.
A strain of American photography since Robert Frank has concerned itself with finding what is centrally American –attempting the great American novel in visual form. Why did Bill Dane, who comes directly out of this tradition, choose to travel? And what did he see when he returned? Why does this book show no country gas stations, city street kids, suburban housewives, cars, motels, or other icons of the American dreams? Why Buddahs, but no bikers?
Bill Dane himself is a Californian. Born in Pasadena, with a B. A. in Art and Political Science and a Master’s Degree in painting from Berkeley, he started out making large, grid-patterned paintings which squares of color on raw canvas created a Zen-like concern with surface. Just before a big one-man show, his studio and all of his paintings burned. He produced new work for the show-large, grid-oriented color field paintings and ethereal spray-painted sheets of clear plastic film. But he also begun making photographs with a camera he had been carrying with him when the fire burned his studio. The photographs were color contact sheets of repetitive, slightly varying images (I remember a series of his wardrobes, each item on a hanger, solemnly hung against a wall), the effect much like the grid paintings. Soon after that, Dane began sending black and white photographic postcards to friends and acquaintances. He created a social world as well as a visual one.
John Szarkowski has written that Bill Dane’s postcard embody “the discovery of classical measure in the heart of God’s own junkyard, the discovery of the kind of optimism, still available at least to the eye.” He has also commented on the postcards as gifts, noting that, “This is not the manner in which artists have traditionally subsidized their public.” But I suspect that an urge to communicate more directly was at work here too. Dane’s postcard-photographs guarantee –in a way a gallery show cannot- that people see his work, receive it as a personal communication, in the midst of their ordinary lives.
The photographs here come to us not by mail, but in the more enduring format of the photographic book. Nor are they quite the discovery of classical form in unexpected places that Szarkowski describes, although that’s how things start off. The first photograph, of the Hamburg train station, has the aesthetic character for which photographs are usually praised: poise, elegance, timelessness, and a serene beauty that belies the commotion engulfing real train stations. But this seductive world, all light and form, doesn’t last. The Beauty of these peculiar places becomes more and more disturbing. Things stop fitting together in ways we can easily understand.
Problems appear with the book’s second picture. A classic tourist vista of Barcelona is interrupted or perhaps cancelled, by the enormous backside of something –a statue, surely, but whether of an awkwardly made, vie- covered putti or a decorative drain pipe, we cannot tell. A Japanese photograph shows a fountain with two pelicans spouting symmetrical arcs of water –the kind of funny but formal image typical of the postcard photographs- framing a group of police in riot gear. Difficulties worsen in pictures such as the Hong Kong photograph of plaster figures decaying on a cement hillside, What are they part of? A sculpture garden? A diorama? A religious shrine? Some primitive Disneyland? They illustrate a story to which we have no clue. These images are still beautiful, but we no longer know what they mean.
The photographer’s visual attitude helps create this sense of strangeness. Dane frames his shots to give us either too much information –some that does not fit with the way the image is “meant” to be seen- or too little. As with the Hong Kong figures, we can’t put tings in perspective.
As often happens when innocents go abroad, even the familiar world is never the same again. These photographs illustrate how much our normal vision rests on loving familiarity –a willingness to see the world as it is meant to, expects to be seen. Taken out of context that which is familiar, even beloved, appears grotesque, strange, sad, even horrible. Bill Dane’s angle of vision reminds us of thee charity with which we normally see –or avoid seeing- one another.
The American photographs, which ought to return us to a comfortable insider’s view, turn our vision inside out. Again, things start simple, even sentimentally: a group of elderly women –mothers, perhaps aunts, sisters, grandmothers, and even a seductive California landscape. But soon the American photographs look as strange, and indeed as foreign as any taken outside America.
Statues, monuments, enigmatic ruins, and even strange robed figures seem to populate the American landscape. A slightly dilapidated Las Vegas fountain has kind of massive, rotund dignity, while in a Point Richmond, California living room a huge ceramic lion is ensconced before an incongruously decorated modern hearth. Many of the photographs suggest obscure cults, odd gods, and private religions on public display.
Bill Dane’s photographs destroy the familiarity required for painless seeing. This is partly a matter of capturing odd moments –like the Tokyo woman, perhaps only raising her arms in greeting, who nonetheless appears to be dancing energetically in the idiosyncratic amateur theatrical. But this oddness is also –indeed necessarily- a matter of framing. Where is the thick-thighed dancer so incongruously performing? The space seems to be outside a theater, and yet inside something else –perhaps a shopping mall? She dances on a kind of tile platform, surely not a stage, but then what? The camera’s angle of vision, like the small, abandoned umbrella sharing the dancer’s stage and the indifferent passers-by, gives a sense of inadvertence, of something not meant to be seen quite this way.
These photographs are of public places, yet seem to intrude on private worlds. Public buildings, statues, fountains, shrines, and ubiquitous signs display a nutty dishevelment that undermines their claims to dignity. Like Diane Arbus’ freaks, they show their vulnerability precisely by not attempting to hide their strangeness. Objects made for public exhibit have obviously come to hard times. Like the cute but forlorn public telephone in Hong Kong, these artifacts no longer sustain the public face their creators intended –and their familiars may still grant.
Many of the photographs in this book are funny. The massive, ornate, dignified Duomo rises from a rabble of parked cars. The distant, eternal pyramids frame a sea of cheap plastic chairs in which tourists will sit for a light show. But other photographs are funny in a more disturbing way – because something is apparently amiss. But what? It is hard to get our bearings enough to know what is going on, let alone what is going wrong.
Dane’s deep humor shows in his “jokes” about what is real and what is fake. John Szarkowski, among others, has pointed out that photography’s implicit claim to reflect reality creates an extreme fictitiousness. But if intimate portraits of grains of sand, the curves of the seashell, or the lines of a human face are kind of fiction, how much thornier the problem becomes when the things photographed (like the newly-manufactured pre- Colombian, or Inca, or Aztec artifacts laid out on a table in Mexico, or the pseudo-classical ones on display in a Marin City, California flea market) are themselves so clearly fake. Bill Dane has interested himself in human artifacts, man-made objects whose capacity to communicate has somehow gone awry. Artifice is in one sense exploded by being exposed.
But this only reveals a deeper problem about truth and fiction in photographs. In a painting, we know that the artist’s intention is controlling. He or she is both practically and morally responsible for whatever we see. In photographs, that responsibility is partially abridged. If Bill Dane photographs things that are incomprehensible to us, we cannot e fully reassured that at least he knows what they mean. Something at the heart of these photographs is contrived, but by whom? Do several layers of fictitiousness cancel each other out or compound one another? The photographs force us to force not only an aesthetic vision, but our own relationship to the world they picture.
Dane’s work is not, as some have thought, the export of a California funk sensibility, celebrating junk at home and abroad. These photographs are profoundly American, but not in any easy sense. D.H. Lawrence noted long ago that classic American literature hid a secret. The greatest American stories, like The Deerslayer, Huckleberry Finn, or Moby Dick, were boys’ stories, written for culture that didn’t want to grow up. Yet in their secret hearts, those stories were about evil and the kind of redemption that might come from confronting its mysteries. Bill Dane’s photographs have that edgy rites, no starving urchins, no massed humanity here. Yet the apparent ordinariness of these common public scenes enforces a sense of their strangeness. Dane shows us not an exotic heart of darkness, but the American difficulty in dealing with what we cannot understand, own, or control.
The quest for national self-understanding has been central to the history of photography in America. So much so that it has become hard to explore in fresh visual terms. Country folk, suburbs, cars, and flags have yielded up much of what they can say about America, and today there is a short distance between the iconic and the irrelevantly romantic. Yet great American photographers keep trying. Bill Dane, having explored the sensuous artifacts of America’s commercial civilization, moves outside the boundaries of American proper to look at how we look at the rest of the world. And then he moves back into America, addressing it’s surface mysteries.
There is humor, joy, and generosity in Dane’s appreciation of the visual surprises the world has to offer. And there is his unnerving willingness to face how little we know, share, can really see of the world where we come as outsiders. Some of the photographs seem oddly ugly –the puffy, bulbous stuffed baseballs trapped in plastic sheeting or the luridly weird bear fashioned from comics which props up a display of Imari China. We puzzle over the eccentricity of these objects, but then we begin to understand how much a photograph can let us see if we don’t flinch. If we let ourselves see what we do not really expect, and notice the anomalies in predictable scenes of tourism, we are forced to learn something new – not about Japan or Egypt or California, but about ourselves.
These photographs seem to be about foreignness, both here and abroad. But they are really about us as Americans. They ask whether we can learn to love – not because alien worlds accommodate themselves to what we expect, but because we have learned to see even where we cannot understand.
Ann Swidler teaches sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has written widely about American culture. She is author of Organization without Authority: Dilemmas of Social Control in Free Schools, a co-author of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life and The Good Society, and her latest Talk of Love: How Culture Matters.