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.