24 November 2008

Thinking About Power

"So far as photographs with the most solemn or heartrending subject matter are art - and this is what they become when they hang on walls, whatever the disclaimers - they partake of the fate of all wall-hung or floor supported art displayed in public places. That is, they are stations along a - usually accompanied - stroll. A museum or a gallery visit is a social situation, riddled with distractions, in the course of which art is seen and commented upon. Up to a point, the weight and seriousness of such photographs survive better in a book, where one can look privately, linger over the pictures, without talking. Still, at some moment the book will be closed. The strong emotion will become a transient one. Eventually the specificity of the photograph's accusations will fade; the denunciation of a particular conflict and attribution of specific crimes will become denunciation of human cruelty, human savagery as such. The photographer's intentions are irrelevant to this larger process." ~ Susan Sontag

Among the several disadvantages of residing in Western New York, is that I do not get to see a lot of the exhibitions that turn up even in places that are relatively close by. At the moment in DC, this exhibition "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power" is up at the Corcoran Gallery. It seems like it would be fascinating. Yesterday, though, while I was killing a bit of time, I looked through the accompanying book and it is pretty astounding. Here are a handful of the photographs that stood out right off the bat:

The Chicago 7 (1969) ~ Photograph © Richard Avedon.

Donald Rumsfeld (1976) ~ Photograph © Richard Avedon.

Jerome Smith & Isaac Reynolds (1963) ~ Photograph © Richard Avedon.

Karl Rove (2004) ~ Photograph © Richard Avedon.

I find it it pretty astonishing how consistently wrong Sontag is about photography. Why presume from the outset that what is at stake in viewing images is "strong emotion"? What, if we use photography to think with? And what if we think with words, so that actually talking about images is useful and productive? What if the matters, the problems, that photographers can get us to think about are not restricted to the "specific" or the "particular," but are general - or at least, while perhaps visible only in one or another particular instance or incarnation, are not tied to any single one of them?

Avedon, it seems to me, is extremely instructive in this regard. His portraits prompt us to ask broad questions. He hardly is alone in this respect; for a much different sort of prompting see Richard Ross on "The Architecture of Authority." I've commented on Ross here. But the images I've lifted above all, in one or another way, ask us to think n more general terms about power, its availability and its uses.

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