02 October 2010

Guardian Photo Critic Misses the Importance of Black & White

Green Warehouse, 1978. Photograph © William Christenberry.

Palmist Building (Winter), Havana Junction, Alabama 1981.
Photograph © William Christenberry.

Sean O'Hagan is at it again. The photo critic at The Guardian has this review of a newly opened exhibition entitled "Myth, Manners and Memory: Photographers of the American South" (slide show here) in which he discusses work by Walker Evans, William Christenberry, Eudora Welty, William Eggleston, Carrie Mae Weems, Susan Lipper and Alec Soth. Fine photographers all. But the following statement brought me up short:
"Weems, the most political photographer here, confronts the turbulent racist history of the American south, placing herself in a series of resonant locations and contrasting the barbarity of slavery with the refined social etiquette that held sway among rich plantation families."
Oh, and did he forget to mention Weems is the only African-American photographer he planned to to discuss? So, the fact that Weems makes race evident (meaning she explicitly makes it central to her work), while all the white folks (here not just the photographers, but apparently, the curators of this show) apparently "don't" do so is political? Why is it not political that the white photographers (mostly) focus elsewhere - or are least seen to do so? I'd put the stress on this last phrase because they don't really.

In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for instance, James Agee (Evans's co-conspirator) explicitly talks about why they are not going to address race - and then offers pointed vignettes demonstrating the cruelty of race relations in Alabama circa 1937. And, after all, do the white folks in Lipper's "Grapevine series" not play a role in, or suffer the consequences of, the peculiar way race works and has worked in the South?* Do they have no race? What about this image by Alec Soth? Does it plumb racial themes?

Jimmie's Apartment , Memphis, Tennessee, 2002.
Photograph © Alec Soth.

Who is that in the photos clipped and taped to the back of the closet door? Do those images contrast with the shabby apartment in any way? And did Memphis figure in "the turbulent racial history of the American south"? Is it, perhaps, a "resonant location"? By and large, I find O'Hagan's photo criticism wacky - and I don't mean that in a good way. I've said that several times here before. In this instance, I wonder what he was thinking when he looked at this exhibition.
* And, of course, race is an American problem, not one just for the South or just for blacks.

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Blogger Public Squalor said...

Great stuff, Jim. Kudos & thanks for 5 years of engaging and provocative posts.

- peace

03 October, 2010 10:28  
Blogger Wensleydale Blue said...

Jim, as along time reader but first time poster, I'd like to quibble just a little with your observations on Mr Hagen, who I'm no big fan of either. Isn't the critical word here "most", which suggests that he accepts that the others may also have some political ambitions but that Weems is perhaps the most engaged because of her social circumstances and implicitly deeper desire to get things done about the racism she quite probably found daily in her life?

Just a thought?


03 October, 2010 13:00  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Once again, thanks for addressing subject matter that rarely get mentioned, or even recognized elsewhere. Yes, Weems does get singled out for facing it (the South's legendary racist past) head on in her photography, while the other photographers hint, suggest, imply- much as Goldblatt in South Africa.

Perhaps, in all sincerity, the other (white) photographers don't feel as comfortable telling "someone else's" story- perhaps not seeing it as much theirs, if from the other "perspective," and so the narrative gets referred to in indirect, sidelong glances.

I know I cringe with every photograph I view of Lipper's Grapevine. And often feel a sense of unease even in some of Eggleston's photos. And as you suggest, they're obviously aware of it too.

I think what O'Hagan was (perhaps unnecessarily) pointing out was that Weem's photography cannot be divorced from the South's racist history, while the others acknowledge it in passing as part and parcel of its everyday life and legacy. Each can serve a valid viewpoint and reference, as long as the basic truths and history are not distorted, ignored or omitted.

03 October, 2010 13:38  
Blogger Beth E. said...

Hi Jim,

This post reminded me of a strange, painful class I had once in grad school...taking a 'consortium' opportunity to have a history of photo class at NYU (while I was enrolled at CUNY Grad), I was shocked at the capacity for a strict formalist approach to paper over all manner of (political and other) meaning.

The worst example was a class discussion that spent at least 15 minutes unpacking the formal beauties of one of Paul Strand's surreptitious street photos: a man wearing a giant 'sandwich board' advertisement, standing in front of a huge, blank wall that bore only the large inscription 'Post No Bills'. After waaaay too much reiteration of the play of flat surfaces (sandwich board, wall) against one another, I had to put my hand up and ask: wasn't this really more about how it was ok to put signs on people, and not on property....? An inquiry that didn't go very far at all, with the professor nor the other students.

It still astonishes me to see how effectively a certain white, privileged, bourgeois point of view can appear to squelch fundamental questions of politics and power.

Thanks for the post, and for reminding me of just this point!

03 October, 2010 14:25  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for all the comments.

Graham - if O'Hagan had so much as mentioned the politics in any of the other work I might agree. But the "struggle" that he notes in Evans is not political struggle, but the sheer strain of making ends meet. And of Lipper he merely says the images are disturbing - not because the reveal class and race at work - but because she breaches the conventional dichotomy between art and documentary in ways that make the photo world uncomfortable. That is the part of her work that seems especially useful to me.

Beth - I am sorry to dredge up bad memories! (Just kidding.) I find it astounding how little people think about the pragmatics of images (how they are used) and what someone like Strand (who after all was a socialist)might be trying to say.

Stan - I don't think the Caucasian photographers leave race out; they don't foreground it in the way Weems does, of course. But it is there in (at least) the ways I note. But O'Hagan seems not to have noticed at all. I find his response to images - not just here but in other instances too - almost uniformly mystifying.

03 October, 2010 20:03  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Jim- (I thought) I was basically agreeing with you! Personally, I welcome whatever manner of inclusion or reference, however direct, subtle or nuanced...

03 October, 2010 23:02  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Stan - And (I thought) I was basically agreeing with you. Sometimes these things are best discussed in person!

04 October, 2010 00:00  
Blogger Walter Dufresne said...

I misunderstood your witty headline about race, at first thinking it was about black & white photographs, not skin pigmentation! Thanks.

05 October, 2010 10:00  

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