A BRILLIANT marriage of words
to pictures, rare for photography
books, has produced a union of
sense and sensibility in two new books this season. Others have tried -- and missed, or side-stepped the issue. Meanwhile, the successful marriages offer a bonus: exciting insights into our understanding of surrealism.
One book, Rosalind Krauss, Jane Livingston, and Dawn Ades' L'Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism (Abbeville, $45) does nothing less than lay down a new theoretical base for understanding photography's link to surrealism. Krauss' essays are dense. Treat them as hurdles to be overcome. They are the most productive part of this productive -- and beautiful! -- book which, in supposing this link, also gives new meaning to the place of surrealism in the pantheon of 20th-century visual expression.
In the other, Richard Avedon and Laura Wilson's In the American West (Abrams, $40), a minimalist sort of work, Avedon's pictures cause visceral discomfort. They make you squirm, wish you could get away from their intrusion in your life. But it is only when one reads the text -- placed, unfortunately, at the back of the book, as if it were secondary -- that the album takes on a breadth and depth. And breath. Only then does the idea sink in that the disappointed of America become a portrait of America -- that the interior "they" reveal worms its way through "our" hearts and minds. Only then does the book prompt us to grapple with the pictures, to feel and understand the world that gives life to these photographs.
It is a scary world. The line between "them" and "us" is thin. We realize that world is not very far away nor long ago. This may be one of the important books in social history for our time.
Since Susan Sontag's On Photography, it has become a truism to think of photographs radiating some degree of surrealism, to see photos belonging to a world of dreams, usually dark dreams. In the popularization of that idea -- and of surrealism generally -- we have tended to equate surrealism with absurdity and grotesquery. So misleading. It tends to lessen the force of surrealism's interior symbols, ease them off into a fringe category. We cannot do that after L'Amour Fou.
Chasing a text reference from either Krauss or Livingston into the pictures fixes the images indelibly and opens ideas. "I see what she means," I found myself saying as I looked, for instance, at the picture of Jacques-Andr,e Boiffard's superannuated toe and let it take hold of Krauss theorizing about Surrealist space; or joined Raoul Ubac's dissolving portrait in a mirror to a discussion of the "crumbling of boundaries, the invasion of space." Does the surrealist discussion of the "explosante-fixe" (the explosive moment in which movement, space, and reality are conjoined in a new dimension) stand up? It resonates as one feels the shock of Man Ray's "Explosante-Fixe" and reads Krauss' text about the non-fulfilled reality at the heart of jumpline here surrealism. (The photography exhibit, "L'Amour Fou," at the Corcoran Gallery of Art until recently, has moved on to San Francisco; Richard Avedon's "In the American West," is currently on exhibit at the Corcoran.) T
HERE IS not much resonance between Ben Maddow's words and Eugene Smith's pictures in Let Truth Be the Prejudice (Aperture, $50). The book is filled with beautiful, passionate, heart-rending images. The pictures start in the 1930s, go through the '70s and cover moods that range from the idyllic joyful identification of life which became the symbol of The Family of Man -- Smith's children winding their way through a wooded present into a golden future -- to a documentation of physical pain in World War II, to the beaten soul of mankind at Minamata.
Maddow is a wonderful writer, but his text is more like an annotated set of letters and diary than a biography (which it claims to be). We see Smith pretty much as Smith saw himself, with all the self-delusion, self-flagellation, and self-congratulation he paraded about himself in life. There is little fiddling with the complexities of Smith's interior, little sense of an outsider opening Smith's conscience or any other part of his interior. The surrealist edge in Smith's photography is not ignited. And so, a passionate book of pictures with an artful text.
Andr,e Kertesz of Paris and New York (Thames and Hudson, $45) has a limpness about it, as if the three authors, Sandra Phillips, David Travis, and Weston Naef -- could not dig into the meat on the bones. It feels barren: the pictures are poorly reproduced, the text references to pictures often send the reader to the wrong picture, there are downright mistakes (like mistaking the name of a specific bridge over the Danube), and excepting Travis' text, do not work into the pictures very much. Phillips tries, but her narrative of the grand Hungarian political/esthetic movements, for instance, is thin. It seems innocent of intricacies and of Kertesz's involvement, while her discussion of Kertesz photos -- of "Meudon," for instance, a photo that so many, for some reason, feel compelled to analyze lately -- is uncomfortably lesson-like. One does not have the sense that the book has congealed. Unlike the other books which are all connected to exhibitions but are in varying degrees books in their own right, this has not become one. The pictures may make an interesting exhibition, but it fails to realize an independent presence.
IS THERE room for a book without words? A book of just photographs? We do not have an example this season.
Even those, like George Platt Lynes' Ballet (Twelvetrees Press, $45), Joe Meyrowitz's A Summer Day (Times Books, $39.95), Bauhaus Photography (MIT, $30) and Kertesz on Kertesz (Abbeville, $19.95), books that are overwhelmingly made of pictures, cannot resist the temptation. Each does something with words, and excepting Bauhaus Photography which suffers from unclear organization and intent, can all be taken as slight, and perhaps ineffectual. Each is made of specialized imagery which may be attractive, depending on one's interests. Each may also represent an exhibition. As books, however, they fall down.
Bauhaus Photography is a curious book. It has no author/editor. Only a preface by Eugene Prakapas. Its 400 plus photographs suggest a full statement about Bauhaus photography. But there are big gaps -- exemplary photos, like the one of the Bauhaus with a Nazi flag at its front (when the Nazis took it over in 1932) are missing. There is a stab at explaining the place and role of photography in the Bauhaus. Then it stops. Texts by Bauhaus members take opposing points of view on central visual issues of the day, but we do not know which weighed heavily at the Bauhaus. Some verbal accounts point to Erich Consumuller as one of the Bauhaus-loving photographers. His name can only be found when ferreting out the credits to specific photos. Most uncomfortably, there is a textual-reading-out-of-existence of the first Bauhaus at Weimar, including calling the second and third directors of the Bauhaus the first and second directors -- even though photos from the earlier Weimar period are included. The book seems to hang in mid-air, half finished, words and pictures each insufficiently treated.
The surrealists edged into a basic understanding. They treated imagery as a form of writing. The Vedics on the Indian subcontinent knew this eons ago, making the distinction between what is written -- both words and pictures -- and what is heard -- music. Five thousand years later, the surrealists used this idea as a force for creating.
Photos may actually need words. It is certainly the most natural thing in the world for words and pictures to enhance each other in books. Wilson Hicks, one of the guiding spirits of the early Life magazine, who insisted on captions, knew this. Walker Evans and James Agee knew this: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is an apt precursor of today's word-picture combinations.
There is another element, a surprise realization. When words and pictures are integrally locked with each other, the consciousness of a subject can be revealed with the exposure of its interior. Just what the surrealists expected. Opening an interior can expose an exterior. By exploring the dark fantasy world of dreams, we can see who and what we are, where we sit in the pantheon of world civilization, and where we are in the circles of humanity that have moved through time and space.
We do not always like what we see.