Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Not-So-Wordless Wednesday

Before I get to my review of The Crimes of Paris, I would like you to compare two photos from Alfred Stieglitz, the man who introduced Modernist art to the United States in the 1900s. Here is A Good Joke, taken in 1887:

Technically good, but rather conventional, don't you think? According to Helen Gee in her book Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession: Pictorialism to Modernism, 1902-1917 (Trenton: New Jersey State Museum, 1978), Stieglitz's early photos "lack the sophisticated design of his later prints, [although] there is an intensity of observation and of effort that sets them apart from the work of the typical amateur, which they resemble at first glance." A Good Joke certainly possesses a picturesque harmony that evokes the enduring culture of Europe and its old-world charm (as opposed to American "newness" and mobility). Therefore, in terms of aesthetics, A Good Joke is very much an artistic composition. At the same time, however, the loose and familiar aggregation of children, the natural postures, and the easygoing mood clearly suggests a genuine spontaneity, as though Stieglitz just walked up and snapped the photo. It is a simple picture, yet one layered with enough visual and cultural appeal to render it a genuine work of art and not another tourist snapshot.

Now look at this one: The Steerage (subject of another Wordless Wednesday) from 1917:

One of Stieglitz's associates, Marius de Zayas, had written an article in 1913 for Stieglitz's New York magazine Camera Work in which he distinguished between ordinary photography and artistic photography, stating that "in the former, man tries to get at that objectivity of Form which generates the different conceptions that man has of Form, while the second uses the objectivity of Form to express a preconceived idea in order to convey an emotion." A photographer captures the image of something that exists in the external physical world. An artist, on the other hand, will use the camera to first represent the objectivity of the subject and then attach to it "a system of representation" that somehow signifies something personal and subjective arising from within. In Stieglitz's own words:
"There were men and women and children on the lower deck of the steerage. There was a narrow stairway leading to the upper deck of the steerage, a small deck right on the bow of the steamer.

"To the left was an inclining funnel and from the upper steerage deck there was fastened a gangway bridge that was glistening in its freshly painted state. It was rather long, white, and during the trip remained untouched by anyone.

"On the upper deck, looking over the railing, there was a young man with a straw hat. The shape of the hat was round. He was watching the men and women and children on the lower steerage deck…A round straw hat, the funnel leaning left, the stairway leaning right, the white drawbridge with its railing made of circular chains – white suspenders crossing on the back of a man in the steerage below, round shapes of iron machinery, a mast cutting into the sky, making a triangular shape…I saw shapes related to each other. I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life."

"This photographer is working in the same spirit as I am," Picasso declared upon seeing The Steerage. It was this same emphasis on subjectivity and personal interpretation, as opposed to the traditional focus on the objective, that came to characterize modernism in art, literature, and life. (You may recall from my review of A Fierce Discontent, that the American Progressive movement, which was eventually challenged by the modernist spirit, was all about external environment.) In this manner, modernism signified a major departure from the course of Western intellectual, creative, and scientific thought.

Coming up: The Crimes of Paris and a new look at criminal investigation


Life With Dogs said...

Interesting study in photography - and far more interesting than wordless!

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