A while back – probably a long while, actually – someone who must not have mattered all that much to me asked what some movie or book was about, and I said, “It’s a poignant tale of coming of age.” Which was just meant to forestall any further conversation on that topic, but which sort of amused me after I said it because it was so entirely unoriginal. And yet, like all clichés, there was an underlying truthiness.
I learned that I could apply the saying to pretty much any piece of narrative art. The Catcher in the Rye is a poignant tale of coming of age. Duh. But so are “The Godfather” and Crime and Punishment. What of Jane Austen or Wes Anderson isn’t? So you quickly get the picture, and you can play along by inserting titles at will to see what new light the cliché casts upon the story. 1
Anyway, since then, I have as a rule shied away from talking too much on what fictional narratives are “about.” (Whereas conversely it seems entirely apposite to speak of what a piece of journalism is about; I mean how else do you even talk about an article in The New Yorker?) So when someone asked earnestly about a book or a movie, if the “poignant tale” thing seemed too dismissive, I would just say something like, “It’s just about life,” or “It’s mostly about sorrow.” 2
Here’s what Flannery O’Connor would advise, from “Writing Short Stories”:
You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story . . . I myself prefer to say that a story is a dramatic event that involves a person because he is a person, and a particular person – that is, because he shares in the general human condition and in some specific human situation. (italics mine)
She prefers to:
talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.
Evidence of the strength of O’Connor’s preference can be found in an essay called “On Her Own Work,” which is really just the transcription of an introduction to a reading of her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” for students at Hollins College in Virginia. Pretty much right off the bat she says (and if this is spoiler, then shame on you): “this is the story of a family of six which, on its way driving to Florida, gets wiped out by an escaped convict who calls himself the Misfit.” Then she spends some time talking about grace and reason and the grotesque, and how those things operate in the Christian South, and offers the “hope that if you consider these points in connection with the story, you will come to see it as something more than an account of a family murdered on the way to Florida.”
So there you go. The ultimate (and fucking harrowing) plot events of one of the five or so greatest stories in American literature are laid out in advance so that they needn’t concern us any more. Because what “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is "about" is not what's important at all.
Unfortunately, I think that this point is greatly lost on much contemporary photography. One reads often of “issues” “confronted” or “explored” – or, by god, “called into question” – by both undergraduate and graduate students in project and artist statements. The promotional copy for a photobook tells us what the book is about, and there’s often explanatory text within the book should the press release not fully impress. All of this is somewhat understandable; to “sell” your thesis to a review committee, or your book to a limited audience, you sometimes must distinguish it thematically.
But the problem is not just that we must sit through (or do our best to ignore) some heavy-duty MFA-speak to look at pictures. There’s something like a reverse infection going on; when the ultimate goal of a photographer is to create a group of pictures with a specifically communicable (and with any luck, sexy or controversial) “aboutness,” it surely shows in the work, which ends up at best manifesting as a sort of photojournalistic essay.
“[In art, we enjoy] the pleasures of illusion, not the pleasures of experience. The life of a novel is the vitality of its author: it is the life in its creator, not in the raw material of his creation: it is the vitality of the expression, not the vitality of the thing expressed,” writes Elizabeth Drew in The Enjoyment of Literature. “[The novelist] is not talking about life like the essayist . . . He is revealing life, and his problem is how to make the reader hear and feel and see as he has done himself.” (italics in original)
Now of course, in making photographs, we must start somewhere. As Henry James writes in the Preface to The Ambassadors: “Art deals with what we see, it must first contribute full-handed that ingredient; it plucks its material . . . in the garden of life . . . But it has no sooner done this than it has to take account of process . . . The process, that of the expression, the literal squeezing out, of value is another affair – with which the happy luck of finding has little to do.” (italics in original)
As well, photography is not the only medium that must struggle with a desire for aboutness among its audience. Here’s Drew again, from Directions in Modern Poetry:
The heresy that, although rhythm and rhyme and the whole field of poetic technique are important, they are less important than the subject matter, the prose content, with which one is dealing; the idea that poetry is a kind of thinking aloud about life, instead of a revelation of hidden forms of life, has haunted and hampered criticism since earliest times. Poets and critics all down the ages have always had to meet the challenge that poetry must have a rational use, and the obvious reply to that is that poetry can and does educate and inspire human nature on the moral plane. As that is a level on which everyone can understand poetry, whereas real artistic sensibility is a much rarer quality, the natural result is the instinct to assess the value of poetry in terms of what it says rather than in terms of what it does; to judge it not by the quality of consciousness it calls into being, but by the quality of rational activity it is likely to promote. (italics in original)
Which brings quickly to mind one of Oscar Wilde’s more famous quips: “There are two ways of disliking art. One is to dislike it, and the other is to like it rationally.” Drew is naturally less caustic when she writes, “[P]oetic beauty is a pied beauty, a dappled thing; one does not want it so weighted down with density of meaning that it cannot use its wings.”
The rational understanding, the "about" in a photobook, can be in there, but it can’t dominate, lest it kill the bird. Elizabeth Drew again:
A poem has a living reality of its own: it is not religion or ethics or philosophy or sociology. The poet does not work upon listeners by providing beliefs or moral codes for them, or by outlining political, philosophical or economic systems. All these things may enter into poetry; but the poet is concerned with them only in so far as they can be related to his personal vision of human experience. The poet’s domain is the life of Man and the lives of men in their actions, thoughts and emotions, interpreted through the power of words. And readers and listeners of all ages have acclaimed poets, not because in them they have found human problems solved, but because through them they have found their capacities for living enriched and enlarged and their understanding deepened.
But so what does this mean in practice for photobooks to have a “living reality” unreliant upon subject matter? Maybe it’s best to start by considering the work of a few usual suspects. Like, for example, hardly anything in Eggleston or Friedlander would be considered topical. Early Paul Graham was, but late not so much. The beautiful Italians Ghirri and Guidi seem untroubled by any sort of issues, but maybe that’s something in the wine. And Helen Levitt is just about life and joy, y’know?
Shore and Sternfeld are always better (which is very very good indeed) when soaking up a general gestalt rather than getting too news-headline-specific. The same might be true for Anthony Hernandez, whose color work can feel burdened by topicality. And it’s to Judith Joy Ross’s great credit that her portraits easily transcend the specificity of the titles of her books; it’s easy to forget that you’re looking at legislators, or school children, or visitors to a memorial when confronted with the powerful un-aboutness of just being a person in the world.
I wonder if the numerous books of Robert Adams might provide an instructive case study of a photographer seemingly working both sides of the aisle. With some of the books – The New West, What We Bought or Turning Back, for example – we could perhaps discuss land use or consumerist or environmental topics if we thought it necessary; others like notes for friends or Questions for an Overcast Day defy ready encapsulation. But I think that even in the former examples, Adams is concerned with topics “only in so far as they can be related to his personal vision of human experience,” as Elizabeth Drew said.
Relevant to this point, I like the way Adam Kirsch discusses the eminent critic Lionel Trilling’s career-long avoidance of direct combat with political issues: “Instead, he [tried] to make sense of cultural changes in personal, literary terms – to make them an object of experience, rather than a subject for debate.” This notion applies pretty much exactly to my feelings about one particular book that I’d like to spend a little time with: J Carrier’s Elementary Calculus.3
First off, J is a close friend. Just so you know. But his book was so universally highly-regarded upon its release a couple years ago that it certainly doesn’t need my praise to promote sales. Which, it’s probably sold out anyway. But I digress.
Elementary Calculus is a book for which, if one felt the need, one could write a nifty and accurate press release. I won’t do that, but here’s a non-exhaustive list of buzzwords that any experienced PR pro would use: Israel, economic migrants, class, technology, the Middle East, displaced persons, or possibly “peoples,” and well you get the drift.
But to use those words, or to think in those terms, is to, in my humble opinion, entirely miss the point of this book. (And I’m not even going to say the point I take away is exactly the one that J intended; the gap between intent of the author and reception by the reader or viewer is a topic for an entirely different essay.) J was successful because he, in Kirsch’s formulation, made sense of the specifics of a culture in a personal, literary way: he made them an object of experience. We needn’t – and I would argue, shouldn’t – feel that we must formulate an opinion about a political/socioeconomic situation based on Elementary Calculus. We just need to feel. Because this book has feeling in spades: a sense of disconnectedness and longing far richer than any prosaic discussion of its subject matter could ever possibly indicate.
Here’s Trilling, the man himself, on point about the fruitlessness of hunting for issues: “Hamlet is not merely the product of Shakespeare’s thought, it is the very instrument of his thought, and if meaning is intention, Shakespeare did not intend the Oedipus motive or anything less than Hamlet; if meaning is effect then it is Hamlet which affects us, not the Oedipus motive.”
This is indeed “the actual action of art,” as William H. Gass writes; it’s not the marble statue itself, but rather “the hint of the hollow which holds us, and the way a stone arm encircles nothing but atmosphere so lovingly we want to believe in our being there, also surrounded, and only then alive in our life as that stone.” And here’s Gass succinctly making the point that I just spent a couple thousand words on: “The swift sensuous intake is essential, since our response, as readers, must always run even with, if not ahead of, understanding. Basically, our knowledge of a poem serves simply to explain why we were shaken. It will never, alone, do the shaking.”
I’d written all of the above, and edited twice and all that and then by chance came across some notes I’d made on an essay called “Time Pieces” by Wright Morris. I’m finding Morris’s non-fiction more and more valuable as I get older; I suppose I should tackle his fiction.
Anyway, there’s a highly relevant thought in “Time Pieces” that I couldn’t quite shoehorn into my essay. And maybe it’s silly or counterproductive of me to even include this lengthy quotation given that I am somewhat generally invested in writing about photographs. But here you go:
To accommodate the growing number of artists, and the multifarious activities now loosely described as art, distinctions necessary to intelligent discussion have been obliterated. In the vast accumulation of conflicting opinion there is one unifying element: all of it is in words. The artwork no longer speaks for itself. It is ironic to think, as the words flow, that the photograph was once thought to speak a more concrete, less abstract language. The slogan was that it was better than a thousand words. Thousands upon thousands of words now encumber a quantity of photographs. This flowering of writing about photography, much of it readable, informative, and innovative, is the latest example of the current cultural mania to transform one thing into another, and eventually into words. To reside in one thing or another appears to be impossible. On the evidence, the thing itself – the person, the object, the painting, the book, the music, the sunset, the operation – exists primarily as a point of departure, a launching pad from which we take off into an orbit of our own . . . Photographs, photographs of all things, were once believed to offer a point of resolution. They offered a stop in the flow of time as well as in the endless stream of our responses. The observer looked. The photograph soberly returned the gaze.
The ambiguity that is natural to the photograph lends itself to conflicting interpretations, but if the viewer’s first impression is not the viewer’s own, he or she may never come to have one that is.
1. There’s another game like this, one that never fails to amuse me. Back when The New Yorker only did cartoon caption contests like once a year, I heard somewhere – boy do I wish I remember where, because I want to give credit where credit is due – that you could just put “Christ, what an asshole” under any uncaptioned cartoon and it would work. I’ve tried it like a million times, and it always always always works. Give it a go.
2. If you see no difference between those two, you are probably my kind of human.