Why is it that I am so often introduced to important, sometimes life-changing, stuff by the obituary of an artist? The work of so many writers, painters, musicians, and the like seem only really adequately celebrated when they pass on. I guess it’s natural that death focuses our attention, especially in the case of those who are great but for whatever reason not super-famous.
Such was the case for me with the poet Mark Strand, who died in November of 2014. I read appropriately reverent pieces in the New York Times and The New Yorker, of course, and Harper’s and The Atlantic, and was intrigued. And that very week, as serendipity seemingly dictates with alarming frequency, I came across a book of Strand’s essays called The Weather of Words: Poetic Invention on a table at the Strand (no relation, ha).
The retail deal was sealed when I saw that the book included a piece entitled “Fantasia on the Relations Between Poetry and Photography.” (And also it was typically Strand-priced, which will mean something to anyone who has ever patronized that near-holy place.) So you’ll understand my sadness when I report that, given my specific interests in photography, the essay was pretty much a dud.
Here are the section titles, skipping the third:
I. On the Sadness of a Family Photograph
II. On the Sadness of Another Family Photograph
IV. On Posing as a Defense Against the Candor of Family Photographs
V. On Rilke’s Poem “Portrait of My Father as a Young Man”
VI. On John Ashbery’s Poem “Mixed Feelings” and its Rejection of the Sort of Sadness Often Associated with Family Snapshots
VII. On Charles Wright’s Poem “Bar Giamaica 1959-60”: The Poem as Photograph
So you get the drift that Strand is primarily interested in talking about personal connections to photographs, or the personal connections of others to photographs, and relatedly the challenges in relating to photographs with which one is not personally connected. He’s a good writer and all, but still I was bored in the same way that I am with Barthes and his mommy.
But! The third section of the essay is: “On the Difference Between Family Photos and Photos of the Rest of the World.”
Now we’re getting somewhere, right? Well, yes and no. To set the scene:
Something about family snapshots sets them apart from photographs of the rest of the world. We look at them differently, feel more passionately about them. They may be of ourselves, no doubt contributing to our greater absorption, but they don’t have to be. They can be of anybody we are close to, close enough to so that our emotional ties and shifting affections could easily cloud or color our vision of them . . .
And a bit of hedging:
I was being, I admit, a little mischievous when I used the expression “photographs of the rest of the world.” After all, the world is large and at least as various as the photographs taken of it. And when I set family snapshots against photographs of the rest of the world, I was creating categories that are based on extremes of experience. I assumed that photographs of the rest of the world do not relinquish themselves to our emotional keep as easily as family pictures. For one thing, we care less about the world than about goes on at home; for another, we are able to cast ourselves at the center of our domestic scene, but it would be madness to imagine ourselves at the center of the larger one.
Well, so OK for now; that’s mostly unobjectionable, I suppose. Of course photographs of the world don’t relinquish themselves as easily as family pictures; playing at least a little hard to get is part of their appeal, no? But the reason I’m writing this thing at all is because of the next two sentences, which must be unpacked separately. The first is this: “When confronted with images of the world, we are rarely stung into revisions and reassessments of ourselves in relation to it.”
If that sentence were even close to true, neither you nor I would be here right now. May I suggest that in fact Strand describes precisely the reason that you and I and our like-minded friends commune: because we are so often stung into revisions an reassessments of ourselves in relation to the world by photographs of that world.
And “stung” is the apposite word. “The bees behind my eyes sing ‘beware’/but my beestung tongue wants in there,” Tanya Donelly sings in “The Bees.” The photographs and photobooks I look at again and again sort of kill me a little more every time, but I always want back in there; and I’m just gonna guess – and hope – you feel sort of the same way.
But still, we stung ones must at least try to figure out what Strand is getting at. Probably the easiest way to reconcile this thing is to realize that he is speaking accurately for the vast numbers of people who don’t feel the way we do; which is to say: 99.99% of the world. We are a niche. A lovely niche, for sure, but still.
And yet, I still can’t quite let Strand himself off the hook. He was the Poet Laureate for the Library of Congress, and he taught at Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, and Columbia. Did this man of the world never see a Walker Evans or Robert Frank picture at MoMA or the AIC? Not even an Atget or Sander at the Met? He just seems too sophisticated not to have come across those kinds of photographs and then not to have found something in them to revise his position in the world. Maybe he never encountered much beyond Life magazine photojournalism, or perhaps “The Family of Man”-type exhibition stuff. But what’s more likely is that I’m projecting my cherished idea of sophistication onto an innocent member of that 99.99% of the world.
Anyway, there’s still one more sentence to deal with: “We rarely feel the need to come to terms with what already seems fixed or seems understood, however exotic it might be.”
So, on one level: amen to that, brother. There are plenty of academic photographs out there that come pre-understood with “issues” and “concerns” that are fixed as if in amber, and which neither require nor admit a coming to terms. And an equally great number tread on easy exoticism (drink a shot of whiskey every time you hear about “the Other”) and do nothing beyond titillating to inspire a need for any real sort of understanding.
But really this problem isn’t unique to photography. Poems and paintings can easily be as didactic and off-putting as any photography MFA thesis.
So what’s Strand’s beef with “photographs of the rest of the world”? (And shall we just go ahead and call these “art photographs”?) How or why can’t non-family photographs do for him what poetry (a big chunk of which of which we can presume is not family-oriented) so obviously and easily does?
A clue may come from Strand’s own writing about poetry, which is slightly defensive with respect to poetry’s non-audience, which let’s say for sake of argument is only slightly smaller than art photography’s non-audience.
Exhibit A: Strand’s own parents. In the Introduction to “The Best American Poetry 1991,” he writes that, for his fiction-loving parents, poetry “was the enemy. It would only remystify the world for them, cloud certainties with ambiguity, challenge their appetite for the sort of security that knowledge brings.”
Might I suggest that Strand similarly resisted photographs that failed to offer the security of a known face? Was he not stung by photographs of the world into personal revisions or reassessments precisely because those are the sorts of remystifications that would challenge the certainty of family pictures? Or perhaps his certainty of the unphotographed world?
Perhaps he desired from art photographs a sense of the world (why else stick to adamantly to the phrase “photos of the rest of the world?”), when all that an Atget print offered was a sense of itself. I lifted this dichotomy of “sense of the world/sense of itself” directly from Strand:
The context of a poem is likely to be only the poet’s voice – a voice speaking to no one in particular and unsupported by a situation or situations brought about by the words or actions of others, as in a work of fiction. A sense of itself is what the poem sponsors, and not a sense of the world. It invents itself: its own necessity or urgency, its tone, its mixture of meaning and sound are in the poet’s voice. It is in such isolation that it engenders its own authority.
I like that phrase “engenders its own authority” very much. (And I should say that even though I found “Fantasia on the Relations Between Poetry and Photography” somewhat lacking, the rest of the book is a delight.) A poem is pretty clearly a new thing in the world, but it’s not so obvious to most people that a photograph is likewise. Strand was stung by poetry, and beautifully so, but the venom was localized; what he understood about poetry, and elegantly defended, he failed – like many, many others – to see in art photography.
And I guess, as a guy who’s involved in publishing photobooks, that I should lament that fact. But as a reader/viewer, I’m inclined to agree with Caleb Crain, who says in a Harper’s piece called “Counter Culture” that “The deepest literary pleasures, even when they involve others, are a little dreamy and lonely.” The “lonely” part I’ve already touched on: despite the Internet and the crowds at art book fairs, on a global scale we’re still a miniscule group of folks who like what we like. And I don’t think that’s elitism, or maybe if it is elitism it’s of the sort that feels it’s different but not better.
It’s one of the great and fairly well-established virtues of literature that it makes us feel less different, and thus perhaps less lonely, as we inhabit the inner lives of characters with whom we identify in varying degrees. And I think the same must be said of the feeling when we encounter the work of certain photographers. We wonder, as Elizabeth Drew does of the poet, “How is his mind, through his own particular style and rhythm, making us ‘See the world afresh, or some new part of it’? What designs upon us does he have? How is he modelling his medium of communication so that through his own patterned sensibility and understanding our own shall be awakened and shaped?” (italics in original)
Now of course, that awakening and shaping is – at least at first – neither so explicitly nor so objectively thought out as that statement would have it. And yet Drew’s central question is entirely operative: what design upon us does the maker have? It’s not even the point to know the answer; just to have a sense of the question is enough: a sneaking suspicion that the photographer’s designs and ours might somehow align. That, to me, is the “dreamy” aspect of the thing – the uncanny feeling that our neurons are mysteriously vibrating at the same frequency as someone else’s.
Along these lines, there’s some really lovely stuff about Gerry Badger’s first encounter with American Pictures (via Popular Photography) in his essential book The Pleasures of Good Photographs:
Looking at page 107 of that issue of Popular Photography [which had just a “tiny illustration” of one Evans photograph and “three brief sentences” by David Vestal], I still cannot quite understand what compelled me to go to my local bookshop, Bauermeister Books, in Tay Street, Dundee, Scotland, and ask if that book was available . . . I have to conclude that it was what Vestal said that triggered my reaction: “I prize this book because it showed me for the first time that photography was a serious medium” . . . I guess it was that word serious – a frequently dangerous word in relation to art – that drew me. So much photography, I surmised, was not patently serious . . . As soon as I studied American Photographs I had no doubts whatsoever . . . In so many of the pictures in American Photographs, I saw the kind of art photography could be, and the kind of art I wanted photography to be.
Clearly, Badger embraced Evans’s designs upon him – upon us – and was stung into revisions and reassessments of himself in relation to the world. And now we may be able to say that when we are stung by something, we know that it’s serious. (And this ain’t just metaphorical; why else swat the yellowjacket?) At least to us.