Mostly Photos :: Eric Etheridge

The Missing Criticism: Papageorge on Evans and Frank

Posted on August 02, 2007, in Art Stuff. | Tag this with del.icio.us

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Susan Sontag had a different take on the relationship between these two artists:

"As Walt Whitman gazed down the democratic vistas of culture, he tried to see beyond the difference between beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality.

"The epigraph for a book of Walter Evans's photographs published by MOMA is a passage from Whitman that sounds the theme of American photography's most prestigious quest: 'I do not doubt but the majesty & beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world...I do not doubt that there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, slaves, dwarfs, weeds, rejected refuse, than I have supposed.'

"Whitman thought that he was not abolishing beauty but generalizing it. So, for generations, did the most gifted American photographers, in their polemical pursuit of the trivial and vulgar. But among American photographers who have matured since World War II, the Whitmanesque mandate...has gone sour.

"American photography has moved from affirmation to erosion to, finally, a parody of Whitman's program. In this history the most edifying figure is Walker Evans. He was the last great photographer to work seriously and assuredly in a mood deriving from Whitman's euphoric humanism.

"Evans' project still descends from Whitman's: the leveling of discriminations between the beautiful and the ugly, the important and the trivial...but this was a leveling up, not down.

"Succeeding the more buoyant hopes for America has come a bitter, sad embrace of experience. There is a particular melancholy in the American photographic project...photographers with less ego and magnetism than Stieglitz gradually gave up the struggle...what they documented was discontinuity, detritus, loneliness, greed, sterility. Stieglitz, using photography to challenge the materialist civilization, was, in Rosenfeld's words, 'the man who believed that a spiritual America existed somewhere, that America was not the grave of the Occident.' The implicit intent of Frank and Arbus, and of many of their contemporaries and juniors, is to show that America is the grave of the Occident.

"Since photography cut loose from the Whitmanesque affirmation...what we have left of Whitman's discredited dream of cultural revolution are paper ghosts and a sharp eyed witty program of despair."

Susan Sontag: America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly. (Chapter 2 of On Photography)

Posted by: Allan Nadel at August 12, 2007 03:22 AM