Friday, 22 August 2008

Body and Soul

The exhibition, Body and Soul, is mostly of Hungarian photographers but not all. Hungary had some of the greatest twentieth century photographers: André Kertész, Robert Capa, Brassaï, Károly Escher (my mother’s teacher), László Moholy-Nagy, Márton Munkácsy…

Sometimes now I think I love photography as much as, if not more than, painting. It’s a close thing between the two. Barthes is, for me, the great writer on the subject, though Sontag and Berger are also good and thoughtful. I still feel it to be essentially a humanist art concerned with human possibility and limitation, whose claim to importance, unlike the other arts, is evidential. It isn’t so much composition, form, technique: it is the compression of everything to a mortal moment, a holding still of the evanescent. Exploration? Oh, most certainly, but exploration through recording.

The themes of the exhibition were portrait/self-portrait, the body, solitude, company, society, outsiders, conflict.

Of all those, the body seemed to me least satisfactory. Everyone - from the early pictorialists with their classic nudes, through Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, down to the deliberately unaesthetic photos of ordinary people, wounded people, the isolated anatomical dead and body parts – seemed to be trying too hard, with too great a consciousness of the body-as-subject. By choosing one approach they were making an overt gesture to ignore others. Maybe the body is just too full of meaning and culture, an over-dense text. Maybe it is simply that the body in a photograph, the body without the face, or rather without a face that can be read as soul, becomes entirely subject. Nothing returns the stare of the viewer. It is as if each single body subject, however treated, was simply The Body, a generalised lay-figure to which everything is applied, a figure that can never protest because it has no organs with which to protest.

But the portraits! I was overwhelmed. Everything stares back at one there. The dead who were alive, the fully living in their completely filled moment. Whether that life is presented as mask or image hardly matters. Their helplessness is our helplessness. They disarm us by never becoming fully subject. Something in them resists, remains playful, tender, vulnerable, grave, other, helpless and accusing.

Looking at the solitude series I wondered whether photography was necessarily a lonely art, bringing various conjunctions and coincidences into a single lens, in a single moment, seen from a single point of view, those conjunctions and coincidences unique to the moment. So solitude was natural to the medium.

Maybe. The pictures of people together tended more to the pictorial, groups enacting ideas, the whole somehow more rhetorical. Beautiful sometimes, forming geometric patterns, the patterns themselves set in some struggle between self and anonymity. The photographer was ideally a voyeur, lost in that struggle. There were some wonderful pictures in that class. C loved a particular Moholy-Nagy taken from above where a sigle figure in black and white stood before a clump of trees, the entire visual field a mass of abstract waveriness, visually exciting. I am less keen on his work, but I could see what she loved here, could understand why it could be loved, and that is a step towards loving it myself.

I’ll stop here or I’ll write a book. One last thing then.

The most arresting picture in the conflict section – and photography is just right for conflict, the perfect, sometimes almost too perfect (I think of Salgado here) blend of reportage and presentation - was not a piece of photographic art but sheer documentation. It was the iconic still from the well known and often played film of Beijing, 4th June, 1989, part of a report I watched in Budapest on precisely that day.

The man with his shopping bag stands in front of a line of four tanks. Immediately it is not the still moment but the movement I recall. The tank turns left, the man steps left. The tank moves right the man moves right. It is still possible for a man with a shopping bag to negotiate with a man in a tank. The man in the tank is still a man, not a tank. The man with the shopping bag is all our hope. And look how he holds death at bay. For a while.


Mark Granier said...

I agree with much of this. André Kertész is one of my very favourites, alongside Josef Koudelka, Cartier Bresson etc. I also agree with you on those writers: Sontag, Barthes and Berger. It was in an essay by Berger that I cames across that definition of photographs as 'quotations from reality' (I think paintings were defined as translations), though I am not sure if the definition was originally his. And it was Barthes that gave me that interesting idea of the 'punctum', that odd element in a photograph (like a bandage on someone's finger in a family portrait) that focuses the attention makes it resonate in the viewer's mind.

And yes, if Salgado has a fault it is that the images are occasionally too perfect, too self-consciously artistic (especially with some of those tragedy-haunted African ones).It was my old friend Anthony Glavin who, when I showed him my Salgado book 'Working', came up with an out-of-context by somehow perfect quote from Larkin's poem 'Lines On A Young Lady's Photograph Album':

'Too much confectionery, too rich: I choke on such nutritious images.'

If anyone's interested, I wrote a little piece on photography for my Lightbox blog here:

George S said...

I too am fascinated by Barthes's employment of the terms punctum and blind field. My 1994 book of poems was in fact called Blind Field and in the introduction to the forthcoming New and Collected I explore the idea of the punctum in poetry.

There is no denying Salgado's courage, good intentions, judgment, and eye, so it always feels a bit carping to complain about such things. But there is an element of unease there.

Thanks for the link, Mark. I am about to follow it.