Ansel Adams in the Bath

I’m working on an exhibition of the work of Bernard Plossu and have been thinking about him and his work recently. He is a Frenchman, but thoroughly international in his outlook, his experience and his references. He is very well known in France, pretty well known in the US and Spain and Italy and Mexico but completely unknown in the UK.

How is it that photography, which is in theory transnational and transcultural and can make sense to anyone with curious eyes to see, is still divided into these odd (and oddly spurious) categories? Why would an Englishman interested in the kinds of things that interest Plossu not have been made aware of his pictures?

National groupings are the most obvious, but there are others. Who counts as a “journalist” and who doesn’t, who counts as an “artist-using-photography” and who doesn’t…? There are ferocious battles about what is and isn’t street photography, landscape and so on. In my new role as an academic, I’m still falling about laughing at the gymnastics those photographers go through to kid themselves their work is ’research’. That one will take some getting used to.

Claiming or refuting these memberships is sometimes a self-serving manoeuvre, sometimes an accident, sometimes a label stuck on a photographer and sometimes a label a photographer greedily sticks on herself or himself. But labels are (by definition) shorthand for much more complicated descriptions. They’re not swipe cards, to let you through certain gates but keep you out of others. It’s odd, in the age of the internet, and in photography above all, which travels so smoothly from generation to generation, and from screen to wall, and from public to private, that these absurd divisions should persist.

 

A page from Les Cahiers de la Photographie, 1984.  The picture reproduced was made by Plossu  in Egypt in 1977.

A page by Bernard Plossu from Les Cahiers de la Photographie, 1984.
The picture reproduced within it was made by Plossu in Egypt in 1977.

Here is a page by Bernard Plossu which seems to be driving in that same direction. The question this time is who should or should not be considered an ‘autobiographical’ photographer, but the sentiment is transferable with ease all over photography and its unjustifiable borders. It was published in Gilles Mora and Claude Nori’s Les Cahiers de la Photographie (of which Plossu was then listed as the sole US correspondent, with a PO Box in Santa Fe, New Mexico), volume 13, 1st trimestrial issue of 1984, an issue specifically devoted to the autobiographical in photography, and I don’t find that it has ever been translated into English. It’s a beautiful page, and the thought of Ansel Adams in Les Krims’ bath makes me laugh.

Les Krims, GI Joe Wounded and In Flames Fleeing the Giant Nude Monster, 1975.   From Fictcryptokrimsographs, Krims' wonderfully inventive book of manipulated Polaroids. SX-70

Les Krims, GI Joe Wounded and In Flames Fleeing the Giant Nude Monster, 1975.
From Fictcryptokrimsographs, Krims’ wonderfully inventive book of manipulated SX-70 Polaroids. I am not quite sure that this is her, but the model Krims used again and again for older women in his pictures was his mother, one of the longest suffering mothers in art history.

 

Ansel Adams, as seen in Apple's widely lauded 'Think Different' campaign which ran from 1997. That campaign specifically associated Adams with Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and a host of other greats. And Jim Henson. Ansel Adams is one of the very few photographers to have a mountain named after him. ( you can't countLord Snowdon - he was named after the mountain.

Ansel Adams, as seen in Apple’s widely lauded ‘Think Different’ campaign which ran from 1997.
That campaign specifically associated Adams with Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and a host of other greats. And Jim Henson.
Ansel Adams is one of the very few photographers to have a mountain named after him. (You can’t count Lord Snowdon – he was named after the mountain.)

This is Plossu’s text from the page above:

 

“To be for or against autobiography is a non-problem: no-one can deny that a photograph, by the very fact of having been taken, is a realization, a sort of mental self-portrait, pure and simple. Ansel Adams’ pictures of Yosemite are autobiographical, and how! Les Krims’ pictures of naval battles in his bathtub are autobiographical; the assemblages of Fleig[i] are autobiographical; Nori flirting is autobiographical, and taking sides for or against is a nonsense. Further, let’s imagine Ansel Adams making lunatic photographs in his bath: unthinkable. Or let’s picture Les Krims making grandiose landscapes in the face of the mountains of Yosemite: unthinkable. And in any case, those ‘for’ autobiography and those ‘against’ it both like the same photographer, Robert Frank. Why? Because he’s good, that’s why. And what about Diane Arbus? She it was who said the most important thing about photography: “ it’s important to take bad pictures.” When it comes down to it, he was absolutely right, that kid in Egypt, to stick his hand in front of my lens.”

 

This translation is mine. The sentiment is still true, although it comes from another time and another place. But you know what? If pictures should be able to cross all those borders more easily and with less fuss, then writing about pictures should do the same.

 

[i] Alain Fleig, another of the founders of the Cahiers de la Photographie, also too little known outside the little borders of France. He was a photographer, but he was also and perhaps mainly a fine academic enquirer into photography. His dates are 1942 -2012.

 

Eduard Steichen at Voulangis

Steichen_portrait_of_an_unknown_man

Edward Stecihen. Untitled (Man with Cap and Cigar), c.1915.   Howard Greenberg Gallery

 

This wonderful portrait of an unknown sitter is by Edward Steichen and dates from around 1915.

It is part of a small hoard handed to New York gallerist Howard Greenberg by Joanna Steichen, the photographer’s widow, in 2008, which has now appeared in print. Eduard et Voulangis (he changed the spelling of his name), published by Michael Torosian’s Lumiere Press in collaboration with Howard Greenberg, reprints a number of pictures from the period 1915 – 1923 when Steichen lived in France, including a couple previously unkown.  

As Torosian writes in an essay in the book, Steichen at the start of the 20th century had described himself as “a painter, first, last and all the time,” regarding his painting and photography as “symbiotic.”  After witnessing the First World War, though, and after meeting artists such as Picasso and Matisse, he changed his tune, deciding that photography was the medium of the age. One day, in a gesture we might well find symbolic, he made in his garden in Voulangis a bonfire of his paintings. Then he photographed a white cup and saucer. 

Steichen became the head of the department of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and so one of the powerful arbiters of what photography could be or should be.  It is arguable (and this publication makes the case) that his Voulangis period signals the end of Pictorialism as a major force and the moment when Modernism took over.  I have argued that photography continued to retain a strong Pictorial undercurrent, and still does.  I suspect that current will rise back more towards the surface as the Modernism plays itself out. No need to take sides, though, to appreciate the portrait. 

The whole point of the Lumiere Press venture is exquisite reproduction. Howard Greenberg describes the group of pictures in these terms: “an astonishing bouquet of experiments in toning and multiple-printing processes. The colors seemed to me otherworldly.”  It is with some misgivings, therefore, that I reproduce it here.  But for those who will likely never see this rare and expensive new book, it is a pleasure to be able to do so, even if what appears here is only a shadow of the reproduction, itself an approach to the print that Mrs. Steichen handed to Howard Greenberg.

By the way: Steichen is not known for his anonymous portraits or type portraits, but rather for pictures of known and even eminent personalities.  If anyone should happen to know with certainty who the sitter is, please give the name in the comments here or otherwise make it known.