Photographing the Sixties

PHOTOGRAPHY AFTER ROBERT FRANK

The new generation of photographers, led by Robert Frank, did not come into their own until Edward Steichen resigned from the Museum of Modern Art, the only art museum at that time that seriously collected photography. A disciple of Stieglitz, Steichen had a traditional view of photography as art, dividing his own career between art and documentary photography. His last show at MoMA in 1955 was The Family of Man, a vast accumulation of photographs of people, with the theme that we are all connected because we are human. In the midst of atomic testing, McCarthy’s witch-hunts, and racial discord, such humanistic sentimentalism seemed utterly naïve, but the show was a huge success. His successor, John Szarkowski, was more open-minded about new photography and more in tune with the realities of the age.

Robert Frank’s The Americans said it all and by 1960, its found iconography and severe formalist style in black and white was taken up by the younger generation and dominated American photography for decades. Frank’s photographs did not depend upon content for their impact. True, he had found a wealth of new and innovative images and had created a new vocabulary of objects considered worthy of the photographer’s eye. But Frank also photographed in a way similar to Minimal painting, a non-composition with no discernable center or focus that was structured on a grid.

The composition or design used by Frank was rigorously frontal and always divisible down the middle, but the conceptual center was elusive and could be found, not through a reading of the content but through a reading of the form in relation to the content. The first of eighty-odd images forces the viewer to stare at a brick wall. His juxtapositions were startling—a shrouded car presided over by mourning palm trees, an untended runaway baby scooting past a passive jukebox—and thwarted narrative. The fascination of his photographs lies in the subtle and insistent repetitive motifs, organized by one of the great Eyes of the century who could frame the unexpected—two fat backs of Chicago politicians—in a perfect formal resolution.

It can also be said that photography was owned and re-defined by John Szarkowski after he succeeded Edward Steichen at MoMA as Director of Photography in 1962. Szarkowski answered Steichen’s sentimental and reductive exhibition, The Family of Man with The Photographer’s Eye (1964), which challenged expressionism, eliminated the “artiness” Steichen and Stieglitz and stressed the specificity of photography and what is particular to the medium. John Szarkowski introduced the new generation of photographers in 1967 at MoMA’s New Documents exhibition, introducing what was called the “snapshot” look, inspired by Frank. The 1960s were “owned” by Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander the way that Frank had “owned” the 1950s.

Szarkowski emphasized the works of Lee Friedlander, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, André Kertész, and Edward Weston and eliminated the notion of private truths. Private truth and beautiful photography was continued under the guidance of Minor White who pursued the concept of a photographic image as a poetic metaphor in his publication, Aperture. With the photo essay now a dead form, the photographic book, inaugurated by Frank, became the preferred form of photographic publication. Documentary photography was succeeded by a kind of gritty street photography that sometimes celebrated life in the streets uncritically and at other times commented upon the horrors of post-War life.

New and groundbreaking exhibitions made it clear that the aesthetic ground of photography had shifted, including Twelve Photographers of the American Social Landscape (1966) at Brandeis University and Toward a Social Landscape (1966) at the George Eastman House. Documentary or vernacular photography had become hybrid, both a personal reflection and a record of what was experienced, moving beyond photography as a social cause. Like the Italian neo-realists, these photographers used urban setting as raw material, relentlessly photographing the unsuspecting inhabitants of city streets.

In their gritty realism, the trio, Winnogrand, Arbus, Friedlander, was indebted to New York’s Photo League of the forties, but their primary concerns was new content and not new form. Vernacular photography took an anti-meaning position as a reaction to what were now perceived of as the excesses of the supposed “expressionism” of the beautiful. Many of the images are shocking, ugly or simply banal. Although social and political commentary can be read into the topical images, the meaning of photograph was embedded in medium itself.

For Winnogrand, the camera was an extension of the eye. And Winnogrand’s eye was that of a voyeur, especially when it came to women. “Photographing is perception (seeing) and description (operating the camera to make a record) of the seeing,” Garry Winogrand said. Far from being the “truth,” “The photograph is an illustration of what the camera saw,” as Winogrand asserted. The experience of the photograph is only the experience of the photograph. The camera cannot lie, but the camera cannot tell the truth; the camera can only transform. As Winnogrand stated, “I photograph to find out what the world looks like photographed.” “I don’t have anything to say in any picture…” The photographer made extreme use of the wide angle lens of his hand-held camera. Not since Ben Shahn had a photographer framed his images in such a skewed off-center manner.

Vernacular photography does not tell stories or sentimentalize but describes the political and social world and culture of a period. Winnogrand’s tilted camera was an extension of the mood of New York City, on the other hand, Lee Friedlander linked his work to the theory of photography through the more radical use of public subject matter. His works were constructed like collage in the fragmented and discontinuous parts, put together in a manner borrowed icons directly from Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Like Frank, Friedlander took a trip across America and the photographs of this journey are often an homage.

Like Frank, Friedlander like the blocked view, the plate glass window, the television screen. Friedlander was fascinated with ambiguity, using reflections and shadows to confuse the viewer and making it unclear where the photographer was standing when the photograph was taken. If Winnogrand made his presence known by his position as stalker and mocking observer, Friedlander was both a visible and invisible presence. Often inside the photograph and part of the image, Friedlander is both the taker and the taken in his own photographs. The result is an internal chaos within the strictly controlled formal composition.

In contrast to the studied and stubborn banality of Friedlander, Diane Arbus sought the unusual and the grotesque. Often guilty of exploitation and voyeurism, Arbus explored unconventional people to the point that the content often overwhelmed the form. No one could be more cruel than Diane Arbus who had a life long fascination for exhibitionism, both her own and the strangeness of others. The daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, Arbus lived her life as a protected observer of all those who are considered “strange” in America, the lower classes, the fat, the ugly, the deformed, the old, the short, the tall.

“For me the subject of the photograph is always more important than the picture…” as Diane Arbus described her merciless style of detachment. She became a favorite of those magazines that supported avant-garde photography, such as Esquire, and did not, like Winnogrand and Friedlander publish photographic books. Her subjects were widely skewed from freaks to the rich and powerful who were a freak in their own way. Her strange and moody temperament drive her obsessive and disturbing probing style that inspired Norman Mailer to say, “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like giving a hand grenade to a baby.” It is impossible to look at the image of a young boy clutching a hand grenade, the stunned king and queen of the Senior Ball, the giant and his parents without wondering about the connection between these riveting images and her mental illness.

Vernacular photography gave rise to Conceptual Photography, which explores straight photography radically, by parodying the vernacular with unexpected insight, wit, and humor. Many of these successors to the trio, Arbus, Winnogrand, and Friedlander, used the flash, instead of ambient light, and color photography in preference to black and white. The ironic content of Joel Sternfeld, the unexpected beauty of Joel Meyerowitz and the topographic landscapes of Stephen Shore, Jan Groover and William Eggelston reinforced the disappearance of the photo-essay. The images are so strong, that in the tradition of their predecessors, each image stands on its own. The unprecedented exploration of straight photography resulted in a topographical description of 1960s and 1970s.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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