Most people don’t know that I ran a film society for 18 years. Officially I still do, but I haven’t hosted a screening since the coronavirus rudely interrupted my attempts to bring art appreciation to the masses. I’ve also made seven feature films, twice as many experimental shorts, and I’ve been cameraman on a few films as well, including one on the Seattle Women Black Panthers.
Despite that I’ve rarely written film criticism. Originally I made that decision because I was already making films in the sloppy mess of pre-grunge Seattle and I felt the need not to be writing critically about people I worked alongside. Once I rid myself of that naivete, I found nevertheless that I was uninterested in writing about film because I disliked reading about film. Film writing had already become academic and flatulent with pretentious post-structuralist tommyrot. It would have been impossible in that environment for me to talk about cinema in a way that interested me. I was too cerebral for the thumbs up crowd, and too antagonistic to academics and Jump Cut-reading hipsters. So there was simply no audience.
But really, I was already a filmmaker, making experimental films. Why write about them? As Scott MacDonald had written in his fabulous series A Critical Cinema, experimental film was already criticism. A far, far better criticism in fact than listening to a gaggle of over-educated, under-intelligent knuckleheads attempting to justify their fanboy prejudices with half-regurgitated chunks of Barthes, Derrida, and Metz.
Unsurprisingly, I have felt the same way about photography. As bad as film writing is, photography is several degrees worse. Both share at least one reason for being awful. Academics of the 1960s and 70s had to prove that both were “serious art” to their Establishment colleagues — presumably to justify the creation of MFA programs. They decided the best way to accomplish this was with “elevated” writing (read: impenetrable bollocks) that was supposed to make the subject seem worthy of extended analysis. Such writing relied upon the latest trendy university speak, mostly French structuralists and deconstructeurs. The acceptance of this tactic ensured that a certain kind of writing, opaque yet empty, was overvalued; overvalued, too, was obscurantism itself. But photography had an additional problem that cinema did not. It was collectible.
The moment that art collectors and museum acquisitions departments entered the ring, photography lost something. If you’re Duane Michals, you’d say it lost its soul. I’m not quite that pessimistic but I certainly understand his condemnation. Photography as precious artifact and receptacle of fashionable postmodernism attracted practitioners, curators, educators, and audiences whose primary stakes were in making money by meaning nothing — or meaning whatever was profitable.
Photography also had the added problem of how to deal with equivalence. If I can be slightly simplistic, the existence of equivalence in photography means that at any given moment an image can mean anything to anyone. I quote Minor White:
Any photograph, regardless of source, might function as an Equivalent to someone, sometime, someplace. If the individual viewer realizes that for him what he sees in a picture corresponds to something within himself—that is, the photograph mirrors something in himself—then his experience is some degree of Equivalence.
If I’m feeling basic Weltschmerz, I can take a picture of an empty parking lot and voila. My picture is about Weltschmerz. Can’t you feel the emptiness, the lack of humanity in those parallel lines? This strength so lauded by Minor White is also a weakness. It makes art exactly what Picasso feared, “just an old grab bag for everyone to reach into and pull out what he himself has put in….a market basket or a woman’s handbag, full of combs, hairpins, lipstick, old love letters and keys to the garage.” In his defense, White was careful to remind readers that equivalence was a process of self-acknowledgment and spiritual connection between human beings via the photograph as intermediary. But in a world that wages war against all things spiritual as it obsesses over the immediate and the concrete, such reminders were, and remain, easy to ignore.
I try to keep things like this in mind when I encounter a photograph like this.
On the level of pure “evidence,” this picture likely comes from the late 19th Century. It’s printed on fairly heavy stock, not unlike the kind used for stereographs of that period. The aspect ratio is certainly not the traditional 5:4 of a view camera. It’s more likely 1.44:1 (I’m guessing because I’m too lazy to measure it), which would likely indicate a hand-held camera, possibly a Kodak Brownie. The corset that the person is wearing is certainly pre-Edwardian, maintaining the typical hourglass of the 1860s-1890s. The hat looks straight out of the US Navy 1890-1910; it is dark, flat and wide, the kind the old sailors in my grandma’s circle used to call girl bait. “The wider the brim, the saltier the sailor” as the saying went.
Those breeches, tho. Cut above the knee like young boys’ knee pants of the 1880s-1890s, showing off the legs at a time when most women were wearing dresses so long that scarcely an ankle was ever seen. More notable still is the smoking cigarette. The film speed of the camera is slow enough to turn the smoke coming forth from the subject’s lips into a kind of misty cone of fog. The posture of the subject is upright, prepossessed yet relaxed.
I’ve shown this photograph to a number of my friends, male and female. Without exception they find it to be a portrait of a self-assured, rebellious woman, cool like ice. All of them admire it.
It strikes me as a portrait of a Gay Nineties era prostitute. But an odd one. She isn’t sitting. She isn’t even suggesting “Come hither to me.” Her eyes aren’t looking at the viewer. Nevertheless, she’s certainly showing off all the things that Victorian dress would hide: legs, cleavage (accented by the black stole), arms, and skin in general. The sailor’s hat hints at the clientele.
I happen to adore this photograph. I also happen to respect prostitutes and sex workers. And I can see where my friends wouldn’t look deeply enough at the clues in the photograph to come to a similar conclusion about its subject matter. The symbols in the picture connect with them is a way that implies liberation or punk or something like those. After all, smoking by women was actually criminalized around the time of this picture, at least in New York and New England generally. Legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt caused a ruckus on her American tour nearly every hotel she attended, all because she smoked publicly. Also the woman is not a rail-thin, heroin-chic, post-Twiggy ideal of beauty. She’s plump and has curves even without the help of a corset. Yet here she is, letting it all hang out. And if the old sailors’ wisdom about hats is true, the wide brim indicates this is a very salty woman indeed. Since my friends are without exception all feminists, of course they admire the confidence and comfort this woman shows in herself. That it’s for show doesn’t occur to them. The photograph of her, in a sense, functions as an Equivalent for them.
And I suppose that has to be fine.
I enjoy the simplicity and directness of this photograph. I’m not inclined to write an essay prompted by it about the role of women in society and drop all the fashionable post-Freudian terms into discussion about it and “the male gaze.” But others would. And they’d do it without shame — especially if the anonymous photographer was actually a trained middle class white art school student. Isn’t the entire reputation of Cindy Sherman based on photographs exactly like this one? Why then should this photo not be elevated to the level of collectible art for the bourgeoisie?
As a critic, I simply have no interest in that game. I am interested in what’s actually inside of frames, buoyed by connections that are factual, and speculations that first proceed from the picture outward rather than from my prejudices inward. Too much contemporary writing about art — indeed writing about every subject — is fundamentally about the writer, with only a momentary obeisance to the actual subject.
Photography and its curious nature as an inhuman-looking machine-made thing provokes this kind of self-indulgence more readily than any other art, even more so when pictures are viewed as individual images in isolation rather than in sequences. Sequence tends to lead one toward meaning step by step so there is less likelihood of complete misreading. Cinema at least is always sequential. Photography generally is too, but that fact remains hidden to people who are simply buried in decontextualized images that have arbitrary text applied to them. It’s my critical duty to work against that trend. Equivalents are for seekers, those looking for self-awareness and that thing people call Spirit. Yet for me, to quote Picasso one more time, “For me, a picture is neither an end nor an achievement but rather a lucky chance and art experience. I try to represent what I have found, not what I am seeking.” (emphasis mine)
The rest is up to you.