Spring 2006 Book Reviews
Photography: A Critical Introduction and Worth at Least A Thousand Theories, Too
Third Edition, Ed. Liz Wells, Routledge, 2004
382 pp, $39.95.
by Terence Doody
In the opening lines of Photography: A Critical Introduction, the editor Liz Wells writes: "This book...offers an overview of conceptual issues relating to photography and to ways of thinking about photographs. It considers the photograph as an artifact used in different ways and circumstances, ...practices which take place in particular contexts. Thus it is essentially about reading photographic images rather than about their making." And everything flows from this conscientious and unredeem-ably correct premise—including the fact that there are not enough photographs in this sea of theory.
This is a text book, first, but also an anthology of essays produced by Wells and five colleagues from universities in England and the school of cultural criticism that grows from the works and leftist sympathies of Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and John Berger. The authors take great pains to warn the student-reader that all of them have a personal stake in these arguments, but that none of them wants to claim any final authority, and they are proud of the debates and discrepancies that have deconstructed the book before we have even gotten to it. Nonetheless, the whole thing has a pretty uniform attitude and approach. What else are friends for?
The first chapter, written by Wells herself and Derrick Price, is an overview of the critical and theoretical issues in which photography has always
been embedded. The traditional first question—is photography art?—is relegated to the penultimate chapter, the sixth, and followed by the book's climax, an excellent, up-to-the-minute account of the implications of electronic imaging—the digitaliza-tion of everything—which in fact renews the old, first questions about art and its ontology, the eye and the world. In some of the other four chapters, fashion photography is reduced to an aspect of commodity culture (I guess because fantasy is not serious enough). Photographing the body is virtually consumed in the politics of heterosexual pornography, and the critical rhetoric often sounds like this passage quoted from Julian Stallabrass:
"Tagg presents 'documentary'—which includes documentary photography—as 'a liberal, corporatist plan to negotiate economic, political and cultural crises through a linked programme of structural reforms, relief measures, and a cultural intervention aimed at restructuring the order of discourse, appropriating dissent, and rescuing the threatened bonds of social consent.' In this retrospective view which entirely discounts the beliefs of those individuals involved—including some who were committed to overthrowing capitalism—the complex and diverse currents of documentary photography serve the conspiracy by which the system survives." (105-6)
But the pages of this book usually look like a friendly computer screen. In the wide margins, designed for taking notes, there are constant references to other sources and opposing views; definitions of key terms, which are printed in the text in boldface (carte-de-visite, mutoscope, photomontage); thumbnail sketches of historical luminaries like Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, Siegfried Kracauer, and Jean Baudrillard, among many others; and very fast reviews of basic books such as Susan Sontag's On Photography and Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. All of these serve as "links" to the book's glossary, its list of photographic archives, and the generous bibliography. Although the format enacts the authors' dispersal of authority, it is also a responsible model of generosity toward the students they address in print.
However, starting a textbook with a critical survey is deadly, and reading the whole thing from start to finish reminded me of the summers I spent on forced march through Janson's History of Art and Spiro Kostof's History of Architecture: two other numbing noble tomes. I began to think about how I'd use this book in the English classes I teach, where I've used Sontag, Barthes, and John Szarkowski's Looking at Photographs. I was reading Balzac's Pere Goriotas I was reading chapter five, "The Subject as Object: Photographing the Human Body." Before the pornography issue takes over, phrenology and physiognomy are treated in terms of their relation to nineteenth-century ideas of representation. Balzac relies on these sciences with great faith, as does every novelist who ever describes a character's face as a window on to the soul. In the overwhelmingly materialistic nineteenth century, the soul's location is a serious problem. If it does still exist, where is it? If it has become "spirit,"
is it therefore an attenuated form of energy, or a form of history itself, in Hegel's sense of "spirit"? And can the camera, a scientific instrument in this material context, still make art, be an art-machine?
I'd use Photography: A Critical Introduction by teaching not the whole thing but the parts that open into the arguments that interest me. I don't think teaching and learning are as well-served by an even-handed correctness about everything as they are by passion and advocacy of what matters most. The students will learn another version of what matters most in their other classes. This is why we have constructed the university curriculum as we have, so each discipline can deconstruct the others.
There is a great deal of information in Wells' Photography and an ultimately liberating format for using it. The section in chapter one called "Case Study: Image Analysis: The Example of 'Migrant Mother,'" Dorothea Lange's politically loaded icon, is excellent; and it would have been a wonderful way to have started the entire book—by building up from an image rather than by descending from a theory on high. In chapter five, on personal and popular photographs, Patricia Holland makes a distinction between users and readers of personal pictures (117-118). Users know the people in the snapshot, who took it, and why. They are themselves the picture's context. Readers are strangers who place the snapshot in other contexts and study it then as information or art. In the spirit of this difference, I think, this is a better book for those who learn to use it than for those who simply read it. And there is a nice contradiction here.
Most of us, I think, experience most of the photographs we see as users. We are the images' context, and our "experience" is the operative value. When the meaning of the image is so heavily stressed and the apparatus outweighs the imagery, the fun's stamped out. That's what textbooks do, unfortunately, and the reason we still need teachers to be undigitalized, live, and in color.
Terence Doody teaches in the English Department at Rice University
The Covarrubias Circle: Nickolas Muray's Collection of Twentieth-Century Mexican Art
Kurt Heinzelman, General Editor Peter Mears, Curator of Art
University of Texas Press, 2004, 183 pp.
by Lois Parkinson Zamora
A combination exhibition catalogue and cultural history, The Covarrubias Circle orbits around two artists in New York City during the twenties and thirties, one a Hungarian photographer, the other a Mexican polymath: painter, writer, set designer, archeologist and anthropologist, curator, collector and cultural commentator. The friendship and collaboration of Nickolas Muray and Miguel Covarrubias in avant garde New York (read Greenwich Village), and the modernist movement that flourished there, is the subject of the several essays and the many illustrations in this book.
Modernism in New York (and Paris and Mexico City, for that matter) was international and transcultural, as the collaboration of our Hungarian and Mexican artists already suggests. Their own production is the primary focus of this book, but our attention is also called to the amazing reach of Mexican modernism as it operated in (and on) New York. Several of the great Mexican modernists worked there, and Covarrubias introduced them to Muray. Among them were Rufino Tamayo, Roberto Montenegro, Juan Soriano, Guillermo Meza and Frida Kahlo (who, for a time, was Muray's lover). Muray collected their work, and he also photographed them—in groups, at work, posed, at play. One of the most famous photographs of Frida
Kahlo was taken by Muray in New York: Kahlo, age thirty, wears a magenta rebozo (shawl) and gazes enigmatically at the camera. An essay by Nancy Deffebach traces the influence of this single photograph, among the hundreds of "celebrity photographs" taken by Muray in his New York studio.
This, then, is what is meant by the book's title. "The Covarrubias circle" was not a consciously constituted group or aesthetic program but rather a historical moment in which diverse cultural energies converged and cohabited. By extension, "the Covarrubias circle" refers to Muray's art collection, now housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, and exhibited there last year. The purpose of this book is to document the collection and its relation to the history of American modernism.
The word "modernism" appears in most, if not all, of the six essays in this volume. The authors use it to place Muray and Covarrubias in their New York context, but the term has greater application, of course. Modernism encompasses a vast array of artistic products—visual, verbal, aural, kinetic—produced in Europe, the US, and Latin America during the first half of the twentieth century and well into the second half of the century in many places. The inclusiveness of the term sometimes blurs necessary distinctions, but it is, nonetheless, useful in reminding us that the arts are not separate, that artists do not live in generic or cultural vacuums, and that many modernists worked across media and cultures. The term overarches a variety of "isms," including avant garde movements—indeed, in Spanish, "modernism" is best translated asvanguardia or vanguardismo, not as modernismo, which refers instead to an earlier, post-Romantic literary movement.
In fact, modernism is usually treated as a transatlantic conversation, with artists and influences moving across the Atlantic along an east/west axis, but there was also a strong north/ south axis, as The Covarrubias Circle shows. This, perhaps, is the volume's primary contribution. How Mexican expressive forms are "modernist," that is, how they relate to modernism as an international artistic movement, has been too little studied. Rivera's "muralism," Kahlo's "surrealism," Tamayo's "primitivism," Covarrubias' caricatures, which extend a particularly Mexican artistic tradition of social satire called "calaveras"—what these media share and how they differ from other modernist products remains to be considered in depth.
Modernism naturally encompasses contradictory phenomena: art works that are elitist and conservative (hermetic, erudite, ironic, self-reflexive), or popularizing and political (communal and mass media, indigenous and folk traditions), or art that combines these impulses, its experimental forms constituting a political program, whether dissident or conservative. Most modernists were social and political liberals, but even conservative modernists (T.S. Eliot, for example, or W.B. Yeats or Richard Strauss) were experimental in their artistic practices. Reform, whether artistic or political, was an essential feature of the modernist landscape. Muray and Covarrubias were "modernists" in some of these contradictory ways, and their artistic practice illuminated a small piece of this immense expressive territory.
Nickolas Muray (1892-1965) was born in Hungary and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of twentyone, impelled by the need to escape service in the Austro-Hungarian army, as well as by the desire to enter the flourishing art world of New York City. He was already an established engraver and photographer, and his strength was in studio portraiture. He became one of the preferred photographers of the New York power elite— writers and publishers, entertainers and politicians. The images in our collective consciousness of such figures as George Gershwin, Gloria Swanson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O'Neill and Babe Ruth are, in fact, photos taken by Muray, not to mention Frida Kahlo in her magenta rebozo.
But Muray's work is not subversive of received artistic norms, as we expect modernist art to be. Rather, his portraits show their famous subjects in predictable poses against blank or mottled backgrounds, often looking at the camera, aware of their prestige. Most of the portraits were published in upscale magazines like Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Harper's Bazaar, as was his advertising photography, and later, in mainstream magazines like McCall's and Good Housekeeping. He was an early master of color photography and commercial illustration, so while we may conclude that he was largely a failed modernist with respect to innovative artistic structures, he was an accomplished modernist in his use of mass media—not just in his use of magazines, but in his development of the medium of photography itself.
Today, only Muray's photographs of dancers seem to hold up as valuable works of modernist art. They, too, are highly posed, but the dancers' bodies are taut, geometrical, almost metaphysical, and furthermore, their subjects—Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Rosa Rolanda (Covarrubias's wife) —were incandescent modernists. Muray was a contemporary of the great modernist photographers Steiglitz, Steichen, Bourke-White, Weston, Hines and Evans, but his work in no way equals theirs. Perhaps, in the end, his greatest modernist achievement was his art collection. As I have already suggested, a shared feature of much modernist art is its enthusiasm for cultural difference, and Muray's collection of the Covarrubias circle reflects this enthusiasm.
Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) was born in Mexico City, and traveled to New York in 1923 on a Mexican government grant. He soon met Muray, who helped him find work as an illustrator and caricaturist. Covarrubias, like Muray, worked forVanity Fair and Vogue, as well as Fortune and the New Yorker, and his urbane and insouciant swirls of India ink—a few sinuous lines creating a face or scene—remain defining examples of the "New Yorker style."
These caricatures are sometimes satiric in a way that recalls the verbal jousting of the Algonquin Round Table, and they are often complex cultural commentaries as well. Thus, "drawings" rather than "caricatures" is probably the better way to describe them. In this regard, Covarrubias' drawings of Harlem's cultural scene far surpass those of the rarified social and artistic circles in which he and Muray moved. In 1925, Vanity Fair began to publish his studies of Black cabaret entertainers, which in turn brought him commissions to illustrate ground-breaking books including Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925), W.C. Handy's Blues: An Anthology (1926), and Langston Hughes, first book of poems, The Weary Blues (1926). His own book, Negro Drawings, appeared in 1927. Covarrubias stayed in New York until the mid-thirties, during which time he published several more collections of his drawings, and illustrated many works of literature. This early Covarrubias is well represented in Nickolas Muray's collection, as one might expect, and later facets are also present.
In 1933, Covarrubias was awarded a Guggenheim grant to travel to Bali, where he lived with his wife, the American dancer Rosa Rolanda, for almost two years. An interest in the "primitive" or "exotic" characterizes much modernist art—one thinks immediately of the influence of African artifacts on Picasso and Brancusi, or indigenous Mexican culture on D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. This impulse to include non-Western cultures reflects the dissident side of modernism, its resistance to the rationalism and materialism of Western culture. (This resistance also took the form of stream-of-consciousness fiction, atonal music, expressionist art and other forms of abstraction.) In 1937, Covarrubias published Island of Bali, written in English, illustrated in colored ink and gouache, and published in New York by Alfred Knopf. Sumptuous images of Balinese theatre, dance, musical instruments, fabrics, rituals, and landscapes reflect a keen ethnographic eye. The book was a popular success, and it remains, to this day, a classic work of literature, art, and cultural commentary.
Covarrubias returned to New York after his residence in Bali, but soon moved back to Mexico, where he was yet to do his best work. He had always been intrigued by indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, and now, perhaps inspired by his experience in Bali, he became a serious anthropologist and archeologist. In 1948, he published the companion volume to his study of Bali, a book written and illustrated (again in colorful gouache, again published by Alfred Knopf) entitled Mexico South: The Istmus of Tehuantepec (1946). His images of Tehuanas, the indigenous women of this region, are ground-breaking, both culturally and formally. In ways, they are similar to Frida Kahlo's modernist self-portraits, which often depict her dressed as a Tehuana. Happily, Muray's collection includes a few drawings and gouaches from both Island of Bali andMexico South, but one must go to the books themselves to see the range of their cultural commentary, both in images and words.
The Eagle, the Jaguar and the Serpent followed in 1954.* This book describes and illustrates North American indigenous cultures, and is more scholarly, less anecdotal and intimate, than the previous two. In it, Covarrubias proposed a cultural theory of the Pacific Rim, arguing that American cultures had contact over millennia with Asia and the islands of the South Pacific. Such a transcultural argument was perfectly modernist in its imaginative lineaments (the academic reviews were negative), its mixing of expressive media (his own, and those of his indigenous subjects), and its resistance to national and tribal borders and boundaries. The Eagle, the Jaguar and the Serpent was to be the first of a trilogy; the second was to focus on the indigenous cultures of Central America, the third on South America. The second was published posthumously in 1958.
Even after Covarrubias' move back to Mexico in the mid-thirties, he continued to work in the US, curating part of the exhibition on Mexican art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1940, collaborating with the Mexican American dancer Jose Limon on stage sets for his modern dance performances, and executing a huge mural entitled "The Economy of the Pacific" in San Francisco for the World Fair on Treasure Island. All of these projects reflect the "modernist rage for cultural merger," as Kurt Heinzelman puts it in his introductory essay to this volume. In our postmodernist times, such mergers may seem obvious enough, but the current proposal for a fence—no longer figurative but shamefully literal—along the US/Mexico border suggests just how much we have lost since Covarrubias' time. Indeed, the transcultural energies of modernism were already endangered by the mid-nineteen-fifties. In 1953, Covarrubias, having come and gone freely for three decades, was denied a visa to enter the US. The influence of Senator McCarthy had already taken effect. As we witness our current round of official xenophobia, The Covarrubias Circle does well to remind us that we may (again) aspire to be otherwise.
*Covarrubias's late work is not treated in this volume. For a complete account, see the excellent biography by Adriana Williams, Covarrubias (University of Texas Press, 1994).
Lois Parkinson Zamora is a professor of comparative literature and art at the University of Houston. She co-edited, with Wendy Watriss, "Image and Memory: Photography from Latin America," 1886-1994 (University of Texas Press).