Friday, April 1, 2011

Walls, Walks and Aaron Suskind

There is so much good stuff written about photography that I wish I could share it all but few seem interested. Those that know my photography are familiar with my Wall and Walks project which has been ongoing for many years. Actually I can trace the project back to seeing a show of the photographs of Aaron Suskind at the Dallas Museum of Art back in the late fifties or early sixties. I in no way claim to do it nearly as well as Suskind, but it is still a project that I greatly enjoy.

The show in Dallas included both Suskind’s The Divers which is nothing short of street ballet performed in space and his dramatic abstracts of walls. I knew I would never do anything similar to The Divers but I was carries away by the abstracts. I remember seeing two shows at the Dallas Art Museum, the Suskind show and Andreas Feininger’s Trees. Both have been influential in my thinking on photography.

Every night at bed time I do a little reading and currently I am reading John Sarkowski’s Looking at Photographs: 100 pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Last night I came to a photograph of Suskind’s that Sarkowski was commenting on and what he said really resonated with me so I want to share a couple of thoughts from Sarkowski’s writing.

First he tells a story from Eric Ambler’s book Epitaph for a Spy were a young photographer was detained by the authorities on suspicion of being a secret agent because of some compromising photographs on a roll of his film. The suspicion was heightened by the last twenty images on the roll; all twenty were photographs of the same lizard. The authorities speculated that no one would take twenty photographs of a lizard unless they were anxious to complete the roll of film and have it processed. The photographer explained, “if you know anything about photography… you would notice that each one of is lighted differently, that in each one the shadows are massed in different ways. The fact that the object photographed is in every case is a lizard is unimportant.”

Szarkowski, takes issue with the photographers answer. He rephrases the photographer’s reply thinking that he might have meant to say, “…the fact that the object is a lizard does not make the photograph a lizard, which would have been true.” [Woodard’s, the photograph is not the object photographed.]

Here is Swarkowski’s words, “ The object is raw material, not art, and it is the nature of the artist’s adventure to recast this material under the pressure of his own formal will, transforming it into something distinct from what it was. Nevertheless, his choice of the particular dross that he will spin into gold is an important matter, for his raw material is both his collaborator and his adversary.”

Then Swarkowski tells about Suskind’s early beginnings in photography as an architectural photographer as well as a photographer of the people of the city engaged in their every day pursuits, social documentation. However what I found interesting about Suskind is what followed.

“In the beginning of the forties, he turned toward subject matter that was less obstinate in retaining its intrinsic, public meanings, that would stand still for a closer scrutiny and a more clear, deliberate and willful molding under the sovereignty of formal concern. The most frequently recurring of these subjects was the detail of the urban wall; a fragment of the city’s surface so small and anonymous that it carried neither social nor architectural implications. Within the microcosm Siskind made pictures of great visual beauty, almost (but not quite) free of the tugging presence of the mundane world. Not quite, for the wall, transfigured and metamorphosed remains, a souvenir of time and men’s intentions.”

I guess the line that grabbed me was the one about, “…a fragment of the city’s surface so small and anonymous that it carried neither social nor architectural implications.”

The Aaron Suskind Foundation
Looking at Photographs

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