Monday, April 25, 2011
I just started a book by Geoff Dyer called "The Ongoing Moment." It's a long, rambling essay about the nature of photography, and it's easily the best writing on the subject that I've ever come across. Dyer talks about how a few photographers starting in the 1920s redefined the artform by attempting to understand what photography does best, and how the personality and philosophy of the photographer could influence the result.
What does black and white photography do best? Well, it's pretty good at making things look shabby and pathetic. It's good for shooting old people with a lot of cracks and crevices in their faces. It was the perfect medium to document the Depression and the squalid life of the early immigrants in New York City. Look how shabby Walker Evans' barber shop is above. The real shop was probably a fairly happy and social place, but the colorless photo makes it look like a compartment in Hell.
Black and white amateur photography was also pretty good at making people look old-fashioned. People in B&W photos, even ones taken in the 1950s, look like figures in a Mathew Brady picture. You feel sorry for them. The medium makes them look like automatons, pathetically playing out the roles history had given them to play. Even smiles in those old photos look like expressions of bravado in the face of a hopelessly primitive and gruesome existence.
Eventually cheap, color photography came around and we finally had a medium that could take pictures of happy, youthful subjects. The same smiles that photographed like forced bravado only a few years ago now looked completely sincere and joyfull.
In my opinion one of the several important reasons for the youth rebellion in the 60s was the proliferation of Kodachrome. The young generation looked so hip and cheerful in their pictures, and their parents looked so stolid and shabby in theirs. To teenagers thumbing through scrapbooks and magazines in that era, it must have appeared that a new and improved real world had come into existence in their time. You can see where that would lead to a generation gap.
Aaaargh! I meant to write about Dyer's ideas and I got sidetracked into talking about my own. I'll post more about this interesting book as I read farther into it.
Posted by Eddie Fitzgerald at 1:06 AM