Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs
Curated by Aaron Schuman
This essay was first published in Contemporary U.S. Photography (Amsterdam: Schilt, 2010).
Seeking support for what eventually became The Americans (1958), Robert Frank conceded in his 1954 Guggenheim Fellowship application that “‘The photographing of America’ is a large order—read at all literally, the phrase would be an absurdity.” Similarly, to curate an exhibition that represents and succinctly defines the whole of contemporary photography within the United States more fifty years on, read at all literally, seems equally absurd. In practical terms, the country’s current photographic landscape, with its sheer volume and vast variety, offers any aspiring surveyor an expansive visual territory that would be impossible to chart fully or accurately. As Frank also noted, photographs of America are “anywhere and everywhere—easily found, not easily selected and interpreted.”
In “Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence”, Tod Papageorge notes that Evans’s seminal 1938 monograph, American Photographs, was “bound in black…bible cloth, the cover of hymnals.” The book has certainly lived up to its binding in recent decades, having gained a reputation and importance of nearly biblical proportions, particularly within American photographic circles, where its influence can be perceived far beyond Evans’s most literal, obvious, and immediate disciples. And as its title suggests, Evans’s tome might serve as an ideal starting point for an exploration of how the United States is both seen in, and related to, photography. John Szarkowski once wrote, “It is difficult to know now with certainty whether Evans recorded the America of his youth, or invented it. Beyond doubt, the accepted myth of our recent past is in some measure the creation of this photographer, whose work has persuaded us of the validity of a new set of clues and symbols bearing on the question of who we are. …[I]t is now part of our history.”
In the introductory essay written for American Photographs in 1938, Lincoln Kirstein stated:
Over the course of the last eighteen months, the economic, social, cultural, and political climates of both the United States and the world at large have frequently been likened to those of Evans’s time. Despite our survival of the Great Depression, as well as the rest of the twentieth century, similar symptoms of waste and selfishness have recurred, and once again we find ourselves in an age that is seemingly threatened with, if not in the midst of, imminent collapse. The exhibition "Whatever Was Splendid" represents an attempt to explore the parallels that exist—in America and in photography—between our own time and that of Evans, as well as the enduring power of American Photographs as discerned through contemporary photographic practice within the United States. The artists who are included in this exhibition undoubtedly reflect the originality, ingenuity, and multiplicity of voices and visions that can be found within current U.S. photography, but they all inherently possess a familiar “burrowing eye” as well, and share Evans’s determination to record, testify, and salvage what they can of their own precarious age for potential future survivors.
Todd Hido’s work possesses a similar sense of enchantment with the rejected, but it leaves the city behind, first turning to suburbia in Foreclosed Homes (1996-1997) and then retreating to rural byways in A Road Divided (2008-2009). Yet Hido’s imagery suggests that he is less interested in the spurned objects that he photographs than in the light, the space, and the atmosphere that inhabit them, leaning more toward the lyrical rather than the documentary side of the photographic spectrum as delineated by Evans. In both series, Hido certainly elevates the everyday, yet does so not through the presence of things, but rather through their absence, and the subtle aura that is left behind. The interiors presented in Foreclosed Homes—rooms almost entirely stripped bare, with only the soft light left seeping in through their windows—certainly testify to both specific events and a wider state of affairs within America today, but they do so in a hushed whisper. Similarly, the bleak and bleary byways of A Road Divided seem to hum quietly in a minor key, reflecting a long and troublesome journey ahead while also hinting at the possibility of change just over the horizon.
Greg Stimac’s video Peeling Out (2007) presents a sequence of country roads quite similar to those found in Hido’s body of work, but rather than humming, it screeches and roars as a series of pickup trucks, muscle cars, classic roadsters, and Trans Ams race with unjustified urgency into the distance. With each cut to a new road and a new vehicle, a distinct sense of frustration, anger, and aggression grows as tires spin and smoke rises, which then gradually dissipates as the cars ease out of view. Despite the fact that this work consists of moving images, there is a straightness and determined stillness to Stimac’s camerawork—a matter-of-factness—that recalls that of Evans and lends a familiar “visual power” to both the subject before the camera and the artist behind it. Again, as Evans himself stated, “There is a deep beauty in things as they are.”
Craig Mammano’s A Few Square Blocks (2006-2009), a collection of remarkably intimate portraits made in New Orleans, employs an unapologetic rawness in style and approach that shifts notions of sexualization and exploitation from the implicit to the explicit. His subjects, women who pose both clothed and unclothed, oscillate between elegance and desperation, confronting the viewer with a brazen openness that is equally refreshing and disconcerting. Both literally and figuratively, these women bare themselves to the camera, and assume a nakedness of spirit as well as of body that is rarely achieved within the contemporary photographic portrait. Instead of cloaking the female—and in particular the female nude—in sexual performance, fantasy, lust, and desire, as so much of American media does today, Mammano’s roughly hewn pictures genuinely uncover his subjects’ individuality, presenting them as candidly as possible. Both the photographs and the women possess, in Evans’s words, a “purity and a certain severity, rigor, simplicity, directness, clarity…without artistic pretension in a self-conscious sense of the word.”
With a similar sense of rigor, simplicity, directness, and clarity, Jane Tam’s Foreigners in Paradise (2006-2008) examines the hybridization of culture and national identity that she herself has experienced within her own Chinese-American home. Having adopted an Evans-like “straight” strategy, Tam sets out not to explore and define symbols representative of the United States at large, but rather to discern what clues of her grandparents’ Chinese heritage remain as the family becomes more and more Americanized with each successive generation. Within a conventional American setting, small details—such as red flip-flops left by a door, the walls of a kitchen protected with tinfoil, and her grandparents scouring the local park for ginkgo nuts brought down by heavy rains—all point to remnants of traditional Chinese life. And yet the photographic approach and surrounding mise-en-scène suggest that, for Tam and the other relatives of her generation portrayed in the photographs, such sights are as American as any other.
Alternatively, Richard Mosse follows the United States, its military might, and its frontline soldiers into foreign lands—the deserts of Iraq—where he cunningly extracts some of the American sights and symbols that they have transported with them from home. In The Fall (2009), the prevalent theme of the derelict automobile returns yet again, although in these instances the vehicles have not only been abandoned and torched, but riddled with bullets and blown to pieces by bombs as well. The metal corpses lie destroyed and disgraced in a vast no-man’s-land, at once terrifying testaments to war and eerily beautiful memento mori, soon to be subsumed by the approaching sand storm.
In his photographic series Breach (2009) and its video counterpart, Theatre of War (2009), Mosse shifts his tone from the sublime to the ridiculous, documenting soldiers as they leisurely occupy and inhabit the lavish ruins of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. They lounge by a giant turquoise swimming pool, casually lift weights in sun-drenched courtyards, and calmly smoke cigarettes whilst taking in the view. Such scenes would not seem out of place in the mansions of Malibu or on the boardwalks of Venice Beach if it weren’t for the surrounding rubble, the combat fatigues, the inconspicuous heavy weaponry, and the scorched Arabian desert stretching off into infinity.
It is important to note that Evans was perfectly conscious of, and fascinated by, the inherent relativity, imperfect subjectivity, and deceptive clarity of the photographic image, both in terms of others’ images and his own. Szarkowski once wrote that “a beginning photographer hopes to learn to use the medium to describe the truth; the intelligent journeyman has learned that there is not enough film to do that,” and Evans was certainly one such journeyman. As his title affirms, American Photographs is about both a country and a medium in equal measure; its opening sequence of images—License Photo Studio, Penny Picture Display, Faces, Political Poster—more than hints at the fact that the book is as much an interrogation of photography as it is of America, if not more so.
Similarly, in The Week Of No Computer (2007-2009), Michael Schmelling focuses not so much on any particular subject matter in the obvious sense, but rather on the process of looking for, looking at, making, and manipulating photographic images from the perspective of one who is obsessed with, and heavily involved in, the medium in its many contemporary forms. Like Evans, Schmelling embraces the act of openly referencing photography , even making pictures of pictures: one photograph captures a William Eggleston print casually hanging on the wall of a corporate-looking corridor, and another shows a framed portrait of a young Evans himself with a spookily similar picture of Hedi Slimane, torn from The New Yorker, pinned beneath it. Furthermore, amongst his traditionally “straight” photographs, Schmelling incorporates a number of experiments, including double exposures, photocopies, creased posters, flatbed scans, and pictures laid on top of other pictures, as well as self-referential snapshots that curiously explore his own surroundings as a photographer: stacks of Kodak print boxes, a Polaroid image of his own camera, a darkroom enlarger, exposure notes, outtakes, tearsheets, contact sheets, and so on. Again, there is certainly a “rigor, simplicity, directness, and clarity” at work here, but there is also a fascinating self-consciousness that, through its sincerity, manages to escape the dreaded realms of “artistic pretension.” Perhaps the project is cryptically summed up best by the note Schmelling scrawled to himself on a picture he pulled from a book and then scanned into a diaristic image of his own: “reading/looking at walker evans book standing naked in your office.”
Hank Willis Thomas’s Unbranded (2006-2008) is likewise interested in interrogating the photographic medium itself and, more specifically, what he calls the “empire of signs”—or what Roland Barthes called the “what-goes-without-saying”—in advertising photography. Thomas also makes pictures out of pictures, in this case appropriating and manipulating magazine advertisements from the last forty years that have targeted African American consumers or featured African American subjects. The resulting images—stripped of their branding and context—poignantly reveal a number of disturbing stereotypes, generalizations, and aspirational assumptions that reside deep within contemporary American culture, and uncover a number of painful truths about the country’s attitudes regarding race, gender, class, and ethnicity. Perhaps even more curious is the fact that Evans’s first chapter contains a similar experiment: two cropped details of advertising posters featuring African Americans, both entitled Minstrel Showbill, from 1936. And for all intents and purposes, not much seems to have dramatically changed in terms of the visual language surrounding race in America, despite the passing of more than seventy years.
In some ways, Nirvana (2007-2009), a series of photographs collected and then re-presented by Jason Lazarus, reverses Thomas’s approach in that it takes amateur snapshots (never originally intended for general consumption) and provides them with a purely public platform and context, enabling the photographs to both individually and collectively reflect much broader cultural issues. To make this work, Lazarus posed a question: “Do you remember who introduced you to the band Nirvana?” He asked other people to send him an answer written on the back of a photograph, and then scanned, enlarged, and framed a selection of the submitted images, with their corresponding texts handwritten onto the prints themselves. Remarkably, this simple question provoked a number of astonishingly tender and painful responses, which together, amongst other things, paint a subtly moving portrait of male roles, relationships, identities, and masculinity within the United States today: “Dave…introduced me to Nirvana…he carved my name into his arm”; “Mikey, my mom’s second husband…he was around until I was 13”; “My father introduced me to all grunge music”; “I listened to Nevermind for the first time with [my uncle]…I lost him to AIDS in 1994.” In addition, these photographs and their accompanying texts convey a sincerity, an authenticity, even a sense of truthfulness that most of today’s publicly exhibited photographs lack, specifically because Nirvana’s imagery is not the considered creation of a single, purposeful, “professional” photographer, but is instead the result of a large, collective effort evidencing very private, personal memories.
Finally, Tema Stauffer, who focused American masculinity and male adolescence in her portraiture series The Ballad of Sad Young Men (2008), includes several such portraits within her broader and more extensive body of work: American Stills (1997-2009). Returning to the eclecticism of the first chapter of American Photographs, and under a similarly sweeping heading, Stauffer presents an assortment of sharply poetic observations of a country that at times can be angry, melancholy, brutal, and cold, but can also be enchantingly majestic and profoundly moving. Throughout the series there is a critical yet immensely forgiving sense of real compassion at work—a profound love for the subject, with all of its flaws—which strikes straight at the soul of the matter, in the most ordinary places and everyday moments. Rather than simply testifying to waste, selfishness, imminent collapse, and so on, Stauffer’s Stills represent a truly committed and heartfelt attempt at unearthing the “splendid” from the “whatever” of contemporary America.
At its heart, "Whatever Was Splendid" is centrally informed by the legacy of American Photographs, and by Evans’s vital contributions to the nation’s photographic traditions, as well as the practice of photographing of the United States in general. But it is by no means intended as a nostalgic update or sentimental plea for photography (or, for that matter, America) to return to its past. As much as Evans’s legacy has provided both the inspiration and a reinforcing framework for the exhibition (and, in many cases, for the work of the participating photographers), "Whatever Was Splendid" is first and foremost the manifestation of a fertile terrain—that of contemporary photographic practice within the United States—where Szarkowski’s “slow clockwork of germination” continues to develop, adapt, propagate, and flourish in a variety of fresh and fascinating ways. Consciously or not, all the photographers represented here have, in their own distinct ways, expanded upon many of the themes, strategies, clues, symbols, “certain sights, [and] certain relics of American civilization past or present” first glimpsed in American Photographs. And like Evans, they have both reinvigorated American photography and redefined their country—conceptually, aesthetically, culturally, politically, historically, photographically, and so on—within very contemporary terms, celebrating both the United States and its photography, as Kirstein put it, “with all [its] clear, hideous and beautiful detail, [its] open insanity and pitiful grandeur."