HOPES AND FEARS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY was not in­vented in Amer­ica, and many of its great­est ex­po­nents have been Euro­pean; but some­how Amer­ica feels like its nat­u­ral home. Re­al­ity there is skin deep but vivid, mo­men­tary, un­grounded, with a raw and naive qual­ity that pho­tog­ra­phy is per­fectly adapted to cap­tur­ing.

North Amer­ica rep­re­sented the mod­ern world in its pure form; its great cities were the vis­i­ble crys­talli­sa­tion of evolv­ing in­dus­trial and cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­ety, whereas in Europe the new was al­ways su­per­im­posed on the old, as it had been re­peat­edly since an­tiq­uity, in an ever more com­plex palimpsest.

Europe has al­ways been, and re­mains, the home­land of mem­ory; but when mi­grants moved to Amer­ica, the coun­try of op­por­tu­nity, it seems the im­plicit corol­lary was to leave the past be­hind. Am­ne­sia was a way of abol­ish­ing re­grets and nos­tal­gia, and open­ing one­self to a new be­gin­ning.

Amer­ica it­self was a place with no mem­o­ries for the new ar­rivals, so any­thing was pos­si­ble. Peo­ple whose an­ces­tors had sub­sisted as peas­ants or crafts­men for half a millennium in cen­tral Europe sud­denly trans­formed them­selves into en­trepreneurs and pro­pri­etors, some­times into mil­lion­aires. On the other hand, if things went wrong, ev­ery­thing could van­ish with­out a trace, un­sup­ported by tra­di­tions or com­mu­nal struc­tures.

There is a pho­to­graph by Weegee in Amer­i­can Dreams, at Bendigo Art Gallery, that epit­o­mises this phe­nom­e­non. It shows sev­eral drunks asleep or slumped on a foot­path in about 1940.

The one in the fore­ground wears a pin­striped suit; he was suc­cess­ful or at least re­spectable, it seems, mo­ments ago and now some­thing has gone wrong and his life has slipped into free fall. Once again it is as though his own mem­ory and those of oth­ers con­cern­ing him have been erased and he is no one.

This

dis­con­cert­ing im­age

is one

of an ab­sorb­ing col­lec­tion that Tansy Curtin, the cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion, has cho­sen from the enor­mous hold­ings of East­man House, the for­mer house of Ge­orge East­man, the founder of Ko­dak and the man who made cam­eras widely ac­ces­si­ble at the end of the 19th cen­tury. The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes fa­mil­iar and un­fa­mil­iar im­ages, al­most all of them in orig­i­nal prints made by the pho­tog­ra­phers them­selves, many of them very sub­tle and beau­ti­ful.

The first pic­ture we en­counter is an enig­matic one by which is sug­gested the ex­hi­bi­tion’s ti­tle: it is a night scene by W. Eu­gene Smith (1955), the fore­ground oc­cu­pied by a let­ter­box and a street sign with the sin­gle word Dream; in the mid­dle ground a car is parked at an un­com­fort­able an­gle on the kerb­side. The rest of the com­po­si­tion, strangely still, is filled with dark trees and hedges.

It is a re­minder that this world of al­ter­nat­ing hopes and hope­less­ness has its own dis­tinc­tive weird­ness, the pe­cu­liar mix of am­bi­tion, delu­sion and even mad­ness cap­tured by David Lynch in films such as Mul­hol­land Drive and more re­cently al­luded to in a dif­fer­ent way in an­other film, Sam Men­des’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road, based on the novel by Richard Yates (1962). It is a pic­ture of the mis­ery and tragedy that can re­sult from ill-founded as­pi­ra­tions and the fal­la­cious be­lief in pos­si­bil­ity, which are di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to Euro­pean as­sump­tions of tra­di­tion and con­ti­nu­ity.

If Dream Street serves as a kind of pref­ace, the ex­hi­bi­tion re­ally be­gins with a beau­ti­ful pic­ture of a young girl sketch­ing from na­ture, sub­tle, shad­owy and spar­ingly de­fined by touches of light, taken by Gertrude Kae­se­bier in 1903. She was one of the group that pi­o­neer Al­fred Stieglitz brought to­gether as the Photo-Se­ces­sion­ists, and the sub­ject echoes their be­lief that pho­tog­ra­phy should be taken se­ri­ously as an art form.

The am­bi­tions of the pic­to­ri­al­ists are rep­re­sented in sev­eral early pieces, but the most prom­i­nent ten­dency, and the one that seems to fit the so­cial re­al­i­ties of Amer­ica most aptly, is so­cial doc­u­men­ta­tion. Amer­ica may live in the shal­low fore­ground space of the present rather than the depths of mem­ory, but it has an in­sa­tiable ap­petite for in­tro­spec­tion, in­her­ited, no doubt, from the pu­ri­tan ex­am­i­na­tion of con­science and ex­ac­er­bated by psy­cho­anal­y­sis.

The doc­u­men­tary work is par­tic­u­larly stark, cor­re­spond­ing to the harsh con­di­tions of con­tem­po­rary life, in the pic­tures of a cen­tury ago. Paul Strand’s Blind Woman (1915), for ex­am­ple, with one eye closed and the other open but un­see­ing, off at an an­gle, a la­bel around her neck pro­claim­ing her blind­ness, is like a glimpse into the abyss of an al­most un­live­able ex­is­tence.

Other pic­tures, such as Lewis Hine’s 1905 Climb­ing into Amer­ica, record the ar­rival of the peo­ple who would be­come new Amer­i­cans: cen­tral Euro­pean im­mi­grants are go­ing up a stair­case at El­lis Is­land, soon to aban­don the ex­otic hats and mous­taches they are still wear­ing to be­come mod­ern, well-fed but blank and am­nesic work­ers of the kind evoked in the same pho­tog­ra­pher’s fa­mous Pow­er­house Me­chanic (1920), the un­for­get­table im­age of man serv­ing ma­chine.

Wealth and tech­no­log­i­cal progress are evoked in a re­mark­able im­age by Mar­garet Bourke-White. It is the gi­ant head of an ea­gle, sym­bol of the Chrysler cor­po­ra­tion and fig­ure­head of its cars, made of sheet steel and pro­ject­ing from the com­pany build­ing. The pic­ture re­calls noth­ing so much as the gar­goyles of Notre Dame, of which one of the more elab­o­rate was the sub­ject of a fa­mous etch­ing by Charles Meryon (1850); White’s mod­ern and in­dus­trial gar­goyle sim­i­larly

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