HOPES AND FEARS
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.
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