Through the Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People

The documentary explore the role of photography in shaping the identity, aspirations, and social emergence of African Americans from slavery to the present, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People probes the recesses of American history through images that have been suppressed, forgotten, and lost. Bringing to light the hidden and unknown photos shot by both professional and vernacular African American photographers, the film opens a window into the lives of black families, whose experiences and perspectives are often missing from the traditional historical canon. African Americans historically embraced the medium as a way to subvert popular stereotypes as far back as the Civil War era, with Frederick Douglass photographed in a suit and black soldiers posing proudly in their uniforms. The documentary also shows images of whites in blackface enacting stereotypes associated with the ‘Negro in America’. Considering that most blacks in the late 19th and early 20th century were rarely subjects of a photographer’s gaze, blackface images had an opportunity to dominate the pictorial history of African Americans. By authoring images on themselves, African Americans were able to claim ownership of their own history and subvert the dominant racist narrative of the time. These images show a much more complex and nuanced view of American culture and its founding ideals.

Bohemian Soul Mates : Just Kids

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were both born in 1946, at a time when “the iceman” and “the last of the horse-drawn wagons” could still be seen on city streets being a moment of pictographic collision between the imagery of the yesteryear and the modern future . “Just Kids” is named so because it captures a moment when Smith and Mapplethorpe were young, inseparable, completely unknown and perfectly bohemian, to the point in which a tourist couple in Washington Square Park argued about whether they were worth a snapshot in the early autumn of 1967. The woman thought they looked like artists while  the man disagrees, saying dismissively, “They’re just kids.”

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Evidently it seems difficult for Smith to turn the clock back to that innocent time, especially after the events that occur. this difficulty is that “Just Kids” symbolizes and grapples with.

Smith describes the day that Mapplethorpe creates his exquisite androgynous image of her in white shirt, black pants and black jacket for the cover of her “Horses” album. She reminisces about her style, which was full of references explicitly showcasing them in her book. A Patti Smith calendar would include Joan of Arc’s birthday, the day of the Guernica bombing and the day she, as a young bookstore clerk, sat among Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Grace Slick in a bar feeling “an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people.” All the artists who shaped Ms. Smith’s persona, Bob Dylan is arguably the one she worshiped most.

A moving part of the book is her description of the first time she sets eyes on Mapplethorpe, in the back bedroom of a former Brooklyn apartment belonging to some friends. Thus fate introduced Ms. Smith and Mapplethorpe, who would become roommates, soul mates, friends, lovers and muses. Strictly speaking they were never starving artists, but the romanticism of “Just Kids,” and their tenancy in the tiniest room at the Chelsea Hotel, brings them pretty close to that ideal. They went to museums able to afford only one ticket. (The one who saw the exhibition would describe it to the one who waited outside.) They went to Coney Island, able to afford only one hot dog. (Ms. Smith got the sauerkraut.) They loved the same totems and ornaments and flourishes; they valued the same things, though in different ways.

Although much of “Just Kids” unfolds before Mapplethorpe did the taboo-busting, shock-laden photographic work for which he is best remembered. (“I admired him for it, but I could not comprehend the brutality,” Ms. Smith writes of his sadomasochistic imagery.) And it occurs before his illness. (He died of AIDS in 1989.) Of the two of them it was Ms. Smith who made her mark first. Like “Chronicles,” “Just Kids” carries its author to the verge of fame but stops right there on the brink, so that its innocence is never compromised by circumstances too surreal for the reader. This book concentrates purely on the relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe, achieving its aura of the sacrosanct by insisting that the later, more tragic and fraught part of Ms. Smith’s life story belongs elsewhere.

Dark Grasses

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Diane Arbus by  Nona Jolley

In America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly, Susan Sontag takes on three giants of American culture on what eventually focuses a critique of the photographic work and subject matter of Diane Arbus. The architecture of the pieces is held together via the lens of Whitman, whom Sontag argues, set out to stir an all encompassing revolution (starting with culture) that ultimately failed and only recruited the enlightened elite as foot soldiers. In his evaluative view, the “beautiful” and the “ugly” sit alongside on the hierarchy of visual culture; both are worthy of praise and this subjective characteristics are deemed interchangeable. He is not killing the concept of beauty, he is simply expanding it.

The validity of the image, then, is the choice of subject matter – the very choice of becoming photograph ascribes relevance for contemplation and critique. There is no restriction on choice, though some contemporary tropes clearly become problematic. The image is finally liberated from prior evaluative constraints and is now considered through choices.
Walker Evans, especially through his earlier work, is presented as the last true and devoted American soldier of the Whitman crusade. His dedication to framing truth in images, photographs that are “literate, authoritative and transcendent”, are the manifestation of formal beauty. They are as poetic and coercive as Waltman’s Leaves of Grass.
The highly idealized, and arguably stylized, vision of America is shattered and co-opted through the fashionable representation of physiognomic typologies developed by photographers like Steichen and consequently Arbus. The realistic encyclopedic observational archives of human subjects create a problematique of ethics, morals and ownership for the viewer, the photographer and the subject(s) alike.
Sontag turns to the short and controversial career of Diane Arbus as an exploratory minefield of colliding values. Where Steichen created material as a vehicle for inclusiveness, Abus’ material is arguably an exercise in othering.

While the first read of Sontag’s opinion on Arbus seems to discredit the entire ouvre as an elitist exercise by a person of privilege, her nuanced description of the work reveals a more complex relationship with the material. The instinctual reaction is to discredit these iconic images of freaks and the disenfranchised as a superficial exercise of othering – an experiment to show the other face of America. Alternatively, Sontag guides us through a more supportive reading of the work when describing the photographer as a highly complex and wounded human being that is possibly  holding a mirror to her suffering standing tall, looking directly at the world and embracing her shortcomings through her subjects, freaks that are in fact a fair representation of all of us.

On the Battle of Algries

The Battle of Algiers is a powerful movie in the way that it illustrates an inspirational revolution where freedom and independence triumphs over oppression and colonialism. The film shows how FLN tries to achieve independence from France, by demonstrating guerilla tactics. FLN militants were planting bombs in restaurants, shooting police officers and soldiers at point-blank range. In other words, it was not a peaceful protest. The French government in Algiers couldn’t handle the situation on their own so the army got involved to restore an order.

The cause of the conflict in the film is the persistent injustice experienced by the native Arab Algerians through colonialism and occupation. While this injustice is not always made explicit to the viewer, its reality is apparent in different ways. Be it Arabs inhabitant situation, the difference between what Arabs and French do (labor), the attitude of French toward Arabs and the whole justice system and how it implies on Arabs through torture.

European quarters were upscale, clean and developed. Houses and streets were similar to one in France. In opposite, Muslim quarters were poor, dirty and old fashioned. While watching the movie, I observed that whenever camera shots episodes in Muslim quarters, there’s a feeling that they still live in dark ages. Not only were the neighborhoods different but also people, especially women.

In conclusion, it’s important to point out that power and intergroup conflict was part of everyday life both for French and Algerians in the movie. Powerless and being abused, colonized Algerians couldn’t take it anymore and the ongoing conflict between these two groups led to revolution and independence of Algeria.

Moholy Nagy

László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) was one of the most internationally influential teachers at the Bauhaus.The great Hungarian-born artist, who brought many of the teachings of the European avant-garde to the United States with his 1937 emigration from Germany to Chicago, used the materials of photography in much the same way he used those of painting. One of the most repeated objects in his photograms is his hand which can be read as a sign of his painting background.

Moholy-Nagy’s photograms recall those of the Russian artist Alexander Rodchenko, whose scenes are abstracted into dynamic, visually disorienting compositions. Moholy-Nagy explored endless variation on the theme of repetition, twice collaging a figure holding out both hands, fingers spread wide.

His’s keen interest in space, time and light shows throughout his career and travelled through all of the different types of media which he used whether he was painting or creating photograms.

Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis

The film goes to and fro between the organic and industrial forms which create the metropolis of Berlin. The film begins by holding a camera at a distance in a detached observation of the empty desolate streets, meditating for a moment or so on mechanical details. Interestingly, this observation captures both infrastructure seen and unseen, but in its silence endows the empty streets with an ominousness. Slowly as the day proceeds, the camera assumes a more intimate nature proceeding to capture the friction between the classes, the roles of men and women, and the decadence of bourgeoisie culture amidst the streets. Notwithstanding its quasi-formalist gaze, it captures the metropolis as a machine showing us the arrival in the city, its awakening, mid-day rest, busy afternoon life, and evening leisure. In this manner although it is meant to be a portrait of Berlin, there is something familiar about each frame for every city goes through similar cycles.

From Pigment to Light

“From Pigment to Light” by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, outlines the shift in art representation, that is imitative art to photography. The advent in photography saw a decline in naturalistic representation of objects as art’s main premeditation. Art now shifts to explorations of colour theory resulting in the emergence of myriad ‘isms’ outlining individual explorations of the subject.

A common theme we see here with other essays by Moholy-Nagy is the belief that harnessing the potential of new technologies would allow artists to transform into designers, and through specialization and experimentation find the means to answer humanity’s needs. This view is in tandem with the Bauhaus espousal of industrialisation. Personally I find his words on the potentials of the photogram quite visionary especially in lieu of the work that he and

artists after him have engaged in.

‘Art’ vs ‘art’

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“Photo-montage as a Weapon in Class Struggle” outlines the usage of the technique of photo-montage for the purpose of political propaganda in Germany in the 1930s. The essay seems to contrast ‘Art’ with ‘art’, thereby providing a push back against “art for art’s sake”. By recognising the inherent potential within the medium of the photo- montage to manipulate it’s content to form new relationships, oppositions, transitions and intersections, photo-montage becomes a new tool to shed light on social reality. Furthermore, the essay destroys the supposedly neutral stance of ‘art for art’s sake’ proponents, arguing that the ability to be neutral is a privilege and privilege is inherently political. Hence non-representational bourgeoisie montages which aim to be purely formalist, are in itself political by attempting to adopt dead-end perspectives. The author reflects upon the deliberate shunning of the photo-montage as a tool of advertising by the bourgeoisie media during the time of economic crisis in lively contrast to the embracing of the tool by proletariat media.

I find this argument comparable to the state of architecture at the moment. ‘Starchitecture’ has become akin to the photo-montage of the elite, which continues to pretend to reinvent itself in a series of formalist experiments,  disengaging with the political struggle which architecture is at the forefront of. Meanwhile, architecture for the proletariat, although capitalising on its political relevancy often is shallow and ill executed.