#photography #art #BerniceAbbott #DorotheaLange #JacquesHenriLartigue #TrilogyofRemembrance #time #philosophy
What is it about photography that gets people talking about TIME? We ask ~ Is there a past, present and future? Are they all really one? Does time even exist or is it just a figment of our imagination? A convenient way of thinking about and measuring change? While those are serious questions for a physicist, it’s fun for the rest of us to be armchair philosophers for a while.
Today, I began looking at the work of some of my favourite photographers—Dorothea Lange, Bernice Abbott and Jacque-Henri Lartigue.
Bernice Abbott said that, “Photography can only represent the present. Once photographed, the subject becomes part of the past.”
I confess ♦I puzzled over that one as it seems contradictory to me. Did she mean—once the picture has been taken, it immediately slides into the past? [True enough.] But how can it then continue to represent only the present?
If I have taken a photograph of a café in Venice, [which I have] and gaze at it long enough, I can immediately feel as if I am standing right now in the same spot as I did ten years ago. I remember how I felt, what I had for lunch and the happy lovers walking past me. The joys of time travel! Overwhelmingly, it speaks to me of the past. I suppose every time I look at it, I add to it by bringing it up to date with my then current circumstances.
But enough of philosophy! Let’s look at the pics.
BERNICE ABBOTT had a really interesting life. Born in the States, she moved to Paris when she was twenty three. She had the great fortune to meet the artist and photographer, Man Ray and got her start in the world of photography right in his dark room. Soon she was as much in demand as Man Ray himself.
She took this picture of the famous writer, James Joyce, author of Ulysses.
In his book Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, curator John Szarkowski wrote about Joyce’s photograph. Apparently at the time of the sitting, Joyce was not only exhausted from writing but was also depressed by his wife’s illness and the fact his work had been pirated. Abbott expressed those feelings through the “grey, strangely lifeless, enveloping light finding its way everywhere, describing without emphasis or favor the writer’s stickpin, his hands, his right ear, his fine beaver hat, the deep tiredness of his elegant slouch.”
A portrait photographer must be alive to every aspect and nuance of his or her subject. It was a sign of real status if your picture had been taken by Abbott and I can certainly see why.
Abbott also had the great good fortune to meet the photographer, Eugene Atget, another favourite of mine. Atget photographed and documented much of Paris in the early part of the twentieth century before much of the city was reconstructed. He really captured a near-haunting, yet serene sense of the city. His photographs were in great demand by artists such as Man Ray and other Dada and Surrealist artists. After his death, she purchased several thousand of his photographs and through her diligent efforts, his work came to the attention of the world.
Looking at the photograph above, you can definitely see the influence of Eugene Atget on Bernice Abbott capturing the life and atmosphere of the streets of Paris.
DOROTHEA LANGE It’s easier for me to understand Dorothea’s thoughts on TIME and photography. She said, “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”
By snapping the shutter, it’s as if you capture that instant—freeze it —and make it true for all time. Perhaps the particular [the subject matter] becomes universal in that it can be seen by all. In addition, it becomes timeless for anyone who chooses to look.
Dorothea became famous for her photographs of the dust bowl during the Depression in the 1930’s. Who doesn’t immediately recognize that poor woman holding her child? Her expression is all too familiar. Who has never known some degree of her desperation, despair and hopelessness—a universal human feeling?
Look at the men walking down the roadway in the photograph below. Hundreds of miles lie ahead but to what? In the Depression years, the direction was to nowhere. As if they could afford the train! She is capturing human experience and emotion familiar to millions of people. Again, the particular becomes the universal. [Macro is expressed in the Micro and the Micro expresses the Macro.]
I think that, indeed, the process of capturing an image not only alters life, it alters TIME itself because that captured moment lives on and becomes part of the present—any present time. In my novels in The Trilogy of Remembrance, [The Drawing Lesson, The Fate of Pryde and Night Crossng] I love to consider how art and life intersect.
JACQUES HENRI LARTIGUE: Here’s a photographer who captured the “fun” times in life. He always considered himself an amateur photographer taking pictures of friends and family at “play”. But one glance tells us that there’s a special quality in his work that elevates it beyond that.
He said, “Photography to me is catching a moment which is passing, and which is true.” What could that mean? He points out that what he has caught is not just any old moment but one which is TRUE. I’d like to think that his true tells me he’s added a special quality—his judgment and interpretation, his reaction about the person, place or event. And so, he is taking the scene and his judgment and making it true for all time and for all people.
Here’s a lady walking her dogs on a Paris street. Life in Paris was always a favourite topic for him—especially the leisure activities of the upper-middle classes to which he belonged. For the most part, life was a series of pleasurable activities. His photography has left us with a record of life—fashion, street life and popular activities in the early part of the twentieth century.
But this strikes me as something different. Just look at the man sitting facing the sea! Man against the elements at the very least. I think Lartigue is telling us a lot about this individual on a personal level. I expect the man is lost deep in thought contemplating existential issues. But the photograph is also a commentary on all of us facing the “elements” whatever they may be. Again—TIME, the universal and the particular is preserved in one image for one and all. And then, don’t forget the artists/photographers who also preserve their own judgment and vision in their work as best they can.
Another way of looking at photography? Pure and simple–it’s such a great way to get to know ourselves and one another and to preserve the way it once was for the future!
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.
The Joseph Campbell Foundation has just recently selected the novels of The Trilogy of Remembrance [The Drawing Lesson, The Fate of Pryde and Night Crossing] along with the works of fifteen other authors as novels with mythic themes. I am honoured to be included along with Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, J.R.R. Tolkein and James Joyce in this group. You can find the Joseph Campbell Foundation Amazon page right here.
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