Friday, March 14, 2008

From Chattanooga to Denver

Lee Friedlander, Galax, Virginia, 1962

While I'm here on the front lines with my last class before Spring break today, the majority of the nation's full-time tenure-track photo crowd is assembling in Denver for the national Society of Photographic Education conference. In honor of the Friedlander sub-text of late (in a sense, he's all about scale & self, isn't he?), as well as SPE, I'll reprint one of my favorite pieces of writing by John Szarkowski, his afterward to Friedlander's Self Portrait.

I once happened to attend a conference, designed to wring from photography its deepest secrets, and later to publish them in five (I think) languages, not including, of course, the language of photography, which is too difficult, ambivalent, ambiguous, or mysterious to be broken to pull in harness with languages that have dictionaries and grammars. In spite of the apparent hopelessness of the problem, the conference was attended by critics, aestheticians, other philosophers, social scientists of various specialties, prophets, and politicians, most of whom seemed dedicated to the proposition that the group might, if it put its common shoulder to the wheel, determine what photography ultimately meant, so that the question could by Sunday morning be declared dead, and never again waste the time of the panelists.

The program might have proceeded smoothly toward its goal if Friedlander had not been invited, but he was. He was also, if my memory serves me correctly, the first speaker on the program. I use the word speaker in the nominal sense, for he began by saying that he had nothing to say about his pictures, but had brought three Carousel trays of slides - three hundred and sixty pictures - to show, and would be happy to try to answer any questions that the audience might have. The pictures were carefully and intelligently chosen, and arranged chronologically, and the slides were beautifully made, so that it would have been possible to lean back and take pleasure in the view that an important twentieth-century artist had formed to describe the evolution of his own career. But this would have been rewarding only to those who believe that pictures have a life, and a life history, of their own. To those (perhaps half of those assembled) who believed that it was the function of pictures to provide ancillary proof to truths that might be formulated by wise blind men, it was deeply distressing to be asked to sit and watch pictures without dialogue or sub-titles for ten minutes, then fifteen minutes, without having been given a text that one could agree with, or disagree with, or agree with in part, with wise, witty, delightful exceptions, citing St. Augustine or Groucho Marx or Walter Benjamin or Jacques Derrida or others who, however innocent of any complicity with or even knowledge of the sins or the provisional triumphs of photography, were called upon to bear witness to its ultimate possibilities. Friedlander (perhaps innocently, or perhaps with some higher Metternichian sophistication) had momentarily foiled the philosophers and the politicians and the social scientists by giving them nothing but pictures, which was not quite the grist their mills needed.

After twenty minutes or so of this embarrassing mismatch, a public-spirited auditor in the back of the room decided to sacrifice himself by asking what was obviously a ludicrously irrelevant question, but that might serve to get the intellectual ball rolling. He asked: "Where did you make that one, Herr Friedlander?" Friedlander, obviously pleased to be asked a question that he could answer without compromising his own standards of precision and concision, promptly responded that the picture in question had been made in Toledo. Friedlander was in fact so pleased with the question (which did not concern his life in bed, or his political commitments, or his insights into the ultimate secrets of life), that he announced to the audience that he would be happy to identify the place at which each of the remaining quarter-thousand pictures were made, and he proceeded to do so: "Memphis ... New City ... Phoenix ... Cambridge ... Jackson Hole ... Syracuse ... etc." As Friedlander continued his recitation of place names a considerable part of his audience seemed to sink into a progressively deeper confusion, perhaps in some cases due to the perception that so many great ancient cities seemed to have sunk so low. Finally another voice, polite but firm, asked whether it was really relevant that he had made this particular picture in Chattanooga. Friedlander considered the question for a moment and, with a respectful seriousness of manner that I have no reason to believe feigned, said yes, he thought it was relevant that the picture had been made in Chattanooga, because if he (Friedlander) had not been in that city he would not have been able to make that picture.


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