Monday, March 4, 2024

Photographic Inspirations: Ed van der Elsken, Love on the Left Bank (1956)

The line that runs from Walker Evans through to Robert Frank and Robert Adams (all subjects of past or future posts here) is probably the most important set of influences for the images created for Push Process, but there’s another line, one that runs from Brassaï, through Weegee’s Naked City (1945), on to the subject of today’s post, Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank (1956), and thence to Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin (the last two also subjects of future posts). 

Van der Elsken’s book seemingly owes nothing whatever to American Photographs, and, since I didn’t encounter it until long after I’d finished photographing in Venice, and even after I’d written Push Process, it wasn’t really a direct influence on my book (although I’d previously seen and admired some of the individual images). But it does offer a direct precedent for a work that juxtaposes documentary photographs with a fictional narrative, more so than Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which is creative non-fiction (Agee must surely be one of the contenders for having invented this field). And while Let Us Now Praise Famous Men presents text and image as separate but interdependent statements, Love on the Left Bank, like Push Process, intercuts text and images throughout.

But is the narrative of Love on the Left Bank fiction? The book opens with a statement ‘The text accompanying the photographs is entirely fictional and is not related to any living person.’ However, an earlier version was published as a four-part photo-essay in the British magazine Picture Post in 1954, where the editors informed their readers that ‘This is not a film. This is a real life story about people who do EXIST.’ And in this earlier version van der Elsken used the real names of the people featured in the photographs, although the insistence of the disclaimer itself betrays some anxiety about the authenticity of the images. Maybe van der Elsken got cold feet for the book after the reaction to the magazine publication, or maybe the book version is freer with invented details. We might anachronistically call the story autofiction, except that, as we shall see, it’s indirect autobiography, since van der Elsken erased any direct reference to himself from the narrative. 

I don’t know much about magazine photojournalism of the 1950s, but surely Picture Post was not in the habit of dedicating four-part stories to virtually unknown photographers? So it must have impressed them, even if they saw fit to censor some details later restored for the book (e.g. a reference to venereal disease). I haven’t seen the magazine version, but the book design by Jurriaan Schrofer is certainly rooted in the tradition of magazine photo-story layouts (and in the example of Weegee’s Naked City), even if the layouts of Love on the Left Bank are bolder and more experimental than the usual Picture Post story. 

The situation that led to the book’s creation is described by Hripsime Visser as follows in the Phaidon 55 monograph on van der Elsken. After he moved to Paris from Holland in 1950: 

in a café he met a Russian, who dragged him along and introduced him to the bohemia of Saint-Germain-des-Prés – young people of every nationality, all of them marked by the war in one way or another. These were drifters who spent their days in bars, cafes and little restaurants, dazed by alcohol and drugs, desperate, bitter and negative. Van der Elsken photographed them, fascinated by something he discerned: an outlook on life. Often against their wishes yet, at the same time, as one of them, he captured them drinking, eating, making love and smoking. He had found his style: artificial lighting, smoke and reflections determine the atmosphere. [6] 

The book situates its story in 1956 to match the date of publication, though obviously that can’t have been the case in the Picture Post version. Outside of the book, the individual images are elsewhere captioned with a possible date range of 1950–4, though in specific cases also 1951 and 1953. In other words, while the book purports to be set in the mid-50s, it actually depicts the early 50s. This is significant insofar as Love on the Left Bank depicts the aftermath of the Second World War – although it’s also important that most of the characters were too young to have fought in that conflict. Van der Elsken, born in 1925, was a few years older: he'd gone underground in Holland in 1945 to evade forced labour. 

Love on the Left Bank is often described as the first photonovel or beeldroman, the Dutch term suggesting the importance of that country in the history of this genre. So obviously there were other examples, for example Johan van der Keuken’s We Are Seventeen (1955) is often cited. The prior date perhaps does not qualify it as the ‘first’ either because van der Elsken initially published in 1954, or because We Are Seventeen was avowedly non-fictional, a collective portrait of the author and his friends at the titular age. It’s hard to say how influential or widespread this tradition was – although there are certainly famous non-Dutch examples like Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes's The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955: again, it's not immediately clear why this doesn't take precedence as the first example). My associations with the term ‘photonovel’ are of 80s romance comics where paid actors were directed to act out teen dramas sometimes based on readers’ letters. But if one considers the alternative descriptions of the beeldroman as ‘diaristic’ or ‘stream-of-consciousness’, it’s a tradition that might include Robert Frank, and certainly looks forward to Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. 

There’s actually very little text in Love on the Left Bank by comparison with even the shortest works of prose fiction, maybe about three thousand words total, and split into very short, non-continuous sections, sometimes only a sentence or two. Most of the text is descriptive and summary, setting up a situation, or sketching out the basic, shared conditions of life in the café society of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The frame narrative concerns a Mexican itinerant called Manuel who falls in love with a bohemian Australian dancer, Ann, played by Vali Myers, who is the real protagonist and principal subject of many of the photographs. For example: 

We went to a little place called the Mau Mau and she slept in her chair. I fell in love with her. That afternoon we went for a walk. We wandered from café to café and I met Ann’s friends. 

The last phrase then serves as the narrative justification for several spreads featuring, firstly Ann in various guises, then exteriors of the cafes, followed by portraits of the friends, both singly and in groups. 

The excerpt above is pretty bald and functional prose, all tell and no show (because the photos perform the latter function), but other sections capture the quality of life quite well, either in short anecdotes or summaries. These often switch to third-person narration, and Manuel therefore seems to disappear periodically from both the text and the images. For example: 

Dinner was a piece of bread eaten on the street. At night you could swipe milk bottles left on the pavement outside dairies. For thirty francs you could get chips at the Place de l’Odéon. When the going was good you might blow a hundred francs on a meat-ball or spaghetti Levantin. You could buy a litre of wine for less than sixty francs. You could sleep in cafes, on a bench in the Luxembourg, or in parked cars on the Place Saint Sulpice. During the day you could sleep in the cinema or the métro. When you had a new girl-friend you stood yourself to a room in a hotel. 

Again, the next several pages then bear the weight of illustrating these several propositions, with some more textual details added in the margins of the image spreads. The individual images have no titles or captions, however – only these occasional narrative addenda. 

Some of the photographs would have seemed pretty crude by contemporary journalistic standards: both technically and, perhaps, at the level of content, with occasional nudity. In fact, other than this nudity, there’s no explicit sexual content in the images, but there are numerous frank allusions in the text, e.g. to interracial and same-sex liaisons. Oddly the most graphic images for me are of people eating – voraciously, shamelessly, with no regard to manners or other people’s sensibilities. 

Love on the Left Bank contains miniature examples of both the standardised series and the sequential narrative: a page with multiple shots of different café exteriors, each shot in the same manner; and a couple of dynamic situations developing over time (e.g. a girlfriend is disappointed when her beau is distracted by the arrival of a rival; the same man and a male friend get drunk and cause trouble on the Paris streets). 

But the most important organising principle is that of restless variety: the book rarely sticks to the same kind of layout consecutively. Some pages or spreads have a single portrait image, for example a severely cropped face printed full bleed, extremely grainy. Others jumble images together as promiscuously as the café inhabitants mix with one another. In this, Love on the Left Bank resembles another book of the same period also influenced by Weegee, William Klein’s Life is good and good for you in New York: Trance Witness Revels – but since that was published in the same year as Love on the Left Bank, Klein’s work was presumably not a direct influence (and his book contains no real narrative element, fictional or otherwise). But one thing the two books share is an interest in pushing photographic technique until the limitations of the medium become part of the meaning of the image.

Sometimes van der Elsken's approach to layout sells individual images short: powerful, striking compositions get lost among the noise, especially when they are printed small and overshadowed by other, weaker images on the same page or spread. It also promotes several rather banal images to larger roles because of their illustrative function. But overall the visual cacophony gives what one imagines to be a good impression of the highly strung, overstimulated state of mind of the protagonists. 

There’s also considerable variation in technique among the images: some were shot on a 35mm camera; others on a medium-format Rolleicord that produced 6x6cm negatives, that is, of higher quality. Some images were clearly shot handheld in available light only; others use flash, and a few of the more staged ones almost certainly used a tripod. Most were taken at night, both in the cafes and outside; a few in daylight. A few are also reproductions of drawings or paintings created by Ann or other characters, presumably photographed in a studio. 

Often against their wishes yet, at the same time, as one of them: this is a very odd phrase. Clearly van der Elsken’s relation to his subjects is different to that depicted in, say, Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959): closer, more personal, and above all ongoing. But curiously van der Elsken substitutes an alter-ego for himself, and suppresses any explicit acknowledgement of his role as resident artist to this decadent court centred around Queen Ann. There’s at least one image where, in the full-frame version, van der Elsken appears reflected in a mirror holding his Rolleicord, but he cropped this part out for reproduction in Love on the Left Bank. In other words, there is no photographer character: no one is taking these photos within the fictional world of the story. 

The images where subjects respond directly to van der Elsken might seem to contradict this, but I think in these cases the camera temporarily assumes the viewpoint of an offscreen character – sometimes this is explicitly Manuel, but it’s never van der Elsken, since he does not exist in the fiction. In this self-erasure, van der Elsken is following photojournalistic tradition – but by presenting the narrative as fictional the conceit becomes more self-conscious than in most documentary photography. Perhaps one might say that the camera is a character, even if van der Elsken isn't. 

Often against their wishes yet, at the same time, as one of them: from the images, we might speculate as to what was involved in practice. Nearly everyone depicted knew van der Elsken, was used to him being around and taking pictures. Vali Myers was his direct collaborator, who he both photographed as she went about her life, including in quite intimate circumstances in her home – and perhaps also directed or suggested preferred scenarios for her to improvise with. 

Others were perhaps directed in their interactions with Myers to some degree – given a character and a scenario, or posed for particular shots, particularly the individuals cast as Manuel and Geri, the latter Ann’s flatmate and eventual lover (though neither of them have to ‘act’ in any real sense). But many others were probably not directed at all, just photographed opportunistically and spontaneously, and then fitted into a scenario or narrative post-facto. Or else van der Elsken seized on a situation unfolding and then used that as the basis for a subplot, such as the various escapades of Jean Michel and Benny, who both look a little too dangerous and unpredictable to submit to direction. 

In this clip from a short film van der Elsken made with Vali Myers in 1972, she discusses Jean Michel and Benny using their real names: 

Myers's commentary here suggests dispiriting fates for the people featured in the book: imprisonment, madness, suicide. What neither she or van der Elsken mention, either here or in Love on the Left Bank itself, is that this crowd included several members of the Letterist International, a group who later contributed several important concepts and personnel to the Situationist International, and thence to the 1968 protests in France – and beyond that, to the culture of punk. One of the LI members, Jean-Michel Mension – rechristened ‘Pierre’ by van der Elsken, i.e. not the pseudonymous ‘Jean Michel’ referred to above as is sometimes erroneously suggested – published a memoir of his time in what he called The Tribe in 2002. In it, he describes the prevailing attitude: 

If someone had said … “I want to be a famous painter,” if someone had said “I want to be a famous novelist,” if someone had said, “I want in whatever way to be a success,” then that someone would have been tossed instantly out of the back room right through the front room onto the street. There was an absolute refusal … We rejected a world that was distasteful to us, and we would do nothing at all within it. 

The history of the LI is explored in detail in Greil Marcus's book Lipstick Traces, which explains that the group's headquarters was the same cafe that lies at the centre of Love on the Left Bank, where it's rechristened as the Mau Mau: 

The café was Chez Moineau, 22 rue de Four, a block from Saint-Germain-des-Prés. People from all over the world passed through. It was a haven for refugees, would-be artists, budding suicides, runaways and class cutters, petty criminals, dope pushers, bums, eccentrics (one old man regularly appeared in a Japanese warrior’s helmet from which, by means of a wire, he flew a pack of cigarettes), and the new Lettrist International, which is to say a table, where sat those [Guy] Debord [the leader of the LI, and later of the Situationist International] judged ready to change the world. ... Though Debord forbade him on pain of violence to shoot the LI, van der Elsken roamed the room, aiming into the mirrors that covered the walls. In some ways, the pictures he got say as much about the LI as the manifestos the group was writing at its table—a fact Debord acknowledged when he clipped images out of van der Elsken’s first book … and dropped them into [his own account of this period] Mémoires. [349–50] 

Marcus quotes from a 1954 manifesto of the LI, which also works as a description of van der Elsken's technique of fictionalisation: 

The construction of situations will be the continuous realization of a great game, a game the players have chosen to play: a shifting of settings and conflicts to kill off the characters in a tragedy in twenty-four hours. [320] 

One should not overstate this connection: most of van der Elsken's characters were not members of the LI, and its most important members, notably Debord, do not appear in Love on the Left Bank

The bar photographs in Push Process are not as complex or bold as van der Elsken's, although some have a similar look to his, since I was also interested in working at the limits of the medium (and I was also using black-and-white film). And like Love on the Left Bank, Push Process situates documentary photography within a fictional narrative, although with a much longer, continuous text. The characters it depicts perhaps have something in common with the denizens of Chez Moineau, though they are more conventional in their artistic aspirations. My first book Pistols! Treason! Murder!, a very experimental biography of a Venetian spy, which I researched and wrote during the same period in which I took the photographs featured in Push Process, is actually much closer to the provocations of the LI and the Situationists (it was described as 'punk history'). But in Push Process, unlike Love on the Left Bank, the creation of the photographs is the main subject of the narrative, and the photographer is the central protagonist. Conversely, the photographs do not purport to depict the characters in the story. Rather they are of strangers, in the mode of Walker Evans or Robert Frank. And after the text ends, there is an extended photo sequence modelled on Evan’s American Photographs (1938), depicting contemporary Venice. 

Are there other precedents for this mingling of fiction and documentary photography? I was certainly influenced by Ross Gibson's novel The Summer Exercises (2009), together with the associated multimedia work Life After Wartime (2004), by Gibson and Kate Richards – both works juxtapose crime-scene photographs from the New South Wales police archives with a fictional narrative. I'll be writing or otherwise discussing this work elsewhere at some point. I was also aware of André Breton's Nadja (1928). There's also the novel Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavić, at least in the original edition, which was accompanied by a companion volume of photographs by David Goldblatt (2010). Are there other examples?

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Pre-photographic Representations of Venice: Gaetano Zompini, The Lantern Bearer, 1753

Gaetano Zompini, The Lantern Bearer, 1753

Gaetano Zompini, ‘The Lantern Bearer’, from Le Arti che vanno per via nella Città di Venezia, 1753 

At night, I move backwards and forwards from the theatres to the casino, I am the man who lights your way with a lantern, I’ll go anywhere [you want], as long as you pay me. 

As with the post on Canaletto, I'm discussing this image because it's part of the pre-history of photographic representations of Venice. There was a long established tradition of genre painting in European art, in which poor people and tradesmen were presented in allegedly naturalistic surroundings for a respectable, middle-class audience. In the nineteenth century, Venetian studio photographers like Carlo Naya picked up on this tradition, and supplemented their architectural views with posed images of Venetian urchins, fishermen, beggars, and lacemakers. 

Zompini’s work is an unusually forceful and vivid example of genre illustration, whose first edition, published in 1753-4, was a commercial failure. His engravings, which depict street traders of Venice, were only rescued from obscurity by the local British consul, who sponsored a second edition.[1]

Many of Zompini’s subjects work in what we would now call service industries (as sellers of trinkets, snacks, drinks, and so on), catering to the needs of their social superiors. In this capacity, Zompini’s lantern bearer, like modern waiters, bellhops and shop assistants, is not only required to perform a specific task, but to be deferential, pleasant and cheerful as he does so. Nonetheless, his words strike a faintly sardonic, or even threatening, note. ‘I’ll go anywhere [you want], as long as you pay me’, he says, with the emphasis seemingly on the latter clause. 

In modern Venice, the volume of visitors places unique strains on this kind of interaction, which are symbolised by a dramatic reversal of the terms of Zompini’s illustration. Today, waiters wearing tuxedos and bow ties move among customers dressed in singlets, shorts and sandals. Prices may vary significantly in cafes depending on whether the staff recognise you, and it is not uncommon for Venetians to deride oblivious foreigners in dialect. 

[1] The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century, eds J. Martineau and A. Robison, exhibition catalogue, 1994, p. 287.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Photographic Inspirations: Walker Evans' Subway Photographs

[Walker Evans intuited] the affinity between the modern artist and the secret agent – both of them intrepid observers and recorders, purveyors of inside information and coded messages, peripatetic voyeurs who embrace alienation as an occupational hazard. Mia Fineman

I’m not interested in people in the portrait sense, in the individual sense. I’m interested in people as part of the pictures and as themselves, but anonymous. Walker Evans

Between 1938 and 1941, Walker Evans took photographs on the New York subway, using a concealed (and presumably pre-set) 35mm camera operated by a remote control cable. Evans’ career as a whole, and the subway photographs in particular, may be seen as an attempt to appropriate the rhetoric of official, institutional photography – the police mug shot and so on – and apply it to other ends. In his subway project, Evans was trying to produce anonymous portraits, the complete antithesis of the celebrity glamour shots he dismissed as mere photographic name-dropping.[1] The resulting images are often praised for their intensity or psychological acuteness. Evans himself claimed that they show the subjects in naked repose, when the guard is down and the mask is off.[2]

I would argue that they actually create the opposite impression. Evans' subjects are trying to erase any expression of individuality to reduce their vulnerability to the gaze of strangers (strangers like Evans). As a result, the pictures are a little repetitive, precisely because everyone is equalized within them. Gerry Badger points out that the subjects are 'largely devoid of overt signs of class', but there are also no tell-tale gestures, and no conversations. In short, no-one is actively communicating with anyone else, least of all with Evans. Everyone is in the same null state.

Far from seeking to demonstrate his empathy with or understanding of his subjects, Evans wanted to prove that the camera can be made not to think and not to translate its operator’s emotion, and he described his purpose as follows:

I would like to be able to state flatly that sixty-two people came unconsciously into range before an impersonal fixed recording machine during a certain time period, and that all these individuals who came into the film frame were photographed, and photographed without any human selection for the moment of lens exposure.[3]

By using an absolutely minimal technique, in which he limited himself to photographing whoever happened to be sitting opposite him, he tried to render himself anonymous along with his subjects. In this project, the purpose of photography was not self-expression, but self-denial. And the result was not a sequence, as in American Photographs, but a series, a set of variations on a constrained theme. This shift obviously interested Evans, because he created several above ground variations on the subway project in the 1940s, where he stood in a fixed location and photographed whoever happened to walk past.

It might seem that Evans was attempting to attain the state of mind and technique of the ideal spy, but if so, then the ideal in question is a modern one. The early modern era – the pre-photographic era – did not associate objectivity with machines.[4] Instead, the judgement of God was the model of objectivity, which meant that truth was rooted in a consciously directed and morally informed gaze. In the law courts too, truth was closely associated with presence, with a rational consciousness, since conviction depended largely on eyewitness testimony. It is only very recently that forensic evidence (interpreted by expert witnesses who have no direct knowledge of the crime) has begun to displace such testimony. 

Photography as it is usually practiced has more in common with this older conception than Evans’ comments might imply. It is well known that the authority of a photograph comes from the fact that its subject must be present in front of the camera at the moment of exposure. What is less frequently acknowledged is that, in most cases, the fact that the photographer was physically present to press the shutter is also critical: not only, ‘This happened’, but ‘I was there when it did’. The photograph is the result of an act of perception (even if it involves a transformation of that act). Even more importantly, it is the result of a choice.

The impersonal ideal that Evans was reaching for has apparently been fulfilled with the invention of the closed-circuit television camera and/or digital webcam. Because this machine records (or transmits) continuously, without interruption and hence without the need for choice, it eliminates the need for human intervention beyond its initial activation. But I imagine Evans’ goal was less to obtain a purely mechanical image than to reduce himself to a machine: not to eliminate consciousness but to transform it.

Unlike Evans, I believe in the necessity of composition, of placing figures intelligently within the frame, and thereby defining my relationship to them, however minimal and controlled that relationship may be. To reject composition is to avoid the responsibilities that come with choice, and with one’s status as a moral agent.

Not only, ‘This happened’, but ‘I was there when it did’.

Postscript: I wrote this particular post several years ago in a slightly different context. And although I adapted a couple of sentences of it for inclusion in Push Process, where these reflections are attributed to the novel's protagonist, I wonder now if its critical stance betrays the anxiety of influence. That is, I was trying to distinguish my own photographs taken on vaporettos in Venice from Evans's subway pictures. In any case, I'm more inclined to see the strengths of Evans's subway work now, even if his decision to use a hidden camera still seems dubious (though it's difficult to imagine how he could have undertaken the project otherwise). I'd also say that the severely cropped fragments of the images that are sometimes shown, isolating the faces, don't play to the strengths of the images, which depend as much upon body language as facial expressions.  

In fact, there are various redactions of the subway pictures. The later ones use more of the negatives, a change that probably shows the influence of younger photographers like Robert Frank upon Evans. Cropping to only head and shoulders was not only an allusion to the window display of portraits Evans had shot in 1936 and included in American Photographs, but also perhaps an attempt to reduce the random aspects of the composition process. This seems perverse, a loss of nerve: chance was essential to the effect. And one of the few things that individualises the subjects is the different ways in which their bodies occupy space in the subway car (particularly since there is often little space available). The faces are usually brighter than the clothing, and so, because of the limitations of the film and the lighting, they almost feel like they're floating separately in the gloom, as the clothing and backgrounds disappear into the murk. But again, this now seems interesting to me.

Quoted in Mia Fineman, ‘Notes from Underground: The Subway Portraits’, in M. M. Hamburg, J. L. Rosenheim, D. Ekland and M. Fineman, Walker Evans, 2000, p. 108. 

[2] Quoted in Walker Evans at Work: 745 Photographs together with Documents Selected from Letters, Memoranda, Interviews, Notes. With an Essay by Jerry L. Thompson, 1982, p. 152. James Agee made the same claim in his introduction to the book version of the subway pictures.

[3] Both quotations from an unused preface to Evans’ published collection of the subway photographs, reproduced in ibid., p. 160. This manifesto recalls Walter Benjamin’s claim that Photography prepares the salutory movement by which man and his surrounding world become strangers to each other … opening up the clear field where all intimacy yields to the clarification of details.

[4] However, the Italian word for ‘lens’ is the same as the adjective ‘objective’ [obiettivo] and in the early seventeenth century, Galileo’s discoveries in astronomy depended on recent improvements in the optics of the telescope, which he helped bring about in co-operation with Venetian glassmakers. The ‘realism’ of seventeenth-century painting also depended partly on the use of the camera oscura, as David Hockney has recently argued.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Pre-photographic Representations of Venice: Canaletto, The Stonemason's Yard, c. 1726-30

A humble, untidy, unfamiliar area of the city, tucked away from tourist gaze, is the scene of the daily round of labour, for women, it should be noted, as for men. … The city is lived in and used: washing is hung out on lines, and rooms are aired, and floors are swept. Above all, art is being created in the midst of it: stone is being chipped and crafted to make a building beautiful Michael Levey[1] 

The history of photographic representations of Venice begins long before the invention of photography – with the painted views of Canaletto and his eighteenth-century contemporaries, although in fact they often adopt fictional viewpoints that would be difficult or impossible to emulate with a camera: usually above head height, and sometimes in mid-canal. They also depict scenes under blue sky and sunlight. Atmospheric effects are eschewed in favour of clarity of line and definition of form. 

The habit of representing Venice under fog and snow is a much later one, which is bound up with the idea of the city in decline – a site for nostalgia rather than for scientific examination. Under fog, the city becomes mysterious and elusive; under the clear light of Canaletto, it is rational and explicable: an Enlightenment city rather than a Romantic one. 

I've chosen this painting because it anticipates the declared purpose of the protagonist of my novel Push Process to represent Venice as a 'work in progress', as something that 'isn't finished yet'.

[1] The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century, eds J. Martineau and A. Robison, exhibition catalogue, 1994, p. 43.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Photographic Inspirations: Walker Evans, American Photographs (1938)

If anyone asked me who my influences were, around the time I was making the photographs in Push Process, my answer was: Walker Evans, Walker Evans and Walker Evans. By which I meant, first, the Evans who created the images included in American Photographs, his classic monograph published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1938; second, the Evans who worked on the New York subway from 1938–41, using a hidden 35mm camera to take anonymous portraits of the people sitting opposite him; and third, the Evans who used a Polaroid SX-70 to take pictures of colour fragments and textures in the last few years of his life in the early 1970s. But I progressed in reverse order: starting with a Polaroid Spectra, and eventually ending up with a 4x5 field camera.

I have a separate post planned on the subway photographs – in this one I’ll concentrate on American Photographs.

The first thing Evans taught me was a basic distinction between beautiful pictures and interesting ones. The best-known champion of photographic beauty is perhaps the American landscape photographer Ansel Adams. This is not to say that Adams photographed sunsets and other cliches – part of his ambition was to expand our idea of what constitutes beauty – but nonetheless his approach was an aesthetic and formalist one, which also found expression in his fetishization of the photographic print as a finely crafted artefact. Evans, by contrast, didn't care much for darkroom technique, and constantly recropped and reframed his images, sometimes literally cutting up his negatives to this end: the very opposite of treating them as sacred objects in the way that Adams did.

Adams and Evans were unsurprisingly not fans of each other’s work. Evans wrote in a letter about an early show by Adams that it was:

disappointing. His work is careful, studied, weak [Paul] Strand, self-conscious, mostly utterly pointless. An abandoned steam roller, quite beautiful, in the middle of a desert, titled ‘Capitalism 1933.’ Wood seasoned, rocks landscapes, filtered skies. All wrong.

And later, in a 1973 interview:

I draw something from being in nature, but I don’t use it. It bores. Those who do [use nature] like [Eliot] Porter and [Ansel] Adams bore me. I’m not interested in their art. I don’t even call it art. I’m interested in the hand of man and civilization.

From the other side, Adams mentioned Evans in several letters to friends. To his fellow photographic artiste Edward Weston: ‘Your shells will be remembered long after Evans’ picture of two destitutes in a doorway.’ And in another letter:

I am so goddamn mad over what people from the left tier think America is. Stinks, social and otherwise, are a poor excuse and imitation of the real beauty and power of the land and the real people inhabiting it. Evans has some beautiful things but they are lost in the struggle of social significance.

To the painter Georgia O’Keeffe on American Photographs:

I think the book is atrocious. But not Evans’s work in the true sense. …  It’s the putting of it all in a book of that kind – mixed social meanings, documentation, esthetics, sophistication (emotional slumming), etc. Just why the Museum would undertake to present that book is a mystery to me.

This is in part a misinterpretation by Adams of Evans’s purposes. The latter’s famous manifesto note to himself after agreeing to work for the government department of the Farm Security Administration in 1935 reads in all caps: 'NO POLITICS WHATEVER'. A reminder to resist the New Deal propaganda purposes of the FSA and pursue, as far as possible, his own ends. In fact, these certainly included an interest in the ‘real people inhabiting the land’ – along with the works of their hands, which he perhaps even thought beautiful, even if the amateur painted signs and impoverished interiors he chose as exemplars did not meet Adams’s quite different aesthetic standards. Though Adams’s misconception does perhaps point to the broader reception of Evans’s work at the time – most of the latter’s friends and acknowledged artistic peers were certainly of the left (Ben Shahn, James Agee). But Evans himself said in a 1974 interview:

I didn’t like the label that I unconsciously earned of being a social protest artist. I never took it upon myself to change the world. And those contemporaries of mine who were going around falling for the idea that they were going to bring down the United States government and make a new world were just asses to me.

I actually learnt how to use black-and-white film and a 4x5 field camera from Adams’s how-to books on the subject, although his obsessive attitude to technical precision was far beyond both my means and my inclinations. In choosing Evans as my model, I was not only in sympathy with his preference for culture over nature, but mindful of one of Garry Winogrand’s aphorisms to the effect: why photograph anything where the thing photographed is more compelling than the image of it? Surely the only reason to photograph is the possibility that the image changes the meaning of the photographed thing, or at least makes us see it differently? In other words, a photograph of a sunset or stunning natural landscape surely cannot transcend the original – can only point towards it, not make us see it in a new way. So why bother? Winogrand surely learned this lesson from Evans.

So it’s no surprise that few of the images in American Photographs depict picturesque things. But all of the images are intelligent, and most of them are interesting: that is, Evans was interested in what they depict, and the images invite us to share that interest. They are also photographed with care, ‘correctly’ exposed and printed (that is, rendered with as full as possible a tonal range), even if they lack the exquisite, jewel-like, quality of Adams’s prints. Many of Evans’s architectural subjects were shot in what he obviously considered to be optimal lighting conditions – that is, in direct sunlight and often in side lighting raked across facades to emphasise relief. These architectural subjects were all (or almost all) shot on an 8x10inch camera, necessarily mounted on a tripod: the very large negative produced a consequent richness of detail (Adams used a similar camera). This meant composing the image upside down and back-to-front on a ground-glass screen viewed from under a darkcloth. So they were never spontaneous or casual images, and Evans’s biography contains many references to him planning such shots in advance, returning to locales at times when he knew the sun would be in the right position.

The looser shots of people, mainly shot on smaller cameras, in many cases handheld on 35mm film, have more varied lighting effects and less meticulous technique, as you would expect. It’s worth noting that at this period, even a ‘fast’ film probably had a speed of about ISO100. So, even with a handheld camera, shooting in direct sunlight was not only optimal but often essential.

It was only after the publication of American Photographs that Evans embraced the idea that it was possible to obtain effective photographs in lighting conditions that made technical perfection impossible, when he ventured onto the New York subway with a 35mm camera.

Evans’s architectural compositions are notoriously flat, often shot head-on to facades, walls and other surfaces, and a higher than usual proportion seem to be telephoto compositions, which depict deep space but compress its several planes. I say ‘higher than usual’ because shooting close in on a wide-angle lens is conventionally the default for architectural photography.

What then do the images depict? American vernacular culture, including not only architecture, images (signs, posters), but also faces and costumes. Most of the photographs are of public and urban scenes, of exteriors, shop fronts, and anonymous streets. Unsurprisingly, there are no conventional landscapes at all, and barely any overt traces of nature other than the occasional tree or ploughed field.

Some of the images are portraits, but obviously taken outside and in the moment, of people encountered by chance in public. Some of this group are obviously not aware of being photographed; others appear indifferent, bemused or irritated, on the point of objecting or questioning the photographer’s intentions. Or, in a couple of cases in which people appear as smaller details against the larger backdrop of architectural subjects, they are a little more relaxed, both because Evans is obviously making no attempt to surprise them (it took some time to set up the large-format camera), and because they correctly infer that they are not the central subject of the image.

There are a few interiors: Evans’s biography makes it clear that these houses and apartments all belonged to friends, friends of friends, or to locales where Evans’s visit was arranged by the Farm Security Administration. In other words, he never negotiated access himself. There’s one image of people in a flood-relief camp, from an FSA assignment from 1937. And two images from the portfolio of Alabama tenant farmers that Evans created with James Agee in attendance as writer and intermediary in 1936, for their joint project later published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In these cases, the unguarded response was in effect offered to Agee, not Evans (‘Agee was very gifted … [at] making people feel all right. In fact, they began to love Agee and to be awfully interested.’) But most of the photographs of people were taken on the street, and there are more photographs of architecture than of people.

The earliest images date back to 1929 (with one solitary example from 1928), but probably two-thirds of them date from 1935–6, the most productive years of Evans’s career – and perhaps two-thirds of this latter group come from 1936. Just how productive this period was is illustrated by the fact that several ‘classic’ images by Evans from 1935–6 were not included in either the book of American Photographs, or the accompanying exhibition at MOMA in 1938.

This image, for example, is featured prominently in most Evans anthologies, and admired in part for its obvious metaphorical reading: that is, it depicts the life cycle of American workers, who, we might assume, live in the houses in the midground, work in the industrial sites in the background, and are buried in the foreground cemetery. Evans perhaps sidelined it precisely because this reading seemed too obvious an illustration of FSA propaganda purposes.

To understand Evans’s achievement, it’s useful to think about the difference between a series of photographs and a sequence. The former is exemplified by the typographical studies of Bernd and Hilla Becher from the 1970s and 80s, in which they photographed industrial structures – blast furnaces, pit heads, and so on – using a standardised method, that is, under equivalent (flat) lighting and always with a similar composition, viewpoint, framing, etc. The end result is a catalogue of forms, encouraging comparison and attention to minute variations, and usually displayed in grids. The precise order in which the images are viewed is unimportant: it’s the overall and cumulative effect that matters. Every image is of equal (un)importance, and the rhythm of their succession is unchanging.

This is still one of the dominant modes of contemporary photography, and indeed of contemporary art in general – endless repetition of the same idea, under the impression that such repetition intensifies rather than diminishes its force.

A sequence proceeds differently. In its simplest form, the succession of images marks intervals in time, which may be more or less regular. The nineteenth-century locomotion studies of Eadward Muybridge are an example of this approach applied under controlled conditions and with absolute regularity in the name of scientific accuracy, and hence with something of the same formal anonymity that often marks the series. But other sequences are situated within the flux of life, and aspire to the coherence of a narrative. To this end, they vary intervals, choosing significant moments centring on human drama, conflict and change. This kind of sequence used to be common in photojournalism and its narratives can be quite conventional, especially when they are explicated by written commentary, which often attempts to constrain their possible meanings – as we saw when discussing Paris After Dark

In other sequences, the logic is not governed by narrative or chronological succession, but rather by theme, so that the sequence proceeds dialectically, by the same principles as cinematic montage, and each successive image inflects, complicates or comments upon ideas introduced by its predecessors. This last is how American Photographs works, and its willingness to continually reframe its presentation of its themes is emphasised by the variety of images it contains, taken on different kinds of camera with quite different protocols of engagement. 

In the book, the images are displayed one per spread, on the recto, with a blank preceding verso, and no text at all, except for a list of titles at the end of each of its two parts, with a separate, general essay by Lincoln Kirstein at the very end (there’s some suggestion he helped finance the book’s publication as well). So, although the argument is created by the succession of images, each is encountered separately and we’re therefore encouraged to consider them as independent statements before thinking about their possible relation to what comes before and after.

Many people have written on the logic of the sequence, but to summarise some of their analysis: the book starts with an exterior of a business where one can obtain ID photos for driving licenses and so on, as if to say that what follows will in part be about the process of photographic representation itself, its purposes, and – given the shop’s presence is advertised by hand-painted fingerposts – about urban semiotics and pictorial representation in general, including the relation between the mechanised/industrial photograph and the handmade sign. The next image is a window display from a small-town photographer’s studio, a grid of dozens of sample head-and-shoulder portraits of smiling or neutral American faces. Again, this is about the conventions of photographic representation, already codified in the 1930s, but also about the idea of anonymity, a constant theme throughout Evans’s career. Popular culture is anonymous culture, and the studio photographer’s work is an example of American vernacular quite as much as the signs featured elsewhere in the sequence. The third image is a pair of young men photographed in the street, perhaps watching a parade, itself a conventional part of American public culture. They are shot using a quite different approach from that adopted by the studio photographer, but with the same interest in the range of anonymous physiognomy. The next image is then a political poster, with an idealised painting of a politician’s face (but likely based on a photograph), and displayed in another window. And so on.

There are eighty-seven images. It has to be said, however, that by the time we get to Part Two, which is mainly architectural views, the principle of succession seems to have become ‘Here’s an example of American vernacular architecture; here’s another; and another.’ Or, as Gerry Badger puts it, 'the book settles down to being merely an inventory of things'. So I’d agree with Badger that the book’s claim to sophistication and complexity really rests on its first half.

The accompanying exhibition had a different and slightly larger selection of images, and was also sequenced and arranged differently, in several shorter sub-groups linked by theme, and displayed in such a way as to challenge the pieties of Adams and his ilk, with some prints pasted directly onto the gallery wall.

Note that the book version only includes two images from those taken during Evans’s shared project with Agee in 1936, and both of those are variants compared to the versions included in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Presumably Evans wanted to keep the two books conceptually distinct, although he included many more of the Alabama images in the exhibition, where most of them made up a distinct sub-group.

The photographs in Push Process unashamedly follow Evans’s example: in their detached perspective and their formal variety, moving between 35mm handheld shots of people and large-format architectural images. Although my argument and themes are different, I’ve also included a long sequence of forty-eight images with no accompanying text in a manner analogous to American Photographs. I’m well aware this makes my work old-fashioned, even anachronistic. This was already true for the period in which I made the images – 2000–5 (or 2000–1 in the fictional narrative of the novel they accompany); even more so in 2024. But this belatedness didn’t seem important to me then – and still doesn’t now – both because my project in Venice was a historical one – in which category I also include the history of photography itself – and also because I don’t believe the possibilities of Evans’s approach have yet been exhausted. 

Here’s a video where I review the beginning of the long photosequence in Push Process in terms that are obviously indebted to Evans: 


Thursday, February 15, 2024

Inspirations: Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant

Louis’ Aragon’s anti-novel Paris Peasant [Paysan de Paris, 1926] does not contain any photographs – does not even mention photography as far as I recall – yet I've listed it as an influence because both his method and his subjects recall that of certain photographers who were a direct influence on the images in Push Process. (Google suggests that the fantastic cover image above is by Stanley Chapman, from the first English-language edition of 1971 published by Jonathan Cape.)

Paris Peasant is one of the earliest Surrealist texts. To my mind, it’s superior to Breton’s Nadja, though the latter is better known and more widely read now, perhaps because it has a recognisable plot of sorts (that of the author’s romance with the titular heroine), whereas the structure of Paris Peasant is determined only by Aragon’s perambulations around a soon-to-be-demolished shopping arcade (the longest part of the book is a tour of all the shops it contains) and the Buttes-Chaumont park. This kind of systematic survey recalls Atget's visual catalogues of shop fronts and doorways, etc., but also Ed Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Aragon pays particular attention to places where the distinction between public and private is in abeyance, as indeed it is in arcades and parks in general, but even more so in public lavatories, bathhouses, hairdressers, brothels, and the more secluded corners of Buttes-Chaumont after dark. As such, Paris Peasant recalls Brassaï's work, especially the images published belatedly in The Secret Paris of the 30's.

The walk around the park in Paris Peasant also put me in mind of several photographers: Brassaï again, whose Paris After Dark contains several images of locked park entrances (Aragon and friends are surprised to discover Buttes-Chaumont open when they arrive there by taxi at night); Atget again, who in fact took several photographs in Buttes-Chaumont (Google tells me they were of trees, but perhaps he also photographed the statuary, as was his wont); and, most of all, several infrared images shot by Weegee of lovers in New York parks. Like Weegee's, Aragon’s nocturnal stroll is also surrounded by partially visible canoodling couples, but he leaves them in semi-obscurity, which is more inspirational for his surrealist purposes.

If I have understood Weegee's technique correctly (it is rarely explained), he used a flash with an infrared filter to expose the film: the filter suppressed the light source from the point-of-view of his subjects, but allowed infrared wavelengths through to provide enough light to expose the film. He shot several famous images in darkened cinemas and on the Coney Island beaches using the same technique. The results are far from seductive, since infrared light exaggerates bone shadows on the face, and highlights skin imperfections, especially male stubble. They are certainly revealing, but it seems a mean-spirited – not to mention voyeuristic – pursuit, and I can’t imagine anyone replicating it now without being prosecuted. I’m glad the photographs exist, but Aragon’s descriptions are both more suggestive and more tactful: desire generalised and mythologised, like the gouged outlines of hearts and genitals that Brassaï photographed for his graffiti project.

One of the most inspired aspects of Paris Peasant is Aragon's inclusion of transcriptions of ephemera - newspaper cuttings, price lists, product advertisements, shop signs - which give a fascinating insight into the history of the everyday in 20s Paris, and (in the form of inscriptions on a column in the park and a disquistion on statues) into the relationship between the ephemeral and the historical. These transcripts are not photographic reproductions of the originals, at least in my English translation (Sebald's work occasionally includes such photographs of ephemera, but Aragon was the pioneer here). The texts are instead displayed in a variety of layouts that attempt to mimic the designs of the originals. This has a strange effect: a strictly mimetic intention (which is, moreover, concerned with written texts that do not aspire to innovation) results in highly original typography in the context of a book.

I wish – I wish! – I'd had the foresight to save receipts from Venice so I could have included images of them in Push Process.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Photographic Inspirations: Brassaï, Paris After Dark (1932/3)

This is the first of a series of posts in anticipation of the publication of my novel with photographs, Push Process, on 6 March. In these posts, I'll discuss some of the photographers who influenced the images in my novel, and I'll also review some previous visual representations of Venice, where the book is set.

Today I'm discussing Brassaï, who was the immediate inspiration for me to take photographs of Venice at night, after I went to see the exhibition ‘Brassaï the Soul of Paris’ at the Hayward Gallery in London in early 2001. In Push Process, about two-thirds of the images are similarly night scenes – the daylight images were initially only a minor part of my photographic project. 

Nowadays, Brassaï's best-known images are of the Parisian demi-monde of the 1930s, taken in bars, private clubs and at least one brothel. Some of these were published in his second book, Voluptés de Paris [Pleasures of Paris] (1935), but he was disappointed with the salacious way they were presented there, and they weren't republished until a retrospective compilation, The Secret Paris of the 30’s, came out in 1976. But it was his architectural views I tried to emulate, and these feature most prominently in his first book, Paris de Nuit [Paris After Dark] (1932/3).

There’s a video on Vimeo showcasing a copy of the first French edition of this work, which was published by Arts et Métiers graphiques, an illustrated periodical, in December 1932. The cover includes a reference to a series of which this particular publication formed a part, along with the name of the series editor, which suggests that Arts et Métiers graphiques had a regular book-publishing arm, perhaps as a kind of ongoing supplement to the magazine. Interestingly, Brassaï's name is displayed at the same size as that of the series and editor, and greater prominence is instead given to the name of the writer of the introduction (and perhaps the image captions as well): Paul Morand. He presumably had a higher profile in 1932 than the then-unknown photographer, but at this date there also may have been some reluctance on principle to list a photographer as the book's main author (rather than its illustrator). 

The format of this first edition is unusual in several respects, not only compared to the other titles I’ll be discussing, but also compared to the Thames & Hudson English reprint of Paris After Dark from 1987, which I consulted for this post, and which was in turn based on a new French edition from Flammarion. 

The 1932 French edition has a ring binding, and a soft cover flush with the page edges. So it’s really a long booklet rather than a conventional book. Inside, the 62 images plus endpapers are all printed full bleed on pages whose dimensions faithfully reproduce the 3:2 ratio of the original images, which were taken with a 6x9cm camera on individual glass plates. This poses no problems for the images in portrait orientation; the ones in landscape orientation are rotated ninety degrees to fit the available space. In other words, when viewing this edition, you’d have to turn the book around and back again repeatedly. This last aspect of presentation would be unusual now, but was I think less so at the time.

Morand’s introduction is presented with some nice Modernist typography, and is followed by a list of extended explanatory captions, which don't have a credit as such. The 1987 edition says 'Text by Paul Morand' on the title page, but his name appears again at the end of the introduction (which might imply his contribution ends there). The captions feel consistent with his introduction, but if he wrote them, he certainly consulted with Brassaï on the specifics of the subject matter. In both editions, the images are then printed one per page on facing spreads with no adjacent text at all.

The reproduction method for the images was photogravure. This involved adding fake grain to the printing-plate surface and then transferring the image by a version of engraving. The results are slightly disconcerting – at least in this instance – precisely because they resemble engravings as much as photographs. The fake grain makes everything look smoky or foggy (that is, when the scene depicted is not literally foggy, which several of them are). When combined with the aesthetics of Brassaï’s night scenes, including solid blocks of black tone, limited depth of field and diffuse, often hidden, light sources, the results are as much Pictorialist as they are Modernist. It's no surprise then that a committee headed by Peter Henry Emerson, one of the most distinguished Pictorialists, gave a bronze medal to Paris After Dark.

From what I can tell online, the first English edition of February 1933 appears to have the same format as the 1932 French edition, but the Thames & Hudson reissue from 1987 presents the images rather differently, though probably in the same manner as the Flammarion republication it was based on. It preserves the selection and order of elements from the first edition, but the translated introduction is typeset more conventionally (in what looks like Gill Sans). It's again followed by the captions, but here these are accompanied by thumbnail versions of the images to which they apply. The selection and order of the images is the same as in the 1932/3 edition, but here they are all in their correct orientation, and with large black borders, set within larger pages with a very heavy paper stock: in fact, each page has a glossy black strip around the image and then a matt black background outside that. Thus:

An editorial note says that the 1987 edition was (where possible) 'produced by photogravure from Brassaï's original plates', which I initially assumed meant they used the photogravures from the first edition, but I think by 'plates' they actually mean the original negatives, which were on glass: i.e. Flammarion redid the gravures. However, Thames & Hudson seem to have used the original English translation of the text, since it has no separate copyright notice, and the translator is named as Stuart Gilbert, who died in 1969.

Photobooks often have introductions written by others, and Morand’s is typical of many subsequent examples in that it never refers directly to the photographs at all, but only to the subject matter and larger theme. Morand starts by invoking the literary tradition of Baudelaire, and the more recent ideas of Surrealism, in which night represents the city’s unconscious.

Night is not the negative of day; black surfaces and white are not merely transposed, as on a photographic plate, but another picture altogether emerges at nightfall. At that hour a twilight world comes into being, a world of shifting forms, of false perspectives, phantom planes. … The dangers I refer to are not those which a romantic tradition has innocently fostered … what I am thinking of is the more authentic menace of the subconscious mind of the French race, the night-side of their daytime perspicacity, all the more copious for being repressed beneath apparent equilibrium. … Julian Green, in “Derelicts”, has rendered with consummate skill his vision of the Paris night as a tremendous shipwreck, where all things suffer a sea-change …

“In all great cities there are zones which reveal their true character only after dusk. By day they wear a mask, assume a look of amiable good-fellowship that hoodwinks even the astute. … But when the nightmists rise, such places wake to life that is a parody of death; the smiling banks turn livid, dark surfaces grow pale and flicker with funereal gleams, coming with evil glee into their own again. It is the street-lamp that works the transformation. Under the first ray of this nocturnal sun, the nightscape dons its panoply of shadows and a malefic alchemy transforms the textures of the visible world. …”

Or, as Brassaï himself subsequently put it: 'Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbs and surprises us with its strangeness. It liberates forces within us which are dominated by our reason during the daytime.'

In her 1996 book on Brassaï: Images of Culture and the Surrealist Observer, Marja Warehime explains the role of Surrealism here in more detail:

perhaps one of the most telling examples of the differences separating the “new vision” of the Bauhaus from that of the Surrealists is their conception of the city. While the Bauhaus envisioned the city as a beautiful, coherent, finished technical object without ambiguities - … the Surrealist city is characterized by its irrationality: its spatial and psychological ambiguities, its zones of shadow and its labyrinth of streets and passageways through which the Surrealist passes on foot [i.e. not by train or car, or any other machine], oriented only by a sense of possible discovery. (12)

As we’ll see, this description fits some of Paris After Dark. But Morand's introduction, having invoked this surreal world of dreams, nightmares and mysterious transformations, then changes tack and proposes a rather different basis for conceptualising and organising much of what follows. He does so by introducing the figure of local guides who offer tours of ‘Paris by Night’ to interested visitors. In other words, the central theme is immediately rendered conventional and as part of an existing cultural economy, and while Morand then offers his own itinerary as (perhaps) a more authentic version of such a tour, he nonetheless preserves the sense of a world in which such tours have a proper place.

A more accurate description of this aspect of the book – featured both in the rest of the introduction, and in the separate captions, which do refer directly to the images, or at least to their subjects – might be ‘The Night Shift of Paris’. The demi-monde figures who populate Brassaï’s later books are largely absent, and so there’s little sense of an entirely separate world of the type we’ll later encounter in Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank (1956). Instead the night-time economy is connected to the larger life of the city, and everything has its proper place and function within that larger life. So some of the people featured in these photographs perform essential tasks invisible in the daytime, such as the ‘scavengers’, who pumped out septic tanks in an age before a universal plumbing system, or the farmers who brought produce directly to the early morning markets in an age before supermarkets and plastic packaging. Other images depict a baker and a newspaper printer, who worked at night so their products could be ready for the city’s early risers. And still others show the nightwatchmen and rag-pickers who existed on the fringes of the world of work, or rough sleepers and homeless people who didn’t perform any particular task but still had an acknowledged place within the typology of urban society. 

The demi-monde occasionally appears, but not as a separate subculture – rather, as a site for the wider city’s entertainment, whether licit (circus and revue performers) or illicit (a single image of a streetwalker; another couple of brothel exteriors, including one of Chez Suzy, whose interior and employees will show up in more detail in the later books). The upper-class customers for these various performances also feature, for their custom allowed others to earn a living.

Gerry Badger, in the first volume of his collaboration with Martin Parr, The Photobook: A History, describes Paris After Dark as 'rooted' in the tradition of the '"day-in-the-life" type of picture essay developed by the illustrated magazines', even if the emphasis here is on a specific segment of the day, i.e. the night. For Badger, the book is 'an extended magazine picture story rather than a social documentary project' (120).

In keeping with this conception, all the people depicted are presented as types. Many are completely anonymous in the sense of being (deliberately) shot from behind or at a distance. There are only two images that could be described as portraits: both of elderly women (plates 32 and 43). The first is of ‘a spectral beggar-woman who in her decline has kept a hint of former grandeur’ (as the caption puts it); the second a famous image of an ‘ancient cocotte’ in a bar, who ‘looks as if she had stepped out of one of Baudelaire’s most night-marish pages’. The combination of caption and image here makes for uncomfortable reading/viewing, as the approach seems to emphasise and exploit the subjects’ vulnerability. To put this another way, the book – or at least the captions – do not seem to admit the possibility that the subjects of these images might be interested in their own representation. But it's not clear  to me if Brassaï or Morand wrote these captions: the former was certainly unhappy with the texts used for his second book. In any case, these two portraits are isolated instances: all the other images preserve a respectful distance. Some of the solitary (male) pedestrians, and certainly the man ringing the doorbell at Chez Suzy, were in fact Brassaï’s collaborators, who he directed and placed within the scene.

Although Morand’s initial written tour through the city doesn’t refer to the photographs directly, the introduction nonetheless makes several allusions to the subjects of particular images, though it doesn’t do so systematically, or follow the order in which they are presented by the photographs. For instance, the following passage surely refers to the woman depicted in plate 32:

I walk home across the Boulevards. Not a soul in sight — except some ancient ladies lolling on the benches; their French is flawless, cultured, they have obviously “seen better days”; sometimes an aristocratic profile shows above a tawdry stole make of a hundred scraps of rabbit-fur sewn end to end.

The captions are more explicitly descriptive than the introduction, and are I think entirely conventional instances of the kinds of commentary one might find accompanying any photojournalism of the period. In other words, they insist that the photographs are rational, and that their primary purpose is as illustrations. A couple of photographs of statues also serve as a pretext for evoking the longer history of Paris by reference to their memorialised subjects. But while several images can indeed be read in this way, others exceed or are at least less constrained by these attempts to fix their meaning, and as such are closer to Morand’s opening Surrealist statement of intent. These images show defamiliarised daytime landscapes: closed and barred parks and cemeteries, bridges, quays, and various landmarks shrouded in darkness or silhouetted by artificial lighting. The several images of train stations, railway infrastructure and the metro are perhaps somewhere in-between these two categories: they are defamiliarised landscapes, but also an explicable part of the larger economic infrastructure of the city. 

A lot of photojournalism shares this anxiety about controlling possible readings of the images with accompanying text. One of the innovations of Walker Evans's American Photographs (followed by most of the other photographers we'll be discussing) was to remove this textual apparatus, not incidentally promoting the photographer to sole author in the process. A photograph, Robert Frank later said, should 'nullify explanation'. 

All the images in Paris After Dark depict the central areas of the city. The presence of the railways and the representatives of the city’s wider economy make clear how dependent the centre is on the suburbs, but the suburbs only exist to service the centre. They’re not a subject in their own right (as they would become in Robert Adams's The New West, to be discussed in a later post).

Night photography was a very inexact science in the 1930s. Emulsions were slow, and subject to a technical issue known as reciprocity failure in low light that necessitated even longer exposures than those indicated by a light meter. For his images in bars, the ones published later, Brassaï used flash and planned in advance. Outside, he usually resorted to long exposures on a tripod. Part of the Brassaï myth is that he calculated the length of these exterior shots by the amount of time it took to smoke a cigarette. But others are clearly under a second, and likely in the range of 1/15 to 1/4 of a second, since they record the presence of pedestrians and cars with minimal blurring. 

In The Photobook, Badger rhapsodises about the printing of the first edition of Paris After Dark, which he describes as:

arguably the most luscious gravure ever seen, the blacks being so rich and deep that after handling the book one expects to find sooty deposits all over one's fingers. The gradation of tones is wonderfully subtle, describing an apparently infinite range of black and near-black tones. The layout, with its characteristic full-page bleeds, never more felicitously employed, takes us from image to image, from page to page, and across night-time Paris, with effortless panache. (134)

Well, yes and no. Some of the exteriors are barely there, reduced to isolated highlights against a black background. But we might put this in positive terms by saying the images commit fully to the theme. In other words, night is their principal subject as well as the organising theme of the book, and they evoke this subject by means of chiaroscuro gloom rather than lucid description. 

With regard to the sequencing, sometimes the paired images on facing pages complement each other in a pointed way, either by linking two images with related subjects, or by implicitly contrasting subjects – and sometimes the argument continues serially over several sets of such pairs. Consider the following sequence of page/plate numbers: 

23: two wandering cats; 24: a canoodling couple on a park bench in the Tuileries 

25: a man waiting at the door of Chez Suzy; 26: rough sleepers lying at intervals under a colonnade

27: a street of hotels catering to sex workers and their clients; 28: two policemen on bicycle patrol

29: the 'scavanger' pumping out cess pools; 30: a solitary streetwalker waiting for customers 

One might even see the following as part of the same progression:

31: the Montmartre cemetery seen through locked gates; 32: the noble beggar-woman referred to above. 

Even so, overall the precise sequence and order of the images does not quite have the same pointedness that it does in, say, American Photographs by Walker Evans, as we'll see in a later post dedicated to that title. That kind of larger argument perhaps seemed less important because the overall theme of Paris After Dark was so insistent and unitary. 

Things look different at night: that’s the banal basis for the effect of defamiliarisation. But it’s perhaps worth stating more clearly how this difference works. Space in a photograph is defined and described by the distribution of light, and at night, light is not just scarcer, it’s of an entirely different quality to natural light. It comes from multiple, isolated sources, which are situated within the landscape of the city, rather than positioned at an infinite distance above it. It never envelops the entirety of the scene.  

When I began photographing in Venice, I quickly realised that I didn’t share Brassaï’s commitment to his theme. Although I was working in low light, I wanted to describe things as clearly as possible. Writing about a photograph by Eugène Atget, Gerry Badger says that ‘Every square centimetre of the picture space, from edge to edge, works for its living …’ This is not the case for the images in Paris After Dark, where significant areas of some of the gravures are solid black. So, while I was interested in how working at night could slow down my approach and defamiliarise the city, I wasn’t interested in night as a subject in itself in the way that Brassaï was. Or at least, not as a subject whose sole identifying characteristic was chiaroscuro. In fact, I overexposed many of my images, especially the ones I later began to take in daylight, but also some of the night-time shots. Partly this was an error of technique (for reasons I need not go into here), but partly it was out of a desire to avoid areas of blank tone. And while I had a sense of how individual images might contribute to a larger portrait of the city, I didn’t think in the typological terms that Brassaï did. Atget, and, even more so, Walker Evans, were ultimately more useful models. But Morand’s tours, which presented spectacle and culture as just another commodity, along with the larger histories suggested by Brassai’s images of statues and landmarks, both find an echo in my work.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Scheduled Posts

Over the next several weeks, I'll be publishing regularly here with a series of posts about photography, Venice and the inspirations for my forthcoming novel Push Process, starting tomorrow with a post on Brassai's Paris After Dark (132/3).

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Launch of Push Process in Glasgow

Glasgow friends – including friends I haven’t met yet! You are invited to the launch of my new novel, Push Process, which will take place one month from today on the official release date: 6 March, 7.00pm, at Waterstones Byres Road (at the top end, near the Botanic Gardens). I’ll be chatting to Zoe Strachan from the University of Glasgow. 

There’s no charge to attend, but Waterstones would like people to book a ticket on their system so they have a sense of how many people will be coming. Book here

This is the first time I’ve been able to do a Glasgow launch event, so would be lovely to see you there, whoever you are! (Also, feel free to share and invite anyone you think might be interested.)

Book details:

More speed, more light, more time. But this is the fastest possible film, pushed as hard as it can be pushed; the lens wide open to catch every drop of brightness; the slow exposure shaking the image apart. Right up at the edge. 

Go farther, closer. 

Venice, 2000. 

Richard is a postgraduate student living in the city to research its past. He’s supposed to be working in the archive, but he meets Merlo and Lars, two art students who are more interested in Venice’s present. He decides to pick up a camera and join them. 

The world comes alive for Richard through photographs: for the first time, he feels connected to a place – and other people. He’s determined to continue, whatever the cost. 

Push Process is a novel about art, friendship and being European, illustrated with over fifty black-and-white photographs of Venice.

There'll be copies available on the night. You can also pre-order here, or wherever else you prefer.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Author's Copies of Push Process

Author's copies of Push Process have arrived from the printer in the Czech Republic. It looks great! Contact hello@ortacpress.com if you are an interested reviewer. It's also the Republic of Consciousness book of the month for February. Otherwise the release date is 6 March!

Details and pre-orders here.


A genre-defying work that blends quality fiction with art theory and criticism to pose the question, what are we really trying to capture when we decide to take a photograph? 
Stu Hennigan, author of Ghost Signs 

In Push Process, Jonathan Walker takes a stylistic risk, producing a novel as arresting as it is innovative, resulting in an alchemic book infused with shades of Ian McEwan's The Innocent and Teju Cole's Blind Spot
Ali Millar, author of Ava, Anna, Ada