Article: 19530303006


It would be cowardly to answer the question I have posed for myself with a time-worn and evasive "Yes and no," just as it would be flippant to answer it with "Who cares?" and ignorant to reply "I do not know." I think there can be no question but that photography has gone too far, but I feel confident that it can get back, if it wants to.
james thurber


james thurber

Reprinted by permission. Copr. 1934

The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.

It would be cowardly to answer the question I have posed for myself with a time-worn and evasive "Yes and no," just as it would be flippant to answer it with "Who cares?" and ignorant to reply "I do not know." I think there can be no question but that photography has gone too far, but I feel confident that it can get back, if it wants to. In that phrase "if it wants to,” which I have italicized, there might seem to be a certain ominous significance, but as a matter of fact there isn’t at all; I italicized it simply because I wanted to sharpen the interest of my readers, if any are still sticking with me. The whole subject of photography has to be italicized for the average reader or he will turn to some other subject quicker than you can say "Alfred Stieglitz.”

I became interested in the question as to whether photography has gone too far when I read a recent article by Mr. Edward Alden Jewell, the art critic, in which he began by saying that the present summer quiet has been "ruffled by the recrudescence of an old dispute” — namely, should photographic plates and prints be let alone? The article, a long one, dealt with photography as an art and concerned itself chiefly with a discussion as to whether or not a photographer-artist has a right to monkey with a negative or print; that is, put things in that weren’t originally there or take things out that were originally there. Let us consider this important question a moment!

Several years ago I remember going to an exhibition of photographs in the modern manner. Most of the pictures were highly artistic. There were no straightforward photographs of your child or my child. There were photographs of balls of twine, of shadows cast by the Sixth Avenue "L,” of a lady’s hand holding some eggshells and rubies, of a horse’s mouth taken from the ground just in front of the horse by a photographer who was lying on his back (it was a gentle, old horse), of a clothesline with clothes on it, of a girl lying on her back as seen through a champagne glass, etc. It was difficult for me, an amateur, to know what to say about many of the pictures, especially the one of the horse’s mouth, because you could see his teeth and the picture looked at first like a balloon landing in a cemetery. So I didn’t say anything.

This kind of photography started, I believe, in fairly recent years. Somebody, maybe Man Ray (I never go into any subject thoroughly enough to know much about it), first began to take pictures of such groupings as a litter of tenpenny nails, a white door-knob, an elk’s tooth, and a strip of silk lining torn from a gentleman’s dressing-gown. Thus one picture led to another until now there are several hundred million photographs of this nature, no two of them exactly alike but thousands of them seeming to be exactly alike. Any given object, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, has been photographed in juxtaposition to every other known object. I have seen pictures of spark-plugs lying next to hairpins; a chipmunk’s skull with bachelor’s-buttons for eyes; a woman’s hand holding the sawedoff part of a double-barrelled shotgun; a silk hat in which several eggbeaters and a whiskbroom had been tastefully arranged; and a Bengal tiger studying with mild alarm a plate of buttons from a naval officer’s mess jacket.

Of course, it would be unfair to say that all art photographers have gone in for such bizarre compositions; many of them are content to lie on the floor and photograph people or get up on stepladders and photograph people. It all comes to the same thing, however: it is virtually impossible nowadays to find a straightaway photograph of a person standing and looking at the camera. Personally, I don’t care how many strange photographs are taken and exhibited. All that worries me (and this is always true of me during any trend, from art photography to proletarianism) is what is going to happen to me. I like to be photographed, and I come from a long line of ancestors who liked to be photographed. My Grandfather Fisher liked to be photographed so well that we have one old Fisher family album in which there is nothing but photographs of my grandfather. In not one of them, however, is he shown lying on his back with a dahlia in his mouth or lying on his side with shadows on his face cast by the wire netting of a chicken coop. I don’t think he would have submitted to any such poses, and he was man enough to have successfully fought off any photographer who might have wanted to throw him to the floor or trap him into lying down on the floor. Grandfather’s black beard would, I suppose, have looked terribly effective photographed between a vase and a wastebasket, but there is no man alive today who could have persuaded him to try and find out.

With me it is different from what it would have been with Grandfather. Certain photographers, particularly the grim, intense ones with the steely eyes, could probably inveigle me into assuming any remarkable position they desired (barring lying down and peering up into the face of a tiger). It is for this reason that I have not been photographed for several years. At Christmas time now I make records of my voice and send them to my family, instead of photographs.

But to get back to the moot question—has an art photographer a right to put things in, or take things out of, a negative or a print? Mr. Jewell, in his article, quotes Mr. Yosei Amemya, the Japanese photographer and painter, as follows: 'Tn even the hands of the most expert technician it [the camera’s eye] often cheats, many of the elements that appeared in it being missing when the plate is developed, not the least of which is color.” Not the least of which was, in one picture I took some years ago, the Washington Monument. I spotted the Washington Monument directly in the center of the camera’s finder, snapped the shutter, and later took the film to be developed. There was no Washington Monument in the print the camera-shop man finally turned over to me. "The Washington Monument should be right in the center of this print,” I told him. He picked up the negative and looked at it against the light. "You must have missed it,” he said. I told him I couldn't have missed it. "Well,” he said, "you must have missed it.” The mystery was never cleared up. And that leaves my position in regard to "controlled” negatives rather anomalous ("controlled” is a word the art photographers use for the commoner and less classy "retouched”).

A controversy about controlled photography is now raging in the land, Mr. Jewell’s article reveals. You could have knocked me down with an old box-style Brownie No. 1 Kodak when I discovered, in reading Mr. Jewell’s piece further, that the Camera Club has been "arguing the question of straight versus controlled photography for fifty years.” Without, apparently, getting anywhere. Of course, as is usual with me in connection with subjects I know very little about, I have a suggestion to make. It seems to me that more control should be exerted upon the subjects before they are photographed and less upon the plates afterward. I mean an art photographer should be able to make up his mind long before he goes into the darkroom whether or not he really wants a picture of seven jackstones and the works of a watch scattered upon a polo shirt. But maybe I don’t grasp the main idea, maybe the real art—and the real fun—comes in controlling the plates and prints rather than the objects themselves. At any rate, I completely agree with Mr. Jewell when he says, "Those who insist that ’controlled’ prints are bad do not, I am sure, mean to suggest that the artist should not at all times be in control.” I should certainly hope not! Once the camera itself got the upper hand, the Lord Himself only knows what might happen. T „