Category Archives: documentary

WWII US fire-bombing (of Germany)

Born in the Bavarian Alps in 1944 (too late to remember anything of World War II) and long a professor at second-rate English universities, W. G. Sebald wrote a series of essayistic fictions illustrated by grainy photographs he took of mostly peopleless vistas or of odd documents. His books have been rapturously reviewed in the Anglophone world, less rapturously in reviews in his native language. His “novel Austerlitz, which I found unreadable, won a National Book Critics’ Circle Award after Sebald’s death in 2001 in an automobile accident.

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In 1998 Sebald lectured in Zurich on what he heard as a loud silence about life in the Third Reich as the US Air Force attempted to level German’s cities (choosing saturation firebombing civilians to aiming at military targets in Japan, Germany, and Austria). When I visited Berlin six months ago (and other German cities earlier), I was puzzled by the completeness of reconstruction. In photos from just after Germany’s surrender in 1945 and in the backdrop of several movies I’ve seen or reseen in the last year (Germany, Year Zero; The Search; Foreign Affair) it looks that in vast expanses of German cities there were no roofs left. Now it looks like there are many pre-WWII buildings, and I don’t know whether this is more the preservation of the facades of the buildings or reconstruction.

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Although the postwar German looking forward to reconstruction rather than backward to destruction is his topic, in On The Natural History of Destruction Sebald does not touch on my preservation/replication puzzle. His puzzle is the failure of natives and alien visitors to cognize the extent of destruction: “About six hundred thousand German civilians fell victim t the air raids and three and a half million homes were destroyed; at the end of the war seven and a half million people were left homeless, and there were 311.1 cubic metres of rubble for every inhabitant of Cologne and 42.8 cubic metres for eerie inhabitant of Dresden—but we do not grasp what it all actually meant. The destruction, on a scale without historical precedent, entered the annals of the nation only in the form of vague generalizations as Germany set about rebuilding itself…. It has largely been obliterated from the retrospective understanding of those affected.

Sebald’s title is what Lord Zuckerman intended to write when he went to survey the destruction immediately after the war, but he found himself unable to write of his impressions. Similarly, on their returned from American exile, Thomas Mann and Bertholt Brecht barely noted the destruction in their post-exile writings. Fellow Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll was an exception in writing a novel about the experiences of civilians in the last year of the war, but it was not published for another forty years

After Sebald’s lecture (which was published in German in 1999), the then-living German winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Günter Grass published a novel focusing on civilian casualties from 1945 (Soviet bombing of a ship of refugees) that has just appeared in English as Crabwalk and Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand) (“The Fire”) has been a best-seller in Germany. Grass contends, against Sebald, that the memory of feeling impotent and frightened has been passed down to younger generations and explains the massive German opposition to Bush’s Iraq adventure.

Although I understand the importance of testimony, that is, records of what it was like to live through traumas and admire such works as Before Night Falls, Land of the Green Ghosts, Loss Within Loss, and Diary of a Political Idiot), I understand that most people would rather block memories and get on with trying to (re)build lives than examine just how horrible their trauma was, and that other observers feel inadequate to the task (as, for instance, Lord Zuckerman did in making his way through the rubble). My impression of holocaust literature is that more of it has been produced thirty-plus years after the liberation of concentration camps than during the immediately following decades.

In addition to the general reasons for not picking at psychic scabs, there are two reasons more specific to the obliterated Third Reich for Germans not to have written (extensively) about destruction of German cities. The first is guilty conscience: ”We actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived” by initiating air attacks on civilian populations (first in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, most memorably in the London blitz) and by the attempted “final solution.” The second is that any discussion of German suffering is seized upon by neo-Nazis (or unreconstructed ones still alive) as an apologia for Nazi modes of operation. Sebald writes at considerable length (and with withering scorn) about some of the letters he received from Germans expressing the view that Germans were the primary victims of World War II.

Sebald’s expanded Zurich lecture was published in German with an essay on the postwar German writer Alfred Andersch. The American edition also includes essays on Jean Améry, an Austrian Jew who joined the Resistance, was tortured and sent to Auschwitz and who wrote the kind of specific, dry cataloging of what he saw that prefigured Sebald (as in the quotation above), and playwright Peter Weiss (Marat/Sade) whose “The Investigation” incorporated testimony from war crime trials concerning Auschwitz.

Sebald tended to ramble (literally in The Rings of Saturn), as I complained in reviewing Vertigo, Natural History is somewhat miscellaneous, but like Emigrants consists of variations on a discernible theme (exile in that, experiencing the losing end of WWII here).

Sebald was a discerning literary critic and has interesting things to say about all the writers he discusses. His surprise at their number being small seems exaggerated to me in that the factors I’ve mentioned were known to him, and I’m puzzled that a writer so obsessed with photographs does not discuss the documentary and fictional films showing the rubble and the rat-like behavior of Germans living in holes.

©2003, Stephen O. Murray

 

Hollywood pre-Code women

As San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle writes in Complicated Women (2000), the sexual power and freedom of women in many movies from the early-1930s was greater than in movies since then.

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At the end of the silent era, Mary Pickford was the biggest star. “America’s sweetheart” was an eternal virgin, and, indeed, generally played the part of a child. There were also sirens bringing doom to men, the archetypal “vamp” being Theda Bara. The vamps were sexual, but did not seem to find much joy in sex: they didn’t enjoy sex as much as they enjoyed turning men into sex slaves and destroying them. Cast in the vamp mold in her first American movies, Greta Garbo turned from destroying those who loved her into being a martyr for love. For Garbo’s lusts, everyone in the vicinity suffered, herself most of all.

LaSalle’s model of the transformation from the good girl/vamp dichotomy involves Garbo remaking the vamp role and Norma Shearer transforming her screen persona from wholesomeness to sexual freedom. “A Free Soul” is the title of one of the vehicles of Shearer’s onscreen emancipation. (LaSalle suggests she was acting out fantasies of sexual adventures partially with energy not absorbed by her sickly husband, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. LaSalle does not claim to know what she thought about sexual freedom for women offscreen, but she was eager to seize roles pushing the envelope onscreen, fighting her husband to get the parts that must have made him uneasy rather than being handed them because she was his wife.)

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In “The Divorcee” (for which Shearer won an Oscar), she played a woman who listens to the news of her husband’s infidelity and his demand that she accept it by going out and having sex with his best friend. Her husband’s modern attitude does not extend to the wife having equal freedom to take other sexual partners (what is good for the gander is not allowed the goose). Rather than being “modern,” he maintains the venerable double standard about marital fidelity applying only to the wife. The viewpoint of the movie is that when fidelity is broken by one partner, the other partner has the same freedom, a viewpoint that remains audacious today. (LaSalle compares the restraint Julia Roberts must exercise in “Something to Talk About.”)

LaSalle gets carried away in his enthusiasm for early-1930s Shearer films. Her gowns were as slinky, clinging, and revealing as he says, but her gesticulations were excessive, and her characters mostly did not find happiness or acceptance. “Private Lives” (from the durable Nöel Coward play) is something of an exception in that her character recouples with her divorced husband played by Robert Montgomery. The social acceptability of this is vitiated by the fact that both are married to new spouses, though perhaps in the Catholic view of divorce and marriage their divorce is illegitimate and they are returning to their vows after recognizing their divorce and second marriages as a mistake (and possibly adulterous to “what God has joined together”).

Meanwhile, Garbo moved from playing the prostitute title role of her first talkie, “Anna Christie,” to the bisexual/transvestite “Queen Christina” who trades her throne for love. Christina dresses as a man and has relationships with both men and women, but she cannot have/keep it all and (yet again) sacrifices all for love.

Garbo was the only female superstar who made a successful transition to superstardom in talking pictures. Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford were stars whose wattage increased, while less-known players like Constance Bennett, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Loretta Young, and Myrna Loy emerged from the background, Marlene Dietrich was imported from Germany (where she had enslaved and broken Emil Janning in “The Blue Angel” that was filmed in both German and English). From the New York stage came Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Harding, Claudette Colbert, Joan Blondell, Miriam Hopkins, Bette Davis, and, a few years later, Katherine Hepburn and Mae West. “They became famous, most of them, for playing ‘loose women.’… At the beginning of the era, the fallen woman was the movies’ favorite character [while] even relatively innocuous films took on sexy titles to lure in audiences.” Helen Hayes won an Oscar for playing a prostitute (Madelon Claudet) and other surprising women of the streets included Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert. As for la Dietrich, “one almost has to search her early filmography for a movie in which she was not a prostitute, and yet every picture was on her side, and each one defined her as an honest woman” and, in the instance of “Blonde Venus,” a devoted mother. As the notorious “Shanghai Lily” in “Shanghai Express,” it is Doc’s lack of faith in her that is the problem: “The movie is not about her becoming worthy of him, but about the journey of faith that allows him to become worthy of her. Shanghai Lily doesn’t need to change. Her boyfriend needs a new attitude.”

Many of the males in many of the pre-Code movies had difficulty adjusting their attitudes, while the women plied other professions than the allegedly oldest one. Kay Francis played physicians, Crawford and Stanwyck specialized in sleeping their way from entry-level jobs to penthouse-suite positions (e.g., in “Grand Hotel” and “Baby Face”) and managed to have careers continuing beyond the imposition of censorship in which they shot or slapped men, connived and became successful in business (though in the late-1930s and through the 1950s they frequently surrendered power to males, not always choosing male partners wisely or trusting the trustworthy…)

 

LaSalle praises the work of a number of women whose careers did not survive the imposition in mid-1934 of preproduction censorship of sex (even marital sex, let alone extramarital sex) and female independence such as Miriam Hopkins, Ann Dvorak, Ruth Chatterton, Dorothy Mackaill, Mae Clark, and Ann Harding. He provides acute analysis of the truncated careers of Jean Harlow and Mae West, though I think he fails to do justice to the emotional power of Marlene Dietrich’s performances for Joseph von Sternberg (particularly in “Shanghai Express”). Moreover, the movies he advances as particularly daring, such as “Baby Face” and “Female,” end with the women surrendering their gains and their autonomy to me, every bit as much as the post-World War II propagandizing for getting women out of the labor force back “where they belonged,” entirely focused on being wives and mothers.

As good as is his sympathetic analysis of the pre-Code women-centered films made between 1919 and mid-1934, LaSalle’s account of the imposition of censorship may be even better. He exposes the subversion of his employers’ interests by Joseph Breen, who worked with the US Roman Catholic hierarchy to threaten to forbid Catholics attending any movies (a ban that was laid down by the bishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Dougherty) in order to gain advance control over what could be filmed. Breen suppressed a study that showed box office receipts increasing when the Catholic Legion of Decency (an organization of which he was the secret parent) condemned a movie. The Breen office prevented pre-Code films from being rereleased, and the pre-Code films with emancipated women were too sexually forthright for television when old films started to air to tv audiences after World War II. LaSalle’s contention that censorship was primarily focused on preventing representations of independent women is well supported. Indeed, that “the Code liked dead women” is hard to argue. LaSalle concluded that

“although the Production Code administrators brooked no lewdness or nudity, their main goal was to censor ideas. The censors were absolutely fixated on the messages movies transmitted. For example, crime had to be punished—period. There was no leaving it unpunished subtly…. Women got the worst of it. Under the Code, it wasn’t only crime that didn’t pay. Sex outside of marriage didn’t pay. Divorce didn’t pay. Leaving your husband [no matter what the provocations on his part] didn’t pay. Even having a job often didn’t pay. The Production Code ensured a miserable fate—or at least a rueful, chastened one—for any woman who stepped out of.

“Accordingly, every female character in movies got her virginity back. If she lost it again, she was in big trouble. The price for nonconjugal relations was either death, permanent loneliness, or a profuse protracted, and degrading apology. At the same time, women became the humble protectors of marriage. If a husband strayed and wanted to return, a wife not only had to take him back, she had to smile as she did.”

—-

LaSalle is sometimes overinsistent and somewhat oversells the quality of the early talking pictures, but the well-illustrated text moves along swiftly until the somewhat diffuse final two chapters on more recent revivals of Garbo and Shearer traditions suppressed by the Christian equivalents of the imams and ayatollahs imposing their views of what people can watch and hear from 1934 through the late 1960s. (It is also clear that anti-Semitism was common currency in the Breen/Catholic hierarchy plotting to seize control over what Americans could watch: “Breen wanted to save America from the movies and the movies from the Jews,” as LaSalle puts it.)

 

I wanted to read the book before seeing the one-hour 2003 documentary based on it . The documentary, narrated by Jane Fonda, shows LaSalle, Molly Haskell, and some survivors of the era, has some of the book’s best lines and some of the scenes described in the book. The chronology is much clearer in the book, though I’d highly recommend the documentary, too.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Black Panther Minister of Culture and Prime Designer of their Graphics Comes to SFPL

In commemoration of a half century after the rise of the Black Panthers (and the selection of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party for One City/One Book), the San Francisco Public Library  hosted what was supposed to be a panel discussion on the art and activism of Emory Douglas (born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1943), the Panther Minister of Culture, who illustrated the Black Panther paper and was one of the panthers who traveled to Algiers, He didn’t talk about that summit or about working with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, starting with the third issue of The Black Panther Community News Serice in 1967. Confident that he understood their anti-imperialist politics, they did not supervise his work, but left him to do whatever graphics he wanted.

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(2014 Creative Commons photo by Amber Gregory)

Asked about influences on his art, he denied there were any, citing only the craft of two-color commercial illustration he learned at San Francisco City College. He went on for more than two hours reading any text in the illustrations, talking about the political background of some. He has not forgiven Barack Obama for running for Congress (unsuccessfully) against ex-Panther leader Bobby Rush and is appalled that someone going through a weekly kill list won the Nobel Peace Prize (as did one of his targets, Henry Kissinger). There were few weapons, few guns in his powerpoint presentation (lots of pigs, lots of children), but there are many in his book. Next week, political scientists Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. will talk about the San Francisco Reads current choice, Black Against Empire. I was given a copy and will at least dip into it It has a thorough index. There are images I like, even some with guns, though not the grotesque pigs.

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Douglas reported that the icon came out of SNCC work in Lowndes County, Alabama (the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, led by Stokely Carmichael had been using a black panther logo, Carmichael keynoted a Black Power conference in Berkeley 29 October 1966). He worked at the San Francisco Sun Reporter for 30+ years after publication of The Black Panther ceased, and has collaborated with Sandinistas, UFW, Australian aborigine, and Maori activists. He showed some of this later work.

In “The Revolution Will Be Visualized,” Colette Gaiter wrote: “Douglas was the Norman Rockwell of the ghetto, concentrating on the poor and oppressed. Departing from the WPA/social realist style of portraying poor people, which can be perceived as voyeuristic and patronizing, Douglas’s energetic drawings showed respect and affection. He maintained poor people’s dignity while graphically illustrating harsh situations.”

Douglas said that the paper stopped using profanity after Newton communicated from prison that Malcolm X got his message across without it. He denied any influence from Mao, though they sold copies of the little red book to finance their programs.

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I doubt that I was the only audience member who would have preferred some reminisces of working with Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver to reading what was on his graphics. I’d have liked to ask him if he thinks Cleaver was always a con-man from Soul on Ice to his Moonie and Mormon conversions. I’m sure there was at least one person who’d have liked to ask his opinion (or knowledge!) of whether Newton became a drug dealer in later years. In contrast with them, Douglas is “keeping the [anti-imperialist, police-monitoring faith of the original Panthers.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

“An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps”

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To make “An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps” (2009), a half century after Swiss-German-Jewish immigrant photographer Robert Frank (born in Zurich in 1924) took to the road for two years on a Guggenheim fellowship, Philippe Seclier set out to follow Frank’s itinerary and try to find people and places that had made it into Frank’s (1958 in French, 1959 in English) book The Americans. Frank took 28,000 photographs, of which the book reproduced only 83.

In the documentary some people page through the book, but Seclier only shows trying to find the subjects of a handful of the photos. He finds New Orleans trolleys the window in Butte, Montana from which Frank shot the streets and rooftops of a more prosperous mining town), and the location of a shot on Belle Island in the Detroit River without the black and white people who were the point of Frank’s shot. He also finds a black Alabama woman whom Frank shot on the back of a motorcycle and a boy who was in the foreground of a 4th of July celebration in upstate New York (with a very large flag taking up most of the visual field). Both identify themselves in the photos, but neither remembers the photographer or being photographed.

Somewhat more interesting than the failures to connect with the objects of the 1950s photos are some reminiscences of the French and the American publishers (Barney Rossiter of the Evergreen Review and Grove Press was the American one, Robert Delpire the French one), Frank’s New York printer, and a friend in whose darkroom in Orinda (a suburb of San Francisco just east of the coastal mountains) Frank made the first prints of the film he had shot crossing the country. These interview segments are OK. More interesting it the tale of Frank’s youth in Switzerland surrounded by the Third Reich and coming to the US in 1947, where he worked for Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion photographer for a time. After some time in Paris, he returned and did freelance photography published in glossy magazines of the early 1950s.

Edward Streichen and Walker Evans supported his Guggenheim application. The latter wrote a preface for the first (French) edition. The newly famous Jack Kerouac wrote one for the Grove Press American edition. Allen Ginsberg had also befriended Frank, and Frank was best known to me for filming the Beat writers in “Pull My Daisy” and the Rolling Stones in “Cocksucker Blues.” (Frank’s film-making career, and indeed anything beyond the publication of The Americans is unmentioned in the documentary and there is no mention of any attempt to hear from Frank himself.

I know that some criticized blurriness in some of the images in the book, so am somewhat hesitant to criticize the blurriness of many “on the road” shots in the movie. I imagine that Seclier, who credits himself with photographing and driving, had some arty intent, though the blurriness may derive from filming and driving at the same time.

I am not convinced that the book is as important or as seminal as Seclier believes. For the seminal, remember that Frank was supported by Walker Evans, whose photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men documented poverty and racism in the American South. Also dating back to the 1930s, were the powerful images shot by Dorothea Lange (and even Ansel Adams’s documentary photographs of the Manzanar concentration camp for West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II). And Frank’s photographs are not as well known as those of Diane Arbus (with Frank and Saul Leiter, Frank is sometimes identified as a photographic “New York School” paralleling the “New York School” of poets—with whom Frank was not associated).

Mention is made at the attacks on the book for the definite article (the) in the title, a claim for universality or representativeness that was not made in the first two publications of Frank’s photos from on the road.

For the half-century anniversary of the publication of the book, an exhibition was mounted by the National Gallery in DC, and traveled here (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and onto China. The documentary ends with a woman walking through the exhibit in Northern China (with a glimpse at the map indicating places where photos in the show and book were shot). She does not say anything about her impressions of the photos.

The documentary might stimulate some viewers (even those who shut off the DVD long before its end, though that is never more than an hour away) to look at Frank’s book, but it is a remarkably dull movie. Painter Ed Ruscha makes some apposite remarks, but Seclier’s meditations are exceptionally banal. For sue, Seclier is not a new Tocqueville!

 

©2013, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Ric Burns’s Ansel Adams documentary

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I’ve seen film documentaries of a number of photographers from the heroic age (between the world wars), including Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-BressonDorothea Lange, and Rondal Partridge. The 2002 “American Masters” one about Ansel Adams (1902-84), directed by Ric Burns, is the most revealing one, detailing an unusual childhood on the northwestern edge of the San Francisco peninsula, being injured in the 1906 earthquake, being what was not yet labeled “hyperactive,” spending a year at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, and throwing himself into playing the piano before taking up photography. His courtship was prolonged and the documentary delves into a major marital crisis involving a darkroom assistant. And lots of self-doubts, ending in years in which he stopped taking photographs, but was a Sierra Club activist, especially involved in getting King’s Canyon set aside as a National Park.

There is footage of him playing the piano. I recall only one video interview of him, though there are ones of his son and daughter (and Carl Pope, longtime head of the Sierra Club).

There are also a lot of striking Adams photographs. My unease is that a whole photograph is rarely on display. The Burns brothers (Ken and Ric) style of panning in and out and back and forth means that the composition Adams made (often as much in the darkroom as choosing a shot) are pretty much not available in the documentary. (I have seen prints on museum and other walls, and reproductions in books, but…).

The narration is pessimistic about the preservation of wilderness. Some of the access to the Yosemite Valley has been rolled back and I think there are still remote, quite wild areas in Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks (if not in Sequoia).

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The standard Burns mix of interviews and actors reading letters (plus some home movies) also typifies this documentary. With even less criticism by anyone of the person considered (there is mention of criticisms of Adams and Weston during the Depression for not making socially “relevant” photos, and, oddly, no mention of the photographs Adams took of the Japanese-American concentration camp a Manzanar, east of Mount Whitney, that Adams took).

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(1947 photograph of Adams, probably taken by J. Malcolm Greany that first appeared in the 1950 Yosemite Field School yearbook and is in the public domain)

Also, other than chronicling encouragement from Alfred Stieglitz, there is little about other photographers (mention of advice from Strand and the apolitical rap made of Weston and Adams), though Adams was involved (founded) a group, f64 (named for sharp focus).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Northern California photographer Rondal Partridge

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Onstage (at a 2008 showing of his daughter’s documentary about Dorothea Lange), Rondal Partridge [1917-2015] showed an impatience with cant and showed no inhibitions about saying what he thought, even if it undercut what his daughters had said. He firmly maintained that photography is documentation, not art, though explaining that this certainly did not mean photographs could not be beautiful.

At the time, I thought he was presenting his own view. Having looked through his daughter Elizabeth’s selection of more than a hundred of his photographs taken across the span of about seventy years (Quizzical Eye, 2003), I’ve decided that he must have been presenting Lange’s position.

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He accompanied Lange on expeditions photographing migrant workers during the Great Depression and photographed her and Ansel Adams (with whom he was apprenticed before Lange; both were friends of his parents Mills College art professor Roi Partridge and photographer Imogen Cunningham). In the Q&A Rondal said that he was gravitating to the view that Adams was a “pictorialist with sharp edges” (the sharpness of images was central to the f.64 group centered on Adams).

Be that as it may, many of the landscapes included in the book look like Adams’s photograph, with the very notable exception of one of Half Dome in Yosemite (the prototypical subject of Adams photographs) shot across an overflowing parking lot on the Yosemite Valley floor.

One Rondal Partridge leitmotif is automobiles blighting California, and he has very deliberately documented pollution as well as documenting the migrants of the Depression and spending the World War II years as a Navy documentary photographer.

I like his pictures of artists, both candid ones and posed ones. — and plate 57 which was a “hold that position” one of Lange. My favorite is a mid-1950s portrait of Odetta with her head rested on her guitar and looking dreamily off (plate 36).

Partridge’s work also includes some self-portraits that I would call “surrealistic” and some as far from “documentation” as the experiments of, say, Man Ray. The photos of flea market displays with the photographer’s shadow and the dead birds on a plat with onions or in a cordial glass (plates 92-93) are somewhere between surrealism and abstraction, Partridge’s still-lives strike me as being as composed as those of Edward Weston (whom Partridge also knew from childhood on). And the strikingly composed shots of buildings (especially plates 52-55) are surely works of art (even if also of “documentation”). The buildings are in sharp focus (though the distant hills, etc. are not).

In addition to the splendid printing of Partridge photographs, there are essays by his daughter Elizabeth and by Dorothea Lange’s son Daniel Dixon that bear on living with/around Partridge’s passion for photography, and a fine overview of Rondal Partridge’s anti-careerist trajectory as a photographer by photography historian Sally Stein.

 

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(Partridge’s most famous image, Yosemite’s Half Dome across a parking lot in 2965)

Both pictures and text are engaging and unpretentious. Now I want to see Meg Partridge’s documentary films about her father and her paternal grandmother!

 

©2008, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

Dorothea Lange, photographer and photographs, on the page

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Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life, edited by Elizabeth Partridge, has a substantial amount of text, but before seeing the documentary film (of the same title) directed by Meg Partridge (and a lively Q&A session with the two of them and their father Rondal Partridge, who had been Lange’s assistant during the Great Depression expeditions that produced her most famous image(s), I settled down to read the essays in the book.

The ones I found most engaging were those by persons who knew Lange personally —the editor who was a quasi-member of the family, Lange’s son David Dixon, former University of California president Clark Kerr, and photographer Anselm Adams who worked with or in parallel with Lange on several projects, including photographing the Manzanar, California concentration camp for Japanese Americans removed to the east side of the Sierra Nevadas by an order from Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That Lange drove herself hard is reported both by those who knew her well and by the women’s studies scholars (Linda Morris, Sally Stein) who wrote from a greater analytic distance from Lange (though, IMO, less critically). She was also a very demanding mother and contract employee. Even more than Dixon, Partridge reports pained incomprehension by the boys, who were sent off to boarding school so that their father, painter Maynard Dixon, and mother (Lange) could focus on their work (/career/art). Morris particularly focuses on Lange’s ambivalence about the role of mother: photographing women who existed entirely in the domestic sphere in which she refused to be encased, but also could not (she felt) altogether abandon. Morris quotes Christina Gardner, another former Lange assistant, saying that “she knew the importance of maternity was not a very maternal person.” Moreover, she pressed her work ethic on her sons (more than on her quasi-granddaughters, Meg and Elizabeth Partridge).

Lange was, Morris writes, “opinionated, impatient, and willful,” but I am somewhat surprised that Morris does not put “difficult woman” in scare quotes, since “difficult woman” seems to me a highly suspect label, one with a much lower threshhold than “difficult man,” and one invoked disproportionately to justify not supporting women working in predominantly male professions. Lange’s first husband, the father of her sons, for instance, sounds to me as not just “difficult” but outright “ornery” as well as being more egocentric.

I don’t at all mean to suggest that Morris is lacking in sympathy for the difficulties Lange had trying to make it in very male worlds during very hard times (the Great Depression). Her essay is an excellent introduction to Lange’s work and sense of vocation, and I especially appreciated the technical explanation of why most of Lange’s photos of people in the field (AKA “real world”) look up (literally) rather than down (though her second most famous photo, of a San Francisco breadline in 1932 DOES look down). The Rolleiflex camera she preferred was at waist level rather than eye level (as 35mm cameras were).

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(I think Lange’s secon most-famous image (after “Oakie Madonna” reproduced in my previous review): 1 933 breadline in San Francisco)

The longest essay in the book is Sally Stein’s “Peculiar Grace” on “the testimony of the body” in Lange’s photographs. Stein seems to me to go out farther on limbs of speculation about motivation than any of the other authors of essays in the book. Her theses about how the effects of childhood polio (contracted when Lange was seven) and adult illness (of the digestive system, culminating in the fatal cancer of the esophagus) affected what she photographed (notably, a lot of shots of feet and legs) are provocative. (This argument is undermined, perhaps unconsciously, by Elizabeth Partridge’s selection of Lange photographs, in which hands are very, very prominent, much more than feet are.)

Stein suggests that other photographers on the payroll of New Deal organizations (including, the War Relocation Authority, which staffed concentration camps with New Deal officials) censored themselves, while Lange resisted and insisted on documenting unpleasant realities (barbed wire and guards, for instance, in the Manzanar photos). This seems almost certainly to be true.

I can imagine arguments being made against Stein’s interpretation that Lange’s photographs “de-emphasized the social and environmental context in order to focus on the body alone as a site of social formation and deformation,” though I think there is something valid in it. He suggestion (which she hedges as “arguable”) that Lange’s modus operandi “appeared to universalize, perhaps inadvertently, the nature of alienation by embodying it in rather general terms” surely would be rejected by Lange’s many admirers — especially that “general terms.” It seems to me that a more plausible argument could be made that Lange’s close-up photographs were so specific as to open reading (of the images) as psychological maladies rather than sociopolitically produced dilemmas (the process of mechanizing and increasing the scale of American agriculture was one that Paul Taylor was particularly interested in and that Dorothea Lange extensively documented).

Stein sometimes writes jargonistically (as no one else in the volume does) and along with providing arguments that I find stimulating even if unpersuasive, there is one outright anachronism in Stein’s chapter. Stein interprets Lange’s use of the male pronoun for the photographer as evidence of a failure to be able to conceive females in the profession. If someone now wrote that way, I would accept the interpretation, but that “he” was general/generic was the grammar of the English language during the 1930s, not a conscious pragmatic choice. “He or she,” “s/he,” etc. were not in use. The most that can be said is that Lange did not invent them then. Articulate a speaker/writer as she was, would anyone expect her to have made that linguistic innovation?

There are Lange photographs (including a few of her by Rondal Partridge) throughout the book and a chronological set of 56 Lange photographs with quotations from the 1960-61 interviews (also used extensively in the documentary film “A Visual Life”) of Lange (in the Regional Oral History Archive of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley).

Dorothea-Lange-1936-by-Paul-S_Taylor.jpeg

(1936 photo of Lange at work shot by her husband, Paul Taylor)

I find Lange’s photographs from Egypt particularly striking. Although she was accompanying Paul Taylor, these do not seem to be part of the kind of documentation project she had done in Mississippi, Utah, the California forced resettlement of Japanese Americans, an Alameda County Public Defender, and the famous Dust Bowl migrants’ work. I don’t think that art(istry) and documentation are incompatible and I think that all of Lange’s photographs are both, but these seem to me to be particularly striking pieces of photographic art.

I think that many will find Stein’s chapter heavy going. I found much of interest in it, but even skipping it, there is a wealth of verbal insight about Lange and Lange’s photography in the book, which I highly recommend to those interested in the history of photography, New Deal (self-representations), the shameful wartime treatment of Japanese Americans, and/or the extra hurdles female artists — and other professionals — had to overcome to do “men’s work”/create art/document history as it unfolded (and, of course, those interested in Lange and/or her two husbands, Maynard Dixon and Paul Taylor).

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Elizabeth Partridge is also the author/compiler of Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange (2001), This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie (2002) and of Quizzical Eye: The Photography of Rondal Partridge (2002), along with much historical fiction and many children’s books,

Photographing people not posing for her, Lange used a wider, faster aperture than that which was taken for the northern California (all-male) photographers Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, W. S. Van Dyk, et al., f64. In his interview included in the book Adams says that they should have made the effort to find out what she was doing (not without noting that what she was doing during the late-1920s was high-society photographic portraits, not the documentation of the displaced she undertook during the 1930s and early 40s).

 

©2008, 2016, Stephen O. Murray