Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 15, 2008
Louis Kaplan American Exposures: Photography and Community in the Twentieth Century Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. 248 pp.; 11 color ills.; 61 b/w ills. Paper $26.00 (0816645701)
Blake Stimson The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. 230 pp.; 50 b/w ills. Paper $19.95 (026269333X)
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Since the 1936 publication of Walter Benjamin’s groundbreaking essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the revolutionary impact of the photographic medium has been widely acknowledged, while the extent and nature of this impact has been much debated. Following Benjamin, some scholars have focused on photography’s effect on the nature and status of the art object; others have concentrated on its role in spectacle, on its ability to aestheticize everyday life, including the realm of politics, which is what Benjamin observed, and feared, in 1930s Germany. Part of this aestheticization of politics involved the visualization of a collective body, a cohesive community united around a core set of values and a belief in an “essence” shared by its members. Predicated on its indexical relationship to the material world and its claim to be the bearer of visual “truth,” photography was—and still is—able to seduce viewing subjects into believing the story it purports to tell and even to transport them into the picture, to see themselves within. It is in this regard that theories on the nature of photography and theories on the nature of community intersect and even become by necessity intertwined, as recent books by Blake Stimson and Louis Kaplan make evident, indeed urgent, considering the current postcolonial, multicultural, transcultural era, characterized by both the proliferation of photographic imagery and ever-shifting manifestations of what it means to be in community.

In The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation, Stimson focuses on the 1950s as a time of transition between modernism and postmodernism, a decade during which photography emerged as a tool for the construction of a new political subjectivity by enabling the individual to identify with a “supranational” collective, thus satisfying the desire for belonging in a tense postwar climate characterized by a distrust of nationalism and fear of nuclear war. A “new globalism” was sought to supplant the “old nationalisms,” one that would similarly arouse the passions of individuals, given the belief that the desire for belonging was innate and consequently must be channeled rather than repressed. Stimson maintains that in the 1950s photography was situated within the broader category of culture, which was considered a separate realm from those of marketplace and government, i.e., it was a third realm through which this new global citizen could be conceived. Moreover, photography was privileged over the other visual arts in this regard, because it trafficked in the myth that it could deliver “its own distinctive form of universalism, its own distinct form of truth free of ‘beautiful lies and deceptions,’ its own distinct form of belonging” (20).

Stimson focuses on three photographic projects: Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 and toured internationally for the next decade; Robert Frank’s The Americans, shot in 1955–56 and first published as a book in 1958; and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of industrial structures, a project they began in 1957 and continues into the present. All three projects are based on seriality and have their foundation in the photographic essay, a genre whose spectatorship Stimson foregrounds in the embodied experience of viewers who “pivot” from one frame to another. In that pivot, that interstice between each image, viewers are able to imagine themselves and insert their individual subjectivities into the collective one. Consequently, Stimson argues that the photographic essay “socialized representation rather than nationalizing it and collectivized the form of belonging rather than individualizing it” (56). This theorizing of the distinct ontology of the photographic essay is compelling and is, in itself, a significant contribution. Stimson meticulously fleshes out the unique nature of this genre whose most important forerunner he considers to be Jacob Riis, differentiating his abstracted analysis of social strata from the more humanist work of Lewis Hine.

In terms of Stimson’s thesis concerning a new global subjectivity, I found his argument concerning The Family of Man the most convincing of the three. Unlike most historians, Stimson focuses on audience response rather than the intentions of Steichen and the exhibition’s organizers, and asks the following question: “What made it convince as broadly and deeply as it did?” (67) This is precisely the question that needs to be asked, considering that the exhibition was seen by millions of people throughout the world and continues to find an audience in its exhibition catalogue, which has never gone out of print. The answer, according to Stimson, is that The Family of Man functioned as a space in which spectators could imagine themselves as part of a global humanity, one in which difference is transcended. This utopian vision was central to modernism in general, part of the Enlightenment project that had never been fully realized. In Steichen’s project, he argues, it found one of its last manifestations before consumerism and postmodern cynicism became dominant collectivizing forces.

Stimson bases his argument partly on the manner in which The Family of Man was organized, which compelled spectators to project themselves into the photographic layout and thus experience themselves as part of the world collective. The 503 photographs of widely differing scales were arranged in a varying spatial pattern that functioned to envelop the visitor, thus denying the distancing gaze enabled by a typical modernist installation. In this case, the “pivot” occurred as spectators inserted themselves into the spaces between photographs, as they turned their attention from one identification to another, and then to another, and so on. Unlike earlier Museum of Modern Art exhibitions, such as The Road to Victory and Power in the Pacific, The Family of Man contained no specific “types” that visitors were asked to identify with or not—no U.S. military personnel, Japanese “enemies,” or factory workers—for all were “us,” the “family of man.” It was, as Stimson points out, the photographic equivalent of the United Nations. Moreover, a clear choice was offered to a postwar spectator between one-world togetherness or mass destruction, with the latter suggested by the final image seen upon exiting the show—an enlarged photograph of an exploding hydrogen bomb displayed in a darkened enclosure.

Stimson relies on a range of theoretical perspectives in his analysis of the spectator’s experience rather than actual testimony, except for an enlightening first-person account by the photographer Barbara Morgan. Her experience supports Stimson’s argument concerning the appeal of The Family of Man, which relies heavily on Freudian notions of the death drive and the pleasure principle. Stimson theorizes that there is pleasure in the loss of a political identity that otherwise necessitates the construction of difference and which, in turn, could lead to conflict and war. This loss facilitates a merging with the crowd, a blissful state of oneness in which personal responsibility, guilt, fear, and anguish could be disavowed. He maintains that such denial would have come as a relief considering the trauma of World War II, the atomic bomb, and continuing Cold War tensions. This new social subject induced by The Family of Man was thus apolitical, unlike the old collective identities of the 1930s and 1940s, and not yet consumerist, which would mark the social subject of the 1960s and beyond. This change was enhanced by the photographs and their groupings, which followed an anthropological rather than sociological model, emphasizing family structures rather than class positions. “Photography itself,” sought by Steichen in The Family of Man, was, as Stimson argues, “the abyss,” the empty receptacle in which a new political subject could be born (101).

As in The Family of Man, Stimson concludes that meaning in Robert Frank’s The Americans resides more in the collective whole than in individual photographs. But in this case, the “pivot” is not only the blank space between each photograph, it is the space Frank photographed—the road. Stimson argues that the road functions as a means toward social cohesion, yet also as a source of openings and fissures into which one can project oneself. Unlike the “pivot” in The Family of Man, however, this space is a dehumanized one. As an immigrant, Frank believed in the American promise of freedom and self-invention, yet found this promise to have grown “stale.” His images convey a disconnect between various groups and between individuals. In the act of photographing, he attempts to momentarily puncture these boundaries, to reach across the gap between self and other; but he is left “anguished” rather than satisfied, for he is unable to engage with his subjects. Stimson thus reads Frank as a transitional figure, bridging the humanistic documentary tradition of the past with the emotional distancing and detachment that will be his legacy to the next generation of photographers, figures such as Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander.

Stimson also reads the Bechers’ photographic project as dependent on seriality, with an example being the viewer’s movement from one photograph to the next. In observing their archive of modern industrial monuments, the viewer is invited to experience the individual form of a structure against the general motif. Rather than “merging” with the world (The Family of Man) or “fleeing” from it (Frank), Stimson argues that the Bechers’ photographic “comportment” resides in “tension between the general and the particular, between commitment and delight” (167). Although aesthetically indebted to the New Vision photographers of the 1920s and 1930s, their mission is stripped of political ideology and utopian aspirations, just as their images are stripped of social, cultural, economic, and historical context. Thus they also bridge past and present, and a modernist to a postmodernist sensibility.

Elegantly written and sophisticated in conception, The Pivot of the World marries intellectual history to critical theory as it elucidates one of the most overlooked, yet most important, periods in the history of photography. Stimson’s privileging of the phenomenological also clarifies the manner in which photography functions within the social realm. Although there is no close reading of individual photographs, which might disappoint image specialists, one could interpret this strategy as a metaphor for the argument itself—it is not the individual photographs that bear the meaning, but the collective whole through which we, the readers, “pivot.”

In American Exposures, Louis Kaplan also addresses photography’s role in the formation of group identity, particularly its unique ability to both image and imagine community. Whereas Stimson focuses on the “pivot,” Kaplan privileges “exposure," i.e., the manner in which photography enables viewers to “expose” themselves to others, to enter into a relationship with the “outside.” Throughout his book, Kaplan emphasizes his debt to the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who in The Inoperative Community (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) theorizes that community is realized only in its abandonment, its retreat from what had been considered its operational principle. It is in this sense of dislocation and loss that people can open themselves to others and that their “being-in-common” can be revealed. Kaplan foregrounds this idea of community as grounded in relationship rather than essence, in exteriority rather than interiority, in his discussion of eight photographic projects depicting a variety of types and levels of community. Challenging notions of community as based on a fusion of characteristics, an essential core, Kaplan (like Nancy) insists that a sense of community emerges only at its limits, which is what photography is able to expose.

American Exposures consists of an introduction followed by eight chapters more or less arranged chronologically and each highlighting a particular photographic project. The first examines national community through the “living photographs” of Arthur S. Mole, taken during and just after the First World War, and those of Eugene Omar Goldbeck, who continued Mole’s tradition into the 1940s. Mole staged his scenes at military bases, arranging thousands of soldiers into images bearing national significance, such as Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, and a variety of military insignia. Kaplan analyzes these overtly nationalistic and militaristic images not only in terms of Benjamin’s notion of the spectacle but also in terms of Nancy’s insistence that death lies at the heart of community, for it is only in imagining and celebrating our collective nationhood that we are able to allow the loss of individuals on the battlefield. Likewise, in Mole’s spectacles the individual is subsumed within the mass, “deadened” in service of the overall design.

Kaplan’s second chapter addresses Archibald MacLeish’s Land of the Free, published in 1938, which combined photographs taken by Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration photographers with MacLeish’s own poetic verse. Drawing again on Nancy, Kaplan argues that Land of the Free exposed a national community in crisis during the Depression by revealing dislocation and loss and thus rupturing the myth of America as a land of opportunity in which self-reliance is all that is needed for success. The operational principle, that work is the essence of American community, is thus abandoned and community exposed.

In chapter 3, Kaplan discusses the manner in which Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man strove to picture a world community through the “universal language” of photography. Yet as Kaplan, like many scholars before him (including Stimson), points out, this supposed global community was actually one informed by American ideology, a reminder that all attempts at fusing a community necessitate exclusions. In the next chapter, Kaplan turns to the “Family of Nan,” the photographed subjects of Nan Goldin’s 1986 Ballad of Sexual Dependency, as a means to discuss Nancy’s theory of community “in terms of partage, meaning both to share and to divide” (82; emphasis in original). Seeing the coupling of lovers in Ballad as a metaphor for the relationship between the photographer and her subjects, even for community itself, Kaplan maintains that being in relationship is predicated on the desire for completion, yet any attempt at fusion necessitates the brokenness of the individual. As Goldin herself attests, her work is about the desire for intimate co-dependence and the simultaneous struggle for autonomy. In this chapter Kaplan most effectively argues (following Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida [New York: Hill and Wang, 1981]) for the importance of adding what he calls the theory of the photograph as “expository relation” to that of the photograph as indexical sign, maintaining that not all photographs are indifferent but may exist in direct relationship to the photographer or viewer in an emotional or communicative way. It is here that photography exposes—and constitutes—community.

In each of the following chapters, Kaplan highlights a particular aesthetic or motif. Referencing Nancy’s notion of community as one that “relies on interruption,” he reads the photomontage aesthetic of Romare Bearden’s 1964 Projections as a suitable means to expose African American identity and community at the height of the Civil Rights Movement as constituted by fragments—“interrupted” myths and rituals from a variety of traditions. He appropriates the slash in the title of Frédérick Brenner’s 1996 photographic book, jews/america/a representation, to promote a “Jewish/American” diaspora model against the fusion one suggested by the hyphenated term “Jewish-American.” Through his reading of Brenner’s photographs, which often picture “emergent, radical, and liminal forms on the borders of being and becoming Jewish” (133), Kaplan maintains that Jewish diasporic identity does not reside in a stable core but on the margins, where its limits are determined by inclusion and exclusion. He concludes: “what represents community also risks and challenges community” (133). Privileging border theory over hybridity theory (the latter implying a fusion of parts), Kaplan turns to the aesthetics and techniques associated with digital photography in his discussion of Mexican artist Pedro Meyer, arguing that his “digital Chicanos” are constituted in “the cut,” meaning that which “cuts into identity, whether in terms of digital montage or in terms of ‘being mestizo’” (159). Finally, Kaplan examines the snapshot aesthetic of Korean-born artist Nikki S. Lee, who openly enters into various American subcultures for a period of time to “perform” as a member. Lee’s work is aligned with Nancy’s theories on community in that she tests the limits of inclusion and undermines the notion of essence by trying to “pass” as lesbian, “white trash,” and Hispanic, among other identities.

Although an ambitious undertaking, American Exposures rarely falters. Each chapter reads like a book itself, with a clearly defined thesis supported by copious amounts of research, including personal interviews and archival materials. At times, I found Kaplan’s reliance on Nancy too heavy-handed and his articulation of his own position against those of other scholars too aggressive; yet both factors are indicative of his overall style, which is direct, forceful, and passionate. Indeed, Kaplan’s powerful writing style, combined with his always enlightening readings of individual photographs and his complex interweaving of various theoretical and interdisciplinary strains, help make American Exposures the landmark study it is, one that will no doubt impact future discussions concerning that which makes photography such a vital medium in the understanding of what it means to be in community.

Although similar in theme, Stimson’s The Pivot of the World and Kaplan’s American Exposures are different in focus and approach. Kaplan presents a series of essays, each of which could stand alone, whereas Stimson uses three case studies to make one overarching argument. Kaplan addresses topics covering a century of time, whereas Stimson focuses primarily on the 1950s. Kaplan is interested in specific American communities, whereas Stimson is interested in a broader notion of community, one that played out on a world stage. At the same time, both books share a desire to move beyond the customary iconographical reading of individual photographs, thus continuing Walter Benjamin’s investigation into the ways in which photographic images function both collectively and within the formation of collectives.

Patricia Vettel-Becker
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Montana State University-Billings

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.