Most of the photographs from my collection are being donated to the Image Centre at Ryerson University for teaching, display and research. This final essay describes some of what I shall miss when the photographs are no longer on my walls. I have chosen a dozen of the photographs not yet mentioned in the preceding essays.
In the early 1970s Sam Wagstaff, an art collector, became interested in photography as an under-recognized artform. Robert Mapplethorpe became his lover in 1972, and for the next 15 years Wagstaff supported his protegé’s photography. Mapplethorpe participated in and documented all facets of the gay culture in New York city. He also made portraits of celebrities, and became particularly adept at photographing both male and female nudes. He gained popular recognition with his photographs of the body builder and model Lisa Lyon published in the 1983 book Lady Lisa, and with his 1986 exhibit of photographs of Black Males, published in book form as the Black Book. These pictures of young black men, many of whom were lovers as well as models, transgressed the then-current photographic norms in their unabashed sexuality. The bodies were beautiful, the poses were erotic, contemplative or playful. Some viewers expressed concern that the models were being exploited. However, the models are at ease in their bodies and their sexuality: the photographer’s relation to his models was one of wonder, admiration, and excitement. The following photograph is Thomas (Full Figure), 1986.
Thomas stands half facing the camera. With his left hand he obscures an incipient erection from view with his left hand. With his right hand he holds his bowed head. The body is striking. Such beauty has no need for modesty.
In 1989 Senator Jesse Helms forced the cancellation of a planned exhibit of Mapplethorpe photographs at the Corcoran Museum in Washington because of its obscenity. The National Endowment for the Arts, which had originally funded the exhibition soon came under attack. Some of the photographs, such as those illustrated below – Dominick and Elliot, 1979, and Man in a Polyester Suit, 1980 – certainly pushed the boundaries. However, the first was interesting for its documentation of sadomasochist culture, and the second was a laugh-out-loud lampoon of white sexual insecurities.
Mapplethorpe’s exhibition was subsequently presented by the Washington Project for the Arts. As later described by James Fitzpatrick in a brief article The Sensitive Society in the 1994 Federal Communication Law Journal
I can report that after looking at the Mapplethorpe photographs at the WPA, there was no rioting, widespread fainting, and no heavy breathing. People who saw the show almost universally applauded the efforts to put it on. One grandmother, after viewing Mapplethorpe’s images of male members, told us with some jocularity that she was happy to see that things like that still existed, something that she remembered from her distant youth. Another older lady told us that she was so offended that she saw the show three times!
Fitzpatrick went on to state that the artist’s right to free expression should take precedence over the sensitivities of those who are offended. This is particularly true if there is no need for them to be offended – they were not required to attend the exhibition. And if the government wishes to foster the arts it should not restrict itself to funding that which does not offend anyone. That is neither the aim of art nor the goal of government.
B) Flower Girl at a Wedding
Diane Arbus photograph Flower Girl at Wedding, Connecticut, 1964, shows a young girl isolated from the rest of the wedding party:
The wedding has not turned out the way it should have. There was some drizzle and now a wet mist hangs over the garden which should have been alive with sunshine. The pine trees are dark and threatening. It is cold. Someone has lent the girl a fur wrap but this does little to keep the chill at bay. The flowers have been taken from her basket. Perhaps they will be thrown out as the bridal bouquet. But what should the girl do with her empty basket? She is keeping up a brave face, but a wide-eyed anxiety threatens to overcome her fragile calm.
A portrait of Diane Arbus by John Gossage from 1967 is shown on the right. To me the young flower girl shares many of the attributes with her photographer, and there is an intense empathy between the artist and her subject. Both are bravely trying to hold the world while it insists on falling apart.
Diane Arbus took photographs of unusual people: midgets, giants, transvestites, strippers, whores, nudists, circus-performers, twins, young lovers, and mentally impaired adults. Some say her pictures are cold and heartless; others say that she recognized herself in her subjects. They were for her a source of identity and purpose. She is quoted in the 1972 Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph:
Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.
Three of her photographs are shown below: A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, 1970; Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ, 1967; Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room on 100th Street, NYC, 1963. All her photographs use a square format.
She was born Diane Nemerov into the family that owned a fancy department store in Manhattan. Although she never lacked for anything, her parents were distant, and she was brought up by a succession of nannies and governesses. She was close to her older brother Howard Nemerov who went on to become a successful poet, becoming the US Poet Laureate from 1988 to 1990. In his 2016 biography Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, Arthur Lubow reported that the relationship between Howard and Diane was incestuous.
At the age of 18 Diane married Allan Arbus, and the couple set up a commercial photography business. Diane took classes in photography from Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model. The latter taught Diane to find the truth in the unusual. Again, from the Aperture monograph:
Another thing is a photograph has to be specific. I remember a long time ago when I first began to photograph I thought, There are an awful lot of people in the world and it’s going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them, so if I photograph some kind of generalized human being, everybody’ll recognize it. It’ll be like what they used to call the common man or something. It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be. You really have to face that thing. And there are certain evasions, certain nicenesses that I think you have to get out of.
Diane and her husband separated in 1959. Allan moved to California to act on television, his most famous role being Sidney Freedman, the psychiatrist on M*A*S*H. Diane stayed in New York and continued to photograph in her clear-eyed, crazy way.
Diane Arbus committed suicide in 1971. Her brother Howard published a poem about the death in 1973:
To D____, Dead by Her Own Hand
My dear, I wonder if before the end
You ever thought about a children’s game—
I’m sure you must have played it too—in which
You ran along a narrow garden wall
Pretending it to be a mountain ledge
So steep a snowy darkness fell away
On either side to deeps invisible;
And when you felt your balance being lost
You jumped because you feared to fall, and thought
For only an instant: That was when I died.
That was a life ago. And now you’ve gone,
Who would no longer play the grown-ups’ game
Where, balanced on the ledge above the dark,
You go on running and you don’t look down,
Nor ever jump because you fear to fall.
C) Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly, located within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, is one of the most beautiful sites in the Americas. The name comes from the Navajo tseyi meaning rock-canyon. The Canyon has some striking sandstone structures such as Spider Rock and impressive cliff walls. The floor of the canyon is fertile and used for summer grazing. In the canyon are remains of dwellings built by the Ancestral Pueblans who lived in the region from about 500 to 1350 CE, and some functioning hogans (summer houses) used by the modern Navajo.
In 1873 Timothy O’Sullivan took a photograph of the Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, In a Niche Fifty Feet Above Present Cañon Bed while serving as a photographer for the Wheeler Survey of the regions of the United States west of the 100th Meridian (which forms part of the Texas-Oklahoma border). These ruins are now known as the White House Ruins. O’Sullivan’s picture is shown on the left below. Some idea of the size of the cliff can be obtained by the two men standing on the ruin at the left. On the right below is Ansel Adams’ 1942 photograph entitled White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly.
Lee Friedlander visited the Canyon de Chelly in 1983. He almost certainly took photographs of the landscape but the one image that he published as Canyon de Chelly, 1983 is that of his own shadow on the desert floor:
It will remain as his legacy. The man with a camera and a head of straw. Trying to see beyond himself.
D) Chez Mondrian
The painter Piet Mondrian moved to Paris from Holland after the end of the Great War. There his painting progressed through various stages of cubism into pure geometric abstraction, wherein simple primary colors filled regions outlined in black on a rectangular grid.
The photographer André Kertész moved to Paris from Hungary in 1925. He made a living by taking photographs for various French pictorial magazines such as Vu, and by taking pictures of his artist friends. While making a portrait of Mondrian, Kertész also photographed the apartment: Chez Mondrian, 1926:
The image contains a marvelous combination of rectangles – table, door, mat, hat-rack – that bring to mind the artist’s paintings. However, these are complemented by gentle curves – the banister on the staircase, the hat on the rack and the vase on the table. And that which grabs the viewer’s attention – the punctum that Roland Barthes described in his 1980 essay on photography La Chambre Claire (Camera Lucida) – is the flower in the vase.
The flower is a yellow waterlily (Nuphar lutea), which has only 5 small sepals and tiny inner petals. The more common waterlilies, belonging to the Nymphaea genus, have much larger and more numerous sepals and petals. A color photograph of the Nuphar lutea in its natural habitat is presented on the right.
Although his oil-paintings were by this time completely abstract, Mondrian was still fascinated by flowers and continued to paint them in water colors into the 1920s. The following illustration shows one of Mondrian’s oil-paintings, Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow (1929), one of his flower watercolors Lily (1921), and one of the portraits that Kertész took in 1926. To me, the photograph Chez Mondrian conveys more about the artist than the portrait
E) Washing J Class 605
Winston Link’s photograph Washing J Class 605, 1955, was taken at Schaffer’s Crossing, Roanoke Virginia. This was the large railway workshop of the Norfolk and Western Railway, which built and maintained its own steam locomotives. The photograph was taken at night with a powerful flash as the locomotive was being steam cleaned. The mighty machine emerges cleanly from the clouds.
Link was a commercial photographer who became an avid railway buff. From 1955 to 1960 he took pictures of Norfolk and Western steam trains in multiple different locations in Virginia and adjacent states. The Norfolk and Western Railway began in 1838; in 1960 it transitioned from steam to diesel locomotives. In 1982 it amalgamated with the Southern Railway to form the Norfolk Southern Railway.
Many of Link’s photographs were taken at night, using multiple synchronized flash-lights. Setting up for these pictures involved complex electronic techniques and a great deal of physical effort. Two of his famous photographs – Hot Shot Eastbound, Iaeger West Virginia, and Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray West Virginia – are shown below:
Trains are an essential part of the history of the United States. They carried people to new places, and brought them back to tell their story. At night the distant sound of a train whistle could serve as a reminder of people who had left before, or as a prophecy of places one might leave for. The following description of the train riding westward up into the Appalachian Mountains comes from the beginning of Thomas Wolfe’s 1929 novel Look Homeward Angel
The train rattled on over the reeking earth. Rain fell steadily. A brakeman came draftily into the dirty plush coach and emptied a scuttle of coal into the big stove at the end. High empty laughter shook a group of yokels sprawled on two turned seats. The bell tolled mournfully above the clacking wheels. There was a droning interminable wait at a junction-town near the foot-hills. Then the train moved on again across the vast rolling earth.
Dusk came. The huge bulk of the hills was foggily emergent. Small smoky lights went up in the hillside shacks. The train crawled dizzily across high trestles spanning ghostly hawsers of water. Far up, far down, plumed with wisps of smoke, toy cabins stuck to hank and gulch and hillside. The train toiled sinuously up among gouged red cuts with slow labor. As darkness came, Oliver descended at the little town of Old Stockade where the rails ended. The last great wall of the hills lay stark above him.
Link also made many sound-recordings of the trains he photographed. Below is the 4th track (6 minutes) from Link’s album The Fading Giant – Sounds of Steam Railroading Vol 2 Rural Retreat Christmas Bells, together with his description of what was happening, and on the right the photograph taken at the same time as the recording:
It is 9:39 P.M. on Christmas Eve, 1957 in Rural Retreat, Va., a farming community near the highest point on the N&W’s line from Bristol to Radford. Mrs. J. E. Dodson plays carols on the Lutheran Church chimes. From far to the southwest comes the distinctive whistle of a Class J locomotive No. 603 powering Train 42, “The Pelican,” eastbound from New Orleans to Washington. Old heads in southwestern Virginia still call 42 “The Vestibule,” dating it to the time in the ‘nineties when it was the region’s first train with enclosed platforms. “Silent Night” floats over the village as the rumble grows. Another whistle and the warning bell on the automatic crossing gate begins its clangor. The bell ceases as 42 blows and comes with a rush, its 17 cars rumbling across the highway to a quick flag stop at the wooden station. It pauses with a final squeal but almost immediately moves again, the 603 sure in its rhythm. There is another whistle as “The Vestibule” fills the night with power. The chimes continue above a far farewell salute. Seven nights later the last steam engine ran over the Bristol Line.
The sights and sounds of the old steam locomotives bring up mixed emotions. Most particularly they evoke a sadness associated with lost innocence. There was a time was when everything was new and hopeful, when trains brought people together, when we were young and easy. Later in his life Link himself experienced some of the pain and sadness that comes with getting old. In 1996 his second wife was convicted of stealing and selling his photographs, falsely claiming that Link had Alzheimer’s disease. Time passes; we get old; life is not as once it was.
F) Nude on a Beach
In 1944, Brandt obtained an old Kodak camera used by the New York Police Department for taking photographs of interior crime scenes. The camera’s wide-angle lens and small aperture brought both distant and close objects into focus, and enlarged the apparent size of nearby objects. He was enthralled by this new way of perceiving the world:
Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed. (quoted in the Victoria and Albert Museum biography)
The following two photographs show the two main effects of the lens. On the left, Hampstead, London, 1945, shows how the model appears gigantic relative to the domestic background. On the right, Nude, London, March, 1952, shows how the lens can render an image more like a drawing than a photograph. The face and breast are divided from each other by the forearm as if they were two separate studies in a sketchbook.
The following is his photograph Nude on a Beach, 1953. In this image the lens has allowed the viewer to look separately at the contradictory aspects of the scene: the softness of the skin and the hardness of the pebbles, the fineness of the hair and the immensity of the cliff.
G) MAE Boston
As one grows older one becomes more aware that one is not immortal. This brings some regret but not fear. One should not be afraid of that which is inevitable. However, the fear of losing one’s mind runs deeper.
Nicholas Nixon’s photograph MAE, Boston,1985, presents some of this existential terror:
The old woman looks at the photographer standing with his view camera before her. Her skin is wrinkled; her hair has turned to wispiness; her fingers are but skin and bone. She can see the photographer: his image is clearly reflected in her eyes. However, we are not sure she understands why he is there.
H) Brigus South
The tiny fishing community of Brigus South is located on the eastern shore of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland. It was noted on maps as far back as the 17th Century as Abra de Brigas, Spanish for “Harbor of Fighting.” Whether this was due to human conflict or tidal turmoil is not known. The community was permanently settled by 1700. Thaddeus Holownia’s photograph South Brigus, 1989, shows what now remains:
The photograph shows a view looking southward down on the harbor. In the distance is Brigus Head on the right, and the open ocean on the left. A pier for fishing vessels is located deep within the harbor. A small churchyard is located on the point. The first person buried there was a child in 1798. In 1857 a ship went aground in a storm in Timber Cove to the south just before Brigus Head. Eighteen crew were drowned, their bodies retrieved and buried in the cemetery. The small island connected by a causeway to the community is Timber Cove Island.
The photograph portrays the bare necessities of human life. We find ourselves a safe harbor to shelter from the storms. From there we make a difficult living by sailing out onto the ocean to fish. Ultimately, we die and are buried in a rocky graveyard.
Rădăuți is a city in northern Romania in a region known historically as Bukovina, between Romania, Ukraine and Moldava, in the eastern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. In the late 1930s, Rădăuți was home to about 8000 Jews, about half of the city’s population. In 1941, all the city’s Jews were deported to concentration camps. Most of them died. After the war, some survivors returned to the city and re-established a small Jewish community. In 1974, the photographer Lawrence Salzmann visited Rădăuți to document their life. At that time only 240 Jews remained in the city. Many of those who had come back after the war had since emigrated to Israel. Salzmann and his wife Ayşe Gürsan-Salzmann published the results of their visits in their 1983 book The Last Jews of Rădăuți. The following photograph Bathers, 1975, is from their book:
The photographs shows multiple men in the Jewish baths. The image conveys a sense of warmth and happiness. The men in all their human variation – young and old, fat and lean, moving or still – are clean and free of care. Ayşe Salzmann’s wrote this description of the baths:
The bathhouse was over a hundred years old. In a town where few of the houses had running water, it was a frequently visited place. Very little seemed to have changed since it was first built, except that the wooden buckets which were given out to each bather were replaced with plastic ones. The men filled their buckets with cold water as they walked into the steam room (abur). There were rows of wooden benches as in an amphitheater; the highest one was naturally the hottest.
The cold water in the bucket was used to refresh one’s face and cool off a little as the steam began to get unbearable. A shrill bell rang several times, calling the bathers from other parts of the bathhouse to the steam room. Often the room was so full that people were nearly sitting on top of each other. The bath attendant opened the small iron door of the floor-to-ceiling stove. Cups of cold water were thrown over the red hot stones to let off more steam, and the men on the benches perspired more and more. Waves of steam floated about. The hardy souls sitting on the upper benches would shout “Heat up the bath! Heat up the bath!” (Incalzeste baia). Then the whole process started again.
As the room began to cool down, men would beat each other’s backs with clusters of oak leaves that they had brought along with them. The leaves stung the skin but left a wonderful, refreshing feeling and a sweet smell. In the shower room there were always more people than shower heads. Sometimes a father and son would huddle together under one shower. After soaping up and bathing, the bathers would sometimes return for another session in the steam bath. The last station of the bath was the locker room, where totally relaxed, limp bathers lay down on the benches wrapped in coarse linen towels.
The bathing process was a ritual; the same men came week after week, joked around, and told stories to each other. It seemed that in the bath the problems of the outside world were washed away.
The baths stand in stark contrast to the cold and the mud and the death experienced during the deportations of 1941. The following is Aharon Appelfeld’s description of his experience as a 9-year old child deported from Cernăuți (now Chernivtsi), another half-Jewish city in Bukovina (about 60 km north of Rădăuți).
We’ve already been marching for days, slogging through muddy roads, a long line surrounded by Romanian soldiers and Ukrainian militia who lash out at us with their whips and shoot randomly at us. Father holds my hand very tightly. But my short legs barely touch the ground, and the icy water cuts into them and into my small waist. Darkness sur-rounds us, and apart from Father’s hand, I don’t feel a thing. In fact, I don’t even feel his hand, for my arm is already partially numb. It’s clear to me that with only one small wrong movement I’ll sink down and I’ll drown, and even Father won’t be able to pull me out. Many children have already drowned like this.
At night, when the convoy stops, Father pulls me out of the mud and wipes my legs with his coat. My shoes were lost some time ago, and I bury my legs for a moment in the lining of his coat. The slight warmth hurts me so much that I quickly pull them out. For some reason, this rapid movement makes him angry. Father can get bitterly angry at me. I’m afraid of his anger, but I refuse to put my legs into his lining. Father never used to get angry at me. Mother would slap me from time to time, but never Father. If Father is angry, that means that I’m going to die soon, I tell myself, and grip his hand tightly. Father relents and says, “This is no time to act spoiled.” “Spoiled”—a word that Mother would frequently use—now sounds strange. As if Father is wrong, or perhaps I am. Without letting go of his hand I drop off to sleep, but not for long.
While the sky is still dark, the soldiers wake up the convoy with whippings and shootings. Father grabs my hand and pulls me up. The mud is deep, and I cannot feel any solid ground beneath it. I’m still drowsy from sleep, and my fear is dulled. “It hurts me!” I call out. Father hears my cry and responds instantly, “Make it easier for me, make it easier.” I’ve heard those words often. After them come a dreadful collapse and the futile attempts to save a child who has drowned. Not only children drown in the mud; even tall people sink into it, fall to their knees, and drown. Spring is melting the snows, and with every passing day the mud gets deeper. Father opens his knapsack and tosses some of the clothes into the mud. Now his hand holds mine with great strength. At night he rubs my arms and legs and wipes them with the lining of his coat, and for a moment it seems to me that not only my father is with me, but also my mother, whom I loved so much. (The Story of a Life, 2004, translated by Aloma Halter)
Aharon’s mother and grandmother had been murdered by the Romanian army just before the deportation. Try as we might, the stain of the Holocaust can never be cleansed from human history.
J) Monk’s Residence
Linda Connor’s photograph, Monk’s Residence, 1985, was taken at the Stongdey Monastery, in the Zanskar valley, Ladakh, India. Ladakh, is the northenmost territory of India, bordering with Tibet. The Lanskar River flows northward between the Himalayas on the east and the Zanskar Mountains on the west, ultimately joining the Indus River. Along the river valley are numerous Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, typically built on isolated hills or cliffs. The Stongdey monastery was founded in 1052 CE. Home to three temples, multiple residential and educational buildings and about 60 monks of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, it is one of the largest monasteries in the valley.
Connor’s photograph shows a small isolated building in the monastery complex. Beyond can be seen huge mountain cliffs leading up to sky. On the lower left of the building is a door protected by a wall of loose stones. The building has one high window. This is probably a place of retreat for a monk undergoing a period of long meditation (dhyāna) with the goal of attaining tranquilitiy of the mind (śamatha) and clarity of insight (vipaśyanā).
Connor has taken photographs all over the world. She is fascinated by places that show evidence of our predecessors such as the petroglyphs in the US Southwest, and places where people have dedicated their lives to spiritual development such as the monasteries in India. For most of her photographs she used a large format view camera, something that takes great effort to carry through the deserts or the mountains.
Most of her prints were made using the “printing out process.” The negative is placed between glass and a special photosensitive paper and the glass and paper clamped together in a wooden frame. The glass is then exposed to sunlight, and over several tens of minutes the image develops on the paper. The image is often treated with a gold solution to give it more depth of tone. Once the image is ready it is fixed so that further exposure to light does not darken it. Depending upon the toning and the amount of sunlight, the final print can vary between shades of light purple and dark brown. This development by sunlight is basically the same technique as was used by the photographers in the late 19th Century, who made albumen prints from glass negatives.
The printing-out process gives a print that is soft without loss of detail. The image has a radiance that befits the states of serenity and clarity sought by the monks of Stongdey.
One of William Garnett’s aerial photographs shows Desert Sagebrush, Mojave Desert, near Kelso, California, 1975:
Scrub Sagebrush Artemisia tridentata is one of the plants that have evolved to live in the arid deserts the Western United States. The distribution of the plants carefully follows the land so that there will be just enough water to survive, usually coming from light snowfalls during winter. The sagebrush is actually a distant relative of the sunflowers, both belonging to the family Asteraceae. Other plants also live in the desert – tumbleweed (Kali tragus) and antelope bitterbush (Purshia glandulosa) – but the sagebrush is the most successful.
The photograph shows the sagebrush fairly evenly distributed across the field of view. However, the interest of the image is the subtle local variations in both the size of the shrubs and the distances between them. These variations are the result of factors which we do not see. There is a wondrous order to the world, one that we shall never fully understand.
Henri Cartier-Bresson took the photograph Siphnos, Greece, 1961, in the town of Artemesia in the hills of the Greek Island of Siphnos, one of the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea. Shallow steps lead up between two white-washed buildings. A young girl runs quickly up the steps through the shadows into the light. She is on her way to something important, something that must be reached before time passes and it is no more possible.
The place where Cartier-Bresson took the photograph is still recognizable. The following photograph is from 2012.
The site has changed a little. Sharon Blomfeld remarked in 2016
Because, as much as it seems that this is a place where little changes, in this corner actually a lot has. The little girl, of course, if 55 years on she’s still here. The wide stairs are gone – What stairs? you’ll say if you’re looking at my photo – and a sloping walkway has taken their place. Walls have been rebuilt and replastered and the door on the right has been straightened. Funnily enough, the story goes, it leads nowhere now. The owner of the building decided it was no longer needed and put a solid wall in its place. The municipality which had the broader, ahem, picture in view, made him replace it and it is now just for show.
Time passes. The world changes. The moment when a young girl ran up the steps in 1961 has, however, been preserved.
And so I say goodbye. Many of the walls in our house have been long adorned with photographs. One such wall is shown below. In columns from left to right: Salgado, Adams, Bullock; Garnett, Barnbaum; 2 landscapes by Giacomelli; Garnett, Friedlander; 3 prints from Cartier-Bresson. Soon this and the other walls will be empty.