Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Eadweard Muybridge, photographer of nature, is captured in 1872 in the Grant Mariposa Grove at Yosemite.
Technology moves fast, art slower. You could say that art is still catching up to Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), a pioneer of stop-motion photography and early filmmaking.
In “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, you can see how Muybridge himself got up to speed with industrialization, mechanization and the other radical changes of the late 19th century.
His impact on the 20th is difficult to overstate. The writer Rebecca Solnit, in her 2003 biography, called Muybridge “the man who split the second,” aligning him with the inventor of the atom bomb. Cultural signposts as diverse as Francis Bacon’s paintings and the performance-capture technology of “Avatar” can be traced back to the trotting horse that Muybridge photographed on a racetrack in Palo Alto, Calif.
In the Corcoran’s thorough and absorbing show, organized by its chief curator, Philip Brookman, that horse doesn’t appear until the final couple of galleries. But you can see Muybridge’s ideas about time and movement develop in richly layered landscapes, panoramas and sequential views of buildings under construction.
Born Edward James Muggeridge in the market town of Kingston upon Thames, a few miles southwest of London, Muybridge ventured to San Francisco around 1855 and made his name as a bookseller. After an 1860 stagecoach accident left him with a major head injury, he recuperated in England, where interest in photography was growing fast, and there he took up the camera. He returned to San Francisco as a photographer, one of many trying to capitalize on the market for Western landscapes.
There, he made famous and powerful friends, including Leland Stanford, the politician and railroad magnate whose collection of racehorses he famously photographed. Muybridge became a celebrity himself when he was tried, and acquitted, for the 1874 murder of his wife’s lover. (The head injury played a role in his defense.)
Along the way, he changed his name from Muggeridge to Muygridge and finally Muybridge (pronounced MOY-bridge); Edward became Eadweard (pronounced Edward). On his business cards and in advertisements for his studio he called himself Helios, the sun god from Greek mythology. The moniker was a clever reference to “sun pictures,” early photographic prints made in sunlight, but it also branded him as a traveling, outdoor photographer. The logo on his stationery showed a winged camera.
His early works are mostly stereographs (two-part photographs that give the illusion of three-dimensionality when seen in a special viewer, or stereoscope; the museum provides glasses that perform the same function). Like other stereographers, Muybridge exploited the technology by seeking out views with sharply receding perspectives.
In other ways, though, Muybridge distinguished himself from the competition. Whether surveying the Yosemite Valley or the booming city of San Francisco, he looked for unusual vantage points and played up discrepancies in scale. In “The Astonished Woodchopper,” one of his most theatrical images, a man with an ax confronts a giant sequoia.
He also wasn’t above using special effects: printing pictures extra dark so that they appeared to have been exposed under moonlight, or adding clouds from a second negative. Some of these tricks were standard practice for 19th-century photographers, but they may come as a shock to viewers who think of Muybridge as more of a scientist than an artist.
He seems to have been comfortable with both disciplines. And as Ms. Solnit argues in an eloquent catalog essay, there was a lot of crossover between the two: “Muybridge was as much an artist for scientists as he was a scientist for artists.” She notes that the painter Albert Bierstadt adapted compositions from Muybridge’s Yosemite photographs, just as the geologist Clarence King studied them for traces of glacial activity.
His album “Yosemite Views,” made with considerable effort and at great expense, is certainly stunning. Muybridge carted a mammoth-plate camera up and down the steep cliffs to look for vertiginous angles that would separate his album from an earlier one by Carleton Watkins.
He paid special attention to Yosemite’s waterfalls, which appear as milky, vaporous cones because of the images’ long exposure times. As the filmmaker Hollis Frampton has written about Muybridge’s work, “What is to be seen is not water itself, but the virtual volume it occupies during the whole time-interval of the exposure.” As it happens, the Yosemite album dates from 1872 — the same year that Muybridge began his experiments with Stanford’s prize racehorse, Occident.
More modern and striking is a series he made a year earlier: a government commission to photograph lighthouses along the Pacific Coast. The subject was tailor-made for him, from the cliffs rising hundreds of feet above the sea to the beacons whose technology seems with hindsight to anticipate that of moving pictures. These are some of Muybridge’s most gorgeous and versatile images, in tune with 19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century Structuralism alike.
But Muybridge wasn’t just a landscape photographer, he was also a photojournalist — one who, more often than not, worked for powerful interests. In 1873 the United States Army commissioned him to document the Lava Beds in Northern California, where war had broken out between the Modoc Indians and the government. His photographs were meant to assist the Army in moving troops through the inhospitable terrain, but some were published in magazines and newspapers. (In one, marketed as “Modoc Brave Lying in Wait for a Shot,” the subject was, in fact, a member of a neighboring tribe who worked as a scout for the military.)
The government gave Muybridge access to major building projects like the San Francisco City Hall and the city’s branch of the United States Mint, which he photographed at various stages of construction. And the Pacific Mail Steamship Company commissioned from him a series documenting coffee production in Latin America meant to reassure foreign investors with its orderly and hierarchical depictions of labor.
His most significant connection was undoubtedly his friendship with Stanford. It’s enshrined in Muybridge’s mesmerizing “Panorama of San Francisco,” shot from the rarefied precipice now known as Nob Hill, where Stanford was putting up an enormous mansion.
Yet the facts of Muybridge’s elite patronage were at odds with the democratic potential of his chosen medium. He seemed to understand this, especially in his later years when he marketed his locomotion studies to the masses at events like the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Materials from those studies — photographs, books, letters, patent models — are packed into the show’s final three galleries. Also here is Muybridge’s only surviving Zoopraxiscope, a device he invented by adding a spinning glass disk to a lantern slide projector.
The Zoopraxiscope can’t be operated by visitors, alas, but a digital projection animates some of Muybridge’s well-known photographs of animals, men, women and children in motion. The men run, jump, wrestle and pour buckets of water on one another. The women do some of these things, but they also wash and iron clothes. Many of the sequences are antic; more than a few are erotic, or homoerotic. They’re art, science and popular entertainment, and they’re what people think of when they think of Muybridge.
But, for me, the show’s defining moment was a single still image — a photograph from 1872 of Muybridge sitting in front of a giant sequoia. It seems to encompass geologic and human time, eras and instants, the rings of the tree and the horse circling the track.
Posted by Chris Mansel at 2:13 PM
With 300 or so photographs, "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century," a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is, as Ed Sullivan used to say, a really big show. No doubt, nothing less would do to represent the vast scope of an artist Richard Avedon called, with just the slightest exaggeration, "the Tolstoy of photography."
But six years after his death at the magnificent age of 95, Cartier-Bresson proves that you can be one of the most famous names in photography and still be one of its greatest enigmas. For a few years in the 1930s, he was a fiercely dedicated avant-gardist, making pictures that were powerfully strange. Yet after World War II, he somehow became one of the biggest mainstream photojournalists, working for magazines that liked pictures to be plainly legible and not too subtly nuanced. And let's not even talk about inscrutable. (See pictures from the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit.)
Born near Paris in 1908 to a prosperous family of thread manufacturers, Cartier-Bresson once hoped to become a painter. As it turned out, his gifts in that department were modest; no less a judge than Gertrude Stein took one look at his work and suggested he join the family business. Wealthy enough to do nothing in particular, he drifted for years, studying with the middling painter André Lhote and hanging on the edges of the Surrealist movement. Though his formal education ended at 18, he was a classic aesthete, bookish and art-obsessed, with fine-boned features and skin so fair that in Mexico a girlfriend gave him a Spanish nickname meaning "beautiful man with face the color of shrimp."
He was tougher than he looked. In 1930 he abruptly abandoned the stale confines of bourgeois civilization for the more primal realms of French colonial Africa. (Even in this, he was playing the artiste: think Gauguin in Polynesia or Rimbaud in Abyssinia. Among the French, the flight to primitivism was something of a creative-class tradition.) In the Ivory Coast, he lived for a year as a hunter, selling to villagers the game he killed. And without quite thinking of himself as a photographer, he also took pictures. (See pictures by Bruce Davidson.)
It wasn't until his return to France in 1931 that Cartier-Bresson made a crucial realization: through photography, he could achieve the goals of the Surrealists he so much admired. The MoMA show, which runs through June 28 and then travels to Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta, is a career-spanning retrospective. But while Cartier-Bresson's Surrealist phase would be just a brief moment in that career, it was a crucial one.
MoMA's chief curator of photography, Peter Galassi, who organized this show, produced a brilliant little Cartier-Bresson exhibition in 1987 that made explicit the importance of Surrealism to the photographer's early work. Cartier-Bresson never joined the movement in any formal way and didn't even care much for the work of Surrealist painters like Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, who he thought simply illustrated contrived paradoxes. What excited him was the Surrealist attempt to bypass the rational faculties as a way to glimpse a deeper reality. In their struggle to circumvent the conscious mind, the Surrealists tried hypnotism, free drawing and automatic writing. It was Cartier-Bresson's great insight that his Leica was the most automatic instrument of all. If a photographer simply gave himself over to the chance encounters of the day and captured them at the right instant, a snapshot could drive straight to the heart of the uncanny. All the obsessions of Surrealist fantasy — shock juxtapositions, erotic concealments, dismembered anatomies — were at large in the ordinary life of the streets.
As his biographer Pierre Assouline once put it, in those years Cartier-Bresson used his camera "as a Geiger counter," a machine to register the secret pulse of the world. And there's certainly a whole world of crackling enigmas in Valencia, Spain, 1933, made at a bullring. On the right, a man's disembodied head signals to us from his frame within a frame. At center, a broken 7 presides in a semicircle that seems to emanate from his glasses. And at left, another man peers into a dark threshold. All it took to find these things was a click.
Cartier-Bresson worked most intensely under the spell of Surrealism for just three years, from 1932 to 1934. For the next three, he virtually stopped taking pictures while he dabbled in filmmaking. But by 1937, right after his first marriage, he took a job as a photographer for the leftist Paris daily Ce Soir, work that bent him to the disciplines and conventions of deadline journalism. He didn't like them much. When he left that job in 1939, with World War II looming, he left the world of salaried employment for good. By June of the following year, he was a prisoner of war in a German labor camp, where he languished for three years before escaping. (See pictures by blind photographers.)
Cartier-Bresson emerged from the war committed at last to the idea of himself as a photographer. His roots in Surrealism may have made him an unlikely candidate for the pivotal role he would soon play in the emergence of magazine photojournalism. But along with the photographers Robert Capa and David Szymin, known as Chim, he became a founding member of Magnum — one of the dominant photo agencies in the years when plush weeklies like LIFE and Paris Match paid big money for pictures. As Galassi points out in the show's catalog, of the great figures of early modernist photography — including André Kertész, Edward Weston and Walker Evans — Cartier-Bresson "is the only one whose work blossomed so fully after the war."
How did he make this unlikely transition? No doubt it helped that he learned to rely less on the complex geometry of his earlier work and moved toward a more direct style. What you also get less often in pictures from his later years is the mesmerizing oddity of those from the '30s. In a Cartier-Bresson from, say, 1960, you feel that you're seeing a recognizable world through an exquisitely attentive eye. In the earlier work, you're seeing another world altogether. (Read: "Marcel Duchamp: Anything Goes.")
Yet he never entirely let go of that world. Even in the 1950s and '60s, a whiff of the surreal persists. How else to describe the artificial sky filled with artificial planes in World's Fair, Brussels, 1958? And it's unmistakable in Torcello, Near Venice, 1953, where the spiked prow of a gondola reads the dial of an arched bridge, while also bearing down on a running girl who is nearly identical to a figure in Giorgio de Chirico's Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, a painting the Surrealists revered.
Until he put down his camera in the 1970s to devote himself to drawing, Cartier-Bresson almost never stopped traveling. He was at the scene of some of the most important stories of his time — India in the final days of the British Raj, Beijing just before Mao's army entered. But his greatest gift was for pictures that didn't report anything more newsworthy than the erotic storm system of bodies in Coney Island, New York, 1946, or the domestic bliss of Bougival, Near Paris, 1956. An image of a man being greeted from the threshold of his houseboat by his wife, baby and dogs, it's a tour de force of art-historical synthesis. The collage-style juxtaposition of figures, the abrupt changes of scale between the man and what he's seeing: it's all very modern. But the supple line of the man's torso could have been drawn by Bronzino, while his wife and baby gently summon the long tradition of the Madonna and child — which is apt, since this may be the most succinct picture of heaven ever made. If it's true that Cartier-Bresson was the Tolstoy of photography, it's because he knew that the great pulse of his time flowed through the humblest places.
Posted by Chris Mansel at 1:58 AM
Monday, April 26, 2010
Alan Sillitoe, a British writer whose two early works — a novel, “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” and a short story, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” — drew attention to the seething alienation of the postwar working class in England, died on Sunday in London. He was 82.
His son, David, confirmed the death to The Associated Press.
Mr. Sillitoe, who grew up desperately poor and left school at 14, had a long and prolific career, and he spent much of it plumbing the privations of his childhood for material. He published more than 50 books — including poetry, essays, travel writing and fiction for both adults and children — along with a handful of plays and screenplays. But he never repeated the acclaim or the influence that accrued to his first works of fiction, which were published in the late 1950s and led critics to group him with the so-called angry young men, writers like Kingsley Amis, John Braine, John Wain and the playwright John Osborne who were also describing characters in revolt against the British class system.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, Mr. Sillitoe wrote about people who were more concerned with defying the elite class than joining it. Arthur Seaton, the frequently drunk, amorally libidinous 22-year-old factory worker in “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” (1958), sees the world as an us-against-them proposition. His strategy for living is to hoard the pleasures of the moment, to turn life into a perpetual Saturday night in a barroom and a bedroom and fend off the responsibilities of Sunday morning. (The 1960 film was a star-making vehicle for Albert Finney.)
Smith, the narrator of “Loneliness,” a 17-year-old thief who had been sent to a reformatory, is similarly opposed to the straight and narrow. When he proves to have a gift for cross-country running and becomes a favorite of the institution’s governor, he continues his rebellion by purposely losing a race, stopping just short of the finish line as the flummoxed and appalled governor looks on. The moment — later captured in a 1962 film directed by Tony Richardson and starring Tom Courtenay and Michael Redgrave — was a perfect symbol of the divide between the classes. The governor thinks he has lost; the runner thinks he has won.
“Cunning is what counts in life, and even that you’ve got to use in the slyest way you can,” Smith says at one point. “I’m telling you straight: they’re cunning, and I’m cunning. If only ‘them’ and ‘us’ had the same ideas, we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us, and we don’t see eye to eye with them, so that’s how it stands and how it will always stand.”
Alan Sillitoe was born in Nottingham, England, on March 4, 1928. His father was a laborer, often unemployed, and frequently violent. The family often moved to avoid the rent collector.
As a teenager he worked in a bicycle factory and as an air traffic control assistant. In the Royal Air Force he served as a radio operator in Malaya. He began to write during a recuperation from tuberculosis.
“I was 20 years old when I first tried to write, and it took 10 years before I learned how to do it,” he once said.
His survivors include his wife, Ruth Fainlight, a poet; a son, David; and a daughter, Susan.
Mr. Sillitoe often wrote with a political outlook sympathetic to the working poor, and much of the criticism of his work after “Saturday Night” and “Loneliness” complained of its being bogged down in philosophical heavy-handedness. He spent much of his life traveling, and his novels frequently contrived to transport working-class Englishmen to foreign lands.
In “Key to the Door” (1961) the lead character (Arthur Seaton’s brother) joins the military and is sent to Malaya, and in “The Death of William Posters” (1965) a man escaping the drudgery of a marriage finds his way to Algeria, where he becomes a gun smuggler. More recently, Mr. Sillitoe published “Gadfly in Russia” (2007), a collection of four decades of writing about Russia.
Mr. Sillitoe’s other books include several forays into far-flung literary genres. One, “The General” (1960), is an allegory about art and war that concerns a symphony orchestra on a train that is seized by an enemy army; “A Start in Life” (1970) is a pastiche melding the grit of modern Nottingham with the picaresque tradition of the 18th century; and “Travels in Nihilon” (1971) is a satirical fantasy set in a fictional nation where self-indulgence and self-expression are lionized.
In 1995, he published an autobiography, “Life Without Armour.”
Posted by Chris Mansel at 12:55 AM