The intimacy of photographs and the limits of black

In 1989, John Szarkowski wrote:

From a commercial point of view the ideal gallery picture is a wall picture, meaning the kind of picture that can claim a room. Any picture can of course be hung on a wall, but some pictures are at their best only at close range; if they belong on a wall at all it might be the wall of an intimate corridor, or near one’s elbow at a writing desk. Many photographs, including many of the best photographs, are best when held in the hand, and it must be said that pictures bigger than one person can hold with comfort have been a difficult challenge for photography. Part of the problem has been a technical one, and relates to the photographer’s traditional insistence that there be detail in the shadows. The trouble with empty black shadows is that if they become bigger than, say, a thumbnail, they stop representing a dark place and begin representing merely a black shape, thus calling attention to the coated surface of the paper, which, especially in its modern manifestations, is not an intrinsically beautiful material, like bronze or marble or rubbed wood or oil pigment on linen, but instead resembles something made in a factory from petroleum derivatives and soy beans.

Ansel Adams, whose technical prowess was legendary, devoted considerable thought and energy to the production of exceptionally large prints. The best of them, seen from far enough away, look as good as his smaller prints, in fact look like his smaller prints. From up close, they are not as good.

Perhaps Ray Metzker, in the mid-sixties, was the first photographer to make big pictures that were not simply enlargements of small ones. His photo-collages were designed to lead a fundamentally abstract life when seen from a distance, and a highly particularized one from up close. In spite of their split character, the pictures are good to look at, at both ranges.

But there is perhaps a deeper reason why photographers have had limited success with wall pictures, a reason that touches the issues of privacy and specificity, and perhaps even the matter of secrecy.

Only a small fraction of the world’s pictures have been designed to be seen on walls, and those are expected to speak in a more or less public and forceful way, expected even to declaim, unlike a picture that is held in the hand, as in a Book of Hours, or a magazine, that speaks to one person (or to one person at a time) and thus can speak in a more confidential, and perhaps in a more dilatory, elliptical, or conversational tone, because the message is not being shared with all those others. Diane Arbus said that a photograph of two people in one bed is shocking because a photograph is private, whereas a movie showing two people in one bed is not shocking because a movie is public.

A photograph may also be private in the sense that there is no designated public access to its meaning, no catalog of its constituent parts, its iconographic and formal resources. Each viewer, including the photographer who made it, must devise for the new picture a personal and provisional place among the other pictures and facts that the viewer knows. It is of course true that all good pictures contain unfinished meanings; only perfect clichés are perfectly complete. Nevertheless, good photographs are often more richly unfinished than other pictures, are wilder, in the sense that they have in them more elements that are not fully understood and domesticated. James Agee, pretending that the photographer was a fisherman and that the truth was a trout, said it was the photographer’s task to bring the fish to net without too much subduing it.

Pictures like those that Agee wanted are not easy to make; they are even more difficult to make large and simple, as a poster is simple, or a fresco in city hall. Those who have tried to make the kind of picture that Agee spoke of have tended to think in terms of books—a relatively private, provisional, contingent kind of form—rather than of walls.

1 Comment

  1. hiiiiii D
    greetings from comp&lit class (ENG 101)
    JFYI: every M W F i get my dose of photodevoto in this class, and now i’m writing a research paper based on it. Soooooo, quick question: What do you think the biggest issue/problem is right now in the field of photography?

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