How often are you compelled to quote a photographer's printed writings? I have two favored references: the first, chronologically and in number of conscious appearances, is Robert Frank's pithy and enduring comment that "it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph" (from "A Statement..." published in U.S. Camera Annual 1958, p. 115); the second, Charles Harbutt's summation that "In some ways, all photographers must become cavemen. Or aliens. Or children." (from "I Don't Take Pictures; Pictures Take Me," the Epilogue to his seminal 1973 book Travelog; I used this quote in my college yearbook). I am also frequently visited by Garry Winogrand's aphorisms, though I always have to return to the sources to recall his exact wordings ("illusions of literal descriptions," "suspension of disbelief," "what something looks like photographed"—all these fragments floating around in my mental card file). Typically, photographers become what they are because of their talents with image-making, not their abilities as word-smiths. There are exceptions; Robert Adams, Tod Papageorge, Bea Nettles, Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, Deborah Willis, John Szarkowski, and a handful of others craft images and phrases with comparable dexterity.
Reading Ken Schles' A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads, I wondered what I would take away from the experience. The text matter—a multi-sectioned essay with marginal notes, biography, bibliography, and list of plates—commands 66 of the book's 173 pages, so it begs for attention. But I kept wanting to get back to the photographs. Schles has not been over-published in his career; Invisible City, his very collectible 1988 Twelvetrees monograph, was followed by one other book, The Geometry of Innocence, a 2001 Hatje Cantz release that I've yet to see. Born (1960), raised, and now based in New York City, Schles has a strong international following and an admirable string of kudos. The images in his new book offer a tantalizing survey of his vision, and the advance blurbs about the book suggested that this would be "a book about influence and the connections we make: an experiment in the history of photography." Not sure who wrote that, but the notion was attractive; I imagined a kind of self-and-other dialogue, with Schles forthrightly citing the effects of certain photographs on his own, an homage to the image world that surrounds and infuses our search for meaning.
The end result is, however, less experiment than manifesto. All of the 106 plates in the section titled "A Discussion on the History of Photography" are Schles' photographs ("furnished by the photographer," and "reproduced by courteous permission of Mr. Schles"), with no leavening from other sources. As I say, I'm happy to see a fuller range of his work. But what about influences, connections — the discussion of photography's history? There's a lovely image of an East Hampton apple tree, begging fruitful comparison to similar Stieglitz photographs. The acknowledgements lie deeply buried in his text, at turns philosophical, linguistic, psychological, technological, historiographic, anything but overt or specific. Latent in this is a sense that to cite an individual image as a corollary to one of his own would be either to insult his audience (sophisticated enough to know all the pictures in his head) or devalue the significance of his own accomplishment by comparison. This "new history" seems less dependent on the world outside than on a construct of the author/photographer. Still, there was a quote that stood out for me, from the last ten pages of his text, which appear under the collective title "Errata and Addendum" (and which, by themselves, are a rewarding read, more forthcoming and honest than the forty-plus preceding pages):
Perhaps it is because ultimately images exist outside of language and it is hard to be circumspect and specific about a Gestalt. We see an image and we know something, somehow. We believe, but we don't know why. The non-verbal quality of our image conversation places it in the realm of the emotional and pre-rational (i.e., outside of language), which is why, when our images speak us [sic], we don't have a clue as to what's going on. (A New History of Photography, page 46) [emphasis by Schles]
A disclaimer, forthcoming and clear, even though it's about ambiguity; I sense Schles' struggle for meaning and understanding here, as I do in the rich plate section that shortly follows, and am grateful for the artist's honest efforts toward immediacy. It may not be as memorable for me, long term, as Frank and Harbutt's statements, or Winogrand's oracular fragments, but it reflects the motivation and challenge that all artists have to find form for meaning, and photographers to an even greater degree.
George Slade is an independent photography scholar based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was the artistic director and chief curator of the Minnesota Center for Photography from 2003 until the organization closed in July 2008.