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Mirrors, Windows and Peaches


By Larry Shapiro

THE WHOLE FUNCTION of the artist in the world," Ruskin wrote, "is to be a seeing and feeling creature...the work of his life is to be twofold only: to see, to feel." The conviction advanced in the 1860s and '70s by the French Impressionists that seeing is equivalent to feeling has been present in photography throughout its history. But only recently, especially with the sudden increase of color work among serious photographers, has a painterly love and awe for pure optical effects impressively begun to displace the photographer's traditional documentary concerns.

The color photographs by Joel Meyerowitz currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Harcus Krakow Gallery display a lyric sensibility for which the thrill of the eye on the world's luminous surfaces -- water, sky, foliage,' flesh -- lovingly captured, contains intense emotional value. The photographs were shot with a largeformat view camera whose slow exposures and sizable 8x10 inch prints produce an almost magical sharpness and delicacy of color. All the photographs in the museum, and the majority in the gallery, were taken over two summers at Cape Cod. There, after many years' experience photographing in black and white on the streets of New York, Meyerowitz was struck by a beauty that, as he recently recounted in a museum symposium, "liberated me from the incident." He was enamored by the purity of the light, "a light that cast no judgement, and nourished my feelings," that impelled him to eliminate the reductive social commentary that had characterized his work. At Cape Cod, Meyerowitz tried to transmit the presence the land had for him, the precise quality of air and of color, which he defines as "a personal memory: light with meaning." The dim, pale loveliness of damp sand, weather-streaked concrete, blue shutters on gray clapboard siding, flourescent light in evening air, sunbathers, a colonnaded seaside porch, tide pools and the stray formations of boats seen from above -- these are Meyerowitz's chief subjects. The necessarily smaller show at the Harcus Krakow Gallery has fewer photographs, but features, in addition, a few pictures of empty swimming pools and nudes, and two photographs from Meyerowitz's current project, commissioned by the St. Louis Art Museum: one picture of a St. Louis cityscape, another of a baseball diamond. All these are photographed with something of the canny eye for pattern and electric combinations of color that guided Degas and Matisse.

However, beneath his first astonishment, the gallery-goer can feel an obscure troubling of dissatisfaction with this work. In an articulate, chummy interview published in the catalogue that accompanies the museum show, Meyerowitz cites the painter Edward Hopper among predecessors who have taken the Cape for a subject. The comparison is instructive: Meyerowitz has, like Hopper, great feeling for the season, weather, time of day in the scene he records, and has a similar ability to make the commonplace seem monumental. Like Hopper, he admirably resists any easy, ironic comment about the lives that inhabit his terrain, but he lacks a comparable interest in or understanding of those lives. The detachment with which Hopper painted people and their frequent absence in his work comes out of, and produces, a powerfully unsentimental sense of isolation, loneliness, despair, carried within the landscapes' inscrutable hard-lit beauty. The distance from which people are seen in Meyerowitz's work, and their frequent absence, arises, presumably, from the slow view camera's inability to photograph near or unposed figures without messily slurring them, and from Meyerowitz's inclination to see people as shapes, colors and surfaces, rather than as personalities. The few posed portraits in both shows are notable for a peculiarly aloof and gentle psychological numbness.

IN THE RECENT, highly publicized show of American photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art called "Mirrors and Windows," an attempt was made to distinguish two ideas of what a photograph is: either "a mirror, reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it...or a window, through which one might better know the world." (This from the show's catalogue essay, written by the museum's director of photography, John Szarkowski). In reviewing "Mirrors and Windows" for The New Republic, John Canaday wrote a reactionary two-part article entitled "Polluted Birthright." "The pollutant I am referring to," Canaday explained, "is the presence of the photographer in the pictures he takes, his intrusion of personal judgements and responses into the only pictorial medium the world has ever seen that can be free of them." Of all the photographs in the show, he lamented, virtually none were mirrors.

In the strictest sense, Canaday was not far wrong. The best contemporary photographers generally have less respect for their subjects than for the photographs that arise from them. Few have been able to produce work of the purity and absoluteness one sees in much of the innocent, incunabular sort of photography of the mid-19th century, in the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady and his colleagues, or in Eugene Atget's pictures of Paris streets at the turn of the century. Meyerowitz's work, which ranked on the "windows" side of the New York show, has a kind of emphatic resplendence that the best early photographers, soberly concerned with the hard documentary fact, would never allow.

But the difference is willful. Canaday's complaint, which is over 100 years old, can scarcely concern Meyerowitz. The Cape Cod photographs were motivated by an essentially romantic, lyrical, personal desire not merely to record experience but to describe it. In photographing an object or event, he is loyal primarily to his feelings, to his refined and vivid emotional impression of whatever his eye lands on; and, to somewhat warp and make literal a phrase of Wordsworth's, he throws over the photographed thing "a certain coloring of imagination." The hot oranges, yellow and pinks of pillows filling a couch struck by sunlight, the sharp whiteness of one boat on darkened water, the canteloupe-colored beach, and the green tinge of flourescence illuminating a phone booth at dusk all possess a degree of heightened intensity, a kind of dramatic gorgeousness, which one feels was imposed on, rather than retained from, the actual scene.

KENNETH BAKER, reviewing the "Cape Light" show for the Boston Phoenix, wrote that he was heartened by the photographs because they "put forward an idea of what it means to love the world." That they do. But the love they display is of the generous, uncritical kind that can ally itself all too easily with the aim and spirit of advertising. The not-quite-seduced viewer may be vexed by some of the work's resemblance to the color photography one sees most: the beguilingly resourceful and corrupt work appearing in magazines at the service of travel agencies, cosmetic manufacturers, and distillers of whiskey. One picture at the museum, of a beautiful woman in a black bikini, lying on her back, horizontal, on bare sand, the straps released from her shoulders, and her face and thighs cropped by the frame, would not have looked out of place in Vogue. A bright flat tint of glamor clings to too many of Meyerowitz's pictures, a glamor that, in the commissioned St. Louis work, can verge on meretriciousness.

"If I describe a peach too perfectly," William Gass has written, "it is the poem that will make your mouth water...while the real peach rots." Photography's grip on reality can seem so compellingly firm and immediate that it is liable to be more persuasive, and pernicious, in its distortions, evasions and half-truths than any other imagemaking medium. Accordingly, the same peach can rot much faster in a photograph than in a painting or poem, and is likely to rot all the more completely. Even the percipient mind that recognizes beauty in all things, and that understands how an artist's only honest task is to be faithful to his vision of that beauty, must feel suspicious and confused.

It remains to be said (or rather, seen) in Meyerowitz's Cape Cod pictures, that despite innumerable glories and pleasures, pain, suffering and psychological ambiguity are persistently present in the world, even in Provincetown; that to live in a salubrious vacuum like Cape Cod is something of a luxury and a privilege, with all the possible, complacent delusions attendant to luxury and privilege at full work; that most women are not bathing beauties, and that this fact is not necessarily a misfortune; that to see, in Wordsworth's phrase, into the life of things, requires a particular kind of mental firmness behind the eye's excitement: that real perception and understanding involve more than ecstatic staring.

I suspect what the matter comes down to depends upon whether one is willing to allow photographers as wide and loose a license as we give certain writers and painters, or whether, as is the case with me, one's pleasure from photographs such as Meyerowitz's is scratched by what may be an impertinent moral prickling. But one should finally trust and retrieve from this argument the photographs themselves: the best of them -- two pictures of clothes-lines, a glass-topped table, a couple of porches, and one, in the Harcus Krakow gallery, which is merely a bare clean plane of water, seem poignantly vivid, simple, vestigial. They are worth seeing.

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