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American photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Vernacular aesthetics and aesthetic vernacular

The organisers propose an opposition between “vernacular” and “aesthetic” photography but the images do not allow it

Richard Pinsent

London

Drawn from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and organised by Peter Galassi, chief curator in the Department of Photography, the exhibition currently at the Victoria and Albert Museum (until 26 January) presents the two-way dialogue between seemingly irreconcilable elements, the vernacular and the aesthetic. The interplay is presented through alternating sections, within a twelve-part chronology featuring most of the great names in American photography and some of the forgotten.

Spanning a period of seventy-five years, the aim and content of the exhibition is laudably clear. We are offered a selection of the best from the richest collection of photography in the world. The depth of the historic perspective and its attendant changes—economic, political, social, personal, spiritual , technical—are exquisitely reduced to the bare essentials.

“American Photography” may be seen as an illustrated primer: it allows the viewer to dwell upon the historic developments that helped shape America’s self-image. Much has been included: 180 or more photographs, some of whose authors reappear in one section after another; much omitted (Man Ray, for instance, on the grounds that his best work was created abroad). From the magnificent exploration of landscape in Henry Hamilton Bennett’s vast “Panorama from the overhanging cliff, Wisconsin Dells” (1897-98) to Diane Arbus’s “Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, New York City” (1967), (in successive sections called: “Photography for everyone”; “Photography as high art”; “The rise of modernism”; “Modernism applied”; “The documentary aesthetic”; “For our readers”; “A growth of a tradition”; “Heyday of the magazines”; “Personal work”; “Post-War perceptions”; “Circa 1960”; “New documents”) we finally arrive at Lee Friedlander’s “Galax Virginia” (1962), a picture of a child seen on a portable TV at the foot of a double bed. This is quite some itinerary.

Though the design of the exhibition is heavily structured, giving each section a very specific context so as to make the progression more or less self-explanatory, these wonderful photographs speak for themselves. We witness a huge bite of recent history, review many no less extraordinary documents, insights, concepts, representations of America, its people and its place in the world.

After so many exciting twists and turns the conclusion can seem slightly artificial and curiously anti-climactic. There is a stage where the distinction between art and commercial work seems to hold good. Opposite one another we find “For our readers” and “Growth of a tradition”. Dedicated photo-journalists like Weegee (who tapped police radio to be first on the scene) as opposed to aesthetes like Callahan, Siskind, White. Yet Weegee’s low-life drama is as stylised as a novel.

Later Avedon and Penn’s commercial output beg the question of artifice, while Frank’s aesthetic looks natural.

“Vernacular” and “aesthetic” are, consciously or not, two sides of the same visual coin co-existing in any serious attempt to say something with pictures. The deliberate artistry of Steichen, Steiglitz and the Photo-Secessionists, positing just that divide in 1902 so as to claim the high ground for their work, becomes increasingly untenable for succeeding generations of American photographers. Yet that ethos runs through this exhibition like a fault line, fudging far more complicated issues than it can possibly resolve.

“American Photography” is both more and less than the sum of its parts. What we see is less a giant leap of the imagination fuelled by stylistic concerns; more a direct response to historic imperatives, a mirror of the times. All the great visual thinkers represented in the show: Riis, Curtis, Bellocq, Steichen, Steiglitz, Strand, Weston, Adams, Evans, Abbot, Lange, Levitt, Weegee, Callahan, Siskind, White, Smith, Frank, Klein, Davidson, Winogrand, Erwitt, Link, Friedlander, Arbus resist easy categorisation. A general trend appears to map the soul of America rather than ape its fashions. The show ends with a total reversal of values, from looking outwards and confidently exploring the world, to the slightly awkward over-sincerity of a typically Sixties inner search for significance.