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Victoria Olsen Posts

Magic Hands

A show of Richard Avedon’s photographs opens today at the International Center for Photography. In its honor I went looking for some of his work to comment on, but I didn’t want it to be too obvious, like one of the best known fashion images or celebrity portraits. So here you go: Avedon himself in 1980. It’s a striking portrait of a man rarely in front of a camera, though fifty years ago Avedon told Truman Capote that

Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is, how would you say, well, the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may be simply my own.

What struck me first about this image was, of course, the waving, unfocussed hands. It reminds me, though obliquely, of a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron of Vivien and Merlin, the sorcerer (below). In it Cameron shows Vivien in the moment after casting a spell to “beguile” Merlin and immobilize him. Vivien’s hand is extended and her finger points. She is in the very act of making magic. Avedon, too, is in the very act of making magic, the creative transformation of reality into a frozen frame. His waving hands frame his own face, reinforcing the metaphor. In both cases the moving hands produce stillness through a kind of alchemy. Both photographers, too, seem to be insisting that photography is an art: it requires more than an eye and a camera; it is hand-made and original. Those are big claims for photography, especially when Cameron made them in the 1860s and 1870s. Stieglitz photographed Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands. Avedon photographed Isak Dinesen’s hands….Are all photographers obsessed with hands?  The hand provides the signature, one definition of individuality in our society.  We think of portraitists like Avedon and Cameron as defining selves by revealing faces, but here hands speak for the self too.  They defy our assumption that portraits should be “psychological.”

Two Tributes

Edward Steichen, "Greta Garbo," 1928.

Greta Garbo received two magnificent tributes: first the portrait at right by Edward Steichen (1928) and then the essay “The Face of Garbo” by Roland Barthes (1957). What is perhaps most interesting is that photo and text pay tribute to the same quality: the almost divine perfection of Garbo’s face and the tiny flaws that betray her humanity. First, the image. Steichen uses lighting and contrast to highlight the extreme symmetry of Garbo’s face, but look closely and you’ll notice that her head is at a slight angle. The left eye (on the photo’s right) is lower than the other and the light strikes her face unevenly. This is in contrast to the matched curves of the brows and lips, the lines of the arms. The bit of shoulder showing on the left again reveals asymmetry, and makes the photograph interesting instead of perfect.

Barthes loved that quality of mask-like divinity in Garbo’s face. In his essay, he dwells on the Kabuki qualities of the early screen stars: the thick layer of “flour-white” powder, the eyes like “two faintly tremulous wounds,” the black-and-white severity of the whole. He admires the perfection of this mask, but pushes past it to the face. “A mask,” he writes, “is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony.” Steichen shows us that harmony is not in the visible symmetries of the face itself, but in the unconscious symmetries seen by the artist’s eye. Barthes tells us how this face, “descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light,” is both divine and all too human.

Pied Poem

Switching gears here…

Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of my favorite poets. Here is “Pied Beauty”:


GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

You can see Hopkins’s fascination with pairs here, not just in the content, but in the compound words he invents (couple-colour, rose-moles, fresh-firecoal, chestnut-falls, fathers-forth). Was there ever a poet more in love with the hyphen? Hopkins thinks in twos, but throws in the unexpected disruption of triplets (“fold, fallow, and plough”) And can you hear his love of alliteration? The sheer joy in sounds here? This joy, and these “brinded” sights and tongue-twisting sounds, all serve Hopkins’s sole mission: to glorify God. This fickle, freckled world reveals both the beauty of His creation and the constancy of the creator, “whose beauty is past change.” Hopkins’s poised awareness of both sides, the change and the constancy, the beauty and the flaws, is his particular sensibility and his great gift to us. He sees the world “pied” and knows how to join the halves by bridging the two stanzas with the word “all” and then circling back inexorably to God in the two-word last line: Praise him.  This beautiful, double creation is Hopkin’s too: Praise him.

Agee:

This entry is really a postscript to the last one, but it has a new close reading so I don’t want to bury it underneath the last photo and text.  It’s a quote from Agee’s text to fit word to the image below:

Two blocks, of two rooms each, one room behind another.  Between these blocks a hallway, floored and roofed, wide open both at front and rear: so that these blocks are two rectangular yoked boats, or floated tanks, or coffins, each, by an inner wall divided into two squared chambers.  The roof, pitched rather steeply from front and rear, its cards met and nailed at a sharp angle.  The floor faces the earth closely.  On the left of the hall, two rooms, each an exact square.  On the right a square front room, and, built later, behind it, using the outward weatherboards for its own front wall, a leanto kitchen half that size.

Picture this bare wooden house and you will see Agee’s gifts: the repetition of two, two, two, becoming half by the last sentence; the broken rhythms from short clauses like “floored and roofed;” the alternation of long and short sentences; the parallelism of the last two sentences, which don’t quite match….  The structure of the house, symmetrical yet not symmetrical, is ably mirrored in the prose.  And that vivid surprise in the middle of this plain language!  The yoked boats!  The coffins!  The overwhelming sense of despair and containment….  It’s George Orwell’s economy and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sprung rhythm: all Agee, a triplet of descending notes introduced by his characteristic colon.

Cornered

I’m reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, slowly, and I want to pay some homage to Walker Evans’s photographs.  This room was photographed by Evans in Alabama in 1936 during the summer that he and James Agee spent there living with tenant farmers.  The idea was to profile one “typical” southern family for Fortune magazine, but it didn’t work out.  Agee and Evans did their own thing, and published a book about it several years later.

You get a hint already of an insistent, rebellious eye right here in this image.  Evans seems more interested in the horizontal lines of the plank walls that don’t quite meet in the corner than in the objects on display.  And they are, weirdly, on display here — as Evans’s photographs are now on museum walls.  It’s as if Evans knows, already, that his art and their art is somehow the same.  And what do we see? A humble chair with a rush seat.  A broom leaning upside down against the wall (why upside down?).  A piece of white fabric hung up on a string like a flag of surrender.  And two unidentifiable objects mounted on the right-hand wall: a round cup-like thing and a strange pole with a crossed base.  What are these things?  What do they mean and why is Evans preserving them for posterity?

The careful balancing of objects seems to refer to other conventions of composition from still life paintings.  If so, this is an ironic, almost outrageous, commentary on the artistic depiction of things, or material reality.  While many still life artists delighted in the sensuous rendering of surfaces–velvets, silks, fur–and the sunlight that played on them, this photograph deprives us (and the things) of all sensory pleasures.  These things are purely functional, and while the image has a beauty to it, it would be hard to argue that this kitchen corner is beautiful.  Evans is too close to it and this reality is unavoidably grim.  He seems to be showing us that this particular corner, where line meets line and wall meets wall, has no exit.