From the Sunday New York Times
There's a slideshow link
THE other day, in an exhibition here at the Jeu de Paume called “The Event,” I came across a marvelous photograph of the pioneering French aviator Hubert Latham. The picture was shot by some anonymous shutterbug in July 1909, when Latham’s monoplane, the Antoinette, softly crashed just a mile or so shy of the Dover cliffs. Latham was racing from Calais to try to cross the Channel (this was his second attempt), and he had gotten far enough to hear the sirens of well-wishers and the hooting of tugs at the English shore when his engine suddenly conked out.
The photographer caught this Frenchman, alone, floating atop his wrecked plane, which in the picture looks hardly bigger and not much less delicate than a large kite, in the middle of the water. Pensive, like one of Eakins’s rowers resting in his scull on the Schuylkill, Latham is silently puffing on a cigarette, contemplating his own failure.
Gallic élan (I guess that’s how you would describe somebody calmly smoking next to a wrecked fuel tank) lends the picture its doleful charm, while also adding a slightly comic quality to the romantic image of the fearless flying ace.
As celebrities went 100 years ago, pilots were the height of fashion in France. Latham’s heroism now seems, in the picture, touchingly fragile, reminding us of the passing fancy for early aerial daredevilry. Like all photographs dependent on fashion, it contains the seeds of its own eventual obsolescence.
It’s among hundreds of pictures in a show cobbled together by various curators here who, I’m sure, had some big, original idea in mind, not that I can make head or tail of what it might be. Never mind.
Subtitled “Images as Actors in History,” the exhibition has dozens of fascinating photographs and, intellectually speaking, it’s stylish despite making no immediate sense. The chief organizer, Michel Poivert, in an accompanying brochure, says that certain events recorded by photographs have the “capacity to shatter the intelligibility of the world and to impose a recomposition based on the new elements within that disruption.” So you see what I mean.
The show surveys — takes snapshots of — five topics, which, presented in no particular order, are the Crimean War; the introduction of paid holidays in France in 1936; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the attacks on the World Trade Center; and the conquest of the air by men like Latham and Louis Blériot, the mustachioed Frenchman who, in a monoplane called the Blériot XI (guess what happened to the first 10), first crossed the Channel, gladdening his countrymen while causing the English, a few decades early, to dread the prospect of aerial assault.
I don’t believe Blériot’s feat made much of an impact on the evolution of photography, but the Crimean War, a half-century earlier, certainly did. Another of modern history’s many pointless slaughters, at least it left behind landmark pictures by the Briton Roger Fenton, the Frenchman Jean-Charles Langlois and others — the very first battlefront photographs, which were memorably strange.
Fenton shot the Valley of the Shadow of Death, a landmark of the war, strewn with cannonballs “like the moraines of a melted glacier,” as the editor of The Photographic Journal aptly put it in 1855. Requiring long exposures and bulky equipment, battlefield photographs were mostly views of rubble or portraits of British soldiers in ill-fitting Savile Row tunics posing stiffly. The pictures have a stillness that belies the real danger often required to make them. Mute, bloodless scenes of moonlike panoramas, to the people back in Britain and France who saw them they no doubt looked alien, like the new medium that produced them.
Langlois, shooting abandoned fields and sandbagged bunkers near Sebastopol, seems to me to have made the most interesting sense of the compositional problem of photographing chaos and dust: He devised a kind of visual topography that bordered on abstraction. The photographs look almost modern in their radical emptiness.
On second thought, maybe Mr. Poivert has a point. There was a shattering of intelligibility in war that photographs captured in ways that traditional paintings didn’t. Painters turned battle scenes into adventures, full of blood and guts; they dreamed up neat, moralizing stories from the safety of their studios. They made war coherent. But photographers replaced grand synthetic historical pictures with more faithful views of what was actually happening on the ground. War didn’t make sense. It was random, piecemeal. Photography suited a dawning truth.
UNLIKE painting it was also a democratic medium. Photographs were engraved onto the front pages of the new illustrated newspapers. And the news, via photography, became a form of entertainment for the masses. Events were now real, if photographs documented them. The Crimean War helped usher in the age of modern consciousness.
It still remained for photographers to master action, which happened even before the aerial era, when a new visual order emerged. Photographers pointed their cameras up at the sky or sideways, they shot down from dirigibles and from atop tall buildings, to capture and simulate the acrobatics of flyers.
Paris suddenly revealed itself from the air as an unfamiliar place shaped by patterns imperceptible from the ground. I lingered before photographs by Léon Gimpel, who published hundreds of aerial pictures in L’Illustration, and sold hundreds of thousands of snapshots at the turn of the century. They have a whimsy befitting the new spectacles.
Vertiginous views of airplanes, collapsing space, were also collaged in magazines like La Vie au Grand Air, and what resulted looked to me remarkably Cubist. Picasso must have derived lessons from Gimpel, Blériot and the magazines as he did from Cézanne and African art.
YOU’RE probably wondering what all this has to do with paid holidays in France, 9/11 and the Berlin Wall. The show argues that the fall of the wall was an event staged for cameras, while 9/11 was the most widely transmitted visual event in history, represented, however, by just a few photographic images whose ubiquity on front pages was due to the concentration of power in the hands of “a reduced number of broadcasters.”
Whatever. A century and a half after the Crimean photographs, second-by-second images of the planes going into the towers, of the fireballs and the plumes of smoke and of the dust-white office workers fleeing, terrified and stunned, became inseparable from the event itself for people around the globe. No longer were pictures from the battlefront as unfamiliar and foreign as the places where they were shot; they now functioned as a means of transference. More than recording the experience, they became it.
The show includes several dozen pictures from “Here Is New York,” the traveling exhibition that opened in a downtown Manhattan storefront shortly after 9/11. It featured thousands of donated 9/11 images, professional and amateur, sold anonymously (the project’s subtitle was “A Democracy of Photographs”) to raise money for aid programs. “Here Is New York,” with its countless images, undoes the argument about a few powerful corporations limiting the number of 9/11 images in public circulation.
But, as I said, logic isn’t this show’s virtue. Dreaming is. When the French Parliament democratized leisure in July 1936 by mandating two weeks off annually, it promoted the new law through the government’s Organization of Leisure, circulating photographs of vacationers to magazines and newsreels. Frenchmen were supposed to look at the pictures and dream.
The new propaganda machine had a few kinks. Vacationers in long pants and dress shoes recline like suffering penitents on rocky beaches. They camp in minuscule tents densely packed together in the countryside like Citroëns at rush hour on the Champs-Élysées, and they jam into stuffy trains at the Gare St.-Lazare. A nation of Monsieur Hulots learned what the show calls the “iconography of happiness” (a nice phrase) via magazines like Vu, Regards and Voilà, whose covers sported pictures of beaming models playing with babies and sunning, lakeside.
The iconography of happiness also encouraged amateur photographs. I stared at endearing family snapshots hung alongside Cartier-Bresson’s classic views of working-class vacationers lolling by the Seine. Private mementos, without the public signposts of captions, the snapshots preserved dreams that suddenly made me recall Latham adrift in the English Channel, imagining what might have been.
“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,” Garry Winogrand famously said. Photographs, like the one of Latham or of the holidaymakers, haven’t just shown people what the world looks like, they have also given us views of a world that exists for us only through the viewfinder of a camera, a fearful world we experience vicariously from a remove, a promising world we may aspire to occupy by imagining ourselves in the pictures. This is the real “event” behind all photographs. They transport us, if only for the time that we stare at them, back to Sebastopol, or onto the banks of the Seine.
Or across the Channel, all the way to Dover.