Swann Galleries is having an auction sale on photographs today. In the preview, I have noticed that photographs were arranged not by the lot numbers, but grouped by scenes. Some pictures are beautiful, such as those of Ansel Adams or Harry Callahan, but I have never grown into followers of those artsy photographers. Interesting photos are timely, but excellent photos are timeless. For me, the timelessness of photography cannot be achieved through elimination of any trace of events or narration; it is the opposite. Photographs is a form of capturing a moment which by the time shutter blades move back, becomes irreversible frozen past. That moment, thus, should be a magic world of opposite extremities, specific to capture the immediate attention while never fail to make deeper and abstract notions tangible.
Interestingly the pictures in the sale which moved me the most all share the underlining reference to the past and the lost.
I have seen pictures of Edward Curtis’ native Indians before. There was even one featured in Antiques Roadshow. But it was a pleasure to see those pictures in their original studio frames. Lot 54, “Storm, Apache” is my favorite in the group. Unlike that portraiture of Native Americans, these landscape genre photos were taken with a near wide-angle lens and almost always in horizontal format. In this picture, Curtis chose a low vantage point and distanced the camera from the marching Indians. All but one middle desert bush is in focus: the rest gives much of the impression through their forms. Curtis carefully aligned the Indian horse riders so that they seemed to be going to submerge into far-far-away. The increased stature due to the low angle and the exaggerated vanishing point from the wide angle lens shape the group of Indians into a near abstract triangle, thus creating dynamics and illusion that such marching would soon disappear from the sights, momentarily or permanently (depending on viewer’s interpretation).
I am no expert on Curtis, but I was intrigued by the perfect detail. The balance is achieved by arranging the light-clothed riders in the end while the darker-clothed moving like a real storm on the ground. There is an ambiguity about the viewer’s consciousness. Sure, the low vantage point subconsciously sends viewers into a pryer’s mood and from that angle we have seen the wonderful naturalistic gesture of the last horse rider. But then there is that one Indian who turned his head back at the moment we are looking at him: Did he know he would be perpetually recorded?
The title brings me back to the darkening cloud, which in an Orotone photo, is not the most obvious thing one would notice. But then the Apache riders were moving casually as if nothing needs to be hurried. Native American scholars may find this photo lacks ethnic details about the people, but what touched me the most is the nomadic souls glistering in golden color.
No one would pass by Rudolf Nureyev nude picture without a heart flutter: There is nothing in the picture but Nureyev’s naked body. His straight stare with his head slightly lifted and his athletic body relaxed clearly indicates his pride in his prowess and skill as a dancer. And a dancer’s asset is his body. Thus, nothing should be ashamed of, not even a frontal view that may make viewers slightly uncomfortable.
Strangely, I feel nothing erotic in the photo, probably because Nureyev was at ease with his body and his sexuality. The gay playboy died of AIDS in 1993 and left his wealth to both dance and medical research. His friend and physician later recalled during his last stage Nureyev “was Petrushka, the disjointed puppet, broken and miserable.” But western audience long before had been disappointed when he could not dance as elastic and volcanic as before. We human inevitably age and for dancers every tiny bit of aging can be felt through each jump and squat. Perhaps Nureyev knew it too well, and he eagerly wanted to be photographed at his prime time. It has been used as an iconic gay image, but what Avedon intended to show here is that we ought to see his body as a revered artwork, as a masterpiece of music to be executed. Because we know once the backdrop is installed and his ballet suit is put on, he would bounce and bounce in the air with ease of a rubber ball or twirl around with the facility and precision of a spun wheel.
The sale concludes with a photo by William Eggleston taken in 1983. Geo said the hand was intruding the picture like an accident. (Don’t we sometimes have those unwanted hands and legs in our souvenir photos?) But then there is a white horse galloping in the distance where the hand is pointing. It is strange as if nothing is certain in this picture: Is the unfocused hand a planned element? Is the horse as much a surprise to the photographer as to the person on the left? Or simply is that galloping horse possible? (Probably yes, since the picture was taken in Kentucky.) Geo didn’t like it, but it was one of the few that he mentioned. It reminds me what Emy Whitaker writes in her book “Museum Legs“:
It is pretty hard not to think contemporary art is, at best, obsessed with novelty and, at worst, a inside joke of which you are the punch line.
The Sale starts at 1:30 p.m. Visit Swann Galleries for details or bid on artfact.com.