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Monday, 26 January 2009

William Klein, New York and doing something new

The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire nod towards a more 'real' India, a break from the romantic, colonial and magic realist depictions of the country we are more familiar with. In the same way, Bonfire of the Vanities was Tom Wolfe's realist New York epic.

In the foreword to the current edition, Wolfe writes about the disdain held in the 1960s and 1970sfor the realist novels. Instead, there were Absurdist Novels, Magical Realist Novels, novels of Radical Disjunction and Puppet Master novels.

"The Puppet Masters were in love with the theory that the novel was, first and foremost, a literary game, words on a page being manipulated by an author. Ronald Sukenick, author of a highly praised 1968 novel called Up, would tell you what he looked like while he was writing the words you were at that moment reading. At one point you are informed that he is stark naked. Sometimes he tells you he's crossing out what you've just read and changing it. Then he gives you the new version. Ina story called The Death of the Novel, he keeps saying, a la Samuel Beckett, 'I can't go on'.Then he exhorts himself, 'Go on,' and on he goes. At the end of Up he tells you that none of the characters was real: 'I just make it up as I go along."

Wolfe says many of these people were wonderful writers, but that realist fiction provided a wealth of material that had the ability to move the reader in a way the non-realist material could. Realism in the novel gave Wolfe the ability to get all the currents of New York into one book, to get the big picture.

Reading that made me think of photography and getting the big picture. For New York, William Klein's pictures give the feeling of the city (which I have never been to, so what do I know?) in a very dynamic way - there's energy there. I don't think there is any photography of London or England that encompasses the city/country in anything like as satisfying a manner.

Perhaps that's because there is so much about photography that avoids the big picture, the basic truisms of life. There is little real imagery of childhood that conveys what it is to be a child with any depth - though Klein hits the spot. That is why I photograph my daughter, because photographing her involves a huge theme that is close to home and enables my photographic work to my family than it would be. It's a labour of love in other words.

A lot of people photograph their children for similar reasons as me. But what about other things? People say everything has been done, but it hasn't. I featured a football ticket a couple of posts ago; where is the convincing photography that conveys either what it is like to support a team or what it is like to play for a team. There isn't any. Or how about migration? Books like New Londoners or Promised Land provide a nice perspective to it, but how about something that has a sense of purpose and place, of being and not being in a place.

I think photography has really limited itself in what it can photograph, what it is permissible or cool or hip to shoot. We have endless images of flyovers and water towers, endless cliched portrayals of the homeless or addicted, but what about images that show what school is like or motherhood or commuting, that get under the skin and have the feeling and emotion that accompany all those things.

At the same time, I also think that people will loosen up in the coming year, and that new subjects and ways of portraying them will open up. Pleasing the editorial, art or commercial markets doesn't make so much sense if there is no light at the end of the tunnel. People will either stop shooting altogether or start shooting what they really want - whatever that might be.

not quite the same in photography, so why not


Mark Page said...

Great post Colin you have made a very timely nail head hitting post. As you have said your work on Izzy is personnel, it is a longterm labour of love and although I'm sure that one day you hope that it will take on a life of it's own and maybe start paying it's keep, this was not the original motivation. Too many college's have that Business studies moduel to them, the idea of doing a Eugene Smith is so out of keeping these days. The main concern with many is to get that Gallery rep, that first book deal even that first self-published book. Thats why I have so much fun doing the Cliches posts!There's just so much material!
Who knows though perhaps there are dozens of photographers out there beavering away on the "Big Picture" projects, but have just not finished them.

colin pantall said...

It's starting the big picture thing and then finishing it - and then it has to be good and not a big rambling mess! That's what's difficult!