What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Thomas Struth's Pergamon Museum Photographs: Fried v. Schjeldahl

Thomas Struth, "Pergamon Museum 4, Berlin" (2001)

I dislike staged photos. This has nothing to do with absorption and theatricality – two issues that preoccupy Michael Fried, in his Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008). This has to do with reality – the amount of reality in the photo. Peter Schjeldahl says of the Bechers’ photography, “When their approach works, a picture delivers a sense of reality with the directness of a body blow” (“Reality Clicks,” The New Yorker, May 27, 2002). That powerful “sense of reality” is what I look for in a photo. In his book, Fried takes issue with Schjeldahl’s distaste for Thomas Struth’s staged Pergamon Museum photographs. Schjeldahl, in his “Reality Clicks,” writes,

A current show at the Marian Goodman Gallery, in New York, of new work by Struth—large-scale photographs of people at the Pergamon Museum of ancient Near Eastern art and architecture, in Berlin—suggests hubris. After failing to get satisfactory pictures of ordinary museumgoers, Struth brought in a crowd of his own choosing. The pictures are grand and beautiful, but the subtle self-consciousness of the “viewers” proves deadening. There is an ineffable but fatal difference in attitude between people behaving naturally and people behaving naturally for a camera. (I’m confident of this judgment because I felt the off-putting effect of these pictures before learning its cause.)

I agree. Fried criticizes Schjeldahl for failing to appreciate the Pergamon Museum photographs for what they are – “truthful pictures of museumgoers deliberately performing absorption.” But I think it’s Fried who misses the point. He’s so caught up in his absorption theory that he fails to see the obvious. These photos are fiction. For me, fact, not fiction, is what makes great photographs. As Geoff Dyer says, in his wonderful “The Mystery at the Heart of Great Photographs” (The New York Times Magazine, August 30, 2016),

“There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.” The fact that versions of this observation have been attributed to two very different street photographers, Garry Winogrand and Lisette Model, underlines its wisdom and its mystery. It helps explain why attempts to stage photographs — to create fictions — only rarely work as powerfully as the kind of quotations from reality that we get in documentary photographs. Larry Sultan once said he “always thought of a great photograph as if some creature walked into my room; it’s like, how did you get here? ... The more you try to control the world, the less magic you get.” Winogrand had no objection to staging things; it was just that he could never come up with anything as interesting as what was out there in the streets.

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