Shedding light on the art of photography as fictional form and subject in literature

In Visible Light, Photography and the American Writer: 1840-1940, by Carol Shloss. New York: Oxford University Press. 308 pp. $24.95. The last two decades have been extraordinarily good to the world of photography. New photographic galleries and sections of museums attract large audiences for whom other media hold little interest.

In effect, photography has achieved what the art historian Erwin Panofsky thought that film had accomplished: It has ``re-established that dynamic contact between art production and art consumption which is sorely attenuated, if not entirely interrupted, in many other fields of artistic endeavor.''

Yet some persist in wondering why photography is considered an art. That question hasn't aged well; neither has it been put to rest. Photography has been elevated to the status of a museum object and academic subject by exaggerating its formal relationships to painting, or, ironically, by ignoring its resemblances to art. The question of art and photography is now embarrassingly pass'e. The query has become: ``Is photography a fiction, and what kind of fiction has it been?''

As this book chronicles, American writers have depicted photographers and photographic practice from its inception. In Hawthorne's ``The House of the Seven Gables'' (1851), the mysterious daguerreotypist, Holgrave, is an embodiment of the restless epoch. Believing that the ``moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down,'' Holgrave uses a photograph to reveal the crime of the Pyncheons. His sun picture helps to restore light and life.

Image and text were combined early in a disparate variety of American literature. Henry James asked Alvin Langdon Coburn to make soft-focus photographs, instead of engravings, for the frontispieces of the New York edition of his novels. James requested ``optical symbols of echoes, expressions of no particular thing in the text....'' More familiarly, Jacob Riis researched and illustrated ``How the Other Half Lives'' (1890) with photographs. Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell blended word and image in ``You Have Seen Their Faces'' (1937). James Agee and Walker Evans collaborated on ``Let Us Now Praise Famous Men'' (1941), a work in which photography and text were presented independently, that is, not as mutually illustrative. Norman Mailer, an interpreter of aerial photographs in the South Pacific during World War II, used the serene distance of aerial photography as a continuing metaphor for psychic and moral remove in ``The Naked and the Dead'' (1948).

Carol Shloss is best when she reveals the many literary uses of photography. Yet her goal is not exposition, but interpretation in the light of theory. She acknowledges (but does not elaborate) a debt to J"urgen Habermas, although it is the writing of Michel Foucault to which she frequently returns. Because she appeals to critical theory and because her subject has been unexplored, this seems at first to be an important contribution.

Shloss says ``the camera initially set up a series of expectations about the quality and reliability of its own observations'' which seemed to ``suppress subjectivity [and] to avoid the distortions of idiosyncratic judgment....'' However much camera vision may have later found its apologists, she concludes that the artists and writers in her study repeatedly found themselves at ``an impasse.'' She contends that their work increasingly required them to observe others objectively, an act that diminished simple human concern.

Shloss judges that photographic ``issues remain ... reiterative and static.'' She looks for dehumanized vision in a great deal of American photography and prose and locates it almost every period. To expose what she calls a ``dilemma,'' Shloss renders some questionable judgments. For example, Hawthorne's preface to ``The House of the Seven Gables,'' an explanation of the difference between a romance and a novel that does not once mention photography, is construed by Shloss to be the place where ``Hawthorne looked at the question of formal resemblance between photography and literature.'' Overlooking Margaret Bourke-White's photographs of field hospitals, Buchenwald, and the rubble of postwar Germany, Shloss concludes that war had a ``glittering aesthetic quality'' to her. Oddly, Shloss celebrates the derring-do of Robert Capa, whose motto, ``If your pictures aren't good enough, then you aren't close enough,'' fueled the legend of the photographer-as-hero. This myth, which absolves all other behavior for the sake of the product, should have been part of the moral detachment Shloss portrays.

The query, Is photography an art, and what kind of art is it?, has twisted through Western cultural thought and problems of perception, mass culture, and social relations. It involves much more than who gets looked at and who gets to look. The pencil of nature, the mirror with a memory, the art-science of photography, has never been as reductive as its critics.

Mary Warner Marien reviews photography books for the Monitor.

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