Historical photography alters our perception of time. The imaging of nostalgia

PHOTOGRAPHY is an inherently nostalgic medium. Its ability to make fast the fleeting instant surpasses both human sight and human memory. By atomizing reality, photography helps to create the sense that experience is at once fractured and speeded up. In the years following its invention, photography altered the Western understanding of time. Diarists in the 19th century unselfconsciously recorded some of photography's temporal effects: increased longing for the lost moment, the lost place, a distant face.

Interest on the part of fiction writers and scholars in the historiography of family photographs, once thought to be a dull folk art, has grown in the last half decade. At the behest of Alex Harris, energetic director of the Center for Documentary Photography at Duke University in Durham, N.C., some young Southern writers reviewed their family albums, letting the images fructify memory and invention.

The result is truly ``A World Unsuspected,'' a quietly cumulative portrait in words and pictures of growing up in the South, and a persuasive psychohistory of snapshots. One of the writers, Dave Smith, reflects that ``the pictures a family takes of itself ... are only the images of its dream selves. But that dreaming is the truth of the family as sure as the stories given from generation to generation.''

Michael Ignatieff suggests something similar in his compilation of family interviews and photographs called ``The Russian Album.'' He writes that photographs constitute a ``new source of consciousness about the family past.'' Ignatieff, whose father was a diplomat and Cabinet member under Czar Nicholas II, uses photographs from family albums to coax forth the lean, ironic, occasionally tender, often bitter saga of his family's last days in Russia and in exile.

Two books this year took as their topic the national family album.

``Let Us Now Praise Famous Women: Women Photographers for the US Government 1935-1944'' began with Andrea Fisher's question: Why has the work of only two women photographers, Dorothea Lange and Marion Post Wolcott, been taken as emblematic of the depression and war years? In trying to restore the little-known images of other women photographers, Fisher has constructed a series of essays addressing our collective national desire ``for memory, and for a coherence of historical narrative: a dream of uniting all the lost fragments of our past....''

Relatedly, four photographic historians searched the closed stacks of the National Archives for the all-but-lost images commissioned by government agencies other than the Farm Security Administration. ``Official Images'' is more than an effort to reinstate the breadth of New Deal photography. It pictures a nation and a government increasingly reliant on public relations and mass media.

The winner of the International Center for Photography's 1987 Photojournalism Award, ``Below the Line: Living Poor in America,'' is another sort of national family album. Tough - no, tougher - than the FSA photographs, and amplified by 14 first-person narratives written in a husky vernacular, the book records the words and images of Americans in the 1980s who have been diminished by poverty and disease. A short, impassioned afterword by the executive director of the Consumers Union, which sponsored the book, articulates a belief in the efficacy of documentary photography to instigate social change that stretches back to Jacob Riis and ``How the Other Half Lives.''

Like ``Below the Line,'' Joel Sternfeld's ``American Prospects'' roams across the United States. Sternfeld, however, is a chronicler of the middle class. He pictures individuals, especially families, in moments of grace, decisionmaking, despair, and affection. His photography has the compression and texture of the short story. And it is stories that he sees everywhere, stories not so much illustrated as imbued with color. The intricacy of human responsiveness fills his work even when people do not appear. An abandoned freighter, run aground near Homer, Alaska, sullies the view, yet it is lyrical: a maritime catastrophe painted by Renoir.

Similarly, Mark Klett fills his Polaroid images of the deserts of the American Southwest with the human presence. Modernity and eternity, human time and geologic time, get all mixed up in ``Traces of Eden.'' A trekker's shadow darkens the desert rock like an ancient petroglyph. A bullet-riddled saguaro cactus assumes the posture of a megalith. Klett tries to make us conscious of picturemaking by allowing the raw edge of the Polaroid print to show.

Because John Pfahl interposes ``Picture Windows'' between nature and viewer, his work may seem gimmicky. Yet Pfahl is no facile visual punster. His landscape vistas explore the relationship between art theory and photographic practice. In this latest book, Pfahl considers that ``every room is like a gigantic camera forever pointed at the same view.'' Surprisingly, the window frames make his images jump between two- and three-dimensionality, igniting the viewer's sense of seeing.

``A Way of Seeing,'' Helen Levitt's street views of New York City, enriched with an introductory essay by James Agee, is being offered by Duke University Press, along with her more recent ``In the Street.'' An enlarged reprint of the legendary 1965 edition, the additional images only underscore the remarkable vision and unemphatic humanism of the photographer.

Levitt, and the rest of us, are in debt to Henri Cartier-Bresson for the drama and dignity of street photography. In the book-length catalog, ``Henri Cartier-Bresson,'' published to accompany the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Peter Galassi insists that familiarity has bred inattention to the early career of Cartier-Bresson. Rare glimpses of the photographer's early paintings, as well as extensive interview material, help to substantiate Galassi's theory that Cartier-Bresson formed his photographic style under the multivalent influence of Surrealism.

Cartier-Bresson's work is one of the most concentrated and intense artistic productions of this century. Describing his procedures, the photographer wrote: ``I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to `trap' life - to preserve life in the act of living.''

``Above all,'' he said, ``I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of a single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.''

Harold Edgerton's work offers that scintillating sensation of vision, unmetaphoric perhaps, yet mesmerizing and scientifically true. Few images in any medium pack the visual wallop of the stop-action photography developed by this renowned MIT scientist and engineer. ``Stopping Time'' reveals secrets like the glamour of a shattering milk drop, and makes us believe in what we cannot hope to see: the instantaneous phenomena of nature.

Talk about stopping time! Few of us will ever see the great cave at Lascaux, in the Dordogne region of France. Paleolithic art that survived 15,000 years could not withstand the temperature and humidity fluctuations introduced by tourists. The cave was closed in 1963.

``The Cave of Lascaux: The Final Photographs'' is much more than beautiful pictures. It tells the story of paleolithic life, relying on recent theoretical work like that of Andr'e Leroi-Gourhan. The photographs keep faith with the sinuous rolls of the cave's chalk walls, showing, often for the first time, how the art of Lascaux is a three-dimensional hybrid of painting and sculpture.

The calendar year is a problematic unit in which to measure publishing. Nevertheless, the intellectual complexity and diversity of the words and images appearing in 1987 are especially notable.

If any one book can be said to typify the period, it is ``A History of Photography,'' a strong series of essays underscoring the idea that photographic meaning evolves from the private and public use of pictures, not merely from a chronological catalog of artists and technological achievements. Like so many other photography books this year, the new history is carefully and handsomely produced. But it is the seriousness with which all these books take their subject and their audience that is especially welcome.

Mary Warner Marien teaches in the Fine Arts Department at Syracuse University.

Reading List A World Unsuspected: Portraits of Southern Childhood, editor Alex Harris. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press. Published for the Center for Documentary Photography. $16.95.

The Russian Album, by Michael Ignatieff. New York: Viking. Elisabeth Sifton Books. 191 pp. $18.95.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women: Women Photographers for the US Government 1935 to 1944, by Andrea Fisher. London: Pandora. Distributed in US by Methuen. $16.95.

Official Images: New Deal Photography, by Pete Daniel, Merry A. Foresta, Maren Stange, and Sally Stein. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. $24.95.

Below the Line: Living Poor in America, by Eugene Richards. New York: Consumer Reports Books. $32 hardback. $20 paper.

American Prospects: Photographs by Joel Sternfeld, by Joel Sternfeld. New York: Times Books. $40.

Traces of Eden: Travels in the Desert Southwest, by Mark Klett. Boston: David R. Godine. $20.

Picture Windows: Photographs by John Pfahl, by John Pfahl. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. $40.

A Way of Seeing, by Helen Levitt. New York: Horizon Press, 1981. Now distributed by Duke University Press. $27.50.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work, by Peter Galassi. New York: Museum of Modern Art. Distributed by Little, Brown & Co. $35.

Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton, editor Gus Kayafas. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishers. $35.

The Cave of Lascaux: The Final Photographs, by Mario Ruspoli. New York: Harry N. Abrams. $45.

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