Touching Photographs

Touching Photographs

by Margaret Olin

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Photography does more than simply represent the world. It acts in the world, connecting people to form relationships and shaping relationships to create communities. In this beautiful book, Margaret Olin explores photography’s ability to “touch” us through a series of essays that shed new light on photography’s role in the world.

Olin investigates the publication of photographs in mass media and literature, the hanging of exhibitions, the posting of photocopied photographs of lost loved ones in public spaces, and the intense photographic activity of tourists at their destinations. She moves from intimate relationships between viewers and photographs to interactions around larger communities, analyzing how photography affects the way people handle cataclysmic events like 9/11. Along the way, she shows us James VanDerZee’s Harlem funeral portraits, dusts off Roland Barthes’s family album, takes us into Walker Evans and James Agee’s photo-text Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and logs onto online photo albums. With over one hundred illustrations, Touching Photographs is an insightful contribution to the theory of photography, visual studies, and art history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226626468
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/21/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 886,208
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

 Margaret Olin is a senior research scholar in the Divinity School, with joint appointments in the Departments of History of Art and Religious Studies and in the Program in Judaic Studies at Yale University.

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Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-62646-8

Chapter One

"It Is Not Going to Be Easy to Look into Their Eyes"

Privilege of Perception in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men


Through their "indexical" quality, photographs seem to authenticate any text attached to them. The American documentary movement of the 1930s took advantage of this quality, in abundant collaborations between writers and photographers. One of the most interesting and puzzling of these collaborations, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, harnessed photography's indexical character to its potential as a relational object, with results that illuminate the expectations that modernism laid at photography's door, and begin to suggest the disappointment of those expectations.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men began as journalism in 1936, but has never been easy to classify since. Rather than collaborating and interacting, its words and photographs, segregated from each other in the book, seem to talk at the same time, leaving the reader paging back and forth, from one to the other, in an attempt to pull together its social network, which ensnares its authors, the photographer Walker Evans and the writer James Agee; their subjects, southern sharecroppers whose gazes look out from Evans's photographs; and finally the reader, whose eyes meet those gazes and read Agee's text. Today, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is known as a classic of an indefinable genre, the collision, in fact, of two modernist genres, the "documentary" and the artistic photographic text. As a documentary, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men exhorts the reader to participate in, so as to ameliorate, the conditions it describes, while as a work of art it steps back to allow itself to be contemplated. The competition enhances the difference between these two discursive modes, like a discordant marriage whose dynamics is bound to puzzle, and even disturb, the outsider. If I gaze at the book as art, its impertinent documentary nature fixes its eyes on me and demands my attention to the tenant farmers and their plight; but if I examine the book to find out about the farmers, I get lost in Agee's prose and Evans's pictures, and I forget the everyday world outside the book. The tension between these two modes is a central problem in modernist discourse. As I will show in this chapter, the use of photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is fundamental to the way in which this complex experiment in intersubjectivity speaks to that tension.

The transformation from journalism to daunting mixture of documentary and art took twenty-four years. In 1936 Fortune magazine commissioned a story aimed at increasing public awareness of the plight of southern sharecroppers, at the time a fashionable topic. It was part of a series that utilized a widespread documentary genre about the life of the poor, featuring complementary relationships between photographs and text. For two months, the authors traveled in Alabama, living for the most part in Hale County with one of three families whose lives they recorded. Five years later, they finally published their work, not in Fortune, but as an ungainly, almost unsalable book with a text of some 470 pages, accompanied by thirty-one photographs. The "classic" we know today is a second edition that appeared nineteen years after the first, and four years after Agee's death. It included the unaltered text of the first edition, but twice as many photographs and a memoir by Evans. Although the conditions that initiated the project had faded from the public eye, it inspired a new generation of social activists, whose very distance from the 1930s that they idealized helped the book complete its transition from a social document, with faintly exploitative overtones, to a work of documentary art.

The play between the documentary and the artistic aims seems initially to be inscribed in the juxtaposition of images and words. The unadorned photographs of Evans that we encounter, silent and without caption, before the title page of the text, promise unmediated access to gritty reality; the baroque richness of Agee's voluble prose that follows offers fine art. Early on, Agee acknowledges the superiority of photographs over the written word for the documentary purpose: "If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs." Evans's images, however, were celebrated for more than their documentary value; an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art before the book appeared deemed them "poetry." Agee's ornate text resists easy classification as well. "Isn't every human being both a scientist and an artist," he asks, "and in writing of human experience, isn't there a good deal to be said for recognizing the fact and for using both methods?" (242). Accordingly, verses alternate with passages in sociological prose, statistics with impressions. Furthermore, the text presents indices of its own: both actually, in the form of reproductions of handwritten notes from the sharecroppers' family Bible (422–24), and figuratively, in its wish to replace the text accompanying the photographs with "fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement" (13). The text that provides this feast of words rebels against even the obvious classification as a book. According to its preface, it is "a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell" (xvi, original emphasis).

The text's aspiration to the status of non-art, however, combined with its claim of "actuality," only places it within an identifiably modernist tradition that availed itself of well-worn devices of non-art, in a ceaseless, fruitless attempt to evade recognition as art. The complaint that "no matter how strong and vivid it may be, its strength and vividness are not of that order which, in the open air of our actual, personal living, we draw in every time we breathe" (240) resounds throughout the annals of modernism. This attitude was often accompanied by the notion that art continually suffers what Agee calls, in his gendered idiom (also characteristic of modernist discourse), the "emasculation of acceptance" (13). Indeed, Agee's very denial of art ensures that art is on every reader's mind, so that it is almost impossible to view his collaboration with Evans as anything else. Rather than reject art for its impotence, however, he imagines how art might avoid "acceptance" so as to be reenergized. If played on a street corner, the headline is "Beethoven Sonata Held No Disturbance" (449). If one listens to the Seventh Symphony with the volume turned up so high that it hurts, however, Beethoven is subversive (15).

Beethoven's audience can be disturbed only if it voluntarily enters the space of the symphony, not merging with it, but creating a relationship so close it hurts. In order to create an ear-splitting disturbance with his own music, therefore, Agee turned to relationships. If art fails, it is for want of giving us not the taste of the family's food but the relationship that only reality makes possible, a relation demanding the copresence, in time and space, of real people: a self and an Other that relates to the self. Both must be "actual" in a way that authors and those of whom they tell are not: the reader must do art "the simple but total honor of accepting and believing it in the terms in which he accepts and honors breathing, lovemaking, the look of a newspaper, the street he walks through" (240). These things are "actual" not only insofar as they are in our space but insofar as they are in our time, and we attend to them. Even reality does not always elicit such acceptance and "honor." The people about whom Agee writes are made real because they are photographed. If they are made "actual" in the sense of "current," however, it is only because they look at us, and we are here now. They entreat us to participate with them in life. We are, then, justified in regarding the gazes of the tenants in Walker Evans's photographs as part of an artful construction of selves to which a viewing subject can attend and thereby make real. As we shall see, the device of the gaze, by which people seek to relate in everyday life, also knits the strands of Agee's disparate text into a narrative.

If we try to meet the tenants on their own terms, however, we face the same challenge that Agee understood Beethoven to face: to reconcile "actuality" of presence with the (modernist) conditions under which the project became art—an aesthetics that presupposes distance and autonomy. The work hesitates in a state of uneasy aporia, dramatized in a text that repeatedly protests, down to its last sentence, that it is only about to begin. This aporia, which the text vividly attacks and to which it is at the same time blind, is the aporia of would-be activist art throughout modernity. The attempt to uphold the distinction between an engaged life and an art demanding disinterested contemplation, and the attempt to break down that distinction coexisted within modernism from its beginnings. The documentary movement of the 1930s was only one of a long line of such attempts to unite art and life, ranging from pseudomonastic societies of artists seeking to translate hermetic art into hermetic lives, to more-public ministries that tried to combine the refined aesthetics of hermetic art and the social needs of housing projects and city planning, and to theorists who tried to find a social function for an art submerged in the critical investigation of its own medium. The attempt to establish a direct relationship between art and its beholder (and to avoid it) was an important theme throughout much of this history. And, as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men strikingly demonstrates, hermetic art is not recruited for social activism without a struggle.

Its major recruiting device is the figure of the returned gaze. The gaze largely replaced the discourse of touch versus vision in order to grapple with the work of art outside the hermetic isolation to which it had been consigned in most discourses of opticality. More recent literature has tended to construe the notion of the gaze negatively: To look at someone is an act of aggression. To "stare down" a challenger is to subjugate that person to oneself. For feminists, that element of subordination in the gaze has usually been sexual, as suggested in Barbara Kruger's famous poster-like images, inscribed so as to bear witness to the violence of looking, with statements such as "Your gaze hits the side of my face." Returned "subordination" by the gaze can also be depicted as a decidedly nonfeminist sexual challenge, as in Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, or earlier, in Regnault's Salome. Michael Fried has famously drawn attention to the issue through his interpretation of "absorption," the refusal to acknowledge the presence of a beholder, as a source of independence and agency.

Yet the concept of the gaze had positive ramifications as well. By placing the work of art in the same psychological space with the beholder, the gaze could be used as a way of sidestepping epistemological problems in order to establish the reality of a work of art. At the turn of the century, the transfixing gazes of expressionist work added validity to a style that could not depend on verisimilitude. Put another way, the work of art that grants attention to its beholder insists, in the exercise of its own freedom, that it exists and therefore that its artistic representation is also valid. It urges the viewer to believe that portrayed people have real existence, and are not figments of the viewer's imagination. This possibility troubled thinkers in the early twentieth century, when subjective theories of perception seemed to pose the threat of perceptual and ethical relativism. The association of attention with freedom and the conviction of one's own existence helped make the strategy theoretically compelling.

Finally, the gaze could operate as a figure for the direct participation or implication of the beholder. By acknowledging the existence of others, we participate with them in a relationship. If the "realism" of the work persuades the reader-beholders of the reality of the people, the gaze guarantees that the intention of the work is to inaugurate a relationship between the reader and the subjects, much as it would happen in real life. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men seeks to engage this type of gaze, representative of a communal social ideal.

Yet both text and photographs are inscribed in an irresolvable conflict between the shared gaze and the isolated vision demanded by the aesthetics of autonomy. The artistic vision of Evans and Agee stands to the gaze of their documented subjects in an equivocal relation that threatens to undermine the relationship in which we as readers are asked to participate. As Agee carefully constructs his concept of the shared respectful gaze, he repeatedly engages other, more ethically ambiguous permutations of the concept. In what follows, I shall treat the "gaze" and the "vision" separately, before exploring the obstacles to their reconciliation. This attempted reconciliation turns on, and is emblematic of, the outcome of the struggle between the pivotal function of photography as a means for establishing relationships and the effort to subsume photography into a "modernist" aesthetic.


There is no way of taking the heart and the intelligence by the hair and of wresting it to its feet, and of making it look this terrific thing in the eyes: which are such gentle eyes: you may meet them, with all the summoning of heart you have, in the photograph in this volume of the young woman with black hair. (321)

The passage gathers together three people. The writer, in lieu of taking the reader's heart "by the hair," exhorts "you" to direct your gaze toward a photographed person. Although ambiguous, the reference is most likely to the third photograph in the book, of "Annie Mae Gudger," already facing "you" for the introduction. Similar strategies, used throughout the text, serve to implicate the direct, second-person address in the act of beholding.

Often, as here, the triple direct address is accompanied by a warning: you are not going to be able to look "this terrific thing in the eyes" unless you do so "with all the summoning of heart you have." In "Colon," Agee's exhortation to the reader to participate cooperatively, he speaks of the difficulties facing "one who sets himself to look at all earnestly, at all in purpose toward truth, into the living eyes of a human life" (99). Knowledge can only come through direct address and the ability to look the truth in the eyes—but it is almost impossible to look the truth in the eyes. The means of overcoming the obstacles to communication, direct address in words or looks, are themselves fraught with obstacles.

Evans behind his camera and Agee behind his notebook face the tenants directly. They point us toward their images and words so that we may face the tenants, too. Twin epigraphs to the book prepare for this three-way relationship, and for the very different tones in which the text alternately addresses the reader and the sharecroppers. A quotation from King Lear turns from "poor naked wretches" to address the readers dismissively as "pomp"; one from The Communist Manifesto addresses the subjects of the book as the "workers of the world" (xviii–xix). References to theater, a cast of characters, and an "intermission" signal the constant changes in address everywhere in the text, as Agee shifts his focus from one character to another: from the reader, who becomes almost an embattled character in the drama, and whom Agee usually conceives sarcastically or bitterly (in one passage he laments his "inability to blow out the brains with [his text] of you who take what it is talking of lightly, or not seriously enough" [307]), to the tenants, whom he addresses respectfully one by one.

Such passages point to a complex set of expectations associated with the direct, returned gaze. To share a gaze with Annie Mae is to establish a relationship with her. The relationship established through the gaze has an epistemological meaning: to look Annie Mae in the eyes is to look truth in the eyes. There is, however, a threatening element in such a gaze as well. It is threatening to face the truth. It may also be threatening to establish a relationship.


Excerpted from Touching PHOTOGRAPHS by MARGARET OLIN Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Tactile Looking
     1  “It Is Not Going to Be Easy to Look into Their Eyes”: Privilege of Perception in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
     2  Roland Barthes’s “Mistaken” Identification
     3  “From One Dark Shore to the Other”: The Epiphany of the Image in Hugo von Hofmannsthal and W. G. Sebald
     4  Putting Down Photographic Roots in Harlem: James VanDerZee
     5  Looking through Their Eyes: Photographic Empowerment
     6  Five Stories of 9/11
Epilogue: Bad Pictures  

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