the following is an exchange that originally took place on Facebook on my “timeline” purely as the result of my posting a link (which appears first) to an opinion piece by teju cole, nytimes photography critic, novelist, new yorker magazine writer and columnist, and self-styled photographer. this ended up as a dialog, the latest of many that have occurred over the years, with me and my very good friend paul naecker, an architect and consultant currently based in los angeles. i thought it, the dialog, spontaneous and admittedly off-the-cuff ended up with a kind of validity and some might even find it of value. in all events, as it turned out, paul and i independently concluded it deserved better than facebook.
The shot by René Burri [in this New York Times piece] is the inevitable iconic image. I’ve long since admired it (even used it in a seminar I taught on architectural photography five years ago). It is, indeed, a memorable and evocative, if not a haunting, image. But I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would be motivated to replicate in any way a photo taken by another photographer. I never have. I never will.
[Paul Naecker]: H thanks for sharing this. Tejo [sic] Cole’s past work strikes one as fairly rigorous (but not w/o controversy.) This seems more a journey of discovery than imitation.
Seems more a journey of ginning up something to write about for pay. I can’t argue with that.
Clearly he wasn’t pretending to replicate Burri’s vision. Nevertheless, I wish he hadn’t even printed the one lousy shot he got (with color film, the wrong lens, on an overcast day…).
What would be even more interesting is what is evinced when comparing this with another iconic shot, speaking to the ethos of the modernist sensibility and the impact on the urban milieu in the 20th century. Shot almost exactly 50 years earlier in New York, the precursor to the international city São Paolo became:
[Paul Naecker]: The shoulders of giants eh? I prefer to follow Cole’s limited but still intriguing premise. Don’t know much about him as a photographer. But since he self-identifies as one I guess your critique is fair game.
I still believe that Barthes was closer to it, as you would no doubt suppose I would, than this premise of the “oneiric possibilities” of street photography, which is validated by that most inarticulate of men, Garry Winogrand, with his pseudo mystical claptrap about “transformation.” Garry should mainly have kept his mouth shut.
Barthes said the photograph is “a message without a code.” Not the same thing. And what Cole wants to take for dream imagery—the context for which exists, as it does for all of us, only in his own consciousness—really has more to do I suppose with contemplating the notion of the substance of a shadow. Stand still long enough and your image is recorded. Keep moving and you disappear. But this is explained by science, not metaphysics. Barthes said what a photograph tells us about its subject, no more no less, is that it existed. Period.
[Paul Naecker] : Period?
I think Cole’s position is less epistemological and more polemical. His insights aren’t really about the capacity of photography to record but rather
much more about some inference or field of memory. More writer than photographer kind of stuff. I like his lied now that I read some of his stuff. Surprised you are so negative about his world view. Apparently the guy is a Times photography critic?Interesting given his anti-colonialist writings. Most of these ‘street’ photographers don’t have much of a political space in their work right?
I was sure you (or someone, but then, who? I really kid myself sometimes…) would take me to task for seeking a differentiation in Cole’s characterization and Barthes’s famous definition. I mean, what is a dream, after all, but “a message without a code?” But then a photograph is not a dream, it merely seems at times to work the same way.
Cole is, in fact, I think, at least in his critical inquiries and analyses in The New Yorker, largely on an epistemological hunt. There are times, however, when I think that not all such inquiries, especially if they are declarations in and of themselves of a particular position against received wisdom, are polemical. I found myself agreeing with his words after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations. They were, if anything, anti-polemic.
As for his being a photographer, I haven’t seen much of his work. I thought in this day and age it’s safe for everyone to say he or she is a photographer. It’s inescapable. However, as more than one person (usually it’s a photographer who does it for a living, however meagerly; or possibly for the mere love of finding expression in the medium) has pointed out, because someone can honestly be called a photographer doesn’t necessarily grant that their work is any good. It’s a safe bet they’re not, but in this country at least, it’s almost as easy to get a gun, whose ownership should be licensed, as it is to get a camera. Plato didn’t want to exclude poets from his utopia because they were lousy poets, but because they lie. Merit has its rewards, but it shouldn’t be the foundation of a license. So, Cole is a photographer. Good on him.
But I wasn’t, in the original instance, responding to his picture taking capabilities, but to the impulse, however constrained, to track down the provenance (quite literally) of a famous photograph. We both responded to it, the photo, in what I am sure is an ultimately indistinguishable way. I called it an icon. Doubtless that’s how he views it. Yet (and not to make my favored bugaboo, invidious comparisons)I would never go on the search he did—maybe I’m just envious of his world-beating travel opportunities, which he seems to take mainly for the chance to write contextually about the venue for other purposes.
Cole, as a critic of photography, was particularly good about Saul Leiter, another unsung genius. I love Saul Leiter. And I think so does Cole. I suspect you, Paul, would also. So no argument there either.
No, yet again, I think you are reading heat in my words where, at best, there is merely an attempt at cold fusion—a safe sustainable source of critical energy, harming no one, and maybe providing some light. Of course it could be said that’s all Cole was trying to do. But I still think I’m free to question, that is, to be dubious, of his exertions, at least in their manifestation in this NYTimes article. Now, all I have to do is wait for Steve [Lipsey], the champion of all things Winogrand, to chime in about how he (the Wino-man) and Barthes also agree, for what, indeed, is a photograph that is successfully transformational—I think he meant transformative, but then I’m never quiet about how inarticulate the big lug couldn’t help but be; also, of course, I’m talking about the viewer fo the photo, and I’m simply not sure, though I can guess, that Garry meant the subject—he always speaks of taking photos for the mere purpose of seeing how something looks having been photographed, until in fact he had transformed himself into a picture taking machine—is a photograph that contains a message without a code. To that I can only say, and then I have to shut up, because this could be a book, that I can only speak for myself and my relationship to my own photographic process. And this will have to be taken on faith, because no one can dispute it, and that is, before even putting a camera to my eye, in most instances (and all photos are instances, in at least two senses), I do put it to my eye because I have “seen” a photograph and I want to attempt to capture it. If I were a painter, I am sure it wouldn’t be any different. Cole talks about his pleasure at discovering that Leiter was also a painter, and quite familiar with his contemporaries who were painters (of the same generation: Rothko, etc.). Cartier-Bresson famously started out as a man who simply made drawings (and returned to doing so, when he “retired” from picture-taking) who said that a camera was simply a much more efficient way of doing the same thing.
Perhaps it’s like capturing magic in a bottle, many many times. But once caught, it’s done (that’s all I meant by “period,” not that that’s the end to what can be said—obviously). And in Cole’s case, if he wanted to beat down São Paolo finding the vantage Burri had when capturing his bit of magic, more power to him. I’m not interested.