Thursday, June 18, 2020

Whither Humanism

I have been wrestling with these ideas for a while now, and I am not at all sure how this is going to come out. Let's see!

In something like the first half of the 20th century, a great of deal of Serious Photography centered around a kind of humanist idea. People were photographed with sympathy, yes, but more importantly as the heros of their own stories (I stole this idea from John Berger, who said it of the works of Michelangelo and L├ęger.) Hero might be too strong of a word, sometimes I suppose people were the villains of the story, or possibly even supporting characters. Whatever the role, it would be anyways eligible for an Academy Award.

Their story was not always an uplifting one, and not every person was inherently heroic, but underlying the whole was the idea that the people mattered, as themselves. The photo might be critical of the subject, but was rarely dismissive.

In contrast, in today's Most Serious Photos, the people are dismissed. Every Alec Soth photo, if it even contains a person, is of someone who might as well appear in the movie credits way down at the bottom of the crawl as Hooker #4 or simply Henchman or Man in Bar. I might have this wrong, but I feel like it all starts somewhere in the general area of New Topographics. That work is built around some notion of the sheer venality of the works of humanity, the idea that people are basically stupid and wrong, that their works are naught but stupid, venal, damage.

I don't mean to suggest that we oughtn't to criticize, we should. But criticism is not the same thing as an endless drumbeat of "look how stupid, how venal, how ugly" which seems to characterize much of the more serious contemporary photography.

I spend, as regular readers may know, a certain amount of time examining work from other continents, searching for that which isn't "white gaze." It occurs to me, grumbling in my interior monologue about all this, that much of what characterizes, say, African Gaze is not so much a distinctly African vibe but rather a return to basic humanism. Someone promotes an African photographer and shows us some work, and comments that this is what happens when you let Africans photograph Africa and send the white boys home; what I see is a return to the 1940s. Africans, under the lens of Africa, are permitted to enjoy a range of emotion, and to be the heroes and villains of their own stories.

Certainly they are also not depicted merely as victims, but more to my point even when they are victims, they're not Flood Victim #17 way way down in the list of credits. Even if she is a flood victim, she has a name, she has personality, one imagines indeed a whole story arc might be associated with her.

I consider it possible that part of what we see here is that the white photographer is not permitted to take the humanist photographs. When this white male colonialist comes home, his editor throws all those humanist frames out. Those are un-serious, unworthy. The modern photograph renders people (yes, especially brown people) as ciphers, as archetypes, as anything but fully formed people. And so what we get to see is a bunch of anti-humanist photographs when our Hemingway stand-in returns from Asia. The Asian photographer is, in some sense, permitted to take the humanist photos. In a sense, arguably, we name humanism "non-white gaze" and claim that white people cannot, or won't, do it.

I cannot help but speculate that there might be in here somewhere an unhealthy vein of colonialist thinking smuggled in. Are we somehow permitting African photographers to take humanist photographs because, well, they're just Africans. They have not yet reached our exalted level of miserable anti-humanism, so we can applaud their primitive humanist approach. For now.

Probably a bit tinfoil-hat but the thought does follow more or less logically, and I do like making hats.

Of course, out here in the hinterlands of the greater West, we also have these humanist pictures. They are not taken very seriously. My children are the heroes of their lives when I photograph them, but nobody wants to exhibit a hall of enormous prints of my kid snaps. Pictures of happy people, or people who are not essentially ciphers, or types, are unlikely to go anywhere, out here in the West. There's a large community of very competent amateurs who take ruthlessly heroic photographs of architecture, celebrating the works of humanity. Galleries and museums, naturally, are the opposite of interested.

There are, of course, exceptions. Sometimes even the gloomiest MFA student is somehow unable to suck all the life out of their subject. Sometimes an artist of sufficient stature to survive the hit can slip a few pictures of living people in here and there. Mostly, though, the more serious you get, the more the people resemble animated corpses, and the more the works of humanity resemble a post-Apocalyptic hellscape.

It is truly just fashion.

These is much to love in this world. There are many people to love, or to hate, or to admire. There are places one might stand in ones mind, places from which humanity and its works do not look quite so venal, so stupid, so vain. There is much criticism which could be done using actual three-dimensional people, and much praise as well. Not everything need be humanistic, but we could certainly stand to bring a bit of it back, here in our gloomy West.

We seem, here, to have fallen down a kind of narrow well of theory in which complaint stands in for criticism, and all else had been drowned in the chilly waters.


  1. I recently watched a couple films about Gene Smith. Talk about humanist photography! I'm tempted to theorize that it's a matter of patience and time. Humanistic photos come from taking time to blend in and maybe get a little bit involved but not too much. Those gray academic art photos come from aimlessly walking empty streets. Believe me, I know.

  2. "the idea that people are basically stupid and wrong, that their works are naught but stupid, venal, damage."

    Yet, here we are...

    Anyhoo, the pearl-clutching set is going after some brilliant and powerful work by Bruce Gilden, published in a piece in Vanity Fair about Trump rallies. I'm not particularly a fan of of BG, for example I find his sidewalk ambush work is mainly repugnant, but in this case the shoe fits perfectly.

    1. That's some world class propaganda! The photography in it is something else, like a fun house mirror laser focused on ugly. It perfectly suits the writing and the subject.

    2. Indeed, the pearl clutchers are all "Gilden is so bad" which misses the point. The point is that Gilden will bring back a freak show, with 100% reliability.

      If you want a bunch of people photographed to look like weirdos, idiots, and freaks, send Gilden. That's not actually... journalism, though.

    3. There's a precedent which a certain, pearl-clutching expat German ought to have picked up on. But noooo.