We’re cognizant of but normally don’t heed the fact that we’re hostages of fortune. I sometimes think photography was invented as a memory aid to press upon us that unhappy fact. The first batch of images in the Museum of Photographic Arts’ current exhibition, Face to Face, announces that we live through our seven ages and then we stop living through them.
The first blandly colored, identically formatted, serial images by the Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra are of a young Foreign Legion recruit; they track his transition from inert, pimply post-adolescence through the toughening of training and finally into warriorhood. As he changes from civvies to combat camouflage to dress grays, something in him has been morally retooled. His identity, so amorphous in the first photo, is finally fixed. (Legionnaires are required to take a new name: their soldiering is their identity.) The merciless camera declares, when he first appears in uniform, that he’s now officially in harm’s way.
But many images tell us we’re in harm’s way. Mathew Brady’s Civil War officer standing outside his bivouac tent in 1862 may very well have numbered among the 700,000 casualties. A group of British soldiers Roger Fenton photographed in 1855 during the Crimean War lounge about camp as if they’re waiting for a cricket match to start. That war was the first to be photographed, and the men seem composed for propagandistic reasons: her majesty’s government mandated Fenton not to show soldiers getting hurt. Close to those two images is a portrait of Lincoln, whose frown lines look cut with a linoleum knife. And close to Lincoln is the face of a street person Paul Strand photographed in New York in 1916 — his eyes are distressed, pouched, migraine-ish.
Sharing the room with these eroded adults are photos of children either on the brink of everything or already living in trouble, like Aaron Siskind’s gleaming, metallic black-and-white of an encephalitic Harlem boy dressed in his Sunday best and Helen Levitt’s sullen girl holding an Easter lily in a darkened doorway, an image that casts doubt on Easter’s promise of restoration.
Face to Face is billed as a portraiture show, but it’s really a chunky stew of human situations, one of which happens to be the act of sitting for a portrait or being caught on candid camera. There are nudes, genre scenes, faces-in-a-crowd snapshots, and the occasional pop-up surprise like the sublimely goofy image of Richard M. Nixon, well, popping up: he’s leaping straight into the air and looks confused to find himself there. I’m not complaining about the variety. The slam-bang mix showcases the many ways photography bears witness to, and preserves evidence of, human passing. One of those ways is taxonomical, like August Sander’s massive project of recording the multitudinous stations in German life and society during the Weimar years; one doesn’t expect pictures of boxers to be endearing, but Sander’s image is just that. Another way is social reform, like Lewis Hine’s image of a young girl working in a textile mill. Photography, as some of its greatest practitioners have said, is about secrets. Sander inquired into the secrets of national character. Hine forced the industrial world to give up its cruel secrets regarding child labor.
At another level of the social hierarchy, Tina Barney’s large color portraits feature her well-heeled Upper East Side family and friends in their over-decorated apartments. Her Entrance Hall, 1996 features an aging gray-headed dame standing among opulent but boringly unoriginal furnishings. She’s wearing a ruby ring large enough to throw off her balance. She’s rich, American-style, unlike the antiquated gentleman in Patrick Faigenbaum’s Famille Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome, 1987, who poses in a high-ceilinged dining room surrounded by classic busts in niches, beneath a ceiling frescoed with Biblical figures. Among the European aristocracy, what’s left of it, tradition can be an affliction: Signor Boncompagni Ludovisi dangles a cigarette in a holder, like one of Luchino Visconti’s feckless decaying remnants of a vanished time.
Seeing, photography reminds us, isn’t believing, at least not entirely. Nikki S. Lee is the assumed American name of the youngish Korean-born photographer Lee Seung-Hee. She’s an outsider who makes photo-essays of subcultures she infiltrates. Her images pry into yuppie society, say, or skateboarding life, and she inserts herself into the pictures as if she were blended into the scene, but obviously she can “blend” only into a faked or prearranged scene. Her work is sly, insolent, and so choked with ironic turns about identity and artifice that you may feel a headache coming on. In an image from her Hispanic Project, she’s in the middle of a Latino street scene: folks sit on stoops, play cards at a sidewalk table, hang out windows, pop open beers, laugh or sneer or flirt. Also present (of course) is a pit bull. And Lee’s right at the center of things, playing the role of mouthy chica. It’s all real, and it’s all faked. So when I was admiring Lee Friedlander’s portrait of Miles Davis, I didn’t for a second believe the wall label’s assertion that Friedlander “humanized” him. Fat chance. He was human, sure, and a great musician, but anybody familiar with Miles’s personality (through the autobiography dictated to Quincy Troupe or other books about him) knows that he was a master manipulator, fiercely controlled his self-image, had a monster’s sense of his own presence, and would have launched mf-bombs at anybody who talked about humanizing him. What I most like in the picture is that Friedlander makes you see the mark Miles’s work permanently left on his flesh — his embouchure.
So much still photography pursues what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment” that it’s bracing when a photographer like Dijkstra investigates change-in-time. The Boston photographer Nicholas Nixon created his own processual archive between 1975 and 1999. Each year he photographed his wife and her three sisters in the same configuration. We see them changing in time, as individuals and in relation to one another. The images dramatize the energies that jump and flow among siblings. You can fairly guess which sister, from year to year, has had strained relations with another, or which have bonded more closely, or (I don’t know how Nixon works, so I’m speculating) maybe every picture is really a tightly controlled, stage-managed setup.