Why is it that the most intimate, mysterious performance photographs are of jazz musicians? Maybe because two things get exposed at once: the expressiveness of the body (Mingus knitting his brow, Charlie Parker sweating, Roy Haynes grinning) and the interiority of improvisation. A Roy DeCarava photo of Coltrane shows both but adds, far left in the frame, a wraith that is Elvin Jones’s clouded shape. The gleaming highlighted neck of Trane’s tenor sax runs our gaze from Jones’s ghost to the picture’s darkest part, Coltrane blowing in half-cropped profile, his face like a mask. A random moment caught by the lens? Sure, because that’s what comes naturally to photography. A concentrate of orphic power passing through mortals? Absolutely, because this is a slice of time exposed and sized for its revelatory power.
The photographic image becomes a “picture” the instant when “the flux of changing forms and patterns is sensed to have achieved a balance and clarity and order.” Those are John Szarkowski’s words in his catalog essay for “The Photographer’s Eye,” a foundational exhibition he mounted in 1964 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s also the title of a peculiar exhibition at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. Before I get to the peculiarity, let me get to Szarkowski, who during his 1962–1991 tenure as director of the department of photography at MoMA, curated career-making exhibitions of Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, William Klein, William Eggleston, and other now-canonical photographers. His taste and judgment crafted an official version of modern photographic history the same way MoMA’s first director, Alfred H. Barr, shaped our view of the course of 20th-century painting. Szarkowski’s transparent, unfussy, vernacular style imitated the qualities he most admired in photographs. He was himself a pretty good photographer: by 1958 he’d already published a stately photo-essay on Louis Sullivan’s Chicago architecture and another on Minnesota life and culture that, strange to say, ended up on the New York Times best-seller list. He didn’t entirely give up photography during his many years at the museum, but he produced virtually nothing for public view until he retired, when he picked up where he’d left off.
“The Photographer’s Eye” configured patterns of relatedness among photographs by Paul Strand, W. Eugene Smith, Edward Weston, and other major figures, along with the less exalted, including that ubiquitous snapshooting bumpkin, “Photographer Unknown.” The five sections of Szarkowski’s brief text were a Pentateuch of straight photography: “The Thing Itself,” “The Detail,” “The Frame,” “Time,” and “Vantage Point.” He said things that, though now commonplaces, remind us how and why photography is an art. He says, for instance, that every photograph “describes a discrete parcel of time; this time is always the present.” One section of the exhibition proved how the present could be stretched by long exposures, when “if the subject moved, its multiple image also described a space-time dimension.” Thus, a dog in a Civil War photo appears to have two heads.
In MoPA’s current exhibition, the curator Carol McCusker reconsiders and illustrates Szarkowski’s five categories with images drawn exclusively from the permanent collection. Only a few of the pictures appeared in the original 1964 show, and the connection between Szarkowski’s precepts and the images they direct us to is overconceptualized. That said, McCusker’s eye is so unerring that this doesn’t detract from the quality of what she’s chosen. In the room elucidating “The Thing Itself,” a photo of a chewed-up, corroded War Department license plate rhymes with its adjoining picture of a wrecked ancient typewriter whose few remaining keys look like busted teeth. Next to this rhyming couplet are three pictures of clusters bursting at the seams: scruffy boys brandish (to William Klein) their baseball cards, while the girls with them blow bubbles; Anthony Friedkin’s Four Convicts, Folsom Prison features the hardest guys I saw in Balboa Park that day, complete with Illustrated Man tattoos and attitude to spare: one con wears a zipper scar down his breastbone — heart surgery or knife fight; and a saloon photograph by Michael Smith (American photographers love taprooms) rubs our noses against a New Orleans back-bar shelf choked with a motley line-up of bottles, vintage snaps of tipsy patrons, and a forest of dollar bills Magic Markered with the names and places of origin of those who spent them (“Donald Ridge: Terra Haute, IN”). Each manifests Szarkowski’s claim that “[a photograph’s] most fundamental use and its broadest acceptance has been as a substitute for the thing itself — a simpler, more permanent, more clearly visible version of the plain fact.”
Under the rubric “The Detail,” Szarkowski exhibited pictures of hands belonging to a stout American Legionnaire, a stockade prisoner, a zoo visitor feeding an elephant, a mourner at an Italian shrine, and Jean Cocteau, along with war photos about which he said, “From the reality before him [the photographer] could only choose that part that seemed relevant and consistent; intuitively, he sought and found the significant detail.” Under this category the MoPA show includes DeCarava’s Coltrane picture plus some constellated images of people’s backs. The most comic (and enigmatic) is Joel Meyerowitz’s extreme close-up of a plump, well-dressed man whose neck seems not to belong to his body: it’s just a piggy cylinder connecting hat to coat. “The Detail” includes the strangest image in the show, Eugene de Salignac’s Painters on the Brooklyn Bridge Suspender Cables, October 7, 1914, which depicts workers like insects caught in crosshatched webbing that bells out at us from a distant point, the painters shrinking into the photograph’s depth like figures in a Magritte painting. At first I didn’t know what I was seeing, then I couldn’t tell if it was actual or manipulated. It’s something surreal that’s not surreal, like Terry Etherton’s weird pseudo-diorama shot of fluorescent light (a perfect Ben-Gay green) washing poisonously over gas station pumps.
Szarkowski, as I said, was a photographer, though his images lack the cranky pushiness and hell-bent voracity of work by photographers he championed. McCusker honors him by including five elegant images in her show. She follows his predilections in her own choices and reminds us that while a photograph’s edges constrain an instant’s debris flooding through time and space, it also pressurizes its contents into a stark coherence. Some artists create pressure zones within pressure zones. In 1982, while Times Square was being rehabbed into the mini Las Vegas strip it is today, Jan Staller took a fabulous picture of an abandoned apartment room smeared with bordello reds. We see a worn lounge sofa, a big square wicker basket, a fatigued Christmas tree, and LP albums spread on the floor like a collapsed house of cards. The windows, frames within the picture’s frame, concentrate our attention on their own contents, which are (framed) neon billboards. This feverish image, stuffed with stuff, pressures into existence an insufferable emptiness and soured good cheer. Danny Lyon, who became famous for the best biker series ever made, the 1960s’ Bikeriders, rattles our nerves with different means: he situates us at the near end of a New York subway car in 1979, before the IRT cleaned up its act. The walls and plunging perspective scheme squeeze the contents of the frame, seats packed with the messy variety of New York faces and every surface choked with fat, assaultive graffiti. It’s a coherent image of a city hostage to incoherence.
A few photos offer time stilled and time streaming. We see seasons mocked by long exposures, humans blurred to look like clouds amassing. One uncanny color picture, Birney Imes III’s 1986 Riverside Lounge, issues straight from Friedlander’s, Frank’s, and Evans’s vernacular interiors, especially those abovementioned honky-tonks and bars. Next to a pool table in a garishly lit, keenly detailed room stands a translucent specter of a (very real) patron holding a cue stick, and next to him stands an even ghostlier, barely there doppelgänger. For a different sort of eeriness, see Stephen Shore’s image of a small Montana town. Four people stand around an intersection; the streets look abandoned, as if emptied by an epidemic; store signage teases us to ask who comes or goes. No moving traffic; only one parked vehicle; unoccupied meters up and down the street like trail markers to a long-since-departed band of travelers. It’s as empty an image as can be, yet it’s both fraught with something about to happen and saturated with depletion — a dead town that doesn’t yet know it’s dead.
The Photographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing the Permanent Collection, Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park. Through Sunday, April 27. For additional information, call 619-238-7559.