Monday, February 1, 2010

cross-posted: Denture Shop, Rawalpindi, India, 1946

More stuff cross-posted from Brown Town, where you'll find my blogging energies--such as they are--expending themselves nowadays... This here is best seen there, where the photos have captions.

In 1960, the Sierra Club published an influential book of photographs called This Is the American Earth, co-authored by photographer Ansel Adams and critic Nancy Newhall and featuring 85 black-and-white photographs by Adams and other photographers, accompanied by Newhall's text. A classic of environmentalist literature, the tone is in line with its authors' aestheticized vision of a nonhuman, wild Sublime: nature is good, man bad... sing to America the endangered pristine! And Nature's radical modernity! And don't spell out your town's name on a hillside with rocks!

What resulted was a heavily redacted vision of this American earth--its "thisness" neatly confined to the space between its covers--one in which proto-photoshop techniques were used to maintain artificial boundaries between the designated spheres of nature and culture; the camera's power to index reality sneakily deployed to presage and prescribe it instead, issuing a visual signpost to a utopian, ecological modernity: technologically masterful man in well-planned cities on the one hand; vast stretches of unpeopled (actually, de-peopled) wilderness on the other. Clean. With that in mind, it was perhaps inevitable that India, in This Is the American Earth stands in as a kind of a parable, an emblematic Other to Adams and Newhall's sanitizing eco-moderne.

India appears in one of just two two-page spreads in the book, and its close juxtaposition with the other two-page photograph--which immediately precedes it--is telling: the first consists of an aerial, panoramic photograph of sprawling, dystopian Los Angeles by William Garnett; rows of identical suburban homes proliferate and march into the deadening distance, into the unplanned highway monotony, in what a reviewer in the New York Herald Tribune described as the "shocking revelation of a prison city." Garnett's photograph sets the mood for what follows: Ferenc Berko's own aerial overhead, this one of pilgrims bathing in the river Ganges. The implication is clear, albeit strained: this is not the American earth, this is the nightmare vision of overcrowded unchecked human sprawl, the dangerous outcome of "reckless breeding," if we aren't careful this is where we're headed. (Such a tour de force, scaring the suburbanites like this with Hindus!) Newhall and Adams offer up India as a racially coded encapsulation of their worst fears, as a call to arms for the protection of the American landscape (from people) and as a poignant reminder of its embattled exceptionalism.

If it isn't already an old saying it should be one: beware storyteller lest you become a parable. And look, now the master narrators have become the narrated: I reductively offer up Adams and Newhall as exemplars of mid-century Indophobia, and the shoe is on the other foot! So much for the editors, but what about the ambiguous figure of the photographer, Ferenc Berko? He was a Hungarian emigre with close ties to Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus "New Vision," and he was on the move in the 30s and 40s because of the Nazis. I have written elsewhere about the weird and wonderful history of Hungarian travelers in India, their border-crossings and games of identity. Berko was no exception. He was, by all accounts, deeply sympathetic to (his notion of) Indian culture, and must have cringed when he saw a photograph that was intended to capture and express something of his admiration for Hindu spirituality used instead as a harbinger of imminent American doom, as a vehicle for mobilizing the fear of a black, overcrowded planet.

Or not. It was probably a feeling he was much accustomed to. I was reminded of the episode when I was looking through the photographs from a mid-century retrospective of Berko's black-and-white work at the Gitterman Gallery in New York last month. There are many highly modernist, intimate--and frankly erotic--nude shots of his wife Mirte, some of them proto-sexo-psychedelic trip material. Others revel in the modernist fascination with the built landscape, shot with a sharp, hard-edged clarity that points on the one hand back to Moholy-Nagy's influence, and forward to the post-Independence nationalist modernity immortalized in Corbu's design for Chandigarh. There is photogrammatic abstraction and photojournalese and everything in between. Urchins pee in a Bombay "suburb's" gutter. A crowd forms on Chowpatty Beach; seen from above, the people dissolve into a vertiginous horde, threateningly faceless, eddying and swirling together until they, too, become material for a kind of restless, slumdog abstraction. Seeing these disparate photographic genres side by side in Berko's work from India brings a somewhat jarring realization that of all of them--the dreamy druggy nudes, the futurist architectural angle shots, and the street scenes--the street scenes alone have the kind of disseminative mobility, the visual portability sufficient to earn them access to the pages of something like This is the American Earth, or in the case of one well-known Rawalpindi street scene, Life magazine.

It is an arresting image, as displayed at Gitterman, at once anatomically surreal and grounded in the gritty Leica-snap effet de reel of the candid shot. We see man surrounded by multiple gigantic simulacra of dental prosthetics, darkly held there in the shadows of a grotesque and grotto-esque cavern of gleaming hungry teeth. It is almost too much. We are ushered into some sort of carnival where the outcome is uncertain. Small is huge. And multiple. The synecdochical logic of "he made it by the skin of his teeth" is monstrously reversed, and the shepherd seems likely to come away shorn. What belongs inside is now outside. He is trapped in a landscape of signs, and none of them pretty: there are paintings of teeth, and sculptures of teeth, and even signs that say "teeth."

This is a photograph with a lot to say, and so it is instructive to see how easily its tangled set of stories is muffled, stifled and stilled by Life's photo editor; blinded in a white surgical light, the carnival is over. It is time for a different kind of spectacle, one with less patience for the shadows. The image has been cropped differently, and the resulting composition reduces the violation of scale that creates such visual energy at the heart of the print at Gitterman. But worse still, the image has been considerably lightened, as though opened up for a more thorough inspection by the magazine's readers, comfortably exotic and extraordinary, well lit if possible: the man turns out to be the shopkeeper's helper, or perhaps a household servant picking up a prescription. The shopkeeper himself peeks out curiously from behind his desk. The whole scene is an unveiling played for laughs, a quickie light drama of perception where the "huge red-and-white grins" are exposed for what they merely are, one more quirky detail of the bazaar. A quick snap, got you and I'm on my way.

the text:
"While passing through the bazaar at Rawalpindi, last stop on his trip from Bombay to Kashmir, India, Photographer Ferenc Berko glimpsed the shop front window shown above. Since all perceptive photographers cut their eyeteeth on the unusual, Berko risked missing his bus to rush back for a second look. He discovered the huge red-and-white grins were not gigantic elephant traps but merely papier-mache blow-ups put there to lure bazaar customers into buying normal-sized dental plates within. Photographer Berko snapped the store teeth, got back to the bus station just by the skin of his own.