Regarding the Pain of Others

Art Semantics
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 26 2003 3:24 PM

Regarding the Pain of Others


Dear Luc:


I'm not especially concerned that a photograph be unmediated; I'm not even sure that there is such a thing. The World Trade Center picture I cited was taken by a professional, and I can certainly think of other powerful pictures—some of violence, some not—that were taken by men and women who are absolutely conscious of what they were doing. This one, for example, by William Klein (which may even, from what I understand, have been posed). It's not naiveté that I'm after; it's exactly the kinds of "apparently incidental" details you mention, or an undertone that can be hard to explicitly describe, or an unexpected way of paying attention. Very often, indeed, those details appear on pictures taken by amateurs, and often they're unintended, but of course there are professionals who are somehow attuned to those possibilities, who have an uncanny knack for capturing that level of things—and yes, I do think it's a kind of magic. Robert Frank comes to mind, though he's not a war photographer. There's a kid named Richard Billingham who can do it, too. There are lots of others, and not all of them are so gritty, or spontaneous: The Jeff Wall picture that Sontag praises, "Dead Troops Talk," is wonderful in this regard, and so is his "A Sudden Gust of Wind." Hell, I can think of some fashion photographs that have those kinds of details. My point was just that great photographs of this sort aren't made by straining to make "art"—a vice that, ironically enough, I think the fancier breed of photojournalists are far more susceptible to than most art photographers. The result is what our old friend, the film critic Manny Farber, calls White Elephant art: bloated, overwrought, pompous. I did indeed choose that Time photo precisely because I thought it illustrated those qualities.

I disagree with you strongly when you say "art has nothing to do with taste, and everything to do with depth." I should be careful, here, not to open up a useless debate about what art is, but let me say this: I admire Michael Herr as much as I do any living writer. I've read Dispatches dozens of times. But it's not art; I suspect even Herr doesn't think it's art. I think you're using "art" as a success word, as a sign of achievement, as a synonym for excellence, and I don't use it that way. Art isn't about taste or depth; it's about a very specific way something functions in the world, and that function is generally inimical to journalism, written or photographic. To put it another way: I think you're using "art" as compliment, whereas I tend to use it simply as a taxonomy (albeit one with blurry boundaries). Bad art is still art; great journalism, even immortal journalism, is still journalism (by which I don't mean: merely journalism); and amateur photography that happens to have wonderfully telling details is invaluable. And it's still amateur photography.

Well, as I say, this kind of conversation can be a bit of a dead end: I just wanted to clarify my point by clarifying my terms.

The pictures I chose to mention were cathartic, and perhaps I should have discussed other, more subtle shots that moved me. Mea culpa. But I don't think the pictures in, for example, Without Sanctuary are at all simple; one of the reasons I admire the book is that it raises so many difficult questions about what it means for someone like me (white, Jewish, American, leftist, newly Texan, journalist, aesthete, human) to look at such photographs—questions about how I'm supposed to look, from what perspective, and what I'm supposed to feel, beyond the obvious outrage. A talisman doesn't go straight for the jugular; it's something you use to communicate with your fears and desires.

Yes, we can grow numb, tune out, and probably nothing can guarantee that we won't. Sontag's book is an exploration of that numbness, an attempt to diagnose and perhaps to treat it. Her answer, to the extent she has one, seems to be to regard the ubiquity of photography the way Churchill regarded democracy: Yes, it's terrible, but the alternatives are worse. But I disagree: There aren't too many images in this world. I say bring it on, bring more: more images, more evidence, more arguments. Because you never know what's going to get under your skin, or someone else's, and what works on one may not work on another. They're queer things, photographs; and I still think, after all the explaining is done, there's always a little voodoo left over.

Respectfully, fondly, sincerely,

Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.