Recently by James Polchin:

But did the people of India really wish to be photographed?

“Whatever person you decide to photograph,” Antonino Paraggi says in Italo Calvino’s 1955 short story, Adventures of a Photographer, “you must go on photographing it always, exclusively, at every hour of the day and night.” He adds, “Photography has a meaning only if it exhausts all possible images.” Antonino becomes an amateur photographer obsessed with documenting almost every moment of his life. When he begins to date the lovely Bice, this obsession becomes even more acute as he turns his lens upon her every move from surveillance shots along street corners to private moments waking up in bed.

James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.

Looking at looking

A few years ago, the journalist Janet Malcolm interviewed the German artist Thomas Struth in Dusseldorf. She accompanied him to a nearby factory where he photographed industrial machines. Malcolm watched from a distance as Struth worked at his meticulous and time-consuming process. At one point in this visit, Struth discussed the work and influence of Bernd and Hilla Bechers, his photography instructors at the Dusseldorf Academy where he studied art in the 1970s. The Bechers produced a huge collection of now iconic black and white photographs of water towers, coal burners, blast furnaces and factory facades gathered from the industrial landscapes of the Rurh valley near Bernd’s childhood home. The work spans nearly three decades beginning in the late 1950s. What they produced were cool and crisp images, repetitive in composition, and nearly hypnotic when viewed together. The lighting is always overcast to avoid shadows. The distance between camera and… More…

Performance art or pointless?

In the spring of 1914, Mary Wood entered the Royal Academy of Art’s summer exhibition with her shawl and a meat cleaver. Wood, described by news reports as a woman of “distinctively peaceable appearance,” stood in front of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of the writer Henry James, took out her cleaver, and hacked the work with three quick swings, shouting, “Votes for women!” This is how the Sun newspaper reported what happened next:

The visitors to the gallery turned suddenly in the direction from which the shout came but were too late to prevent the mischief. They saw a middle-aged woman hacking the picture with a cleaver. The first jab broke the glass and cut the canvas. The second blow damaged the canvas still further, and although the woman was then seized by a detective, she succeeded in delivering a third blow.

Such “mischief” was decried in press reports, even… More…

Alexandre Falguière (c.1875)

Fifty years ago a show of male nude art at a small gallery in Long Island, New York provoked the confusion and disdain of the critics. The poet and art critic John Ashbery complained in New York Magazine, “Nude women seem to be in their natural state; men, for some reason, merely look undressed.” (Ashbery’s concern here might have been masking his own homosexuality.) In a more sympathetic response, Vicky Goldberg noted that the homoeroticism that many of the works provoked cast such art “from its traditions and in search of some niche to call its home.” But it was Gene Thompson at the New York Times who pointed to the deeper concerns of this show when he wrote, “there is something disconcerting about the site of a man’s naked body being presented as a sexual object.” We have thankfully moved beyond such acute prejudices. But even today looking at… More…

Uwaki no so (Fancy-free type) from the series Fujin sogaku juttai (Ten Types in the Physiognomic Study of Women), c. 1792 - 1793.

In the autumn of 1859, American journalist and businessman Francis Hall wandered the shops of Yokohama, Japan. Hall had just arrived in the city, five years after Commodore Perry forced a trade treaty on the country, opening ports to American ships under threat of naval attack, and ending a centuries-long isolation of Japan to most foreigners. In his journal, Hall recorded an encounter in one shop where the owner and his wife pulled out a number of boxes that contained carefully wrapped books “full of vile pictures executed in the best style of Japanese art.” He continued:

[The shop owner] opened the books at the pictures, and the wife sat down with us and began to ‘tell me’ what beautiful books they were. This was done apparently without a thought of anything low or degrading commensurate with the transaction. I presume I was the only one whose modesty could have… More…

Julia Margaret Cameron, c. 1866

In Camera Lucida, his mediation on the history and nature of photographs, Roland Barthes wonders about the medium’s “essential feature” that distinguishes it from “the community of images,” from paintings, drawings, or etchings, for example. Barthes writes:

To see oneself (differently from in a mirror): on the scale of History, this action is recent, the painted, drawn, or miniaturized portrait having been, until the spread of Photography, a limited possession, intended moreover to advertise a social and financial status — and in any case, a painted portrait, however close the resemblance. . . is not a photograph. Odd that no one has thought of the disturbance (to civilization) which this new action causes.

I’ve always been struck by this word “disturbance” Barthes uses to describe those early encounters with photographic portraits. The word evokes not only a cultural ripple in the history of image making, but also conjures a psychology of… More…

Walker Evans, 1932

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Walker Evans book American Photographs. The collection of 87 images, selected by Walker himself from the larger exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in the fall of 1938, established him as a serious chronicler of the American scene as well as a skillful and lyrical photographer. This year, the museum has reissued “American Photographs” and has mounted a slim show of images from the original exhibition.


“Walker Evans American Photographs” and “American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe” The Museum of Modern Art, New York Through January 26, 2014.

Evans’ photographs are so often just fragments of a scene, capturing moments of quiet, abandoned decay. We encounter a heap of model-Ts rusting in the field, deteriorating movie posters, the actors’ peeling faces revealing the weathered walls underneath, a lumpy and… More…

Humphrey Spender, (1937-1938)

“The masses are always the other, that we do not know, and can not know,” wrote British critic Raymond Williams in the 1950s just as terms like “mass culture” and “mass entertainment” were increasingly common in Britain and America. For me the term mass evokes as much the behaviors of everyday life as the religious ritual carried out with weekly precision through much of my childhood. Indeed, mass has it origins in such gatherings of believers. But as Williams reminds us, beyond the cathedral walls the word mass can be quite slippery. “In our kind of society,” he writes, “we see these others regularly, in their myriad variations; stand, physically, beside them. They are here, and we are here with them. And that we are with them is of course the whole point. To other people, we also are masses. Masses are other people.” For Williams, this distancing intent illuminates… More…

Looking out over Stockport, England

“The great fact of England’s recent culture,” writes curator and art historian T.J. Clark in the catalog to this show, “is how little the landscape and social fabric of industrialism have been allowed to appear in it.” This fact, Clark reminds us, has created a history of English painting that rests on the “cult of the countryside, the comedy of upper-class manners, the dull decencies and resentments of the new middle classes, the lure of London, the grandeur and ambiguity of Empire.”


Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life Tate Britain, London. Through October 20, 2013.

L.S. Lowry’s paintings stand against this history. These canvases offer us a perspective of the industrial landscape dominated by the low eaved houses, brown and ochre hued, set against the towering factory and mill facades, their piercing smokestacks billowing black… More…


The painting is scarred. This is what I thought when I encountered a small work entitled “Two=One” (1947-51), by the Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair. It sits in the third gallery of this show, tucked away as if we were meant to walk past it. The rectangular painting, composed on wood, presents the artist’s decades-long interest in geometrical forms, in surfaces mathematically cut into halves and quarters, but also incorporating the irregularities of curving lines and shapes, the colors balancing in their echoing tones. Like much of Choucair’s work, this is an abstraction that is highly composed.


Saloua Raouda Choucair Tate Modern, London. Through October 20, 2013.

What strikes me about this painting is more its history than its paint. The wood has a large gash in the middle, a nearly square hole as if something… More…