John Edwin Mason on ‘Coke and Controversy’

The following is John Edwin Mason’s response to the post ‘Controversy: Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’

I’m generally sympathetic to Brent Staple’s critique of “Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue” (now, as I was in 1994). He’s right to insist that the book can’t be properly evaluated without situating it within a society and culture that has been shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by racist ideologies and practices. It does seem to me, however, that the general thrust of his argument misses the most essential point.

Yes, it’s a problem that the faces in the book are overwhelmingly black and brown, although the cocaine problem — contra Richard’s self-defense — wasn’t confined to African-American and Latino communities. Drug use by whites may have been hidden — harder to see and to photograph because of the defenses that social class and racial privilege can erect — but it was a major element in the crisis of the mid-90s. Richards (and the writer Edward Barnes, with whom he worked) certainly should have foregrounded this fact. Not to do so was to reinforce ever-prevalent racist stereotypes about who uses illegal drugs and who doesn’t.

©EUGENE RICHARDS

Staples alludes to, but does not develop, a much more important critique when he says that “Photographs can shock and dismay, but are useless to explain such complicated matters as economic decline [which underpinned the demand for drugs].” This is the heart of the matter.

Photographs, as every theorist and most photographers will tell you, are very good at showing us how things look, but very bad at explaining why they look that way. Documentary work, however, must be as much about the “why” as the “how.” Pretty pictures, scorching pictures, gut-wrenching pictures aren’t enough. Context and analysis are just as important. And this is where Richards fails utterly. Or, perhaps, “fails” is the wrong word. He doesn’t even try.

I’m tempted to say that it was rashly irresponsible for Richards to have published the book without attempting to explain the crisis he captured in his images. This was not, after all, an exercise in fine art photography. It’s documentary, and its purpose is to help us to understand the world in which we live.

©EUGENE RICHARDS

Instead, I fear, many readers came (and come) away knowing less about the drug crisis, rather than more. In the absence of analysis and explanation from Richards, many people would have fallen back on ideas already circulating in the culture. A great many — not all — of those notions would have been deeply racist.

It’s not so much that Richards’ images are decontextualized, it’s that their context would too often have been America’s reflexively racist culture, rather than its history and political-economy. As a result, the photos reinforce, rather than undermine, stereotypes of black and Latino depravity and criminality.

– John Edwin Mason

Erik Palmer on the Frank/Avedon Connection

Erik Palmer, creative director of Vico Collective and teacher of communication theory at Portland State added another great comment, this time to Wayne’s personal observation.

As the end of the month draws near, I think it is also worth reflecting further on the creative and personal connections between Avedon and Robert Frank. As Wayne mentions, and as best narrated in Jane Livingstone’s book on the New York School, Avedon and Frank both worked for and studied with Brodovitch in the 1940s and 50s, although Avedon certainly had a closer relationship with the mentor.

As I was working on my dissertation, I spent a lot of time paging through old bound issues of Harper’s Bazaar in my university library, and I found a lot of product still lifes and other commercially motivated images bylined to Frank.

But I think it is most interesting to consider the relationship between The Americans and Avedon’s In The American West. Although the approach to photography of the two books could hardly be more visually distinct, I believe that Avedon set out to put his own mark on the kind of photographic grand tour that Frank originally perfected.

'June Leaf' ©RICHARD AVEDON

Both explored the west and sought to tell its story. And both told a controversial story of the failure of American ideals. Both were criticized for the perceived ugliness of their vision. Avedon photographed Frank and his wife (June Leaf, in what I think is a hidden gem among Avedon’s white background portraits) in the late 70s, and I suspect that their encounter was fresh on Avedon’s mind when he set out on his Western project.

Erik Palmer

Erik Palmer on Avedon’s ‘Observations’

Erik Palmer, creative director of Vico Collective and teacher of communication theory at Portland State, offered this great comment to Wayne Ford’s synopsis yesterday that we thought was deserving of it’s own post.

I own a battered copy of Observations, but had not looked at it in a couple of years. So, coming to it with fresh eyes, I think the first thing about the book, which we mostly take for granted, with our contemporary sensibility, is its very magazine-like architecture.

Viewing Observations from 2011, it’s hard to see how provocative it must have been to try to synthesize pop culture and high culture in a formal publication like a book, and in the way that Avedon and Alexey Brodovitch attempted here. Unlike a whole, unified, complete book, we have the joining of a number of not obviously related chapters, like magazine features: The Actors, The Singers, The Swans, The Couples, and so on. And then we have an even greater stylistic and thematic jump to Italy popped into the middle of this book.

Pages 74/75 The Italians ©RICHARD AVEDON 'Observations'

I don’t find the approach completely satisfying or successful. By comparison, I much prefer later Avedon books where he pursued a consistent formal approach, including the American West and Richard Avedon Portraits. These are the books where Avedon most clearly and successfully gives us what I want from him: the sense of confrontation that defined his white background portraiture.

Another important formal element that we see in Observations is the development of Avedon’s strategies of montage: his use of two images on facing pages to make implied claims of similarity or difference between the people pictured. Again, it seems obvious to our 21st-century media-saturated eyes that we should do this as photographic designers, but look for comparison at the techniques of sequencing and montage in The Americans.

Pages 146/147 ©RICHARD AVEDON, 'Observations'

Avedon’s pictures speak to each other and create higher orders of metaphorical meaning in a way distinct from Frank’s sequencing. Consider, for example, page 146, where Avedon joins photographs of Robert Oppenheimer and Martin Darcy in a similar stance, and that helps to inspire Capote’s analysis of appearance and virtue.

Erik Palmer

If you would like to write a guest post on the Photo Book Club, please contact mail@photobookclub.org

For those interested, Erik wrote a doctoral dissertation on Avedon’s work which can be accessed here (requires ProQuest subscription from your library)

The Americans – Your Personal Reminiscence?


©ROBERT FRANK

At The Photo Book Club we are really keen to hear your stories about Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’. After hearing Rich Beaubien’s personal reminiscence last week (link) it got us thinking about how others first came across the book, what it has meant to them, how it has inspired people and even whether people have traveled to some of the sites in the book to recreate images?

As always you can get involved by using the hashtag #photobc in Twitter, or use the comments section below.

Matt Johnston

I first read The Americans in my first year at University, as my fascination with American photography began. It sat in between Lange’s ‘An American Exodus’ and Clark’s ‘Tulsa’ on my reading list and was exactly what i had, unknowingly, been looking for. Through 83 images Frank showed a nation in birth, death, rest and work, captured a time in history, and for me, captured a picture that stretched far beyond its own decade.

There are very few books that keep me as interested and intrigued as The Americans, which I must have read The Americans in part or in full, at least 8 times that same week. I loved noticing different images each time, spotting the humorous touches i had missed previously and analysing the expressions on Frank’s characters and extras, which is how i saw it at the time – as a film of a time passed. I had no reference to America or the 70’s.

As my understanding of the context in which The Americans was produced grew, I lingered longer on images previously ignored. I read more into the sequencing of the images, took note of the locations and developed a better understanding of what Frank had captured. I stopped seeing the America i wanted to see and started to see the America that Frank saw, as a photographer and outsider.

Yet, like Niall commented, I like my first view of the book best. Where I skipped through the cocktail parties, commencement speeches and political rallies (falling in love with the elevator girl on the way) to spend my time looking at the cowboy hats, cigarettes, jukebox’s and endless roads.

Niall McDiarmid

My first copy of this, was a free give away with a subscription to the glossy Condé Nast magazine, Vanity Fair. I still have the battered paperback copy and although I have bought the hardback and the expanded version since, I prefer my first view of the book. Not surprisingly those Vanity Fair’s have long since hit the recycling bin.

The book, to me, transcends the idea of it being a photobook, mostly because it’s so important, it’s not about photography any more. It’s called The Americans and that’s what it is – a book about America and the American people in the 1950s. To me there is no complicated story behind the images, there’s no nuanced discussions on photography techniques or colour reproduction, yet it seems to sum up a whole decade in 83 pictures.

I love the idea that is was considered controversial and derogatory at the time yet today it’s considered a great documentary of America’s most important time. Nice work Robert, your can take your place up there with Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in my book!

Rich Beaubien

I grew up in the US during the 1950’s and came of age during the tumultuous 60’s. Frank’s book documents the middle of the 1950’s and was released just prior to the explosive 1960’s decade. I found my first copy of The Americans in a second-hand bookstore sometime in the early 1970. It was Kerouac’s name on the cover that first enticed me (I was born and raised in Kerouac’s home town), in the end it was the photographs that captured me. I wasn’t sure what I had, but the evocative images struck me from the beginning. The careful sequencing (where I learned how story telling takes shape) and the format, with the blank facing pages, lends itself well to close inspection of each photo. There has always been, at least for me, both a subtleness and strong articulation in the images. Plus they all have some sort of interesting angle and often carry some humor. When looking at these images I often get transported as an observer back in time to the moment, becoming part of what is happening. These photographs captured the breadth this country as it entered a pivotal decade of the 20th century – the hope, difficulties, feelings, tension, and insecurities.

I guess this became more of a rambling personal reminiscence, than a review. Still, it was inspirational in my own development in that I realized for the first time of the possibilities capturing someone in public. I never saw a photograph the same way again.

Wayne Ford

I first encountered Robert Frankʼs ʻThe Americansʼ as a young graphic design student in
the early 1980s. It wasnʼt a book I had been encouraged to seek out by my photography
lecturer — although he did point me in the direction of many wonderful photographers,
such as Bill Brandt, who continue to inspire me to this day — but a book I discovered by
chance as I browsed the small photography section in the art school library.

As a 16 year-old student my knowledge of America was based upon what I had seen and
read in the newspaper colour supplements, documentaries, and through stereo-typical
television series, but here in this small format book, was a series of gritty black-and-white
photographs that offered me a very different, and unique perspective of America that I had
nor seen encountered before.

Having spent the day looking at the book in the library, and seeking more information on
this unknown (to me at least) Swiss photographer called Robert Frank, I checked the book
out of the library for the maximum period allowed, two brief weeks, which just flew by.

I was rarely without the book, picking it up and browsing the pages as often as I could, and
after two weeks I returned the book to library, only to check it straight out again, a pattern
that I repeated over the next year, each time I returned to the library hoping, no one else
had asked to look at the book.

A year after I first encountered the work of Robert Frank and ʻThe Americansʼ I found a
secondhand copy in a local bookstore, and parted with a not insubstantial amount of my
small student grant, it wasnʼt the first photobook I purchased, but it was the first book of
photography that I purchased whose energy continues to excite me to this day.