Friday 30 October 2009
More about art
" Lewis Hine's 1905 photograph 'Young Russian Jewess at Ellis Island'. For a photographer known for his social documentary work, it's a strange image, with its brooding, intense face and its indistinct, soft-focus background. Ellis Island, which in most photographs appears overrun by people, is empty and still here. The only indication of place is the blurry bars of the fenced walkways through which lines of people were processed in the Great Hall. This image of such a private and solitary moment in the packed bustle of Ellis Island is a document of an anomaly in the place and in the work of Hine. It's not about social conditions. It's about the soul. A woman with a scarf or shawl pushed back, just far enough to show her dark hair, parted in the middle and not recently washed, looks at something past the camera, neither intimidated nor engaged by it. Only her cloth coat with its assymetrical closure places her as being from the far eastern fringes of Europe. Up close she is nearly beautiful, young and somehow tender, but from further away or with a smaller or darker reproduction, you can see the skull in the set face of this emigrant, as though through hunger, exhaustion, fear, she is close to other borders than national ones. Above her shadowed eye sockets, her forehead gleams as white as the sky behind her. It's as though we can see through it to the same distant pallor that is the sky, or as though both are only absences on the photographic paper. "
Another piece of writing that impresses and thrills me: it's a couple of years since I read Rebecca Solnit's book and this description came vividly and almost entire into my mind as I continued to think about how to write about art.
This is very different from Drusilla Modjeska's piece. There is no interweaving of the writer's immediate response with an overt political viewpoint, although the image is briefly but tellingly contextualised within Lewis Hine's body of work and within the seminal history of Ellis Island. It's just one extract from a brief, dense book where the photo is evoked as part of a story of the writer's own life, identity and imaginings. But this short passage also stands well on its own.
What we get is a deep, dreamy, but pointed entering into the photo, a 'looking back at her' - powerful and specific, though not for a moment overwhelming of the original image. And it's beautiful writing: strong, unexpected simile and a small, satisfying, complete-in-itself narrative arc.
While pondering these things lately, I came across a piece on critical writing by JC Hallman, excerpted from his new book, The Story about the Story. It's the lead item in the latest issue of the estimable Quarterly Conversation, whose editorial takes up the theme. 'Creative criticism' is what they're advocating, 'work that reads the self as closely as it reads the examined text and that is every bit as creative as it is critical'. Not just work that 'reads the text', I would contend: writing about any kind of art is surely at its best when it's 'telling a good story... using the language of metaphor and simile that art itself uses... [occupying] the no-man's land between creative writing and criticism', when it aims to 'communicate something that can't quite be said plainly', to 'convey the enchantment of the... experience'. The enchantment. Yes.