Going Through a Stage

John Haber
in New York City

Grand Illusions and Staged Photography

Alice Austen and Clear Comfort

Around 1855, well over a century before Cindy Sherman, photographers were playing to the camera. They, too, posed as other than themselves, and they did it with authority.

Louise-Pierre-Théophile Dubois, for one, did it in judge's robes and Roger Fenton with the barrel of a gun. Fenton, who had traveled to the Crimea as European photography's first war correspondent, dressed as a Zouave fighter from Algeria. Neither may be exactly a household name, but in 1895 Edgar Degas inserted himself into a group portrait. Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Still #21 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978)He leans so intently toward a woman at his right that one may forget that he had set up the shot and ordered someone to snap the shutter. Playing along, his two friends look more bored than complicit. And that, too, is a pose.

So all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely selfies? Maybe not, and museums that trot out self-portraits in oil as early selfies are just pandering. The Met, though, sees a hidden history of staged photography with "Grand Illusions," forty photographs from its collection. It does not do all that much to disturb one's notion of photography or the world. Here a staged photograph is just that, no more and no less. It does, though, alert one to the performance—while elsewhere in New York another pioneering photographer, Alice Austen, had her own reasons to play a part.

Footprints and phantoms

Unlike Cindy Sherman herself, "Grand Illusions" does not challenge, in the museum's words, photography's "unmediated relationship to the world," as a "footprint" of objects and light. James Casebere and James Welling, after all, fashion their abstractions from paper and dirt. Yet it pleads for an alternative tradition to portraiture and photojournalism. It includes an actual Eastman Kodak ad, credited to Ralph Bartholomew, Jr., but also Frank Majore's misty ode to Chanel, an artful still life. Of course, it includes one of Sherman's Untitled Film Stills from the late 1970s. In each, the Met argues, "the imaginary is pictured as if it were real."

Maybe, but the imaginary is an elusive place, as art and psychology would be the first to say, and reality is not much better. The curators, Doug Eklund and Beth Saunders, might just as easily have described the prints as the real pictured as the imaginary. They also just happen to include Surrealism's imaginary pictured as the imaginary, with a street scene as looming shadows by Bill Brandt and the ever-present man in the street by René Magritte, seen from behind as La Mort des Phantômes, or "the death of phantoms." Do not forget either the real pictured as the real, as in ominous recreations of a crime scene by Laura Larson back in 1899. The same label might apply to Jan Groover, with her shimmering cutlery from 1978, as art photography finally embraced color. So what if a knife in the hand of a woman chef dealing once and for all with veggies, from Philip-Lorca diCorcia in 1989, has become a lethal weapon?

A studio has always been a staging ground, just as for John Singer Sargent in oil. Portrait photography had its origins there, before the hand-held Leica freed things up And it still has its profit center there, with the commercial gloss of Richard Avedon. For Lorraine O'Grady in Harlem, a parade float, too, is a stage—and so for Catherine Opie or Holly Zausner are American cities. Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth go so far as to take the theaters and museums of old Europe as their subject. Even when Carleton Watkins used photography as an argument for preserving the American West, in the 1860s, he was helping to convert nature to national parkland, where humans can play.

You will not see any of that at the Met, although Nan Goldin makes her bedroom a theater. In part, the museum has just devoted the same space to Piotr Uklanski, whose staging grounds include a dockyard in Poland, where workers assemble in the shape of Solidarity's raised fist. In part, too, it can only show off its collection. That restriction may explain some obvious omissions, such as the suburban dreamscapes of Gregory Crewdson or the drama within a studio of Jeff Wall. The museum is merely boasting, and it has the holdings for quite a boast. Its strategy is to pair the "Pictures generation" of the 1980s, with its critique of consumer culture, and pictures from the past.

And what a pairing. Before Laurie Simmons played with dolls as a feminist statement, André Kertész had his doll house, Morton Bartlett his plaster children, Ralph Eugene Meatyard his masks, and David Levinthal his world war staged with child's toys. Hans Bellmer called the human actors in his nightmarish sex scenes from the 1930s La Poupée, or "the doll." Still, there are hints of so much more, waiting for a more thoughtful and ambitious show. Did you know that Edgar Degas in his group portrait reverses a painting of his, in which a woman leans to her left toward an inattentive man? Can you swear, too, that they were anything but real?

Was early photography, then, still going through a stage? If so, it had to complete for respect with painting, as here with an Entombment for F. Holland Day, an Arthurian legend for Julia Margaret Cameron, an aristocrat pretending to fear for Pierre-Louis Pierson, fruit sellers for William Henry Fox Talbot, or the awakening from a dream for Clarence H. White. Lewis Carroll surely stages Saint George, rescuing a damsel from the dragon—acted out by children. Still, what could be closer to everyday reality than child's play? Perhaps photography can never really leave the stage, but it cannot leave behind reality either. Now if only you could know for certain which is which.

The gay nineties

Was a gay woman a pioneering photography? Yes and no. Alice Austen learned photography when the medium was still young and Carlton Watkins was taking it to Yosemite. She photographed the streets of New York, where Alfred Stieglitz and the Whitney Studio Club were about to find a distinctly American modern. She lost her entire fortune in the crash of 1929, when she was already sixty-three, and gained modest recognition only shortly before her death in 1952. And she lived through much of it with her companion, Gertrude Tate.

Yet she spent almost her entire life in the same house on Staten Island, sharing her bedroom with her mother. Even now it seems reclusive, a dreary two miles south of the ferry terminal, past divorce lawyers and auto body shops. Alice Austen's Portrait of Gertrude Tate (Alice Austen House, no date)The entire neighborhood appears as suddenly as an oasis in the desert, and so does her home by the water. It overlooks the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and, in summer, the unanticipated greenery of south Brooklyn. The house, now a national landmark, has its stake in American history as well. Austen's grandfather converted the former Dutch farmhouse into Clear Comfort, a two-story complex befitting his idea of a mansion.

In truth, it is cold comfort, and the Alice Austen House uses way too much of it for staff, including practically the entire second floor. From the side, along Hylan Boulevard, it all but blends into its contemporary neighbors. Inside, it gives too little space to a selection from Austen's thirty-five hundred surviving prints—already less than half her output. It is content with the story of a life, including photographs by family and friends to record it all. Still, one can glimpse a stately sitting room, a dining room with a pot-bellied stove, and her darkroom. It is unventilated and painfully small.

One can also spot her enormous box camera. Austen lugged it around Staten Island and the Catskills, where she met Tate. She took it to the boardwalk for the delighted crush of swimmers and to Manhattan for street peddlers and a victory parade at the end of World War I. She had a portfolio in the 1890s, no doubt for sale, and a commission from the same decade to document a quarantine center, for whatever scourge of the day. Two men there shaving one another, possibly an example of staged photography, look like anthropological specimens. Mostly, though, the museum displays portraits, especially group portraits, one stiffer than the next.

Austen learned the ins and outs of the darkroom from one uncle, a chemist, and acquired her first camera at age ten from another, a Danish sea captain. How perfect—photography as a science experiment and as an adventure. Still, it was distinctly Victorian science and a distinctly Victorian adventure. Fate cut her off that much further from the future. After the loss of her family fortune, she was reduced to selling its silver and, eventually, to a pauper's home. A small publisher with an interest in American women discovered her in 1950, arranged to exhibit her pictures, and allowed her to end her life in a proper nursing home.

For a woman who lived from the greatness of the Hudson River School to the triumph of postwar American painting, she never truly escapes the gay nineties, although in her eyes it was never all that gay. Even by Victorian standards, her photos dwell on the obvious. Only twice in photos on display does Austen approach Cameron's staged innocence or the languid sexuality of Lewis Carroll. One was in a photo of herself—and the other in a loving portrait of her companion. One has a long way to go before the proud outsider status of lesbians in art for Opie or Mary Ellen Mark, but she was another kind of outsider altogether. In a half forgotten corner of the city, she nonetheless refused to hide.

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"Grand Illusions Staged Photography from the Met Collection" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 18, 2016. This review of it first appeared in a slightly different form in New York Photo Review. Alice Austen House is open year-round.


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