Monday, January 9, 2017

Fellow-Travelers On the Road [Part One]

Why not.

Barrett Watten's new book Questions of Poetics. Language Writing and Consequences has just appeared from University of Iowa Press [Iowa City: 2016]. Its overall intention, by my reading, is to reaffirm and consolidate the legacy of the soi-disant "Language Poetry School" and its members, in an ongoing campaign for its literary valorization. 

In the course of this long-winded account, Watten takes on Ansel Adams' Fiat Lux: The University of California portfolio [New York: McGraw-Hill Books, 1967]--  

--a commercial project the famous photographer undertook near the end of his career. The project, which was begun just months after the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, provides Watten with a proximal contextual marker, seeing Adams, and the Fiat Lux project, as a conscious instrument (and symptom) of the monolithic power structure of the post-war American UC system, against which the subsequent resistant student protests, and later aesthetic movements (i.e., the Language Poetry movement) are posed. 

Watten has strayed a little outside his comfortable area of expertise. But why not? Adams is an easy target. 

As a serious large format photographer, I know a good deal more about the contexts and meaning of Adams' life and work than Watten does, and I find his analysis wanting in several respects. 

Since his death, Adams has been an easy target of photography's critics, and for obvious reasons. Originally, he had wanted to be a professional classical pianist, but gave this up in favor of photography in his twenties. His early associations were with Yosemite Valley, where he lived and worked for several years, which led directly to his involvement in the landscape preservation movement (Sierra Club). His aesthetic inspirations are all to be found in his appreciation of wildness, of nature's grandeur and persuasive beauty, and his fame rests primarily on his nature images, which portray natural wonders in an heroic style, unencumbered with abstract theory or problematic distractions. Unlike Stieglitz, or Strand, or Edward Weston--who sought deeper levels of revelation in their work--Adams saw photography primarily as a craft. Indeed, his researches into the chemistry and technology of image-making, which include the Zone System of light measurement (which he pioneered), enabled him to focus on the precision and clarity of imaging (see F64). Though his reputation in retrospect came be be seen as primarily preservationist and naturist, he took commercial work of all kinds in his career. Adams's politics were centered around the preservationist aesthetic, both as a key figure in the Sierra Club, and as a promoter of (photographic) visions of the unspoiled American West. Indeed, if anything, Adams' stance against conservative figures such as President Reagan, specifically on environmental issues, would place him well left of center on the political spectrum. Later critics have seen in Adams' "superficial" celebration of landscape values a hypocrisy about the ultimate realities of modern industrial exploitation of the ecosphere, as if he ought to have understood that the real work lay in exposing pollution and the ugliness of chaotic human development, a task which has fallen to later generations of serious photographers.

Though it is true that his images do not embody the ironies and problems of modern urban and suburban developments, of factories and clear-cuts and cesspools and smokestacks, no one worked harder for preservation values than Adams.    

But why not? Who cares if we bring Adams down another notch or two on the aesthetic scale?

Adams would have seen the University of California Fiat Lux commission as an opportunity to celebrate the optimistic spirit of public education and scientific research, not as the expression of a repressive, capitalistic, militaristic power structure. Adams would see buildings and trees and plazas in the same way he would see mountains and lakes and landscapes. What would you expect him to have done--use the commission to pillory the university system as the evil monolith of Yankee Imperialism?  

The Fiat Lux commission is described by the UC System's permanent art collections: "Besides his personal work as a nature photographer--his art--Ansel Adams took commercial assignments in order to support himself. Among these was a commission from the University of California to produce a book celebrating its centennial in 1968. The subject was the nine campuses that then comprised the UC system--and the book's title was UC's motto, Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light)." The full archive of images can be viewed online here. "The project also enlarges our sense of Adams' career by showing us not only the talent he had for genres other than nature photography, such as portraiture, but also the ways in which he adapted his landscape aesthetic to the subject of the UC's campuses and agricultural stations."   

Watten: "These photographs provide a record of the university's image of itself as it was before the cultural changes begun by the FSM ['Free Speech Movement'] , and as such they stand as a record of what the student movement saw itself as opposing, even as it assumed many of its values. They give, as well, accurate evidence of the historical constructedness of purported universals: the sedimentary thickness of all claims to the transparency of knowledge represented by the university." As evidence for this "sedimentary thickness" Watten emphasizes Adams' foregrounding of the Campanile as the towering symbolic representation of the oppressive atmosphere of the university administration and the opaque "universal knowledge" it purports to represent. Hedging his bet ("even as it [the student movement(s)] assumed many of its [the University's] values"), there is a pertinent irony in the meaning of those very values. So why not? Can't we have it both ways?  

End Part I

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