Seventies: Le Choc de la Photographie Américaine

January 13, 2009By Heidi EllisonArchive

Seeing Is Believing

“USA, Alabama, Anniston, Woman in Training” (1977) by Mary Ellen Mark. © Mary Ellen Mark

The exhibition “Seventies: Le Choc de la Photographie Américaine,” in its final days at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, may tell us more about the French national library’s collection than it does about American photography in the 1970s, but it is still well worth seeing for the quality of the images by both big-name and lesser-known American photographers.

In spite of its name, the show is not limited to works produced during the 1970s: the title refers to the fact that the library, which owns millions of images by French photographers, only started to collect photos from the rest of the world, especially the United States, in the ’70s, in recognition of the “universality of the medium.”

For lack of a better overall focus, the show groups the 320 black-and-white (with the exception of the very last photo) images by theme: pioneers, the influence of the snapshot, geometry and space, landscapes, material and form, and “Dark Mirror” (for images with grittier subject matter).

It starts with a few well-known 1930s portraits by Walker Evans, one of the “pioneers” who led photography away from its early tendency to imitate painting, and a number of works by the very talented but less-familiar Louis Faurer, who played with silhouettes and shadows and reflections in his handsome and witty landscapes. Other precursors on show include Harry Callahan and Robert Frank, a Swiss-born American photographer whose book The Americans, published first in France in 1958, had a strong influence on the new wave of photography characterized by graininess and blurriness, ordinary subject matter and a seeming disregard for composition.

Diane Arbus is well-represented by some of her more famous portraits – the twin girls in smocks, the freaky looking boy holding a hand grenade and the man in curlers – along with some less-familiar ones taken in a nudist camp. The shock value is softer in the works of another female (one of the few represented in the show) photographer whose name is certainly less well-known: Mary Ellen Mark. One of her most affecting images is the quietest: a simple portrait of a helmeted female soldier (pictured above) sweetly gazing downward as if she were the Virgin looking at the Christ child in her lap in a Renaissance painting.

Ken Ruth manages to tell a powerful story in a picture that shows only the torsos of a couple in wedding clothes. The pale left hand of the bride is firmly clasped in the hairy hand of her husband, while the fingers of her right hand dig deeply into her left arm.

The star of this show, at least in my eyes, is Garry Winogrand, whose images may look like grainy snapshots at first glance but always pack a punch. In one, three beautiful, leggy young women walking down a city street, caught in a triangle of bright sunlight, look uneasily at a beggar sitting slumped over in a wheelchair in the shadows beside them. In another, several animated young women are sitting on a park bench, all looking in different directions and whispering to each other, chatting or gawking over their shoulders. They are framed on each side by a solo man who is lost in his own world. In another, people walking down a city street are caught face on by the photographer, looking for all the world like an angry horde marching toward their victim: the viewer. In yet another, a man gazes into the eyes of a tragically hornless rhinoceros in a zoo. These and a number of other high-impact images by Winogrand need no titles.

Among the many other standouts in the show are the handsome images by Ralph Gibson, one of the few photographers represented here who seems concerned with the beauty of the composition. Charles Harbutt, Burk Uzzle, Lewis Baltz and Tom Drysdale contribute images with geometric patterns created by architectural forms, while the kinkier side of humanity is portrayed by Les Krims, Joel Peter Witkin and Arthur Tress.

Bill Owens adds a knife-twist to his pictures of ordinary people by attaching quotes from his subjects. A young family with forced smiles, for example, poses in a kitchen with electricity pylons visible through the window behind them. “We are really happy,” says the caption. “Our kids are healthy, we eat good food, and we have a really nice home.”

Heidi Ellison

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Site Richelieu: 58, rue de Richelieu, 75002 Paris. Métro: Bourse, Palais Royal or Pyramides. Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, noon-7 p.m.. Closed Monday and holidays. Admission: €7. Through January 25.

© 2009 Paris Update

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