Ambiguity and photography

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Eugene Atget: The Eternal Inspiration is the record of an exhibition at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum that ran from December 2017 till January of the next year. It is part three in a series of exhibits held by TOP about Atget, the previous two showing in 1992 and 1998 respectively. This show specifically highlights Atget’s influence in America and Japan in the 20th and 21st centuries, and collects work from Atget himself as well as Americans Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Berenice Abbott (as well as her prints of Atget’s work), Walker Evans, and Lee Friedlander; Japanese photographers Moriyama Daido, Araki Nobuyoshi, Fukase Masahisa, and Seino Yoshiko; as well as Atget contemporaries Henri Le Secq and Charles Marville. In addition, the book contains supplementary essays by Suzuki Yoshiko and Yokoe Fuminori.

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Eugene Atget “Saint-Cloud” 1904

Yokoe’s essay walks the reader through the history of Atget’s life and work, in the process debunking common misconceptions, including a background to his methodologies, context for his work, and details of his complicated relationship with Berenice Abbott as well as Man Ray and the surrealists. Atget did not see himself as an “art photographer” or a surrealist, yet many saw in his work something beyond mere documentary. In the posthumous 1930 book Atget: Photographe de Paris, Pierre MacOrlan writes that photographs can contain “sentimental knowledge” and “a truth that can serve as a point of departure for our own interpretations”. In some ways, truth was not quite as solid as Atget perhaps trusted it to be in his life’s work: the project to photograph the disappearing Old Paris.

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Seino Yoshiko “Everywhere – Gather Yourself – Stand” 2009

In her posthumous, second photo book, Everywhere – Gather Yourself – Stand (2009), Seino Yoshiko echoes MacOrlan, “Today…We cannot focus on anything and the present gets diffused for everyone. What, then, do we try to find in the images of photographs? I do not believe that photography is a medium that represents memory, history, story, or sentiment alone. I do not like such photographs anyway. It has become clear to me that photographs that just consume our “hope” eventually fail to reach us. Photography makes sense only when it manages to find a narrow passageway; it becomes valid only when the photographer manages to create a “passage”. The passage opens up before the viewer and what lies ahead is left for [them] to decide.”

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Seino Yoshiko “Everywhere – Gather Yourself – Stand” 2009

Atget did not wish to make any sort of imperative statement with his images yet at the same time didn’t see himself as an artist creating open-ended works either; his self-image was that of documentarian whose work would speak for itself in its neutrality. However, this precise lack of added narrative in his work is what attracted impresario gallerist Julien Levy, and Man Ray, to him. Suzuki Yoshiko writes of Julien Levy: “Drawn to the idea that the principal appeal determining whether a photograph is good or bad is concealed within an elusive ambiguity, Levy was preparing the groundwork for passing on the aesthetics of straight photography, which originated with Atget, to the next generation.” Ironically, what is named here as the defining characteristic of something “straight” is that mysterious and slippery quality called imagination. In trying to achieve an impossible objectivity without qualifiers, Atget opened up a new space for a genre of photography in between literal documentary, staged fiction, and figurative abstraction. Straight photography would come to define the 20thcentury even though its inspiration was largely unintentional. The Eternal Inspiration leaves no doubt in the readers mind that ambiguity is indeed central to photography’s ephemeral and sometimes mysterious power, even beyond the realm of straight photography.

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Eugene Atget “Versailles, Parc” 1924-25

It’s this assistant librarian’s opinion that the photography that inundates us: advertisements, ‘non-fiction’ documentary and news, “Instagram friendly photography”, this is to say photography without history, or photography that “just consumes our ‘hope’” is artistic photography without this crucial yet unnamable ambiguity that Levy saw as the foundation of the now-anachronistic idiom of straight photography. The resulting void is replaced with commodity fetishism and spectacle – thus ambiguity in the age of digital advertising is a political and anti-capitalist quality. TOP’s volume on Eugene Atget may at first seem like an unnecessary rehashing of “old masters”, however the value of ambiguity cannot be overstated, and The Eternal Inspiration makes an absolutely convincing case for its title.

 

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