In The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900, Max Kozloff, himself a noted photographer and commentator on the medium, aims to trace the history of the photographic portrait in modern times: the world produced by capitalism, constant technical advance, imperialism, class struggle, mass migration and world wars. In keeping with this social-historical flux, he contends, is “an emotional volatility that we find, or that we confer on” the subjects of 20th-century portraiture, as they struggle with the photographer, through poses struck or undermined, to control the meaning of a portrait.
Kozloff makes no claim to historical completeness; in his selection of photographers and pictures, he says, “I fly my own colours here, as a critic.” His choices and groupings, discussed below, can be idiosyncratic. Yet he does suggest an underlying narrative, which is never stated explicitly but seems to amount to the story of the gradual realization by all concerned that a camera-made portrait is not a definitive statement of the truth about a person but the product of the dynamic interplay between the photographer’s interests and the subject’s. The successive chapters do not so much systematically develop this idea as explore facets of it.
The book starts with efforts made in the early 1900s to preserve faces of a dying past, such as the visages of Edward Curtis’s North American Indians, or of people thrust into a stressful present, like the child laborers and refugees in Lewis Hine’s documentary images. This is followed by a short study of photographic self-portraits by artists—Egon Schiele, Ilse Bing, Fortunato Depero, Claude Cahun, etc.—in the first third of the century. Chapter Three focuses on images of individuals who seem to exemplify historic forces, from the statesmen photographed by Erich Salomon to the rural migrants captured by Walker Evans. Inventively, Kozloff includes Hollywood and fashion shots in this chapter, both because “the entertainment arts of the Depression were inherent constituents of societies that needed an escape valve for their all too evident terrors” and because, along with the political photography of the ’30s, such images were indices “of the feverish movement between the period’s emotional states.”
Chapter Four begins with American and French studio portraitists of the 1920s to ’40s and goes on to identify the contemporaneous work of Germany’s August Sander as marking “a decisive break in the history of portraiture” because of his insistence on regarding his sitters “with less of the ordinary deference than they might expect or imagine.” (The colonel he photographed in 1916, for example, is shown as “a popinjay with swagger stick, immaculate and frigid.”) The fifth chapter looks at shots, made between 1970 and 2000, of individuals situated in particular social and familial groups, from suburban Californians to Eastern European gypsies. The last chapter turns to portraits and self-portraits created by art photographers since the 1980s, emphasizing “a new, deindividuated portrait image” based on the emulation of media models. Kozloff doesn’t care much for this postmodern mode. While acknowledging the prevalence of role-playing in contemporary portraiture, he insists in his conclusion that the works still “excite us by the mystery of individuals, who assume they will be taken at face value.”
The roughly chronological sequence of Kozloff’s chapters cohabits with sophisticated free association. Thus his move from Curtis’s turn-of-the-century Native American portraits to Martin Chambi’s portraits from 1930s Cusco, Peru, hinges on the fact that Chambi was “an Indian who photographed Indians.” But these two bodies of work seem to have nothing to do with each other. Why should Chambi’s pictures sit in this chapter on early 20th-century portraits, and not in the one on social subgroups or the one on studio practice? By the time the chapter has ended with a discussion of Stieglitz’s portraits of his lovers, one feels completely at sea.
The arbitrariness of Kozloff’s groupings is most striking where his historical claim is most adamant, in the chapter on what he calls “the Sander effect,” the supposed transformation of portrait photography by the German photographer. Sander’s work in fact raises a question—unconsidered by Kozloff—about the concept of portraiture itself, since Sander intended his pictures to represent individuals only as embodiments of social types. Kozloff rejects Sander’s purported theory—actually a commonplace of social thought since the late 18th century—that “people’s faces could be determined by their jobs.” “On the contrary,” he asserts, “what the photographer shows is that . . . it was by their clothes that people manifested their station.”
That point is certainly disputable. I, like Kozloff elsewhere in this chapter, think that Sander has instead captured in his subjects what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls the “habitus,” the somatizing of social position through facial expressions, grooming, clothing and postures. In any case, Kozloff is incorrect in describing Sander as “unaligned with fierce social critics such as the painters George Grosz and Otto Dix.” In fact, at the time he conceived his album titled The Face of the Twentieth Century, Sander was closely associated with a group of anti-Bolshevik Communist artists known as the Cologne Progressives, from whose point of view Grosz was insufficiently radical.
The mischaracterization of Sander as an avatar of German realism, a once-common error already criticized in this magazine by Richard Pommer [see A.i.A., Jan./Feb. ’76], allows Kozloff to connect Sander’s work with the later photography of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus. Here Kozloff is certainly off the mark: none of these artists engaged in Sander-style sociological depiction, and the closest Kozloff can come to linking them is to say that Avedon and Arbus “often outflanked or penetrated the defensive postures of their subjects.” But this is something that Sander, concerned to capture the self-presentation of his subjects as an index to the truth of their social being, had no interest in. Oddly, Rineke Dijkstra, a photographer deeply affected by Sander’s example (synthesizing it with something of the opposing sensibility of Arbus), does not appear in this section, while Thomas Ruff’s monumental portraits of young people, redolent of class and its social markers, are consigned to the chapter on postmodern depersonalization.
The Art of the American Snapshot, in contrast, purports to be emphatically historical. It divides its subject into two-decade periods, each discussed by a different writer, and attempts to connect the images presented both to technical developments in photography and to social history. But this is a history without any serious attempt to analyze or explain the phenomena it follows. Its various authors tell the story of snapshots as one of constant expansion: Sarah Kennel ascribes to the snapshooters of the 1920s and ’30s “the belief that even the most mundane aspects of everyday life were worthy of photographic representation,” and Sarah Greenough says that the amateurs of the next two decades took “their cameras everywhere and photographed everything, creating an almost . . . stream-of-consciousness record of their lives. Nothing was off limits.” Two pages earlier, however, she observes, as she is forced to by the evidence of the snaps themselves, that everyday photographers at mid-century “continued to focus on the same subjects as their predecessors had: sports, leisure activities, and travel; birthdays and holidays, especially Christmas and Halloween; as well as the arrival of a new child, visits of family and friends, a day at the beach, or a trip to a zoo.”
Despite herself, Greenough confirms Bourdieu’s contention, in his 1965 sociological study Photography: A Middlebrow Art, that “nothing may be photographed apart from that which must be photographed.” In snapshot photography, as in so many areas of life, he argued, what appears to be a matter of personal choice is actually regulated by social convention—as any parent, relentlessly pressed by relatives and co-workers for pictures of the children, can attest.
Work, for example, does not usually appear in snapshots, despite its centrality to everyday life. That which “must” be photographed is above all the family, especially on those occasions when family-feeling is intensified, such as celebrations or vacations. The closest any of the authors comes to dealing with the need served by the development of the snapshot camera is Diane Waggoner’s listing of industrialization, technological innovation, the accelerating “pace of life” and middle-class prosperity in the early 1900s as provoking an embrace of “the idea of the family and domesticity as the greatest source of personal happiness” as well as a general emphasis on “happiness, satisfaction, and confidence.” But why did those developments have these effects? Is it going too far to speculate that the snapshot helped to heighten family emotions at a time when the family structure was steadily losing its earlier economic and even political significance? Or that the emphasis on happiness testifies to the stresses of working life, the discomforts of a hundred years of geographical and social displacement accompanying urbanization, along with a nerve-wracking alternation of economic boom and bust, and America’s involvement in global and local wars?
Making serious sense out of the history of snapshots would first of all require a classification of the images, with respect especially to the occasions they record, and to the class positions of those pictured (none of the four National Gallery authors seems to notice the disappearance of the upper-middle class from the pictures on view after 1920). Such a study, of course, would have to overcome—or at least explicitly acknowledge—the limits of particular collections, whose selection from the billions and billions of snapshots made annually gives, as Greenough observes, “greater weight and authority to the collector or curator” than to the makers themselves. In this instance, the collector is Robert E. Jackson, a businessman originally trained as an art historian, who put together his holdings over the last 10 years. Greenough and Waggoner organized the show on which the book is based. Their selection of snaps from 1960-1978, as writer Matthew Witkovsky points out, includes “no African Americans (or other people of color), no signs of women’s liberation or of the alternative lifestyles for which the two decades are best remembered,” not to mention pictures like the one a friend once showed me of army buddies in Vietnam holding cut-off human heads. Noting the limitations of the material he is supposed to write about, Witkovsky quickly abandons his historical observations to discuss fine-art photographers’ utilization of the snapshot style.
In both these books, history makes little headway against art. In Kozloff’s survey, any serious historicizing of portraiture is displaced by his preoccupation with a series of master photographers. The National Gallery authors attempt to make art of their examples by insisting that snapshots can be “immensely satisfying visual objects, worthy of careful scrutiny” and that they “call into question our most basic ideas about the medium.” All the writers would have done well to remember critic A.D. Coleman’s observation that “the most important photography is most emphatically not Art.” The concepts and methods of art history, not adequate even to explain the history of art, can clearly be no more than secondary resources for the study of a cultural practice as widespread and multiform as photography.
Paul Mattick has most recently published Art in Its Time (Routledge, 2003) and, with Katy Siegel, Art Works: Money (Thames & Hudson, 2004).