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Summer 2009

The Disembodied Moment

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Kathryn Crim

Edward Hopper & Company,
an exhibit at Fraenkel Gallery,
San Francisco, March 5–May 2, 2009.

Let's leave him out of it, for the moment, because this isn't really about him. Or if it is, it's about the influence he had on these forty years of photographs. Influence is impossible to map; it's impressionistic, repetitive, deceptive. It eludes us, as he does.

We begin in the company of strangers. A pool of light splits open the middle third of Harry Callahan's Chicago, Fall 1958. We seem to be moving toward the scene in the distance, perhaps because we must actually step toward the picture to see what it depicts. People are moving along the sidewalk, under the unnatural night light of an enormous sign that says PARK. At the sight of this mirage in the wilderness, an urban wilderness, we feel we've been away too long from the society that gathers under street lamps. We're not there yet; we are still a few steps out in the dark. But still the scene is like a hall light under a child's bedroom door: a promise of wakefulness, attention, care just beyond the threshold. Its distance evokes a passing feeling, the sense that only a moment ago the darkness was menacing. And it says: nothing can be so wrong out here if everyone is okay up ahead. Still, it will be better to be with them and not alone. Can a photograph evoke a sense of relief? This one seems to.

In the uncertain American night, the sheltering sky is electric. William Eggleston saw this in Downtown Morton, Mississippi. The thumbnail moon lingers like a grace note off a staff of power lines pulled taut across a crepuscular backdrop. Daylight is obsolescing. To the right the blinding star of another street light goes clanging across the fenders of the Cadillac parked below; to the left is the soft orange square of a second-floor interior. This upstairs room is our destination.

Light carves rooms out of the night, when being together becomes natural, even imperative. In these rooms we keep each other company. An old couple sits together on a bench. This time a third street light makes a horizon across the sandy beach behind them. They might be on the moon, though it turns out it's actually Santa Monica. I know the picture is a Diane Arbus because it's impossible to figure out where the photographer is standing. From where is she looking at them—the couple with their legs crossed in the same direction, the light sparkling off their glasses as they turn to each other in quiet conversation? Is she floating by in a passing car? It seems like a good place to wait in old age, between the street and the sea. For now, the darkness is not something to escape but something to keep from creeping in.

Here's another place we squeeze together: the subway—those "fetid, clattering, squealing" cars where Walker Evans went trolling for frowns. "The guard is down and the mask is off: even more than when in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors). People's faces are in naked repose down in the subway," says Evans. The subway riders are stunned and sleepy, or sadly cross. There's one such unsmiling face riding the Seventh Avenue Local. She's wearing a hat.

Evans was wrong about the nakedness of his subjects. These people, in their buttoned-up overcoats wearing blank stares, testify to the strain of negotiating public space. What they reveal is not themselves but the social code. They ride with averted gaze, waiting for their stop without watching. But Evans breaks the code, which is why his hidden camera is such a snoop.

Even more than in lone bedrooms. The difference, of course, is that in our bedrooms we undress ourselves, though it may be for someone else. Eleanor is lying on the bed in Harry Callahan's Eleanor, Chicago, 1954. At first she faces the window and we look across the long sine curve of her back. But then she turns, props herself on one elbow, and looks at the camera. Or maybe it happened the other way around—she got tired of looking and lay down. The double exposure is an old-fashioned motion study: a study of playfulness.

Consider the nonchalance of Lee Friedlander's wife, who stands in the morning sunlight, the silhouette of her observer casting a soft shadow over her body. The first time I saw this photograph, Las Vegas, 1970, it struck me as a little lurid, but this is because I didn't take the shadow for what it was—the photographer himself. Now I see that there's tenderness and consent in the mussed-up sheets on the bed. She is looking back at the man, not the camera. And as long as I stand here, she'll go on looking—just looking and looking. But since I can't see him I don't know what she sees. What is she thinking of? And what is Eleanor thinking of? Not the prone Eleanor, but the other one, in Eleanor, Chicago, 1950, who's got her face turned to the open window? And what about this other woman Arbus found at a diner counter? Time lingers: a car somewhere approaches from the horizon, a cigarette burns down to nothing, another woman turns the page of her newspaper.

Of course nothing actually changes in a photograph. So what gives me the sense that these pictures capture extended moments and not instants? I think it might be that hint of elsewhere—an elsewhere, which is not just the thought-of, off-frame elsewhere in the mind's eye of the subject, but also the forgotten elsewhere whose artifact remains in the picture. Here's one: a ring on the hand with which this man smoothes his hair, head down, reading away the morning (or is it afternoon?) in the Sagamore Cafeteria. Elsewhere the man is not alone—he's married.

We hold tightly to the promise that something is different somewhere else. So we build our houses at the intersection of the past that follows and the future that beckons. Then we park our cars and our campers out front. Evans saw this; so did Robert Adams. And Robert Frank, who seemed bemused by how devoted we are to our cars. Everywhere, the photographers are standing on street corners looking at what's arriving and what's leaving. What's leaving are our hearts, headed for the open road: "—the mad road, lonely, leading around the bend into the openings of space towards the horizon," sings Jack Kerouac in the introduction to Frank's The Americans. "Wasatch snows promised us in the vision of the west, spine heights at the world's end, coast of blue Pacific starry night—."

Somewhere, between here and the Pacific starry night, is a hotel room. Even under lamplight, it has to be one of the loneliest rooms in America, a yellowing bad-copy of home. There's no framed sentimental watercolor, not even a window. The man sitting on the bed is perched on the edge of drunkenness or despair. His shirt is still tucked in, his collar buttoned tightly around his neck. He's holding a drink. He looks to the unseen corner of the room, though I doubt he is really looking at anything, unless it's the meaningless blandness of the taupe walls. He would have been drawn to this man—whom Eggleston photographed in Huntsville, Alabama, 1971—and the way the room echoes his expression, or so it seems to me.

As a young artist Edward Hopper worked as an illustrator, and for a long time, before he was famous, he supported himself with his etchings. His earliest paintings were watercolors. His best were in oil. But he never took photographs. He certainly might have: over the course of his lifetime cameras became the tool-things of artists, journalists, scientists, tourists. Motion pictures were born, and so was Abstract Expressionism. But Hopper held on to his brushes and he stuck to the real, which is to say the recognizable American landscape: the sites we are always returning to, passing by, and, above all, passing through; the late-night diners and movie theaters, the train cars and country roads, our bedrooms.

But "the real" wasn't quite Hopper's hold on photography. His paintings, after all, are not facts. He painted remembered scenes, stitched them together, simplifying and amplifying their aspects. If you are a photographer, who works not from memory but from the world, what does it mean to suddenly find a scene out of Hopper?

Upon leaving the gallery, I notice my time inside has inspired that peculiar disembodied mood in which one begins to watch oneself. The elevator chimes one, two, three times. In the endless downtown twilight, a bus brakes for its stop, the shadow of the building turns.

If you let the city fall silent around you, the Hopperesque emerges everywhere. It's standing in doorways, looking in train windows or out; it's waiting under the bus shelter. It's the woman reading a newspaper in the museum café where I go to make some notes. It's the way the telephone poles lose their lines and the ocean out the window becomes simply a square in blue.

Hopper, who learned a lot from the Impressionists (who in their way were influenced by early landscape photography), wasn't one. His quan-dary, the problem his pictures take up, was not sight but perspective: from where do we look at the world? Or perhaps: what meaning might we find by looking across the street or out a second-story window? "With the shock of recognition one realizes almost at once that the form that delights the eye is significant, and one marvels that such beauty can be discovered in what is commonplace," Beaumont Newhall wrote at the end of the Thirties. Hopper would be painting for three decades more. And in these decades, his concern with how modern life is self-conscious, perhaps, made his work peculiarly photographic. Addressing himself to the everyday and the figure who pauses, ponders, daydreams within it, Hopper showed us how we look when we know we might be being watched. "In front of the lens," Roland Barthes wrote in his little ontological study of the photograph, "I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art." Hopper's subjects are never posing. They are thinking. Still, somehow they always seem to know they aren't alone, even in their own bedrooms. His paintings are about how we make common places, which are our social places, our own; they are about how we turn lobbies and train cars into quiet spaces in the mind.

"I don't think I ever tried to paint the American scene; I'm trying to paint myself," he said, introvertedly and very un-Whitman-like. What does it mean that America was found, anyway? Hopper pointed out ordinary contrasts—between what moves and what holds still, between inside and outside, between light and dark, presence and absence—and found there enough conflict for each of us.

Which is why Hopper may have opened the door for photography to grow into itself, to turn to the ordinary road and hillside, the ordinary person in the ordinary café, to lure us out of the dark and show us that we are not alone in our private reveries. "This is the power of the camera," Newhall continued, "it can seize upon the familiar and endow it with new meanings, with special significance, with the imprint of personality." A great artist can be endlessly borrowed from and never robbed. No matter how much they borrow from Hopper, there's no mistaking Arbus or Frank, Friedlander or Evans. They too found themselves in the everyday and renewed it in their image.

Kathryn Crim is the deputy editor of The Threepenny Review.

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