In every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humoured inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voice is on the other side. Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'Self-Reliance'1
IN THE US
Take Stephen Shore's photograph El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas, July 5, 1975 (1975). Two men could almost be said to be facing off against each other, except the man in the foreground looks off to his right, presumably as he waits for the 'Don't Walk' sign to extinguish. The man across the street, perspectivally smaller, leans almost unnecessarily - dare I say, languorously - against a post which holds a sign: 'One Way'. He looks off to his left, more or less in the same direction as the man in the foreground. Could they be looking at the same thing, casually? A relatively unimportant event that just so happens to be out of the camera's view? Immediately behind the smaller man are two blurred, moving figures, confirming what we might already have known - that this is a photograph taken with a view camera, most likely on a tripod. In an interview with Shore, Michael Fried describes a strange effect, originally identified by Shore, that occurs when the viewer shifts focus from the foreground to the background of a photographic image.2 The photograph itself, as Fried reminds us, has absolutely no depth of field; yet, according to Shore, when you focus on the background of an image, it seems to come closer, rather than recede. And here in this photograph of El Paso, everything behind the tree in the foreground does appear to be so much closer than I first imagined. Suddenly, peering in, the composition feels denser, more palpable, flatter and, importantly, more than just a picture of something. Foreground, middle distance, far ground - all are contained within and flattened by a typical geography of buildings, figures, parked cars, tree, signs, etc. It is a pictorial composition that is figured by language everywhere - 'liquor', 'drugs', 'payless', 'Capri', 'Auto', 'Grand Hotel' - words that, on the one hand, call out like sirens for a (cinematic) take on the American dream, and, on the other, remain as compositional forms in their own right. Each piece of writing, each font has its own flourish and design; some are excessive, almost fantastic. They tell us a lot about El Paso, about the US - but more about North American modernity, and its different dreams; at the same time, the signs also tell us nothing. They are words that shout out - they announce, or point, to a product or a destination - and they also simply call attention to themselves in such a way that the eye rests with their very 'thingness'. It would be possible to write a book-length essay on the appearance of signs and language in Shore's photographs - indeed, on their appearance in advanced North American modernist photography - and still not exhaust the subject.
For all its originality and intricacy, at first glance Shore's picture of El Paso appears to be a recognisable image of a typical street corner in a US city. (El Paso, of course, is not just any city in the US: it is half of a much larger divided city that spans the Rio Grande. Its other half is Ciudad Juárez, in Mexico. El Paso itself is more than eighty per cent Hispanic.) This is not to suggest that the image is a clichéd one, nor that it is generic. Rather, the apparent familiarity of the image is evidence that it, like so many pictures by Shore and by other photographers such as William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander, has helped shape and form a vital and complex, not to mention contradictory, image of North American modernity. I think about North American modernity and I can almost summon up Shore's images in my head. I look at them and I cannot fail to feel something of the dream of modernity, its hopes and its failures. The real paradox of Shore's image, as Georges Didi-Huberman so perfectly describes the uncanny effect of looking at a work of art, is that everything is presented as a kind of 'self evidence' while nevertheless remaining obscure. It is why I can't stop looking at the image and why I can't stop thinking about it.
Shore's image of El Paso from the 1970s has a powerful sense of modernity's recent past attached to it, yet it feels strangely, hopefully contemporary. Which is really to say that despite the photograph's historicalness, and even the obsolescence of some of the things depicted in it (we know most of the cars parked in the middle ground of the image have long since been scrapped and recycled; and one imagines that the shop signs no longer enjoy quite the same joyful choreography of fonts), the image maintains a kind of timelessness. If it is an image of the recent past, then to me it also feels like a past imagined from a future that I cannot know. Perhaps this is because what is depicted has still not frozen into something like historical sentiment (unlike, let's say, the set of a period piece film that locates us there and then in the precise past of that film's time). And maybe, moreover, because what the image depicts is precisely an idea of modernity as change and transformation, and these promises, of change and transformation, are something that now properly belong to the past. I know that what is depicted in the image was actually there, yet the streets, the cars, the storefronts are also detached from this 'there' in ways that I cannot fully parse. So this sense of recent pastness is actually closer to an expectation of pastness, not yet arrived, and we might more properly identify the thing that bears on the image here as something like a future pastness. An image like Shore's is a strange and complex thing, and I think it also speaks to our freedom to imagine. As something that is produced through pictorial compositions, it is perhaps a photographic phenomenon - or at least the invention of photography has had the effect of making future pastness more readily and more forcefully felt.
Roland Barthes hinted at the essential photographic nature of this idea of future pastness when he wrote about how the photograph brought a little bit of death of everything. But Barthes's sense of a death that haunts the image only tells half the story. The dialectical torque of the image of the future past lies in the fact that the image's modernity (and the sense of modernity that it depicts) is still there in some way - that that modernity, even as it begins to feel somewhat separated from its originary ambition, can still suggest change, transformation and possibility. A photograph of the recent past carries with it not the patina of antiquity, but only the possibility of the latter as part of the image's inevitable transformation. It is almost as if we could imagine, when looking at a picture like Shore's, a (reverse) archaeology.
As a specific historical motif that we might say belongs to an epoch and to an idea that accompanies that epoch, the future past is arguably a phenomenon particular to the US. In this respect, Shore's image also reminds me that the visual nature of the US's modernity is one that turns both on the temporariness of things and on a brilliant enthusiasm for montage. See here how in Shore's image the clear modernity of façade and typography are simply applied to turn-of-the-century buildings. It is why, in the end, photographic images are so much part of our understanding of the dream of the US, of its idea. Interestingly, of all European countries, Germany is probably the only one in which advanced pictorial photography could be said to have engaged in this kind of imagining. Perhaps this has something to do with the reinvention of Germany after its degree zero of 1945? Certainly the exhibition 'Cruel and Tender', at Tate Modern in London and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 2003, seemed to suggest that post- War German photographers had learned a lot, in this respect, from North American photographers such as Shore, Jeff Wall, Eggleston, Garry Winogrand, Friedlander and Walker Evans. What is more difficult to imagine, however, is a similar relationship between photography and, say, the look of Great Britain's modernity. IN THE UK Less than a year ago we were able to watch many British bank executives parading in front of parliamentary subcommittees. They had been summoned by MPs to 'give evidence' about how their institutions had come so close to bankruptcy. Some parliamentarians had the impertinence to want to know why, under these circumstances, the executives had rewarded themselves such massive salaries and bonuses. Watching these bankers on television and listening to them on the radio, I found two things particularly striking. First, how incredibly inarticulate all these men seemed. Save for the jargon of their trade (itself a kind of hostile attack on our syntax and grammar), they seemed barely able to put a meaningful sentence together. They were childlike and petulant in their inability or refusal to take responsibility for their collective or individual contributions to the economic disaster they had been the chief architects of. Nor would or could they recognise that some of those to whom they were now speaking might not simply be charmed and quieted by their wealth and privilege. It is this question of privilege that brings me to the second and even more shocking thing that I realised: as their names were announced it seemed as if almost each and every one of these bankers - generally men in their late 40s to mid-50s - had been knighted, or ennobled, by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Sir John, Sir Michael, Sir Fred, Lord this, Lord that… on and on it went, an appalling demonstration of what the British Labour government of the last decade believed in and rewarded: rich, arrogant confidence men soaked up and polished by a political party supposedly defined by equality, emancipation and liberty, but now shown to be as committed to deference and privilege as any other.
The wholesale ennobling of the banking class - are twelve years of a Labour government to be summed up by this disgraceful fact? Perhaps we should have known, or perhaps we already suspected, very early on that this would be its lasting legacy. In 1997, barely six months in power, there was Tony Blair on television shedding tears for the death of that dreadful princess. (And let's not forget those ignominious summer holiday photographs of Tony and Cherie standing next to an all-in-white Silvio Berlusconi, complete with white bandana on his head.) Twelve years of a Labour government was an unbelievable and unexpected opportunity bequeathed to us by the corruption and apparent will to self-destruction of the 'natural' party of power in Britain - the Conservatives; in the end this opportunity was squandered by an unseemly deference to power, class and privilege. Of course this reverence and worship of tradition is, on its own terms, quite contradictory. As Eric Hobsbawm so wonderfully argued in The Invention of Tradition (1983),3 there are few treasured British traditions and rituals of respect and honour that have not been, in some way or another, recently invented, precisely in order to compensate for anxieties over loss of power or the disappearance of imagined simple pasts. Recently I watched Kings, a television series loosely based on the biblical story of King David but set, more or less, in a country like the US in the not too distant future. Perhaps not amongst the most original of North American television programmes, it does, however, have its own inventiveness and charm, the latter achieved by the presence of the always brilliant Ian McShane, who plays the king of the recently invented monarchy of Gilboa. Kings does reveal how both tissue-thin and motivated tradition and ritual can be - how pomp and seriousness can simply be conjured from raw calculation and desire. In the end, to receive a knighthood from the Queen via Tony Blair is probably no less kitschy an indulgence than to be invited by Mickey to join him on a visit to the Enchanted Kingdom, though probably culturally a lot less interesting.
Britain now faces an all but certain period of rule by the Conservative Party. And with the knowledge that never again - not in my lifetime anyway - will a party of 'change' be handed more than a decade to achieve just that, it is hard not to conclude that Britain is a country, an island in the worst possible sense, that will never change.
It seems, to me anyway, that it will always be a place where respect and love for the royals and the knights and the lords and the dames and the barons will be worn as a badge of honour rather than a mark of enduring shame.
LONDON - LA
In 2001 I was living and working in Los Angeles, where I got to know the painter Thomas Lawson, then and now the Dean of the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts. Before arriving in Los Angeles, Tom had spent many years in New York, where he and his wife Susan Morgan, founded, edited and published REALLIFE magazine, one of the more interesting art journals from the 1980s. Retrospectively, it now seems absolutely natural, inevitable even, that Tom and CalArts would join forces with Afterall to become editorial and publishing partners. There were many reasons why our partnership seemed sensible, practical and exciting then, but I would be a liar if I denied that for me one of the more appealing things about imagining our future relationship was the opportunity it afforded to spend more time in Los Angeles in order to relate to what was happening there. And indeed my memories of intense discussions, arguments even, about art in CalArts meeting rooms, followed by cigarettes furtively smoked outside in the desert heat, and then, later still, sharing barbeque feasts in Korea Town as arguments failed to settle and spilled out into the night, are amongst my fondest. But we all knew that the real test for our prospective partnership would be if we could bring something properly North American to the journal, something that a young, small art journal in London could never even possibly imagine being able to do alone.
And after nearly eight years working with Tom and CalArts, I think we are able to confirm that Afterall is now a North American journal as much as it is a European one. How can this transformation be felt, recognised and read? How can it be experienced as something more than just an adjectival flourish, here or in the colophon? And, importantly, how can the journal's North Americanisation continue and develop now that our partnership with Los Angeles, and Tom and CalArts, is coming to an end? Well, for me, to say that our journal has became North American means that in some sense this part of the world is a key component of our ground, a landscape against which all of us can understand the conditionality of our ideas and certainties about art. In fact, I would argue that our collaboration was never really a collaboration, but rather an energy of minds, ideas, vocabularies and geographies that produced, almost without any of us understanding how or why, a vital montage of place against place, of idea against idea, of ground against ground, and that these were always shifting, first one way, then the other. If I want to briefly acknowledge our disagreements here - and there were many - I think we can understand these now as the necessary churn and wake of this brilliant montage effect.
Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that every ship is a romantic object, except, of course, the one we sail upon. Once we board, romance 'quits our vessel and hangs on every other sail in the horizon'. What he means, I think, is that our living in the present - making our own history - and the absolute banality of that experience (even, and especially, when we boast otherwise) means that we are predisposed to ignore or refuse to understand what is right in front of us. So we invent 'tradition' and little narcissisms that allow us to think that a historical arc, bigger than each of us, is on our shoulder, relieving us of the experience of what we do now and giving it meaning elsewhere. And it is often works of art, works of genius as Emerson writes, that remind us that the ordinariness of what we think, do and transform gives to us the real meaning of our lives. Because, for Emerson, 'America' was 'the new yet unapproachable', an idea without the ball and chain of reactionary and restrictive traditions; this is where he believed the idea of discovering and experiencing was possible.
Pictures of everyday life are simply what they describe, and when they are good they are that genius in which 'we recognise our own rejected thoughts'. They reveal to us that our histories and our lives, in all of their contradictions, are experienced through our intimate encounters with the everyday, and relatively infrequently through the fictional traditions invented to protect established power and privilege. As I suggested before, sometimes when I walk or drive through the streets of a US town, I am struck by how much I think of the great pictures I know of other North American streets, different but familiar. Good pictures of the everyday make us stop and think about how we look at things that are not pictures; they make us take notice of the banal and the ordinary as the sites of our lives, as well as our imagined futures. Shore's photograph El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas, July 5, 1975, for instance, is as good an answer as any I know to Charles Baudelaire's despair at not being able to hold onto modernity's evanescent present.
Aby Warburg insisted that every image has an afterlife. An image survives, as it were, because it is no longer specifically attached to the things that gave it life; it comes back as a ghost, with new meaning and vigour, and especially when we least expect it. Similarly, all the discussions and arguments about art, the to-ing and fro-ing between London and Los Angeles (and later Antwerp), the debates about what seemed too North American or too European - this montage of images and texts and ideas will survive Afterall 's parting of ways. The journal will never be the same again. But it will be different in the same kind of way.
Stephen Shore's image El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas, July 5, 1975 is from his wellknown series Uncommon Places, produced on road trips across North America in 1974 and 1975. This period was already a short while after what we now take to be the supposed glory years of an American future. I am thinking here of the timeless look of North American modernity from the late 1950s through to the early 1970s, which sometimes seems to lock America in a kind of perpetual dream of a future that is about to happen. Here the future itself is imagined in the very parergonal detail of design. Look for a moment at another image by Shore, also from Uncommon Places, this time in Canada: King Street, Hamilton, Ontario, August 9, 1974 (1974). Notice the curl of the letter 'C' in 'Colette Shoes' and the oversized tails of the '9's in the '9.97' sale sign in Colette's window, which seem to head forever downwards in sharp diagonals, or those checked long trousers with the tightly tucked-in T-shirt (complete with dress shirt collar) of the man looking into the window; and look how easily some turn of the century windows can be modified with cheap external air conditioning! I am describing here the architectural, typographic and fashion details depicted in this extraordinary picture. I was born in Hamilton, only lived there a very short time, and since leaving have never been back. But I am looking now at a photograph of one of Hamilton's main streets and it seems, yet again, both surprisingly familiar and wonderfully obscure. I am drawn to the little handwritten sign in the window of Books Villa that announces, boldly, that The Joy of Sex is now only $4.75, adorned lovingly by two bulging red exclamation marks, one on either side. Such a sign for such a book may seem a little charming now, but as my mother often used to remind me, Hamilton when I was a little boy was ruled by Protestant orthodoxy - on Sundays, even the swings in the parks were tied up high and out of reach by city officials. I am reminded, too, that Afterall once reprinted the essay 'Art and Social Responsibility', a strange and optimistic text about art and romanticism, written by Alex Comfort long before he penned the 1970s blockbuster The Joy of Sex.4
Not only has our partnership with Tom and CalArts come to an end with this issue, but there are also other more general but subtle changes being made to our whole editorial structure. We have a new Managing Editor, Melissa Gronlund, who takes over from Pablo Lafuente, who steered the journal for the last four years. Pablo now becomes one of the Editors along with Dieter Roelstraete and Nuria Enguita Mayo, while Charles Esche and I are sort of shunted upstairs, as it were. It feels exciting and it feels right.
Going back to look at the issue of Afterall that contained the essay by Comfort, I discovered that the foreword to that issue began with the following quotation from Barnett Newman:
I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it. The time without a legend or mythos that can be called sublime, if we refuse to admit any exaltation in pure relations, if we refuse to live in the abstract, how can we be creating a sublime art? - Barnet Newman, 'The Sublime Is Now', 1948
It seems to me, then, that even before our collaboration with CalArts began, Afterall already knew or recognised that it was in need of some Americanisation.
- Mark Lewis
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'Self-Reliance', Essays and Poems, London: Everyman's Library Classics, 1995, p.23.↑
Interview with Michael Fried, in Stephen Shore, London: Phaidon Press, 2008.↑
Eric Hobsbawm, in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (ed.), 'Introduction: Inventing Tradition', The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.↑
Alex Comfort, 'Art and Social Responsibility: The Ideology of Romanticism', Afterall, issue 2, Spring/Summer 2000, pp.43-61. Originally published in A. Comfort, Art and Social Responsibility: Lectures on the Ideology of Romanticism, London: Falcon Press, 1946.↑