This Week in Photography: The Cycle of History

 

 

I’m high on fancy coffee at the moment.

 

It’s a slick new kind of brew, invented by an acquaintance, and gifted to me by a friend.

Jot, they call it, and it’s a bougie concentrate that comes in a glass bottle.

I’ve been using it to power up in the mornings lately, as I have taken some time off from my creativity enhancer, to which I often refer, but rarely name directly. (You may think of her as Maria.)

I’m not going too long today, because the world is fucking bonkers, and I’ve written a lot of heavy, intricate articles in the column lately.

Had I not woken up on the serious side of the bed today, I’d likely have tried to write something absurd, but then again, it would have failed.

Other than my comedian cousin, Ken Krantz, who manages to mine even this chaos for laughs, I just don’t have it in me. (Sample joke from his Facebook feed last night: “I picked a bad week to invest all of my money in racist statues.”)

Thankfully, today has provided me with some apt, and unmissable symbolism, so we’re going with the flow, instead of swimming against it.

As you saw at the outset, I’m leading with Trump, because even for him, the tweet was nonsensical.

He is, if I understand correctly, referring to his defense of Confederate statues, and history, in the media this week.

We have come full circle, in American history, to the point where the President of the United States is more proud of the losing side of the Civil War than he is the winners.

He more relates to the vanquished, racist, Southern, secessionist government than he does to the victorious one he leads.

WTF?

I’d say Abe Lincoln is turning over in his grave, but I’m pretty sure he’s actually up in heaven planning an invasion to take back the White House.

Can you imagine, Lincoln and FDR, rallying the troops, while telling George Washington he has to stay home because he was a slave owner? Or was GW denied entry into the happy side of the afterlife because he owned other humans?

Does the good outweigh the bad for Old George?
(It’s not for me to say.)

But in what I’d leave to coincidence, if the world weren’t so laden with symbolism at the moment, today, I opened a letter from one of my dearest friends, Edward Osowski, and I extracted a magazine article from August 1970.

Nearly 50 years old, and he saved it all this time, before gifting it to me.

Why me, and why now?

Because the “Evergreen Review” that month featured an insanely well written article, by John Lahr, about Richard Avedon’s major retrospective, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

 

Minneapolis!

As I’d like to keep it (kind of) short today, I’m going to photograph the entire article, and really hope you’ll take the time to enlarge the photos and read it.

It’s that good, and relevant.

People don’t write like that today, as I’m a well-respected critic, yet I fill these posts with bad words and pop culture references.

Not then.

Sample quote: “In present postwar America, normality has become the nations’s most oppressive fantasy. The bourgeois dream is unheroic: life is organized to eliminate physical and spiritual risk.”

Or this: “Obsession is a way of coping with death, and this spiritual and psychic decay clings to modern America like a bad smell.”

Or this: “Society masks its neurosis with a compulsive misuse of power. The impulse is to eliminate dissent, and, in doing, to allow political fantasy to go unchallenged.”

Eliminate dissent, political fantasy?

How is this not referring to today?

Because what happened 50 years ago has come back around again, with the rage of 1970, due to the dumpster fire America was in the 1960’s, paralleling the shitstorm of #2020, in which the pent up anger of People of Color and Millennials in the 21st Century has combusted for all to see.

The Avedon portraits included in the article are pretty sublime, from the uncertainty in Ike’s eyes, the woe in Bogart’s, to the sad resignation of Marilyn Monroe.

Above them all, though, is the psychotic, hate-filled, evil-confident glare that George Wallace gives to Avedon, the gay (or bisexual) photographer.

Normally, I’d say he’s projecting it into the camera, for the audience, but in this case, I think he goes extra hard, because the man behind the camera was not straight.

Wow, is this a scary photograph.

I look at it, and it makes me feel awful, yet I have a hard time looking away.

And as we all know, back then, a man of Wallace’s racist pedigree was not able to ascend to the highest office in the land, but today, he has.

People compare Trump to Wallace all the time.

And will we let him stay there, or will we vote him out?

And who are we anyway?

Does America still have one “we,” or are we now two totally separate societies?

In the last week and a half, desperate for any sense of social life IRL, I attended an outdoor (safe distance) pizza dinner with my two teaching mentors, and we chatted for 3 hours.

But rather than satisfy my craving, it left me wanting, because it was one of those talks where everyone took their turn, said their bit, and then waited for their next turn.

Nobody but me asked any questions.

And I was accused of “not listening” by someone who was clearly… not listening.

Try as I might, I could not stir curiosity in them, and at one point, when my friend (in his early 70’s,) was so sure that we’d be in a Civil War in a few months, I asked him why he wasn’t planning to move.

He glared at me with anger, which I’d never seen directed my way before, and said, “You don’t know me very well! I’m going to fight. I’m ready to die in this new war that’s coming!”

WTF??

Rather than lick my wounds and admit defeat, I set up another chat with another “wise old head,” and halfway through our outdoor hang-out, at his place, he dropped the “N” word in casual conversation.

Again, I ask you, WTF???

Each of the three guys told me stories about the riots and protests of the 60’s, but two of them could not make the right connections to today, IMO.

And the one who seemed to most “get it,” was the one who used the most racist word in America.

(In case you’re wondering, I let it slide with a clear, disapproving look the first time, and then I called him on it when it came up again.)

How do I land this column?

How do I keep it short?

Well, I’ll tell you, this review by John Lahr, and the photographs by Richard Avedon, inspired me. They gave me the sense that we have been here before, and the protest movement 50 years ago created change.

But then, looking back over the images, I realized something.

Each subject Avedon photographed, from artists to presidents to murderers to priests to daughters of the American Revolution, was white.

All of them.

So when we hear our colleagues, People of Color, screaming that they don’t have enough opportunities to be paid for their work, when they aren’t getting the jobs, we need to listen.

And I’d also argue that we might benefit more from uniting against a common enemy, racism/facism, than we will from fighting amongst ourselves.

Because the final weird thing that happened this week?

Last Friday, after a 4 hour Zoom party with my liberal, city-dwelling Hipster friends, all of whom were white, I joined the end of another party, with my cousin’s crew, and was among the last three men standing.

A mutual friend was also on the call, a 6’4″ African American guy I hadn’t seen in 15 years, and it turned out he was a Black Republican.

He told me how much he appreciated that I didn’t judge him for having his own opinions.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 2 Comments On This Article.

  1. Great post. I think our problems go back further than the ‘60s. I think at the Constitutional convention we tried to paper over the differences that already existed between the populous urban merchants in Phillie and New York and the rural and southern plantation owners who didn’t want to be ruled by urban elites and compromised on an electoral system that gave them extra weight (the Senate). This simmered along till it boiled over in the civil war. We then attempted to paper things over again until the long simmering injustices of Jim Crow blew up again a century later in the civil rights era. We made some important adjustments and attempted to paper over everything we left out then and it’s come back to haunt us again. The North/South, urban/suburban/rural Rich/poor divide doesn’t seem reconcilable, without even adding both overt and latent or unconscious racism to the volatile mix. I despair of the possibilities of peaceful coexistence with the president and his vociferous supporters and collaborationists.