Glebova Essay Wins Prize

Warm congratulations to Aglaya Glebova, whose “Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature” has been awarded the 2018 Emerging Scholar Prize by the Society of Historians of Eastern European, Eurasian and Russian Art and Architecture  (SHERA).

The prize jury praised the essay, calling it “highly innovative in its approach to the interpretation of a famously problematic episode in the career of Aleksandr Rodchenko: the work produced during his visit to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps, in the early 1930s.”

 

AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.

 

The Formalist in Nature

Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature

by Aglaya Glebova

The essay begins:

“This is where we should go on vacation—in winter. What snow, light, mountains!” These lines were written by Aleksandr Rodchenko to his wife, Varvara Stepanova, from the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which was then being constructed by prisoners at an eponymous forced labor camp, one of the Soviet Union’s first, where more than twenty-five thousand—and possibly as many as fifty thousand—inmates lost their lives from 1931 to 1933. Had the photographer not yet seen the atrocities of the camp? Was he highlighting holiday pleasures in case his letter was read by someone other than its intended recipient? Rodchenko’s pronouncement is so utterly damning in its willful ignorance of the human toll of the construction of the canal as to render any possible justifications moot. This description of a gulag—bracketed, to top it off, with declarations that the sun and the air are “wonderful”—effectively bars any interpretive engagement. One’s only recourse, it seems, is to denounce Rodchenko’s deliberate blindness to the grim efficiencies of the state machine.

Yet I open with this letter not to offer additional evidence against the artist. Rather, while keeping the letter’s dismaying omissions firmly in mind, I want to move past the screen that its glibness presents and focus on what it reveals about Rodchenko’s time at the canal: there he experienced a landscape, a place. Descriptions of nature—uncharacteristically for Rodchenko, since he was hardly enamored with the romantic notions of an earlier century—fill his brief letters home, and landscape appears, far more forcefully than ever before, in his photographs from the canal. These images of nature are remarkable in the context of the ideological climate from which they emerged. As the first Five-Year Plan (fulfilled in four years, 1928–32) unfolded, the Soviet state looked for ways to rationalize both the breakneck industrialization and mass repressions—developments joined at the hip, for the latter powered the former—that it undertook. The philosophy that underwrote both was the call for the complete transformation of the existing “old” world into a “new” socialist universe. The ideology crystallized and reached its apex in the rhetoric surrounding the White Sea-Baltic Canal project and its policy of “reforging” (perekovka), the term coined at the time to denote the discourse of molding both criminals and landscapes resistant to Soviet rule into productive, socialist beings through labor. The environment became, in essence, the most obdurate class enemy of the socialist state, whose intent was to transform the landscape’s sublimity and unpredictability into a pliant, rational, and productive entity. If, as the by-now canonical way of thinking in art history has it, landscape helps naturalize ideology, what happens when a state declares that nature must be radically, even totally, refigured? And how, then, might we begin to explain the aesthetic of Rodchenko’s canal landscapes, their quasi-romantic qualities above all? Continue reading … 

In this essay art historian Aglaya Glebova  traces the evolution of landscape imagery in Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographic oeuvre, focusing especially on images produced during his journalistic trip to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps. Through close reading of photographs, she argues that Rodchenko’s abandonment of avant-garde aesthetics, in particular the emphasis on photography’s transformative powers and its medium-specificity, in these images did not represent a shift toward socialist realism but, rather, held critical potential in the face of contemporaneous official censure of formalism and “contemplation” in both science and art.

AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.

The Photo’s Imagination

The Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train: A Love Story

by Alexander Nemerov

The essay begins:

The huge explosions could be heard more than twenty miles away. A Union major named James Connolly lay asleep on the ground, exhausted after the day’s fighting, when he and his men “were aroused by sound of distant explosions away off to the North.” General William Tecumseh Sherman, encamped nearby and leading the Union army, uneasily heard the sound of shells exploding in the direction of Atlanta just after midnight. He and his aides debated what the blasts meant and woke a nearby farmer, who said that the battles around Atlanta sounded like that. Still, no one was sure. The sounds died down but then renewed at 4:00 a.m., this time louder and longer than before, “with the thump and crump and muttering finality of a massive coup de grâce.”

The next day the truth was revealed. Confederate General John Bell Hood, leading the Confederate forces defending Atlanta, had found his main supply line cut off and had ordered that his own munitions train be blown up so that it would not fall into Union hands. In a massive self-destruction that helped cover their retreat, the Confederates torched five locomotives and eighty-one railroad cars full of their own ammunition. This was the sound that Sherman and his men heard. It was the night of September 1, 1864.

Within days, Sherman’s official campaign photographer George Barnard was at the scene of the explosions. Accompanying Sherman and his men on their destructive march from Nashville to Charleston, Barnard would ultimately assemble sixty-one of his large wet-collodion plates into a deluxe publication, Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, published in New York in 1866. Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train is plate 44 (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. G. Barnard, Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train, 1864

At the center of the photograph stands a lone man (fig. 2). We cannot tell who he is—the title does not identify him. Likely he is a civilian, a figure exempted from military ritual and allowed a place of solitude. Back to us, clad in dark clothes, he is a man of shaken contour, either slightly aquiver in the breeze or impatient with having to stand still during the exposure, or both. His feet make a wispy fishtail pattern. One imagines him as an associate of the photographer who has walked from Barnard’s position, down the trash-strewn hilly foreground at lower left, further down the gulley at the foot of the hill, and up onto the rail bed, where he could respond to the photographer’s commands about where to stand and for how long. He is within hailing distance.

The man stands within a circle of soot. Although the circle may not have been the epicenter of the explosions, the missing track suggests that the nature of the fire here was different than the one further in the distance. So do the sideways-flung rail carriage wheels to the left of the soot. Further back, the wheels still sit on the rails, implying that there the blaze consumed the wooden cars in steady flame. But nearer to our vantage, in the circle of ash where the lone man stands, a huge detonation likely blew things sideways and burned extra hot. Barnard’s photograph shows a flat volcano. The man is at the crater, at ground zero.

Fig. 2. Barnard. Destruction … (detail)

Standing there, the man seems to verify what happened. Like a journalist, he is on the spot, the embers barely cooled. Following the uncertainty of those cataclysmic sounds—the booms that awakened and disturbed Sherman and his men—the lone man confirms the truth of Hood’s defeat. Standing on the ash imprints the reportorial truth of the scene as much as the light hitting the photographic plate. The weightiness of the shadowed man, even if he flutters unsteadily, surpasses the conjecture of an artist’s drawing of a few weeks later that shows the exploding ammunition train. Unlike the fabulist with his pencil, the photographer and his associate occupy the actual scene, letting it be stamped on them, a predicate of there-ness and truthfulness.

The verification was timely. A few days earlier, George B. McClellan had accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, running on the party platform that the North should sue for peace with the South and end the war, slavery intact. A cartoon by Thomas Nast, appearing in Harper’s Weekly on September 3, 1864, shows the disastrous implications of such a peace: a defeated Union soldier, his sacrifice a waste, slumps to shake hands with a triumphant Jefferson Davis. “One party seems to want peace,” wrote Major Connolly to his wife, ending the same letter in which he had described hearing the explosions. “That suits us here. We want peace too, honorable peace, won in the full light of day, at the cannon’s mouth and the bayonet’s point, with our grand old flag flying over us as we negotiate it, instead of cowardly peace purchased at the price of national dishonor.”

Barnard’s photograph, taken in those same days, says that Atlanta is taken, that Sherman is victorious, and that the war needs to be fought to its conclusion. The proof is in the photographic glass, in the stone and rail and wood, and in the man at the center of the ash. Neither black nor white (it is impossible to tell his race), he solemnly acknowledges the massive destruction of the southern war machine and makes the case implicitly for more of the same violence as the only way to bring peace. In Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, true enough, there will be many scenes of obliteration still to come after the Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train. Relentlessly, the rebellion will be flattened to the ground. When it is not flattened, picturesque windows will be left in its broken walls only so that the viewer can examine how little of the defeated place still exists. On September 12, Sherman wrote to the mayor of Atlanta, who had implored him to stop bombarding the city: “You might as well appeal against the thunder storm as against these terrible hardships of war.”

But the solitary man goes beyond the news cycle. Four prominent chimneys repeat his upright form, multiplying his solitude and extending it to the heavens. He stands before these chimneys like a shepherd before the columns of a ruined Roman temple in the romantic paintings that Barnard admired. The Old South, the photograph says, is a fallen empire, a ruined civilization. But the chimneys also lift the man into the skies, as if he were part of the black smoke that once emanated from this building, an iron mill destroyed in the explosions. Organizing his photograph not just so that the lone man would be at the center, but so that the chimneys would rise into the clouds, Barnard aligns the man’s contemplation not just with the events of the day but with an eternal churn of time. That Barnard “combination printed” the clouds from another negative—his photograph would otherwise show the sky only as a blank gray—creates the image’s mysteriously otherworldly sky and the lone contemplator’s relation to it. The windswept and light-stained clouds come not only from another negative but seemingly from another world, as if a passing planet had allowed Barnard to borrow its atmosphere. They rhyme with the flutter of the man’s black coat and trousers, the shifting of his knees. The sky’s main echo on the ground is the soot on which he stands, a flattened cloud of cinders that resembles the heavens’ light gray. The lone man courses with a rhythm of sun and cloud, the full flow of romantic history—empires rising and falling but also some otherworldly time, some timeless time—that the historian internalizes within his own small body.

Standing there, the man aligns with not just flow but frozenness. The diagonal of the tracks implies far-off movement, but no trains will run on them for some time. Where the blast was, where he is, time has stopped. The historian pauses at the location where the momentum of events ceases. There the motionless wheel-carriages suggest the arrested force of his own observations. The massive mill wheel between the chimneys has likewise run into the ground. Aligned to these signs, the historian likewise freezes the action of the day—like the photographer, he keeps the world from rolling. Their mutual hope is that in stillness the significance of an event will become cryptically clear. The earth itself still turns, the clouds still scud across the sky, but the historian feels no contradiction. In Barnard’s romantic view, the historian feels the fixation of a moment in time and the relation of that moment to eternity. The lone man’s shadow looks like an oil stain on the soot, but it also charts the path of the sun.

It is proper that all this destruction leaves a lasting mark on the historian. He does not glide by the scene of violence, even if his presence there is of short duration. Rather, like the photographer’s plate, he allows the scene to imprint itself on him. To his dying day he will retain the record of what he saw. Even if he forgets his place, losing the memory of having stood on the tracks, the place will not forget him. It will be in his consciousness like a possession buried in the earth, like the belongings that the citizens of Atlanta interred for safekeeping as they departed the city. Even if he forgets that it was him in the photograph, remembering only that he actually stood beneath a pastel-blue sky on that spot or, conversely, if his presence in the photograph is all that he recalls, the pastel-blue sky having been forgotten, the confusion of experiences will not dissipate his sense of having been there. Transfer the man to a heady scene of Broadway in New York, bright on a summer’s day, with everyone else happy and prancing beneath parasols and top hats, and he would still walk in the cloud of his shaken contours.

Damage, to judge by the photograph, is the historian’s proper element. Barnard’s contemporary J. T. Trowbridge wrote of looking out a railway car window in Atlanta on a rainy morning just after the war, seeing the “windrows of bent railroad iron by the track; piles of brick; a small mountain of old bones from the battle-fields, foul and wet with the drizzle; a heavy coffin-box, marked ‘glass,’ on the platform, with mud and litter all around.” Trowbridge let the sights impress him, then wrote liquid descriptions that impress the reader. In the same way, Barnard’s sole observer becomes a photographic plate, allowing the grit of the sand and clay and pebbly wasteland to imprint itself on him until he, too, sensitively registers the scene. The pathological stillness of his contemplation registers the aftershocks of violence as only a slight fluctuation in his trembling clothes. Alone, he keeps the landscape from breaking apart.

It is a depressing scene, even if it shows the demise of the Confederacy. The photograph has all the hallmarks of a victory parade except the people and the motion and the joy. What, if anything, redeems the emptiness?

My own answer is imagination. Adrift in the wasted world, either the historian traces the wreckage, speaking in a voice of dejection and outrage, or the historian can invent from those same woebegone feelings. In the latter case, something new emerges from the destruction and violence. That something new is not an asinine version of progress—of forward-looking and backward-forgetting. It is always committed to the recollection that allows it to come into being. Instead of flying away, the historian’s invention owes allegiance to the particular topography in which it finds itself. Down every gulley, across each desolate rock pile and sandpit, the imagination must trace its way, divagating the broken tracks, stumbling down the shallow hillsides, taking an exact impression at each point of what is not itself. The imagination works like lava, flowing across the terrain, making a mold of what it streams over. The imagination clamps to memory like Barnard’s sky to the earth. The imagination depicts unbelievable things—it is imported from other scenes, “combination printed” into a first picture in which it does not belong. Yet somehow it does belong. And it makes us look again, and look longer, at a photograph we might barely have noticed otherwise.

What does the imagination trace in Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train? The answer will be different for each viewer. I can give only my own account. Improbably, I imagine the photograph as a story of love. I say this because General John Bell Hood, the commander who ordered that the ordnance train be blown up, was deeply in love at the time. Continue reading …

How is something that is not there still present in a photograph? What is the importance of seeing a photograph in this way? Looking at George Barnard’s Civil War photograph Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train, this essay meditates on the operations of imagination in historical images.

ALEXANDER NEMEROV gave the sixty-sixth annual Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art this past spring. His most recent book, Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine, published in 2016, was short-listed for the 2017 Marfield Prize/National Award for Arts Writing.

Photography, Pathology, and Colonial Peoples in Hawai’i

Promiscuous Signification: Leprosy Suspects in a Photographic Archive of Skin

by Adria L. Imada

The essay begins …

In 1903, a photograph of a Hawaiian leprosy patient appeared in the lead article of the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Leprosy in the Hawaiian Islands.” The author, a Philadelphia physician named Judson Daland, identified the male subject only by his clinical symptoms: “Leprosy, showing the characteristic plantar ulceration and changes in the fingers.” The image, along with those of seven other patients from Hawai‘i, dominated the text and drew the viewer’s eye to the open sores on his feet and fingers. Offering intimate optic encounters with the somatic alterities of leprous bodies, this photograph and its companions merged the horrors of leprosy with specific Hawaiian pathological cases. Daland linked racial difference to this disease, confidently declaring that Hawaiians were subject to a “peculiar susceptibility” to leprosy, while whites were not.

A decade later, another American physician repurposed the very same clinical image of this leprosy patient for a different purpose. This time, the photograph was used to promote a putatively successful surgical cure for leprosy. The caption in the 1913 New York Medical Journal read: “Illustrating surgical treatment of hand and foot,” although no surgery had been performed on this patient. The appearances of this clinical photograph ten years apart suggest how photographs of leprosy patients performed much cultural work. Western scientists relied on images of raced bodies with radically altered skin and body parts to draw attention to their clinical and public health narratives. At the same time, these images firmly attached this dreaded disease to people and bodies from the Pacific.

But what was the specific origin and history of this photograph? How did it come to travel from Hawai‘i to American medical journals and generate such flexible meanings? Why was it taken and whom did it represent? These answers can be partially found by tracing this photograph back to its original entry in the Hawai‘i Board of Health (BOH) archive in 1902. The patient was a nineteen-year-old Hawaiian man named John Kapuahi, also known as Keoni Kapuahi. He was one of at least eight thousand leprosy suspects apprehended in Hawai‘i under its leprosy segregation law between 1866 and 1969. Kapuahi’s file was created when he entered the leprosy detention hospital, known also as the Kalihi receiving station in the port city of Honolulu, on February 3, 1902. A few weeks later, his photograph was taken there. Determined to have leprosy, John Kapuahi was sent to the remote northern peninsula of the island of Molokai that had been set aside as a leprosy settlement. He died there at the age of twenty-six in 1910.

Kapuahi’s photograph resides among approximately 1,400 other images of people suspected of having leprosy in what is now the Hawai‘i State Archives. The images are organized not by name, but as serial cases: one number per individual suspect, a clinical dossier created by date of examination. Kapuahi’s photograph represents the medical and juridical process of examining, diagnosing, and archiving leprosy suspects on the borders of the US insular empire. Hawai‘i became an incorporated territory of the United States in 1900, following the US-backed overthrow of its sovereign and subsequent illegal annexation. Carrying out a strict leprosy isolation and segregation policy that criminalized leprosy beginning in 1866, white Western physicians posted at all island districts reported suspicious cases of leprosy to the Board of Health. Ordinary people were also required to self-report symptoms and surrender themselves to medical authorities. The vast majority of the men, women, and children exiled to the Molokai settlement were Native Hawaiian, with a smaller number of immigrants from Portugal, Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines.

Today scientists understand leprosy to be communicable through slow-growing bacteria in respiratory droplets. Now known as Hansen’s disease, leprosy is not highly infectious and contracting it requires long-term exposure to untreated patients. It became curable in the mid-twentieth century with antibiotics, but in the nineteenth century no cure existed and there were few effective treatments. The disease can cause nerve damage in the hands, feet, skin, and eyes with disfiguring effects. Although leprosy had been endemic in parts of Western Europe and reappeared in England in the 1840s, it caused great panic in the West during the high age of empire as an “imperial danger” allegedly spread by racialized populations from colonies. By the late nineteenth century, Western scientists concurred that leprosy was caused by a bacterial infection, but they did not know its etiology or transmission. Was it a hereditary condition, or was it communicable through food, soil, or skin contact? Lacking clear answers and cures, physicians who gathered in Berlin at the first international leprosy conference in 1897 could only recommend the isolation of patients to halt its spread.

During this period, Hawai‘i became famous worldwide for its numerous leprosy cases and compulsory medical segregation law; the Molokai leprosy settlement incarcerated far more patients than did settler colonies in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. The Hawaiian archipelago in the North Pacific Ocean enabled scientists and public health officials to investigate leprosy as it developed and was experienced among different racial groups. Native Hawaiians were especially vulnerable to the disease, but recent immigrant laborers from Portugal, Japan, and China, as well as white settlers of all economic classes, were among confirmed sufferers.

Not only did Hawai‘i isolate and exile thousands of these patients, but its health bureau had also begun to photograph and archive individual cases beginning in the 1870s. This imaging became more systematic by the 1890s. More than any other colonial or tropical location, Hawai‘i produced spectacular images of leprosy patients that were collected, archived, and selectively published for transnational observers in political and medical venues. Yet despite this broad circulation, we know remarkably little about the production and institutional contexts of this visual archive and even less of its meanings. Continue reading …

This essay assesses clinical photographs of leprosy patients created by the Hawai‘i Board of Health in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or what may be the most extensive visual cataloging of indigenous, Asian, and immigrant bodies in America’s Pacific empire. Building on theoretical and methodological approaches to archives as a process rather than a source, I follow the trail of these clinical images through time and space, from their emergence within a photographic practice of medical management and segregation in Hawai‘i to their prolific circulation in transnational political and medical arenas. Offering spectacular evidence of the racialized and sexualized pathology of colonial peoples, these photographs were tightly regulated but increasingly viewed as clinical erotica after the United States incorporated Hawai‘i as a territory in 1900. The essay further suggests the “affective excess” that can disrupt the photograph’s medical surveillance, as social intimacies and care between Hawaiian patients bloom within the frame.

ADRIA L. IMADA is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the award-winning Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire (Duke University Press, 2012). She is currently writing a book about the visual culture of leprosy and kinship.

 

Recently Discovered Daguerreotype Sheds Light on Resemblance in Photography

Resemblance did not come naturally to photography. Soon after it became a public medium in 1839, photography’s ability to produce resemblant images—and therefore portraits—was widely challenged. Proponents of photography quickly responded to those challenges by developing more complex concepts of the new medium. Jan Von Brevern, in his “Resemblance After Photography” (Number 123, Summer 2013), argues that photography played an important part in evolving debates on resemblance. vonBrevernFig6

Charles Nègre, self-portrait in a miroir de sorcière, c. 1845-50 (details). Copyright Sammlung Herzog, Basel, Switzerland.

 

Kris Paulsen, “The Index and the Interface”

“There is always the possibility, if not the necessity, of doubting information one does not observe directly. If indices are signs that often come to their receivers at a spatial or temporal remove and, unlike icons and symbols, need contextual information to signify, how is it that they are able to inspire conviction on the part of their receivers? Moreover, if this is the case, why have theorists of photography associated them with certainty and proof? To answer this question, we will have to look a bit more closely at the means by which they signify.”

From Issue #122 (available here)

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