Monday, September 19, 2011

Picture This

Please look at the picture above.  It was in The New Yorker, a magazine I prize above all others for their literature, their criticism, their casuals and their profiles.  And oh yes, the cartoons, with the arcane punch lines that always leave me laughing.
But this picture was among their listings of photography exhibitions.  Ruth Orkin's work was being displayed at the Greenberg Gallery.  I know from Googling her that she was quite the well-known photographer, that she won tons of awards, and is best known for a picture she took and called "American Girl in Italy," showing a girl named Jinx Allen walking down the street and being ogled by a bunch of Italian guys.  I think I've seen the picture before.  I guess the philistine in me failed to recognize that it was an "iconic" photograph.

Listen, I mean no disrespect to Ms Orkin.  I just need someone to explain a couple of things to me.  First of all, the picture of the woman walking down the Roman street was staged, according to Wikepedia, which says the photographer asked her to walk down the street again to make sure she had the shot just right.  So...spontaneous work of art, or staged photo op?  You have to wonder if they told the guy on the Vespa to cock his head cockily to enhance the tension.

And the picture up top..."White Stoops, New York City, 1952."  Help me here.  What I see is, it was snowing, and she stuck her camera out the window, pushed the button and took the film down to the drugstore.  She returned to the drugstore four days later in those pre-digital days, picked up some dusting powder and some pipe cleaners for her husband and then came home, saying, "Look, honey! The pictures came back!"  

I mean, someone else built the buildings, union guys in Detroit made those cars, and Mr Kodak made the film and the camera.  God made it snow.  When the cars and the steps had a little coating of snow, Ms Orkin leaned out and snapped a picture of it all.  Nice. Pretty. A pleasant way to remember a snowfall.  

But how is this art?  I just don't get it.  If she drew the picture with a pencil or charcoal, or painted it, yeah, that's art.  This is a picture of some cars in the snow.  I'm either so oblivious to what constitutes art, or it's an Emperor's New Clothes thing where it's all a big gigantic ruse and we don't all know it.

At any rate,  someone better notify me when and where I should bring my pictures from the blizzards we had last year so they can go on exhibition.  I call this one "White Driveway with Red Truck, Carney MD 2010."

I really miss my truck.


Anonymous said...

PART ONE (there's a character limit on Blogger comments):

OK, first things (

"On August 22nd 1951, Orkin saw Jinx walking through a crowd on the Piazza della Republica, and being ogled. She turned and took one shot, and asked Jinx to walk through again. Orkin also asked the man on motorcycle to tell the other men not to look at the camera. For these reasons, the photo was considered to have been “staged” but contact sheets reveal that Orkin took only two frames.

The image of a young woman walking unaccompanied through a thicket of leering men was provocative; the figure of the whistling young man grabbing his crotch was considered to have extremely obscene and was airbrushed out for years to come."

Anonymous said...


It was the 50s; this kind of photo is pretty "meh" now, but it's also important to use what us obsolete history of art majors call "the period eye," meaning it's crucial to look at something with the year/genre/context as the jumping point. At the time, people just weren't taking photos of crotch-grabbing Italians ogling American women. We're talking post WWII OMG Fascism Sux America Rules, here. People weren't sloshing paint on a canvas lying on the floor, like Pollock. They weren't lying under fake floors and masturbating (seriously: ).

This kind of stuff just didn't happen, or was so hidden from the mainstream that it might as well not have existed. And then it exploded, and then post modernism and the internet came along and now nothing will ever be "new" ever again. Or something like that.

Sarge said...


Overall, it's an "iconic" photo because it so perfectly displayed just how comfortable the world is with objectifying women; it's "iconic" because a woman took the photo in the first place. It's "iconic" in the same way that the Joe Namath's Super bowl victory is iconic: it's not important if someone can do it better now; what matters is that it was done in the first place. The fact that the imagery in that photo is so obvious to now is a testament to how important this photo was in the first place. And hey, even if it was redone a second time, it's not as if it was fully "staged" -- the guys weren't actors, and they were ogling the hell out of her to begin with. So, hey, what does that say about "Staging"?

I'm not sure that entirely answers your question, but that's why I picked up a history of art degree: obfuscation in the pursuit of writing long internet comments.

As for the other photo...

I'd say first off that it's beautiful in terms of light and dark: deep, endless shadow, and resplendent white. That kind of photographic skill is indeed a skill, and it would make LOLcats look like Really Important Pieces of Art.

Anonymous said...

Secondly, let's talk 1952, the year it was taken. From WWII propaganda posters to thE Detroit auto industry to pretty much everything we associate with post WWII America, the general thread is one of industry, of a new and profoundly awesome Middle Class, of automation and replaceable parts. Was the photograher thinking these thoughts when she snapped some photos of some cars? Probably not. But it was 1952. The idea that a photo of a three identical cars parked perfectly in front of three identical brownstones ("identical" in that they're the same style, same motif, just tweaked slightly in regard to the stairs -- a little personalization in a depersonalized world, eh?) could be ART was, again, pretty alien at the time. Who the hell would want to do that? But this photo is, in a much quiter sense, as "Rockwell" as a Normal Rockwell painting. What's more classically American than a shot of three new-to-the-middle-class cars, New York brownstones, maybe dad is inside feeding leftovers to the kids while Mom is window shopping on 5th Ave.

It's a simple photo, but powerfully American. And kind of boring. Honestly I care more about the light and shadow. It doesn't really matter, though, right? You either like it or you don't. But damn it's really enjoyable and profoundly important to study these pretty pictures as near-incoherent artifacts of the Human Experience and try to come up with a cohesive and narratives about The Way We Were and the Way We Are.

OK, time to get back to work.


Marissa's Andrew

Mark said...

Here is proof of why I love my friends. I just got a free course in Art appreciation thanks to them! I appreciate the picture a lot more now, thanks to these comments. I just don't know what I don't know, but I love that I have friends to help!