Saturday, January 2, 2010

Jacob Riis and Nan Goldin

Jacob Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement – ‘Five Cents a Spot’, New York, 1889.

Above: Jacob Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement – ‘Five Cents a Spot’, New York, 1889.

Jacob Riis was a social reformer who worked in America at the end of the nineteenth century. He used photography as a weapon in a political and legal struggle rather than an end in itself: as evidence, not art. I use the word 'weapon' advisedly. Riis characterised himself as a war correspondent, who sent back reports from the front line of the battle against the slums. On his first forays with a camera, he was accompanied by policemen, who guaranteed access to the boarding houses and beer dives he photographed, and who also provided a bodyguard. As he explains in his autobiography, [O]ur party created terror wherever it went. The flashlight of those days was contained in cartridges fired from a revolver. The spectacle of strange men invading a house in the midnight hours armed with big pistols which they shot off recklessly was hardly reassuring … and it was not to be wondered at if the tenants bolted through the windows and down fire-escapes wherever we went. [1] Clearly, Riis was not concerned with the issue of consent and was not interested in establishing a relationship with his subjects.

Obviously there were occasions on which Riis had to ask permission, since he was not working with a hand-held camera. In such circumstances, the ideal subject was a docile, unresisting one, whose sufferings could be made to appear exemplary. [2] In the texts he wrote to accompany his photographs, Riis often describes his irritation at subjects who insisted on negotiating a fee or tried to assert some control over the image’s content. [3] In fact, many of Riis’ images beg the question of how he managed to get a camera into the locale pictured, or what his subjects thought about his presence, but his commentary usually declines to elaborate on these questions, probably for fear that he might compromise the image’s claim to objectivity. For Riis, the photograph had to appear to speak for itself (although in fact, it never did, since Riis either used explanatory captions or supplied a live commentary during slideshows). But the idea that a photograph could speak honestly for itself and be heard above the mendacious self-presentation of its subject was for Riis inextricably tied to the idea of objectivity, and this objectivity in turn guaranteed Riis’ integrity as the camera’s operator. The justification for this aggressive approach was that Riis was at war. The privacy and dignity of his subjects therefore had to be sacrificed to the greater good. [4]

In almost every respect, the relation between Nan Goldin and her subjects is the polar opposite of that between Riis and his. Indeed, they are such different photographers that it might seem redundant to compare them, except that the comparison helps to highlight the issue of consent that concerns me here. Goldin only photographs people who are known to her. As she explains, The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me. There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party. [5]

Riis regarded his subjects’ attempts at self-presentation as an irritating distraction: he needed them to serve only as evidence of a sociological or statistical trend. By contrast, Goldin’s intention is to serve as handmaiden to her subjects’ self-realisation, to assist in the creation of identities that are neither given nor fixed, and in so doing also fulfil her own potential. In these images, there is no definitive or final truth, a state of affairs symbolised by Goldin’s use of photo-sequences and grids, which are constantly revised and updated. Riis tried to categorise individuals according to national and other ‘types’, which his images served to reinforce. Goldin is primarily interested in the ways individuals can redefine gender and other stereotypes.

Many of the differences between Riis and Goldin are explicable simply as differences between the late nineteenth- and the late twentieth centuries. From our ‘enlightened’ perspective, it is easy to dismiss Riis for his arrogance (forgetting his achievements as a reformer), and join in the warm, mutual, emotional experience that Goldin offers us. That is not the lesson I wish to draw from the comparison. If Riis represents alienation (or purported objectivity), and Goldin identification (or avowed subjectivity), then I have tried to superimpose these two states, surrendering any claim to either objectivity or intimacy.

The project in which this attempt is most successful is a short series of slides entitled ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, which was published recently in 1:1, an online magazine. I shall post the introduction, followed by successive images from the sequence over the next seven days.

[1] J. A. Riis, The Making of an American, 1970, p. 173.

[2] In other respects, Riis did not like passivity. As a self-made man, he admired hard work and initiative, and sought to encourage it wherever possible. For Riis, idleness was one of the deplorable consequences of allowing people to live in slum conditions.

[3] However, Riis was apparently quite happy to pose ‘street arabs’ (homeless boys) in sleeping poses, partly because such images were part of an established pictorial tradition.

[4] Riis is often linked with Lewis Hine, but there is a fundamental difference between them. Many of Hine’s early photographs show factory workers and other labourers, but whilst Riis effectively identified with the point-of-view of the police whose help he needed, Hine’s work started from the premise of his opposition to the factory owners. Moreover, he always obtained his subjects’ co-operation (but not necessarily that of their employers).

[5] N. Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1986, p. 6.

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