ART REVIEW : The Power of the Word and the Image : Getty’s ‘Neither Speech Nor Language’ show documents the strong interrelationship of photography and text. Despite some flaws and omissions, this is an informative show.
In “Neither Speech Nor Language: Photography and the Written Word,” the J. Paul Getty Museum looks at the evolving relationship between the written word and the photographic image. Drawn from the Getty’s formidably vast permanent collection and spanning the years 1840 through 1961, the show (which opens Thursday and runs through May 12) features works by more than 25 European and American photographers.
Including several popular photo classics and a handful of rare curiosities, “Neither Speech Nor Language” shows us that text can be employed to anchor a photographic image in time and place, as a form of ironic punctuation (Weegee’s photograph of a burning building emblazoned with the words “Hot Dog Factory” is a splendid example of this), as a direct means of communicating information, or purely as a compositional device (the use of text as a visual texture in art was a design innovation pioneered by the Bauhaus). This is inarguably an informative show, but it’s not without flaws and there are some glaring omissions--the most conspicuous absentee being John Gutmann, a photographer whose work revolves around the role of the written word in photography.
Curated by Judith Keller, the show seems designed to set the mind spinning webs of semiotic theory. Many of the pictures present language in such a way that it’s stripped of its conventional meaning (by virtue of the fact that it’s fragmented and yanked out of normal context) and imbued with iconic significance; thus, language is simultaneously diminished and enhanced.
It must be said, however, that esoteric theorizing of this sort isn’t nearly as compelling as the visceral pleasure the images themselves afford. Though we’re invited to focus on the use of language in these pictures, there’s really little proof that this theme was a primary concern for the artists who made them--indeed, language is rarely the central element in these pictures and often seems little more than an incidental presence employed to underscore a larger idea or mood the photographer was attempting to convey. The written word is so ubiquitous that a photographer--particularly one with photojournalistic leanings--would need to make a concerted effort to keep it out of his work, so we mustn’t presume too much about these artists intentions in their use of language.
One of the most immediately striking things about these pictures is that almost all them come out of an urban milieu--this is no doubt due to the fact that visual manifestations of language are largely absent in nature. The language of the city street is what we see most often, and graffiti, advertising slogans, and messages of authority (“Don’t Walk”) turn up in several pictures--Weegee, in fact, completed two bodies of work devoted solely to the signage of New York City. Street vernacular is the language of commerce and it tends to be impersonal and aggressive, so its poetry is a bittersweet one.
Several of these pictures--works by Walker Evans, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Berenice Abbott, and Weegee--evoke the crowded, bustling loneliness of street life.
In its early days, photography was employed primarily as a form of documentation and the oldest works on view include examples of medical photography used to record Civil War wounds, a mug shot of a burglar inscribed with pertinent information, and a photograph by William H. Fox Talbot of a shelf of books. Acknowledged as one of the inventors of photography, Talbot originally envisioned photography as a cheap way to reproduce books, and some
of the earliest known photographs are pictures of pages of text.
Several decades later the Surrealists introduced a more whimsical use of language in photography. Exponents of automatic writing--a style of unedited scribbling they regarded as an expression of the subconscious mind--the Surrealists often incorporated fragments of cryptic text in drawings, paintings and collages. Included here are collaged post cards by Dora Maar, Georges Hugnet, and Andre Breton, along with Roger Parry’s photo-illustrations for a book of Surrealist poems, and a Man Ray Rayograph (a type of photograph made by placing objects on photo-sensitive paper, then exposing it to light).
The unofficial star of the show is Walker Evans, who’s represented by nine works, including studies of the language of the streets of Chicago, New Orleans, New York and Vicksburg, Miss. In 1938, Evans completed “American Photographs,” a series of 87 images designed to be “read” in a specific sequence. He wanted the photographs--one of which, “License Photo Studio, New York,” is included here--to function as text.
Also on view is Aaron Siskind’s “New York 2,” a shot of a peeling wall of graffiti that’s decayed to the point that it reads as an abstract painting, and Precisionist painter Ralston Crawford’s magical pictures of skywriting.
Newspapers turn up in several photos, including still-life studies by Andre Kertesz and Bauhaus artist Fritz Kuhr, and in a superb image by Arthur Rothstein. Rothstein was the first photographer hired by the FSA, a government organization founded to document the profound social upheaval of the 1930s, and in his “Gee’s Bend, Alabama (Artelia Bendolph),” we see a young black girl gazing out the window of a shack insulated with yellowing newspapers printed with images of white prosperity. The emotional impact of this simple picture overpowers any scholarly interpretation one might consider attempting.
* The J. Paul Getty Museum: 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; to May 12. Tuesday s through Sunday s from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Advance parking reservations required; Information: (213) 458-2003.