Just before Siggraph I ran across an imported, ad-free, all-black-and-white magazine that hadn’t been in my local store before: PRIVATE. Issue #33 bears what I consider to be an rather classic-looking (almost clichéd) image for its “East Europe” issue: a George Georgiou cover shot of Serbian workers in front of a heavy, rust-era-looking pipeline — a bit grainy, contrasty, and one assumes that other than a slight shift in the fashions of their coats, these fellows coud have been working on the same heavy-industry line in 1980 or 1950 or 1930.
On this surface we can see reflected a great difficulty in the “timeless” character of black and white — its very timelessness reveals its disconnection from immediate reality. For example, the image above could have been made twenty years ago, or yesterday — only subtle clues can let you determine which.
A notion regularly nagging at me over the past couple of years has been the non-mirroring aspects of photography. When Winogrand said he wanted to know how things looked when photographed, he was hinting at the truth that what a photograph reveals is not a reflection of reality but a reality from some other universe well-beyond Alice’s Looking Glass, one with physical laws and causalities all its own.
Just this past week I read a quote (I think it was Harry Callahan?) describing the photographs he made as “messages from another world.”
I was pleased to find that despite the danger of slipping down into easy images and pre-programmed readings of Eastern European photojournalism in PRIVATE, editor Roberta Valtorta is well-aware of this difficulty, and confronts it in her editorial that begins the very first page (and can be found on the PRIVATE web site, where you can preview the entire edition):
Images used in photojournalism today look, to me, like fragments of reality snatched from a complex world which is essentially indescribable. They are isolated moments, fragments of attempted accounts which are no longer possible, because contemporary man, assailed by communication, is tired of watching and seeing, without understanding, images stolen from every part of the world. As sociologists and society have pointed out, man now is intent on cultivating his individuality, his solitude and sometimes his egoism, and feels that recounting what happens in the world is futile. I think that classic black and white photography helps to dramatise this impossibility. In the mythic age when photojournalism, the beating heart of communication, blossomed on the pages of newspapers and magazines, this chiaroscuro code was an authoritative, symbolic and powerful document, true testimony of things seen and recorded in the places where they happened. Today, on the other hand, it dramatically shows an extreme desire to bear witness, and alludes to the past greatness of photographic documents, but at the same time it shows all our desperation about a world which is too full of events, disasters, changes and shifts. And if we look inside ourselves we know that this world cannot be understood or recounted. Because of this, photojournalism today is a heroic thing. It is an old song, a last raised voice. Because of this, the strongest and truest photojournalism today is that which outlives itself without straining to be "beautiful." It stays faithful to its "primitiveness," its leanness, and far from aesthetics. It is a deeply dramatic experience today to see so many fragments of the changing world in black and white photography, scenes in chiaroscuro where the old mixes violently with the new. Not so much, and not only, because the subjects of these images are so dramatic, but because the code used to try to recount them is. It is the silent and noble code of historic photography, a code of nostalgia which is used at the very moment when history dies and its meanings fall into the thick folds of the mass media, while the real world, which is made out of man's flesh rather than images and runs alongside the world which is portrayed by the mass media, is shaken up, untidy and elusive. This magazine shows fragments taken from a very complex old-new world. Women with their heads covered, scenes of death, cars, children playing, children suffering, figures alone in the frame or closed in the geometry of architecture, someone jumping, eyes, faces, disease, skies, poverty, accordions, hovels, symbols, the words coca-cola, animals, towns, people dancing, workers' faces, wrinkles, children posing for the camera, old peasant women, dolls, and dolls' eyes watching us. Many photographers have contributed to this edition, but for me photojournalism remains a great collective language. Perhaps even the echo of a language, the ghost, the shadow of a lost language which has settled at the bottom of a history that does not exist any more. It is, therefore, a language which we look upon with tenderness, because as it chases after moments and fragments it also continues to look for the truth, seriously yet simply, like an ancient choir which insists on commenting upon the world as it unfolds. Blurred images, wide shots, close-ups, details, pieces of lost history. Photojournalism is also a disconnected language, because of the anxiety the photographer feels to tell all, to try to say a little about everything. He recounts different situations in life, fragments of every thing, place and event. In every shot and every choice of viewpoint he tries to find a way to tell, even though the compulsion to tell is less.
She got me at the first paragraph, enough to promptly lay-down another hundred-plus euros for a subscription and a handful of back issues.
This issue of PRIVATE is the closest thing I’ve seen to the late, great, Reportage. It’s interesting that while there are plenty of color journalists, PJ-specialty magazines like this or Hamburger Eyes continue with a strongly black-and-white-centric view of photography (HE reminding me a bit of the old Provoke). Even ei8ht continues the same pattern, though with a bit more color.
I suspect that a part of this bias comes from a sense that color is too direct, too easily-overlaid with feelings that may have nothing to do with the content (a golden sunrise for Hezbollah, a blue sparkling beach for Israel) — and importantly, color is the only language that advertising seems to understand. Even ads that are presented nominally in black and white inevitably include a color logo or brandname or a tiny inset color image in the corner. Ironically, since “real” color has become so connected to what we perceive as slick and fictitious, it’s the old and “unreal” medium of black-and-white photography which we can feel is more trustworthy.
Postscript: The cover images (and some of the others) don’t just look like the sorts of shots one came to expect from Eastern Europe just after the collapse of the USSR — in fact they are, quite often, dated from that period.
Jim Johnson’s “(notes)” blog has also found the same issue of PRIVATE in his local shop. I consider it a good sign that he also likes it, but for rather different reasons — enough in there for many people to find value. My guess is that PRIVATE has found a new US distributor, and hopefully we’ll keep seeing it around.