The Mystery of Photographic Longevity or
Keeping It Out of Dean Benson’s Trash Can
Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, 2006: Photography at Yale
Photographers start by placing themselves in front of something. Given the most basic skills and a camera that works, it is simple enough to record the view. Yet proudly, photography refuses to accept that it is ever merely a tool for cataloging its subject. The photograph carries with it a style and intention.How does a photographer build the surface of an image with meaning that will resonate with the viewer? And not just for today, but for a very long time. Enough, say, to meet the goal that Dean Richard Benson has set forth for the graduate students in the Yale School of Art: “We want to help you make work that won’t be thrown away someday.”
For the eighteen students of photography immersed in the intense work, dialogue, and critique of the graduate program, the collection at the Yale University Art Gallery offers, if not answers, at least some clues to the questions that we have been asking of ourselves and the medium. Searching the catalog of photographs, randomly or with specific artists in mind, I choose a dozen or so prints per visit that are collected from boxes in the back room and moved carefully to the large tables for viewing. The prints, often decades old, that I look at the longest are those that seem to allow a reliable entrance into a specific moment from the past. When recorded by an insightful photographer, the markings of life, even in their most minimal, daily structure, can reveal the priorities of a time and a place.
It’s a gift (I don’t know how else to say it) to be able to study the Walker Evans prints in the collection, with their attentive, natural form and graceful relationship to subject. In the photograph Katherine Beaton’s Table, Nova Scotia, 1971 (fig. 1), Evans turns his attention to the lines formed by the squiggly trail of cords connecting to an electrical outlet. A collection of objects has formed around this power source on a wall, shelf, and table. A radio, clock, newspaper, calendar, and sunshine seem to be reaching into Katherine Beaton’s kitchen from the outside world, while a bowl of fruit, ashtray, and empty clothes hanger feel domestically internal. >>