Drawing with Light: Photographic Modernism in Our Postmodern Dystopia by Gideon Jacobs

Looking at contemporary photography within a larger historical legacy.

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A child in a red soccer jersey and sneakers sits on the ground behind a metal crowd barricade fence in Daniel Arnolds show 1:21at Larrie Gallery

Daniel Arnold, 1:21:33, 2019. Courtesy of Larrie, New York.

A few nights ago, I got into bed and slipped into a hypnagogic state in which my unconscious brain seemed to be both synthesizing and regurgitating images I had consumed earlier in the week. I saw flashes of Donald Trump, which makes sense, as his skin, eyes, mouth, and hair represent a large percentage of the visual stream I bathe in every time I pick up a digital rectangle made of sand or an analog rectangle made of trees. I saw Jim and Pam from The Office, which also makes sense, as I watched an episode right before turning out the light. I saw a replay of a bad interaction I had with a friend. And then, somewhat out of nowhere, I saw the Byzantine emperor Leo III; or more accurately, I saw the poorly scanned portrait of him that the Google algorithm first spits out if you search his name. He spoke to me, but before I could figure out what he was saying, I fell into a deep sleep.

Leo III ruled from 717–741 CE, and was one of history’s great iconoclasts. After an enormous volcanic eruption in the Aegean Sea in 726 CE caused tsunamis, destruction, and death in his kingdom, he concluded that his people’s misfortune was a judgment from God for their veneration of images. He saw the disaster as a punishment for a pervasive societal disregard for the second commandment, which appears on Wikipedia—via the Church of England via Moses via Yahweh—as, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness [of any thing] that [is] in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the water under the earth.”

Leo did what anyone with his belief would do in this situation and ordered the destruction of all objects adorned with religious likenesses. It’s unclear to me if his motivations were pragmatic or spiritual. Did Leo simply want to avoid further divine retribution, or was he legitimately concerned that his people were worshipping images of the divine rather than the divine itself, confusing copies for the original article? Either way, what followed was a sixty-year period known as the First Iconoclasm.

Blonde haired child with blue shirt holding cardboard sign that reads does life have a purpose in 1:21a show by artist Daniel Arnold at Larrie Gallery in New York

Daniel Arnold, 1:21:39, 2019. Courtesy of Larrie, New York.

I suspect Leo found his way into my mind’s eye—appearing in the search results of my cognitive algorithm—because we’re living in a moment that would, no doubt, have him worried. While the tectonic plates of the Aegean Sea have behaved in recent years, the planet is warming, sea levels are rising, species are disappearing, forests are burning, and at the time of publication of this essay, COVID-19 is still spreading. Between the threat of climate change, a growing sense that we are experiencing some kind of globally pervasive sociopolitical fracturing, and our newfound awareness of our vulnerability to contagion, there seems to be a latent consensus forming that the Anthropocene might be in its final act.

As in 726 CE, there’s an argument to be made that our veneration of images is to blame for the state of affairs. I don’t at all mean to suggest that our environmental crisis, or the rise of the alt-right, or this catastrophic pandemic is a heavy-handed slap on the wrist from a vengeful god for our sinful iconolatry, but rather, that we, a society now making billions of images a day—more per minute than were in existence in total about a century and a half ago—might lack an appropriate amount of skepticism when it comes to representation. That is, our compulsive picture taking and sharing, and our relatively unexamined relationship to the pictures others take and share, is at least partly what has rendered us a species dangerously disconnected from the natural world, each other, and ourselves. Are we not, as we scroll through our feeds, worshipping a very convincing simulacrum of the real world?

This sentiment is a classic and possibly trite modernist anxiety in a postmodern era, and yet it’s ubiquitous right now. It’s visible throughout marketing, with companies like Apple allowing customers to limit screen time based on the assumption that the tangible reality outside the phone is inherently more real and, therefore, valuable than the symbolic reality inside it. It has bled into the realm of wellness and mental health, where meditation, psychedelics, and other methods of stripping away language and artifice to connect with truth have come back into vogue. And, of course, it is present in contemporary art, maybe most notably in photography, the very medium whose fundamental technology might be what Leo would fear most of all.

Arm holding out a cellphone to take a selfie with four police officers standing nearby in 1:21:38 a show by artist Daniel Arnold at Larrie Gallery New York

Daniel Arnold, 1:21:38, 2019. Courtesy of Larrie, New York.

Recently, I can’t help but see many photographic endeavors as products of this anxiety as well as examples of a kind of new photo-modernism that is as much a reaction to our image-saturated, Donald-Trump-ruled Twitterverse as, say, Abstract Expressionism was a reaction to the Second World War. This line of thinking really took hold for me when I first visited Daniel Arnold’s show 1:21, curated by Emily Rosser, at Larrie gallery in New York City last fall. Over nearly a decade, Arnold has been a stalwart of the photographic street, and—risking hyperbole—has become one of the most influential image makers in the world today. I’m not simply talking about his more than 250,000 followers on Instagram, but the fact that, from what I can glean, no one seems to be inspiring more young people to pick up a camera in earnest these days than Arnold.

Throughout the Larrie exhibition, but most directly in Arnold’s stream-of-consciousness artist statement and backroom video installation, it becomes clear that the photographer, who is known for working in a very Winograndian, sidewalk-shutterbug tradition, took a more Whitmanian approach to this body of work. I don’t say this simply because Arnold explicitly references Whitman a few times, but because 1:21, like Leaves of Grass, is clearly chasing rapture. Arnold might be less bombastic than Whitman and a little more self-loathing, but he, too, is trying to roll around in the grit and grime of New York City until he becomes one with its inhabitants. He, like Whitman after the Civil War, seems to be trying to reveal our shared soul so as to induce transcendent union in a time of national polarization and factioning. Both artists use their mediums to pry their arms open wide enough to fit all of New York City in their grasp, functioning as if e pluribus unum might not be a pipe dream after all.

Child in striped pants climbing a tree in front of two skyscrapers in 1:21 a show by artist Daniel Arnold at Larrie Gallery in New York

Daniel Arnold, 1:21:41, 2019. Courtesy of Larrie, New York.

This is why inclusion is the name of the game for Whitman, who is famous for his anaphoric lists that are so long they have you wondering if he is simply going to name everyone and everything. Inclusion is also the thread that ties together Arnold’s work, in which no subject or photograph is more valuable than another. Walking through Larrie gallery, I got the sense that Arnold would photograph every single person in Manhattan if he logistically could. The salient effect is a kind of democratic flattening, a celebration of our collective, miraculous nature that reads like Julie Andrews singing “The Sound of Music” from an Austrian mountaintop, except, in this case, the mountaintop is on the Lower East Side, and Andrews is hoodie-wearing insomniac with an iPhone addiction.

Arnold’s modernistic mode has some clear precedence other than Garry Winogrand. Philosophically, Robert Frank and Walker Evans might be better reference points. Those titans of the medium sought specific scenes and subjects that contained a potent-enough dose of the American essence that their documents, when taken in whole, might be able to stand in for America itself. In other words, Frank was bold enough to name a book of just eighty-three pictures The Americans not because he didn’t understand the limitations of images but because he believed in the unique power of good images. The result is a visual portrait that captures the nation at that time in its history better than an exhaustive census ever would have.

Of course, this mentality suggests that even if the gem of Frank’s career is as good as it gets, the project is still dead on arrival because the photographic enterprise itself is Sisyphean. Representation, after all, can only ever represent. Thus in some sense, the ambitious photographic surveys of Frank, Evans, and their ilk are experiments designed to fail. In creating an inherently impossible artistic premise like, say, capturing America in a book, these photographers assert the uncapturability of their subjects. The shortcomings of the medium may be exposed in the process; but more importantly, the infinite dynamism of the world, humanity, and life itself end up the star of the show.

Installation view featuring photographs on a white wall of artist Daniel Arnolds show 1:21 at Larrie Gallery in New York

Installation view of Daniel Arnold: 1:21, 2019. Courtesy of Larrie, New York. Photo by Olympia Shannon.

It is a process, essentially, of using the inauthenticity of the copy to prove the authenticity of the real thing, of using the unexceptionalism of the negative—pun intended—to prove the exceptionalism of the positive. This instinct to prop up or pedestalize what we consider to be unique likely has as much to do with our fear of technological progress as it does our current environmental and political nightmare. With the arrival of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and their theoretical potential to grow so effective that we cannot distinguish between them and what they mimic, we feel we must brand the sacred as sacred before it’s too late.

There are many photographers working in this vein today, celebrating a miraculous collective identity, seeking, as Arnold quoted Whitman in the show, “A language that everyone can sing in together.” I sometimes think that Sam Youkilis’s work, which is essentially a never-ending supply of beautiful micro-moments from random corners of the world, is a Travel Channel version of what Arnold is up to in New York City. Arnold goes for humor and the abject where Youkilis focuses on aesthetics and food, but both photographers seem to be, in their own way, collecting thousands of singular scenes to be weaved into a common quilt.

An airplane soars over a woman taking selfie next to man splayed in mid air while another woman holds a child overhead in Untitled a photo by Sam Youkilis

Sam Youkilis, untitled, 2019 (Phuket, Thailand, March 2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Photographers Stacy Kranitz and Kendall Waldman are also on brilliant, modernistic visual quests, with Kranitz focusing specifically on marginalized rural America, while Waldman creates an enormous, staggeringly thorough survey of New York interiors. With these two photographers, as with Youkilis and Arnold, the work is as much about quantity as it is quality. The individual photographs, although strong in their own right, are means to a much larger conceptual end. It’s almost as if Kranitz and Waldman sense that images, by nature, create an illusion of separateness for our species, but hold out hope that if they can just create enough images our wholeness might become apparent once again. 

Five children wearing athletic apparel ride bikes on gravel at a railroad crossing in Mason West Virginia a photo by Stacy Kranitz

Stacy Kranitz, Mason, West Virginia, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

But modernism and the way it often attempts to affirm this “wholeness” can end up neglecting the significance of our differences. Yes, we are all human, but we do not have a single, shared experience of our humanity. While I believe it is always admirable to flatten out hierarchy by framing the many as one by highlighting what we share, sometimes doing so blurs the lines that allow us to recognize the way forces like race, religion, and class create profound differences. It should be no surprise that the instinct to conceive of our species as cohesive is often born from a perspective of relative privilege. Put more bluntly: artists with the modernistic instinct to emphasize the singularity of the pot we are all supposedly melting in are almost always straight, white men.

A woman in a cheetah print bathrobe sits in a colorful cluttered bedroom

Kendall Waldman, Queens, New York, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

How, then, do we assess such a complicated brand of photography, one that seems to celebrate conflicting notions of individuality and community, one that distrusts the efficacy of the medium and yet hopes to transcend it? Before I began my writing career, I worked at the famed photo cooperative Magnum Photos, where I spent my final year as creative director. Magnum was founded in 1947 by a small cadre of photographers, including Robert Capa, who famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” This maxim always encapsulated my problem with Capa’s signature photojournalistic outlook in that it assumes Truth to be a fixed thing, a North Star. It assumes, epistemologically speaking, we are oriented.

The photo-modernism I’ve enjoyed recently manages to pursue Capa’s halcyon ideal without forgetting that Truth is slippery, shifty, and elusive, that even the North Star is in motion. Arnold’s work, for example, is definitively relativistic, never asserting that it knows anything for sure or that it has found the correct orientation. Instead, it is a small but sincerely egalitarian attempt at what Whitman, “Bard of Democracy,” was after when he was trying to make his very flesh “a great poem.” Even if there are valid criticisms to be levied, I think that in 2020, when the metrics of Truth seem to be as useless as ever, sincerity becomes as good a metric as any.

Gideon Jacobs is a writer who has contributed to the New York Review of Books, New Yorker, Paris Review, Playboy, Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. Previously, he was creative director at the storied photo cooperative Magnum Photos. He is currently working on his first collection of short fiction.

Theory + Practice is a series supported by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.

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