Yale Center for British Art: Two Photographers Find Grace in the Living and Dead

Stephen Kobasa
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Bruce Davidson, Wales, 1965, gelatin silver print, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Henry S. Hacker, Yale BA 1965, © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Here is the surprise: a pure and unexpected delight in having an expectation shattered. It was with an unquestioned confidence that I walked into this exhibition knowing which of the two photographers would matter most to me. But I was wrong.

 

And I needed only one image to realize this. xxxxxx

Here was a hanging tree turned to play, the child executioner in the foreground, like a scene from a darkened Midsummer Night’s Dream, or a post-crucifixion Calvary, now a playground for the last few straggling bystanders. The horizon is askew, with one or two ghost houses in the distance sheltering the privileged from this ordinary, unnerving moment.

This was what Bruce Davidson found in Wales during a 1965 visit there. Carrying with him his earlier documentary experiences of Brooklyn gangs and East Harlem tenement life, he brought his essential sympathy into this equally unfamiliar world.

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Bruce Davidson, Wales, 1965, gelatin silver print, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Henry S. Hacker, Yale BA 1965, © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

There is another image of a child, here pushing a baby carriage in what seems a conventional pose. But isn’t this a boy in revolt, as if poised to escape with his imagination from the industrial murk, the white sheets hanging in defiance rather than surrender? A different sense of possibility than that evident in the picture of a bride and groom trapped in the land of chimneys and cooling towers. Both images could serve as ironic illuminations to the popular hymn “Jerusalem,” with its mythical assurances from William Blake of heaven made on British earth.

His eye for children is unerring; here is a bus full of them: a school trip or an evacuation—to safety or disaster? There is one singing in a cemetery where the flowers are carved in stone, and another besieged by pigeons in what might be an outtake from a lost Alfred Hitchcock film. The young are older in a photograph of a sideshow, Dante’s Inferno looming over them as if they were doomed innocents wandering into Pinocchio’s fateful amusement park. A line of boys brandishing sticks suggests the Lord of the Flies held just barely at bay, even close to town.

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Bruce Davidson, Brighton, 1960, gelatin silver print, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall, © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

On an earlier trip in 1960, Davidson discovered, in Brighton, the orderly universe invented by a lawn bowling society of women. Their nearly uniform garb appears a requirement of the game’s plot, with the individual variations in dress clear, but not eccentric. As they meditate on the position of the bowls, their postures are all grace.

He finds the same grace in a worker on a Scottish pier, her apron spattered with fish scales, whose whole life is revealed on her face in this one moment; and again in a woman wearing hat and coat at the beach, carrying her sensible shoes above the surf, kicking her dreams into foam. And once again, in St. Paul’s Cathedral, with his subject staring at her future in the face of a carved tomb effigy, where he invents Eleanor Rigby in advance of the song.

How different this all is from Paul Caponigro’s work on view here, where with only two exceptions (one of a half dozen children reads like either an accident or a bribe offered as a way of forcing them to abandon the scene; the other of a single figure who provides scale to what might otherwise be a confusing subject), the world is emptied of the human present.

As a result, an unexpected question arises: can an image be too perfect? The Stonehenge photographs are so precise in their reflections, their shadows, that they betray a psychological, rather than a mechanical, manipulation. We are confronted with the artist’s sense of arrogance declaring that, “I alone have seen this.”

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Paul Caponigro, Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England, 1977, gelatin silver print, © Paul Caponigro

It is true that we can never know what these remains actually were. The only faithful response to them at our point in time is not the experience of them, but the impossibility of experiencing them—their impenetrability. But Caponigro is uncomfortable with the ways in which his subjects are absolutely empty. He is certainly not alone in finding such alienation hard to bear; it is difficult to leave the mystery alone. And he is not solely responsible for turning Stonehenge into a formal cliché (his images of a site such as Avebury are more compelling by being less recognizable; in one of his most evocative, a tree at that site seems as ancient as the standing stone next to it). And his photograph of Cormac’s Chapel, in Ireland, is a moving recollection—in both light and subject—of Frederick Evans’ 1903 image of the stone steps at Wells Cathedral.

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Paul Caponigro, Avebury, Wiltshire, England, 1967, gelatin silver print, © Paul Caponigro

But, in the end, all of Caponigro’s judgments are purely aesthetic, an abstraction removed from ordinary experience. He is the opposite of Davidson, not merely in subject, but in matters of kinship. Davidson finds something he recognizes in everything, Caponigro, nothing. Even in a line of bearskin-hatted Irish Guards making their mechanical way along a park, Davidson there discovers the human gaze in both a soldier and a bystander. There is self-congratulation in Caponigro; generosity in Davidson. He is an inheritor of Whitman who sees himself in everyone:

And such as it is to be of these more or less I am…

I resist anything better than my own diversity,

Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,

And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

There is an absolute sense of both humility and celebration to what Davidson does, even in the most grim settings. And it is clear that, in his company, there it would be an immediate impulse to say “take my picture,” given his openness to everything human that is the kindest invitation to intimacy. You would not hide from him, and you would not be afraid of the result, even though it would tell the truth.

By Stephen Kobasa, Contributing Write

Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro: Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland

Now through September 14, 2014

Yale Center for British Art

1080 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT

203-432-2800

http://britishart.yale.edu/

 

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