Fig. 2. Eugène Atget, Glycine (Wisteria), Châtillon,
1919–21. Albumen print, 18.3 x 21.7 cm. Everett V.
Meeks, b.a. 1901, Fund. 2002.61.1
Yale University Art Gallery
There are elegant forms and compositional structures in the photographs in the Art Gallery collection, drawn in extended tonal ranges, meaningful expressions, eloquent gestures, beautiful light, and detailed visual description. Those aesthetic qualities are important and notable for study, but perfect composition doesn’t secure photographic longevity any more than technical achievement. These are not, I am finally reminded, what photography is really about.
It is an early spring day in New Haven; the flowering trees in the courtyard of Old Campus are in full white bloom and students have spilled out from their classes onto the communal green. A young couple steps out of the door of Farnam Hall—into the day—and down the stone walk in front of them. The walk leads either left or right, but the green is straight ahead, on the other side of a double-rail wooden fence. They go straight. The top rail of that section of fence is missing, and a worn patch of ground in front of it suggests that this is a popular shortcut to the courtyard; they are not the first to save a few seconds by ignoring the suggested route. Yet they choose to pause. They step on the bottom rail, both of them, and make a game out of trying to balance all four of their feet on the railing at the same time. They’re laughing, the sun is warm. They hang on to each other, fall off the rail, try again and again to balance themselves, until finally, they do. The round rail bends with their weight. They jump off and the rail recovers its straightness. Why did they take the shortcut to the courtyard? Clearly they were not interested in saving time. Life, they tell me. It’s about life.
The photography collection sleeps in its archival boxes. Inside the boxes, the pictures breathe with the life of what was in front of the photographers’ cameras. Sometime between 1919 and 1921, Eugène Atget placed his view camera in front of a wisteria vine crawling along and up and around the side of a French country house. Now, more than eighty years later, I open the box to find his print, Glycine (Wisteria) Châtillon (fig. 2), still alive, virtually sighing to the viewer, to new students of the same medium. The twisting energy of the vine rises off the print with a mysterious vitality sent back from life’s thin edge, a place that almost refuses to be recorded. Sometimes that thickness of life is willing to hold us just for a moment.A moment as long, perhaps, as the opening and closing of a shutter. John Szarkowski, after speaking to the photography students about his lifelong involvement with the medium, warned us that “photography is a broad-minded and indiscriminate mistress. She’s loose. She doesn’t care any more for those of us who study her seriously than she does for her one-night stands.” We understood, took John out for a drink at the bar next door, and went on with our efforts, hoping that the study might at least improve our chances. //