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Close Encounters

PHOTOGRAPHS
TAKEN AND NOT
by Linda Yablonsky
 
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Will Steacy, Photographs Not Taken, Daylight, 2012, 223 pp., $14.95

Eric Sandweiss, The Day in Its Color: Charles Cushman's Photographic Journey through a Vanishing America, Oxford, 2012, 240 pp., $39.95.

With cameraphones making everyone a photographer, almost nothing escapes documentation these days. The tsunami of images washing over us via Instagram, the Internet and TV suggests that Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" occurs everywhere, all the time, and that someone with a camera is always on hand for it.

If anyone is still willing to trust a fleeting glance, a sudden disaster or a momentary encounter to memory alone, it's not apparent -- certainly not to the witness who is too busy framing a picture to be fully present for whatever is happening on the other side of the lens. Professional photographers can be the worst offenders, casting aside all notions of propriety or even their own safety to get a picture they might want to kill themselves for missing. Those hair-tearing moments are the substance of an emotional new book on the subject, Photographs Not Taken (Daylight, $14.95).

No printed images mar this page-turning collection of anecdotes from 62 working photographers. They are men and women like Mary Ellen Mark, Andrew Moore, Laurel Nakadate, Alec Soth, Todd Hido and the late Tim Hetherington, whose cameras are practically extensions of their bodies. Editor Will Steacy asked each to describe an irresistible photo op that they let pass, however great the temptation or ingrained the habit.

Their "mental negatives," as Steacy terms their recollections, bring up a variety of ethical questions that stem from a common predicament: whether to shoot or not -- or, in Hetherington's case, whether to expose an image of the dead to the public or not.

Agony, frustration, fear and longing persist throughout. The intrepid Dave Anderson recounts the dark night he was spooked by a gun-toting, physically imposing, tattooed stranger who seemed ready to snap -- until Anderson saw tears of grief in the man's eyes . . . over the death of the cat in his burly arms. "I couldn't bring myself to take a picture," Anderson says. "I think when people are hurting you'd better have a very good reason to take their picture."

Jim Goldberg wishes he had a picture of himself with the first of love of his life. "If I had that photo," he writes, "I could use it as a gauge of how to recognize what love looks like."

Like Sally Mann, Elinor Carucci has been photographing family members in intimate circumstances for most of her life, but her subjects have been adults. After giving birth to her own children, Carucci found the photographer in her doing constant battle with the mother she had become. "When I did choose photography," she writes, "every photograph became a second of guilt, a second I neglected them, a second I thought about light, composition and exposure and not about them."

When his own mother died, South African portraitist Zwelethu Mthethwa proposed photographing her in her coffin to fix her image in his mind. Owing to cultural prohibitions against images of the deceased, his family objected. The sting of this missed opportunity faded, he says, only when he realized that no one image would have represented her life.

Emmet Gowin never photographed his religious family. "Beliefs do not photograph very well," he says.

"A camera can get you close without the burden of commitment," says Nina Berman, the unofficial guardian of a disturbed young girl who was initially a portrait subject. Over time, however, Berman became unwilling to exploit the girl's depravity.

Joshua Lutz also admits that while his camera has been a coping mechanism, it also keeps him from living in the moment. So on 9/11, when two planes slammed into the World Trade Center, he didn't take a single picture. Sylvia Plachy, on the other hand, went out on the streets to do just that -- but when she came across a dust-covered man whom she knew would make an iconic subject, shame stopped her. "His image haunts me to do this day," she says. "Diane Arbus would have done it."

As Kereszi writes, "There are always the ones that got away." The stories go by like a slide show of memory, longing, wisdom and regret, each leaving a deep impression on the eye of the mind -- an indelible place, as it turns out.

Charles Cushman was another kind of photographer -- an amateur with a diaristic turn of mind who never printed any of the 14,500 color slides he amassed from 1938 to 1969. He just made them. A 150-image sampling has just been published in another new book, The Day in Its Color: Charles Cushman's Photographic Journey through a Vanishing America (Oxford University Press, $39.95), which supplies a fascinating footnote to the history of early color photography.

The book has a mostly forgettable text by historian Eric Sandweiss, while its pictures tell the story of the built landscape of America, industrial and rural, before Cushman's death in 1972. Cushman made most of the images in and around San Francisco and Chicago, where he lived for many years, with stops in New Orleans, New York, Miami and towns in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona, among others.

Cushman was a machine-age businessman who married into John Steinbeck's family and hit the road with his Contax and his wife shortly after Kodachrome film became available. His pictures in Kodak's "living" color predate those of Stephen Shore, who also took to the road to photograph his travels through an America most of us visit only secondhand.

Cushman seems to have been drawn to melancholy images -- laborers' shacks, crumbling facades, garbage-strewn streets -- but also to the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, soaring new skyscrapers, large industrial complexes, new housing developments and the Golden Gate Bridge when it first opened. He had an eye for color as well as the architecture of empty streets. Only a few images include people, usually his wife, and they are loving. But Cushman was at his best in wordlessly illustrating the ambitions and failures of midcentury life through reality checks on his surroundings. If nostalgia rips through most of the book, it is Cushman's obsession with photography that reigns supreme.


LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for Artforum.com, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.