Photography is a mongrel art, half applied, half found. But then the world we live in is a mongrel world, a hybrid that fuses extant custom and tradition—including, for instance, the constitutional principle of limited government—with the emergent totalitarianism which, as Huxley noted in his Preface to Brave New World, would always assume innovative and unrecognizable forms. The bastard is a monster in human guise, and, whenever the mask slips, photography ought to be the right champion for stepping in and letting fly with the magnesium strip. Let Shakespeare’s Edmund sort out Goneril’s problems. Let Uncle Joe deal with the annexation of Czechoslovakia.
“The things you see when you don’t have a gun!” is, not surprisingly, a lighthearted echo of the amateur photographer’s motto. I had no gun with me last week when, again, I had to go through the whole airport-security rigmarole on my way back from London; nor plastic explosives secreted in a jar of cold cream, nor cyanide crying out for justice in a tube of Colgate; not even a perfume atomiser, a lipstick, or a hairpin. So the things I saw made my flesh crawl, and when my flesh crawls, I think of my friend Gusov. I urge readers to look at his work on the eponymous site, with three w’s before his name and a .com after it. He is the Russian photographer who illustrated my Italian Carousel some time ago.
For the last few years, since before the tales of Arabian nights were first mooted to scarify the West’s infantile electorates into submission—as if global warming and female frigidity were not apocalyptic enough—Gusov has been working on a project entitled Locusts. A vast photographic album divided into ten sections, or plagues, it aims to catalogue the mores, to outline the phenomenology, and to capture the state of mind of what he calls the mass man of the common era. Bloated beaches and emaciated restaurants, nightmare industrial towns and famous tourist destinations, Hogarthian maladies and Rabelaisian orgies, Ingsoc London and Midwestern Florence, funerary post offices and Nazi airports—nothing of what one loathes and fears in modern civilization has been left out. He has asked me to contribute an Introduction, and this is how I began thinking about photography, its intellectual claims, and its mixed parentage. Indeed, photography is the only art that has no Muse to its name. If it had, it would probably look like Condoleezza Rice or Hillary Clinton.
So high is my opinion of the Gusov project, and so often do I catch everyday life referring to it in my mind, that I would argue that, until his Beggar’s Opera came along, photography has been as voiceless as it has been museless. Early attempts to teach the art to speak—such as, memorably, those of Jacques Henri Lartigue—have been superseded, indeed choked, by such a profusion of means and meanings, at once literal-minded and pseudo-intellectual, that the believer in photography, anxious to hear its news, has been left in the embarrassing position of a museum curator who cannot make up his mind whether the sculpture or the crate in which it arrived is of greater value to his collection.
Not one of the technical advances made in photography since Lartigue took his first picture a century ago has added a single word to its putative vocabulary or one new inflection to its meager syntax. Many Japanese tourists, to be sure, have found it easier to be like other Japanese tourists with the help of autofocus; color film may have brought a few American daughters closer to their mothers; war, fashion, and sport have all benefited from the invention of motor drive. But, unlike the advent of the Hammer-klavier, proclaimed by Oswald Spengler to have been the birth of modern sensibility, these innovations affected the audience far more than they did the putative speaker. Photography remained mute, getting by on a panhandler’s handful of common gestures, and its newly gained catholicity served only to highlight its pitiful plight.
Thus, no sooner was photography engendered by progress—scientific as well as social—than it was undone by it, and undone by it with nary a peep of critical discontent, skepticism, or protest. After all, are not single prints fetching millions at Sotheby’s? Are not thousands of photographers feeding their families where once there was just Lartigue? Is not Sunday leisure, in London as in Beijing, quite inconceivable now without the zoom lens? Is not digital transmission of images a boon on a par with the Roman aqueduct? Which is all fairly reminiscent of the boast of Soviet tour guides to foreigners visiting the Tolstoy family estate, to the effect that once upon a time, before the Revolution, a single writer, Count Tolstoy, lived on the estate, while now, on the same estate, there live hundreds of writers.
The bastard art was smothered by progress more quickly than were its noble brethren. Like all revolutions, essentially it devoured itself. Yet, like some of the ideas that occasionally underlie revolutions, some of its aims had been original and legitimate, eminently deserving of continued survival. Gusov’s Locusts, it seems to me, is as much a denunciation of progress as a rehabilitation of photography. The savagery with which he speaks of one owes everything to the vengeance he wants to wreak upon the killers of the other. As a result, for the first time since Lartigue, the genre begins to make sense.
The notice by the boarding gate said that, while the representatives of the British Airport Authority were there to help, they would not tolerate insulting words, threats of violence, or abusive language. Well, thank God for Gusov, I thought, for his intolerance, for his appetite for revenge, for his abusive new language of the camera. The modern parliament of monsters he is about to put on show—a threepenny opera of conformity, brutality, and vanity that reads like Erasmus on speed—will be an enduring memorial to this pivotal moment in the history of our tinpot democracy. Art or not, photography may yet avenge the artist.