Friday, April 8, 2011

Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints

When I was in grad school studying literature, the second biggest sin you could commit was to think about what the author's intentions might have been. (The first biggest sin was "reading for the plot." And if anyone wanted a concise explanation of why I became a book editor rather than an English professor, there it is: I never could shake the idea that intentionality and narrative were both important somehow).

So whenever I find myself thinking about an artist's intentions, I have a momentary Pavlovian reaction: Bad! But then I remind myself that I'm not a student or an academic, and I'm free to think about whatever I like when I look at images.

Which brings us to this book Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints. I love this book. It's stunningly gorgeous. The most beautiful reproductions of Disfarmer's early twentieth century portraits of regular old people. Amazing faces--ones that look just like someone you would know, and ones that remind you how people look different in different eras.

But here's the thing. Every time I look through this art book--and it is undoubtedly an art book in all its salient parts--I wonder if Disfarmer himself thought of himself as a maker of art? I had the same question in my mind seeing the big Eadweard Muybridge show that's currently at the SFMOMA. Amazing photographs? Undoubtedly. But did he consider what he was making to be art, in the way we think of that word's meaning today? In both cases, it may be impossible to say for certain. And in a way, that's the best part. What makes thinking about artistic or authorial intention so fun is: you can speculate, you can dwell as long as you like on the maker and what they made, and you never find an end, never find a definitive answer that closes off possibilities. The world remains your oyster.

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