SEDUCED BY MODERNITY
of Margaret Watkins
By Mary O'Connor
and Katherine Tweedie
McGill-Queen's University Press,
322 pages, $49.95
By Lana Slezic
Anansi, unpaginated, $45
These two books, so far apart visually, have important things in common.
Mary O'Connor and Katherine Tweedie's Seduced by Modernity is a finely researched feminist account of the life and work of Margaret Watkins, a Canadian-born photographer active in New York until about 1930. Lana Slezic's Forsaken is a young Canadian photographer's lyrical and moving report on the plight - a mild word for it - of women in Afghanistan.
Beyond the of issue of femaleness, these publications underline the centrality of the book in the history of photography. Seduced is part of a larger recuperation of "lost" talents, lost in large part because the work was not published in any permanent form in its own time. Forsaken exemplifies the trend among photojournalists to present their work in book form because their traditional medium, the large-circulation picture magazine, has gone forever.
Until fairly recently, Margaret Watkins was below the radar of anyone beyond a tiny group of photo-historians. She was born in Hamilton in 1884 to a prosperous merchant family that fell on hard times when her father, a teetotalling, vegetarian Seventh Day Adventist, opened a large new store but decided, for religious reasons, to stay closed on Saturdays. At 24, Watkins fled the stifling world of Hamilton for the United States, hanging out in various artists' communities, apprenticing to a commercial photographer and then entering the orbit of Clarence White, a greatly influential, if currently under-appreciated, teacher and photographer.
Like many of White's followers, she had the capacity to transform stolid, everyday America into something Edenic and classically beautiful. Her particular talent was for the still life, turning corners of her kitchen or bathroom into compelling visual images, a knack that brought her some success as a commercial photographer.
On White's sudden death - she had become his confidante and trusted assistant - she found herself in an ugly legal dispute with the master's widow, and in 1928 headed for Europe. It was the effective end of her career.
Watkins found herself looking after four dotty aunts who lived in a crumbling old house in Glasgow, like something straight out of Roald Dahl. She made photographic trips to Europe and to Soviet Russia, but she was never to practise her profession before her death in 1969.
From the copious evidence of O'Connor and Tweedie, Margaret Watkins was fascinating person. She was intensely musical, a vivid diarist (if an indifferent poet), curious and open to the avant-garde and fiercely independent. The authors give little sense of her actual working methods, and take a pass on her love life so as not to be too intrusive. (They quote feminist critic Barbara Johnson: "It is as though it is unimaginable not to ask who owns a woman, whether she can be penetrated, whether she can be known and by whom.") But they do recreate with great care the artistic and social milieu of the times, as well as Watkins's later solitary years in Glasgow, eking out a living as a landlady and picker of antiques.
There are moments of cultural-studies-speak - a language that tends toward righteous, retroactive moralizing, but the text does make a strong case for Watkins as an important figure in photography's shift from the romantic neo-Whistlerian world of Pictorialism to the optimistic dynamism of early Modernism.
It should be said, though, that the book treats her photographs with little ceremony; they are illustrations of the text, rather than plates. The only full-page images are those in which the book's designer has taken details from Watkins's photographs in the belief that this is an improvement over the originals. This is a curious move, given the book's account of Watkins's own experience with a designer, when she sent a self-portrait for a newspaper article on herself, only to find that the engraver had added eye-liner and lipstick to the photograph, and framed it with an oval. On the back of her copy of the print, she wrote: "To ye engraver/Don't clip [or]prune." Good advice.
In the interests of disclosure, I should say that Lana Slezik came to show me her work three years ago. She had been in Afghanistan for a few weeks, and was going back to do a project on women in that country. I remember some images of the huge Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, but mostly I recall thinking how brave and crazy she was to attempt such a project independently, without the backing of a major news organization.
Forsaken is the hard-won fruit of her labours and a curiously beautiful book. Afghanistan is, among other things, photogenic: The land has an austere beauty, the people have strong faces, and often live in ruins, and even the famous blue burqas, symbols to us of female subjugation, convert their wearers into walking sculptures. The antidote to all this lies in the short texts by Slezic that intersperse the sequence of photographs. These are an unremitting j'accuse against the constant abuse of women: the arranged child marriages, the so-called honour killings, the endless physical battering, the wards full of women who have tried to immolate themselves as the only way out.
Slezic photographs others things, too. She managed to penetrate a brothel and also shows young girls learning in improvised schools, but she does not write about these. In this book every picture could use a thousand words.
It is probably too much to ask a photojournalist to provide answers to crushing and complex political and social problems. The war in Afghanistan has been sold in so many ways as a war against terror, an exercise in nation-building, a battle against narcotics and, yes, a defence of women. (It seemed to occupy the mind of the U.S. First Lady for at least a few weeks.) What is clear is that there is, in the phrase of the remarkable Scottish adventurer, writer, diplomat and aid-worker Rory Stewart, a "surreal gap" between the rhetoric of the Western powers and the reality on the ground for ordinary Afghans. Lana Slezic's book is a salutary attempt to bear witness to the real pain of others.
Utopia/Dystopia, the Photography of Geoffrey James, opens at the National Gallery of Canada next summer.