Wednesday, February 24, 2010

the craving for grit

where does it come from? and do we like it only in fantasy?

i've been looking at the photos of brassai, a hungarian photographer who wandered pre-war paris, mostly at night, surprising people in brothels, sneaking up on public urinals, fascinated by street fairs. this is a wonderful book.

a friend of henry miller, there's the same kind of savior faire in his pictures, the love of grit.

now grit, like all great words, has two meanings. one is: you get riled up, focused, determined, and you do it (whatever it is). alas, the other association is with grime! sand in the axles, greasy spoons, dark alleys. and in some sense, both are true.

these old photos in black and white deliver us, temporarily, from the virtual world of image and color in which we live. they take us back to something basic. the tragedy is: we want to live in this reality only in imagination. we love big (huge, overblown) houses, fancy electric lights and bathroom fixtures, the creation of a desire to be royalty - an anthropology teacher in college said, 'we live better than any kings did before 1900.' yet our well-fed faces do crave those covered with lines, the feeling someone has lived through something, toughened up, survived. that's the charm of wwII in europe.

my first time in paris as a teenager in 1956 i reveled in the old cafes, the back streets. unfortunately or fortunately, paris at that very moment being spiffied up, the buildings being sand-blasted to tan and white, turning it into a backdrop for hollywood movies. (30's paris certainly a shadowy, grey place.) you can't take photos now as you could then. like my trip to russia in 1992, when the falling of the wall hadn't changed the set much, moscow reeked of stalin. i can't say i liked it, except as an artist everything so interesting. and grim, gritty. i don't say real, as this covers a multitude of sins. however, it taught me how basic and nasty life can be.

no, color doesn't cut it when it comes to grit. and believe me, russia at that moment a washed-out memory of imperial glory.