Jonathan Williams

Excerpted from: The Camera Non-Obscura

The second mind is on how prodigal the times are; and how few of
us scrutinize hard enough and pay close enough attention. To
what? To our friends and loves, to what we eat and drink, to our
gardens, to our manners, to the arts; i.e., name me ten jazz pianists
to whet our appetite on this now-rainy day. Must I always be playing
just Herbie Nichols, Adam Makowicz, Thelonious Sphere
Monk, John Lewis, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Jelly Roll Morton,
McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, and Red
Garland? (And Three-Fingers Mamie Desdoumes, just to thicken
the plot.) A true fan should be able to name twenty-five exceptional
pianists from the history of jazz. And fifty photographers!
The USA, particularly, is glutted with world-class talent. Pass the
redeye gravy—it’s all happening.


I went to Black Mountain College in 1951 to learn how to use a
camera from Harry Callahan. There was a huge, myopic man
names Charles Olson shambling about the place and he turned me
in other directions. But, the interest in camera work and photographers
never left me. That summer I bought my first print. It was by
Aaron Siskind (also teaching with Callahan) and I paid ten dollars.

May I say that the idea of investing in photographs is absolutely
repulsive. Of course, this un-American sentiment comes from a hillbilly
idiot whose whole life must seem shockingly inept to most of
the citizens around him. He’s still messing around with child’s play
at the age of fifty-one and doesn’t even get paid very often, unlike
George Blanda—if he still has a toe. He doesn’t have any securities,
and no insurance. (His “Personal Banker” at Wachovia gets an
extra week of paid vacation for trying to cope with him.) He finds
it impossible to kill animals and—so far—humans. Yet, this cunning
snake-oil salesman from Parnassus County contrives to live
with more style than most millionaires. “Living well is the best
revenge.” If you are a Luftmensch, then a little Sitzfleisch won’t
hurt you, to coin a strange, new adage. Us rusticated goyim must
definitely live by our wits and our scattered talents. Remember,
“There is hope for us all—if we only get good pitching,” as my
friend Bill Midgette liked to say.

To get back to this investment business, I was just reading an issue
of Brown’s Guide to Georgia, that extremely surprising and useful
journal out of Atlanta. The writer was commenting on collectors of
photography in the state and called our attention to a young man
only sixteen years old who was already a two-year veteran. How
marvelous, I first thought. And then she quoted the young enthusiast
as saying he thinks the photography market is filling up with
people interested in small, quick investment gains. “He is selling off
a group of Civil War photographs as well as original prints by
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy to define his collection more tightly.” Silence,
of the stunned kind.

The Republic and the arts of the Nation are in plenty-bad-trouble
if sixteen-year-olds are as cold and calculating as adders in the
employ of Dow-Jones.

A final bit of advice: Avoid Big Names. Irving Penn, Walker Evans,
Bill Brandt—alas, we must leave them to the merchants and the
art lovers. If you are young and ungreedy and lacking in
megabucks, seek out the photographers your own age and collect
what moves you. (There are between one and two hundred excellent
photographers in this overloaded country.) Trade prints for
pots, or medical services, or legal advice, or words, or vegetables,
whatever. Never sell prints. Exchange them or give them away, if
you’ve worn them out or they’ve worn you out. And, always burn
with St. Walter Pater’s hard, gemlike flame: “…to maintain this
ecstasy, is success in life.”


Poets and photographers do not necessarily believe in public audiences
or constituencies. They believe in persons, with affection for
what they see and hear. They believe in that despised, un-contemporary
emotion: tenderness.


It is an excellent thing to look at photographs in which, as Oscar
Wilde must have observed, you get nothing but photography. That
is, images in service to Seeing. Not in service to Sociology, The
Class System, An Excess of Rationality, Cosmic Adumbrations,
Self-Expression, Masculinity, Document. One constantly hears in
England: “Art is not so important as People. Art is not so important
as Life. Art is not so important as Nature. Art is Small Beer.”
Blimey. Is it as important as itself? By Bright Apollo and by
Nicephore Niepce, let us declare that it is.

There’s an old saying, “You can’t turn a silk purse into a sow’s
ear.” Sure you can. We do it all the time. Most of us view the ordinary
with just about enough perception to keep from being run
over by a milk lorry. I think I have seen that phenomenon referred
to as “the economic determinism of vision,” but you will pardon
me if I eschew abstract nouns and the lingo of the academy. I like
prose to jump about, and dance and sing.

The North Carolinian/Cumbrian person writing these words sets
up in life with the vocation of poet—the only thing more silly than
being a photographer. I am neither authority nor critic. I am an
appreciator of photographs. What are poems for: Equally, what are
photographs for? Louis Zukofsky, who knows better than most,
says their purpose is to record and elate.

          Highlands, North Carolina
          Dentdale, Cumbria 1980/1981