3. Meet Billy the Kid (On Portraiture, Two)

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In my previous post I raised the question, “why is it that commercial portraiture, which in the 19th century and into the 20th made up an overwhelming majority of all photographs taken, has received comparatively so little attention in the more established histories of photography?” Maybe the “What if God Was One of Us” video, with its weirdly mixed “message,” does not go far enough to answer this question, except to suggest, subliminally or subconsciously, that commercial portraiture is a game of masks, or fools, and an outdated one at that, perhaps even only appealing today to ethnic minorities and punk heads.

One simple answer is that in most portraits encountered in old albums or today in picture-sharing facilities, there is generally nothing to like or to learn—except perhaps numbers, formats, archival procedures—unless the viewer is related to the subject and in a position to reconstruct stories involving the image. Portraits are usually private. Their merits—the knowledge and care that pertain to them, the aspirations of the sitters through their representations—are private, and often ephemeral; memories attached to them fade fast. In portraits, then, there is nothing to learn or to like, unless some significant context or discourse can be recovered or imagined about them. It takes the compassionate, lyrical eye of a Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida to approach “the impossible science of the unique being” by uncovering a punctum in a portrait (and those examples where Barthes reads poignant details beneath conventional appearances, such as a James Van der Zee portrait of an African American family, are mostly artist portraits). Or it takes the assiduous care of a collector to turn private relics into semi-public documents testifying to the neglected art of commercial photography, or sometimes, with contextual luck, to vanished life stories.  This was one goal of the exhibition I curated in 2013, a selection of portraits from the Wm. B. Becker collection, featuring Becker’s micro-investigations of several mid-19th century Daguerreian portraits of somewhat known figures (Daguerre’s American Legacy). But for each portrait that can be “recovered,” millions remain locked away in silence.  The main exception is the celebrity portrait; it is really no exception, however, because portraits of celebrities are surrounded—indeed, preceded—by overabundant discourse.

My example is the celebrated tintype of Billy the Kid (William Henry McCarty by birth), shown here in the “corrected” version available through Wikipedia’s page and visible in “uncorrected,” i.e. laterally reversed and uncleaned, versions elsewhere:

This photograph was probably taken in 1879 or 1880, not long before the Lincoln County War hero was gunned down by Pat Garrett. It is generally regarded as his only authenticated portrait, because it was first reproduced, as an engraving, in Pat Garrett’s own An Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, published in 1882. It was later multiplied, transformed, embellished (and, often, degraded) in countless publications. Perhaps the best account of the Kid’s iconography—mostly derived from this one tintype—, and certainly the best online presentation I have found, is in an article by Robert G. McCubbin, who calls the Billy the Kid tintype “one of the most famous and most valuable photographs in history” (look at the picture gallery appended).

The fame of this tintype picked up again in 2011 when it was sold at auction at a staggering 2.3 million dollars, hitting the international press and becoming, according to Wikipedia, the seventh most expensive photograph ever sold (and a real oddity in Wikipedia’s top-20 list, which is filled with great (and mostly American) artist photographers from Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman to Alfred Stieglitz). The metal picture had been kept by descendants of Dan Dedrick, one of the outlaw’s friends to whom the tintype (one of several copies) was originally given. After being shown for some time in the 1990s at the Lincoln County Heritage Trust Museum, and having somewhat “disappeared,” it was brought to auction at a Western show, announced as a “Holy Grail” (see the picture gallery attached, including an analysis of objects visible in the image). Estimated at about $400,000, it was bought, at almost six times that value, by William Koch III, entrepreneur, one-time winner of the America’s Cup, millionaire, and art collector.

Prior to the sale this tintype had long been a topic of debates concerning, for example, the left/right reversal of the image, likely in a tintype (the Colt holster on Billy’s left hip in the image leading to the durable belief that he was left-handed), or the distortion of his jaw apparent in the image, possibly caused by glare from the reflector visible at left in the tintype and picked up or even strengthened in many engravings and pulp illustrations between 1881 and the 1950s. The sale generated even more publicity. It may have led to the “discovery” of a second “authentic” image of Billy the Kid, where he allegedly appears in company with Dan Dedrick, a conjecture that led interested parties to resort to the services of a former police forensic detective. Again, this discovery made international news. This succession of high-profile operations naturally revived former speculations about other photographs of the Kid, which are found aplenty on various blogs. The Billy the Kid tintype definitely has not only a context but a history—at least in the form of a sizeable amount of “historical” literature that uses the image either as illustration or as subject for forensic and/or photographic investigation.

The literature here is evidence of a strong American trend of exploring, if not dissecting, photographs, especially portraits of celebrities—a trend that arguably began with Frederick Meserve’s The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln (1910) and continues unabated (for Lincoln, see for instance George Sullivan’s Picturing Lincoln [2000]). Such investigations sometimes lead to discoveries, contradicting the lazy notion that there is nothing to learn or to like in an old portrait: Billy the Kid wore a hand-knit wool cardigan under his jacket, like the mommy’s boy he once was; his particular models of the Winchester rifle and the Colt revolver seem to “make sense,” because they used the same cartridges…

Whether involving famous portraits or famous images of unknown figures (such as Richard Drew’s Falling Man of 9/11, as explored by Tom Junod), such investigations are interesting culturally, in that they illustrate a double faith, democratic and empirical: in the power of individuals to “make history,” or at least to impersonate it, and in the power of photographs to represent such actions. Robert Taft, in his 1938 Photography and the American Scene, already attributed “historic value” to Mathew Brady’s portraits of Lincoln, though he did not mention the Kid tintype. At the same time, these meticulous investigations also imply a deep skepticism towards established icons, or the discourse surrounding them, and ultimately the very faith in images that they continue to promote: a dialectics of faith and skepticism that has characterized American approaches to pictures (and signs more generally) from Benjamin Franklin to Sherrie Levine and Errol Morris.

Above all, such investigations refer to the great cult of (heroic) images that American culture has continually nurtured over the past 250 years. After the 2011 sale, Bob McCubbin asked in another piece on the Billy the kid tintype, “why is this picture so important and valuable?” Here is his answer, which almost sounds like a sales pitch:

▪       “It is one of the most widely recognized photographs of all time.

▪       It is the ONLY authentic photograph of one of America’s most famous historical figures.

▪       There is ONLY ONE known original… the one being offered here at auction.

▪       Billy the Kid continues to capture the imagination of people worldwide 130 years after his death, and I am sure will continue to do so. His only photograph has become an icon of the Old West. ”

Individually, these reasons don’t hold. No one in Paris or Tokyo, or even in New York, would consider this photograph “one the most widely recognized of all time.” It is not mentioned in any of the standard histories of photography, nor in Martha Sandweiss’s  Print The Legend: Photography and the American West, for which it would have made a fitting example. Billy the Kid may be considered by many to be one of America’s most famous historical figures. But it is debatable how much he really “continues to capture the imagination of people worldwide,” anymore than, say, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, James Dean or Michael Jackson.

It does seem, however, that McCubbin hits the mark when one adds up his “reasons.” This metal plate is the only known original (among four presumed copies) of the only authenticated photograph (among hundreds of legendary images and millions of replicas) of a famous historical figure. And, I might add, of a famous outlaw, who had to make himself scarce to escape those who saw his rogue face on “Wanted” posters, so that the existence of an authentic photograph of him is a kind of historical miracle, or rather, a spectacular reminder of a popular gangster hero’s ability to flaunt the law and posture for the photographer as he wanted to be remembered.

It is, then, a consummate American icon, whose value derives from the million copies, derivations, stories, and sales that have been generated from it, in addition to its obvious ideological worth in a Wild-West nostalgic libertarian mindset, as a relic of a benevolent justicer, an anti-establishment, anti-government, and perhaps anti-modern lonesome cowboy.

There is not much, in fact, that we can (still) learn from the Billy the Kid tintype (though we would like to know its maker and the circumstances under which it was made). But the possibilities for more stories (and sales) growing out of it still are endless. That makes it a rather typical icon, but an unusual portrait, comparable perhaps to the Che Guevara portrait by Alberto Korda, though the targeted audiences of these two popular icons may be different. Relatively few portraits, indeed, have joined the ranks of certified American icons, aside from those of the Founding Fathers; but, like this one, even those portraits that have become pop icons still do not really “count” for our traditional, art-historically oriented histories of photography, any more than the billions of obscure individual images which we all keep to ourselves.

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9 Comments

  1. Jean Kempf
    Posted 4. February 2014 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    François Brunet raises the question of the limited — if non existent
    – place of “commercial portraiture” in the histories of photography
    and adds that for one celebrated image thousands remain “locked in
    archival silence.” By using one of the few “counter-examples” he is
    also able to point at the work of those who — by profession — try to
    unlock the silence of those portraits.
    His post set me thinking, and I’d like to share a couple of those
    thoughts, which do not directly “answer” his statements — I agree with
    most of them — but rather extend his points in other directions.

    1) “Anonymous” images, as most of these portraits have become, have
    been a constant source of fascination for viewers, collectors and
    historians alike. Of course they were not made as “anonymous pictures”
    – they too had a family once! if you excuse the metaphor — but they
    have become floating objects by virtue of being dissociated from their
    context. This decontextualization may be accidental (lost connection
    with the makers), voluntary (editorial choice to iconicize the image),
    or just engrained in their circumstances (they were made as private pix
    and were meant to remain so). (A last instance is that of machine-made
    pictures, but those are not technically and historically anonymous –
    they are just more mechanical than others.)
    In all cases, they trigger two kinds of fantasies. One is
    forensic/historical: reconstructing the lineage, finding the name
    of the falling man
    so to speak, certifying the “authenticity” of
    the image (Billy the Kid), etc. It’s an academic (or antiquarian)
    version of the scopic drive to enter into images and go beyond what
    they just offer the viewer. This is something all of us have
    experienced, especially in front on prints from large format cameras
    which encourage this illusion with their high definition: go as far as
    the grain or the pixels will allow and even beyond. It’s what Blow
    Up
    (the short story by Cortázar and the movie by Antonioni
    illustrate) is about. Google Earth or Satellite View have the same
    effect when we zoom in on some place/object seen from the sky (the TV
    series 24 has made
    us conversant with that feature/godlike position). But it can be
    triggered by blurry photographs as well. One of my earliest encounter
    with it was through this famous image of the picture
    of Ruth Snyder on the electric chair
    published in the New York Daily News of January 13,
    1928, in itself a fascinating attempt at reaching the exact moment of
    death (although we know that by electrocution it’s a rather protracted
    one…) to “tame” it, or face the incredible act of putting another
    human being to death.
    The other is “artistic.” Found photographs, and more generally
    anonymous pictures or pictures of “anonymous” people (understand of
    common people who do not matter to anybody but their community) have
    long fascinated photographers and collectors alike. In the 1930s Walker
    Evans even made it one of his signatures (Penny
    Picture Display, Savannah
    & Anonymous
    Subway Riders
    ). Paradoxically enough — or is it? — these
    anonymous pictures were used to make highly non-anonymous
    photographs/works which became well-identified works of art, and added
    status — and often income — to their “maker”. Marcel Duchamp
    popularized the process in “high art” but photography was almost born
    with it — although a history of that practice remains to be written to
    clarify the chronologies (See also a recent project by Arianna Arcara
    and Luca Santese, Found
    Photos in Detroit
    ). I tend to think that the same is happening of
    artists using Google view today to produce “works”. But simple amateurs
    and collectors have also been most active in that field:
    - a Flickr! group was created to that effect calling itself the Museum of
    Found Photographs
    ;
    - Abandoned
    Photos museum
    (Philadelphia) (note the anthropomorphic term)
    - Found Photographs a
    Gallery of inadvertent art
    .
    The word of institutional art has now picked up on the trend and made
    it into a most legitimate art practice (Other
    Pictures: Vernacular
    Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection
    at the MET in 2000
    and
    The Art of the
    American Snapshot
    at the NGA in Washington in 2007. Last
    summer two high profile NY galleries simultaneoulsy showed collections
    of “found photographs” (“Snap
    Noir: Snapshot Stories From the
    Collection of Robert E. Jackson
    ” and “Photo
    Brut: As Collected by
    David Winter
    ”).
    The status of “anonymous” photos as floating objects is also basic to
    internet porn, one of the most flourishing aspect of the web. After all
    who would want to see somebody one knows there, and who would want to
    know the “real” histories of these “fake” (?) subjects as they are made
    to be mere “objects” of the viewer’s lust? Here the photograph ceases
    to be the “proof” of something, or that something happened. Rather the
    opposite. It must remain in the limbo of “virtual space.”

    2) Anonymous portraits (or should we now say decontextualized images)
    however, never stop being used for their very anonymity. Think of the
    war
    portraits
    by David Douglas Duncan, and more recently by Louis
    Palu
    (but many more could be quoted). Granted: they are not
    anonymous as both subject and photographer are identified. When the
    subject or the condition of the making are unclear (Capa’s
    Fallen soldier
    ), then a fascinating yet often inconclusive forensic
    search can start, never, however, weakening the appeal of the raw image
    itself. For the “real” facts are just for the specialist. For most
    viewers (as I could verify in the recent war/photo exhibition by
    talking to “anonymous” visitors), these portraits remain anonymous but
    are remembered, liked, and treasured for their iconic function.
    Migrant
    Mother
    ” by Dorothea Lange is a perfect example of that.
    Whereas historians have reconstructed the original caption, the
    original context and the “real” history of Florence Thompson (rather an
    interesting one), and although a photographer (Bill Ganzel, Dust Bowl
    Descent
    ) went as far as finding her in the late 1970s and
    duplicating
    the famous image (the same was done with some of Arbus’
    portraits
    ), the
    public remembers the iconic figure. Period. The reason is rather
    simple. For the “common” viewer (and for picture editors as well) the
    anonymity of the subject makes it possible for the production of the
    metaphoric effect most (all?) “documentary” photography relies on. Even
    with professional historians, the fantasy it triggers — discovering
    what happened after the image was taken, and what has become of the
    subject — is much more than a mere academic pursuit. It is the direct
    confrontation with our own mortality.
    The web has made possible the combination of the two pursuits,
    collecting anonymity and re-inserting the anonymous, mute images in a
    new narrative, a sort of intellectual crowd-sourcing around images. One
    of the high profile projects to do so is Susan Meiselas’ Kurdistan. There are also many
    sites around WW1 soldiers, probably an effect of the anniversary
    (1,
    2, 3).
    A number of “displaced communities” — in France I know the case of the
    pieds-noirs (“people of French and other European ancestry who lived in
    French North Africa” to quote Wikipedia) but I’m sure there are many
    others elsewhere — which are attempting to reconstruct a photo memory
    of their former lives using family albums and the still living members.

    • François Brunet
      Posted 6. February 2014 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

      Thank you Jean! What a wealth of examples and insights, once again. I am particularly interested in what you describe as “a sort of intellectual crowd sourcing” at the end of your post, i.e. the use of the web and social networks to reconstruct, relocate, recontextualize photos and their lost identities/narratives. I believe this is a relatively novel option, entirely due to the Internet 2.0 facility. But there are, today, many “counter-examples” to the rule of archival silence which I perhaps too hastily laid out. And as you have yourself pointed out to me in an e-mail after your post, there are also interesting ventures in the world of commercial/studio photography archives, as in this example of “the race to save a hauntingly beautiful photo archive” of a Rumanian portrait photographer during World War I (http://lightbox.time.com/2014/02/04/costica-acsinte-archive/#1), where, as the writer says, “the greater part of their allure comes not from the information revealed, but from what is obscured and denied to the viewer.”
      Here, I have to agree that the attraction is explicitly linked to loss of context, the voids left by time, death, forgetting, and wear. So we do have “decontextualization” and “artification”, to use a term favored by some sociologists. And we do recognize a procedure that has become a standard tool not only of many art practices since Duchamp but also of many critical and counter-critical approaches, particularly when it comes to celebrating the “objet trouvé” or, conversely, debunking the art market-inspired transfer of photographs from one so-called “discursive space” (Rosalind Krauss) to another, for instance, in the case of T.H. O’Sullivan, from the survey report or album to the gallery wall and auction house table. But this line of argument, which concerns all photographs in general, still leaves me a bit frustrated, regarding my initial topic.
      In the case of commercial portrait photography, I really wonder if the notion really applies—I mean, I am finding that on the whole, there has been very little “decontextualization”. And, more importantly perhaps, there has been even less recontextualization — or serious study — whether artistic or sociological or other. For instance, who has seriously studied the Studio d’Harcourt’s production, even though it is often cited and sometimes reproduced? Or, less prominent, the incredibly fine production of a studio such as Fred Boissonnas’s in Geneva around 1900? There has been a little more, doubtless, of American studios (Sarony is one case in point; and a major landmark was the “Young America” exhibition and catalogue of the Southworth & Hawes daguerreotype studio production, co-produced by ICP and the George Eastman House, http://museum.icp.org/museum/exhibitions/southworth_hawes/). Still, for a number of reasons, these types of explorations, especially when they involve dealing with a corpus of several thousand images, do not make into mainstream narratives of the history of images.
      Now to the question of anonymity. This is a tricky one. I completely agree that the production of anonymity is, or has been, one of the recurring factors of much “documentary”, “humanistic”, and even “journalistic” photography and photo reportage. But as the rephotographic and archaeological inquiries you cite suggest, there is often a chance — at least for those “iconic” photographs whose subjects one is used to thinking of as anonymous — that the subjects will be identified; in fact, this type of “forensic” quest for the real person behind the iconic mask has become, at least on the American editorial scene, something of an industry. But what about the anonymity that produces itself within, say, my very own family? I have been trying to identify the subjects of a group of family portraits from my grandmother’s archives, subjects who are only three generations removed from me; and I am, in most cases, reduced to guess work, i.e. interpolations and inductions based on recurrence of some faces that I can identify with certainty in various groups; but even the similarity of a face from one portrait to the next leaves me in doubt. Now you are right to point out that this type of search is very common nowadays, among individual families but also among “communities” of various sizes and origins. And of course it is not so new, as a whole fictional literature of found portraits and musings on mysterious faces seen in them testifies. Still, I do think this is also a topic that ought to be of more concern to the histories of photography of today, or of the future. When in the future — assuming that means of durably preserving photographs and especially digital images are found — families and historians will be separated from the time of picture-making not by one century, as is about the norm for a lot of European families today, but by two or three, what sort of a relationship — what sort of knowledge — will be attached to such photographic portraits? Will they become as meaningless as laundry tickets?

      • Bill Gleeson
        Posted 21. February 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        It could very well be that anonymity maintains a certain power over the viewer, whether it is through its surveyor’s quality to set the boundaries of knowledge or through its capacity to serve as a memento mori, sternly reminded us of how fleet simple awareness of another person’s existence really is. Though I do as you do, François, attempting to reconstruct family histories through connecting the dots of images and oral histories, I often wonder how much I will really ever know. Yes, I’ll have a face to a name and an anecdote, but it will always be fragmentary and thus always slightly sad. It also shows us just how interlaced image and language are. Are we looking for our images to be “immemorial” as Agamben might call it, hurrying on from memory to memory, suggestion that is obviously doomed to failure? Maybe that is what attracts us, that flirting with a kind of perfection, in both its meanings — the state and the action toward the state.

        Your last line is almost like a gauntlet thrown down: I’m tempted to investigate laundry tickets now.

        • François Brunet
          Posted 26. February 2014 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

          Bill, I am responding belatedly to your answer, which I had not seen before. First, I think “laundry tickets” is an aberrant translation of the French “tickets de blanchisserie” (more properly translated I think by something like dry cleaner’s receipts or stubs), a phrase used generically to refer to meaningless scraps left by famous people (writers etc.) which some doting collectors or scholars will treasure as if they contained crucial information or even some existential-chemical connections to their vanished owners. But the question we are dealing with here revolves, I think, about the question of what we call “archives”, and of how photographs are placed/positioned/inserted/viewed in and out of archives. “Perfect archives” might be, for instance, archives (I insist on the plural) where images are not “immemorial” in Agamben’s sense but rather reasonably memorial, because connected. I am writing my next post about this issue of archives, so perhaps we can continue the conversation.

  2. François Brunet
    Posted 8. February 2014 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    PS to “the forensic quest for historical persons behind iconic masks has become something of an industry”: read a new story of this kind in the Seattle Times, posted recently on the Photohistory list: http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2022806837_childlaborxml.html, “Historian solves mystery of iconic 1908 child-labor photo”. This is one of the Lewis Hine portraits of young girl textile workers in a North Carolina cotton mill. ““I never cease to be amazed when I find descendants of people in the photos,” said Manning, 72, a retired social worker in Florence, Mass. “I’m not only giving them back their history, but I’m giving the children (in the photos) back their dignity.”” The facial historian, so to speak, works out linkages by posting people’s photos online and associating names with them, asking possible descendants to respond, and then tries to correlate the original photos’ faces with later pictures of them provided by descendants, using the help of a forensic detective. In his statement I note the intention to “give back” not only history but “dignity”—as if the anonymization subsequent to iconification was a form of indignity. The irony of this is, of course, that Lewis Hine and other similar photo-reformers were themselves intent on restoring dignity to their subjects.

  3. Nils Plath
    Posted 11. February 2014 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    For the informed reader of Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory (Oxford University Press, 1979), a book worth rediscovering again and again from time to time, the fine example of the photographic portrait of Billy the Kid and his story reads almost too good to be true. For where better than in this nicely re-narrated story of a picture and the reiteration of the fascinating historical impact of this one exemplary image of a well-known figure taken by a nameless photographer one could hope to rediscover what Thompson described as “creation and destruction in value”–for the times to come, the days of a supposedly increasingly dematerialized presence of things? Where Thompson quite literally pursues his topic, and considers “rubbish” metaphorically as well as very concrete (when, for example, talking about woven silk pictures called Stevengraphs), it can be this exemplary one among the very ‘made up’ views of portraitures (faces as names) that might provide us with an unforeseen, far-reaching understanding of the “transitions in between transients and durables” and the “dynamic processes by which value is created and destroyed” that Thompson is so interested in (as Jonathan Culler had it in “Junk and Rubbish: A Semiotic Approach,” his essay on Thompson’s study (Diacritics 15 (1985)). Like any given object, faces reproduced do not just possess and enjoy their (face) value, but will instead be subject to production and (re)utilization processes – and thereby continuously anew reflect the representations of self-understandings and identities. Historians with an interest in discourse analysis might take the small scale image from the hand of an unknown photographer as an impulse to carry out a broad comparative historical research. As a picture taken just before the point in time when cameras came into the hands of everyone–with the introduction of first handheld amateur camera, the Kodak camera, in 1888 by George Eastman (advertised with the famous slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.”), one could make it the starting point to look at the mirror images and effects produced on both sides of the Atlantic. Maybe starting with the history of the photo studios in the New World (see: http://www.langdonroad.com/) to work out what might then became apparent vast differences in the tradition of portraits on both sides of the transatlantic divide. Traditions that must be viewed as those bearing very different conceptional modes of representation of the “man in the crowd” (Edgar Allan Poe) versus the so-called celebrities, as exceptionally well demonstrated by high school yearbook pictures (non-existing in the German context for instance; and omnipresent in the daily life of the U.S. as an seemingly endless (and for certain not timeless, but very time-bound) series of depictions of equals from which single ones are then being extracted and put on display once their face holders will have gained fame or won notoriety (see for a collection: http://www.celebyearbookphotos.com). These differences about who is considered to be valuable enough to be chosen, singled out, and made into a portrait that stands out could also be looked upon from the other angle, the European one, considering the business of the studio photographer as a new trait within the long historical tradition of traditional portraiture; in view of what were once new, now historical photographic pictures today on display in most recently restored collections that testify to a certain newly kindled interest in the pictorial representional modes of the bourgeoise in the 19th-century (see, for example, the collection of photographic portraits by Friedrich Hundt from Münster/Germany who was the first to open a photo studio in this Westphalian town in 1840, and became the first photo pioneer and a thereby a highly respectable figure in the local establishment he help to represent in his portraits; http://www.lwl.org/marsLWL/instance/ko.xhtml?oid=234612730&viewType=list). –

    The single one “original” as well as the many images of Billy the Kid also reflect a very American story of the fascination with (true) crime and criminals that often displays its fairly glamorous character. (I was recently reminded of it when watching Capote (2005) again, Bennett Miller’s movie, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. There is a brief scene in the film when Richard Avedon is flown to rural Kansas from New York City by request of Truman Capote in order to take some portraits of the very Perry Edward Smith and Richard Eugene Hickock, imprisoned murder suspects who where later convicted, sentenced to death, and killed by the authorities. Avedon–whose first photo book, Observations (1959), had roughly been published a year earlier with a commentary by Capote–is explicitly referred to in the film dialogue as a fashion photographer: it was the portraits by him that granted the two man in police custody their very own celebrity status in the public eye (http://hollywood-elsewhere.com/images/column/122305/perrytrumanbest2.jpg) Today, at least one of the pictures that were first published in Life Magazine and added to the popularization of their crime (and to Capote’s account of it, first in a series of stories in the New Yorker, later in through his novel In Cold Blood) has made its way into the museum, and is part of the photographic collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art today (Richard Avedon: “Dick Hickock, Murderer, Garden City, Kansas, April 15, 1960,” http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/101069#ixzz2susGD9qh
    ) (Let me add a side note here: Proof of the point that photo-enthusiasts are often attentive movie viewers and careful observers can be seen in an entry into the relevant movie database imdb: “When we see the “prints” of the Richard Avedon photographs [in the movie Capote], the type of film can be seen in the black border – it reads as ” Agfa APX 400″. Agfa did not begin manufacturing their APX line of films until the 1990s. More over, Richard Avedon’s preferred film for shooting portraiture at the time was Kodak Plus -X. ” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0379725/goofs))

    No one in his right mind would accuse the buyer of the Billy the Kid-image, William Koch, to enjoy the perverse pleasure of possessing the portrait of a killer or an outlaw stylized as a hero (as is maybe true in the case of followers of Charles Manson wearing the portrait of the murderer-turned-cultural-icon taken from the title page of Life Magazine in 1969 and dispalying it in public. http://life.time.com/history/charles-manson-on-trial-madness-visible/#1; http://www.redbubble.com/shop/charles+manson+t-shirts). I would argue the act of Koch’s purchasing of this unique image is more telling than just displaying a desire and longing to possess the one and (maybe) only picture of someone “who made history.” (Always a very dubious claim in the first place.) By producing a valuable icon through paying an obscene price for it and thus achieving it high up in the score boards of the
    trade markets (and in the minds of those who enjoy looking at statistics to get an idea about the value of things and people), the small picture from the past is given meaning to in the present. As singled out among the thousands of photographs from a bygone era, and with its reattached new meaning (via the paid price in a legal currency), it gains new meaning and power, and turns into a means of domination the image of history. Via its very public purchase that was staged to make the news, the image became the product of a reinvention, and the whole trade an act of historiography. Taking the image into possession can in fact be understood as an act of writing history in the present. To overwrite other histories that is. It is safe to say that its buyer did not have to purchase this photograph belonging to the stock of American iconographic images because it would have become a victim of the tooth of time otherwise very soon. He also did not save it for posterity, because there was no need for any costly restorative action in order to keep it from becoming rubbish. His intentions were hardly that of a conservatory nature. And Mr. Koch also did not buy and then donated it to a public institution or to the permanent collection of a public museum to keep it out of the hand of speculators and keep it in the public domain. (The hefty sum for which it was auctioned off could have otherwise put to use in order to safe large numbers of historic pictures or even complete collections, whereby making a valuable contribution to the preservation of images that help maintaining the diversity of histories and the history. Numerous photo projects are dedicated to this very historic task: http://www.loc .gov/pictures/collection/lilj/ ,http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/633_lilj_measure.html, http://ronaldscoddington.wordpress.com/african-american-faces-of-the-civil-war/) Rather, with purchasing the portrait of Billy the Kid, Mr. Koch purchased a relic, an icon with which he can glorify the Old West. As expressed in his own words, cited by the news agencies (and in the re-narration of the image’s fascinating history in François post): “I love the old West, ” he said. “This is a part of American history.” What is being displayed in this image from the 19th Century and conveyed in the plural realities of the 21st century is much more than just a private nostalgia for a past that never was. The picture is nothing else but a prop for furnishing of a specific worldview. A piece of interior decoration, and yet much more than just decor. An item to illustrate and reconfirm a mind-set, and object to object pluralism and multitude in American history. One can find this nicely illustrated in the home story on the pages of Antiques & Fine Art Magazine (Thanks for the very informative link! Here it is again: http://www.antiquesandfineart.com/articles/article.cfm?request=440). Koch’s highly restorative ethos can be seen mirrored in the furniture of his residence and in the interior decor items and collectibles from particular eras of (white & imperialist) American history. It can quite obviously be seen as the moving force behind his and his brother’s reactionary and aggressive political agenda, pursued by any means necessary (and with big money donated to right-wing think tanks)–namely an one in all anti-social libertarian attitude, displaying no social conscience whatsoever (besides kind patronage allocations and alms), with no sense of communal spirit, and no sympathy for the needy and the underprivileged. Thus, the picture purchased to serve in today’s world as a token of a certain idealized image of a historical “America” (i.e. the Old West) becomes an object of reflection on what has been the unifying topic of our debate: the conflicting representations of “our” world(s) in pictures, the constructing of us (as in: U.S.) when we take images under view, and (referencing Gertrude Stein) the Making of Americans (like us) via the circulation of certain images, and the oppression of others.
    Needless to say that Mr. Koch would never have taken home certain other iconic pictures from the countless number of other portraits representing “America” over the course of the last two hundreds years, and would have not paid for them 45 times what was the median income of an household in the US (according to census figures for 2012) to add a single piece of decor to it. I cannot image his home being the right place for pictures of the Chinese railroad workers who disappeared almost faceless and without a trace after providing the connecting lines spanning the continent during the lifetime of Billy the Kid (http://cprr.org/Museum/Nevada_8-2005_GJGraves/pictures/1285120-R1-002-00A.html). Nor for those connect to the Haymarket Riots (http://www.chicagohistory.org/hadc/visuals/phototoc.htm)–nor the iconic double portrait of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (http://movies2.nytimes.com/2007/03/29/movies/30sacc.html?ref=movies). I cannot image to see the self-conscious self-stylization of a weapon-bearing man who would (like so many revolutionary voices) fall victim of an assassination on Mr. Koch’s mantle piece either (http://books.google.ca/books?id=bejF5O-tvasC&pg=PA143). Not even John Filo’s Pulitzer Price-winning shot of Jeffrey Miller shot by the National Guard on the campus of Kent State University (http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2013/05/04/may_4_1970_the_kent_state_university_shootings_told_through_pictures_photos.html). No room for portraits of John Trudell (http://prisonphotography.org/tag/john-trudell/) or Ruben Salazar ( http://ia.utep.edu/Default.aspx?tabid=52257), I’d image. All of which are portraits that will not easily and without resistance correspond with the simple single image that William Koch holds on to (as a notion of his America, and as an artifact) and tries to reinstall as the one of the United States called America. All the other would just cause unwanted disturbances of the nicely conserved and reiterated image of the Old Glory, I suppose. And yet they serve, each one of them with its very historical context, as counter-images to the one in question and put on display to (re)write history with all the might of the cheque book. One by one to be held side by side and against the one(s) being used to write a people’s history that is not a people history but one of capital interests disguised as a nostalgia for the past (a sentiment that gets us all!). It is the very contrast (and the antagonism) between these images of America (a land founded by a sprit of resistance against authoritative forms of representation and shaped by the utilization of strong scopic and “image regimes”)–the so-called third-image (the Jean-Luc Godard speaks of, and the one Alexander Kluge constantly refers to) that remains invisible as such, and yet can present as an idea and a notion of the imagination– that provides us with a multiple image of what we can see in the pictures of Billy at all. as American icons (and that might be a historical stance after all).

  4. Nils Plath
    Posted 11. February 2014 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    A little postscript: Valentine’s Day is approaching fast. To honor this “invented” day of sharing and naming (someone as someone special), here are some portraits as collected by the editors of the New Yorker, from last year: http://m.newyorker.com/online/blogs/photobooth/2013/02/slide-show-photographing-love.html#slide_ss_0=1

  5. Nils Plath
    Posted 11. February 2014 at 3:27 am | Permalink
  6. François Brunet
    Posted 11. February 2014 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Nils — I had been wondering about your reactions to this Billy the Kid excursion. You have a very good point about the act of purchase and the very self-conscious publicizing of it as being fully integral to the (re)writing of the history (of this photograph and other things as well). And while I did not go into an examination of William Koch’s collection and special tastes as a connoisseur, nor check into his exact connection(s) to Koch Industries, similar thoughts were on my mind while looking at the Antiques and Fine Arts article. As I am now preparing my next post, which will revolve around the notions of history and “making history” in photographs, I am not going to dwell here. Here let me just express appreciation for your references to the Friedrich Hunt archive and the Avedon/Capote story (complete with Agfa) as well as your eloquent defense of “other” portraits and histories being occulted by the Billy the Kid saga. As evidenced by the case of the now famous Zealy daguerreotypes of African American slaves denuded and photographed for Louis Agassiz, however, brought to prominence by Alan Trachtenberg and others in the 1980s and 1990s, and now become near standard texts in the pedagogy of racialist thinking (see for instance http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/?p=439) and even, through reproduction, commodities of sort, changes in fame do not always “profit” only to history’s winners—which is, in fact, not Billy the Kid’s category anyway. What I will readily grant is that discussing the historiographical fate of professional portraiture by means of the Billy the Kid example is, again, choosing a tortuous route (I have been doing perhaps too much of that). I am, nonetheless, interested in the ways and mechanisms that allow such an absurd amount to be spent (to be, that is, motivated) for a “historical” photograph that, pace Bob McCubbin, is not that famous, has little if any historical value (but what is that? we will see…), and that, in spite of our common liberal suspicions towards Western American and other forms of government-bashing, is hardly a “conservative” icon. But what I am even more interested in is the fact that neither this image — with the various cults and possible counter-cults attached to it — nor, more generally, photographs such as the ones of Sacco and Vanzettti, John Trudell, or Kent State — which I can just imagine becoming, at some point, very valuable collectibles — nor, in general, most commercial portraiture and photojournalistic portraiture have made it and likely will make it in art museum-oriented histories of photography. This is perhaps no surprise, but it nonetheless indicates a direction in which, to my eyes, more work is needed.

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