Richard Kalvar: “Looking for Things in the Street”
By Eric GudasAugust 22, 2019
Richard Kalvar by Richard Kalvar
A NAKED MAN leans forward, caught in mid-sashay, high up on the Brooklyn Bridge’s otherwise unpeopled pedestrian walkway. His legs, one straight, the other partly bent, form a vulnerable triangle that finds an echo in the bridge’s iconic towers that rise behind him. Besides the man’s bare body and the wooden slats that his footpads traverse, everything in Richard Kalvar’s photograph, Brooklyn Bridge. New York. 1969, is built from carved stone, asphalt, metal, and other durable, human and machine-fashioned materials. The suspension cables crisscross each other to form a swarm of parallelograms, while right down the center of the frame runs a metal, rivet-studded bar, and, just below, a car’s chrome flank moves parallel with the broken white lines that divide the asphalt’s sleek gray and black surface. The man’s feet almost hover above the wooden walkway instead of resting on it, even as one arm, hanging toward his feet, and the other, laid crosswise just where his belly meets his crotch, pull his torso forward and downward. In 1930, Modernist poet Hart Crane envisioned the Brooklyn Bridge as a paradox of limitless motion bound by stasis: “Implicitly thy freedom staying thee.” The Brooklyn-born Kalvar transfers Crane’s paradox to the human form — no, to this human form, this particular balding man, rendered motionless by Kalvar’s lens, droopily nude, dignified by his willingness to brave a wind that courses across the East River for reasons known only to him and perhaps also to Kalvar. The photograph’s title reveals little, although its date reinforces the slyly anarchic ’60s spirit that pervades Kalvar’s work, even beyond that decade. The year 1969 also hints at the possibility that Kalvar documented some sort of “happening” on the bridge. Indeed, decades later, Kalvar mused, “That’s what I like to do: play with ordinary reality using unposed actors who are oblivious to the dramas I’ve placed them in.”
Kalvar, born in 1944, and based in Paris since 1970, has “play[ed] with ordinary reality” for almost 55 years. Hervé Le Goff’s excellent introduction to Thames & Hudson’s monograph on Kalvar’s work, clearly based on an exchange with the photographer himself, and a capsule biography in the back, provide a useful overview of Kalvar’s journey from a Brooklyn childhood to a cosmopolitan, globe-trotting adulthood as a professional photographer. I’m struck by Kalvar’s development as an artist on his own time and on his own terms, from the mid-’60s to early ’70s, with guidance freely given by mentors in New York and Europe, just before artistic mentorship became codified (and monetized) by MFA programs. Kalvar belongs to the last generation of American visual artists and writers who didn’t need MFAs to pursue careers in their fields.
After dropping out of Cornell in 1965, he worked in New York as assistant to the fashion photographer Jérôme Ducrot. “I tried my hand at fashion,” he recalls, “but I clearly wasn’t cut out for it. But my boss let me borrow his cameras, I started looking for things in the street.” The streets of Manhattan became Kalvar’s training ground; he also made a 65-rolls-of-film trip to Europe and Morocco, with an old camera Ducrot gave him as a going-away present. (He later returned to Cornell to finish his undergraduate degree.) Ten years after he’d first taken up photography, Kalvar waited in Paris, on one, for him, momentous day in 1975, while members of Magnum Photos, at their Annual General Meeting, evaluated his portfolio at the suggestion of photographer Marc Riboud. And voilà! Our hero became an associate member of Magnum not long after his 30th birthday and ascended soon after to a full membership in 1977.
The rest of Kalvar’s vitae, with its lengthy roll call of commissions, travels on assignment (he touched down in Turkey, Belgium, Cologne, twice in the United States, Rome, Tunisia, and Paris between 1979 and 1980 alone), his list of leadership positions within Magnum, and his associations with such prestigious organizations as the World Economic Forum, compels me less than the earlier story part of his story, when a college dropout arrives in Europe in 1967 with one gifted camera and two lenses, two years after having commenced his apprenticeship to Ducrot, during which time, he remembers, “the photographic ignoramus that I was learned both technique and history.” Nevertheless, Kalvar has retained that young man’s spirit — looking for things in the street — that photography is wherever you find it, as in the recent photo, France. Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré. 2014, with its parade of shadows that resemble film noir tough guys in silhouette, Giacometti sculptures, and pools of spilled ink all woozily traversing a patch of wet asphalt.
This book, the latest in the Photo Poche/Photofile series, contains 64 of Kalvar’s impromptu “dramas” taken between 1969 and 2017, gorgeously reproduced in black-and-white. The series’ pocket-sized format dovetails with the work’s peripatetic spirit. The book reads as a sequence of love letters to Paris, Rome, and New York. Like most practitioners of so-called street photography, Kalvar is drawn to public places: sidewalks, parks, bus stops, squares, carousels, subway stations, storefronts. His particular preoccupation lies in the semi-private existences submerged beneath the faces, both sentient and non-sentient, that he locates in his viewfinder, and which flare up into spontaneous narratives, fortuitously, when his shutter clicks. Since Kalvar is out there on the internet — see his 1,000-plus image Instagram account at @richardkalvar — I brashly asked him if he considers himself a “street photographer.” His answer:
What I do is unposed-pictures-of-people-(mostly)-in-scenes-I-discover-through-observation-which-tell-or-imply-individual-stories-that-stand-by-themselves-without-the-need-for-additional-photos. A bit long, you say? Well, you might call it ‘Street Photography’ for short, knowing all the while that the pictures are often taken when walking around the streets, but not necessarily.
From Kalvar’s definition, “stories” jumps out at me, since he eschews linear narration for a carefully built-up sense of mystery, often combined with the absurd or comic. Elsewhere, Kalvar says his approach is “more like poetry than photojournalism — it attacks on the emotional level” (hence the keen interest of this poet in his photographs). Kalvar’s ways of telling stories by not telling them include dramatizing his preoccupation with humans and animals in repose; presenting out-of-the-ordinary situations with little to no context or explanation (his captions generally provide only place and date); discovering the grotesqueness in many of his subjects; and articulating, through his work itself, a view of humans on a continuum with animals, plants, architecture, and art — especially sculpture (he titled his first career retrospective, published in 2007, Earthlings). Finally, he possesses an ability to find profound pathos in the potentially comic, in the sense of the Oxford English Dictionary’s sub-definition: “provocative of mirth; laughable, ludicrous.”
Santa Claus waiting for a train at the Bleecker Street subway platform (New York, 1976) looks “provocative of mirth” in juxtaposition with the businesspeople arrayed sparsely behind him, dressed for the office and holding newspapers. But look at this Santa’s face and you’ll see profound exhaustion, almost a malaise; and despite his glasses, he appears the opposite of avuncular (although not threatening in any way). He’s another overworked Manhattanite alongside most everyone else on the platform: that commonality, and not the at-first laughable juxtaposition of a Santa suit with business suits, exemplifies the “individual stories that stand by themselves” that preoccupy Kalvar. He grants profound dignity to the ludicrous, the more ludicrous the better, and that act itself becomes an alternate, non- or anti-linear form of storytelling.
Kalvar’s book was the last project that legendary French editor and publisher Robert Delpire, who founded the Photo Poche series, worked on before his death in 2017. At the beginning of Delpire’s career, in 1957, he helped Robert Frank to cull and order photographs from the latter’s mid-1950s American road trip, a selection Delpire subsequently published as the seminal Les Americains (1958). (When I asked Kalvar which photographers he felt the greatest affinity with, he named Frank and five others; I’ll let you guess the rest.) The anonymous introducer (Delpire?) of Frank’s Photo Poche volume also puts me in mind of Kalvar: “It is Robert Frank’s subjectivity which makes his work so impressive. […] He shows himself. All his images are self-portraits.” Kalvar, too, sees self-portraits everywhere he looks, not just in people but in animals and animal sculptures, which, in his photographs, exhibit tranquility, decrepitude, a longing for “the one that got away” (see plate 53), profound satisfaction, animosity, dignity, apprehension, predatoriness, and other states that animals share with humans — or vice versa. Kalvar’s animal photos are unsuitable for waiting rooms.
I’m fondest of Paris. Rue de l’Ouest. 1974, for which my alternate titles are Portrait of the Artist at 30 and Queen Lear. To bolster my self-portrait argument, I’ll quote Kalvar himself: “All these pictures come out of my life anyway, and I guess I’m playing with things I have trouble dealing with.” Under the relentless sun, un chien parisien sits — wait, sits? Kalvar foregrounds all artists’ tendency to anthropomorphize animals by finding a street dog in a semi-upright, almost human posture. Her back is slouched forward, and her front legs and paws hang loose while her hind legs lie splayed open. One of her teats grazes the street in what, to this non-canine onlooker, renders her a figure of profound abjection. (She may be past caring about the contact of her lower belly with the pavement.) One of the photo’s only two shadows is cast by her woebegone, literally hang-dog face upon her upper chest. She stares forward, her eyes are pools of undifferentiated black, and she’s full of a suffering that creates its own mutely eloquent visual language. I have never met Richard Kalvar, but his ability here to find common ground between human and canine pain testifies to his profound — is there a word for humanity that encompasses creatures like this enfeebled street dog as well as human beings? I suppose the word would be sentience, if we can ascribe the value of fellow-feeling to it. If you have Paris. Rue de l’Ouest. 1974 in front of you, you don’t need my commentary on it.
And in that case, you might not need my reading of Kalvar’s street dog as a tragic figure who feels herself “bound / Upon a wheel of fire” (King Lear, 4.7.45), but rather see her simply as a “tired dog.” That’s what Kalvar calls another photo of the same dog on his Instagram feed. Most of his photographs, including this one, waver between the apparently mundane (“tired”) and the absurd or comic, in the sense of the latter word I proposed earlier. However, “Kalvar’s humor is never mocking,” Le Goff points out, “and is mute, as eloquent as an artist’s sketches that need no captions or dialogue.” The dog I call Queen Lear, when looked at from another angle, in another state of mind, has the “mute” stare of a great artist who created comedy with his unmoving eyes and sculpturesque face: Buster Keaton. (And here my spiral of interpretation begins again, a testament to these images’ productive ambiguity.)
Keaton famously used his face as a mask to reveal rather than occlude emotion, albeit taciturnly. Kalvar’s fascination with mannequins and sculptures puts forth the visual argument that humans, too, “wear” their faces. (The book makes this idea almost explicit in the sequence of plates 7–9.) In La Louvière, Belgium, 1979, one’s eye meanders among a group of mostly older people waiting, it seems, for a bus in the cold wind. The viewer of this and other Kalvar photos, Le Goff insightfully notes, “not immediately understanding the story or the mood, needs a few seconds to comprehend the space and identify the milieu in which the scene takes place.” Indeed, here it takes those “few seconds” to notice that a figure at the frame’s far right wears a grotesque rubber mask with fissures radiating out from its eyes and mouth. The mask has cavernous deep-set eyes, a wide grin, and a garish — because it contrasts with the visage’s grisly elderliness — blond wig. After I noticed this mask, perfect for Carnival or to rob a bank, suddenly everyone in the photo appeared masked. Perhaps because Kalvar shot him from above, an older man at the bottom of the frame, seated and becapped, stares out from a mask of belligerent vitriol, his nose jutting forward, his lips pressed tightly together, as if his face had been literally compressed. The two older women standing above him wear masks of poignant forlornness, isolated as both are from each other and the group of strangers around them. As in almost all of his “dramas,” no one looks into Kalvar’s lens.
The very next photo, Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome, 1984, startles because, between two businessmen in the act of shaking hands, their faces masked in mutual, grinning, shit-eating self-regard, stands a young woman also dressed for business — one of the men’s co-workers or assistants? — who stares laconically straight into Kalvar’s lens. She wears a mask of deadpan impassivity that offers a free play for the viewer’s imagination. Sometimes I see a bitterness so caustic in her eyes that it almost generates a thought-bubble instead of a caption: “Can you believe these assholes?” At other times, her mask expresses boredom or simply neutrality. She’s looking back at Kalvar’s lens through her own eye’s lens. The power to gaze goes both ways.
Earlier, I suggested that Kalvar anthropomorphizes Queen Lear, the “tired dog,” but after considering his vision of people as masked, I wonder if his preoccupation with the proximity, so common to urban life, of the sentient and the insentient, the natural and the artificial, compels him to seek out the animalistic and sculptural potential in his human subjects — and, conversely, to find humanity in the nonhuman. Kalvar clearly loves Rome, the setting of Federico Fellini’s most anarchic, carnivalesque films, including Nights of Cabiria and the photographer’s all-time favorite, 8½. According to Le Goff, Kalvar’s work “serves up shots from movies never made, revealing strange scenes and mysterious stories, as though the images harvested during his wanderings had ripened into fiction.” These “strange scenes” include Piazza Trilussa, Trastevere, Rome, 1980, a uniquely Kalvarian meditation on the interpenetration of wildness and civilization in urban public spaces. Kalvar often relies on barely controlled urban foliage as a visual trope for wildness. In Piazza Trilussa, the bushes in a neighborhood park — laundry hangs from apartment balconies in the background — burgeon upward and outward, and, although they’re encircled by a ring of limestone, they threaten to overwhelm both that physical boundary and the photograph’s frame. Every time I look at this photo, my eyes get tangled in the bushes before I can make out the three primary characters.
The first of them, a black-jacketed balding older man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Gene Hackman as an existentially rattled detective in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), is visible only from his mid-torso, which is partially turned away from the camera because, one suspects, he’s taking a leak. This furtive act freezes his face into a mask of paranoia, as if he fears being observed (and indeed the existence of this photo proves that he should be!). If this haggard man lurks roughly at seven o’clock on the oval, his more expressive double, the statue of Roman dialect poet Carlo Salustri (1871–1950), also known as Trilussa, stands behind a stone podium at 11 o’clock, a few feet higher, leaning forward and to the left as if he’s giving a public reading. This bronze poet looks particularly realistic, with his forward-jutting, balding forehead, sharp nose, and a bend at the elbow as if he actually rests his weight on his forearm. Kalvar increases the photo’s verisimilitude by shooting it from a few feet back from Trilussa, as if he stands among the poet’s listeners. The statue’s left hand is caught in a crab-like gesture that, to this viewer who has attended what feels like countless poetry readings, looks deeply naturalistic. Poets, like the rest of us, but perhaps more deliberately, express feelings with their gesticulations and posture. Writing of Kalvar’s initial experiences in Rome, Le Goff reveals, “the Romans encountered on the streets and the piazzas […] fascinated him with their endless discussions and their elaborate and eloquent gestures.” In Piazza Trilussa, the statue’s gestures have more eloquence than that of the human being.
The poet bestows more civilized dignity on the square than does the grizzled, mostly hidden man on the right. Or does he? Perhaps the two figures exist along a continuum of humanness, which includes the non-sentient and sculptural on one end, and the sentient on the other, one rising above the tangle of foliage, and the other disappearing into it. And lest we read the photo as being solely concerned with humanity, one’s eye finally settles on a black-and-white cat on the other side of the oval who peers into the bushes in search of its dinner. With its dense interrelation of foliage, faces of both metal and flesh, fur, stone, brick, and wet laundry, Piazza Trilussa sneaks up on you, like the best of Kalvar’s photos. Kalvar doesn’t go for an easy laugh, and, indeed, the photograph’s material isn’t funny per se; but neither does he take his consideration of wilderness and cultivation too seriously. Public art’s didactic purpose seems taken to an almost absurd level with Salustri’s bronze, over-the-top emotiveness, while the Hackman-esque human being appears more drained of emotion. Of course, Kalvar’s narrative will be scrambled once the man zips his pants up and scurries away, so the photo demonstrates the former’s genius of timing.
Piazza Trilussa precedes La Louvière, Belgium, 1979, the photo with the mask-wearing subject I discussed earlier. I find the shift from a frame dominated by foliage, to one teeming with people, to be bracing. I suspect Kalvar and Delpire relished arranging this small selection from his oeuvre — contrast this short book with the cavalcade of Kalvar’s Instagram feed — into puckishly artful sequences, sometimes just two photos in a row. (“[Delpire] had strong opinions, as do I,” Kalvar related, “and so the choice of pictures required a negotiation.” Kalvar then allowed Delpire, who was a master of sequencing, to put the narrowed-down group of 64 photos, reduced from about 130, in their final order for the book; and he ultimately approved of Delpire’s layout decisions.)
One of these pairings begins with Vincennes Zoo, Paris, 1993, in which the left-most of two giant bears lies on its back as it paws the air, its maw wide open as, I imagine, it scratches its back against the artful stonework (we’re in Paris, after all). Its companion ambles by, closer to the bear-pool around which the stonework is arranged, its gaze trained idly on its resting companion’s paws. The bears’ unhurried pace suffuses the photograph. Turn the page, and two women — office workers on their lunch break? students? tourists? — lie crashed out on their stomachs at a right angle to each other in Bryant Park. New York. 2014. The consummate voyeur, Kalvar, trains his lens on his subjects’ legs and buttocks — what, after the previous photo, I’m tempted to call their haunches. The juxtaposition of photos invites us to compare the women’s outstretched legs with those back legs and paws of the reclined bear one page before, and this comparison undercuts the potential lasciviousness of his focus on one woman’s stockinged legs and her companion’s bare foot resting on her calf. We Earthlings, to use Kalvar’s preferred term, use our powerful legs and feet not only to run in search, pursuit, or flight, but also to engage in generative recumbency and repose.
I extrapolated this idea from the details of these two photos because Kalvar provides nothing but details. He’s a master of withheld or incomplete information who compels the viewers of his photos to fill in the blanks with their own interpretations. This act of withholding constitutes its own oblique, open-ended mode of narration. At times, key details lie outside a photograph’s frame. For instance, the group of men sitting and standing in New York. Washington Square Park. 1976 all look fixedly at something by their feet, just outside the bottom frame. I’ll bet you $100 that the contact sheet contains shots that include the source of the men’s interest; but Kalvar chose this shot that excludes that object. More often, he leaves the context of his photos unexplained. Here, I have to resist the urge to simply describe my favorite photos that I didn’t have time to include; but from Brooklyn Bridge, New York, 1969 onward, you’ve already seen the various ways in which Kalvar plays with the elliptical. I’ve suggested some of the obsessions that arise from the ambiguity of the photos, but another reader-viewer of the book may divine other preoccupations. This enthralling accumulation of hints, minutiae, and unexplained gestures makes these photos a profound pleasure to revisit, puzzle over, and change one’s mind about — sometimes while laughing out loud.
Near the very end of the book, Kalvar leaves a clue that suggests his own presence in Buttes-Chaumont Park, Paris, 2003. On the frame’s left, a woman lies in repose against a tree, sunning her face with eyes closed, a stack of newspapers at her side — no doubt a regular park-goer. Against the frame’s right-most tree looms the image-snatching voyeur-flâneur’s dark shadow. The tree trunk itself becomes a sort of frame, since it includes his head and all of his left side, but it cuts off a part of his right. This photo may be the one Le Goff has in mind when he refers to “a predator’s gaze” in Kalvar’s work. When looked at from this angle, the menacing shadow rests ominously against the tree before whoever casts it advances upon the closed-eyed woman. But that’s not how I see the photo. Instead, it strikes me as the book’s only literal self-portrait, an evocation of Kalvar doing what he has been doing since 1965: looking for things (or people) in the street (and many other places). His subject isn’t prey, even in a figurative sense, but one of the many bodies — made of flesh, bronze, fiberglass and plastic, and stone — whose always unpredictable expressiveness so fascinates him.
Or maybe the shadow is not Kalvar’s at all, but an angel’s.
All photos © Richard Kalvar / Magnum Photos
Eric Gudas is the author of Best Western and Other Poems(Silverfish Review Press, 2010). His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Poetry Flash, Raritan, and elsewhere.
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