Reviews

Shooting from the Hip: Photography, Masculinity, and Postwar America by Patricia Vettel-Becker

Harry H. Long

While Shooting from the Hip is recommended without hesitation as an excellent book, it must also be noted that it is an incomplete one.


Shooting from the Hip

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Subtitle: Photography, Masculinity, and Postwar America
Author: Patricia Vettel-Becker
Price: $19.95
Length: 272
Formats: Paper
US publication date: 2005-03
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The most challenging books to review are those that confound one's expectations. One has to decide first if one's expectations are valid and then -- even if the first answer is "yes", whether the confounding is a good or a bad thing. (It goes without saying that being challenged is a good thing.)

In the case of Shooting from the Hip: Photography, Masculinity and Postwar America, the very subtitle alone leads one to expect a book containing a great many photographs. It does not. While the respective numbers of inches were not measured for the purposes of this review, it appears that the footnotes occupy more space than the actual photographs. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is amply proven here where thousands of words take the place of photographs.

And there's nothing wrong with Vettel-Becker's words. This is a marvelously written book; no less than a history of photography from a feminist perspective -- though thankfully free of the kind of ranting to the choir which that description might bring to mind. Missing, too, is the opaque postmodern critical terminology that impress many simply because they haven't a clue what the writer is stating. Here the writing is so good, so spot-on in its evaluations, so incisive in its conclusions, that one is sorely tempted to quote lengthy excerpts and let Vettel-Becker speak for herself rather than review her work. (Amusingly, a review posted on Amazon.com falls into all the traps Vettel-Becker avoids by beginning, "With the close of World War II, the paradigmatic masculine, myth?like image of the soldier could no longer be sustained.")

The earliest example of photography known to the general public is likely the Civil War tintypes of Matthew Brady, so it may come as somewhat of a shock to discover that photography was initially considered a lovely hobby for the womenfolk but beneath the consideration of men. In its nascent days photography was set apart from such "Art" as painting and sculpture (a situation that continues to a great extent), both of which were considered Men's Work. Not that women didn't paint and sculpt, but generally their oeuvres were slimmer than their male contemporaries' -- sidelines to their Real Work as wives and mothers. Much of the work of the early female photographers has not survived because it was stigmatized by a triple whammy: it was not Art, it was a hobby, and it was produced by women.

But as the author notes, "Tasks that are at one time considered 'women's' may come to be defined as 'men's' if that task becomes more culturally relevant." Particularly after World War Two and the rising importance of the battle photographer and of all photojournalism -- which replaced studio photography as the dominant mode in the struggle between painting and photography not to be each other -- photography became not only Man's Work but work for which women were considered unsuited. Intriguingly this attitudinal shift came in the wake of a societal shift beginning during the 1930s when, first as a result of the Depression and then of the war, men were displaced from the workplace. Women usurped the role of breadwinner from their jobless husbands by taking in laundry or sewing to put food on the table and then replaced them in factories when the men were shipped overseas to fight. After two decades of figurative emasculation, US men discovered macho and determined to reclaim their position.

Vettel-Becker makes no mention of George Chauncey's Gay New York, perhaps she is unfamiliar with it, but it is fascinating to compare her conclusions with Chauncey's contention that is it nearly impossible to discuss homosexuality in pre-WWII America since heterosexuality, as we know it now, did not properly exist. Ostensibly straight men often had sexual intercourse with male prostitutes -- or each other -- until marriage (and sometimes thereafter if the wives were unaccommodating). This wasn't seen as particularly wrong among the lower and middle classes -- today the staunchest defenders of "family values" -- it was simply seen as a matter of sexual release until marriage made such liaisons unnecessary; the typical percentage (10 or 20 percent depending on whose research you tend to trust) of these men went on to exclusively male-female relations after marriage; they weren't gay, they were, in the words of one of the characters in Lanfortd Wilson's The Fifth of July, "just diddling". The evidence of a more relaxed attitude between men is photographic, which makes it all the more odd Vettel-Becker does not consider it; studio portraits and, later, candid snaps show chums and buddies embracing, holding hands, even perched on one another's knee in what now look like satires of old-time wedding photos. Certainly not all of these men were gay or even diddling; the photographs merely show that up until the advent of the Second World War men were not afraid of being physically close to each other. After that war it was unthinkable to be photographed in such a suggestive manner and one finds no buddy photos from Korea onward of a similar nature.

The very nature of masculinity changed after WWII; possibly as a result of the preceding two decades it became more aggressive, more determined to put women (and gays) in "their place". One can note in Hollywood's output the increasing lack of starring roles for women during the 1950s except in shallow, glossy melodramas; compare this with the healthy roster of female stars during the 1930s and '40s and the strong women who appear throughout the latter decade especially. Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep and countless other female stars were as strong as the men; in some cases, such as Ann Sheridan in I Was a Male War Bride, they relegate their male co-stars to secondary status. By the early 1960s even such queens of Hollywood as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were reduced to low-budget thrillers to pay the rent. It was during this same period that, as noted in the text, that one of the few well-known women photographers who specialized in traditionally "male" subjects, Margaret Bourke-White, all but disappeared from the scene after coming under the scrutiny of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist witch-hunters.

Another factor -- and this is touched on in the book -- is that Alfred Kinsey had released his ground-breaking study on male sexuality shortly after WWII, and that work revealed that there was a good more non-heterosexual canoodling going on than had been previously acknowledged. It's unlikely Kinsey's study decreased the same-sex activities of horny young men but it surely made them more circumspect than their ancestors had been. And in that light it is a definite omission that while the work of Playboy photographers falls under Vettel-Becker's scrutiny there is no comparable chapter on the likes of Bruce Bellas or Don Whitman who specialized in "physique photography," works that purported to be studies of musculature for artists or aspiring bodybuilders but which found an appreciative audience among gay men and served as whacking material for them as surely as the Playmate centerfolds did for straight men.

Fine as it is, Shooting from the Hip is a lesser work than it might have been by ignoring -- or at any rate not considering -- the evidence that women being shunted out of photography is as much a result of photography's changing role in society as it is of the changing nature of masculinity during the 20th century; after gaining a good degree of independence in the early part of it, women were marginalized at the beginning of the latter half. (It may even be that the ham-fisted nature of men trying to reclaim their lost superiority is responsible for women's and gay movements.) By focusing on only part of the picture, Vettel-Becker's work is much less rich than it might be.

And ultimately it really does need more photographs. While this approach is more satisfying than the shallow eye-candy coffee table book that this writer expected, the bottom line is that one can only properly evaluate Vettel-Becker's assertions if one can view a decent number of the photographs she discusses to determine if one concurs with her readings. Such is not the case. In fact one photographer, William Klein, is treated at length in the text (seven-plus pages) but without a single example of his work displayed.

While Shooting from the Hip is recommended without hesitation as an excellent book, it must also be noted that it is an incomplete one.


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