Review of Silver Lining: Photographs by Anne Noggle. The University of New Mexico Press, 1984.
The first picture in Anne Noggle's book, Silver lining, is of her mother, Agnes. The background seems to want to embrace the woman looking into the camera, who seems unaware of a large patch of light, a poultice, on her forehead, aware only of the camera. Swathes of light and circles of night, the artist would use these until confident of where symbols fall away and the world itself becomes symbolic.
At age thirty-eight Anne Noggle was a freshman at the University of New Mexico, majoring in Art History. Before that, she had been a pilot and flight instructor in the Women's Air Force, serving during World War II. After the war, she taught flying, did stunt flying, and dusted crops in the Southwest. Noggle recalls that "The statistics were that the average crop-duster pilot had a life-span of about a year and a half. You lived on a high that danger bestows on you. Only now counted."
One limitation of the traditional photograph is that it is a picture of something, separating the viewer from the original object by both time and space. When the picture was taken our seeing it was only a remote possibility, so to accept its validity we must accept it at face value. Not what it images, but what it is. Thus photographs, as art, are not from the past, but emulsions of objective formulations recognizable in the present, successfully projected into the past. Painting and photography are here different only with respect to materials used. That is, like a painting, a photograph accepted as art must not be viewed as an image from the past projected forward (as with snapshots), but of the present.
Snapshots have their own virtues (as do crafts), one of which John A. Kouwenhoven points out as being the ability to teach us "to see things not even their makers had noticed or been interested in." But their raison d'etre lies in documentation, telling "the truth of a single instant."
It could be argued that we never experience Art, which is Reality, because Reality operates outside of time, while nervous systems are time-bound. We can only experience the past, be it a micro-second old. In effect, I am my own ancestor. And looking at old pictures of "my" image is confirmation. It is intent, in this case, that makes a work of art. And faith.
From crop-duster to active duty, again, with the Air Force, Noggle found herself, literally found herself, in Paris, in the Louve--returning again and again to the paintings. Then, because of emphysema, she received an early retirement and moved to New Mexico, where her mother and older sister had settled.
In his foreword to Silver Lining, Van Deren Coke recalls:
After she completed her undergraduate degree, Coke felt Noggle "had the makings of an insightful art historian;" but she had discovered Photography. "It was the first time since I'd been grounded that I felt the same excitement that flying always gave me."
One of the advantages of living in New Mexico--being isolated, and insulated, from the mainstream Art World--is the opportunity to develop your own vision and toughen it, before being subjected to the blows of the critical establishment. Thus, even though at the time Noggle came to photography portraiture was out of favor, she sensed, and acted on, that all truths are feelings; and, as I.B. Singer wrote, "Feelings put on bodies, are themselves bodies."
In 1975, shortly after having face-lift surgery, Noggle made a series of self-portraits.
In No.3, her face is still swollen, flesh beneath
the eyes discolored as if she just came out of a fight--the loser.
Yet victoriously she holds a
flower to her lips.
The print translates back into its native language, different of course, hardly recognizable, yet its flavor evokes the original. It is our language again, not the photographer's, not the scholar's, it belongs to us all, a treasure claimed by our eyes. Photography is a struggle to make intimate contact without direct involvement. It is a shy, one-eyed art. But Noggle isn't shy, and both her eyes are wide open. She turns the camera around in a kind of schizophrenic journey into herself: a double image of persona and soul reflecting each other ad infinitum. It is not the flesh that is lifted (this being camouflage, a mask) but the soul that is plumbed--lift having to do with puer, Spirit, Child.
Though she is flying again--the artist cradling the Child--it is downward, inward. In AA Speech Delivered to the Class of 1983, Portland School of Art, Maine, Noggle related this experience:
The material world exists only in order to demonstrate its limitations. This is what Noggle's photographs seem to be saying. I am my own history, an accumulation of experience from the beginning of this universe to the moment of my death. And with death, myth arrives, the photographs fade but don't disappear.
The photograph exposes "the truth of the lineage" (R. Barthes); not that I existed, but that we exist. Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton says of the aged that "They wish specifically to reassert elements of their individual lives that can connect with the lives of all others." So that beside being one's own history, each of us is a holograph of the entire history of the species. This is a fact we seem to have to prove to ourselves again and again during various stages of development. The need for connection may be what's behind Diane Arbus' freaks: to be "taken in" by the eyes of more acceptably formed people. Children, adolescents, the dying, and the deformed--outcasts, each in their own way, all craving for membership in the tribe.
The artist, however, must stand alone. How many times has this been stressed? Janice Zita Grover, in her introduction to Silver Lining, gives this Rikean reminder:
One cannot enter into a state of solitude, and survive, without a wild sense of humor. Although Noggle can "pull faces"(for example, in Myself as a Guggenheim Follow), and in fact she seems always to be laughing at, taunting, daring the camera, saying "You have no power over me," real humor is subtle and crafty. I see this in Stonehenge decoded.
Here the artist poses her belly, pubis, and upper thigh, which loom to the side of a vast desert landscape and turbulent sky. Unlike Paul Caponigro's pictures of the Stonehenge menhirs, here is living flesh. Flesh venated and runneled, as the land is not soft rolling hills, but sand, saltbush, snakeweed, distant mesas and portentous clouds. A monument runic as any ancient stones; erotic too, with a hint of clothes above the navel. Because we are vulnerable; not petrified, not fossiliferous, not hauled and lifted into place. Noggle is open to soft ambient light; comfortable, yet absurd in her corner of the desert. She speaks for the flesh that moved the stones into place, fertility of imagination, and, used to measure the phases of time, this woman who is time and rhythm. What stone has more knowledge of cycles than a woman?
The humor of Stonehenge Decoded is, for me, that we search for secrets in old glyphs, instead of in the mystery of our own falling, and failing, flesh. All the hypocrisy of religion, of "heaven above," is evident in this picture. "Just this!" as the Zen Master points.
We can no longer accept a work of art on its own. Walk into a gallery, or look through a book of photographs, with feet to floor, to sediment below, to Earth's hot core radiating out...it's all referential. "There is a place within," noted Caponigro. "That is constantly alive to how this whole structure is put together."
The place within the eyes of Agnes,
Noggle's aged mother lit against the Void that would engulf her.
in many guises, and
from many directions. "The Greeks," Barthes tells us, "entered
backward: what they had before them was their past."
Of the "Silver Lining" series of portraits of married couples from 1979, five are in this book--men and women who have lived together, yet apart, for a long time.
At some early point in gestation, the genetic code releases
information: straight ahead to female, or secrete the necessary hormones
in order to make a male. The balances vary, complicated by later social
conformations. What is a woman? What is a man? How should we relate
to each other, and to ourselves?
In Silver Lining No.1, man holds woman unconvincingly. How many times have they struggled to unite on this bed? The best they could do, the best anyone can do, is hold onto each other. And the cat wants affection too.
The wary look of the wife, and her smiling husband behind her, light this irony. "I do not paint things," said Matisse, "only the differences between them." What the physicist calls the "probabilities of interconnections."The photograph, a mirror, like the mind of an enlightened being, reflects its viewer. What we see is what we get. The positive print is of the underside, the negative of the object printed. "I love the enigma of it all," says Noggle. From the beginning, the Two in the One has been our burden. We enter, or are entered, as gods...and withdraw exhausted as humans. To come is to go.
Silver Lining No.5 shows wife leaning into husband. His dark suit and her dark dress form a continuum. Her smiling face rests on his shoulder like an apple ripening while rotting. Behind them are photographs of her as a young woman, with their child. All here together, the same age, only looking younger, the same time, which is my time as I look at them, time being "nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once." (Susan Farley).
In all these portraits, in all portraits, all faces, smiling or not, is the knowledge of "the suddenness with which terror can strike." For Noggle this means "that I will wake up and find I have become a completely rational being, with a finite set of values, within whose framework I must find my manners and dream my dreams." This series of pictures, Grover informs us, "hangs in (Noggle's) home like a gallery of timeless reflections on a road-not-taken by the photographer herself."
In 1982 there was a series of photographs from Seattle, and the next year from Texas. Other pictures include another of Yolanda (there are several), this time wearing a fur hat, with a luminous eye on the lighted side of her face, the other side dark as with us all. And a portrait of landscape historian J.B. Jackson in motorcycle jacket.
Lastly in this book is The Late Great Me. Her face veiled, after having been exposed for so long, eyes half-closed, she mourns herself, with lips smiling around their corners. There is an Hasidic maxim that says one should have two pockets. In the right pocket must be the words, "For my sake was the world created." And in the left, AI am but ashes and dust."
(c) Joel Weishaus 1994