I have been very pleased with my San Francisco essay of a couple months back, but of course having spent time with Gene and Aileen Smith's book I am crushed, convinced that my work is the purest, most carefully distilled, quintessence of shit. Possibly the eight or twelfth essence.
Let's back up. Lewis Bush (I cannot leave Lewis alone, partly because he seems to be held in at least modest esteem by Jörg Colberg) and his lot work in a region of Art in which, as near as I can tell, the process is all. It occurs to me that academic Art is going to tend in this direction. It's a bunch of people who spend too much time thinking about Art and not enough time doing it. Wait, wait, that sounds familiar..
Anyways, it is natural that they might tend to thinking more about process and method. So Lewis and his chums spend a lot of time rejecting this, inverting that, and playing with the other thing. Which is valuable in its own right, it's useful to keep the boundaries of Art fluid. But they seem to ostentatiously avoid saying anything, in that wildly general notion of saying that I favor. You have divine their message, if any, almost from the artist bio. The message seems to usually be look at this, isn't it awful?
Then I looked at Laura Saunders, and I liked her quite a lot better. She actually makes a clear statement. As has been noted, it's not a particularly profound statement, nor is it new of particularly illuminating. It too falls into the general area of look at this, isn't it awful? but at any rate she's not just grinding a process without much concern for what comes out the end. She has something to say, and bends process and method to her message, rather than the other way around.
And then we take a walk. A very very very long walk to somewhere very far away, and we find Minamata.
I don't really know how the photography itself was received, but anyways by them Smith was revered and so on. There's a lot of process, of method, in this book. We have impressionistic photos that stand in for a way of life. We have triptychs of photos taken perhaps seconds apart, a sort of proto-animated-GIF of a moment. We have pictures styled in purely journalistic ways, and others styled in profoundly artistic ones. Minimalism here, densely filled frames there.
The typography is similarly exciting. Snippets of text appear floating here and there, unattributed, unconnected. The main body text comes in ebbs and flows, jagged here and flowing there.
My point here is that method and process are present here as well. The book is dense with method and process, although it doesn't leap out at you. Like Saunders, the Smiths bend process to the message, to the story. With, and I don't think I am insulting Saunders to say this, a great deal more subtlety and skill.
The Smiths also have something to say, obviously. Pollution is bad is a message, and it doesn't jump out at us as a terribly profound or new one. It wasn't new or radical in 1975 either, the EPA had already been formed, Silent Spring had been out for a decade.
So why is Minamata better than, say, Laura Saunders's work on migrants? It's certainly larger, a lengthier project, has more detail, but surely that cannot be it.
If I want to, in my own crude way, ape the Smiths rather than Saunders, what shall I do?
I can point to a couple of things the Smiths do that actually do separate them.
The first is that they dig very deep indeed, and show us a lot of things. My understanding of the Minamata episode expanded enormously. It's not a complete and detailed historical treatise, but it's deep enough, and dense enough, that you probably won't recall all of it. Every time through, you're likely to have "oh, right, I had forgotten that" moments.
The second is the broad viewpoint. On the one hand, it's all from the view of the Smiths, but on the other hand they strive to show us the various factions, and to help us understand those viewpoints at second hand. This creates a more balanced view. It is a rare story in which learning how the other side(s) feel doesn't make the story more powerful, more comprehensible, and in the end more true.
The last thing they do is to suggest a way forward. They distill the essential problems as they see them, and propose a way forward. One of those floating, jagged, bits of text, ostensibly a caption:
The morality that pollution is criminal only after a conviction is the morality that causes pollution.
The depiction of the direct negotiation between the passionate victim, Teruo Kawamoto, and the president with empathy, Kenichi Shimada, is clearly intended as a model. The Smiths side with Kawamoto, unabashedly, and think he was on to something. And they prove it. The former leads the group that insists on direct negotiation, that insists that Chisso management see and touch and hear the victims. It is this intimate, personal, human connection that ultimately leads to the breakthrough.
To be honest, I don't even know if the story they tell is even true. It seems too incredible to be true. The denouement was so intense, so powerful, that a handful of black and white photos and a few hundred words of text left me, literally, shaking. Literal truth hardly matters here, though.
It's not a stretch to suggest that the Smiths want us to know that a rule-based morality is the root of the problem, and that a morality based on humanity, on empathy, on intimate contact is the solution. If corporate managers, the Smiths suggest, lived in more intimate contact with the people "downstream" literally or metaphorically, then the corporate entity would behave better.
Of course, in the intervening 40 years the exact opposite has happened. Corporate leadership is isolated more and more, because the corporate entity, while not itself a sentient being, "knows" that human contact is exactly what would solve this problem, leading to decreased profits, decreased power, and slower expansion.
Be that as it may, it's not my purpose here to rant against capitalism!
The point is that the Smiths gave us depth, they gave us breadth, and they suggested answers, or at any rate a signpost or two that might lead the right way.
It is this, essentially, which makes Minamata great, and "Tracing Gila River" weak. Yes, this is awful, but give us depth, give us breadth, and point the way.