Unsettling Dreams: The Photography of Val Telberg (1910-1995)
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography, January 1983 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
A well-known photography critic once said with academic eloquence and equally academic logic that the medium is by its very nature surreal, and any attempt to manipulate it in the name of surrealism is misguided, redundant. Surreal is an adjective that’s often assigned to the photography of Val Telberg (1910-1995); it’s an adjective, and in fact a social milieu, that he himself is comfortable with, and he does to his images precisely what the above-mentioned critic feels is so unnecessary. So to avoid controversy, I’ve chosen an adjective for Telberg’s work that’s homely but less likely to distract from the issue at hand: dreamlike. Telberg’s photographs are dreamlike.
Even “dreamlike” needs qualification. Telberg’s photographs aren’t fantasies, like David Hamilton’s wet-dream photographs of vague Lolitas, but literally like dreams, composed of fragmented images, sometimes recognizable, sometimes not, strung together and, ultimately, not remembered as images but as emotional residues.
And, like dreams, to know them is to abandon oneself to them. They can’t be distilled to a message nor can they be absorbed at a glance. As such, they challenge modern viewers, who’ve been conditioned by the customary arrangement of photographs in books and exhibits to take in a photograph in a moment or two and move on to the next. In the end, Telberg’s visual dialog is emotional, not cerebral; subconscious, not conscious.
Telberg came to photography circuitously and, relatively speaking, late. He was born in Russia, bred in China, and immigrated to New York in 1939, working variously as a Chinese antique appraiser and supervisor of a pharmaceutical concern. In his thirties, he went to art school to study painting. To finance his studies, he worked at an amusement park photography concession. “Those were dull days,” says Telberg, who, after mastering photography’s fundamentals on the job, began entertaining himself by sandwiching negatives.
But he was still at heart a painter and in the forties continued to study art and concentrate on expressing his own version of surrealism’s tenets through painting. He used photography primarily as an aid, having found that the days it took to repaint a figure arrangement that wasn’t quite right could be eliminated if he used a negative sandwich to blueprint his paintings.
Slowly though, Telberg began to see that as a medium for surreal expression, photography could be an end in itself rather than just a means to an end. In 1950, he knew the final break with painting had come when he moved to France and set up a darkroom instead of an art studio. “A photograph is indisputably a piece of reality,” he explains. “A painting may depict reality, but it’s not reality. In my photography, where I pervert and corrupt and alter images, it’s still, basically, a piece of reality.”
Telberg’s images are usually montages, composed of bits and pieces of photographs he’s taken over the years. He carries with him either his 120-format Bronica or Mamiya and shoots indiscriminately, without plan—a crowd at a car accident, a checkered tablecloth, clowns at a circus. He supplements this imagery with studio sessions with live models. Of the thousands of images he’s taken over the years, he’s used only about one-tenth in his photomontages, some over and over again, provoking the poet Frank O’Hara to write that “he explores the visual event…in much the way a poet again and again reposes his confidence in a favorite word to wring more specific qualities from it.”
Each photomontage begins when Telberg spreads part of his negative library over his light box. He’ll select an image that moves him and then build on it, using two enlargers, sandwiching negatives, solarizing, and more recently, dribbling developer over the paper, in search of affecting image combinations and textures. He works intuitively, almost consciously forcing his subconscious to supervise the creation of each montage.
Telberg was at first shy about circulating his images, but eventually, at the urging of a friend, took them to Edward Steichen. Steichen was enthusiastic and included him in the 1948 Museum of Modern Art exhibit “In and Out of Focus,” where his montages hung with the work of Strand, Callahan, Siskind, Mohaly-Nagy, Man Ray, and Cartier-Bresson. The same year, Telberg had his first one-person show at the Brooklyn Museum. He’s exhibited extensively since.
Telberg has always said that if filmmaking had come into his life sooner, he would have been a filmmaker. “I envy that medium,” he says. “I consider it the ultimate art.” Cinematic sequencing is a purposeful part of Telberg’s montages. “I want to hold the viewer’s eye longer by suggesting that there is more. I often put images in the darker parts of the print to be discovered later. In an exhibition, I like to have the same model appear in several pictures.”
In the fifties, Telberg indulged his fascination with cinema by working on several avant garde films, including Ian Hugo’s Bells of Atlantis. Through Hugo, Telberg met Anaïs Nin, who was intrigued by his photomontages and asked him to illustrate a new edition of her prose poem House of Incest. Over the course of a year, Telberg and Nin worked together, Telberg making over two hundred montages. Nin selected those she felt were most evocative of the poem. “She liked my work particularly because she saw a reaction to her work. It was very serious, very intense.”
Telberg has likened his imagery to abstract poetry and has written “it comes very close to being stream of consciousness in visual form.” And as a poet uses punctuation, Telberg deliberately uses certain formal elements of visual composition to manipulate viewers. “When I’m working on a picture, I’m conscious of certain aesthetic rules, like meter in poetry, like rhyme or lack of rhyme. I’m conscious of composition. It’s very important for me to compose a picture that has intentional lack of balance or balance.” For the same reason, Telberg experiments with matte shapes, to aid the montages’ total composition and influence the way viewers see it.
But at the same time he speaks with ease of manipulating viewers, the precise words for exactly why he wants to manipulate them come hard. Writing in the New Mexico Quarterly in 1954, he says, “For some reason unknown to me I have an urge to make a certain kind of picture.” I sense that almost thirty years larger, the reason is just as elusive.
Telberg knows he wants his photographs to communicate distress, but he’s not sure why. He’ll tell you that art that expresses pain is somehow more urgent than art that does not, that someone once told him that in music the downbeat is the offbeat and is therefore more unsettling that the upbeat. But here Telberg is talking technique again, and not motive.
“The changes are so inviting,” Telberg has written of his darkroom sessions, “that there is never an end—every print is work in progress and nothing is ever completed with finality because not to end is so easy.” Then how does he know when to stop? With an impish grin, he says, “My wife calls me to dinner.”
In other words, the alarm goes off.
© 1983, 2015, 2018 Janis Bultman