A Million Little Pictures: The Pictures Generation Revisited

Camera Barry Schwabsky in The Nation:

“On Saturday, September 30, 1967,” as artist Robert Smithson was careful to specify, he embarked on a trip from New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal to his hometown. He was about to undertake what in his now-famous text he would call “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.” (It's not clear whether the piece should be called an essay or a story; perhaps it's best to call it an artwork made of writing and pictures.) The monuments in question were things like concrete abutments for a highway under construction and a pumping derrick connected to a long pipe. As he stepped off the bus at his first monument, a bridge connecting Bergen and Passaic counties across the Passaic River, Smithson noticed that “Noon-day sunshine cinema-ized the site, turning the bridge and the river into an overexposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph. The sun became a monstrous light-bulb that projected a series of detached 'stills' through my Instamatic into my eye. When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank.”

Writing in a tone derived in part from the deceptive objectivity of the French nouveau roman (he quotes from Mobile, Michel Butor's collage-travelogue of the United States) and in part from British new-wave science fiction (he entertains himself on the bus ride with the New York Times and Brian Aldiss's dystopian sci-fi novel Earthworks), Smithson evokes a vacant reality made only of “memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.” Critics fascinated with Smithson's apparently post-Duchampian idea that banal objects become art simply by being looked at a certain way–that “a great artist can make art by simply casting a glance,” as he would write a year later–have often overlooked the way Smithson framed his saturnine view of postindustrial culture through the eye of the camera.