Urban Photo Festival

SAM_7073Looking back on this year’s Urban Photo Festival (UPF), it appears that the genre known as Street Photography has been given something of a shakeup. The festival’s packed out and wide-ranging events came to a close at the end of October (including but not limited to numerous London-based exhibitions, a two-day Tate Britain conference, guided walks, seminars, discussions and photography master classes), with debates about the purpose and potential of the genre resonating with many who attended. While an expansive, forward-looking conception of Street Photography caused a few people some consternation, others found their perceptions positively challenged, leaving them inspired to further reflect on the topic of Urbanism and their own output. As Paul Halliday (the creative director of UPF) stated, the intention of the festival was to “push the boundaries beyond traditional notions of what counts as ‘street photography’” and “explore how artists, photographers and urbanists might rethink how they approach the street.”

For many the term ‘Street Photography’ conjures up pictures of strangers caught in chance altercations; the spectacle of the busy street with its fleeting joys, frustrations and absurdities. Nick Turpin is one such photographer adopting this more conventional approach to his work. His shooting method is instinctive, unplanned and revelatory: “there is no specific subject matter and only the issue of ‘life’ in general” he says. “[The photographer] does not leave the house in the morning with an agenda and he doesn’t visualise his photographs in advance of taking them.” However, despite the fascination of the public spectacle and the insights it can provide, it seems that this singular concept of Street Photography now runs the risk of becoming irrelevant. As Michael Sweet despairs, the practice is now inundated by “hundreds of thousands of dull, hackneyed images of random strangers”. The genre, he argues, tends to lack a critical eye, with social media encouraging the notion that each picture taken is a potential piece of art worthy of attention.

The Bunker © Carlo Navato 2015

The Bunker © Carlo Navato 2015

Responding to the current challenges facing the practice of Street Photography today, UPF15 was inspired to rigorously investigate and expand its significance beyond a single methodology or philosophy. The Drift exhibition was one example of such an attempt, located at the Truman Brewery just off busy Brick Lane. Here a stunning variety of works were on display, all in their different ways responding to the notion of the urban environment; how we shape it, how it shapes us, how it is experienced and represented. Carlo Navato’s series Spaces of Otherness was mysterious, sparse and beguiling; images at the crossroads of past, present and future. Engaging with Michel Foucault’s idea of ‘heterotopia’, these places can be described as being ‘neither here nor there’, and of having a psychological as well as a spatial dimension. Navato describes the series as shot in “a classic ‘edgeland’ – a space outside the confines of town or city, but urban in that man has had a significant hand in its development.” His photos, rural land with remains of human influence, illustrated in their referents (a road sign, a wind sock, an entrance to an ex-military site) the way spaces change over time; how the rural slowly succeeds to the urban and how sometimes nature gets its sovereignty back.

Beatrice Tura’s series Terra Firma also challenged the conception of the city as a fixed, un-yielding concrete colossus. Like Navato, she sees the urban environment as transitional, in dialogue with its inhabitants; pavements as altered by the thousands of tramping feet as we are shepherded by its streets. Tura demonstrates an abstract, unconventional approach to the urban by taking extreme close up shots of anonymous streets; gum and paint marked pavements; the edges of new tarmacked paths rising up against old concrete ones; change, erosion, “the constant movement of the urban soil.”

© Kevin Fitzgerald 2015

© Kevin Fitzgerald 2015

A lot of the work of the festival challenged me to consider that, while it is difficult to think to think of photography as providing more than a visual experience, urban life itself is not dominated by one single sense. Remove the plethora of smells from the streetfood stalls and curry houses along Brick Lane, the bustle of the crowds and sounds of street musicians, and you become blind to at least half the experience. It is this fact that Kevin Fitzgerald seeks to elucidate in his series Audiographies. As well as questioning our visiocentric society, he encourages the viewer “to not only reconsider the relationship between the aural and visual but the relationship between all the senses.” Sound, it is easy to forget, helps shape our understanding of what we perceive; informing us further about a thing’s quality or nature. Photography as a representational tool can imply sound but it cannot embody it. Fitzgerald highlights the aural by drawing our attention to its absence; abstracting his images from a wider context and de-engaging our visual sense. His photos ask the viewer to fill in the blanks, “to see with their ears.” You wonder, looking at his images, where you are, what you are seeing. He challenges us for example with a close up of the corner of a room; a shot of a window indoors with no view and few discerning features. Sound, you realise, is the sense missing which would allow you to ‘see’ your environment; filling in the gaps of your awareness vision cannot grasp alone (the sound of cars on the busy street below your window, for example). It is our metaphorical blindness to the images which forces us to acknowledge this.

Another compelling exhibition over in south London which investigated the effect of the aural sense in urban life was Retention, by artists Anne Zeitz and David Boureau. This immersive piece was installed at the Old Police Station in Deptford and was a contemporaneous work replicating the soundscape of the Mesnil Amelot 2 detention centre. Based in Paris just north of the Charles de Gaulle airport, it currently holds hundreds of illegal immigrants. Using a quadriphonic speaker setup, the soundscape of the detention centre filled the room, consisting of the all-consuming roar of the airplanes that pass daily over the detainees’ heads, interspersed with radio communications between pilots and the control tower. In a visceral way, it reflected the oppressed state of the immigrants inside the centre. Not only are they aurally subjugated by the noise of the passing planes, but they are reminded of their lack of physical autonomy as other people pass freely overhead. Reinforcing their plight was the visual exploration Cartographies of Fear #1, which portrayed the different ways in which migrants interpret and experience their new (often hostile) urban surroundings.

Graffiti, Harlem, 2015 © Rebecca Locke

Graffiti, Harlem, 2015 © Rebecca Locke

Moving on to the 71a Gallery in Shoreditch, the exhibition Streetopolis consisted of a range of work from across the globe, providing examples of the urban from Russia to New York, Copenhagen to Jakarta, and Atlanta to Paris. The artists’ responses to the idea of “streets of the world” were varied, creative and incisive. Rather than simply documenting the urban environment, they sought in their different ways to draw out its contradictions and complexities. Rebecca Locke’s series We Are Paper, We Are Celluloid, We Are Digital, showed her wandering New York City in the guise of Princess Leia, her fantastical appearance contrasting with the banal realities of the city. With New York being synonymous with film, these images raised questions about how the urban environment helps to shape identity, as well as asking how our media-induced fantasies might isolate us from the real world in front of us.

A number of other artists’ work explored the clash between the natural world and the urban milieu. Michael Frank’s photographs from his series Tiger Schmiger responded to the increasing sightings of strange beasts and big cats in our increasingly urbanised world. These sightings, often imaginings, are what Frank believes to be the result of “ecological boredom”; our secret yearning for the wild in our over-developed, insulated modern landscape. These still night-time shots evoke an apprehension, as if waiting for something to crawl into our city streets at any moment. Peter Coles riffs on similar themes in Urban Forrest, Paris, with his moody monochrome photos of enclosed lone trees, fenced off and isolated amidst the concrete jungle. They appear forced into submission by the city, dominated over by the surrounding buildings as if the urban had gained ascendency over the natural world.

Michael-Frank-Tiger-Schmiger

© Michael Frank 2015

The festival rounded off its six day photographic odyssey at The Greenwich Gallery, with a private view of Framing Urban Narratives, the last exhibition of the festival. Showcasing the work of 10 recent graduates from Goldsmiths University, it expounded on contemporary urban topics such as homelessness, regeneration, the environment and community. The gallery also hosted the closing reception, and everyone was left to toast their collective hard work with drinks and a (stoically optimistic) BBQ. Having covered an extraordinary breadth of work and engaging with a host of critical approaches, the festival resulted in some challenging and fascinating debate, as well as producing a slew of striking photography. Deconstructing assumptions about what Street Photography is ‘supposed’ to be, it re-evaluated the practices importance in our changing modern world, as well as suggesting the genre’s potentialities. Reiterating what was clearly demonstrated in the numerous exhibitions was Paul Halliday’s comment that “people can interpret what the street means to them. They can come at it from a range of perspectives and approaches.” Which they indeed did, intelligently and with aplomb.

– Daniel Pateman

Interview: Sofia Lahti, Curator at the Finnish Museum of Photography

Sofia Lahti is as Curator of Collections at the Finnish Museum of Photography. She is an art historian with a background in medieval art and has been at FMP for over ten years.

How long have you been a photography curator?
I have worked as a curator since 2004, so that’s over 10 years already!

Over that time, what are some of the changes that you have identified in your field?
First, digital printing has taken over the darkroom processes – and now the old darkroom techniques are making a comeback! Digital photography has also made it much easier for museums to manage their collections databases. At the same time, museums have found new ways of sharing and interacting with their audiences in the internet and in the social media. In the world of curating, the amount of professional curators and producers has increased in Finland due to new lines of education.

What’s your favourite photography project or object in the collection? Why?
Favourites come and go depending on the projects I’m working on. Right now I’m in love with a home-made enlarger from the 1950s. It’s made from an old aluminium milk can, and the maker even invented and painted his own logo on the enlarger, although he was just using it for his hobby. I haven’t worked with our collection of photographic tools and gadgets before, and it’s a fascinating world.

What’s the biggest influence on your curatorial approach?
I’d still say it is the “To look or to see” exhibition I mention in my article (What About Finnishness, Photography and Art?) , a beautiful and intelligent interplay of art and cultural history.

Why is a photography museum necessary? What differences do you think it holds over a photography department in an art or science museum? How does context in a collection influence photography?
In a museum like ours, we have the unique multiple perspective on photography: the simultaneous interest in its technical, visual and cultural aspects. While photographs in the collections of culture-historical museums are mainly seen as visual documentation, in art museums they are seen as artworks among others. In a museum of photography, we can focus on the work of the photographer and the relation between the technique, the expression and the content.

Who is your main audience?
There are several types of audiences. School classes are important, but also art lovers and photography enthusiasts. We try to address them all – and to find new audiences, of course.

How do museums manage this vast collection?
(I suppose you mean how does our museum manage our collection?) We register everything in our database. It has at least three levels: 1) the acquisition, which can include several images, objects, documents or such. 2) the group level, in which we divide the acquisition into thematic or typological groups, such as prints, negatives, cameras – or according to different projects in a photographer’s career, for instance. 3) Finally, if possible, each image or object is catalogued separately.

How does the museum make decisions on acquisition?
We have frequent meetings about issues related to the collection, and in those meetings we also decide about acquisitions. Many things play a role: for instance the price, size, condition, and copyright status of the works and their relation to the already existing items in our collections.

You mentioned that FMP does not collect photographic works such as video installations, although it would like to exhibit them. Why does FMP skip such mediums?
We do not collect moving image. Each museum has to define its collecting policies, and for us it has been to concentrate on photography. Widening our scope to collecting video or multi-media art would require us to invest on their correct preservation and recruit staff specialized on those media, and at least for the time being, it is not possible. Fortunately, other museums of contemporary art are able to do that.

When you suggest the collaboration between the FMP and other institutions, does FMP influence on or associate with the acquisition of their collections?
No. Each institution decides on their own acquisitions. However, it might be useful to have more communication about acquisitions to avoid overlapping. In the ideal world, museum collections would complement each other.

During an exhibition, a historic photograph might be able to provide aesthetic enjoyment to the audiences. Does this change influence on the characteristics of this photograph? Would it modify the status and categorisation of the photograph in the collection?
For us, all photographs are here to be seen from several points of view: both historical and aesthetical perspectives can perfectly co-exist. Usually the images are catalogued and categorized according to their original genre, and that does not essentially limit the ways in which they can be used and seen in the exhibitions. And even if we show an image outside of its original context, we can simultaneously offer the information of its background and history to the audience.

What’s the difference between curating art photography and other kinds of artwork?
The main differences are based on their technical qualities, such as their higher sensitivity to light. Paper-based prints are also sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature. Another aspect is the availability of several prints from the same original. In the old times, a photographer would present his/her best print in the exhibition. Today, some photographers don’t work with the exhibition in mind at all, and the right way of exhibiting has to be found together with them.

Does the museum collaborate with guest curators? Why?
We do work with visiting curators once in a while. Sometimes they are the ones suggesting a new project, sometimes we invite someone to bring us their particular way of looking at things. It is always refreshing!

China has a booming market for photography. Many cities plan to build their own photography museums. Similarly, international photography festivals are popular across the world. What do you think about the high price of photography? How does it influence on the acquisition of the museum?
The growing prices of contemporary art photography are a wonderful thing for the artists and the art market, but as I mentioned in the article, it does have an impact on our acquisitions. Because of the current prices, we have not been able to collect the Finnish art photography of the two latest decades as comprehensively as we did in the 1990s.

What do you think about the popularity of photography? How does it influence on your curatorial approach?
It’s amazing – everyone is a photographer now. Our museum exists for all those people – they just need to find us! When people take photographs themselves, even if it is just with the mobile phone, they learn to look at photographs and appreciate the work of professionals. At the same time, amateur and snapshot photography shared in social media is a new and interesting aspect of photographic culture. We want to embrace and document that, too. Our big exhibition #snapshot, from last year, was focusing exactly on that. In our current exhibition, the Darkroom, we also show how old darkroom printing techniques are the models for the tricks and filters people now use digitally.

Can you give any essential advice for Chinese collectors and Chinese photography museums in terms of curating and collecting?
Specially for the museums: invest on good databases and storage spaces and specialized conservators. Take good care of negatives, too. Tell the artists not to ditch their vintage prints even if they might think their new ink jet prints are better.

When you mention about updating the article, what do you want to change? And why?
It seems so much has already happened since I wrote the article – but I ended up just updating the part about sharing our collections. We now have a Flickr page where we share copyright-free images from our collection for unlimited use. Also, we now have a small gallery (a corner of the big exhibition space) dedicated to the collections: it’s called the Angle. It will always have an exhibition related to our collections, and it can be a comment on our larger exhibitions, an example of a recent art or research project on the collections, or something completely different.

The Chinese version of this article is published on Raycenter.org

 

Fay-1-150x150Fangfei Chen is a Ph.D candidate of History at the University of Essex, with a primary focus on the research of photographic materials. She is from China and has an MA in Arts Market Appraisal from Kingston University, and an MA from the University of St. Andrews in the History of Photography. She has worked as Assistant Manager in the Beijing Huachen Auction House Photography Department, as well as working for several photographic archives such as in the University of St. Andrews. Her interviews and reviews have been published by Art Gallery, Art Guide and The World of Photography, among other publications. Her interests include the history of Chinese photography, the photographic market, management, and festivals.

 

Image credits:
Reino Pietinen, Family Pietinen, 1910′s, Autochrome. Courtesy of The Finnish Museum of Photography.
I.K. Inha,Boys at Hietalahti harbour. 1908, .Helsinki. Glass negative. Courtesy of The Finnish Museum of Photography.
Virve Laustela, Courtesy of The Finnish Museum of Photography, 2015.
Carl Klein(Atelier Universal)Ellinor Ivalo,Digitized from original negative. Courtesy of The Finnish Museum of Photography.

Review: Holding the Line: Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography at the Bronx Documentary Center

According to various news sources, in 2011 and 2014 then-host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart met with President Obama at the White House. But why are Stewart’s previously unreported visits newsworthy? Stewart is a comedian, and The Daily Show is a satirical broadcast. However, the host’s influential presence in public discourse cannot be denied. He is even credited with impacting governmental policy. For instance, three days after he interviewed 9-11 first responders, Congress passed a filibustered bill to aid responders whose service resulted in chronic illness. Politico also reported that White House aides were advised to field calls from Stewart’s staff. Did the comedian’s relationship with Obama’s administration compromise journalistic integrity? If Stewart was a news broadcaster, the answer more likely could be yes. Because he is a comedian, no matter how astutely he engages with current events, the answer remains more nebulous.

Photography maintains a similarly imprecise relationship to journalistic ethics. If the aim is to use images to impact public discourse, photographic illustrations and staged compositions can communicate some content as adeptly as photojournalism can. But Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography, a recent exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC), tried to hold the line regarding what constitutes proper documentary practices. The exhibition declared, “Documentary photographs and photojournalism must be accurate representations of the scene before the photographer’s camera—without alteration. If the public is to have faith in the integrity of the image before them, and by extension the media, images must be taken and published in a forthright manner.” However, after viewing the exhibition, it remains difficult to maintain a definitive boundary between those documentary practices deemed as accurate or forthright and those not.

Altered Images culled together forty photographs from the medium’s history. Co-curated by photojournalist and BDC founder Michael Kamber and Gallery Manager Bianca Farrow, the show categorized alterations under three labels: staging, post-production, and captions. Staging included Roger Fenton’s much-studied 1855 The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Crimea, Ukraine and Chris Arnade’s 2015 image of a South Bronx sex worker exposing her breasts. The analog removal of Nikolai Yezhov, chief of Soviet secret police, from a 1930s photograph after he fell out of Joseph Stalin’s favor and Matt Mahurin’s darkening of O.J. Simpson’s mugshot for a 1994 cover of Time demonstrated post-production modifications. And in 2007, Newsweek deceptively captioned one of Balazs Gardi’s photographs from Afghanistan. A man holds a boy who was wounded during a U.S. airstrike, yet the magazine inaccurately implied that a suicide bomber caused the boy’s injuries. For each example, wall text described the “representation” vis-à-vis the “reality.”

Photographs have been altered over the course of the medium’s history, so why is this show important now? Altered Images framed the contemporary moment as one with a “crisis of credibility.” Kamber associates this crisis with a generational shift; he posits that younger photographers are more comfortable altering images with newer technologies and have not been taught about the problems of distributing altered images in documentary contexts. The exhibition, the BDC’s mission, and the organization’s array of classes and other programs attempt to combat this crisis.

If dodging and burning were acceptable ways to enhance earlier photographs, can a photographer use digital technologies to alter the light levels in the frame? Adjust the colors or contrast? Crop an image? BDC’s exhibition presented photographs that have been altered, most by unacceptable means or in ways that greatly impact the content of the images. But where to draw the line between acceptable enhancement and unacceptable alteration remains somewhat unclear as evidenced by the contradictions that arose from the exhibit.

For example, the back corner of the gallery contained video interviews with a range of experts. Charles Johnson, founder of the weblog Little Green Footballs, spotted and reported numerous cases of photo-manipulation in recent press photographs. In his interview, he chides Iran, North Korea, and Russia for using manipulated images as propaganda. He advises that, overall, we should trust “more reputable” periodicals like The New York Times and The Washington Post, sources that he claims would not deliberately publish altered images. But if he could have looked out from the screen that presented his talking head in the gallery, he would have seen the May 1, 2003, The New York Times hanging nearby. J. Scott Applewhite’s front-page “Mission Accomplished” image of George W. Bush shows that the U.S. government also choreographs photo opportunities, and a “reputable” source distributed this image. Such contradictions in the exhibition are productive. They force us to examine the bounds of our own acceptance of photographic alterations.

It is also worthwhile to note the exhibition’s uneven approach to physical objects. The gallery display presented some “original” images as they would have been distributed, such Time’s cover image of Simpson. Many other examples appeared as matted and framed color printouts. Because the exhibition focused on the alteration of photographs more than the images’ materiality, the inclusion of color copies did not deter from the show’s aims. Presenting various formats also allowed the BDC to create their own. A few examples hung in transparent layers; viewers could separate the alteration from the image’s original appearance. The BDC also posted an online version of the exhibition complete with images, exhibition text, and videos to continue the discussion beyond the end of the exhibit’s gallery run.

While Altered Images presents numerous alterations that have been deemed unacceptable within journalism, it also highlights the difficulty of defining what is allowable. There remains a place for constructed illustrations to impact public discourse, just as Stewart’s commentary shaped recent discussions. And photojournalists make many decisions about formal concerns that impact viewers’ understandings of what was in front of the camera. But we can thank the BDC for revealing a range of alterations to unknowing viewers and for raising questions about the manipulation of photographs, even if the judgment of “accuracy,” or the line between illustrative and documentary, may not be as clear as it sometimes should be.

 

Exhibit information:
Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography
Bronx Documentary Center
20 June – 2 August 2015
Available online at: http://www.alteredimagesbdc.org/

 

Corey Dzenko earned her Ph.D. in the History of Photography from the University of New Mexico. Her research interests include the intersections of photography, performance, and new media; art as an agent of social change; and the ideologies of identity. She has presented in numerous national and international conferences, has published in sources including Afterimage: The Journal of Media and Cultural Criticism and the anthology Gravity in Art, and was a 2014 Visiting Fellow at the University of Nottingham. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

Margaret Morton’s Decade with the Homeless at Leica Gallery

In 1989, when Margaret Morton was teaching at The Cooper Union and living nearby in the East Village, her walk to work took her past Tompkins Square Park, where an encampment of people living in improvised structures had grown into a national symbol of the ongoing homeless crisis. Morton found herself attracted to the shelters themselves, rough collections of scavenged materials that served as protection from the environment for people living in the park, and she began photographing the dwellings with permission from their residents. Her handsome black and white photos from the era show enclosures made from plastic sheeting and cardboard, sometimes covered with signs and messages.

As she worked, Morton became increasingly interested in the people themselves. After police destroyed the encampment later that year, Morton stayed in touch with her contacts as they scattered throughout the city, and began photographing them with the new homes they built and the gardens the planted in empty lots. It was the beginning of close to a decade of work documenting a series of ad hoc communities throughout New York that produced four books and countless shows. In the process, Morton recorded evidence of universal ideas about the notion of home, visible in the elaborately adorned structures her subjects built. “The care that is evident in these homes and their gardens goes far beyond a basic need for shelter and security and reflects the profound human need that we all share to personalize, to decorate, to collect, and to display,” Morton tells New York Photography Diary. She thought the work might help change the conversation about homelessness. “It was my hope that people would not look down on homeless men and women if I could share how hard they were working to create a sense of home,” she says. The work here, shown together for the first time (and up until August 15 at Leica Gallery), suggests a single, expansive project documenting a variety of responses to the question of home from those on the edges of society.

As a photographer trained in the tradition of Walker Evans, Morton was attuned to meaning found in the social landscape. She received her MFA from Yale where Evans famously taught for ten years, and although he died shortly before she arrived, his lyrical approach to documenting American culture continued to influence the department. The style fit Morton’s focus on both her subjects and the objects they built—she photographed tiny houses with courtyards and front porches, built from salvaged palettes, as well as the elderly Puerto Rican men who made them and lived in them. Her portraits show men and women at ease in their surroundings—a man cooks ‘tunnel stew’ over an open flame in the rail tunnels that run under the Upper West Side and Harlem, where Morton photographed in the early 1990s. Another lounges by the pond he built in an empty lot, which he occasionally stocked with goldfish. Behind him grow the corn and tomatoes he planted for food.

Morton’s images serve as documents of her subjects’ lives, but they also find moments of beauty. While photographing in the tunnels, Morton was struck by the shafts of light that stream down through the sidewalk grates—the vast, illuminated space she recorded resembles a cathedral. Morton recalled asking former a resident of the tunnel if there was anything she ever missed about her grim existence there— the woman remembered the power of that space when she was depressed. “I would just stand there, in that single beam, and bathe myself in light,” she told Morton. This show brings together a decade’s worth of these small moments of grace in difficult lives.

 

Portrait-150x150Rebecca Robertson is co-editor of New York Photography Diary. She is a freelance writer, curator and photo editor in Queens. She studied photography and art history at Bryn Mawr College and received her MFA in photography and related media from the School of Visual Arts. She has worked in the New York art world for more than 10 years. She has written about photography for ARTnews magazine and curated shows, most recently a series of benefit exhibitions for UNICEF.

 

Analyzing the Concept of Photographic Communities Through the Photographic Projects of Nan Goldin and Zhe Chen

Differing definitions of communities, ranging from nations to the smallest of subcultures, have been recorded and elucidated with the camera lens. The American art historian Louis Kaplan has suggested that the medium of photography is a means of communicating and connecting within space, and that these communal qualities raise questions about “our living and being with others, about community and about being-in-common”.[1] The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy introduced the idea of “being singular plural” as the essential relationship within a society or community. “Being singular plural” shows the main feature of the existence of human being. It is “the irreducible plurality of a coexistence that never becomes the same in the first place”.[2] Being is always “being-with”, due to the coexistence between singular and plural. Although this notion is developed from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, Nancy emphasized that the relation of interest to him is not a relation between substances existing independently of, and prior to, relations, but being as relation.[3] Referring to Nancy, “No one…has radically thematised the ‘with’ as the essential trait of Being and as its proper plural singular co-essence”.[4] Nancy uses “expose” to describe the relations within the community. The community of “being singular plural” is based on the relations of being; relying on exposure, rather than the similarity or difference between the members within the community. In other words, the relation, or experience, of sharing and dividing is “being singular plural”. The community is actually being-in-common. Thus, community is not a fixed or closed idea and it could not follow the classic logic regarding a fixed or closed identity that is shared by every member of the community.[5] This is because the essence of community is not an accumulable individual. There is no “same” or “other”. The idea of forcing an ‘other’ to be ‘same’, should not exist anymore, because “its participants have nothing in common; they are in-common”.[6]

The Ballad of Sexual Dependecy (TBSD) is the first photo-book by the American photographer Nan Goldin, published in 1986. At first glance, many of these photographs appear to have been taken in close proximity, with flash used to lighten areas of darkness. These dark spaces are those normally kept private, away from public view: such as bedrooms or bathrooms. People, therefore, are shown to partake in events that take place only in such privacy, such as sexual intercourse and drug abuse, but they do so freely in front of the camera. According to the first page of the book, “[TBSD] is a visual diary chronicling the struggle for intimacy and understanding between friends, family and lovers–collectively described by Goldin as her ‘‘tribe’.”[7] As Kaplan suggests, these photographs grew out of the relationships between Goldin and those photographed; Goldin does not look for subjects, but they find, or are linked with, her directly. It is possible to claim that Goldin’s social circle is a sub-culture group, which is, in other words, a featured community. Chris Townsend claims that Goldin’s photographs are valuable in authentically interpreting sub-culture groups: “what we have…is not the originary ‘Ballad’ but rather a version of that narrative read through a century and a half of thought about what the bohemian life should look like. ” [8] The photographs may or may not serve as research or evidence for Goldin’s particular sub-culture, but to do so, or to speak the truth about this community’s identity is not their essential quality. Rather, they produce a self-referent space for the memory of Goldin’s bohemian life; the people photographed together embody the notion of a bohemian lifestyle, which is divided from mainstream culture and society. We assume the opposite is true of the audience: the mainstream looking in on a bohemian lifestyle as if it is authentic; the photographs are developed from an established community, of which the photographer is one of its members. A comparison can be made here with Zhe Chen, who offers a visually similar, but also very different idea of community with her photographs.

The Chinese photographer Zhe Chen published her first photo-book, Bees, in 2011, after an exhibition of the project awarded Chen the Inge Morath Foundation award from the Magnum Foundation. There are 57 photographs, within which approximately 15 people are seen to be conducting self harm in varying degrees: from piercing their own ears, to participating in more serious bodily modification. The title of the photo-book comes from Virgil’s commentary on bees: “they left their lives in the very wounds they had created for themselves.”[9] Bee, then, became the name of those Chen has documented, indicating a level of understanding between Chen herself and those that commit self- harm. This brings a sense of intimacy to the photographs and their subjects, as they are treated on such a personal level. Before this work by Chen, a Japanese photographer, Kosuke Okahara, took photographs of those that commit self-harm. The difference between Okahara and Chen is that Chen, like Goldin, can relate as a member of the community she depicts. Chen’s bio-photographic project The Bearable comprised of a photographic diary of Chen committing self- harm.[10] Zhe Chen is, then, also a bee.

Goldin often shares specific details of her photographs in the captions, such as the names of people shown, the location of the shoot and the year taken. She designed her photo-book to follow central themes and composition choices, and she uses repetition of characters, identifying and labeling their names, to familiarize the audience with the people. There seem to be no secrets between Goldin and those in her photographs, or between Goldin and the people who look at the photographs. As the curator Elisabeth Sussman claimed, Goldin simply records those around her.[11] However, Zhe Chen very much protects the privacy of the people she documents. There are no captions, neither on the walls of her exhibitions, nor in her photo-book. Captions are used only occasionally and even then they only reference code numbers (e.g. 048-01), which are shown under the photographs on her personal website. Even in the acknowledgements of the last pages in the photo-book, Chen names the people who joined her photographic projects only in abbreviations.

Chen approaches each individual in her photographs separately, therefore each of the photographs represents a single, individual connection between photographer and the photographed subject. The photographs try to show an intimacy between the photographer and the individual subject, rather than between the photographers and a larger group of people. According to Chen, “Bees is the counter fire to the stereotype of this [self-harm] group, rather than a illustration of the stereotype: he[or she] is a individual, not a type of person; he[or she] can’t be replaced by the formulation of society.”[12] Chen’s intention was not to represent a unified image of a group. She took photographs of the bees from different angles, juxtaposed with photographs of insects, animals and plants in The Bees, and the blank pages in the photo-book cut and form individual narratives. According to Chen, she talks with and poses the individuals in her photographs, and considers them a “cathartic” experience, which is shared by both herself and the people in front of her camera. Chen showed the photographs from The Bearable project, and her own scars, to those in her Bees project. Although they were complete strangers, the scars and the photographs acted as a passport, so to speak, to let known a shared experience, to photograph the real bees.[13] Photography places Chen in an equal position with those people in front of her camera. Taking photography itself, especially in the contemporary period, is considered a shared experience; it is a negotiating between the photographer and the subject.[14] Chen’s photographs not only mark the relations between the isolated individuals, but provide Chen and the documented people a chance of “being with” the people who understand and experience similar feelings. In return, the photographic project provides Chen a new way to walk out from her closed world.

None of the people who appear in the photographs by Chen had met each other before the photographic project. The actual communication between the photographer and the documented people starts with the contact between the photographer and her subjects, often made near to the time the photographs were shot. Photography is important for both the photographer and subject in this community, as it is a way of communicating with each other, both physically and through the photographs themselves. Although the act of self-harm could be considered as the “in-common” part to secure a certain kind of connection between them, rather than a social or political background or a period of time lived together, the communication and connections made with the community are consolidated by photography, and developed throughout the taking of photography and the photographic exhibition. It is Chen who reveals the self-harm community, and introduces the members to each other through her photographs.

The private and intimate spaces, such as bathroom and bedroom, appear in their photographs frequently. The camera has been placed close to the floor, looking up, in order to take a photograph, such as in Bees 048-01. The wooden floor covers nearly one third of the photograph, which shows a half-naked girl dressed in blood red, looking at herself in the mirror. The half-naked body is purposely exhibited to us as she reveals herself for the camera rather than the mirror, which is being used for make-up. The view of this photograph, then, is the result of careful consideration of natural lighting and composition. In comparison with some of Goldin’s photographs, such as the blurred (like a snapshot) Greer and Robert on the Bed, New York City, which is taken from eye-level with the use of flash, the subtleties of the Chen’s image’s circumstance is clear.

Tate Modern held the exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera in 2010. Nan Goldin and her TBSD was included. As the curator Sandra Phillips illustrated in her interview, “[from] the word ‘voyeur’ comes the word ‘to see’”.[15] Often in photography, evidence of a superior-subordinate relationship is often present, such as a dominated male gaze, which turns the female in the photographs into a product of fetishism and male appeal.[16] In Freudian psychoanalysis, “voyeurism (subjecting women to a controlling and unreturned gaze) and…fetishism (the displacement or substitution of the anxiety onto a re-assuring object which comes to stand in from the missing penis)…are both inscribed on the photographic arrangement.”[17]It is possible to understand as voyeurism the act of looking without actually understanding the situation depicted, at people documented who are personally unknown to the viewer, such as in the work of Chen and Goldin. The considerably enclosed community, of either artist, has attracted worldwide attention continuously from a variety of public viewers. If such intimacy can be shared by these photographers, can public viewers join these communities and avoid being voyeurs?

The word community “signifies those elements that are held in common among people”.[18] Because a community is identified by the individuals within it, these individuals usually share similarities with other members of their community. A community is not only recognised by the accumulated experiences shared by its members, but it also puts them into opposite positions from those outside the community; the people who share similarities inside the community are the “same”, while the people who are outside of the community are recognized as “other”.[19] This dual position of “same” and “other” is essential in the theory of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, who are leading thinkers of ethics in continental philosophy. In considering the relationships regarding the use of the ‘other’, one key ethical problem is that to totalise the other is “to speak on behalf of the other in a reductive, essentialising way that made it the other of the same”.[20]

Based on the philosophical theory by Nancy, Kaplan focuses on the photographs depicting the relations between people, which he called the “community-exposed photography”. On the one hand, he believes taking photographs is “an act of sharing in which we are exposed to one another, and to being-in-common when we are exposed to the camera lens”.[21] On the other hand, Kaplan points out that “photographic exposure allows us to become available as communication and open to communicability.”[22] The exposed photography forms the community. First of all, the term “us” indicates the photographer and the subjects, as well as the viewers. The photographic communication for Kaplan, taking photography, could equal to the “being-in-common” for everyone, especially for the spectators of photography. Therefore, through photography, the viewers of photography, even voyeurs, could join in the photographic communication. In the concept of “community-exposed photography”, the idea of “same” or “other” does not exist in the photographic exposure. Secondly, the photographic communication is “to share and to divide” simultaneously.[23] Through photography one can identify their imagined community. Therefore, the exposed photography is the medium to communicate and connect the imagined “moral truth” to everyone who connects with the community.[24] The imagined moral truth could be agreed by both those inside, and those originally outside of the community.

To the audience of these photographs, Kaplan claims that “a photographer and a philosopher will relate to use the fundamental acknowledgement that sharing constitutes each of us, that our being- in-the-world is always already a being-with, or what Nancy refers to as out being-in-common.”[25] It is a direct confirmation that photography opens the audience to a wider community. To this extent, Kaplan equals the characteristics of the philosophical theory of community, removing the difference between “same” and “other”, to his photographic theory of community. “Being singular plural”, therefore, is used as evidence that photography could be looked at by the audience, as part of this larger community. The viewers could share similar experiences as the subjects in the photographs, just through looking at them. The photographic community can then be contrasted with the classic analysis of spectatorship that is driven from film and feminist studies. Margaret Olin suggests the term “gaze” is often used in art theory, in discourses of “spectatorship”. Olin addresses, in the most common sense, the effective “looking” that could let the “beholder”, who conducts the “spectatorship”, to obtain both knowledge and pleasure from a work of art.[26] Because the actions, “beholding” and “gazing”, are often influenced by “the issues of power, manipulation, and desire”, art theory rarely agrees with the idea of gaining knowledge from the “gaze” in spectatorship, but rather questions the voyeuristic quality of the gaze.[27] The only way to escape the negative image of “gaze” is to prove its social value, which relies on “the mutual gaze of equality”. 28 The photographer who is coming from the same social or political background as the subjects could not secure a neutral “gaze”, because the aesthetic distinctions turn to aesthetic objects for a galleries’ wall.[28] The achieved ethics is also rarely generated by the enlarged viewer group or the future viewers.[29]

If viewers and photographer could be exposed to each other in exhibitions, as suggested by Kaplan, the spectators would communicate and share experiences with both the photographers and their subjects. However, it is difficult to recognize the differences only by looking at photographs. Comparing Tommy in the Garden and Bees 022-03, the photographs appear in one overbearing colour scheme; Tommy in the Garden in yellow, Bees 022-3 in blue. The subjects photographed do not look at the camera, while a trace of the photographer and the camera can be identified in the photographs – Goldin is seen within a shadow and Chen can be seen in the reflection of the glass. The people shown in Goldin and Chen’s photographs belong to different examples of communities. They do not reveal anything of their social communities in these photographs, and look rather similar. Simply looking at these photographs tells us little of their communities. Therefore, the visual similarity between Goldin and Chen becomes evidence to support the idea that through looking at photographs, we cannot share the experience of what actually happened.

Furthermore, even though the photographs open the exposures between the audiences and photographic projects, there are both “limits” and “possibilities” in representing an intimate community of lovers.[30] Although the limitation of sharing in a photographic community is often a comment on the photographer’s capability, Kaplan goes as far to suggests that the photographic project by Goldin “leaves itself open to the charge of voyeurism, even obscenity”.[31] Therefore, Kaplan suggests that looking at the intimate photographs is an ethical choice, even though the audience are essentially voyeurs. Similar to Goldin, photographs by Chen also encourage voyeurism from the audiences. It seems to bring out contradictions to Kaplan’s ethical claim that everyone, including the viewers (the spectators), can communicate and connect with each other.

After taking the photographs, they become objects that belong to the photographer. There is no connection or communication between the current viewers and the people in the photographs. Referring to Kaplan, “photographic images have externalized and realized how we imagine community.”[32] This is written for the beholders in the museums, galleries or anyone who is not “being-with”, or connected with the communities. In other words, Kaplan supports the right for spectators to look at these photographs. But the word “imagine” also hints that the viewers of the photographs and the readers of the book could not really understand the relations within the communities shown. Through Kaplan’s book, the readers share and divide their opinions about reading and looking at the community-exposed photographs. The photographic community, even thought the photographers are a part of the sub-culture community, could not fully solve the ethical problems of looking at intimate photographs in public places. The relationship between the viewer and photographed subject, is likely actually only a relationship between the viewer and the photographer. This new community cannot be mixed, or relate, with the communities in the photographs.

 

Fay-1-150x150Fangfei Chen is a Ph.D candidate of History at the University of Essex, with a primary focus on the research of photographic materials. She is from China and has an MA in Arts Market Appraisal from Kingston University, and an MA from the University of St. Andrews in the History of Photography. She has worked as Assistant Manager in the Beijing Huachen Auction House Photography Department, as well as working for several photographic archives such as in the University of St. Andrews. Her interviews and reviews have been published by Art Gallery, Art Guide and The World of Photography, among other publications. Her interests include the history of Chinese photography, the photographic market, management, and festivals.

 

References

[1] Louis Kaplan, American Exposures: Photography and Community in the Twentieth Century. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). xv.
[2] Watkin, “A Different Alterity: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Singular Plural'”:51
[3] Christian Fynsk, Foreword to The Inoperative Community, by Jean-Luc Nancy(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991): xii
[4] Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000):34
[5] Kaplan, American Exposures, xxii
[6] Watkin, “A Different Alterity: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Singular Plural'”,61
[7] Foreword to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
[8] Townsend, Chris. “Nan Goldin: Bohemian Ballads.” In Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico press, 2004): 114
[9] Foreword to Bees
[10] Jean Loh, “Bees in the Body Temple” In Bees (Washington, D.C: Xia International Publishing House for China’s Culture, 2011): 63.
[11] Elisabeth Sussman, “In/of Her Time: Nan Goldin’s Photographs” In Nan Goldin: I’ll be your mirror (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996): 26
[12] Xu, ”The Sting: Interview”, 74.
[13] Tingting Xu, ”The Sting: Interview” In Bees (Washington, D.C: Xia International Publishing House for China’s Culture, 2011): 74.
[14] Joanna Lowry, “Negotiating Power” In Face on:Photography as Social Exchange (London: Black Dog Publ., 2000): 24
[15] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLkLv1gaXSs
[16] Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish.” October 34 (1985): 81-90. http://www.jstor.org/stable/778490 (accessed April 24, 2012).
[17] Roberta McGrath, “Re-Reading Edward Weston.” In The photography reader (London: Routledge, 2003):333
[18] Victor E. Taylor, Charles E. Winquist, Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 2001) s.v. “community.”
[19] Christorpher Watkin, “A Different Alterity: Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Singular Plural’.” Paragraph 30, no. 2 (2007): 50
[20] Ibid, 50.
[21] Kaplan, American Exposures. 81
[22] Ibid, 81
[23] Ibid, 82
[24] Ibid, xix
[25] Kaplan, American Exposures, 81
[26] Margaret Olin,”Gaze” In Critical Terms for Art History. 2 ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003): 319
[27] Olin,”Gaze”, 319
28 Ibid, 327
[28] Mark Durden, “Empathy and Engagement: the Subjective Documentary” in Face on:Photography as Social Exchange (London: Black Dog Publ., 2000): 32
[29] Ibid, 30
[30] Kaplan, American Exposures, 82.
[31] Ibid, 82.
[32] Ibid, xv.

Images ©Nan Goldin/Zhe Chen
Nan Goldin, Nan and Bryan in Bed, NYC, 1983
Zhe Chen, Bees 022-03, 2010
Nan Goldin, Greer and Robert on the Bed, New York City, 1982

Klompching Gallery Re-Opening with Helen Sear

Last Wednesday, Klompching Gallery re-opened in their new location at 89 Water Street, DUMBO. The gallery has been located in DUMBO since it opened seven years ago, but until recently was one of a number of arts businesses situated on the second floor of 111 Front Street. Two Trees Management, a prominent real estate company in the neighborhood that has been a long-standing proponent of DUMBO arts, enabled the move and Klompching is one of ten businesses that have been relocated to storefront locations either on Plymouth Street or in the building formerly occupied by Galapagos Art Space on the corner of Water and Main. The former Galapagos building was originally designed and built in 1906 for the Robert Gair Company and is adjacent, on two sides, to the Empire Stores, recognizable from the 1930s photographs of Berenice Abbott. It seems to be an ideal location for a gallery; the redesign included expansive storefront windows, which allow in vast amounts of natural light and afford passers by more than just a glimpse inside.

The inaugural show at Klompching Gallery’s new space is a celebration of Helen Sear’s work; the artist’s fourth solo exhibition with the gallery. The works are not new to exhibition, with much of it having been featured in the previous shows, however, Sear’s organic oeuvre is a well thought out complement to the new space and comes as she is representing Wales at the 56th Venice Biennale, with a solo exhibition in the Santa Maria Ausilliatrice. Sear’s work is very contemplative and the new space at Klompching is a worthy environment in which to contemplate. Hung with plenty of room for our thoughts to expand around the work, the peaceful atmosphere allows us to consider the questions surrounding identity, gender and the photographic medium that Sear addresses.

As you enter the space, you are met with Sightlines, a grid of 21 images hanging on the back wall. Each panel is a portrait of a woman, however, instead of the sitter presented to our gaze, we are met with the cold, one-eyed stare of the mass-produced, hand-painted china figurine of the bird that masks each woman’s face. Access to the sitter, something considered a given in portraiture, is denied, and the gender politics of looking is interrupted. The presence of the mass-produced figurines raises questions about authorship and originality, as does the fact that Sear alters each photograph by painting the background with gesso. The result is a partially hand-painted photograph of both painted and ‘real’ elements, each unique with the artist’s labour.

Inside The View, a series of earlier works situated on the small, street-side wall, address similar themes of identity and gender; it is clear the subjects are female, but once again we are denied access to who they are. Rather, we are encouraged to focus on their presence in a semi-imagined landscape that Sear superimposed onto the portraits-from-behind. She, again, speaks to the concept of originality, as a third layer – a digitally drawn web of lines – is laid onto the already two-fold picture plane. We are forced to decipher multiple layers to approach the female subject underneath, giving her a sense of power and control usually afforded to the viewer.

This exhibition feels very at home in Klompching’s new space. There is a organic feel to the space that is a result of the extensive natural light and the view of the leafy DUMBO street outside. Nature is a prominent theme in Sear’s work, particularly evident in the Pastoral Monuments series, stretching for six images down the left wall. The flowers in these images were among 80 flowers that Sear sourced from a field in Wales, local to where she lives and works, to photograph for the series. In the same way that Sear brought her everyday into her work, Klompching Gallery is bringing in theirs. They have been advocates of the arts in DUMBO since they opened nearby, but now that the gallery inhabits a ground floor storefront space they can really let the neighborhood in. The exterior light works with the interior lighting to create a fresh feel, and being merely blocks away from the waterfront with the relative calm of Brooklyn makes it seem as though the natural element of Sear’s work is very much reflected in it’s setting.

Images © Helen Sear, courtesy of Klompching Gallery.

 

securedownload-150x150Catherine Troiano is co-editor of New York Photography Diary. She is Gallery Manager at a New York photography gallery, who also works independently as a curatorial consultant and researcher. She has experience in various institutions in New York, Edinburgh and London, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, currently, the Sasha Wolf Gallery. She holds an MA in History of Art from the University of Edinburgh, and her interests include inter-war Eastern European photography, Hungarian art and contemporary art.

Visual Analysis: Orogenesis by Kay Watson

Landscapes derived from representations of landscapes, Orogenesis (2002 – 2006), is a series of digitally constructed landscapes created using software designed for scientific and military purposes by Spanish visual artist and academic Joan Fontcuberta. Fontcuberta uses software called Terragen to create photorealistic visualisations of landscapes, but instead of using cartographic data as this software is designed to use, Fontcuberta has replaced it with canonical images of landscapes taken from the history of art. The title, meaning mountain building or formation, derives from a field of physical geography and an early indication of a multidisciplinary practice that borrows from diverse critical disciplines. The series is the manifestation of a complex layering of ideas and concepts, and has at its core, his key creative concerns of: ‘representation, the nature of signs and the relationship of pictures to the real world’. It may even seem tenuous to discuss Joan Fontcuberta’s practice as photographic, as this is a set of images are created using visualisation software – but it is absolutely key to understanding Orogenesis, which is as much about photographic representation as it is the historical construction of assumptions about the subject.

Discourse around the time of the introduction of digital photography in the late 1990s was fearful of the death of the photographic medium; a mirroring of reactions to other changes in photographic culture historically, such as the introduction of colour film. Colour photography was only initially accepted as a commercial or a vernacular type of photography and the digital medium has followed that same path to acceptance. Joan Fontcuberta began his career in advertising, which may explain his willingness to utilise new representational tools. Contemporary assessments are less fearful of ontological change as Sarah Kember points out ‘how can we panic about the loss of the real when we know (tacitly or otherwise) that the real is already lost in the act of representation? Any representation, even a photographic one, only constructs an image idea of the real’.

This represents a sensible shift away from the anxiety of a ‘post-photographic’ discourse that digital photography represents an entirely new medium, and acceptance that any image is never completely truthful. With Orogenesis, Joan Fontcuberta is taking this one step further and posing a challenge to what is now accepted about digital image representation by using visualisation software. The process, though, is still inherently the same in a tradition sense. Like a digital photograph, created with a digital camera, a Terragen image is constructed using data. Rather than it being created through the digitisation of light waves, an image is created through the algorithmic processing of cartographic data; creating impressive photorealistic results through a mimetic process. Fontcuberta has replaced light with code, and the real life subject, made visible through light, is replaced by an artist’s representation of a subject from real life. This forms the basis of Fontcuberta’s strategy and is successful at stimulating discourse on the subject of representation in the digital and information age, while also reflecting on histories of photographic representation.

Through this method, Fontcuberta also reflects on the relationship between the photograph and its original, especially with the use of the art object as the basis of representation. When Orogenesis is presented, whether as a photograph or a book – and both are primary ways of viewing the work, it is always in reference to the image suppling the initial data. This original referent landscape, borrowed from the long history of art and photography – for example Orogenesis Stieglitz (2005), is always shown alongside a small version of the original work. This inclusion could be compared to a thumbnail, a function of computing that assists navigation, and reveals not only how recognisable these canonical source images really are, but creates an accessible route into the meaning of the artwork. The titles of each individual piece, with the inclusion of the creator of the source landscape image, also implies a form of collaboration or collusion with the original and an acceptance of the role of copying and appropriation as a viable visual practice, in agreement with Rosalind Krauss’s critique of modernist ideas of originality; that works of art are never unique as an artist is always influenced by external forces. Therefore, Orogenesis evokes age-old practices of copying from the history of art, as Joan Fontcuberta himself states: ‘just as every image derives from some other image that preceded it, so all histories, too, derive from other histories’.

The work becomes one of repetition with antagonism. Patricia Keller describes the process as ‘perpetuated and disrupted’, between the past and the present. Much like Sherrie Levine’s After Walker Evans: 2 (1981), where Levine appropriates Walker Evan’s photograph, by including it in the presentation of the work at only a fraction of the size. But rather than re-photographing like Levine, Fontcuberta is re-processing the original and the before and after appear to be different. The original landscape remains indexical to the final computer generated landscape. Even though the result has removed recognisable signs of the original, the traces of its existence remain. That Fontcuberta is using the art object is also significant in this respect, implying a criticism of the value of the art object that also raises concerns associated with authorship and ownership. Fontcuberta relinquishes control of the creative process – the result is placed in the hands of Terragen, and ensures that the authorship of Orogenesis is multiplicitous and ambiguous.

As a representation of art historical ideas, the work is obviously critical of modernist art historical discourse and embodies a postmodern approach. As Geoffrey Batchen states in his essay that accompanies the book Landscapes Without Memory (2005): ‘in Fontcuberta’s hands, photography has become a philosophical activity, not a pictorial one’ which is only emphasised by Fontcuberta’s extensive critical and theoretical writings. While this comment could be seen as a vague generalisation that encompasses the majority of postmodern, even post-war, art practice and potentially undermines visually interrogative techniques, it is correct in the sense that Fontcuberta is heavily relying on textual philosophical ideas through the Orogenesis series. Fontcuberta does accept that aesthetics are not primary within his investigations, ‘a by-product’, yet an essential way of communicating and encouraging critically engagement from the viewer.. This once again stems from Fontcuberta’s experience of advertising and visual rhetoric.

It is clear to see how Fontcuberta is combining ideas associated with language, semiotics and signs, with photographic representation. But any philosophical activity of this particular kind would not exist without the pictorial. Joan Fontcuberta’s critical writings are permeated with the word ‘crisis’ and whether this is a crisis of history, art or our landscape, it reveals a desire to question historically pre-conceived notions within our culture. As he discusses in a ‘virtual roundtable’ as part of Ecotopia, an exhibition of landscape photography and video associated with environmental issues: Postmodernism, the society of the spectacle, the capitalism of fiction, and the age of melancholy have combined to consolidate a philosophy of suspicion, a mistrust of a reality composed of simulations, manifested in an avalanche of seductive, saccharine images – to which it is imperative to be critical. Fontcuberta highlights how the philosophical environment of our time encourages the need to interrogate our general engagement with image representations but with the need to remain constantly critical. This statement also provides some indication why Batchen would associate the virtual landscapes with stock photography with its kitsch, generic-looking imagery. Stock photography represents a blandness of mass-produced images produced for commercial gain bound up in issues of copyright and ownership and resonates with an artist critical of a world homogenised by globalisation and the commodification of the art object.

Both series represent the power of the internet to disseminate information and imagery, as a new platform for the social, as well as artistic practice and criticism. Fontcuberta is also asking the viewer to question whether that information is authentic. Batchen states that the digital distribution of information is ‘the social/political issue of our age’ and becomes even more poignant when Fontcuberta is simultaneously challenging what is considered traditional and safe: landscape. It is now accepted that, as an art historical and critical subject matter, the representation of landscape is not objective but a complex mix of cultural, social and political constructs. This is what Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan in Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination (2003) would describe as the ‘geographical imagination’ and a learned, culturally constructed way of seeing, stating that: ‘The taking and viewing of photographs was an integral, active and influential part of engagement with material reality, helping to construct imaginative geographies’. Joan Fontcuberta uses Orogenesis as a vehicle to both highlight and contradict how place exists through time and memory.

The artist uses embedded connotations of power relations (gender, race, class, colonialism) that have preoccuppied photographic discourse by disrupting and attempting to remove them from his landscapes, which highlights just how embedded our historically constructed ways of seeing really are. Orogenesis, or Landscapes Without Memory as it would now be appropriate to use, becomes a series of landscapes without history, without memory and without place. Fontcuberta’s title may reference Landscape and Memory (1995), Simon Schama’s seminal book about the environment and collective memory, as another nod to the critical climate that he is deconstructing. As the original data also comes from the history of art, notions of the ideal landscape, the pastoral idyll or the romantic sublime, are further emphasised, especially as Terragen interferes with that information. By turning an idealised representation of a landscape into another idealised representation, Fontcuberta is bemoaning the loss of our natural environment – another social and political issue of our time. Fontcuberta states that the work ‘can also be understood as samples of those fantasy “other worlds” where we will find shelter when our environment no longer supports life conditions.’

Orogenesis becomes a utopian vision full of contradiction and anxiety as it teeters on the cusp of the real and unreal, familiar and alien. The antagonism of these dualities deconstructs historical and cultural ideals before the eyes of the viewer with great unease. This disquiet goes further when considering the role surveillance and the historical relationship between the photographic and reconnaissance. Consider Carleton E. Watkins heroic and canonical images of the American West, his commissioned photographs could be considered early forms of reconnaissance, a mapping of a new landscape to enable to the spread of capitalism. Also considering the development of reconnaissance photography during the First World War, a specialist skill in the reading of photographs like maps, and a tool of modern warfare. The relevance of reconnaissance to the Orogenesis project is highly significant. Terragen was developed for military and scientific purposes, in order to visualise large areas of potential battlefields with only cartographic data and the high view-point of all of the Orogenesis landscapes only emphasises the surveying nature of the images. Orogenesis was published at the commencement of the post 9/11 era of increasingly virtual and detached methods of modern warfare and the proliferation of drones, and criticality of this as much as of representation can be read through Fontcuberta’s process. Fontcuberta takes on board the anxiety of the information age and contemporary readings of Orogenesis must be influenced by issues relating to internet privacy and political and ideological approaches to data.

Bringing these principles of surveying and reconnaissance together under a single blanket heading of mapping, or cartography, Fontcuberta’s virtual landscapes are as much a critical engagement with this discipline as with photography or art history. Landscape photography and mapping are entwined areas of critical thought and cartography comes under the same critical scrutiny as photography with regards to the authenticity of representation. There are significant parallels between not only the properties of maps and photographs but also the history of cartography and that of photography. Mapping, as Denis Cosgrove eloquently describes it, is an act of ‘visualising, conceptualising, recording, representing and creating spaces graphically’ that can be ‘material or immaterial, actual or desired, whole or part, in various ways experienced, remembered or projected’. Cosgrove’s words could just as easily be used to describe photography and when considering Fontcuberta’s own introductory words, that this is ‘art as map’, the disciplines are further entwined. Also consider that both are tangible everyday objects and this can arguably also mean virtual and a further narrative layer of the art object is once again emphasised. Both a photograph and map are instantly recognisable, though it is necessary to decipher the surface in order to grasp its meaning and both involve the creation of some form of boundary or essentially imaginary frame. One must also see maps as agents of political and economic power and social mobility, much like landscapes and their photographic, or creative, representations and are subjected to the same amount of editing, selections, omissions and other subjective processes that are also inherently photographic and create meaning. Interestingly, the terminology used by Christian Jacob is the same as that used by Clement Greenberg when discussing the reality of a photographic image; that maps can be transparent and opaque, and shows how similar the critical discourse is. As Denis Cosgrove stated in the book Mapping (1999), postmodern theory also enveloped cartographic discourse: ‘a widely acknowledged ‘spatial turn’ across arts and sciences corresponds to post-structuralist agnosticism about both naturalistic and universal explanations regarding their single voiced narratives, and to the concomitant recognition that position and context are centrally and inescapably implicated in all constructions of knowledge.’

Denis Cosgrove’s insight is especially relevant to Joan Fontcuberta’s practice and his desire to challenge power, authority and what we know about information sharing. Much like the land and environment artists of the 1960s and 1970s, Fontcuberta disrupts time by applying mapping principles to exacerbate debate about memory and space. One can compare works such as Richard Long’s 1967 piece A Line made by Walking, London (Tate Gallery) to Orogenesis to show how mapping principles, combined with landscape as subject, can assist in deconstruction of time as associated with experience, while also criticising that beacon of realism: the documentary photograph. As Lucy Lippard writes in The Lure of the Local (1997): ‘for most of us the map is a tantalizing symbol of time and space. Even when at their most abstract, maps (especially topographical maps) are catalysts, as much titillating foretastes of future physical experience as they are records of others’ (or our own) past experiences.’ Yet while Long represents notions of experience by documenting performative gestures, Fontcuberta’s visualisations represent a complete obliteration of time and an eradication of experience, through the removal of history, narrative and memory. Any sense of place becomes unfamiliar and dislocated from its reference in time. Patricia Keller suggests that this results in forgetting, the ‘work of art as real map of an non-existent place’ entices the viewer to ‘rethink the paradox inherent in seeing these works as both real and fictional, as both the memory of the artwork and the remapped forgetting of that artwork’.

Time, in Fontcuberta’s work, becomes pivotal to its construction, representation and interpretation and the dissolution of time actively contradicts his consistently historical approach. Time also represents a decisive factor within the history of photographic technological development and has always had an effect on the type of work that is produced. The slow movement of heavy cumbersome plate cameras and long exposures infuse 19th Century exploration images. The desire to travel long distances to document a landscape is also apparent in the work of The New Topographics even though they had access to smaller snapshot cameras. Fontcuberta’s disintegration of time is magnified by the relative ease and speed of the creation of his digital landscapes,. As analogue photography started as an expensive time-consuming pursuit, so did digital photography, and it’s now cheaper and more accessible than ever – even Terragen can be accessed for free. It should be considered that Fontcuberta’s use of mapping creates, or perhaps reverts to, a mythical landscape. The creation of maps to represent social and religious importance rather than of actual place echos the earliest created maps of our surroundings. The viewer should also consider then the impact of the Enlightenment on the capturing of objective factual depictions as much with mapping as with the development and rise of photography that followed.

In Ecotopia, Gregory Volk describes how Fontcuberta’s ‘mythical’ landscapes initially ‘look plausible and enticing’ but because they ‘refer to no place on earth’ they ‘seem vaguely creepy and un-nerving’. This revulsion and anxiety that the viewer feels when attempting to decipher a place-less space teetering between the real and imaginary is that of the uncanny. Matthew Hart comes to a similar conclusion when writing about the work of Layla Curtis that: ‘the cartographic uncanny is the feeling one gets before a map that looks familiar and yet is also a chart of something very different; when the well known map of the well known territory no longer offers a reliable route through new thickets of fact and affect. The cartographic uncanny, then, marks both a failure of mapping and the persistence of cartographic reason under the sign of the failure.’ The failure that Hart describes parallels Fontcuberta’s own language, the ever present ‘crisis’, and resonates with Fontcuberta’s deconstruction of, not only, ideas associated with mapping but its contemporary criticism. The uncanny is an effective way of describing the response to Fontcuberta’s practice of representing critical contradictions that also mirrors the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’, a term coined Masahiro Mori in 1970 to describe a revulsion to images or things that almost look human, or real.

Orogenesis is a work full of antagonism, but perhaps also using humour and chance in response to notions of anxiety and control. Fontcuberta’s process is to trick the software into thinking that photographic representation of landscapes are maps. He is introducing the idea that the surface of an image could be codified in the same way as a map and disrupts an established process at the same time. He claims that this act of trickery represents his mistrust of authority gained from growing up under Franco’s authoritarian regime in Spain. This disruption means that the act of visualisation becomes an unknown, as the artist has cheated the system with little concern for how Terragen will respond except to produce a landscape. This is what Fontcuberta terms the ‘limited vocabulary’ of his chosen medium and it is in this regard that the work has much in common with that of the experimental composer John Cage.

John Cage was an early pioneer of computer-based technology as a way to experiment with randomness in sound. His work challenged everything that was then accepted in western music and composition, and he was a prolific writer. Of particular interest is the work titled, perhaps coincidently, Imaginary Landscape No.4 (1951), an improvised performance for 24 musicians and 12 radios – considered the first ever example of electronic music. The creative strategy removes the composer from the final stage of the process but only after a set of creative decisions and limitations have been set, much like Fontcuberta’s strategy with Orogenesis. The limited vocabulary of Cage’s sound corresponds with the limitation of images in Fontcuberta’s work, while both Cage and Fontcuberta experiment the point of deconstruction. Jason Wee points out that Fontcuberta ‘uses one of the oldest scenarios in the conceptualist playbook – submit a plethora of possibilities to a regime of rules and principles, and accept the result’ and shows how Fontcuberta is utilising an established art historical strategy to criticise art history. Interestingly in 1994, Foncuberta was already trying to overlap cartographic data and photography but also sound. In Topophonia: Terrestrial Music, the viewer is asked to manipulate the cartographic data of the mountain of Monserrat to produce images and sound, though it is unclear whether this project was simply a proposal or fully realised either physically or virtually.

It is clear that Joan Fontcuberta’s practice is infused with a desire to question how photographic representation functions in a modern society, and looks to history with the same critical eye. Orogenesis must be seen as a multidisciplinary investigation into the philosophy and politics of, not only, photographic representation but the role of the imaginary and the imagination in all of the disciplines that deal with the representation of space. Patricia Keller when stating that Orogenesis should be read as a way of ‘rethinking the ways in which we read, see, perceive and come into knowledge of the world, offering unique and at times arresting explorations of temporality, history, and perception through art’ as a summary of Fontcuberta’s intentions. But while the work could feel theoretically cumbersome, one must acknowledge how the mischievous spirit of Joan Fontcuberta infiltrates the creative process, responding to dualities and antagonisms with a deadpan humour that ensures that the work is accessible and open to those who view it.

Images ©Joan Fontcuberta

 

kayKay Watson is a researcher, curator and archivist. She currently works in the curatorial department at the Contemporary Art Society and has experience of working on digital and archive projects for The Photographers’ Gallery, Autograph ABP and many private collections. She has specialist knowledge of working with digital and print photographic archives and collections with acquisitions and conservation experience. She has an MA History of Art with Photography (Distinction) from Birkbeck College. Research interests include post-war and contemporary art, photography and digital media practices, institutional histories and representations of gender.

 

References:

J. Fontcuberta, ‘Interview: J Fontcuberta, Landsapes Without Memory’, Audio Interview, 2010, http:// www.eyecurious.com/interview-joan-fontcuberta-landscapes-without-memory/

J. Wee, ‘Landscape as Exhausted Form: The Non-Site and Joan Fontcuberta’s Landscapes of Landscapes’, Art Papers, 30 (2006), p.25

RE Krauss, ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde’ in C. Harrison and P. Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing: 2003) p.1033

J. Fontcuberta, ‘Revisiting the Histories of Photography’ in J. Fontcuberta (ed.) Photography: Crisis of History (Barcelona: Actar, 2002) p.13 8 P. Keller, ‘Joan Fontcuberta’s Landscapes – Remapping Photography and the Technological Image’, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies (12) 2011 p.143

G Batchen, ‘Painting by Numbers’ in J. Fontcuberta (ed.) Landscapes Without Memory (New York: Aperture, 2005) p. 13

J. Fontcuberta, ‘Interview: J Fontcuberta, Landsapes Without Memory’, Audio Interview, 2010, http:// www.eyecurious.com/interview-joan-fontcuberta-landscapes-without-memory/

J. Fontcuberta, ‘Ecotopia: A Virtual Roundtable: Landscape and History’ in J. Lehan (ed.) Ecotopia: The Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video (Germany, New York: International Centre of Photography & Steidl, 2006) p. 21

M. Schwartz & J. R. Ryan, ‘Introduction: Photography and the Cultural Imagination’ in J. M. Schwartz & J. R. Ryan (eds.) Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003) p. 18

J. Fontcuberta, ‘Ecotopia: A Virtual Roundtable: Landscape and History’ in J. Lehan (ed.) Ecotopia: The Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video (Germany, New York: International Centre of Photography & Steidl, 2006) p21 surveillance‘ and fuels the unease.

M. Rosler, ‘Image Simulations, Computer Manipulations’ in M. Rosler (ed.) Decoys and Disruptions (Mass, The MIT Press, 2004) p.285. M. Foucault, Discipline & Punish (1975), Panopticism, http://foucault.info documents/disciplineAndPunish/foucault.disciplineAndPunish.panOpticism.html

D. Cosgrove, ‘Introduction: Mapping Meaning’ in D. Cosgrove (ed.) Mappings (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1999) pp. 1-2 22

Volk, ‘Joan Fontcuberta’ in J. Lehan (ed.) Ecotopia: The Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video (Germany, New York: International Centre of Photography & Steidl, 2006) p.112

Hart, ‘The Cartographic Uncanny’ in Layla Curtis (Newcastle Upon Tyne & Walsall: Locus+ Publishing Ltd & The New Art Gallery Walsall, 2006) p.46 30 Hart (2006) p.46

J. Fontcuberta, ‘Interview: J Fontcuberta, Landsapes Without Memory’, Audio Interview, 2010, http:// www.eyecurious.com/interview-joan-fontcuberta-landscapes-without-memory/

J. Wee, (2006), p.26 33 J. Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Mass: The M.I.T. Press, 1967) p.59

N. Carroll, ‘Cage and Philosophy’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (52) 1994 p.96

Batchen, ‘Painting by Numbers’ in J. Fontcuberta (ed.) Landscapes Without Memory (New York: Aperture, 2005) pp. 9-13

J. Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Mass: The M.I.T. Press, 1967)

N. Carroll, ‘Cage and Philosophy’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (52) 1994 pp.93-98

D. Cosgrove, ‘Introduction: Mapping Meaning’ in D. Cosgrove (ed.) Mappings (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1999) pp. 1-23

Van Gelder & H. Westgeest, Photography Theory in Historical Perspective (Oxford, WileyBlackwell, 2011)

Hargreaves, Talk at The Photographers’ Gallery: ‘Coordinate: Photography and Mapping’, 2011 M. Hart, ‘The Cartographic Uncanny’ in Layla Curtis (Newcastle Upon Tyne & Walsall: Locus+ Publishing Ltd & The New Art Gallery Walsall, 2006) p.46

J. Fontcuberta, ‘Interview: J Fontcuberta, Landsapes Without Memory’, Audio Interview, 2010, http://www.eyecurious.com/interview-joan-fontcuberta-landscapes-without-memory/ J. Fontcuberta, Landscapes Without Memory (New York: Aperture, 2005)

J. Fontcuberta, ‘Joan Fontcuberta: Archive Noise’, Photoworks, 4 (2005) pp.64-69

J. Fontcuberta, ‘Revisiting the Histories of Photography’ in J. Fontcuberta (ed.) Photography: Crisis of History (Barcelona: Actar, 2002) pp.6-17

M. Foucault, Discipline & Punish (1975), Panopticism, http://foucault.info documents/disciplineAndPunish/foucault.disciplineAndPunish.panOpticism.html

Krauss, ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde’ in C. Harrison and P. Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing: 2003) pp. 1032 – 1037

R. Lippard, The Lure of the Local (New York: The New Press, 1997)

Keller, ‘Joan Fontcuberta’s Landscapes – Remapping Photography and the Technological Image’, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies (12) 2011 pp.129-153

M. Rosler, ‘Image Simulations, Computer Manipulations’ in M. Rosler (ed.) Decoys and Disruptions (Mass, The MIT Press, 2004) pp. 259 – 317

M. Schwartz & J. R. Ryan, ‘Introduction: Photography and the Cultural Imagination’ in J. M. Schwartz & J. R. Ryan (eds.) Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003) pp.1-18

Wallis, E. Earle, C. Phillips & C. Squiers, Ecotopia: The Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video (Germany, New York: International Centre of Photography & Steidl, 2006)

J. Wee, ‘Landscape as Exhausted Form: The Non-Site and Joan Fontcuberta’s Landscapes of Landscapes’, Art Papers, 30 (2006), pp.25-27 L. Wells, Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity (London, New York: I.B. Tauris 2011)

Aesthetics and Ideology of Sebastiao Salgado

Sebastiao Salgado gained notoriety in the 1980s, when he photographed the famine and its effects in the Sahel region of Africa.  Since then, he has continuously documented the most uncomfortable  aspects of our contemporary world – human pain resulting from exploitation, terror of wars, and ecological destruction.  Salgado’s photos, although records of specific events in time and places, have the power to transcend this specificity and even point to universality.  It could be argued that human pain does not have nationality, ethnicity or country.  It is something that we can all feel and share. Susan Sontag, in her short essay titled “Photography: A Little Suma”, tells us that “in a modern society, images made by cameras are the principal access to realities of which we have no direct experience” and Salgado’s photos are powerful enough to take viewers to remote places but also close a gap of indifference.

However, Salgado has been criticized because of his lush, aesthetic style, which conflicts with the subject matter. While recording tragic and painful events, he has also created works of art narrowly defined as the incarnation of the idea of beauty, or the antithesis of ugliness.  The most prominent critic in this regard was Ingrid Sichy who, in an article titled “Good Intentions” in the New Yorker magazine, claimed, “beautifying human tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity towards the experience they reveal”.  In other words, the sheer beauty of one’s photographs can weaken their message.  Even those who generally appreciate the body of Salgado’s works sometime find his photos too aesthetically beautiful.  According to J. Stathatos, for example, Salgado’s photos are both brilliant in execution and absolutely harrowing in content. But there is a problem.  Their sheer beauty does not allow us to read the images in any way other than through a veil of aesthetisised exoticism. To this accusation, Salgado himself responded: “the beauty of the photographs lends dignity to the people in them”. If the photos are indeed viewed through a “veil of aesthetisised exoticism”, why is it thought that their message is weakened?  If Salgado’s photos were made in a less artistic way, that is, in a more conventional style of documentary photography, would they convey more serious messages on human pain, misery and madness more effectively?  To put it differently, is the relation between human pain and aesthetic beauty that of mutual exclusivity?

Salgado claims that he never stages his photographs, however, the extreme formalism of some of his photos may lead people to believe otherwise, and open the work up to moral critique. However, it can be argued that this formalism may well be the very element that renders his photographic images successful.  For example, in his photo that depicts a parallel image of a dead tree and a starving child next to it (Untitled, Mali, 1985/87),  the child is obviously underweight and underfed.  On the left side, towards the back, there is a tree that has little sign of life, and towards the front, a child is standing.  In contrast to the tree, the child is alive, still standing on his own feet, and somehow shows the sign of life and perhaps hope for survival.  However, his skeletal body hopelessly resembles that of the tree and our moral conscience will be stirred by this parallelism that indicates the stark probability that the child may never overcome the cruel fate. This blatant parallel, though effective in showing the tragedy of nature, may also be read as insensitive to the subject.

But even if some of his pictures are indeed staged, does it mean that these images never really existed unless they were artificially composed?  They did.  The child and the tree were always there, and they always will be.  Thanks to the aesthetic formalism that yields powerful storytelling power through parallel images, the photo transcends the specific time and space and renders possible the incarnation of timelessness of human suffering through different experiences.  The fact that this photo or other photos might have been staged does not annul the cruel reality and the real problem that exist, and Salgado is only trying to pass a timeless message that can be received with as much sympathy and emotion as possible.

To compare Salgado’s photos with other forms of art when discussing the relation between human suffering and its aesthetic formalization, we can look at Paul Gauguin, who was inspired by the image of Peruvian (Inka).  Gauguin used this image and the form repeatedly in his paintings, in order to symbolize our fear of death (Eve – Don’t Listen to the Liar, 1889; Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going, 1897).  In this way, the dead body that was mummified in a remote time and place was revived by the artist and was given a universal form that to symbolize our fear of death that any human beings experience.  One of Salgado’s photos exhibits amazing resemblance to these paintings of Gauguin.  In Gourma-Rharous, Mali, 1985, an old lady covers her head with both hands, and her facial expression shows her immense sadness and hopelessness.  Although the picture was taken in Mali at a particular moment, the image is timeless because the whole gesture of the lady is so familiar to us, which somehow cancels the distance.  It is this power of the photo that derives from the aesthetic form itself that compels us. David Levi Strauss correctly evaluated Salgado’s work in this regard by quoting moral philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and saying that, through his photographs, Salgado aspires to that “transcendence of self, which calls for the epiphany of the Other”.

It can also be said that the tradition of Christian art has also made human suffering the primary source of its products.  Christ’s as well as others’ pain has been symbolized in various paintings and icons the images of which often take specific forms that are already so familiar to us.  It was this formal beautification of pain that helped Christianity to spread its message and continuously make people identify with its religious ideology.  It is through this formal beauty and symbolism in Salgado’s photographs that we not only catch a glimpse of a one-time event, but also experience certain timelessness that surrounds the images.  The range of photographs of the workers in the Brazilian Serra Pelada gold mine (1986), for instance, is not a series of temporary events.  The remarkable resemblance of these images to those of pyramid building adds depth For many critics, this still poses an ethical question: If suffering is portrayed as universal and aestheticized, does this de-humanize the subjects?

According to Salgado, his photos are “almost too beautiful” to be cynical about the reality that he sees through the lens.  He says:

“Compare me to the American photographer Walker Evans.  In the end, Evans has a kind of cynicism.  So they think that it must also be necessary for me to have a little bit of cynicism inside my pictures, no?  And this is a big problem in the society that we live in.  I work with many journalists and they are basically cynics.  It’s terrible this society that we are living in today.  If we eliminate a little bit of the huge pretentions that we have we can live in a better world”.

This statement reveals Salgado’s optimism.  He has seen and documented pain that covers our world, but he faces the world with conviction that it can be changed through human praxis.  Salgado of course has his own perspective to understand the world which he has developed since he was trained and worked as an economist.  In other words, he “photograph[s] with all … [his] ideology”.   But this ideology is characterized by a belief in positive human actions and the possibility to make a difference to the world, which is why Salgado is also committed to humanitarian work, and cooperation with prominent Non Governmental Organizations.

According to Vicky Goldberg, some of Salgado’s photographs can be credited with provoking powerful responses.  For example, his photographs of Cambodian amputees that appeared in The Independent in 1990, along with an appeal for money to manufacture artificial limbs in Cambodia, helped bring in contributions far beyond the amount of the appeal.  He also donated most of his profit from the Sahel picture to the French NGO  “Medecins Sans Frontiers”.

Salgado is also a photographer who affirms that it is not the photographer alone but other agents such as the media that have much influence in order to sensitize the society, to help or perhaps just simply to conduct propaganda.  Salgado himself hopes that his pictures can be used to provoke a debate.  His photographs, as a matter of course, have much power to “engage our attention, invite contemplation and nudge us to action”.  At the same time, he does understand that the pictures alone can do little to transform the reality, but “… these pictures together with humanitarian organizations, with the newspapers… all together can probably build a new society”.

In this way, Salgado not only photographs through his ideology, but also tries to ‘make it work’ through actions that are not confined to the sphere of pure imagery.  In other words, he would not hesitate to try to convince us, compel us to act, and push us to see and feel what he has created through his ideological standpoint.  His optimism allows him to overcome boundaries that often regulate our lives and narrow our mind: boundaries between beauty and ugliness, form and content, ideology and reality, art and media, us and them, self and other.  And herein lies his humanism that crosses our moral codes.

Nerris Markogiannis, originally from Greece,  obtained an MA degree in Photojournalism in London followed by an MA in the History of Photography from the University of St. Andrews.  He has been a photographer for the United Nations for many years and has completed missions in Kosovo, Darfur, and Haiti and is currently based in the Central African Republic. His work in Darfur was recently published by Dewi Lewis Publishing in the book Fragments of Darfur.

References

Susan Sontag, “At the Same Time, Essays and Speeches: Photography: A Little Suma”, p.125, FarrarnStraus Giroux, New York 2007.

Susan Sontag, “At the Same Time, Essays and Speeches”, p.4.

Ingrid Sischy, “Good Intentions”, New Yorker, September  09, 1991.

John Stathatos, “Linke Gegen Rechte Fotografie”, Kunstforum 129, Spring 1995.

Michael Kimmelman, “Can Suffering be Too Beautiful?”, The New York Times, Photography Review, Friday, July 13, 2001.

Mev Puleo, “The Prophetic Art of Bearing Witness: The Work of Sebastiao Salgado”, ART.

Sebastiao Salgado, “Migrations, The Work of Sebastiao Salgado: Conversation, Sebastiao Salgado and Orville Schell”, p.13, Dorren B. Townsend Center Occasional Papers 26, University of California, Berkeley 2002.

Ken Light, “Witness in Our Time: Working Lives of Documentary Photographers-Sebastiao Salgado”, p.108, Smithsonian Books, New York 2000.

Vicky Goldberg, “The Heroism of Anonymous Men and Women”, The New York Times, Photography View, Sunday, June 13, 1993.

Mev Puleo, “The Prophetic Art”.

Sebastiao Salgado, “Migrations”, p.6.

Portraiture and Projection by Céline Bodin


Appearances are bearers of meaning. Our first impressions of a person are concealed within our own imaging process. The tendency to classify into types is almost instinctive; it is a common path towards identification. Portrait photography is its ambiguous medium. Scraping the surface, it destabilises our sense of reality. Because of its supposed guaranty of exact replication of the living reality, it has been established to ‘re-present’ and reveal.

In the 19th century it was considered the best means to classify and identify into types with the use of phrenology and physiognomy, as can be seen in Francis Galton’s composites which merged multiple individuals into one generic image. Photography offers time for the contemplation of subtle details; unlike painting, it isn’t the summary of its subject.

However, along its journey towards contemporary portraiture the notion of representation has become problematic: what is readable only on the surface? To what extent are we learning about the individual portrayed in the instant of an image? Does a portrait truly allow space for genuine presence?

Photography is objective only in its functional aspect but it is somehow weakened in its ability to unite self and subject. Imagery offers fantasy, it can comfort and reassure. Susan Sontag, in her study On Photography (1973), insists on a photograph to be only a ‘narrowly selective transparency’. It is only a part of reality.

The question of projection is key. Posing is an obstacle to the ‘air’ that allows us to recognise the person, as Roland Barthes stated in Camera Lucida (1980). In Portraiture: Facing the Subject, (1997), Joanna Woodall introduces the notion of ‘portraiture’s mimetic mask’, as we are bound to look for the flaw in the surface which will guide us to the true presence. Therefore, the portrait opens itself to interrogation and suggestion more than it delivers a sense of truth or character.

The works of contemporary photographers Rineke Dijkstra, Bettina Von Zwehl, or Marjaana Kella revisit the conventions of portraiture as a genre. Dijkstra’s work is strong in narrative, her subjects enter the camera’s frame to tell a story subtly shaped by the specificity of a moment or action. In the case of Von Zwehl portraiture is treated as a laboratory, as she carries out experiments on her subjects, confronting them with their own vulnerability while the camera witnesses their reaction.

When 19th century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot documented hysteria, he proved that the likelihood of the patient performing was increased by the presence of the medical staff. The notion of performance, as an observed state, raises the question of authenticity in the self as it engages with attitude. To disrupt their subjects’ effort at self-representation Von Zwehl, and Dijkstra consider the residual traces of extreme forms of exertion or specific contextual affect, as a bullfighter leaves the arena (Villa Franca di Xira, Portugal, May 8, 1994), a woman just gave birth, or vulnerable subjects lie on the floor holding their breath (Untitled III, No 2, 1999). In Hypnosis (1997-2001), Marjaana Kella scrutinises the suspended moment of her hypnotised subjects (Niclas, Hypnosis, 2001).

Such works invite the viewer to investigate the layers of visibility a subject offers, as the ones represented here face the challenged projection of themselves, necessarily defying the notion of self-consciousness in the moment of being photographed.

The viewer’s examination should therefore remain aware of the body’s performative quality.

Images mediate a cultural coding. Acknowledging this dimension, Cindy Sherman’s work reveals how conventionalised appearances are acted out. (Untitled Film Stills, #12, 1978). Through genre performance she portrays gender as the ‘regulatory model’ Judith Butler defines in Gender Trouble (1990). In Sherman’s self-portraits, gender follows an imitative structure influenced by customs and ideals constantly revaluating the ‘corporealisation’ that imaging should set apart from identification.

Portrait photography can be considered the space for interpretation, its definition relying both on the artist’s intention and its relationship to the viewer’s judgment.

Looking at Thomas Ruff series of passport-like photos our longing to identify is frustrated. The person’s character remains a mystery. The quality of those deadpan portraits remains in the subtle signs of interaction, the way the subjects address the camera.

We can therefore witness multiple layers of projection within a portrait: The photographer interprets the sitter’s self-interpretation, and the sitter in return interprets the photographer and viewer’s expectation. Finally, the viewer interprets the overall impersonation.

In the end, the camera doesn’t classify, we do. As spectators we long to read through the subtlety of a face, the grace of gesture, the drama of expression. Portraits fascinate us because of what they could say. Our relationship with portraiture is therefore a subjective and sentimental one. It is easy to understand that more than it renders personality, photography reveals our intimate projections on the surface. We conjure a dialogue, and the desire to relate might in itself be the only possible truth portraiture could deliver.

 

Céline Bodin is a French photographer. After studying literature and architecture, she graduated from a photography BA at Gobelins, L’école de l’image in Paris. In 2013 she completed a Photography MA at the London College of Communication. As well as regularly writing about photography, her personal practice explores themes of identity, gender, and the metaphysical frustration of the medium in representation.