April, 2016 I’m currently having a wonderful time as a guest of RISEBA, the university where business meets the arts, in Riga, Latvia. I gave a guest lecture there on Tuesday (details here), …
Source: RISEBA, Riga
April, 2016 I’m currently having a wonderful time as a guest of RISEBA, the university where business meets the arts, in Riga, Latvia. I gave a guest lecture there on Tuesday (details here), …
Source: RISEBA, Riga
‘history never grows too old or out of date.’
Jill Enfield, Online
I began this blog with a single image of a lit chandelier hanging in a blue forest. There was no commentary because it was an accidental post while I learned about blogs, but then I left the image there… This is happenstance. I chose the image at random.
This blog has turned out to be about history: even from the start, I was aware of Phylogeny recipitulating Ontogeny because, to look at myself as a practising artist, I felt I had to go back to all beginnings, not only of my first encounters with photography, but back to the beginnings of the thing itself, and Fox Talbot and his shadowgrams. This historiographical approach helped me to untangle in my own mind what I felt, what I knew, and what I wanted.
I’ve always been interested in the paraphernalia of old science. I have an old brass microscope and several old bellows cameras. None of them work, but they represent a time when things weren’t virtual, when they were solid and real and well-made. Reading about the old physical processes began to parallel my extant desire to get my hands dirty and scratch marks into real surfaces. I’ve not done that yet – I’ve been too busy making an exhibition and performance projection for The Snow Queen, but I’ve had a chance to meddle with things in my digital sketchbooks, and experiment with the Christmas Light Drawings and the Victorian Silver People. As a result, I now know I want to explore the possibilities of camera free photography and try out sun prints and the processes used by Martha Madigan, Floris Neusüss, Pierre Cordier, Garry Fabian Miller… so many people so little time…
I’ve found I want to explore, or maybe even exploit the past, while avoiding whimsical vintage, floaty reconstructions, because my work isn’t about the past. The past is a foreign county, and while they’re busying doing things differently there, I’m mining it of its resources. This is unashamed chrono-colonialism: the past offers me things I can use; knowledge of chemical processes, processes which are thoroughly contemporary in the hands of artists like Madigan and Neusüss; it offers me vocabularies and found image content in the form of forgotten photographs. I don’t want to illustrate the past. I want the past to illustrate the present and the future. This is a form of postmodern bricolage. Perhaps that’s why I like composites and collages, because they are the concept made tangible.
I am a postmodernist (with cultural materialist tendencies): the work of Annu Palakunnaku Matthew is thus also very appealing, especially since her methods recapitulate my ongoing desire to explore fakes and hoaxes… cf. The Yellow Wallpaper (2010) in which I made performance photography for a production which never happened, and Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames (2013; 2014), the exhibition of reconstructed dance photography. Part of this blogging process has involved engaging with old friends such as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Philip Auslander, but from new angles. Before, these writers were lenses through which I examined fiction, or other people’s photography and performance documentation. Now, they are the voices of the anxiety of influence (to borrow Harold Bloom’s phrase) as I myself make work…
And I’ve realised throughout this process what I feel about photography as art. And why street photography is art; and why holiday snaps aren’t. And I’ve also learnt a lot from reading about the pursuit of technical excellence that sometimes perfection is less than art. Art lies in the discourse between imperfection and aspiration; art can be found in the novel uses we put things to, not in perfectly formed and perfectly framed artifacts. Art is risk, not a safe bet.
Finally, it has been reinforced that there is beauty in chance and happenstance. There are latent histories and unspoken narratives, both cultural and critical, to be explored in broken things: there are, as yet, lots of unwritten fairy tales.
And so I finish with Goodrich’s quotation on Moriyama, whose work I looked at when it rained and rained.
Daido Moriyama is a master of imperfection, his skill with ‘misuse’ of a camera is unsurpassed. His images sometimes lack focus, may be overexposed, too grainy or blurred. But it is for these reasons that he remains a legend amongst photographers.
(Goodrich, 2008: online)
When I’m not holding a camera up to a car windscreen, I’m opening its shutter on a bulb setting onto lights in the night from a standing position. It only takes a few in and out breaths to write light onto the sensor, so now I write things in the air with the lens, and then when I want to move to something else I cover the lens momentarily and set up again.
And whilst it’s all about chance and not knowing what will come out, the more I do this, the more I can control the effect because I can sort of predict what might happen and adjust accordingly.
The image at the top of this post, Alastair on the Hill, is not a Photoshop blend: the city lights were drawn onto the sensor, then a strobe was deployed onto the figure while the shutter was still open. The other images above are, however, straight out of camera. At the time I took them and first looked at them, I was blown away. I’d found a new thing to do with the camera. Now they look unfinished: now that the initial joyful ludic impulse has been satisfied, images like this are raw material photographs to blend in Photoshop layers.
The images below are some of the ones I’ve been experimenting with over Christmas, the season of darkness and fairy lights. This has to be done in darkness bar the lights that will be the ‘pencils’, to steal Fox Talbot’s metaphor, because any stray light will smudge and begin to print the room features onto the sensor. I wait till everyone’s gone to bed. Then, it’s easy to spend time into the small hours filling a camera card with photograph after photograph of lights drawn over the sensor by the action of moving the camera around when the shutter is open. It mystifies the cat.
Burn, above, and the images below are layered and blended so that I have some artistic control over a final outcome. I play with different lenses and different focal lengths. I shift focal lengths on the zoom lenses during the shot. I spin. I wave the camera. I write my name in the air…
All of these images were made in Photoshop using the same photographs but in different combinations. In this sense, the aleatory aspect of the work continues in Photoshop, since I cannot anticipate the outcome, I can only experiment and see how things turn out. I love this phase because it has a zen sense of now. There is no before or after. Bayles and Orland write that, ‘Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending’ (1993: 20). Here, the work isn’t finished, to paraphrase Leonardo da Vinci, it is abandoned.
Chandelier is at least two photographs blended together. The final image is then tightly cropped in to make a composition out of the flow of the light streaks. It’s hard to compose in camera because it’s difficult to judge where the light streaks will end up on the sensor.
Flash is a blend of a close up and a long shot. It’s almost the same blended image as Pale, but with different blending modes applied.
I like symmetry, although I acknowledge there can be nothing more pleasing than a pattern disrupted. Blue Orchid was made by repeating layers over themselves and blending them through so that the architecture created by the light is repeated. Colours were adjusted in a Hue and Saturation Adjustment Layer and in Curves. I like glowing colours against darkness: it’s what it looks like inside a head full of synaesthesia.
These images feel finished, but my plan is that they are the raw material for a further process of integration with the silver people of the old photographs. They may end up as animations, or as stills, maybe both…
I like shooting out of windows. Shooting pictures, I hasten to add. It started on the drive home from the airport after the fateful Lanzarote light writing trip. They have to be moving windows. Car windows. I am in the passenger seat (before you arrest me). I’ve yet to try a train window. This is light writing on the wild side. No control. No idea even of what will come out. Totally aleatory process. Guess the exposure using a bulb setting. Point the camera out of the windscreen. Point and guess.
The lit-up street furniture is fixed, lampposts, illuminated sins, traffic signals, Shop fronts, all can be factored into a light drawing ‘pass’, but the movement and speed of the car are chance elements, as are the headlamps and tail lights and indicators of others cars… Time of day is a factor. More ambient light means the light exposure can be less, and the canvas will be smudged electric blue or pink (or whatever the sky and weather is doing) in tone. It’s all beautiful guess work. And there’s no looking till afterwards, because after every shot the camera has to save it to the disc, and then it’s time to shoot again. My husband is now an experienced light pass driver.
The planning is in what settings to use for a particular pass: the Runcorn Widnes Bridge, for example, is brilliantly lit. Too bright perhaps, but it’s on my list to shoot: its architecture is spectacular at night when, on calm nights, it is reflected perfectly in the River Mersey, so that it becomes one part of a pale oval of steel against the night sky. This is one form of night photography where skill and experience assists the photographer to take the shot. Skill and experience and the sense of an anticipated result affect the technical choices made. In shooting from a moving car, however, the shot is never predictable.
The effect, however, is sort of predictable after a while: I know I will grab parallel lines of bright light in glowing reds and ambers and white. I know these lines will spike across the canvas, in parallels of jittery ups and downs, each jitter recording a jolt of the car over uneven bits of road. I know the canvas will be an average of the time the shutter was open. And sometimes it’s a good result and sometimes less so. But the result is always a surprise.
Maybe this is the parallel of a Jackson Pollock spatter of paint. He chose his colours but the exact trajectories and patterns of the paint spatters were, in the end, defined by the chaos of chance.
In all the writing and thinking about History and my own histories, the debate ‘Is It Art?’ keeps coming back. The debate seems to coalesce about two areas:
It’s a debate I’ve had with myself about my own processes: making pictures with a camera does seem easy in comparison with making paintings or drawings, and yet the hours it can take to perfect one photographic image seems to negate this former statement. It’s easy to press the shutter button, but it’s hard to photograph things well; it’s difficult to process images, either in a chemical or a digital darkroom.
There is also a subtext which might be termed the democratisation of making art: who is allowed to be an artist has been – and still is to an extent – controlled in society by a social system whereby artists must either have independent means or patrons or spouses with a regular income. The photographer as businessperson, and thus involved in dirty mercantile activity, is not a real artist: artists have a higher calling. Art is, after all, not made for money, but for love. But we all have to eat. We can’t all lie around, writing poetry, and dying of consumption in attics…
From photography’s inception, the terminology of the artist is present in discussions of the daguerreotype, the talbotype, and yet the story is also of a relentless drive into mass production (and thus commercialism), and it is this and the mechanical aspects of the process which eclipse any notion of artistry in the taking and production of an image. Commentators, not least of all Fox Talbot, write of Nature being the author of the works, and of images making themselves. Fox Talbot wrote:
it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture which makes itself. All that the artist does is to dispose the apparatus before the object whose image he requires; he then leaves it for a certain time, greater or less, according to circumstances. At the end of the time he returns, takes out his picture, and finds it finished.
(Talbot, 1839: online)
So whilst he speaks of the artist, he claims that this artist does nothing other than deploy the camera, and rather disingenuously neglects the artistry of choosing what the lens should frame; the craftsmanship of preparing the plates beforehand; the skill of knowing how long to make the exposure for; not to mention the skill in subsequently developing and fixing the image.
Lady Elizabeth Eastlake writing in 1857 is equally determined that photography cannot be art because, in a long winded flowery way, she says that art selects and refines, while the camera does not: it takes everything indiscriminately (in Trachtenerg, 1980: pp58). This is the same issue noted by Ian Jeffrey in Photography: A Concise History: ‘Lured by hallowed reputations, photographers stationed their instruments in front of abbeys, castles, palaces, beauty spots – and came away with untidy evidence of building projects, repair work, scaffolding, stonemasons’ yards, street trade and tumbledown housing’. (1981: 14). Photography is not a replacement for painting or drawing, as Fox Talbot with his complicated camera lucida initially hoped, ‘holding, as he believed,’ as Lady Eastlake writes, ‘the keys of imitation in his hands’; it is, however, a different art all together.
Walter Benjamin’s account of art and photography’s early skirmishes is enlightening:
With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of ‘pure’ art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.
So ‘Art’ was threatened. Maybe the same process is at work with all the current talk of the demise of the art of photography due to the rise and rise of the smartphone camera: Stuart Jeffries writing in The Guardian cites photographer Antonio Olmos as saying, ‘There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.’ So Jeffries asks: ‘Isn’t what we’re witnessing a revolution in photography, thanks to digital technology, that makes it more democratic?’ And Olmos is pragmatic and agrees, but thinks photography is dying for a much more prosaic reason: ‘The iPhone has a crap lens. You can take a beautiful picture on the iPhone and blow it up for a print and it looks terrible.’
But who needs prints in a paper-free world? [Jeffries asks.] “For me the print is the ultimate expression of photography,” [Olmos] retorts. “When I do street photography courses, I get people to print pictures – often for the first time. The idea is to slow them down, to make them make – not just take – photographs.”
(Jeffries, 2013: online)
The slowing down is the thing. Artists, then, are slow… Ironic that Lady Elizabeth Eastlake should note in 1857 that the early scientist-photographers were seeking the ‘element of rapidity’ (1857: 52). Now that we have it, we need to slow it all down again. Unless we’re street photographers…
…In Osaka in 2011, I saw an exhibition of work by street photographer Daido Moriyama. It rained torrentially while I was there. After I’d looked at the hundreds of images on display, I sat for hours in the cafe leafing through the exhibition book I’d bought. And because it was still raining – the kind of rain that soaks you through just thinking about it – I went round the exhibition again. It was stunning even the second time around. And this time I watched the film of Moriyama talking about his process demonstrating how he selected and shot this subjects. He talked in Japanese, but the film camera walked with him as he strode through a city, Tokyo perhaps, camera in hand, cigarette between his fingers, and shot things, without breaking his step… It probably took longer for me to look at the images than it did him when he was walking and shooting. And yet each image, black and white and hung against white, framed as art, was grimy, sometimes blurred, sometimes off kilter, and always starkly beautiful… would I think that if I came across such images on the internet, not labelled as ‘art’?… we swiftly flick swiftly through images, taking them in at a glance: we Flickr them, we click and flick and click through them. Sontag makes the observation that the photograph in print does not control us like the photograph on film does, as compared to a book (or a computer screen)
The sequence in which the photographs are to be looked at is proposed by the order of pages, but nothing holds readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph.
True enough, we can walk as fast or as slow as we like in the gallery, and in a book, we can turn the pages as we please. But in a film… and maybe it was watching the film of Moriyama’s photos that really burned them into the retina of my heart. Film however, as Sontag notes, chooses how long you spend with each image. So maybe then, if artists aren’t slow, art is slow. And maybe, as Sontag suggests, film is the best medium for exhibiting photography.
Judge for yourself: for copyright reasons, I direct you to Moriyama’s site rather than post them here, but I can share images I took in Japan in response. These are almost SOOC, in that in post, I converted them to black and white and sharpened them because I shoot in RAW. For the rest, each image is as I took it.
I would never dream, normally, of shooting in the street like this, but Moriyama’s show encouraged me. EnCouraged. I was brave, suddenly. And being in a foreign world somehow helped.
Perhaps it was because, as a foreigner it was easier to ‘see’ the street environment. It was a strange place to me: it was the city defamiliarized. And there certainly was the sense that as a foreigner I had ‘permission’ to take pictures that I would normally find it excruciating to take. I can’t take street images in the city near where I live because someone might stop me; someone might object; someone might mind… Certainly all these things were true in Osaka, but they didn’t seem to matter so much. I took the night images walking round by myself with a huge grabbable camera. Wouldn’t dream of doing that in the UK.
Snaps. Snappy to take. Snapped fast. Not always art. Art is in the eye of the artist. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Art is beautiful. Art is imperfect. Art is dangerous. Art is a lie to tell us the truth. Arts snaps at our complacencies. Snaps.
I hate snapping. I used to take hundreds of photos on holidays, always with the hope that something might happen and they’d metamorphose between the shutter release and the prints arriving back into something wonderful. And sometimes they were quite good, but mostly they were disappointing, and mainly because I’d had no control over much of the shooting and processing. This was because I always had crap point-and-shoot film cameras and so couldn’t really do much other than control what I pointed the camera at. The rest was auto shutter, auto aperture, auto ISO: the camera was deciding everything, and then Kodak or Max Speilmann got to decide the rest. And this is why my pictures weren’t art, even if some of them looked quite good some of the time.
Art then is control over the outcome? Bayles and Orland write, ‘Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous’ (1993: 21). So, control sometimes. Sometimes, it’s experimentation which requires a loss of control, but here, the camera would either try to compensate, or I’d get stickers over the photos from the Photo Lab, which said polite things but the messages implied: ‘This rubbish picture would greatly be improved if you’d stopped experimenting and taken it the way the camera manufacturers thought you should…’
Then I got a big SLR and went to Africa, and things improved a little. But I still had no control because I was not developing my images. And whilst I considered setting up a black and white dark room, I didn’t have the space, nor at that time the funds…
Then I came home from Africa with a suitcase full of Max Speilmann lions and got a digital point-and-shoot. It promised to be different. It promised to be cheaper. I pushed it to its limits. It was still not what I was looking for, although it was certainly cheaper now that I was no longer stockpiling all those packets of unlooked at prints… And then I got a DSLR, a Canon 50D. And the Apple programme Aperture. And shortly after that, Photoshop. And then a 5D Mk II… And suddenly, here was control in camera. And here was control post-production. And here were two new debates to contend with:
These are big arguments I can’t rehearse here – I can, however, tell you my answers: yes, digital is freedom; yes, post-production is my favourite part – but out of it all – the snapping and the printing and the digital arms race upsizing – comes a manifesto for making images. It was there all along, this manifesto, it just took me a while to see it.
In a previous post, I wrote about the postmodern bricolage of reworking history, and playing, in both form and content, with old photographs, but photo-collage can and does make use of the present, and this excites me too: consider artists such as Serge Mendzhiyskogo, who takes hundreds of photographs of familiar views and cuts them into multiple strips and combines them. This is a strong example of the trope that Russian Formalist, Oscar Shklovsky termed остранение (ostranenie) or defamiliarisation, where what we know is represented to us from a new angle so that we can see it anew. This is a device in literary works of art, but I find its use applicable to photographic artists such as Mendzhiyskogo. Shklovsky began his famous essay ‘Art as Device’ in Theory of Prose (1925), with the phrase: ‘Art is thinking in images’. And the essay ends discussing rhythm, and the disrupted rhythms of prose and poetry. Here in Mendzhiyskogo’s images we see disrupted rhythms, which are, nevertheless, because they create patterns, visually satisfying. These disruptions and patterns are a form of thinking about the subject because they defamiliarise, they make us, the viewer, reconstruct the image, whilst we simultaneously enjoy the patterned deconstruction we have been given. If this image were a text (and we are reading it, so why not?), then there is a pleasure in the text, to take Barthes’s phrase.
Not all Mendzhiyskogo’s work is monochromatic: his colour collages are equally stunning, but I prefer the stark patterns that emerge in the monochromatic pieces. Work like this cannot be mentioned without reference to Hockney. His collage work is sometimes built in chaotic, sprays of images, foregrounding with the white frames of the polaroids, the ‘composite-ness’ in the picture. Mother Bradford Yorkshire 4th May 1982 and Sun On The Pool Los Angeles April 13th 1982 are examples of this. Some however, such as Paint Trolley, L.A. (1985) or Pearblossom Highway (1986), seem initially to be one image, but here the differing shades of colour in the photographs that make up the whole mottle the total image, slowly breaking the totality of the image apart. In the Polaroid Composites and Photographic Composites, he exploits the camera’s eye and how it reads the light, shifting the colour to expose correctly. They are fascinating images to look at: it’s as if he’s captured each micro image the eye sees which make up in the brain the total image of the scene we see.
The other contemporary artist using photo collage whose work I admire greatly is David Mach. I first encountered his work when I was asked to write a Christmas play by the 2011 King James Bible Trust to be staged in Hampton Court Palace. Mach was commissioned by the Trust to make Precious Light, a series of sculptures and collages, which included the head of the devil constructed out of match heads and epic, colourful scenes from the King James Bible ripped into the present day with brilliant colour and roiling movement, so that they seem like stills from a film. His collages are often crowded with people, and of almost apocalyptic sensibilities… Something in them always seems about to explode: in one image it already has, for in The Plague of Frogs, a car bomb goes off outside Belfast City Hall. They are immense. They are historical subjects given a massive contemporary twist and they are superb.
A few years ago, I discovered how to use the Photoshop pen tool effectively, and I’ve been making digital collages and composites, and shooting pictures of buildings and things ever since. Things. Things are park benches, telephone boxes, flowers, clocks, lamp posts, people, birds, clouds, skies, streets, things. I never know what kind of things I might need… I’ve been conservative in the collages I’ve made so far. I think, having looked again at Mach’s work, I need to let my hair down a little bit and go large… I have made some epic collages in terms of time: A Secret Scented Garden was made using a Flickr friend’s flowers, each one laboriously cut out digitally in Photoshop (this was probably the project that helped me conquer the notoriously quirky pen tool).
Little Cute Dance Puppets was a speculative piece, again to explore Photoshop more than to make a collage, but it showed me what a little of what the software could do. Now, I need to start looking at the narratives in the collages. Mendzhiyskogo’s work is fantastic, but Mach’s work is stunning, and, I think, it is the implied narrative within the image which is the key…
Mach, D. (2011) Precious Light: http://www.davidmach.com: http://www.davidmach.com/photo-collage/; Transpositions: http://www.transpositions.co.uk/2011/09/featured-artist-david-mach/ Royal Academy: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/academicians/sculptors/david-mach-ra,114,AR.html (accessed Dec 2013; Jan 2014)
Via Jill Enfield, I came across the work of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, who makes beautiful work with reconstructions of old photographs, sometimes in oratone. Enfield was giving a lecture for B and H Photography about her own work in using old chemical darkroom techniques to make pictures. She offered examples of the work of others and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew was among the many names. Her work stood out for me, however, for several reasons. Matthew plays with layers and animations of people slowly superimposed over their younger selves. She also takes old photographs and superimposes herself into them and puts them side by side. The beauty is in the content of the image, but also in the oratone itself (oratone being a collodion image, on glass, backed with gold); it’s in the gentleness of the old monochrome images; and in the expression of the passage of time which the digital reworkings – as stills and animation – offer the viewer. Here, the gentle collision of ages in the slow animations annihilates the times between each image. Time passes far too quickly. All too soon we are changed. And gone. We are all history… Time in photographs, however, is static: it shows us what we can never actually have, as Barthes notes in Camera Lucida: ‘What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially’ (2000: 4). Matthew’s reiterations are phantoms of moments that are unrepeatable, but like performances, they exist as if iterated for the first time, existing forever in that uncanny performance limbo of being simultaneously real and unreal.
Matthew’s work explores time but also identity and ‘otherness’: she says in her artist’s statement:
As an immigrant, I am often questioned about where I am “really from.” When I say that I am Indian, I often have to clarify that I am an Indian from India. Not an American-Indian, but rather an Indian-American, South-Asian Indian or even an Indian-Indian.
Time, traced back in the images, takes us to when identity was firmly placed as geographical, and if it was different it was ‘other’ and ‘difficult’: in her images, she plays the roles her interlocutors expect of her; she becomes ‘really from’ elsewhere. She thus plays with expectation, but with humour and sadness. Her work mixes cross-dressing; cross-time; cross-generations; and cross-processes. Her use of old methods combined with digital forms undercuts it all as if to say: everything is, in any case, a mish-mash of old and new; old and young; male and female; here and there; centre and other. Everything is postmodern. Everything is iterated and reiterated, and not necessarily in that order.
Matthew’s work is inspirational because in it I find combined several themes to which I myself keep returning. I am a digital photographer, but I collect old photographs and make new images and animations with them.
I have a box of old portraits of people whose names and identities are most likely forever lost, and this sense of lost identity I find fertile ground. I’ve spent hours digitally restoring some of these images, during which time there’s been plenty of thinking about these forgotten people as I restore eyes, mouths, dresses, fingers… I pondered on what their names might have been. In most cases, there is no way of ever knowing.
I’ve used some of these photographs to make images and animations for theatre projection, and I’ve had faint stirrings of ethical problems with this: I have therefore (I think), never made an animation that disrespects the images or the people in them. I photographed Victorian grave stones once in Whitby for another project and had similar ethical stirrings. Since the stones in one field seemed to be separated from the land (and bodies) where they’d originally stood, here were memories of people who were present in stone name only, and the stones themselves were eroding in the rain, names melting away, one stone molecule at a time. The old photographs of people became for me, at that point, like these old grave stones: I imagined a field of silver people standing like stones… There’s a picture I’ve still to make, exploring presence and absence and faces without names… This is an image personifying (literally, in the anonymous silent silver people) Sontag’s and Barthes’s notion of death in the image: “All photographs are memento mori,’ Sontag writes in On Photography, ‘To take a photograph is to participate in a person’s (or a thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability’ (1979: 15). And Barthes: ‘Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead’ (2000: 32).
The second theme that interests me is reconstruction. In the autumn of 2013 I staged an exhibition in collaboration with dancer and friend Mark Edward, in which iconic dance images are recreated, not however, by lithe young female ballerinas, but an overweight 40 year old drag queen (he won’t mind me saying that!). The exhibition, Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames offered themes of fakery, pastiche, ageing and Photoshop. The images were fond and fun rather than pisstakes… We laughed making them. I hope they made people smile as they looked at the made-up faces of the Tableau Vivant we’d made for them.
I quote some of the text I wrote to accompany the images: ‘These are tragi-comedy images: The tragedy lies in knowing that the dancers we watch will eventually become too past it to dance, the comedy from the bombastic contrast between athletic dance bodies and an aged, overweight one attempting and achieving (thank you Photoshop!) the same balletic feats. This exhibition fondly foregrounds cultural obsessions with youth and Photoshop, and the erasure of age in both live performance – ballet, drag or otherwise – and the digital dark room, where ability and beauty can be airbrushed and ‘improved’. These are images of old drag ballet queens, flamboyant in the performance of being clapped out and over the hill, but still dancing.’ (Exhibition Notes, Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames, The Arts Centre, Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, October 2013)
L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between has an excellent first line, perhaps the best first line in a novel ever:
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
I’m interested in historical processes and historical content and the differences (and perhaps the Derridean différances), between then and now: Annu Palakunnathu Mathew demonstrates that this is not wholly a retrospective process, but that there are new artifacts to be made with historical things. They do do things differently, alternatively, in the past, and as Harold Davis notes, they often did things in the past long before we thought of (re)doing them: the first HDR print, he claims, was The Great Wave, made in 1857 by Gustav Le Grey… (2012: 16). So the old adage of there being nothing new under the sun probably holds true. We do things again; we do things differently, différantly; sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously; we remake the old to make something new…
A very important aspect of a photogram is this contact, how do I put it…a photogram is not a reproduced print, it is a contact picture. You sense that the object was originally in contact with the picture.
(Floris Neusüss, V&A, 2010; online)
Many practitioners are working with past forms. Artist, Spring Hurlbut, for example, has worked in conjunction with Mike Robinson, to make daguerretypes of artifacts in a museum. Their work is featured on Lady Lazarus’s blog. Whilst the loveliness of these kinds of projects is undoubted, they never excite me as much the ones where I feel, ‘I could experiment with that.’ In this sense, it is the shadowgrams that attract me, mainly because I’ve done them before, so long ago…
Two books in particular have, therefore, opened up new artists to me because they deal with shadowgrams: Jill Enfield’s Guide to Photographic Alternative Processes: Popular Historical and Contemporary Techniques and Martin Barnes’s Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography.
Enfield can also be found giving a presentation online. Her talk is fascinating: she discusses the variety of alternative methods she uses, but mostly she surveys the variety of artists making work with these other older chemical forms. ‘Why limit yourself to just digital or film?’ she asks, ‘There are 3 centuries of photography to work with.’
Enfield discussed in her talk (albeit briefly) the work of Martha Madigan who makes beautiful large scale shadowgrams. The images are sensuous: you sense the presence of a real rather than a painterly body in the images, through what Neusüss terms ‘contact’. But some of the images are mottled with leaves and the textures of grasses and flowers; others with intersections between positive and negative images. They are beautiful glowing things.
The work of Floris Neusüss is similar in that he too works with shadowgrams and light sensitive paper, and often uses the human form.
The silhouette is not a tightly focused crisp image, but is rendered softer and more human by the blurring at the edges. We are given the suggestion of presence: this image is a map of the time when the light sifted around the flesh and reacted with the chemicals in the paper. The time taken to make this image is undoubtedly more than for a usual exposure but it suggests that time is fleeting; that it slips away. The physicality of this process is appealing and numenous. The softness offers a fragility; the silhouette gives a sense of seeing something intimate or private, as though through a sheer curtain: we are there, but not quite there with the subject of the image. Barnes writes of his work: ‘it explores the forms of the body and external objects in a poetic dialogue between presence and absence’ (2010: 26). These are works which seem even more personal and intimate and, dare I say it, spiritual, than more usual forms of photography.
There are other contemporary artists and photographers working in this camera free method – Susan Derges, Garry Fabian Miller, Adam Fuss to name the ones features in Barnes’s book – but it is these two, Madigan and Neusüss that inspire to me play with similar forms. Their work is ethereal and breathtakingly beautiful.
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) was working in France in parallel with Fox Talbot. His process was further developed in collaboration from 1829 with Joseph Niéphore Niépce who died in 1833, leaving Daguerre to progress the work alone. Daguerre announced his discoveries in 1839, and whilst recognising Niépce’s significant part in them, named the process the daguerreotype, leaving Niépce’s term, heliography, behind. This is a history littered with lost terminology. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the term photography was most likely coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839.
Whatever the term, the announcements on both sides of the Channel caught the imagination of the world, but it was Daguerre’s process from the start that proved more popular. In 1840, Edgar Allen Poe announced the importance of Daguerre’s camera: ‘The instrument itself,’ he wrote, ‘must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science’ (in Trachtenberg, 1980: 37).
The daguerreotype was, however, not without its detractors, as a satitical cartoon from Punch in 1855 demonstrates. At first, exposure for a daguerreptype took hours, and although this was reduced within a year to only minutes, it was still problematic and ‘still placed limitations on the choice of subject’ (Clarke, 1997: 15). A commentator writes in The Spectator in 1841: ‘To render the Daguerreotype applicable to the purpose of portraiture, it was necessary to accelerate the action of light on the plate; for rapid as was the formation of the image, even five minutes was too long for any sitter to remain perfectly still. This has been accomplished by various modifications of the chemical preparation of the plate…’ (The Spectator, London, 4 September 1841: online resource, The Daguerreian Society). There are plenty of articles with advice on how to how daguerreotype children, and a flurry of inventions for holding heads and arms still. In a journal entry dated 24 October 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:
‘Were you ever Daguerrotyped, O immortal man? … and in your zeal not to blur the image, did you keep every finger in its place with such energy that your hands became clenched as for fight or despair, & in your resolution to keep your face still, did you feel every muscle becoming every moment more rigid …’ (Emerson, 1841, online resource: The Daguerreian Society). It was also difficult to view since its silvery metal surface reflected light, but despite its drawbacks, Daguerre’s method spread fast and far afield, enjoying considerable success in America, as is evidenced by the hyperbole in the article ‘Heliography in New York’, La Lumiere, 1852, online resource: The Daguerreian Society); and in the comments of Lady Elizabeth Eastlake in 1857 in her essay Photography published in the Quarterly Review: ‘As early as 1842 one individual, of the name Beard, assumed the calling of daguerreotype artist. In 1843 he set up establishments in four different quarters of London’ (Eastlake in Trachtenberg, 1981: 40).
But daguerreotypes were, in the end, a fleeting innovation in the Grand Narrative of the History of Photography, as Damisch and Berger state: ‘the first inventors worked to fix images and simultaneously to develop techniques for their mass distribution, which is why the process perfected by Daguerre was doomed from the very outset, since it could provide nothing but a unique image’ (Trachtenberg, 1981: 290). Whilst the world now reveres the digital image, and film work recedes dangerously close to extinction in the popular conception of what photography is, daguerreotypography is now only used by enthusiasts such as the members of the The Daguerreian Society, and artists such as Chuck Close working with Jerry Spagnoli, and Spring Hurlbut in collaboration with daguerreotypist Mike Robinson.
The early inventors of photography sought mass production, and from the outset, possibly influenced by this desire for mass production, there was debate as to its cultural status: was it a science? Was it a craft? Was it, Heavens forfend, an art? This was a debate which in 1839 was already waiting for Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in which he cites Paul Valéry: ‘Just as water, gas and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to minimal efforts, so shall we be supplied with visual or auditory images…’ The flood of these images did not began in 1839 – lithography was already illustrating our lives in newspapers and journals – but Daguerre and Fox Talbot et al certainly opened the floodgates to bring us to the state where today, according to Qmee there are 20 million photo views on Flickr, 104 thousand photos shared on Snapchat, and 3,600 Instagrams every 60 seconds…
M. Daguerre, qu’avez vous faits?