Popular Photography and Modernity – A Concise Commentary

 

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Modernity, in all its complexity, is described by Peter Wagner simply as the belief in the freedom of humanity and its capacity to reason, functioning within a world amenable to such reason (2012:4). Though not clearly delineated, modernity as a period or process is dated from the middle of the eighteenth century. It was characterized by significant changes, including transformation of the economy through new techniques of production, the growth of industrialization, the expansion of towns and cities and the creation of new forms of communication and display. The nineteenth century in particular was a period of substantial technological and social change characterized by a faith in the ideas of progress at the core of modernity (Wells 2009:58).

 

In his book, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilém Flusser postulates that there are two fundamental turning points in the course of human culture. The first being the invention of writing, around the middle of the second millennium BC. The second, in which we currently find ourselves, is the invention of technical images. He defines technical images as those produced by an apparatus (2000:8). With the invention of the dry plate process in the late nineteenth century, the impact of technical images accelerated and led to the development of the hand-held camera and snapshot (La Grange 2005:16). The power of mimesis thus left the clutches of an elite few and by the end of the century, even those on the first rungs of the socioeconomic ladder would know what their ancestors looked like (La Grange 2005:7).

 

The King’s Arms, High Street, Hounslow c.1890 (Jackson 2011).

 

The above image accompanies a genealogy of the Bristows of Epsom and Ewell, Surrey and depicts a bar run by the family. Taken the year following George Eastman’s Kodak campaign flaunting the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest”, it was likely taken on a handheld camera that typified bourgeois photography of the time (Wells 2009:119). The framing is careful enough to include the five human subjects within eye’s view and gives prominence to the King’s Arms banner in the right third, yet leaves the youth’s legs awkwardly transected as is the building’s signage. Though the subjects are clearly posing for the photo, the informal composition gives the impression of a moment captured rather than a staged event, as had been the case with traditional studio portraits requiring tiresome exposure durations and Brady stands. The slight motion blur of the youth on the left suggests a fixed shutter speed or an amateur camera operator, both hallmarks of compact camera photography. Millions of similar images were produced, with everyman able to freeze moments of history in the making and leave a visual legacy.

 

With the rapid dissemination of photography, new ways of giving meaning to images were being found – firstly by those consciously breaking away from tradition and secondly by the multitude of new photographers from different backgrounds who were either without loyalty to a particular school of painting or were ignorant thereof. So began what Szarkowski termed a “massive assault on our traditional habits of seeing” (La Grange 2005:15-16). An evolution in seeing naturally requires an evolution in reading. Flusser terms the ability to abstract surfaces out of space-time and to project them back into space-time as ‘imagination’- this imagination being a precondition to encode phenomena into two dimensional symbols and to read these symbols (2000:8). With the exponential growth of photography, the universal bank of technical imagery, and therewith symbols to be decoded, is ever expanding. Lászlo Moholy-Nagy implies that such photographic literacy is not innate, but learnt in his prediction that “the illiterate of the future will be ignorant of the use of camera and pen alike” (Wells 2009:10).

 

With writing, history began a struggle against idolatry – the educated literate holding power of knowledge. With photography began an onslaught on textolatry – shifting the power of word to that of technical imagery (Flusser 2000:17-18). Swarkowski quotes William M. Evans, “The nineteenth century began by believing that what was reasonable was true and would end up by believing that what it saw a photograph of was true”.  Ultimately, actual experience would be equated to taking a photo thereof (La Grange 2005:27-34). This ripples into the present where people are seduced into living vicariously through imagery not their own. Despite photography being the most mimetic of art forms, Susan Sontag writes it is the only one to execute a “…surrealist takeover of modern sensibility…” (2007:49).

 

At the heart of modernity was the idea of progress. Progress was seen as forward motion towards an ever-evolving idea of utopia. At the centre of this perceived progress was mechanization and machinery. The original intent of this mechanization was liberation (a less fortunate consequence of mechanization and industrialization was enslavement by Fordist Capitalism, but that is beyond the scope of this commentary). “The intention behind apparatuses is to liberate the human being from work; apparatuses take over human labour – for example, the camera liberates the human being from the necessity of using a paintbrush. Instead of having to work, the human being is able to play” (Flusser 2000:72). With the possible exception of steam power, few machines were as influential in modernization as the camera and the images born from it. Fewer embraced the ideals of play with such vigor.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Flusser, V. 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Edition Flusser, Volume III. Reaktion: London.

 

Jackson, L. 2011. The Bristows of Epsom and Ewell. [Online]. Available: http://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/BristowsEpsomEwell.html [25 May 2013]

 

La Grange, A. 2005. Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Focal Press: Oxford.

 

Sontag, S. 2011. On Photography. First eBook edition. Picador: New York.

 

Wagner, P. 2012. Modernity. Polity Press: Cambridge.

 

Wells, L. 2009. Photography A Critical Introduction. Fourth edition. Routledge: London and New York.

 

 

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Hiroshi Sugimoto – A Brief Review and Tribute

 

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Sugimoto goes beyond Duchamp’s questioning of art and questions reality itself – from the material existence of substance to the linear perception of time.

 

“The Zen master of photography”, Sugimoto has created series that encourage the viewer to rethink the conventional definitions of reality. These series include, amongst others, Dioramas Theatres and Seascapes. More recently he has captured Architecture and explored Colors of Shadows (Stepan 2008: 151). Speaking of transiency in a Bhuddhist context, Sunryu Suzuki says we should find perfect existence through imperfect existence (Suzuki 2011). On his quest to find perfection through his exploration of light and time, Sugimoto has continuously lived up to the title of master.

 

With such a wide range of subjects, formal relations would seem unlikely, yet with most of his works hot on 8x10inch sheets of black and white film and his unwavering attention to lighting and geometric composition his signature is hard to miss. His bright highlights balanced by lower contrast shadow tones give his work an ethereal air rooted in tangible super realism that transcends time yet keeps the viewer pinned in the present moment.

 

Adam Fuss describes similar metaphysical interests to Sugimoto in an interview with Ross Bleckner: “This making of art is really but a shadow of the real hearing… [for] …the light… Light provides an understanding. Not physical light, but understanding the questions is like light. I have this dark space in me, and when I ask a question, there is a desire for light, and perhaps the light will come (Modrak 2001:114).

 

In his Theaters series, Sugimoto compressed two hour long feature films into single exposures, captured as luminous rectangles that would register as “a zen-like void that is neither presence nor absence” (Modrak 2011:114).

 

Sugimoto started his illuminated Theatre series in 1976. In 1915, Klasmir Malevich eliminated light all together by painting a large black square. These masters of different mediums, separated by half a century both strove to bring extreme structure to perception. Neither limited themselves with formal concerns; the apparent rigorousness of their work was lied rather with their investigations of light as both presence and absence. Both serve as narratives of hoe we exist and live in space-time (Bonami 2003).

 

Regardless of the subject matter, Hiroshi Sugimoto paints with such elegantly calculated strokes, the viewer cannot help but question the temporal existence of Self and all that surrounds us.
Bibliography

 

Modrak, Rnwith Anthens, B. 2001. Reframing Photography – Theory and Practice. Oxfordshire and New York.

 

Yau, J. 2003. In Sugimoto: Architecture, Edited by Francesco Bonami.m2003. First edition. D.A.P./Museum of Contemporary Art: Chicago.

 

Stepan, P. 2008. 50 Photographers you should know. Prestel: Munich, Berlin, London, New York.

 

Suzuki, S. 2011. Zen Mind, beginner’s Mind, edited by Trudy Dixon. Fortieth Aniversary Edition. Shambala: Bostonand London.

 

 

 

 

 

Rhein II

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A critical appraisal of Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II

 

Galassi (2001: 9) describes Gursky’s best work as big, bold and up to the challenge of knocking your socks off. Rhein II is no exception. Completed in 1999, the photograph is in colour, produced as a chromogenic print on paper. A frame of 2063 x 3575 x 50mm holds the 1564 x 3083mm image.

 

The image depicts the River Rhine running horizontally across the image, through green fields under an overcast sky. The foreground field is transected by a grey path, resulting in a simple composition of six parallel bands. The seventh formed by a subtle belt of sand on the distant shoreline. An elevated point of view and near infinite depth of field eliminates illusions of perspective. We are left with an image that is flattened to the point of abstraction, yet somehow retaining a depth that draws the viewer into the endless depths of a murky sky. Gursky’s geometric bands of composition appear calculated, with the horizon bisecting the image, the path bisecting the foreground field and the width of the path mirroring the width of the distant field. The light appears natural, emitted through an overcast morning sky and accentuates subtle tonal variations of blue, green and grey against contrasting textures of earth, growth and flowing water. The granular texture of the sandy seventh band echoes the potential of construction on an untouched natural landscape. The only sign of human thoroughfare is the seemingly abandoned cement path causing a subtle division of the foreground. The absent architecture on the distant shore suggests digital manipulation of his scanned film, as is characteristic of much of Gursky’s later works. (Stepan, 2008: 165)

 

Rhein II contains the contemporary signatures of Gursky himself, as well as that of his mentors. Gursky was born in Leipsig, Germany 1955. He started his studies at the Folkwang School in Essen, but the dominant forces in his formal education were his master mentors Bernd and Hilla Becher under whom he studied at the Düsseldorf Art Academy from 1981 to 1987. (Stepan 2008: 139,165)

 

The Bechers’ work was typified by what they termed ‘typologies’ of similar architectural subjects arranged in a grid. Galassi describes such a typology as “both a Platonic abstraction of stunning simplicity and an absorbing encyclopedia of Aristotelian fact.” (Galassi, 2001: 11) Similar tension is echoed in the paradoxes of Gursky’s works, where construction and deconstruction may be two sides of the same coin, Gursky appears to put more emphasis on the postmodern ideals of construction than his revered teachers. (Wells, 2009: 290) 

 

Gursky was in the postmodern company of artists that focused on creating photographic scenes that portrayed their personal visions, resulting in images depicting alternative realities that were felt rather than seen. (Robins 1984: 213) The question of reality here is as enigmatic as the definition of art. 

 

Adorno states that the controversy over the significance of a particular work of art is inseparable from it’s development. (Hooker, 2005: 2) This truth is exponential when applied to Rhein II where the deconstruction of the in situ architecture to construct an alternative reality mirrors a retrograde development of society. Arnheim’s definition of art is equally poignant when related to Gursky’s work. He describes art as “The ability of perceptual objects or actions, either natural or man-made, to represent, through their appearance, constellations of forces that reflect relevant aspects of the dynamics of human experience. More specifically, a ‘work of art’ is a human artefact intended to represent such dynamic aspects by means of ordered, balanced, concentrated form’. (Arnheim, 1988).

 

Further classifying art by genre can become perplexing when delving into the post-modern. Surely if a picture is taken of the Rhine it is a landscape. But if the picture was rather made, as is evident by Gursky’s calculated composition, perhaps it is a work of abstract expressionism. Or is it simply a nude? Clark states that to be naked is simply to be without clothes, while a nude is an artistic creation. Berger says that to be naked is to be oneself, yet to be nude is to be seen naked by others, but not recognisable as oneself. (La Grange, 2005: 12) By stripping Rhein II of human interference, Gursky allows the river to show itself naked, as itself, an artistic creation of the divine.

 

If the art of Gursky is to be relevant to reality, reality too will need defining. Particularly since reality and the manipulation thereof are central to his depiction of the River Rhein. 

 

Berger claims that it is our seeing that establishes our place in the world. He also argues, however, that there remains a distinction between what we see and what we know. He then goes further by saying what we know or believe affects the way we see things. This creates a dynamic relationship, starting with seeing and recognition, leading to views altered by preceding experience or acquired knowledge. (La Grange 2005: 2) This is as true for us – as the viewers and critics, as it is for Gursky – the artist.

 

The viewers and critics remain curious too regarding the process of creation of images, regardless of the validity of its content. The significance of digital technology for photography was questioned with an anxiety about the continuing photographic ‘truth.’ Most early commentators were careful to point out that the very hypothesis of photographic truth was contestable. The new technology of digitally capturing images nevertheless caused deep concern. In retrospect these concerns for the integrity of traditional photography were largely misplaced. (Wells, 2009: 316)

 

“Within the visual culture it has become possible to ‘image’ the invisible, that which does not actually exist, and to render it fantastic ‘as if’ real. (Shields 2003). In acheiving this, the historically accrued ‘reality effect’ of photography, the benchmark of the optically real, is essential to the credibility of the digital virtual image.” (Wells, 2009: 330-331)

 

For Berger, ‘An image is a sight which has been created or reproduced… which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance…’ (Berger, 2008: 9) This still holds true when either the place or time are fabricated as is prevalent in Gursky’s work.

 

We, as artists, are often in search of some venerable truth. Our lenses, digital sensors, eyes and brains lie, one electromagnetic manipulation at a time. They lie in terms of the literal, physical world we think we find ourselves in. But perhaps the truth lies closer to the figurative, conceptual forms remaining in the shadows. Perhaps, the more we lie, as Gursky unashamedly does, the closer we will come to our truth. For all that Rhein II may or not be or represent, it’s beauty lies in its honesty.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Arnheim, R. 1988. The power of the centre: A case study of composition in the visual arts. University of California press: Berkley

 

Berger, J. 1972a. Ways of seeing. Penguin: Harmondsworth.

 

Galassi, P. 2001. Andreas Gursky. Museum of Modern Art: New York.

 

Hooker, R. 2005. Theodor Adorno (1903-69) German Philosopher And Musicologist, in Key Writers on Art: the twentieth century, Edited by Chris Murray. 2005.

 

La Grange, A. 2005. Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Focal Press: Oxford.

 

Robins, C. 1984. The pluralist era: an american art 1968-1981. Harper and Row: New York.

 

Stepen, P. 2008. 50 Photographers you should know. Prestel: Munich, Berlin, London, New York.

 

Wells, L. 2009. Photography A Critical Introduction. Fourth edition. Routledge: London and New York.

Seeing in The Dark

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Seeing in The Dark

I thought my days of handing in unexposed reels of film were over. Thought was yet again proven to be redundant. Though the tales of my most recent photo walk will remain untold by the silence of dark frames, the story unfolded nonetheless. Time was frozen and light absorbed, if only by the silverless collodion of my transient mind. The destination was a sheer cliff without a view, but the untravelled roads leading there were breathtaking. They were thought provoking, mindless, exhilarating and mundane. Another gift of just another day. Many steps I would’ve loved to share with anyone willing to spare an eye. Many I was happy to tread alone. Most is forgotten and the rest may soon be, but much was indulged in that may have gone unnoticed if not for the clarity of a viewfinder. I am, however, eager to sacrifice romantic phrases of rationalizing for a released shutter. Tomorrow I walk again.

The Pages Beneath the Cover

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The only thing French about Pondicherry is the tourists. There may be a few locals with strange accents, and ‘rues’ instead of streets but this it no Petit Paris.

This was my first impression. I felt robbed. I had managed to humbly charm my way into the Sri Aurobindo ashram’s accommodation – a seaside abode for 300Rs a night. But for what? A forgotten town with an ocean, but no beach?! Then I began to explore.

My most intelligent act of idiocy, was hiring a Hero Honda. It was like committing suicide in order to live. Streets are narrow, bikes are many, rules are nonexistent. Your back wheel flies out to the left when you slam the breaks. Your back wheel flies out often. But it takes you into the heart of Pondy. You interact. You are transported from tourist to traveller. And it takes you to Pondy’s restaurants.

My first destination was The Ashram. I was expecting yoga, but found only serenity. Leaving your footwear and voice at the gate, you enter sacred ground. After kneeling to absorb the beauty and aroma of a 9 square meter bed of arranged flowers, you find a seat, select a comfortable seated posture, allow your eyelids to fall and drift away. Next stop – Le Café.

Once I had surrendered to the fact that advertised yoga schools are nearly impossible to locate and Paradise Beach is French for fisherman’s lavatory, my eye’s started to open to the town’s beauty. It’s energy is bustling, but not rushed, vitalized, but content. And the people live up to Tamil Nadu’s reputation – spirited and welcoming. Doorsteps are cleansed and painted to welcome gods and neighbours every morning. And the restaurants are reason enough to go. And stay.

While sticking to my rigid schedule of spending hours on end in French restaurants indulging in flavour and literature, I enquired about a Yoga poster and was gifted with a map… Finally, success. Sort of. The yoga was elementary hatha, given by a young guy from Kerala, whose real speciality was Aryuveidc medicine. But it was on a rooftop at sunset. In a street where France had been painted by India. Beautiful.

Pondy, a city I was disappointed to arrive in and reluctant to leave.

Chapter Ten

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We are often, if not always in search of an answer. Sometimes we don’t even know the question. But at it’s roots, every question is the same. What is the truth? Every question. Whether it’s “Where’s my pet mongoose?”, “Why am I losing sleep?”, “What’s the meaning of Life?”, or “Is this milk off?” The question remains the same. What is the truth? Life, however, is simple. Not only is there only one question; there’s also only one answer. The Truth.

The Truth. God, Light, Love. Truth. Higher than you, within you, the union between the two. One. Truth. Timeless.

Not eternal. Timeless. Outside of time. An observer. Truth. Truth views itself without preconception. Truth sees itself. It sees what we call past, present and future. Now. As one. As the present. With clarity.

Sometimes it’s worth taking a moment. (A present moment.) Taking a moment to step outside yourself to look within. To look within and to look heavenward. To look back and forth between the two and to realize that they’re one.
Taking a moment to look. And realize that when you’re the observer, you see yourself instead of seeing through yourself. You see everything. Without time. You observe the present, because that’s all there is. You see what God sees. You experience union with him. You see with clarity.

When immersing yourself in the divine bird’s eye view of the present, there are less questions. You are less concerned about whether you’ll sleep tonight or why you feel how about a possible future. Feelings rooted in thought dissolve, creating space to feel Truth. You focus on simple beauties. And are left simply asking “Am I immersed in bliss?”. If not, “What do I want now?”

Perhaps there appear to be more questions. But they’re all the same. All with the same answer. You are divine love with luminescent clarity of who you are and what you want. And it’s Love and Light. The only truths, the only Truth.

Life, and the world we live in, is beautiful. Let go of hilltop destinations and simply be on top of a mountain. Enjoy the view. Take indulgent sips of the fresh air. Decide what you love now and immerse yourself in it. Love. Now.

Going Blue to Go Green

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I have up till recently been of the belief that Vegan is Latin for bud hunter. Some go further by saying the original translation is in fact ‘village idiot who is unable to hunt’.

Experience has lead me to believe that perhaps Steve Jobs was onto something. I think it unlikely that his diet had much effect on his cancer. It’s possible though, that his sharp mind made an intelligent choice of diet. Or perhaps even that his queer dietary habits fueled his sharp mind better than regular ones would have. Either way, crazy though he was – he was no village idiot. And I’m pretty sure there’s a hunting app.

A decent vegan or vegetarian meal is apparently not just decent meal minus meat. I can’t defend tofu. Especially when disguised as a steak – that ridiculous. But a meal where the vegetable becomes the main feature and is treated as such. Damn. My words are failing me, but there are some chef’s with skill.

Fair enough – you may need more skill to appetizingly dress up a lentil than a steak, but if you have the skill, it’s worth using. If you don’t, it’s worth acquiring.

I’ll avoid the debate of whether we need meet at all, but we don’t need 300g of red meat every day. And it’s no sacrifice – the dishes to gain are endless and freaken good. And if we save a few furry or fluffy creatures in the process, that’s ok too.

Oh, and apperntly ratatouille is a French veg dish. I was expecting bollonaise with linguine – who knew.