Wednesday, October 27, 2010
The handsomely-installed cameraless show 'Shadow Catchers', at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has opened its doors at last, and all London was on hand to welcome it, with more than 500 revelers, artists, collectors, gallerists, and hangers-on. Only Fox Talbot was missing - well, I didn't see Anna Atkins either, but the spirit of both hovered over the festivities. Parties lasted well into the evening as the lights flickered out over South Kensington.
New Scientist began their lede with curator Martin Barnes' rhetorical question: what trajectory might photography have taken if it hadn't become obsessed with the camera and the lens? That we've had to wait 150 years to ask this, with the world careening madly in another direction, is testimony both to the stubbornness of tradition and the boldness of his courage, but it is implicit in the thoughts of the author of The Pencil of Nature, who sensed photography's dilemma when he wrote, "the phenomenon appears to me to partake of the character of the marvelous." Marvelous indeed: Pierre Cordier, Susan Derges, Adam Fuss, Garry Fabian Miller, and Floris Neusüss all demonstrate the richness of an alternate, hidden tradition of artists whose work is a meditation on photographic materials and process, reclaiming the visionary from the prosaic and documentary.
Let us hope this landmark exhibit, which runs until February 20, 2011, will be followed by others. Meanwhile, in another wing, the museum has mounted a parallel show called 'A History of Cameraless Photography', with a selection of gems from their vast collection: Man Ray, Anna Atkins, Moholy-Nagy and others. You'll be overwhelmed by Shadow Catchers, but don't miss this one on the way out.
Monday, October 11, 2010
We all know that digital photography is omnipresent, that everyone has cameras in cell phones and on their laptop screens as well as the standard issue digital camera...but just how omnipresent is the digital image in daily life? I'd like to offer a small travel anecdote. Just about a month ago I was in Istanbul in Hagia Sophia, the fantastic 6th century Byzantine church with a very complicated history, a building that I tell my students semester after semester is my favorite architectural structure of all time. (Professors allow themselves a certain measure of hyperbole to make their points.) Hagia Sophia seemed as crowded and sodden with tourists as I'd ever seen it, but of course most people were not looking at the structure or the decoration of the building, they were taking photographs (usually involving their traveling partners posed in front of marble panels or particularly fetching mosaics). This is not news, obviously. I have often described the galleries at MoMA here in NYC as hopelessly infected with the digital menace, by which I mean the incessant jockeying of tourists for photos of the paintings they rarely bother to look at after their photo is taken. In Hagia Sophia I tried to compile a small statistical sample by counting the number of flashes that went off in a single minute and I left off before the minute was through because my tally was somewhere above 150 photos, not counting anyone who wasn't using a flash and therefore invisible to me.
What's the point of all this photography? Yes, yes, I know that people like to make photographic records of their travels as a kind of visual reminder after the fact. I understand that photography is probably more democratic now than at any point in its almost two centuries old history. But how much photography is too much? When everyone can take and make pictures by the millions if not billions every year and all these photos begin to look alike and everyone posts them online so we can all see each other's vacation photos (a very specific kind of hell), has the digital camera become nothing more than a more visually sophisticated Blackberry or iPod? Is photography (like e-mail and digital music) so omnipresent that it is no more than a component of the information cloud we all inhabit and occasionally choke on?
Cameraless photography offers alternatives to this cloud and also a way for the hand to reenter the realm of the photograph. I suspect Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy knew this, also Raoul Ubac and Herbert Bayer and Pierre Cordier and Alison Rossiter and any number of photographers who worked or continue to work outside the boundaries of what we have to call conventional photography. I know that it's difficult to figure out how to talk or think about non-standard photographic images like the chemigram that I posted above, made about three days ago, and I know that whatever dialogue there has been about chemigrams has tended toward process and technical concerns, but I think it's useful to see the chemigram and other forms of cameraless photography as a means to resituate photography within the aesthetic discourse of painting. We all thought this argument about whether photography is really, truly an art form was put to rest by St. Stieglitz about a hundred years ago, but it seems like Stieglitz's division between documentary photography and art photography is again being tested, this time by the all-devouring documentary properties of the digital camera.
Friday, October 8, 2010
If you've ever had the good fortune of seeing Alison Rossiter's work in Canadian galleries like the Stephen Bulger in Toronto or Art45 in Montreal, her one-of-a-kind pictures are hard to forget. It's not that she's been known merely for cameraless work - she is an extremely pure exemplar of that word - but rather for pictures without any conscious imagery whatever: from a background in photographic conservation and an obvious love for the history of photography, she collects vintage photographic paper at auctions or rummage sales and develops it, to see what strange marks time and chance may have left. Dings, abrasions, smudges, spills rich in old chemistry - these become remarkable and somehow moving in her hands, and can be seen on her site and elsewhere.
More recently she's been invoking the spirit of these rare papers by inoculating them with a bit of developer, creating simple but haunting photograms or chemigrams. In her new show at Yossi Milo in New York City, it's shocking at first to realize that these darkly elegant shapes, created only this year, are executed on papers which may be nearly a century old. Velox, Ansco, Kodabromide, there is a roll-call here of legendary names most of us have forgotten or never known; the drama of their return to center-stage is staggering. The edges of the papers, as you dare get closer, are sometimes discolored, and why wouldn't they be. The whites display a gamut of tints, from bone white to thin yellows to faint mauves, representing, one might say, the dreams of bygone epochs in which they were conceived. And then the blacks. The regions where her hand has passed or where she slowly tilted the paper charged with developer, the blacks are pushed to maximum density, unmodulated; they possess a massive authority and seem to engage in a mute, secret dialog with the whites. In some pictures Alison gives us the added surprise of a second layer of black, this one not allowed to proceed to full development. Its dusklike tones dance at the edges of still darker areas, suggesting movement, twisting, indecision, and life.
Some have called Alison's work minimalist, and at first glance it's easy to see why. Her methods, her commitment to a process, a spare, arbitrary imagery - in conversation she said someone even compared her to Barnett Newman. But the more you stand in the presence of these works, the more you feel the operation of an intense personal engagement and emotion that rises above minimalism, and puts it far behind. You must see this show.