My Fayum…

Sandra Kontos moved to Athens in 1993 to pursue her studies in archaeology and photography. Photography and archaeology share many qualities, namely they both record or archive the past. It was during this time she discovered the Fayum portraits (first and second centuries A.D.) They fascinated her, “Here I found myself gazing directly into the eyes of people from the ancient world.” Captivated by their melancholic beauty and the mystery surrounding their ancient faces, dress and jewellery, Kontos intensely studied these exquisite portraits. The portraits accompany mummified bodies and were painted on wooden panels by anonymous artists. Euphrosyne C. Doxiadis writes, “Of these two strands [the Greek painting tradition and Egyptian funerary beliefs], the sophistication of the first and the intensity of the second combined to produce moments of breathtaking beauty and unsettling presence.” [1]

Almost a decade later, whilst studying at UNSW COFA, Sandra Kontos experimented with Polaroid transfers. This photographic image transfer process was time consuming and produced fragile unpredictable images. The materiality of the results was a stark reminder of the textured surfaces of the Fayum portraits. Kontos paired the portraits with tea stained replicated maps of the Fayum region. The Fayum “… as it appeared c.1800, when it was surveyed by Napoleon’s Commission. This map, from the Descriptionde l’Egypte, vividly suggests the lush cultivated land, with its small fields, surrounded by rocky escarpments.” [2] This was a definite nod to her Athens days and the magnificent lessons of her archaeological teacher Aggeliki Papadopoulou. Pairing the portraits with the map was also a way of memorializing the dead; of establishing a sense of place for those depicted. An act of making the absent present.

With the discontinuation of Polaroid, this series of portraits now sit precariously in the digital age. The colours of Polaroid 669 film and the tea stained paper stock are unreproducible. These portraits are what Kontos loves about analogue photography. “The process is slow and vivid, random elements are revealed and they are unique objects imbued with the hand of the artist.” Geoffrey Batchen talks about rediscovering photography in the digital age. Sandra Kontos’ photographs are chemical events, actions that occur directly onto the paper stock. [3] The images are made not taken.

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Sandra Kontos, Fayum Portrait, 2004

References

[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt, accessed 22 December 2015, http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/press-room/exhibitions/2000/ancient-faces-mummy-portraits-from-roman-egypt

[2] Doxiadis, Euphrosyne, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits Faces from Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, 1995, p. 228.

[3] Batchen, Geoffrey. Blindness and Insight: Photography and/as Ruin, Symposium – The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg, SCA Auditorium, Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, 5 December 2015, Keynote Address.

 

Replacing Modernist Art Photography in the 1960s and 70s.

Photography as a medium was realised within Clement Greenberg’s formula during the 1960s and 1970s. The refocusing of criteria for the use of photography by Conceptual artists discussed in Jeff Wall’s essay “Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as Conceptual Art.” Wall presents a thorough account of the redefining history of photography. Most importantly he states two important directions photography takes in order to transcend the pictorial: pictorial and the deskilling of photography respectively. The work of Richard Long, Bruce Nauman, Robert Smithson and Edward Ruscha will be referred to as examples. Traces of Conceptual art upon contemporary approaches will be discussed using Joachim Schmid’s work.

Photography had adapted the traditions of modernist painting and sculpture since the 1920s with Stieglitz and the Sucessionists. Elevating photography to a fine art was seen only viable by mimicking painting and sculpture.

Abandoning Pictorialism in the 20s, and influenced by the growth of mass communications, the avant-garde experiments led to an imitation of photojournalism. “Photojournalism… elaborated a new kind of picture, utilitarian in its determination by editorial assignment and novel in its seizure of the instantaneous, of the “news event” as it happened.” (1) The notion of the unique, unspoiled integrity of photography is evident in the work of Paul Strand, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson. This mimicry of reportage and alignment with new culture industries, enabled photography to abandon the sensuous picture surface and contrived composition in favour of what Cartier-Bresson coined as, “the decisive moment.”

henri_cartier_bresson_bicycleHenri Cartier-Bresson, The Var Department, Hyères, France, 1932.

1024px-Allie_Mae_Burroughs_printWalker Evans, Portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, 1936.

strand_the-white-fence-1916-lrPaul Strand, The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916.

Jeff Wall states, “The art concept of photojournalism began to force photography into what appears to be a modernist dialectic. By divesting itself of the encumbrances and advantages inherited from older art forms, reportage pushed toward a discovery of qualities apparently intrinsic to the medium, qualities that must necessarily distinguish the medium from others, and through the self-examination of which it can emerge as a modernist art on a plane with the others.” (2)

During the 1940s and 1950s, photography receded back into the language of Modernist Pictorialism. Artists such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, were elevated to a heroic position. Adams trekked into the mountains, lugging large format cameras, risking life and limb in order to get the quintessential shot. the photographer this becomes revered as a genius for revealing the truths in the world. These photographers carefully considered compositions and the textural sensuousness of the picture surface.

Adams_The_Tetons_and_the_Snake_River

Ansel Adams, The Tetons – Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1936.

Weston-pepper30Edward Weston, Pepper No. 30, 1930.

Painting and sculpture, through Abstract art had abandoned depiction, and Minimalism was refocusing issues regarding the validity of the art object. “In the process of developing alternative proposals for art “beyond” depiction, art had to reply to the suspicion that, without their depictive or representational function, art objects were art in name only, not in body, form, or function.” (3)

Finding other possibilities for photography was difficult compared with painting and sculpture. “It is in the physical nature of the medium to depict things.” (4) Conceptual art’s pursuit to transcend photography’s unmitigated picture making qualities sought to reconnect the medium to the real world.

Jeff Wall examines two important directions which emerged from this process; “The first involves the rethinking and “refunctioning” of reportage, the dominant types of photography as it existed at the beginning of the 1960s.” (5) “The second is related to the fist, and to a certain extent emerges from it. This is the issue of the deskilling and re-skilling of the artist in a context defined by the culture industry, and made controversial by aspects of Pop art.” (6)

In the sixties, younger artists bored with the traditions adopted by photography from painting and sculpture agitated the medium by returning to the fundamental “auto-critique” of art associated with the tradition of the avant-garde. (7)

The experimental work of Robert Smithson, Bruce Nauman and Richard Long did not derive as an antithesis of the aesthetic work of their precursors such as Adams and Weston, but rather stems from the concept of reportage as art-photography from the avant-garde of the 1920s. The criteria for art was refocused by the photo conceptualists. As Jeff Wall writes, firstly, it was legitimised by having transcended the boundaries of art, and secondly, the works produced are compelling in their superiority and yet invariably “… they seem to dissolve, abandon, or negate it.” (8)

The idiosyncrasies of reportage were altered with photo conceptualism. Reportage is directed inward and ridiculed by the artist. “The gesture of reportage is withdrawn from the social field and attached to a putative theatrical event.” (9) This was demonstrated in two ways according to Jeff Wall. Firstly, by using Long and Nauman as examples, the staged picture becomes affiliated with the new concepts of performance. Secondly, photojournalism and the photojournalist are ridiculed in the work of Smithson.

Long’s A 1/2 Mile Walk Sculpture, 1969, is an artistic gesture made specifically to be photographed. Long walks traces into the grass leaving a trace. The artist inverts the traditions of pictorial landscapes by positioning the walked track as the foreground motif. (10) The performance does not have meaning unless it is documented, thus the photograph becomes a substitute, a record for the event.

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Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, England, 1967.

Nauman photographs in the studio which in itself contradicts the Pictorialists. Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966 and Self-Portrait as Fountain, 1966-67/70 are examples of Nauman’s experimental art which changed the conditions of reportage from a documented event to a staged and theatrical kind of practice which was becoming known as Performance art. Studio photography and reportage are this deconstructed. The studio literally becomes the place of truth and reality when it is reinvented during this times becomes many things including a theatre, gallery and meeting place. (11) The studio is also ridiculed as a place where the performative artist as genius creates. Undoubtedly Nauman is referencing the high seriousness of the film documentary of Jackson Pollock, where the artist can be seen in deep concentration making paintings. Self-Portrait as Fountain, is Nauman’s homage to Marcel Duchamp’s fountain. Falling to Levitate in the Studio, parodies Cartier-Bresson’s “the decisive moment,” that split second that photography is known for. This work also questions the notion that photographs are “true.”

schuster8Bruce Nauman, Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain 1917, replica 1964.

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Bruce Nauman, Self portrait as a fountain, 1967.

“This integration or fusion of reportage and performance, its manneristic introversion, can be seen as an implicitly parodic critique of the concepts of art-photography.” (12) Photojournalism combines photography with writing. Smithson’s “Mock-travelogue” (13) A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, 1967, describes the journey he took from the Port Authority in New York to Passaic County. His tour of the monuments in New Jersey begins at a bridge over the Passaic River. When he photographed it in the midday sun, he described it like, “photographing a photograph… The sun became a monstrous light bulb that projected a detached series of “stills”… When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph…” (14) The narrative is quite entertaining in its parody of photojournalism. The works duality derives from the narrative which describes the making of the photographs, “one never knew which side of the mirror one was on.” (15)

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Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic”, Artforum, December 1967.

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Robert Smithson, The Bridge Monument Showing Wooden Sidewalks, 1967.

Photography was unable to abandon depiction entirely and thus could not reconcile to Greenberg’s reductivism. “Depiction is the only possible result of the camera system, and the kind of image formed by a lens is the only image possible in photography.” (16) With an influx of students and younger artists adopting the medium, the reduction in photography occurred with the elimination of pictorial and technical skill. By rejecting historical pictorial conventions adopted from painting, photography was now free to demonstrate Greenberg’s formula of “the effects [in each art] exclusive to itself.” (17) Joseph Beuy’s catch phrase, “every man is an artist,” (18) could now circulate within photo conceptual rhetoric with the advancement and democraticisation of photographic equipment like the Kodak Brownie.

“It became a subversive creative act for a talented and skilled artist to imitate a person of limited abilities. It was a new experience, one which ran counter to all accepted ideas and standards of art, and was one of the last gestures which could produce avant-gardist shock.” (19) In Some Los Angeles Apartments, 1965, Edward Ruscha’s performance as an ordinary person photographing the apartments in a banal way combines the, “brutalism of Pop art with the low-contrast monochromaticism of the most utilitarian and perfunctory photographs.” (20) “Ruscha has treated each image in a straightforward, deliberately artless manner and ignored the… artful effects of lighting, cropping, composition, or print quality.” (21) Depiction is this finally eliminated by reducing art to an intellectual concept.

1965-2_some-los-angeles-apartments-lowEdward Ruscha, Some Los Angeles Apartments, 1965.

csm_1991_504-001_50d2e0ddb2Pages from the book.

Many traces of Conceptual art are located in the work of contemporary artists such as Joachim Schmid. Since 1982, Schmid has collected over two hundred and fifty photographs discarded at photo booths and found on his travels. His Pictures from the Streets, are first, “visual artefacts and human documents,” (22) and secondly, the pictures, “aren’t really art at all and were never intended by their makers to be seen in a public exhibition.” (23) Schmid intervenes in the stories and life of the images he has found, they were created somewhere else by parties unknown. By not editing the selection according to aesthetic conventions Schmid, “instead provides an apparently unbiased, sociological sample of imagery lost or thrown away by its owners.” (24) Pictures from the Street, ultimately raises questions over Schmid’s artistic authorship. The work operates on many levels, it comments on the fetishisation of photography and visually the photographs are fascinating in regard to the mystery they possess and questions they pose in the mind of the viewer.

joachim_schmid-bild037Joachim Schmid, No.37, Berlin, August 1987.

joachim_schmid-bild083

Joachim Schmid, No.83, Berlin, July 1990.

joachim_schmid-bild830

Joachim Schmid, No.830, Madrid, February 2004.

A video of Joachim Schmid, an artist who is obsessed with finding images rather than making them.

By dismissing Stieglitz in the post-Pictorialist phase, a shift in style from the painterly to photography’s inherent directness and immediacy positions the medium within mass culture. The validity of reportage was precisely the kind of art concept photography sought to revolutionise the picture. After a mild lapse in the 1940s and 50s, Conceptual artists turned towards reviving photography’s inherent qualities according to Greenberg’s theories, photography turned to reportage. Unable to deny itself its mechanical nature based on the lens, depiction is transcended by reduction of photography to an intellectual concept.

References

1. J. Wall, “Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art” in Goldstein, A. and Rorimer, A. (eds.). Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, Los Angeles, Cambridge (Mass.) and London, 1995, p. 249.

2. ibid.

3. ibid., p. 247.

4. ibid., p. 247-248.

5. ibid., p. 248.

6. ibid.

7. ibid., p. 247.

8. ibid., p. 252.

9. ibid., p. 253.

10. ibid., p. 254.

11. ibid.

12. ibid.

13. ibid., p. 255.

14. R. Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” in Wallis, B. (ed.). Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writing by Contemporary Artists, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1987, p. 75.

15. Wall, op. cit., p. 255.

16. ibid., p. 260.

17. ibid.

18. ibid., p. 263.

19. ibid., p. 265.

20. ibid.

21. A. Rorimer, New Art in the 60s and 70s Redefining Reality, Thames & Hudson, London, 2001, p. 114.

22. John S. Weber, “Joachim Schmid-Anti_Auteur, Photo-Flaneur” in Schmid J. Bilder von der Strasse/Pictures from the Street, Berlin, 1994, p. 11.

23. ibid.

24. ibid., p. 12.

Images

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var Department, Hyères, France, 1932. http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=29YL53KGUTK

Walker Evans, Portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, 1936. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walker_Evans

Paul Strand, The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O93493/the-white-fence-port-kent-photograph-strand-paul/

Ansel Adams, The Tetons – Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1936. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ansel_Adams

Edward Weston, Pepper No. 30, 1930. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Weston

Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, England, 1967. http://www.richardlong.org/Sculptures/2011sculptures/linewalking.html

Bruce Nauman, Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966. http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/32/schuster.php 

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain 1917, replica 1964. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573

Bruce Nauman, Self portrait as a fountain, 1967. http://cs.nga.gov.au/Detail-LRG.cfm?IRN=115602 

Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic”, Artforum, December 1967. http://openstacks.tumblr.com/post/76365278353/robert-smithson-the-monuments-of

Robert Smithson, The Bridge Monument Showing Wooden Sidewalks, 1967. http://absolumentmoderne.tumblr.com/post/26841593431/robert-smithson-monuments-of-passaic-artforum

Edward Ruscha, Some Los Angeles Apartments, 1965. http://daskunstbuch.at/2013/02/11/kunstlerbuch-artists-book-ed-ruscha-some-los-angeles-apartments-1965/

Edward Ruscha, a page from the book. http://mmk-frankfurt.de/de/sammlung/werkdetailseite/?werk=1991%2F504

Joachim Schmid, No.37, Berlin, August 1987. https://schmid.wordpress.com/works/1982-bilder-von-der-strase/

Joachim Schmid, No.83, Berlin, July 1990. https://schmid.wordpress.com/works/1982-bilder-von-der-strase/

Joachim Schmid, No.830, Madrid, February 2004. https://schmid.wordpress.com/works/1982-bilder-von-der-strase/

Joachim Schmid video http://petapixel.com/2014/09/24/joachim-schmid-artist-finds-publishes-peoples-photos/

Jeff Wall – Painting and Cinematography Collide in “Near Documentary” Photography.

jeffwall1

Jeff Wall, After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000. Transparency in lightbox 1740 X 2505 mm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Jeff Wall’s After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000, is a remarkable photograph and a fine example of Wall’s intelligent considerations on picture making. Two major energies that are of great influence to the artist are the grand traditions of Western painting and cinematography.

Wall’s image is not an accurate transcription of reality, it is a deliberately constructed realm. He aptly calls the type of photography he practices as “near documentary.” His picture making process intersects the realm between documentary photography and cinematography, and is an example of the way directorial photography functions today. After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000, recreates a scene from Ralph Ellison’s renowned 1952 novel, “Invisible Man.” The level of detail in the photograph is astounding. Wall meticulously recreated the scene in his studio: 1,369 light bulbs, the blankets covering the walls and doorways, the furniture, papers and hundreds of small items.

Initially, the viewer may presume that the photograph of the man in this curious setting is actually homeless. Photography is imbued with a certain level of reality and truth because of its documentary and archival qualities. The viewer is tantalized by the precise placement of objects that creates depth within the pictorial space of the image. By placing the man in the back of the room, Wall creates a feeling in the viewer that they are interrupting or peering in on the subject’s private life. The seated man with his hunched back produces empathy in the viewer. Coleman writes, “People believe photographs.” (1) Photographs are credible in a way that sculptures, etchings and oil paintings are not. Coleman writes this believability is based on photography’s ability to regulate Renaissance perspective and represent a particular moment of reality, even though it sits flat on a piece of paper. (2)

Wall is interested in creating “hermetic world’s of fantasy and strangeness.” (3)  A deep sense of desperation and psychological tension prevails in Wall’s depiction of a solitary man in an airless and claustrophobic interior. By directing and making images and simply not just taking photographs, Wall engages with the notion of photography as truth. Wall achieved this natural quality by photographing the man for a long period of time. This encouraged his subject to become comfortable in the scene. Wall developed this process from studying filmmaking. Wall waits with his camera, until the things he’s waiting for, even though he doesn’t quite know what it is occurs. (4)  Interestingly, in many ways, Wall is also waiting, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, for his “decisive moment.”

Las_Meninas,_by_Diego_Velázquez,_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth

Diego Velazquez, Les Meninas (The Maids of Honour), 1656.

From an early age, Wall was interested in painting and drawing. Unable to denounce his love for the Western traditions of 19th century painting, Wall began to realize that photography could be more than what the medium was inherently rooted and understood to be. Photographs were usually viewed in books or albums and were small compared to the grand paintings of the Western tradition. During a trip to Europe in the 1970s, Wall recognized that a lot of important paintings were done near life size. In the following passage, Wall recounts his experience of viewing paintings by Francisco Goya and Diego Velazquez;

A painting is a certain sized image related to your body that looks and makes you feel something when you stand in front of it in a room… It’s large enough and has amplitude that makes you feel like you are still in the same place and yet there is another place that is presenting itself to you… That’s painting. (5)

800px-Stereograph_as_an_educator

A Stereograph.

stereo

A Stereoscope.

Coleman states that within the history of photography there is a tradition of directorial images and cites the staged tableau’s and narrative scenes of stereographic images from the 1850s as examples. Oliver Wendall Holmes writes of his experience of viewing a stereograph, “… so heightened as to produce an appearance of reality which cheats the senses with its seeming truth.” (6)  The all-encompassing scale of Wall’s photograph with its sumptuous detail is likened to a film still, but a connection can also be drawn to the stereograph. The film reference is obviously informed by the luminosity of the picture’s display method. The large-scale transparency is housed in a backlit light box and because of the proportion the viewer’s experience is likened to being in a cinema viewing a single frame of film.

References

1. A D Coleman, ‘The Directorial Mode: Notes towards a definition,’ in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, ed. Vicki Goldberg, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981, p. 482.

2. ibid.

3. http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/jeffwall/rooms/room6.shtm

4. http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/68/147

5. http://www.sfmoma.org/multimedia/videos/244

6. O Wendeall Holmes, (1859) ‘The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,’ in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, ed. Vicki Goldberg, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981, p. 104.

Images

Jeff Wall http://www.loubna.ch/htm/announcement/jeff-wall-33

Diego Velazquez http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas

A stereograph http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Stereograph_as_an_educator.jpg

A stereoscope http://www.google.com.au/imgres?hl=en&client=safari&sa=X&tbo=d&rls=en&biw=1440&bih=709&tbm=isch&tbnid=ex78yih_-chXYM:&imgrefurl=http://www.yeomansinthefork.com/blog/2010/03/What-is-a-stereoview%253F&docid=gR5dk05W9OhnMM&imgurl=http://www.utas.edu.au/library/exhibitions/midwood/images/designer/stereo.jpg&w=1000&h=806&ei=HaLvUJHwGouyiQeTjIDYDg&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=4&vpy=128&dur=1283&hovh=201&hovw=250&tx=107&ty=95&sig=107976697859898322787&page=1&tbnh=148&tbnw=201&start=0&ndsp=29&ved=1t:429,r:0,s:0,i:82