See the moon? The Celestial and the Circular in Photography
New Writing

See the moon? The Celestial and the Circular in Photography

Noémie Goudal, Station II, 2015 © Noémie Goudal. Courtesy of the artist and Edel Assanti

Noémie Goudal, Station II, 2015 © Noémie Goudal. Courtesy of the artist and Edel Assanti

I look someone in the eyes: either those eyes are cast down — and this is modesty, that is, modesty for the emptiness lurking behind the gaze — or they look back at me.[1]

I look at the orb. The orb looks at me. Or stares, should I say. We stare at each other, the orb and I. Behind it, a winter scene — wide grey sky, forested mountains covered in snow.

I believe this image: its cool, pallid tones, its calm, placid tenor. But what of the orb, the large white circle that hovers at its centre, paused in the middle of the sky? It snags the gaze, a cataract lens.

I blink.

I blink again.

As if the orb will disappear, as if the sky will magically clear.

Where the landscape is in three dimensions, the orb appears to be flat — pressed flush, full-bodied, heavy-weighted against my vision. Its flatness foregrounds the foreground. This air is not empty space, it seems to say: this air is portentous, full of meaning. The orb looks like it is made of paper — and yet, how could such a delicate thing remain aloft so? Would it not be battered and torn, offset by the merest breeze?

Station II. The orb is grubby and faded around the edges, not white, but grey — as though worn and weathered, assembled by countless hands. I imagine it has witnessed many things during its station here. A station — to station — an observation. And now I am stationedhere, too: watching, waiting, anticipating. No matter how hard I look, how long I wait, the eye before me, though blank and wide, stays shut: the oculi obscures, will always occlude the central portion, the focal point, the iris. A clouded blankness of eye-balling skies.

I look at the orb. The orb looks at me.

But perhaps the eye deceives — perhaps it is not flat. Perhaps the orb does not stay here, perhaps it moves — it is dirigible, a dirigible! Perhaps, if I wait long enough, it will leave — the orb will depart to reveal whatever sits just behind. Just behind, just beneath the surface of the surface. I wonder if there is a there there.

Peter Oosterhuis, Inflating Nadar’s Le Géant (“The Giant”), Amsterdam, 14 September, 1865

Peter Oosterhuis, Inflating Nadar’s Le Géant (“The Giant”), Amsterdam, 14 September, 1865

In 1863, the photographer Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) commissioned prominent balloonist Eugène Godard to construct a 196-foot high balloon, which he called Le Géant. Nadar took Le Géant all over Europe, hovering above countless cities to pioneer the first instances of aerial photography. In a now-famous caricature, ‘Nadar elevating Photography to Art’, Honoré de Daumier pictures a wiry Nadar tensely perched in the basket of his balloon as it tilts precariously in the wind. His top hat has been lost to the air and hovers mid-escape above his attentively hunched body. Beneath him, across the top of every building below — Sacré Coeur just visible in the distance — is written PHOTOGRAPHIE.

Following its second launch, Le Géant ultimately crashed in Hanover, leaving Nadar with a fractured leg. The photographer deemed the balloon, made of 20,000 metres of silk, unsuitably light, and — with Jules Verne — founded ‘The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines’. But for a brief moment, Nadar was airborne — in flight — above it all — peering down at the world through the eye of his black box camera, a wet-plate Cyclops.

What would it have looked like, the giant, Le Géant, the enormous, silk balloon? Would the fabric have churned and eddied in the breeze? Would the basket have whipped wildly from side-to-side? Or would all have been calm and peaceful — soft ripples — a pause, a caesura — up there, so high above the earth. A sigh, an exhalation, a suspension, stationary, a station.

It’s true, in any case, that the air can sometimes feel very heavy. Or dense, should I say. The air is dense; we seek heavier means of navigation. The light is full of shadows; we devise more precise means of preservation.

In comparison with the long history of astronomy, that of photography is incredibly brief — blink and you could miss it. And yet the two share a great deal, in both technical detail and thematic concerns. Perhaps the eyepiece of the former long-lens telescoped into the viewfinder of the latter — a smooth orbit. Looking in, looking out: the observatory, the camera obscura.

Enter the darkened room, approach the aperture, the eye, and dare to gaze at what it beholds. Wait long enough, let the light sink in — seconds, minutes, hours, days — light — years — until the image is transfixed, solidifies, becomes an object, a meaningful reflection.

Inclusum labor illustrat; it is because I am enclosed that I work and glow with all my desire.[2]

An aperture is a space, an opening, a gap in something otherwise solid. Through the aperture, through a glass darkly — pinhole camera — we are able to circumscribe, to scrutinize, to magnify. But an aperture is also a hole, as in a puncture — that which pierces. Aperture is synonymous with eye. And indeed, we know vision to be a tentative, tenuous thing — a hole that is not a hole — the eye is capable of sight and blindness in equal measure.

Noémie Goudal, Station V, 2015 © Noémie Goudal. Courtesy of the artist and Edel Assanti

Noémie Goudal, Station V, 2015 © Noémie Goudal. Courtesy of the artist and Edel Assanti

Station V. A hole that is not a hole. The moon passes in front of the sun. It appears as a black disc encircled by a halo of light, like smoke, solar flares licking at the darkened surrounding sky. Dangerous to behold, for the light — though ostensibly veiled — continues to radiate: it will transfix, burn the retina: the unholy vision destroys vision.

Until a short while ago, I was — in fact — under the impression that an eclipse was a kind of supernatural event. When I was ten years old, there was a total eclipse visible in Ontario, 10 May 1994. Tuesday, a school day. At my school, all of the students were forced to remain in the gymnasium-cum-cafeteria for the duration of the eclipse. We sat silently, the windows entirely blocked off by large sheets of thick cardboard: to protect us, they said. This event, in conjunction with a 1980s Disney film called Watcher in the Woods, in which the event of a solar eclipse brings to terrifying fruition a decades old mystery of death and paranormal occurrences, produced in me the notion that if you were exposed to a solar eclipse — if you were literally anywhere the sun could see you, whether you were looking at it or not — its rays would seek your eyes and bore into them: you would be immediately struck blind.

I have since been disabused of the notion, but in another sense, in another medium, the question endures: how to trap the light — how to hold it — carefully — and at just the right angle. Don’t burn the plate, the image will be bleached white, exposed beyond recognition, erased, blinded. Heliography, used to describe the earliest photographic process, comes from helios, sun + graphein, to write. Press too hard and you’ll tear the paper.

Like the sun, the moon has similarly been associated with looking, or the eye. Think of the famous scene in Dali and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou: a night sky with a full moon, long trails of cloud moving quickly — one cleanly bisects the glowing white orb. Cut to a woman with her eye being peeled open by a man whose hand holds a straight razor — as she stares directly into the camera, the blade moves towards her face in a neat horizontal line. Decades earlier, George Meliès’ A Trip to the Moon features a moon with an incredibly animated human face — heavily textured, high ridges, deep craters. When the expedition finally launches, it rockets directly into the moon’s eye and remains lodged tightly within its socket. The moon, bless him, seems strangely nonplussed.

The sun, the moon, stars, nebulae, galaxies — all have been referred to as ‘eyes’, by layperson and scientist alike. It would be easy to speculate that the comparisons, similes, metaphors — when the moon hits your eye, etc. — are due to visual similarity alone. But there is something else: a kind of scopophilia. Things we look at, incline our heads, gaze, peer. Things that look back at us; things that are always watching — permanent fixtures, glittering in the firmament.

“ See the moon? It hates us.” – Donald Barthelme

And why wouldn’t it? At Station V, there are ropes holding the moon in place. They were there too, the ropes, at the other station, with its distant mountain ranges and its wide, white sky. I ignored them, dreaming instead of movement and flight. They were faint enough — their fastening holes slight, barely visible around the circumference, and easy to overlook. But here, the moon is undeniably fixed in place, pinned to the page — tethered to a frame somewhere just outside of the frame.

And why not? Photographers have long desired it so. Like astronomers, they trained their sights on the moon — fixed through lenses — imprinted on silver-plate, wet-plate, paper ­— stereoscope, heliograph, photogravure, astrophoto.

J.W. Draper, The Moon, 1840. Image: London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

J.W. Draper, The Moon, 1840. Image: London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

The earliest surviving image of the moon was made in 1840 by American photographer and scientist J.W. Draper. It must have been a long exposure, the object, with its refracted source of light, and at such a great distance. A few years later, scientists Hippolyte Fizeau and Leon Foucault photographed the sun. Unlike Draper’s image, which is full of detail — craggy surfaces and craters, mountain ranges and pits contoured in shadow, hints of the dark side of the moon — the sun is a perfect white circle with just two small clusters of black marks: sun spots on the surface of the star. The brighter something burns, the darker it will appear, until everything turns black.

In Elisabeth Bishop’s poem ‘The Man-Moth’, the titular figure emerges from beneath the sidewalks nightly, to contemplate the moon ­— he scales the faces of the buildings, nervously reaching for the sky:

Up the façades,

his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him

he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage

to push his head through that round clean opening

and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.[4]

One could forgive him the misunderstanding. Black on white. White on black. The light emitting object reverses, eclipses itself in positive and negative. A hole that is not a hole. Perhaps he has transposed the alchemy of the camera to the celestial: a vision becomes real, takes on new properties and dimensions, set in light and dark, deep shades of grey.

Noémie Goudal, Station IV, 2015 © Noémie Goudal. Courtesy of the artist and Edel Assanti

Noémie Goudal, Station IV, 2015 © Noémie Goudal. Courtesy of the artist and Edel Assanti

Station IV and the stars are out in full force. Beneath them, a rocky planetary ground glitters in the half-light. In the lower-right quadrant of the sky is a radiant cluster where the light is snagged, caught — held, preserved: a handful of gems against the obsidian sky, winking, precious. Is it the Crux? Alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and epsilon cruces — the Southern Cross, cross-hairs, the brightest stars in the Milky Way, easily visible from the southern hemisphere at any time of year? Carro dell’ostro, the ancient navigators called it, ‘southern chariot’: follow it, follow it anywhere and everywhere. The brightest point is Alpha Crucis — blue-tinged, a triple star. Reach out and place your right hand against the sky, make a fist, clench your hand tightly and align the first knuckle with the axis of the cross. Follow the tip of your thumb to find south.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.[5]

Stars like images, images like stars: we study them as guides, as truths — means of navigation, alignment, orientation. We try to read them for what they might reveal about the past, present, future. We chart points of meaning and hold the papers in our hands, tightly; the corners and edges become worn with use.

But light, or should I say illumination, always betrays itself. Blinking past the stars, peering closely into the darkness and I can see a faint circle, a careful incision of light that circumscribes this portion of the glittering firmament. And beyond it, the surrounding blackness has a different, deeper, starless quality. I have been mistaken, dazzled by the constellations. I see now that it is a discus, a saucer, a belt, a ring, a record of stars — not lodged, but suspended within the night sky: a hook and chain above, a tripod below hold it in place. This piece of sky is flat and solid, pierced with stars that act as vehicles for another source of light, unseen from where I stand shrouded in an invisible projected focus hood.

How easy it is to forget that, like meaning, photographs are not taken, but made. To look, to observe, to behold one’s station is to be suspended: a suspension — of — time — space — disbelief. To see is not to believe. Or should I say to not believe. Think of the Apollo lunar photographs, contested to this day. The shadows don’t fit! Too long, conflicting light sources! We couldn’t see the stars! What a great deal we want from the things we perhaps don’t quite understand.

Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet in the Milky Way?[6]

These balloons, eclipses, constellations — blind, haloed, and punctured with light — keep us on the ground, dreaming of what we cannot reach. They remind, aides-mémoires, they whisper: you, me, I, we are the stations. Any thing, they say, every thing may be eclipsed and overshadowed, if for a moment only. We thereby know its properties, magnitude in lack, and then in restoration. In the ability of things to come full circle: light — darkness — vision. The casual sublimity of the orb, the exquisite tyranny of the eclipse: no beginning or end, all beginnings and ends, in the same, breathtaking trajectory.

On the far side of the moon there is a crater called Niepce, named after Joseph Niécephore Niépce, inventor of heliography and the oldest surviving photograph. It is a worn crater formation, ‘with rim features that have been softened and rounded by subsequent deposits of ejecta’.[7] It is a careful, patient activity, to observe the features of the moon: one must follow the border of the sun’s illumination, the thin region between darkness and light where the shadows are longest — the shadow terminator, this place is called. In Niepce, it has been observed, there is a small crater shaped like a teardrop, likely created by a low-angle impact.

Tell me again, I ask the stations — tell me again how nothing is as it seems. Show me how fine a thing it is to spend one’s time securing moments of illumination for safe-keeping. Convince me — I want to believe — that every twinkling trace, every glance of light is an inscription, a burnishing, a tiny percussion in the surface of time: a still life, memento mori, to its passage. Take me there.

– Emily LaBarge

Noémie Goudal’s Southern Light Stations runs at The Photographers’ Gallery through 10th January 2016. More information on the exhibition can be found.

References

1. Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Face’, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000) p. 92.

2. Roland Barthes, ‘Leaving the Movie Theatre’, in The Rustle of Language, trans. by Richard Howard (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989) p. 346.

3. Donald Barthelme, ‘See the Moon?’, in Sixty Stories (London: Penguin, 2003) p.100.

4. Elizabeth Bishop, ‘The Man-Moth’, in Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (New York: The Library of America, 2008) p.10.

5. Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, in The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2009) p.519.

6. Henry David Thoreau, ‘Solitude’, in Walden, ed. by Joseph Wood Krutch (New York: Bantam, 1962) p.214.

7. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niepce_(crater)

Loose Associations Vol.1 – A New Publication From The Photographers’ Gallery
Loose AssociationsNew Writing

Loose Associations Vol.1 – A New Publication From The Photographers’ Gallery

Loose Associations is a new publication from The Photographers’ Gallery. Produced quarterly, in novella format, it offers a subjective and varied set of reflections on photography and image culture.

Loosely inspired by the gallery’s activities, this collection of essays, images, philosophies, fictions and other observations reflect a commitment to words and images; photography, publishing and distribution; thought and process. Through an eclectic mix of forms and styles this publication hopes to draw attention to ideas around photography and image-making and provoke new thinking within its myriad contexts and cultures: traditional, experimental, digital, networked.

The first edition takes the Autumn 2015 programme as a point of departure, presenting essays written and visual, accompanied by both loose and precise associations between ideas, technologies and approaches to making work. As well, we offer a collection of lists from various contributors. These seemingly random inventories – artistic, literary, absurd, political, banal, personal – offer an insight into the meaningful, inspiring, irrelevant or disruptive things and events encountered whilst working.

Visit our online store to purchase this publication, or pick it up at our bookshop or reception desk.

British Photography from the 1960s to Today
New Writing

British Photography from the 1960s to Today

Image: Work, Rest and Play: British Photography from the 1960s to Today, installation view, Beijing OCT-LOFT, Shenzhen, China

In this newly commissioned essay, Lucy Soutter offers a short history of the various key themes and approaches present within British photography of the last 50 years. The writing accompanies the international touring exhibition Work Rest and Play: British Photography from the 1960s to Today, curated by The Photographers’ Gallery, which tours through various locations in China during 2016.

In Work, Rest and Play we see a broad range of photographers turn their lenses on Britain and the British since the Second World War. The photographs range across various forms of British subject matter—people, places and things. Some of the images were made for an art context, some for commercial magazines, some as professional studio portraits and some to record events of social or political importance. Many of the photographs sit on the boundaries between these different categories, or occupy more than one at once. The images are distinctively British in a number of ways. In particular, they are dominated by a documentary approach that aims for objectivity while maintaining sensitivity to its subject matter. Even when they show poverty, social problems, vanity or vulgarity, they tend to do so with a certain warmth and even humour. The British have a centuries’ old tradition of self-criticism, satire and parody, grounded in a lively, argumentative popular press. Thus it is unsurprising that among these photographs we see a rich mix of attitudes, both celebratory and critical. The Britain they depict is an eclectic place where change is one of the only constants.

Work

The British class system was founded in work, and in the freedom from work available to the aristocratic land-owning class. By the 1950s, 60s and 70s, traditional class and labour roles were changing beyond recognition. Photographers could still capture places that had remained relatively unchanged for decades, such as Philip Jones Griffiths’ Welsh schoolboys, but many forms of class-based ritual and regalia were beginning to seem anachronistic or absurd. In his Only in England series of the 1960s, Tony Ray-Jones took on the role of social anthropologist to pinpoint particular foibles of the British. The most famous image in the series, Glyndebourne (1967) shows a wealthy couple eating a picnic in a cow field while attending an outdoor opera festival. Such contradictions create a visual essay about the shifting face of Britishness. In the 1970s, Patrick Ward pursued a similar project with Wish You Were Here: The English at Play. One of the strangest images shows an upper-class customer sitting astride an artificial horse whilst being fitted with bespoke jodhpurs. All three photographers were interested in the way that such fleeting details could help to capture the world around them as it changed.

Over the course of the 20th century, the industrial economy that had defined Britain at home and abroad was being dismantled piece by piece, creating social unrest as workers lost their jobs and unions lost their power. Photographers like Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen in the 1970s and Mark Neville in the 2010s, record working-class people in cities where the industrial work has gone. In its place, a new economy based on banking and information rose with the computer in the 1980s. Anna Fox provides a scathing portrait of the new forms of labour in her Work Stations series, depicting a culture of alienation, superficiality and excess. Other portrayals of contemporary labour are more approving. Evoking August Sander’s definitive typological series of German workers, Toby Glanville’s Actual Life series puts the workers front and centre, foregrounding their dignity, inviting us to reconsider the importance of traditional trades and crafts in the 21st century.

Leisure

The period spanned by this exhibition, from the 1950s to 2010s, witnessed a shift in leisure as well as work. As the nation’s economy gradually recovered after the war, individuals began to identify themselves less with their occupations and places of birth, and more in terms of their chosen hobbies, prized possessions, fashion choices and subcultures. These outlets allowed people to sidestep the social position into which they had been born, and to imagine themselves differently. Identity became partly a matter of choice and Britons participated enthusiastically in the choosing of theirs. After the war, Britain followed America in embracing youth culture, music and fashion. Photography did not merely record these trends, it helped to create them.

Fashion

In the 1960s, London designers, magazine editors and photographers set out to unseat Paris as capital of international fashion. New looks were accompanied by new ideas. By the mid-1960s, British Vogue, which had sold to an elite audience since the beginning of the 20thcentury, began to project a more edgy, youthful image. Nova, which ran from 1965-75, set out to be a radical, intellectual women’s magazine, with fashion spreads accompanied by articles on sex and politics. Terence Donovan’s fashion photography of the 1960s emphasised the daring new silhouettes and sometimes broke out of the photographer’s studio to show elegantly dressed models enjoying a playful freedom on the city streets. As Britain exported glamorous fictions like the James Bond films and the Avengers television series in the 1960s, London became the locus of international fantasies about a cosmopolitan lifestyle. This can be seen in the work of photographer James Barnor who moved to England from his native Ghana to produce striking cover images for the South African magazine Drum. Beautiful models of African heritage posed for Barnor in the latest cutting-edge jumpsuits and miniskirts against the backdrop of London locations. In reality, black Britons still encountered a great deal of prejudice, and black models had little exposure in home-grown magazines, but such images helped to make Drum a best-selling magazine in Africa and contributed to a global perception of London as a multicultural hub of style.

The Street

From the 1960s onwards, youth culture was increasing influenced by the street. Young people adapted styles to suit their own vision, and photographers avidly recorded the results. By the end of the 1970s, British street fashion had taken on a harder edge, with subcultural groups like punks, goths and skinheads adopting extreme looks in relation to their favoured music or politics. Derek Ridgers’ Night Club Portraits show young men and women whose do-it-yourself styles, drawing on influences as far ranging as 1920s Berlin cabaret performers, Japanese geishas and Native American warriors, set them apart from society in their own tribes. These fashions were deliberately incompatible with the expected uniform of any conventional job or role. Magazines like The Face and i-D (both founded in 1980) celebrated such extreme styles, with i-D regularly featuring “ real people” describing how they had achieved their unique looks. Although the British are proud of certain aspects of conformity—being, for example, a law-abiding people happy to wait patiently in queues—at the same time, we have a high tolerance for the eccentric. The British love of fashion connects to this affinity for standing out from the crowd. Fashion also allows even the most straight-laced audiences to imagine other possibilities, other realities. In Tim Walker’s fashion fantasies we see beautiful models enacting fairy tale scenarios – the pleasurable escapism of the images often more important than the clothes themselves. Jason Evans’ influential “ Strictly” fashion spread (first published in i-D in 1991 in collaboration with British stylist Simon Foxton) shows black models dressed as upper-class dandies, parading on real urban streets. The antithesis of the image of black youths as gangsters, these images create an alternate world into which viewers might choose to project themselves.

Celebrity

In the post-war period media attention shifted away from the activities of the aristocracy and onto the new heroes of the era of leisure: sportsmen, actors, musicians and models. Portrait photographers contributed to this trend by supplying striking images to appear in an ever-increasing number of newspapers and magazines. At its best, a celebrity portrait does not merely capture the appearance and personality of its sitter, but also conveys something of his or her importance within culture. Cecil Beaton, who had specialised in high society portraiture and fashion since the 1920s, applied all his skills of visual seduction to produce icons for the new age. His portrait of Mick Jagger makes the then-scandalously brash pop star look like an aesthete, a dandy and a poet. Although they were under-represented in the ranks of celebrity portraitists, female photographers made an outstanding contribution. Jane Bown’s long career spanned photojournalism as well as portraiture, including memorable images of many great British characters, from cockney actor and 60s sex-symbol Michael Caine to a whole range of highly influential women, including groundbreaking fashion designer Vivian Westwood, the first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher and the greatest British icon of the 20th century, Queen Elizabeth II.

Work, Rest and Play: British Photography from the 1960s to Today, installation view, Beijing OCT-LOFT, Shenzhen, China

Work, Rest and Play: British Photography from the 1960s to Today, installation view, Beijing OCT-LOFT, Shenzhen, China

Using black and white long after colour became a viable option, Bown worked mostly with natural light to photograph faces with great psychological intensity. Seen primarily in popular newspapers such as the Observer, Bown’s pictures allowed ordinary people to feel like they really knew the celebrities depicted. Linda McCartney’s work pushed this sense of personal connection even further, with a more casual mode of portraiture that reflected the spirit of the 1970s. Married to Paul of music supergroup The Beatles, Linda McCartney was in a privileged position to produce images that were simultaneously family snapshots and celebrity portraits. This new intimacy had a great appeal for viewers, offering a sense of authenticity. The fascination with celebrities has continued to dominate the British media into the 21st century, pushing photographers to seek fresh, unexpected approaches. Spencer Murphy’s portraits combine formality and intimacy, offering us an opportunity to probe the faces of sportspeople, actors and authors who often seem absorbed in their own private thoughts.

Everyday People

Now displaced by the ubiquitous camera phone, high street photographic portrait studios once allowed anyone to imagine him or herself as a star. In his South London Brixton studio, Harry Jacobs catered to a clientele of first, second and third-generation Caribbean immigrants from the 1950s-90s. Photography was one of the ways that new Britons marked their assimilation into—and difference from—British culture at large. Although England welcomed an influx of workers from the Commonwealth to feed the growing economy of the 1960s, in practice white British communities did not always welcome the new arrivals. Although the techniques and poses Jacobs used mirrored those of every high street photographer in the land, the huge archive that he left after 40 years of work celebrates the changing ways that Britons of many races have presented themselves as the country has moved towards greater inclusiveness.

The Documentary Impulse

We could argue that the documentary impulse underlying so much British photography has its roots in the national character. As essayist George Orwell put it in 1941, “ In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in.” In photographic terms, this has meant a preference for images that offer a sense of immediacy, simplicity and truth. The documentary approach is grounded in the grand projects of 19th century photography: recording and archiving the world as well as revealing social injustice.

These 19th century documents shared a visual style that appears as straightforward as possible, with no obvious staging or manipulation. Documentary photography has been so closely linked with the quest for truth, that viewers sometimes forget that each seemingly objective image is the product of a particular set of subjective decisions.

The development of documentary photography reflected the development of another realist form popular in Britain, the novel. And indeed, it may be helpful to think about British photography in relation to literary fiction. Like novels, documentary photographs may show us the lives of others while also teaching us about ourselves. They present a worldview that can be satisfyingly realistic, but is actually grounded in the sensibility of a particular individual. A photographer has an enormous number of choices not only in terms of his or her subject matter, but also in terms of point of view, distance, angle, lighting etc. The events and people shown may have actually existed in front of the camera, but the resulting documentary photographs reveal a selected version of reality, whether it is presented in a deadpan style or with a perceptible twist or transformation.

Expressive vs. Social Documentary 

The photographers in this exhibition inflect documentary in a number of ways. Philip Jones Griffiths, best known as an incisive photographer of the Vietnam war, also made compassionate documents of the Britain that he saw changing around him. Shot from the 1950s onwards, his Recollections capture both everyday scenes and historic moments with empathy and tenderness. Some documentary projects have more pointed political intent. Finnish-born Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen worked as part of the photographic collective Amber, dedicated to documenting working class experience in the North of England. Her Byker series, begun in 1969, documents the human cost of urban redevelopment in Newcastle upon Tyne. Choosing to live among her subjects rather than view them from an external position, Konttinen captured vibrant moments in the lives of people ordinarily denied a place in public representation. The documentary photographs by Jamaican-born photographer Vanley Burke include both expressive street photography and politicized records of significant events. His series By the Rivers of Birmingham shows precious moments of pleasure, such as dodgem car racing at the fairground, as well as political struggles in the streets.

On the Edge of Satire

Photographs can walk a fine line between sincerity and irony. Very slight adjustments in the way an image is made or received can make it teeter between celebration and critique. Post-war British photographers have often enjoyed exploring this tension, mobilising photography as a medium for satire. Colour photography, with its exaggerated tones, provides a heightened visual vocabulary to explore the excesses of British culture. John Hinde Ltd. produced commercial photographic postcards of many of Britain’s most beloved working-class holiday spots, from the garish splendour of Butlins holiday camps to a sprawl of seaside caravans. Hinde intended these images to celebrate British leisure and beauty spots. Yet when they were first produced in the 1960s, such images were shockingly bright in relation to the familiar black and white picture postcards. Both then and now, some viewers would look at these images with pleasurable nostalgia for the places depicted, others with horror at their kitsch vulgarity, while still others would enjoy feeling both these emotions at once.

Work, Rest and Play: British Photography from the 1960s to Today, installation view, Beijing OCT-LOFT, Shenzhen, China

Work, Rest and Play: British Photography from the 1960s to Today, installation view, Beijing OCT-LOFT, Shenzhen, China

Photographer Martin Parr has been the most prominent photographer to mobilise this kind of mixed response for art purposes. Following in the footsteps of Tony Ray-Jones and Patrick Ward, Parr sets out to capture the characteristics of the current age. Working in colour from the early 1980s, Parr has turned an affectionate yet satirical eye on Britons’ everyday behaviour, from the gluttony of seaside hotdog eaters to the vanity and exhibitionism of girls with hats the size of cartwheels at the Ascot Horse Races. John Tonks pursues a related project, though with a slightly more muted tone, in his case exploring how Britishness may still be perceived in the farthest reaches of the colonies, the remaining British territories in the South Atlantic. His Empire series, begun in 2007, locates Union Jack flags in the most unlikely of places and provides a wistful view of the customs and aspects of British material culture that appear very out-of-place in their distant contexts.

Avoiding Exploitation

A central question for documentary photographers is how to avoid exploiting the people they depict. Photographers have addressed this by focusing on their own community (Burke), embedding themselves within a community (Konttinen) or by exaggerating their own position to make a point (Parr). Nigel Shafran avoided depicting people at all, in a series of luminous still life images entitled Supermarket Checkouts. These improvised arrangements are in some senses object portraits of the customers who made them. Mark Neville came up with another ingenious solution to the issue when he completed a 2004 residency photographing the community of the former ship-building town Port Glasgow, Scotland. Eight thousand copies of the book Neville created to document the community were delivered by hand to the eight thousand families who lived there, and no further copies of the publication were made available to anyone. As well as questioning the way that photographic documents are usually circulated to an outside audience, this allows the pictures to “ belong” more fully to the people depicted in them.

The Conceptual Turn

From the 1970s onwards, the documentary impulse in British photography has taken a conceptual turn, partly in relation to developments in contemporary art, and partly as a result of the way photography has been taught within universities. Until the 1980s, if photography was taught in universities at all, it was regarded as a technical rather than artistic specialism. However, from the 1970s new ideas in photographic education and new movements that included post-structuralist, feminist and psychoanalytic theory, led many conceptual artists to turn to photography because it seemed free from the academic baggage of painting and sculpture. For this generation of artists, photography supplied an image that could be combined with text to produce a new kind of art, intellectually and politically engaged. A key task of this kind of work was to challenge photographic representation itself. One of the results of this project has been that photography now rivals—if not surpasses—painting and sculpture as an ambitious contemporary art form.

Paul Seawright brought a conceptual approach to bear in his Sectarian Murders series, made in the 1970s. Colour images, made to place the viewer right at the heart of the scene, document the banal locations where various murders occurred during “ The Troubles” – the conflict in Northern Ireland often defined along religious grounds between Protestants and Catholics. Seawright captioned the images with newspaper reports of the deaths, but removed all reference to the religions of the victims, all of whom had been murdered for their perceived religious affiliation. In making the deaths generic, Seawright focuses on the cruel, arbitrary nature of the conflict, and challenges the role of news photography and newspaper copy in the production of history and memory. Karen Knorr also brought image and text together with political intent in her Gentlemen series (1981-83), shot in London’s most exclusive, elitist all-male clubs. Made during the Falklands war, at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative policies were in the ascendant, the project uses a number of different kinds of text to explore the class and gender relations that seemed hardly to have changed since such clubs were first founded in the 18th century. Conceptual and political, Knorr’s photographic work is also strikingly pictorial, with view camera images carefully composed according to compositional principles drawn from painting, and the interiors and furnishings of the clubs evoking classical art history.

A New Pictorialism

A combination of lush visuality and conceptual content has run through the majority of British art photography made since the 1980s. This approach has been reinforced by the fact that many of the most influential photographers (including Seawright and Knorr) have also had careers as influential educators. Most works are produced in series, guided by a single rationale. In the 1990s, the relationship between image and concept sometimes became more oblique or poetic. Like Seawright, Tom Hunter has revisited the sites of news stories, but in his case local London headlines are restaged with reference to the compositions of Old Master paintings. Thus a woman reading her eviction notice plays on a painting by Johannes Vermeer, and a girl drowned in a Hackney canal evokes Sir John Everett Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia. Although the work is still political, with its focus on the experience of working-class people, this connection to art history earned Hunter the first retrospective exhibition of photography at the National Gallery, London, in 2006.

Like Hunter, Simon Roberts also makes large-scale pictures with the physical presence of paintings. His 2007-08 series We English returns to the subject matter of Tony Ray-Jones and Patrick Ward—the English at leisure—but places them within a larger frame. Roberts’ large-format view camera includes all the details of people and their quirky activities, and sets them within the broader sweep of the British countryside. His pictorial approach allows the photographs to be sociological studies and grand landscapes at the same time. Similarly, many contemporary British photographs provide a twist on the traditional genres of landscape, portraiture, still life and history painting, drawing links between photography and a broader history of art. Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, the number of gallery and museum exhibitions of photography increased rapidly, the market for photographs has expanded exponentially and photography has become an increasing popular subject for university study.

Artistic Research

In recent years, many British art photographers have approached their work with various kinds of research. Additional texts in the form of titles, wall text, soundtracks, artists’ statements, press releases or catalogue essays often circulate around the images, providing a discursive context to deepen their meaning. Claire Strand’s Gone Astray series includes studio portraits of residents of Clerkenwell (the part of London where Charles Dickens set his novel Oliver Twist), accompanied by fragments of narrative written by the artist. The result was a kind of personal diary as well as a product of historical and cultural research into the area. Dryden Goodwin’s Caul series combines street photography with drawing. Photographs of passengers on London public transport are traced over with an agitated red line that evokes the restless movement of the eye across the surface of an object. Part of a larger exploration of the relationship between photography and drawing, these are meditations on the way we look at strangers. Sometimes photographic research is less analytical and more intuitive. Stephen Gill’s Talking to Ants (2009-15) involved the photographer placing insects and objects into the body of his camera to produce unique layered images that evoke dream states or an “ ant’s eye-view” of his East London neighbourhood. Such images show that contemporary artistic research can also be personal and poetic.

Video

Emerging with the first portable video cameras in the early 1970s, video art has always been defined in part by what it is not: not television, not cinema and not still photography. Photographic artists sometimes turn to video when a sense of duration can add a crucial impact to their work. Gillian Wearing has worked both with still and moving image, inviting members of the public to expose themselves in surprising ways. Wearing has invited strangers to tell secrets, make confessions, or in the case of Sixty Minute Silence, attempt to sit completely still for an entire hour. Playing on the long exposure times of 19th century photographic portraiture, this piece is also amusing with a twist of cruelty; there is something pleasurable in seeing a large group of police officers forced to sit still. Their inevitable restlessness gives the piece a building sense of tension.

Work, Rest and Play: British Photography from the 1960s to Today, installation view, Beijing OCT-LOFT, Shenzhen, China

Work, Rest and Play: British Photography from the 1960s to Today, installation view, Beijing OCT-LOFT, Shenzhen, China

If Wearing’s video is a study at the edge of stillness, Melanie Manchot’s Tracer is a celebration of reckless movement. Part of an annual art commission to respond to one of the world’s most popular half marathons, Manchot’s piece shows 10 traceurs or parkour runners, climbing, leaping and flipping their way along the course of the Great North Run. Filmed in long shots, the video provides unexpected perspectives on the landscape and architecture surrounding Newcastle upon Tyne and invites us to imagine ourselves in a different relationship to the space around us. Tracer creates a visual experience that still photography simply could not provide.

Expanding Photography

In the past decade, British artists using photography have begun to expand their horizons, exploring the terrain of sculpture, installation, painting and performance as well as video and film. Lorenzo Vitturi’s Dalston Anatomy considers photography in dialogue with other art forms such as sculpture and set design. Vitturi made the work in response to the lively environment of his local street market in Dalston, East London. While some of the photographs in the series record the market, vendors and customers directly, most present montages and assemblages Vitturi has created in his studio with market foods, consumer goods, fabrics, images and rubbish. The photographs were first displayed in the form of a book, accompanied by poems by local writer Sam Berkson and each bound in different African fabrics. It was later displayed at The Photographers’ Gallery as an environment with installed sculptural elements recalling the market stalls, and Berkson’s poetry printed on a large carpet. Made by an Italian responding to a London market with elements from Africa and indeed all over the world, Dalston Anatomy is one artist’s playful response to the riot of colour and culture of his local environment.

What does it mean to be British? Many of the photographers in this exhibition have pursued this question explicitly, in projects with titles such as, “ Only in England,” “ The English at Play,” and “ We English.” Together with images drawn from high street portrait studios and from the pages of popular magazines, as well as from the most ambitious contemporary photographic art, these projects trace a nation that is characterised above all by its diversity and resilience. If we wanted to choose one project emblematic of the exhibition, it might be David Spero’s Churches, depicting some of the extremely unlikely spaces used as places of worship by the burgeoning communities of evangelical Christians who have come to London from all over the world. Repurposed and reused, these former shops, pubs, warehouses and cinemas demonstrate that the human spirit can thrive in the most unlikely locations, and that our past provides the raw material for our future.

Throughout the exhibition there is a delight in the variety of contradictory ways that Britons present themselves and choose to live their lives, and a celebration of British creativity and imagination. Much of the work is critical of the nation depicted, much is celebratory, and many works combine the two impulses. As a whole, the exhibition demonstrates that along with music and fashion, photography has been a field in which Britain has made both a complex and accomplished contribution.

Lucy Soutter

Lucy Soutter is an artist, critic and art historian. Her publications include Why Art Photography? (London: Routledge, 2013).

What is 21st Century Photography?
New WritingPhotography Science and Technology

What is 21st Century Photography?

In this newly commissioned essay, Daniel Rubinstein answers one of photography’s most complicated questions. In our contemporary image-world of computers and algorithms, what are the key philosophical questions proposed by the medium of photography today?

Fifty years before photography was officially unleashed unto the world, in answering the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1784), Immanuel Kant wrote: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’. Kant was writing this at a time when a thousand years of Feudalism were ending, and he strived to define the emerging world order based on scientific method rather than religion, representational democracy rather than autocracy and market economy rather than bartering.

Enlightenment meant a clean break from the dark ages and a resounding turn towards reason, logic, and rationality. This rupture with the past and the launch of a new era of science, capitalism and democracy, was summarised by Kant in the motto ‘Sapere Aude!’ – ‘have courage to use your own understanding!’ The invention of photography that flowed from this scientific revolution cemented the final break with the medieval iconography of saints and cherubs.

The photo-graphic image combined some of the key attributes of the Enlightenment: rational method capable of producing identical results under controlled conditions, industrial processes that replaced physical labour with mechanised production, and the delirium of mass-replication that mimics the infinite circulation of commodities in a capitalist market. In other words, the technical image captured the key scientific, political and ethical tendencies of industrial capitalism and presented them to the eye as an image, inaugurating along the way the age of aesthetic modernism.

The reason photography was the most suitable visual form to reflect on the changing face of society, as it was reshaped by industrialisation, is that it itself is a product of the same industrial processes that replaced human and animal muscles with motors and pistons, accelerated movement to ultrasonic speeds and exchanged craftsmanship with mass-production. Photography emerged out of this melting pot of bodies, energies and machines as the visual figuration of a social order that made representation and subjectivity the cornerstone of its scientific, political and economic activities. A photograph of a cat represents a real cat according to the same logic that maintains that paper money represents gold bullion (gold standard), a member of parliament represents her constituents and H2O represents water.

Image: Zhanna Bobrakova

Image: Zhanna Bobrakova

However, in the 21st Century this representational world order – inaugurated by Newton’s laws of motion, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and parliamentary (representational) democracy – the “ photographic camera” has already come to the end of its life. Even if some parts of this form of photography are still visible, they are in a state of advanced decay; maintaining a holding pattern, while simultaneously being transformed by a new set of forces. The ‘Age of Information’ is characterised by the emergence of another kind of machine, one that replicates the activities and the processes not of the human body, but of the brain.

Just as during the previous ‘Industrial Age’, machines replaced physical labour not by copying animal locomotion (airplanes don’t flap their wings like birds) but by utilising different sources of energy (petroleum) and different processes (internal combustion), the new machines that we refer to as ‘computers’ do not operate within the categories of human reason, such as, for example, dialectics, subjectivity, or representation. Quantum physics did not obliterate Newton’s laws, but showed that these laws apply only to a narrow segment of reality. Quantitative easing did not obliterate paper money, but annulled any possibility of money representing gold bullion or any real assets. The Arab Spring did not obliterate representational democracy, but exposed a connection between the democratic vote and fundamentalism, and computers did not obliterate reason and representation, but augmented them with fuzzy logic, undecidability, artificial intelligence and the paradoxes of Turing machines.

In this new age of thinking machines, algorithmic processing, and vast computational speeds, a dramatic change is happening to the visual field. The industrial age was an age of universal visibility – as Foucault demonstrated by offering the examples of the school, the factory, the hospital and the barracks, which operated in the same visual order of perspectival hierarchy. Photography had a clear-cut role in this optical regime, as Susan Sontag noticed: ‘cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the working of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for the masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers)’.

The only thing that remained unrepresentable under the Western eye was, in Marx’s phrase ‘the hidden abode of production’: the secret of profit-making remained classified. Even photography was unable to shine the disinfecting power of sunlight onto this secret, because the process that produces capital is also the very process by which photography itself is produced, for as we have seen, photography and capital operate by means of technology, mass delirium, reproduction and infinite exchange.

Image: Hengxi Li

Image: Hengxi Li

The demise of the industrial age is curtains for the spectacle of representation: visual surveillance is replaced with predictive policing, industrial processes replaced with trading algorithms, armies replaced with remote controlled killer robots and perspectival geometry replaced with the flat topology of the computer screen.

These changes do not mean that suddenly, what we see in front of our eyes does not matter, but that many more things that matter are outside our human field of view. The question is, what becomes of photography when the locus of power shifts from the optical nerve to the fibre-optic cable? What becomes of the public space – the heart of any European city – when it is invisibly but relentlessly morphed by multinational capital into privately owned space with public access, and when sovereignty, citizenship and autonomy find themselves under threat from multi-national corporations and when, as Andrea Philips wrote, the changing concept of the public (space) reconfigures how we understand the performance of truth, judgement and rights?

Sadly, the answer has to be ‘not much has changed’. As a recent visit to a graduate photography exhibition confirms, photography is still, above all else, the universal face of representation. To this day photography’s carte-de-visite proudly proclaims that it can take any aspect of the world and present it to the eye as an image. Indeed, is there anything that cannot be shown in a photograph? The surface of a comet? Check. Someone’s pale ass reflected in the bathroom mirror? Check. A puddle of urine under a hospital bed in a shantytown? Check. Teenagers on the beach looking wistfully into the distance? Triple check!

Image: Hana Vojackova

Image: Hana Vojackova

But this is not all, identical images also press upon us from bus stops, magazines, mobile phones, notice boards, tablets and bags of cat food, to such an extent that it is often hard to know if you are looking at a gallery wall, or at the shop window of Primark. The astonishing diversity of subjects, events and situations that photography is able to attend to, suggests at first sight that its scope is unlimited and its reach universal. And yet, these ostensibly Technicolor riches hide their own dark secrets, perhaps best summarised by drawing an analogy to Henry Ford’s remark ‘you can have the Ford T in any colour as long as it’s black’. In the context of photography, this means that you can have any photography you like, on any device, topic or subject, as long as it is a representation of some thing or other.

The problem is that in a post-Fordist society the locus of political agency and of cultural relevance has shifted from the object – as visually arresting as it might be – to the processes that (re)produce and distribute the object. Processes, however, by their own nature, are less visible and less representational than objects. For that reason, it seems to me that if photography mainly concerns itself with representations of objects in space, it is losing its relevance in a world in which speed, acceleration, distribution and self-replication acquire a significance that overshadows the visual appearance of spaces.

In the 20th Century photography existed on a printed page, mimicking in the perspectival organisation of its elements the hierarchical organisation of a centrally governed society, with its focal point located in the subjectivity of the observer. In the 21st Century this arrangement is just as quaint as piecemeal production in the age of conveyer belt assembly. The photographic print disappeared everywhere apart from some galleries and nostalgic photography departments. In its place there is now a luminous screen that has one of its sides facing the human, bathing her in blue light, and its other side remotely plugged into an unimaginably large stream of data, constantly worked and reworked by algorithms that are written and re-written by invisible and unknown puppet masters – our real rulers.

From time to time these algorithms pluck a few data packages out of this interminable stream and give them a visual form that resembles what we used to call ‘a photograph’. But this resemblance is superficial to say the least. The four horsemen of the photographic apocalypse: Index, Punctum, Document, and Representation can no more account for this process than a printed page can explain the operation of a computer screen. This is not to suggest that the algorithmic image is somehow immaterial or inhuman, but rather to propose that both materiality and humanity must be re-evaluated in the light of these bio-techno-political developments.

And yet, there is still an image, and the image can be of something or other, for example a cat, a politician or a beheading, and this image can still be fascinating as we know many images to be. But in a meta-critical sense – a sense beyond the manner in which we normally consider and criticise images – this fascination appears to be the defining quality of photography, precisely because the word ‘photography’ today names not another visual form of representation, but an immersive economy that offers an entirely new way to inhabit materiality and its relation to bodies, machines and brains. Johnny Golding christened this new materiality ‘Ana-materialism’. We can also simply call it ‘The Now’.

Image: Dario Srbic

Image: Dario Srbic

Image: William Augustus Webster

Image: William Augustus Webster

Within this absorbing ‘always on’ and ‘everywhere at the same time’ ana-materiality, the world does not come before the image, nor is it produced by the image. Rather, photography is the visual figuration of a new layer of consciousness – in which new relationships to space and time, and therefore new categories of thought, play, art, and agency are emerging.

It would be hasty therefore to dismiss photography as a heritage practice from the industrial age. Above all else, photography, as the visual incarnation of the algorithm, is shaping our world everywhere, and from time to time we can even glimpse the workings of this process in the images that it throws up. But just like the pebbles scattered by an ocean wave, these images are simply the by-products of a crushing force that acts according to a logic of its own. There is, however, no need to read too much into the shapes created by these pebbles, but instead consider that the urgent task is to learn how to surf this wave. As Gilles Deleuze said: ‘There is no need for fear or hope, only to look for new weapons’.

21st Century photography is this wave, characterised as a continuous process of re-shaping visual forms out of data. It has little in common with prints in black frames – these coffins of photography. It will not be found in the ‘sixty inches from the floor to the centre of the image’ rule that still passes for curating in some circles, nor in the ‘eye level’ arrangement of images on walls, that reinforces the rhetorical tropes of perspectival painting inherited from the Renaissance.

And 21st Century photography has nothing in common with the hypocritical moralism of the post-colonial document, that relies on the same representational paradigm that made colonialism possible. In short, 21st Century Photography is not the representation of the world, but the exploration of the labor practices that shape this world through mass-production, computation, self-replication and pattern recognition. Through it we come to understand that the ‘real world’ is nothing more than so much information plucked out of chaos: the randomised and chaotic conflation of bits of matter, strands of DNA, sub-atomic particles and computer code.

In photography one can glimpse how the accidental meetings of these forces are capable of producing temporary, meaningful assemblages that we call ‘images’. In the 21st Century, photography is not a stale sight for sore eyes, but the inquiry into what makes something an image. As such, photography is the most essential task of art in the current time.

Dr Daniel Rubinstein is the course leader of MA Photography at Central Saint Martins and editor of the Journal Philosophy of Photography.

New Writing

Human Rights, Human Wrongs and Recognition Before the Law

Anthony Faramelli visits the Human Rights Human Wrongs exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery and asks, how far exactly we have come in the ongoing struggle for racial equality?

Image: Charles Moore, Birmingham, Alabama, United States of America, May 3 1963, The Black Star Collection, Ryerson Image Centre

February 2015 marked a monumental anniversary in the history of human rights, in particular the American Civil Rights Movement and the global struggle for racial equality. Fifty years ago saw both the assassination of Malcolm X as well as the historic voting rights protests in Selma, Alabama. While Malcolm X supported universal voting rights, he also maintained a deep scepticism towards voting in a corrupt and racist system having any real ability to effect transformation, and instead advocated change by “ any means necessary”, if and when voting failed. This stood in stark contrast to the ideology driving the Selma protests, which relied on the belief that full participation in representative democracy was the only road to full equality. It is the tension that exists between these polemic positions that drives the two events marking this anniversary, the “ Human Rights Human Wrongs” exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery and the release of Ava DuVernay’s movie about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, Selma.

Taking the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), particularly Article Six, “ Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law,” as its point of departure, “ Human Rights Human Wrongs” consists of over 250 images from the Black Star Collection documenting the political upheavals that have largely framed global human rights debates. Bookended by the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide, the exhibition begins by contextualising the debates through a juxtaposition of images documenting the horrors of colonialism, segregation and genocide, linking these singular images to the infamous photos of the Holocaust published in LIFE magazine on 7 May 1945, the same images displayed at the historic San Francisco security conference where the United Nations Charter was drafted.

As the exhibition’s curator, Mark Sealy, noted in an essay he wrote to accompany the exhibition, the end of World War II marked the beginning of both the movement to de-colonisation as well as the American Civil Rights Movement. The horrors of the Nazi regime generated an unprecedented political will to guarantee the protection of human rights and to prevent future atrocities of that magnitude. For the African-American and colonial soldiers returning to a subaltern position at home after fighting fascism in Europe, the political urgency to guarantee universal human rights was especially sharp. Many viewed the formation of the U.N. and the subsequent Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the global opportunity to move beyond the morally bankrupt racism, exploitation and oppression perpetuated by Europe and America. This was well-articulated by key anti-colonial leaders and intellectuals such as Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Senegalese poet, statesman, resistance fighter, socialist, and influential theorist of Négritude, and Frantz Fanon, the doctor, psychiatrist, political philosopher, author and anti-colonial resistance fighter whose work largely inaugurated the field of postcolonial theory.

“ When looking at the images included in Human Rights Human Wrongs it’s easy to think of these issues as “ happening over there.” However, it’s important to remember that 1948 also marks the beginning of Windrush, the mass immigration to the U.K. from the British colonies.”

The Allied forces’ message was that they were fighting for universal freedoms. This created a tension with the European and American contradictory positions to maintain their colonial empires and segregation, while espousing the liberal humanist values of the U.N. and the UDHR. “ Human Rights Human Wrongs” is most explicit in expositing this obvious contradiction through its inclusion of a segment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous final speech, “ I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” given just one day before he was assassinated. In the segment, Luther King bluntly exclaims, ‘All we say to America is be true to what you say on paper.’ At the time, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Martin Luther King’s civil rights organisation, was solely focused on realising Article Six of the UDHR by having legislation passed to ensure full legal personhood, including ending segregation and guaranteeing the rights to vote, work, and own property. This is the issue highlighted in the movie Selma.

Selma follows the series of protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC in Selma, Alabama in March 1965, that resulted in President Johnson passing The Voting Rights Act, granting universal voting rights to all U.S. citizens, regardless of race. While the movie certainly takes dramatic license, it nevertheless faithfully illustrates the driving forces behind the SCLC, as well as most other human rights movements, and their absolute reliance on European humanism.

Humanism is the philosophic position that emphasises the value and agency of human beings. The philosophy focuses on the assumed scientific and rational set of assumptions that situates “ man” as unique in the history of the world, and seeks to secure its domination through a rational system of governance and legislation. In its most idealist iterations, humanism gave birth to the utopian thinking that drove the American and French revolutions, democracy, capitalism and communism (insofar as both ideologies purport a scientific and egalitarian means to order societies), and the United Nations. In this way the UDHR, the de-colonisation movements, and the Civil Rights Movement seemed finally to deliver the Enlightenment’s promise of universal equality and freedom. In fact Selma leaves the viewer with the uncomplicated certainty that justice was finally done when the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

The problem is that the story does not end with the SCLC victory in 1965. I have written elsewhere how, in the U.S., it is impossible to supress the continuing racial drama that increasingly results in the “ lawful” killings of people of colour. While the commonly used figure from the MXGM study, that in the U.S. every twenty-eight hours a black person is killed by a police officer, security guard or vigilante has been contested, there can be little doubt that the rate of lawful killings of black and brown people, predominately male and often unarmed, at the hands of the police remains a persistent problem in the U.S. This has been made poignantly clear in the last few weeks with the publication of the Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report that follows a summer of violent race protests after a young unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer. In fact even The Voting Rights Act has been recently repealed, opening the door to new racist, prohibitive voting ID laws.

America is not unique in its continued failure to fully guarantee universal human rights. The urgency driving most postcolonial work is the continued exploitation of the former colonies by other means, what is commonly referred to as neo-colonialism. To take Algeria as an illustrative example, the veteran of the Algerian War for independence, Marie-Aimée Helie-Lucas’ essay, “ Women, Nationalism, and Religion in the Algerian Liberation Struggle” in Rethinking Fanon. This writing documents how post-colonial Algeria has been marked by the problems of unequal gender relationships, religious fundamentalism and neo-colonial exploitation – a place where instead, crony capitalism and illiberal dictatorships have flourished.

Human Rights Human Wrongs Exhibition Installation, 2015 © Kate Elliott

Human Rights Human Wrongs Exhibition Installation, 2015 © Kate Elliott

The point here is not that the humanist promise of universal rights is still yet to come, but that what is needed is a critical understanding of scientific humanism with regard to its reliance on legislative systems. It is here where “Human Rights Human Wrongs” has the greatest critical effect. By ending the exhibition with the Rwandan Genocide, the viewer is forced to critically assess the guiding ideology of the United Nations, an agency that was impotent when it faced the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Holocaust.

The war in Rwanda has its roots firmly in its colonial history. Before the colonial encounter, the Hutus and Tutsis were class, not racial, groups and were able to coexist without any overt conflicts. However part and parcel of the Belgian colonial project, under the pretence of “scientific humanism,” was to essentialise the two groups into racial categories. The colonists claimed that the Tutsis were closer related to white Europeans and gave them domination over the Hutus. As such, the civil war and genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus that followed Rwandan independence was a direct result of a form of humanist pseudo-science that narrated white Europeans as having the “burden” of civilizing the rest of the world. Equally, humanist inter-governmental organizations like the U.N. proved to be unable to stop the killing. Ending the exhibition with the Rwandan Genocide begs the question, how can an unjust system dismantle itself?

The exhibition hints at this critical stance by the curious inclusion of Frantz Fanon’s two most influential books, Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. Both books were immensely influential to the more radical figures of the Civil Rights Movements like Malcolm X and Huey Newton, who founded the Black Panthers. Like so many other anti-colonial figures, Fanon was a decorated war veteran who fought for France against the Axis in the Second World War. After the war, he studied medicine and psychology in Lyon. Black Skin, White Masks is the psychological study of the effects of racism and colonialism that he conducted during his studies and was originally intended to be his PhD thesis. After completing his education, Fanon became the resident psychiatrist at the Blida Hospital in colonial Algeria. As the anti-colonial movement gained momentum in Algeria, Fanon transformed the hospital into a staging ground for the resistance fighters until he finally resigned his post to become more active in the anti-colonial war against France. Fanon died before Algeria won its independence, but in his short life he managed to write three more books on race, colonialism and revolution that would go on to inspire generations of resistance.

Throughout his oeuvre, Fanon articulated a critique of European humanism that successfully avoided becoming the same anti-humanism that, while critiquing it, reproduced basic humanist assumptions. Rather, his critique incorporated a deconstruction of the European humanist myth. In this way what Fanon was trying to do was to assert a new universalism that was defined by its capacity for critical reflection. Far from rejecting all European notions, Fanon instead chose to situate his project within the centre of European ideology, re-articulating their structures in a way that subverted the effects of marginalisation by demonstrating how the very existence of the “ Negro” – the colonised or third world subject – deconstructs European and American hypocrisy. Politics that displace others to the margins can only be undone by re-articulating the structure of differences that existing hegemonic (colonial) structures sought, or seek, to repress. Strategies for disrupting the power of these foundational myths of the west (humanist ideologies of the Universal Man, reason and progression) can be found inside the ambivalence, the structural cracks, that these myths try to suppress. Throughout his life Fanon was concerned with destabilising repressive power structures and effecting change from within hegemonic discourses, in order to produce a future beyond the limitations imposed by Europe and America.

The inclusion of Fanon’s key texts in the exhibition challenges the viewer to question the limits of our current international system of governance. The urgency of this critical position is especially poignant when viewing the exhibition from the vantage point of London. When looking at the images included in “ Human Rights Human Wrongs” it’s easy to think of these issues as “ happening over there.” However, it’s important to remember that 1948 also marks the beginning of Windrush, the mass immigration to the U.K. from the British colonies.

After the Second World War Britain was desperately in need of a new workforce and opened the door to mass immigration from the West Indies and South Asia, creating a complicated and often turbulent history of race relations and multiculturalism in the U.K. Much of the contemporary discourse around issues of race and racism tends to read the U.K. as being relatively free of the problems that plague other countries like the United States. I’ve written elsewhere on how Britain continues to define itself through the lens of a dehumanised colonial “ other,” and on the growing problem of lawful police killings of unarmed black men here in London. It is for these reasons that it is especially important for us to think through the issues raised by Frantz Fanon.

Fanon’s clinical work presented in his final book, The Wretched of the Earth, documented the psychological damage done to both the oppressed as well as the oppressors within racist societies, this brings into sharp focus the exigency to address these issues in the U.K. As Mathew Ryder noted, the Mark Duggan verdict has set a dangerous precedent. The Metropolitan Police killing Duggan may have been lawful because of officer V53’s “ honest but mistaken belief that he was more dangerous than he actually was.” That is to say that the killing of an unarmed black male here in Britain, just like in the U.S., can now be legally justified due to the racist assumption that black men are inherently dangerous and violent. If the British population is to prevent the dangerous precedent set by the Duggan killing from metastasising, the onus is on us to critically reassess our reliance on legal representation as the sole means of promoting human rights.

Dr. Anthony Faramelli is an independent researcher working at the intersection of psychosocial theory and political philosophy. He has written on politics and postcolonial theory for Critical Legal Thinking and Truth-Out.

New Writing

Curator Mark Sealy Introduces Human Rights Human Wrongs

The exhibition Human Rights Human Wrongs, currently on view at The Photographers’ Gallery, features more than 200 original press prints, drawn from the prestigious Black Star collection of twentieth century photoreportage.

The exhibition explores what role such images play in helping us understand the case for human rights, and further addresses the legacy of how photographs have historically functioned in raising awareness of international conflict. Here, Mark Sealy, the curator of the exhibition, focuses on some of the historical context and background to the exhibition.

Human Rights Human Wrongs Exhibition Installation, 2015 © Kate Elliott

Human Rights Human Wrongs Exhibition Installation, 2015 © Kate Elliott

The guiding principle for this exhibition is Article Six of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proposes, “ Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere, as a person before the law”. Through this presentation, I specifically wanted to question what this human right to recognition actually means –especially today – and to make audiences really think about how such recognition is generated and controlled, particularly in terms of image production and circulation.

In essence, I wanted to unpick an essentially imperialist notion of power and examine the mechanics of how such notions work. So much of the world, in terms of how we understand it, and specifically in terms of the imagery we are presented with, is conceived from a very particular tradition of Eurocentric concerns, and any enquiry into photojournalistic practice and its impact on humanitarian objectives, has to necessarily interrogate not only the kind of images we are presented with, but where, when and how they are distributed.

Fundamental to the structure of the exhibition was also the desire to move away from presenting a didactic or linear perspective on history. Seeing things in isolation can be really problematic and so I wanted to unhinge some of our so-called definitive moments and set them within a wider, more relative framework. For example, we often talk about the Civil Rights Movement as if it was a localised incident, but it’s vital to consider it within the larger context of African liberation struggles more generally; to understand the simultaneous efforts and other political objectives towards freedom and democracy at play in different parts of the world and to recognise the shared ideological struggle behind these movements.

In the same vein, it felt important to work against the notion of any event or movement being symbolised by a single photograph. So here we display the wider sequence of images around the more ubiquitous or celebrated shots generally distributed, with the aim to show that the ‘iconic’ image is rarely the result of a single decisive moment, but will have been drawn from a series of frames, a variety of lenses, a range of viewpoints. What we are most often presented with is the result of a hugely effective and pervasive image production industry, with photographs conceived and framed with a particular destination in mind, whether that be for a newspaper, or for the cover of a magazine, or a double page spread in a publication such as LIFE – which for many photographers during the 60s and 70s represented the ultimate destination and employer. Fundamentally, I wanted to expose a definite conditioning towards a western media perspective, which has had a huge effect on our reading and understanding of world events.

There’s also a huge bias towards a received and dominant visual tradition. If you look at the images on view here, a very definite pattern starts to emerge. Typically, Western soldiers are photographed in Christian poses, framed like dying Christs on crosses; whilst the African soldier is presented as a savage who needs to be tamed; a renegade who fights his war outside of the rules of conflict, outside the Geneva Convention. These references create very specific meaning and values, yet conditioned as we are, we’re largely unconscious of their effect.

It’s incredible, for example, that in one year alone, 1960, seventeen African countries were liberated, and yet these hugely significant resistance movements are summed up in through very few images, of a particular type, carrying very codified messages. There’s the previously mentioned ‘African soldier as tribal beast’, then there’s the ‘African with his hand out begging for benevolence’ or most commonly the classic image of the ‘starving African child and mother’ all representing the grief and tragedy of a nation. Rather than a series of seventeen different post- colonial stories, Africa becomes a symbol, reduced to a few signature frames, infinitely reproducible over time.

Human Rights Human Wrongs Exhibition Installation, 2015 © Kate Elliott

Human Rights Human Wrongs Exhibition Installation, 2015 © Kate Elliott

There’s an aspect of the exhibition that specifically looks at the way the black body is represented in conflict. The way photojournalism deals with the racialised subject is an important inquiry and one I wanted to draw attention to because it seems to me that the black figure, the non-European subject, is often photographed in the most broken of conditions. It is almost as if it is visually acceptable to look at these people in the most debased of scenarios; whereas there is an absence of images that show us the European subject on the edge of life in the same way. So we can see that there is a definite hierarchy at play as to who sees who and how we engage with the actual subject in the frame.

It’s also felt imperative to look at the way violence is photographed and how our responses are mediated. When faced with the intense tragedy and horror conveyed by images from the Vietnam War, for instance, it’s often difficult to engage with an individual soldier’s story or even to consider the impact on an individual. However, within this exhibition, there’s a rare and critical set of photographs that actually have the testimonials of the soldier(s) portrayed, inscribed on the print itself. Having access to the confessional voice of a soldier just after he has killed a Vietnamese or Vietcong soldier delivers a direct sense of the personal trauma and changes our relationship to the image and the event. It also conveys a vivid sense of the velocity, the speed of the violence that occurs in such a moment.

The nature of relationships that develop within conflict make up another important sequence of images in the exhibition and form an important element within the show. Clearly, in war zones like Vietnam the connection between the indigenous people and the soldiers can only be complex, and when we look at images of American GIs and local women the tensions at play within these interactions is quite evident.

The legacy of those relationships is part and parcel of what conflict is all about; the intimacy that develops, the exchanges, whether they are paid for or actual, foreground what it means to be both a soldier in conflict and the subject of an occupying forces desire.The show is also punctuated with portraits of people who have won Nobel Peace Prizes to provoke thinking about the constitution of peace and to question why we give peace a prize. Additionally, I wanted to draw attention to some of the more paradoxical moments when such a prize might be given.

For example Henry Kissinger is a noted Nobel Prize winner, as is bishop Desmond Tutu and too, Rigoberta Menchú Tum. Each of them has played – as far as the Nobel Peace Prize is concerned – significant roles in developing an idea of peace. And yet, whilst Bishop Tutu and Riboberta are universally popular and unlikely to be contested recipients, the award to Henry Kissinger, whichever way you look at it, is somewhat paradoxical. And there are other Nobel Peace Prize winners that are also more difficult to associate with the peace process. So by putting these various characters together, whether Jimmy Carter or President Sadat, I’m hopefully raising questions about the nature of developing peace, and also what in theory the absolute prize could or should be.

Tragically, or even necessarily, the ultimate destination for the work people have done in peace is of course death, so there is also a provocation about the price as well as the prize of peace. One of the things you will notice within the presentation is that there are a lot of images of people waiting. Within the archive there are of course incredible moments of activity: of people engaging with conflict, with each other, of attacks, of rocks being thrown, of people literally setting fire to themselves. I didn’t want this exhibition to be solely about those heightened dramatic moments.

The idea of watching and waiting as marches go by, as politics unfold, of simply not understanding what is being presented to you in that moment, is equally important within this exhibition. Showing images of people in moments of stasis reflected an undercurrent idea about waiting for change, even if they don’t know what the future will be.Although the question of who is taking the photographs is clearly important, when conceiving this exhibition I was less interested in authorship than in the ideas and forces in play behind them. In one of the vitrines, there’s a series of graphic photographs showing the atrocitiesof the Nazi regime that were reproduced in LIFE magazine on 7 May 1945.

Clearly the explicit intention was to bring the readers closer to the horrific and brutal reality of mass genocide but I believe they also had an additional, more implicit function because of their placing within this specific issue. This particular photographic sequence pre-empts a feature focused on the San Francisco Conference set up to reconstitute the United Nations.To my mind the contextualisation of the graphic images had a direct bearing on the reframing of what peace might look like in the future. This is substantiated by human rights historians, who cite the appearance of these images during the conference as being hugely influential on the international delegates invited to help shape the new global future.

These images then were seismic in their influence and catalytic in terms of showing how images work towards changing the very nature of what a future world could look like.What I want people to think about is how knowledge and transfer of ideas are enabled; the epistemic value of what the photograph could be; to point to the paradoxes of violence; to look at the different cultural and ideological exchanges that occur throughout these works. I also wanted to compress time, to remind us that most of the events shown happened within living memory.Which brings me back to Article Six and its ongoing significance. Clearly the right to recognition should indeed be the basic entitlement of everyone, but I hope this exhibition shows how complex it is to gain rightful and effective recognition. And, at a time when vast swathes of people – the refugee, the asylum seeker, the economic migrant – have no rights at all, are in fact ‘no- ones’, it seems a matter of extreme urgency to consider political humanitarian development in today’s context.

— Mark Sealy

Adapted from an audio tour given by Mark Sealy at Human Rights Human Wrongs, a presentation at Ryerson Image Centre, Canada, in 2013.

In a changing market: an interview with Lorenzo Vitturi on Dalston Anatomy
Artist ProfileNew Writing

In a changing market: an interview with Lorenzo Vitturi on Dalston Anatomy

Dalston Anatomy, installation photograph, Foam Photography Museum, Amsterdam

Dalston Anatomy, installation photograph, Foam Photography Museum, Amsterdam

Assembling photographs and installations that reflect his experience as both a designer and cinema set painter, Lorenzo Vitturi’s “ Dalston Anatomy” is one of the most highlighted and talked about projects within the photography community this year. The work has been featured in the TIME best photo books of 2013 list, shortlisted for the Paris Photo/Aperture Foundation First Book Award and selected by Martin Parr for his photo book picks of the year. Our blog editor Daniel C. Blight interviewed Vitturi in order to find out something of the way in which the work was made, the apparent problems of gentrification in Dalston and how an artist might tackle this, the artist’s struggle with the flatness of photography and the exhibition design for his recent exhibition at Foam Photography Museum, Amsterdam.

Daniel C. Blight: How did you conceptualise and then come to make the Dalston Anatomy project? What were you thinking?

Lorenzo Vitturi: When I started Dalston Anatomy I just felt the instinctive need to freeze everything else that I was doing, choose the widest corner of my flat, build a studio, buy a plastic floor to cover the wooden floor (in order to avoid being kicked out by the landlord), and to start playing with the objects I could find in the near-by streets of Dalston, mainly debris and products from the market. That’s how everything started really.

For a couple of months I just walked up and down the market; I selected materials, brought them back to the studio, used them as raw matter to build precarious sculptures and photographed them before and after they collapsed. Only then did I start asking myself what I was really doing, and what the rationale behind all this work was…

I realised that my neighbourhood was dramatically changing day after day: its people were changing too, and new people, asking weird questions such as “ excuse me, where is the closest Prada shop?” were moving in to the area. I also realised that the debris I was collecting was not just ordinary trash, but it was in fact what was left of old flats and peoples’ lives; parts of those interiors that were being refurbished for the arrival of a new class of individuals.

The last revelation was that all these images I was producing were not just simply the result of my secret imagination, but they were in fact deeply connected with a wider reality. They were fragments of a bigger picture, my own “ bigger picture” – which  also clearly includes the place I live in and the community that I love and care for.

Pink #1 and #2, from the series Dalston Anatomy, 2013

Pink #1 and #2, from the series Dalston Anatomy, 2013

DCB: Dalston has undergone quite an alarming process of gentrification in the last 10 years: cafes, bars, restaurants and clubs have sprung up and are competing and in lots of cases overshadowing the businesses belonging to the local African and Turkish communities. With this in mind, what kind of Dalston do you see and represent in the project?

LV: This is exactly what’s happening: the gentrification process is changing Dalston really quickly, different worlds are in the moment of meeting, merging, clashing, and eventually one world will prevail over the other. It is quite a common “ natural” component of globalisation, which I’ve been personally experiencing during the past few decades in my home city Venice, in which super-wealthy foreigners have occupied the city centre, which was previously occupied by a diverse local community.

I think that gentrification, as with many other phenomena of our time, has both positive and negative effects, but certainly involves a powerful energy that makes big cities so dynamic and attractive. Since the beginning of the 20th Century London has faced the effects of gentrification in some of its boroughs, but the difference between then and now is the  incredible speed of today’s phase. Particularly since the beginning of the new millennium the urban landscape of the Eastern boroughs of London have experienced, and still experience, a dramatic change, which involves architecture, the economy, people and ideas.

What I am interested in is not to criticise gentrification but to visualise what this process of transformation will leave behind. I am interested in what soon will be seen as memories – debris from a lost time. I wanted to freeze Dalston’s colourful mix of cultures just before this transformation changes the neighbourhood’s appearance completely.

When I first moved to Dalston seven years ago, I chose this neighbourhood because of its strong odours, flavours, and colours which despite coming from all over the world, manage to harmonically coexist and create something unique. I’m quite sure that this social richness will be soon wiped out by the brutal blandness of the high-street economy and culture, which, while increasing order and efficiency, will inevitably bring conformity.

A Dalston Anatomy, installation photographs, Foam Photography Museum, Amsterdam

A Dalston Anatomy, installation photographs, Foam Photography Museum, Amsterdam

DCB: The images here, of your Foam Amsterdam exhibition, take the project in a really interesting direction where exhibition design is concerned. Could you talk a bit about the decisions you made here and whether you collaborated with a curator or a technical team to realise the installation?

LV: In my opinion, the reality of today is too complex to be depicted by a series of framed pictures hung on a white wall. I  usually get quite bored viewing photo exhibitions today, because I think that most of the time photographers use exactly the same language and format, to present quite different subjects, and end up diluting and flattening the experience of a show. Instead, to me, exhibitions should be a totalising experience, where the space merges with the artwork and vice versa.

In the case of Dalson Anatomy I felt the need to create a multi-layered exhibition, where images play with the space, with objects, raw materials, dust and fluff, and I tried to physically rebuild the magic encounter between the outward social reality of the project and my most intimate, personal visions.

In the case of Dalston Anatomy at Foam, I took all the materials that the market people use everyday to build up their temporary shops, and I set up the exact exhibition installation first in my studio, in order to get all the measurements right. From the beginning I wanted to design an organic and dynamic space which could function as a sculptural work of its own, to be looked at from different angles, but which would however continuously replicate the shapes and colours of all the pieces composing it. In so doing I created a chain of references from the micro-level – the smallest component of a single image – to the macro: the whole installation, based on the infinite replication of what is the leading order in my compositions; a sinuous and precarious pile of objects.

In fact if you visit the exhibition, you will realise that it works whether one looks at it from the side or from above, at one piece, at two pieces together, or at the whole installation. To me the world appears like a chaotic alphabet of shapes, colours and patterns that I record in order to mix them and remix them in my studio, trying to reach a state of temporary harmony in the final image .

And words, whether written or spoken, become meteoric elements, just like all others, that contribute to the final installation. This is why Sam Berkson’s poem had to be physically present in the exhibition, and thanks to the TankBoys graphic designers, this has been possible by beautifully hanging the poem from the room’s sealing, just like a deus ex-machina.

During the preparation process in my London studio, I collaborated with the curator Francesca Seravalle who knows Dalston Anatomy really well, and she helped me in the image selection. During the installation phase, I was helped by two exceptional Foam technicians.

Red & Yellow Chalk #1 and #2, from the series Dalston Anatomy, 2013

Red & Yellow Chalk #1 and #2, from the series Dalston Anatomy, 2013

DCB: The Dalston Anatomy project also comes in book form. Could you point out some of the challenges you faced when producing this? Your project is obviously a very dynamic, three-dimensional thing, yet a book is a flattening out in some respects…

LV: My practice is a continuos struggle with the flatness of photography. I am both frustrated and intrigued by the limits offered by two dimensions, and it is probably due to this kind of frustration that I started to look for ways to introduce a third dimension, through playing with objects. These are first reduced into images, and then go back to their three-dimensional shape, once mounted on wooden geometric volumes. As a matter of fact my practice is stuck in a continuos and obsessive loop involving both sculpture and photography.

From the beginning I knew that the book was one of the best mediums to show what I had in mind. And from the beginning, throughout the process of collecting images, forging atmospheres, making sculptures, I was in fact already editing the book, and this helped me to find an optimal visual coherence between the sculptural side of the work and all the different visual outputs I was coming up with. I treated every double-spread like a an empty physical space ready to host a different composition, and the final output is quite a heterogeneous series of images that mix different languages and photographic approaches: from snapshots and portraits to photos of sculptures; from photographs of collages to scans of found materials.

Everything has been edited together in order to try to create a fluid series of images using colours and anatomical similarities in some form of narrative binding agent. A sort of musical rhythm, an afro-beat if you want…

DCB: What’s next for you?

LV: During this last year and a half, I worked so hard that I’ve already got another two book dummies ready. These are two different projects, more conceptual, which are centred on the relation between sculpture and photography and do not maintain that strong link with a spatial or social reality, as in the case of Dalston Anatomy. So I would like to complete these two other books and continue my research. Dalston Anatomy is just a starting point.

While I was making Dalston Anatomy I nearly went to the Central African Republic – where my love was living at the time – in order to make a sort of “ photographic negative” of what I was then working on: instead of looking at an african market in a Western city, I would have loved to play with the tacky aesthetic of a Western supermarket  in a derelict African capital. I was ready to pack up, then the war started…

Blue Plastic #1 & #2, from the series Dalston Anatomy, 2013

Blue Plastic #1 & #2, from the series Dalston Anatomy, 2013

www.lorenzovitturi.com

Occupying Brecht: Broomberg and Chanarin’s War Primer 2 – David Evans
New Writing

Occupying Brecht: Broomberg and Chanarin’s War Primer 2 – David Evans

“ To use Brecht without criticising him is a betrayal.” (Heiner Müller, 1980)

War Primer 2 exists in various forms, most notably as an exhibition, a limited edition book, and an application that can be freely downloaded for use on mobile devices like smartphones and tablet computers. There are affinities between the gallery wall, the book page and the electronic screen, certainly, but also real differences. An exhibition or book has a physicality that an application lacks, for example, but the latter has the potential to reach large audiences beyond the relatively specialised world of photography galleries and bookshops. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin reflect continuously on the migrating image, and they treat War Primer 2 as an experiment that tests the viability of old and new outlets for photography.

In all of its forms, War Primer 2 occupies the pages of a book by German writer Bertolt Brecht. His Kriegsfibel first appeared in East Berlin in 1955; an English-language version, edited and translated by Brecht scholar John Willett, was published in London in 1998 with the title War PrimerKriegsfibel or War Primer is mainly a collection of photographs dealing with World War Two that Brecht regularly clipped from newspapers and magazines, and to which he added four line verses – alternative captions that registered his Communist-oriented political perspective. He called his scripto-visual combinations ‘photo-epigrams’, a deliberately paradoxical formulation linking the modern press photograph to a type of verse that was invented in the Ancient World to be inscribed on stone monuments. In other words, his new invention confronts ephemerality and eternity, modesty and monumentality. Cumulatively, Brecht’s ‘photo-epigrams’ aim to prime readers on modern warfare; but also on visual literacy, based on his assumption that the meaning of a press photograph is rarely transparent.

(For unknown reasons, War Primer omits an important statement at the start of the East German first edition by Brecht’s collaborator, Ruth Berlau, in which she compares press photographs to hieroglyphs, in need of decipherment. She might be on to something with the reference to Ancient Egypt. Perhaps photojournalism is less modern than we imagine!)

From Berlau and Brecht to Broomberg and Chanarin. One: a couple of years ago they got hold of a hundred copies of War Primer from its English publisher, Libris. Two: from the Internet they downloaded a wide range of low- resolution photographs dealing with the so-called War on Terror. Three: they selected and sized eighty-five images to go with Brecht’s eighty-five ‘photo-epigrams’. Four: eight thousand five hundred screen prints were generated. Five: with the help of assistants, all of the prints were pasted by hand into the one hundred copies of War Primer, subsequently published by MACK in print and electronic versions.

Broomberg and Chanarin, War Primer 2 installation, The Photographers’ Gallery © Kate Elliott

Broomberg and Chanarin, War Primer 2 installation, The Photographers’ Gallery © Kate Elliott

Most obviously, War Primer is a product of the age of mechanical reproducibility; War Primer 2 of a new age of digital or electronic reproducibility; and we are invited to contemplate different eras. Brecht’s project emerged in the mid-twentieth century, the golden age of the illustrated press when professional photojournalists risked life and limb to get their scoop. In contrast, Broomberg and Chanarin work at the start of the twenty first century. The Internet is now the dominant source of information, and many of its most famous images relating to current conflicts are rarely the work of professionals, who have been marginalized by CCTV, drones equipped with cameras, or amateurs who happen to be carrying some form of digital equipment at the right place and time. Emblematic of the earlier era is Robert Capa’s blurred photograph of D-Day landings in 1944 that Brecht saw in Life and subsequently used for a ‘photo-epigram’; current equivalents, used by Broomberg and Chanarin, include un-credited downloaded photographs of the Twin Towers attacks in New York, abuse and torture in Abu Ghraib jail, and the execution of Saddam Hussein.

Significant breaks, then, but also continuities. A famous ‘photo-epigram’ by Brecht presents a press photograph of Hitler enjoying a traditional German stew with a supposedly typical, contented, family of the Third Reich. The image is covered by a newer photograph of President George W. Bush ostentatiously presenting a Thanksgiving Day turkey to American troops in Iraq. Brecht’s epigram now relates to the American President:

You see me here, eating a simple stew

Me, slave to no desire, except for one:

World-conquest. That is all I want. From you

I have but one request: give me your sons.

Parallels, to be sure, but Broomberg and Chanarin are not interested in crude political jibes, presenting Bush as a latter-day Hitler. Rather, they want us to reflect on what are now termed “ photo ops”, the visual clichés that continue to inform the self-promotional activities of world leaders of every political hue.

War Primer 2 is a significant addition to a range of innovative projects by Broomberg and Chanarin that deal with what political scientist Fred Halliday termed the “ arc of crisis”. Their own images, often made with unwieldy large-format equipment, deliberately avoid the melodrama and sensationalism regularly sought out by photojournalists in war zones. Instead, they favour studied understatement that invites close scrutiny, brilliantly demonstrated in their exploration of contemporary Israel called Chicago (2006). A typical section presents their photographs of young forests that convey a mood of calmness and serenity, only to be disrupted by a matter of fact caption noting that many trees were systematically planted on land and property expropriated from Arab villagers in 1948. A similar calculated obliqueness informs Red House (2006), a study that powerfully evokes the cruelty and tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by concentrating on the graffiti that the incarcerated scratched on their cell walls. With The Day Nobody Died (2009) they were the guests of the British army in Helmand Province and directly exposed photographic paper to the sun. Camera-less photography, then, inspired in part by a desire to draw attention to the compromised nature of most photographs that result from an embedding process. And Afterlife (2009) has as its starting point a photograph of Kurds being executed by revolutionary guards in Iran, 1979, a classic instance of the ‘decisive moment’ that gives the viewer the dubious pleasure of being able to identify with both the firing squad and their victims at the same time. It is now known that this anonymous winner of a Pultizer Prize in 1980 was made by Jahangir Razmi. Recently, Broomberg and Chanarin met Razmi in New York who gave them permission to use his original contact sheets. The end result is a series of photomontages that deliberately convey an “ indecisive moment”. No signature style, then, but underpinning an apparent stylistic eclecticism is an ongoing dissatisfaction with mainstream documentary and photojournalism.

In many ways, Broomberg and Chanarin are re-opening debates about Brecht and radical photography that were particularly lively in the seventies and early eighties. The debates were complex and international, but what they shared was a hostility to photographic naturalism and the assumption that the approach to theatre of Brecht, or the adaption of these ideas to cinema by Jean-Luc Godard, especially, offered a way forward. In Britain, the debates were often conducted in journals like BlockCameraworkScreen and Screen Education. And the annual Photography / Politics: One (London, 1979), published independently by Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, gave the first British platform to American writer-photographer Allan Sekula, re-printing his polemical essay of 1978 in which he relates Godard and other radical filmmakers to the “ critical anti-naturalism” of Brecht that “ stands as a guide to the ideologically self-conscious handling of image and text.

For Sekula, writer-photographer Martha Rosler offers an exemplary demonstration of alternative ways of working with photographs that takes on board the lessons of Brecht and Godard. In particular, he is impressed by her series The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1975). One of the “ inadequate descriptive systems” is a set of photographs of Bowery walls and storefronts; the other is a complementary set of panels that present the slang terms associated with alcoholics and alcoholism. Sekula perceptively observes that many of the carefully composed images appear to be deliberate “ quotations” of Walker Evans, and the texts are “ found poetry”. In other words, in deliberate opposition to the “ find-a-bum school of concerned photography” that merely provokes uncritical identification, Rosler offers two types of appropriation to encourage reflection and activism.

For some time, the debates around Brecht and photography have been dormant, although every now and again someone re-quotes his cryptic statement from the early thirties that a photograph of a factory tells one nothing, so something has to be set up. The extraordinary achievement of Broomberg and Chanarin is to almost single handedly re-open these debates, most remarkably with War Primer 2, a project that re-works Brecht’s unique sustained engagement with photography that was rarely mentioned in the seventies! In War Primer 2, Broomberg and Chanarin are embedded with Brecht  – impressed, but not overawed. They understand Heiner Müller.

This essay was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery and originally appeared in the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013 catalogue, available from the gallery’s bookshop both online and in the building.

David Evans is a writer and picture editor, based in Bournemouth. Recent works include Appropriation (Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2009), László Moholy-Nagy: 60 Fotos (Errata Editions, 2011), Critical Dictionary ( 2011) and The Art of Walking: a field guide (2013), both with Black Dog Publishing.

Notes on Laura Letinsky and Lightness
New Writing

Notes on Laura Letinsky and Lightness

In this specially commissioned essay, Duncan Wooldridge reflects on Ill Form and Void Full, the minimal collage work by Canadian artist Laura Letinsky.

***

In an image from the series Fall, a crumpled plastic cup lists towards the edge of a table. In the throes of being propelled along the surface, contorted, and with its back arched – as if about to lurch further forward – the cup, inanimate but on the tip of being called into action, will trip over its inert objecthood and cast off dramatically over the precipice of the table and onto the floor.  It would make a lively smash on a stony surface, if only it wasn’t plastic; if only it were actually tumbling; if only it were even going to fall. Having paused, our eye catches a glimpse of the floor: like the table, it tilts, leans and produces an animation that we sense and may want to initially believe, but which we know to be the product of the camera’s sloping angle of view.  In our encounter with Laura Letinsky’s still life images, so much of our reading appears as a projection: nothing is certain, our reading speculative, anticipatory.  In Fall, we are cast into a reading of what is to be – a looking to the future that photography calls upon, yet rarely delivers.  The objects in Fall, referencing Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings, with their weight hone in on the edge of the table – threatening, promising, to fall off – if only the camera were there to catch it. Their presence on the precipice is a source of a continual and quiet drama.

Many of the works from Fall describe weight and gravity, yet they depict a virtual, potential weight and a gravity that is for the moment at least, outside of our visual perception. These forces are anticipated, expectant.  The plastic cup, which we know to be light enough to be swept away in a breeze, feels uneasily solid when isolated, seen only with its shadow (which here, as in the language of the advertising photograph, describes presence). The shadow catches the lip between table and wall: the seeming weight of the cup making all the stronger the sense of a fall that is about to occur.  We imagine gravity taking hold.

As viewers, our interpretations of images are usually narrative, our readings causal – a list produces a tilt, produces a fall.  Letinsky is intensely aware of how the viewer perceives and reads the image.  And because weight constructs a narrative amd sets in motion a series of forces, she can also remove this weight; removing narrative at a stroke. Anticipating and short-circuiting the projection of our viewing, in Ill Form and Void Full Letinsky attempts a kind of weightlessness, one that is the production of a suspended looking.  In Untitled Number 3 (2011), a peach occupies the centre of the frame.  It is muted but defined, resonant of painting, but protruding outwards, its roundness overt, its objecthood strident and insistent. A rind curls nearby. Adjacent is the flesh of a melon, cleanly sliced, yet cut off a little too abruptly at its base. Objects, including a bowl beneath it can be recognised, but they appear distorted, almost anamorphic. As our eyes scan the surface of the image, flatness is rendered increasingly uncanny, magical perhaps. Italo Calvino in his writing proposed a similar quality for literature, remarking “ whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a difference space.  I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational.  I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and within fresh methods of cognition and verification. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future.” As we cannot fully reconstruct the spaces from which these images are drawn, we are placed in a state of suspension, a pictorial space outside of regular temporality: a lightness that is akin to flight, that is awash with different perceptions.

Laura Letinsky, Ill Form and Void Full, Untitled 3, 2011, courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

Laura Letinsky, Ill Form and Void Full, Untitled 3, 2011, courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

Formed of slivers of paper, many of the works in Ill Form and Void Full depict not objects but images: they construct spaces, and do so through an exploration of illusion, image upon image.  Drawn from magazine pages – what could be the large print runs of lifestyle magazines and Sunday supplements – the clean and all too fresh depictions of food, cut out by hand, become objects arranged in a new still life.  Laid out for us in the spare white of the studio, these constellations of images are flattened and reconstructed spatially, their narratives trapped, their presence emphasised.  Letinsky has stated that she is concerned with depicting “ what the camera shows” – the product is a deeply visual and yet theoretical image, an image of photography.  The photographic apparatus, so often associated with transparency, becomes a subject, though it is not one that turns back upon itself directly.  With a sleight of hand, we see the camera’s products, not the device itself. That which is in front of us in Ill Form and Void Full are photographs, the product of the act of photography played out fully to the sphere of its dissemination.  It is out in the world, acting, being used, often entirely overlooked.

Vilem Flusser, in his Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983), makes the proposition that the photograph is a ‘theoretical image’. Flusser begins by stating that we can easily understand the black and white image as theoretical: black and white events do not take place in the world.  Black and white are concepts, and the black and white image can so too be perceived by the viewer to be a theoretical image of the object photographed (see Ed Ruscha’s photographs of washing powder boxes, Spam tins, or car polish). A photograph is not the thing itself.  Yet as he astutely states, we are frequently caught out by the colour picture which, in a program of continual photographic development, shifts ever closer to resembling the thing it depicts, constructing a proliferation of ever more images. Flusser is strident in arguing that the colour photograph remains a theoretical image too (it merely contains additional theories of colour), and here, in Ill Form and Void Full, this becomes apparent. Letinsky’s photographs contain theories of space, of representation, the properties of the printed image and of the colour palette of painting. They approach the question of photography in part by showing us how photographs operate, and how they exist in the world (especially in the studio).

In the image of the image, all is paper. Letinsky allows us to see the thin materiality of the photographic object when her images capture the slight curves and shapes that paper adopts.

The layering of images within another image, this mise-en-abyme, leads us through layers of pictorial depth, in the process drawing our attention to illusion.  Yet whilst Letinsky’s recent still lifes construct the technical abyss of the infinite image, they go far beyond it as crowd-pleasing optical effect.  In Untitled Number 12 (2011), two Sharon Fruit rest on a surface. Restated in a reflection, their presence is asserted, reassured.  Again a surface is tilting, but on this occasion a number of objects, including two spoons, will float and not fall. One recedes into the distance, another is cut off, its sense of presence abruptly truncated.  All are composed of paper, cut-out photographs.  Where the standard mise-en-abyme clearly demarcates the edge of its illusion, here the division is particularly thin.  Cut to their edges, the Sharon Fruit, centre stage, appear substantively real.  Their colours are saturated, and the lighting consistent: we can only begin to sense their actual spatiality as objects in another space.  We can recognise their flatness (as pictures), but only by understanding that they also construct an additional dimension (as photographs) within the image. There are three spaces in all: the space of the image, the pictures within, and thirdly, the image before which we stand. We are compulsively drawn through layers of the image only to be brought back to its surface.  That space which we occupy bodily, standing or sitting in front of the representation, comes into view as stems and fruit, drooping over the side of the table, appearing to reside not within the image but upon its surface.  A number of Letinsky’s images contain comparable marks, often as stains or smears.  They conflate the layers of the image to draw attention to their presence (a reference to collage and the re-photographed montage emerges).  However quick the illusion oscillates, we are struck by how the photographed object and the photographed photograph are difficult to distinguish.  How can we see the photograph, when it insists on attempting to disappear?  After all, the reproduction image, the re-photographed photograph, is the zero-degree of photography, an image made not to be seen.  Ill Form and Void Full is awash with reproductions: we cannot wholly depend upon our eyes to see them, they ask us to provide different modes of looking, new means of verification.

Laura Letinsky, Ill Form and Void Full, Untitled 12, 2011, courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

Laura Letinsky, Ill Form and Void Full, Untitled 12, 2011, courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

In the image of the image, all is paper.  Letinsky allows us to see the thin materiality of the photographic object when her images capture the slight curves and shapes that paper adopts.  The unglazed surfaces of her prints promise to attract dust and markings.  Atmospherically sensitive and likely to waver from the rigid geometries of its production, paper curves and folds, responsive to a shift in climate.  Its angularity belies an acute sensitivity.  Paper, too, is a theoretical surface, a receiving support for both image and text. Might we not think of Letinsky’s images as functioning in this state of virtuality, a work ‘on paper’?  They occupy a provisional condition, a space of gesture.  This of course returns us to writing, to the difficulty of writing about a photograph, but also the challenge, that we can only consider discursively, of a photography that attempts to show itself.  In Ill Form and Void Full Letinsky balances space and removes time to do just that.  She creates moments of suspension that are real and yet ethereal, which float and yet are grounded.

Duncan Wooldridge

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and Course Director of BA Photography, Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

What Remains: Isobel Whitelegg on Geraldo de Barros
New Writing

What Remains: Isobel Whitelegg on Geraldo de Barros

This month’s New Writing commission takes the form of a curatorial essay. We invited Isobel Whitelegg, curator of What Remains – an exhibition of photo-collage work by late Brazilian artist Geraldo de Barros, currently on view at The Photographers’ Gallery  – to produce a piece of writing to accompany the show. Isobel will also give a curator’s talk at the gallery on April 4 and tickets can be booked.

Untitled, Tyrol, Austria, 1951

Untitled, Tyrol, Austria, 1951

Geraldo de Barros concentrated on photography within two periods of time, each resulting in a significant body of work. The Fotoformas, produced between 1949 and 1951, inaugurated his reception within a modernist critical milieu. The Sobras (Remains) were produced comparatively recently, over the last two years of his life between 1996 and 1998.

The two series are each connected in different ways to significant public moments. At the Museu de Art Sao Paulo the exhibition ‘Fotoforma’ (1950-1951) was an opportunity for de Barros to consolidate the process of photographic experimentation he began in 1946 – and the series gained that title through this process.  ‘Fotoforma’ also marked the provocative and decisive intrusion of the medium into critical debates previously centred on painting and sculpture. As such it also contributed to a change in the reception of photography in Brazil – which was cemented by the inclusion of a selection of work by members of the Foto Club Cine Bandeirante at the II Sao Paulo Biennale in 1953.

The Fotoformas were shown again as a complete series four decades later (but for the first time in Europe) at the Musee D’Elysee, Lausanne in 1993. The reception of this body of work coincided with a process of return that de Barros had commenced gradually since 1988, when he started to work through boxes of prints and negatives first unearthed from storage, by his daughter, in 1975. The Musee D’Elysee exhibition was followed by a retrospective in Sao Paulo, a year later. After the impetus of a public re-embrace of his photographic work, de Barros tentative photographic re-workings  picked up pace and certainty, resulting in the production of the Sobras.

Sobras is a series of work that de Barros began at the end of his life, but it is also one provoked by a need to recall his first motivations for engaging with photography.  It was formed by a process of looking back that acted against both both nostalgia and narrative, inviting the intrusion of the present.  What Remains, the first retrospective of Geraldo de Barros’s work in the UK, takes this moment as its starting point. It hopes to convey the attitude of an artist who, fortunate enough to be witness to the beginnings of his own historicisation, chose to submit his photographic practice to a further degree of chronological disobedience.

Sobras includes series produced by using three different techniques. The most numerous are images produced from negatives cut-into and remounted on glass plates. The negatives began life as snapshots, the informal documentation of a life-time of holidays and road-trips. On the surface of fresh, altered prints, shapes subtracted from each negative intrude forcefully, disrupting an (apparently) casual gaze. The composition that more intuitively directed the framing of original images is re-emphasised by cut-out spaces and drawn lines.  Spaces, abstracted and impenetrably black, meet the photo-real images that they outline and isolate; reflective surfaces are reversed.

Sobras, 1996-98

Sobras, 1996-98

The set of Sobras subtitled Vidros (Glasses) emerges from the process used to compose images on glass but begins from the faded image rather than its negative and results in a series of photo-objects. Slices and glints of light (or rather, shapes made by windows, opened doors, sun on water) are excised to form openings within the surfaces of the paper. The foreground of one snapshot is made to co-exist with the background of another, an anachronism that is emphasised where monotone meets colour. The final group, photo-collages on paper, creates the most explicit connection from the Sobras back to the Fotoformas. The source material for works amongst this series are reproductions of his earliest images – produced for a  book published when the Fotoformas were shown in Sao Paulo in 1994. Amongst these, two stand out by performing a significant reversal – recomposing the most abstractly iconic of the Fotoformas into sail boat collages. Images that have been frequently interpreted as the search for linear geometry are released, freely following a chain of figurative associations.

The process of cutting into the negative surface was an echo of one used widely within the Fotoformas. In works such as Untitled, Fotoforma, 1949 circular sections of the negative were freed from orientation by cutting, turning and re-placing. In numerous others, the cut is a crop. De Barros produced many of his most celebrated (apparently ‘straight’) photographs after re-framing, re-composing and therefore improving upon the original moment of their capture. This decisive cut was rehearsed, by outlining his intentions in pen on contact prints. To produce certain Fotoformas de Barros drew directly on to the surface of the negative. The figure (a bird, a cat, a portrait) suggested by found configurations was transformed into a permanent record and the reproductive process flattened drawn and photographic line into representational equivalence.

Homage to Picasso, from Fotoformas, 1949

Homage to Picasso, from Fotoformas, 1949

De Barros therefore confined neither his skills nor his or aesthetic judgements to the precise moment of photographic capture. And neither did he privilege the reality imprinted by that time. The decisive moment was not sacrosanct and  he was  concerned with technique only to the extent that it was ‘necessary’.  What he did choose to master, however, was chance. He invited error. This attraction to risk demanded a greater degree of dexterity than the ‘cults of technical perfection’ that also emerged within fields of photographic experimentation at the time of the Fotoformas. The results of de Barros decidedly non-anxious mastery of chance are particularly evident in images composed semi-blind.  Using multiple exposure he superimposed changing fragments of the ironwork roof spaces of Sao Paulo’s iconic Luz station, as well as the particular shapes formed by light intruding through an open door (the latter resulting in images that confound any immediate understanding of either technique or referent).

Fotoformas contain variations not only in terms of photographic techniqueAs a set of images they move fluidly across a range of approaches to realism (all of which were being competitively contested, within art criticism as well as the circuit of amateur Fotoclubs that lent de Barros his formative context as photographer). At one end of this scale are images that are often loosely aligned with the orthodox Concretist paintings that de Barros produced as a member of the Ruptura movement (1952-59). Occupying a contradictory position are the expressionistic, free-form images formed by drawing on to negatives. Between the two are those that extract form and geometry from the intersections and shadowed layers of recognisable day-to-day objects (windows, doors, vessels, pylon lines, balloons, people). Another set depicts found writings and images (dice, balloons, boats) anonymously scratched into walls.

Installation photograph, Museu de Arte de São Paulo, 1950

Installation photograph, Museu de Arte de São Paulo, 1950

For their first exhibition at MASP, de Barros’ contradictory representational arguments were explicitly brought into relationship with one another. He selected the works himself and employed display devices that re-invented and radically altered them (yet again). A group of four images, for example, was collected within a frame suspended from the ceiling. The selected photos alternate in representational style and further complication is added by the intrusion of both opaque painted squares and openings – which capture fragments of exhibition space. An actual background behind the ground of the images themselves and their frame was drawn into the overall composition. An image of a window seems to extend into the actual window of space behind it. Individual images were also mounted at the corners of painted boards or fixed onto the vertical metal tubes normally used as display board supports. A group of Fotoformas produced by cutting  photographic prints – according to outlines lent by both drawn or photographed forms – were displayed on plinths as if sculpture. This heterodox method of display and juxtaposition created contiguities between modes of realism – from those contained by the photographs themselves towards a perception of the situation within which they were being viewed and the indeterminate reality of the photograph itself, which was presented as both image and object.

De Barros‘ approach to display suggests that the series was deliberate in its internal contradictions. This is not, however, a characteristic of the Fotoformas often emphasised by art historical narratives, many of which have been oriented by relation to his subsequent turn – from photography to abstract painting. De Barros was involved in the formation of the Concretist group Ruptura shortly after returning from a year in Europe (1951-1952). In Paris he had enrolled in the École National Superiéure de Beaux Arts and studied print-making with Stanley Hayter. From there he had travelled to Spain, Scotland, Germany and Italy – and to Zurich to meet Max Bill.

Bill was a key influence on the development of Concretist art in Sao Paulo and an artist whose work de Barros had seen for the first time at MASP shortly before his departure. The Ruptura manifesto, authored by Waldemar Cordeiro and signed by all  members including de Barros, outlined a rigorous approach to abstraction. It defined Concretism as resolutely objective and deliberately anti-representional. With no trace of either gesture or referent, it was to be restricted to primary colours and compositions that prevented the picture plane being perceived as figure and ground. The manifesto asserted a search for the new, which would be achieved through a break with the old, namely “all the varieties and hybridizations of naturalism’ including the “mere negation of naturalism i.e. the “incorrect” naturalism of children, mad people, “primitives”, expressionists, Surrealists etc”.

De Barros’ meeting with Bill, followed by his turn towards painted abstraction, lays a tempting narrative into place, one that views the Fotoformas as a ‘proto-abstract’ journey towards the Concretist conclusion and thus privileges the more overtly geometrical images within the series. De Barros post-Ruptura trajectory however, does not invite a reductive interpretation of his photographic practice. He remained a member of the group until it 1959 dissolution but it was not the sole centre of his activities and later turns were yet to come. That is not to say that his prolonged exploration of Concretism was forgotten, it acutely heightened his understanding of form and composition, which informed his graphic and furniture design (as well as the Sobras), and re-emerged definitively at later moments. His formative interest in abstraction does occur within the production of the Fotoformas – but the series as a whole cannot be defined by this. The Sobras, as a deliberate return to photography, again marked out the distinct parameters of his approach to this particular medium.

De Barros did not adhere to the specificity of photography in terms of its being a privileged imprint of time truth or memory. He viewed it as ‘print-making’ and invited different means of capturing experience, such as drawing, into its documentary surface. Photography however is specifically pursuasive as a representational form. It locates itself – undeniably- within day-to-day experience.  This medium in particular lent a certain emphasis and orientation that allowed de Barros to interrogate relationships between other varying forms of capturing experience, to overlay document with the making visible of imaginative or formal associations – and to collapse different moments of time into a single image  (one that could also be cut into and apprehended as a material object in space). This interrogation of representation was marked out by both the Fotoforma exhibition and even before this – by the first set of images he composed with his 1939 Rolleiflex – produced when he set out to photograph the same scenes and situations that previously he had painted. As a final testiment of engagement with photographic practice in particular the Sobras deploy the same willful heterogeneity.