Monday, February 2, 2009

Bi-Lingual Travel Documents: A Look at Photography and Painting

The exhibition "Passages in Black and White" at the Susan Eley Gallery  documents the travels of artists Jessica M. Kaufman and Heather Boose Weiss to places far from home through their (mostly) large-scale, gelatin silver prints.  In different ways, and for different reasons, each photographer alters the straightforward documentary process of photography.  Painterly practices are injected into the work; for Kaufman, during the processing of her negatives, and for Weiss as she exposes her film.  For me, as a painter, the show raises the question of photography's relation to painting.

In the 1930's, Walter Benjamin wrote passionately about photography's beginnings, clearing room for thinking about what qualities are unique to photography as an art form.  In his essay, "A Little History of Photography," painting and photography shadow each other from photography's start.  The first camera -- the camera obscura -- known since the Italian Renaissance, was initially a draftsman's tool showing that mechanized image making has long been a part of painting.  As photographic printing technology came into being, early photographers such as David Octavius Hill, Julia Margaret Cameron, Victor Hugo, and Nadar used the medium in ways that distinguished it from painting, in Benjamin's view.  Photography was able to capture startlingly realistic details, as well as close-ups and a specificity unavailable (if not liberating) to painting.  During the late 1800's and early 1900's, Eugene Atget produced an unprecedented body of work by documenting thousands of uninhabited Paris street scenes.  Similarly, August Sander, in the early 1920's and '30's,  catalogued working class citizens of Germany.  These encyclopedic applications of photography had no relation to painting of the time.

Benjamin saw the effects caused by the long exposures required by early portrait photographers as particular to photography.  Soon enough, though, advances in technology, commercialization, and a form of "sibling rivalry," photographic portraiture was tainted, according to Benjamin, by painterly practices such as propping and styling subjects to resemble paintings and retouching negatives.  Paving the way for a more modern arbitration of the two media Benjamin said, "And yet, what is again and again decisive for photography is the photographer's attitude.  Camille Recht has found an apt metaphor:  'The violinist,' he says, 'must first produced the note, must seek it out, find it in an instant,' the pianist strikes the key and a note rings out.  The painter and the photographer both have an instrument at their disposal.  Drawing and color, for the painter, correspond to the violinist's production of sound; the photographer, like the pianist, has the advantage of a mechanical device that is subject to restrictive laws, while the violinist is under no such restraint."

Christopher Bedford, curator in the Department of Contemporary Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in his recent essay, "Qualifying Photography as Art, or, Is Photography All It Can Be?" echo's Benjamin's observation and looks at all the components of making a photograph: technical and other "explicit indices of intention, intellectual reflection, and considered action, all of which  -- in a sense -- mimic the minute decisions and adjustments that take place during the execution of a painting, for example; every detail therefore, may be understood as intentional and vigorously interpreted as such."  A photographer based in Los Angeles, Andrew Bush, outlines a framework for current contemporary photographic inquiries, some of which appear in Kaufman and Weiss's work.  He says there is an interest in "camera-less" abstractions which involves various exposure, chemical and printing processes.  In contrast, there is also work done to produce documents that become a social force, a fulcrum for our understanding and awareness of subjects outside of a "listened-to" voice.  Alternatively, photography is a way to document a performance where the idea of a photographer-as-witness changes to the photographer-as-subject.  Finally, a completely manufactured world is created to become the photographer's subject.  The elements of light -- which Bush points out symbolizes truth -- the camera, the subject, and the print can all be examined for evidence of the artist's intentions and become factors in interpreting the work of art.

Let me incorporate the thinking of Maurice Merleau-Ponty into this discussion of photography as he talks about painting in his essay, "Mind and Eye," from 1964.  Moving away from an objective, science-driven vantage, Merleau-Ponty inserts the body as a metaphor for how we experience the world.  He delves into painting (specifically how the quality of depth is developed) but opens up the possibility of relating painting to photography by equating light with flesh.  He quotes the pagan prophet, Hermes Trismegistus, Art is "the inarticulate cry, which seemed to be the voice of light."  Merleau-Ponty continues with, "And once it is present it awakens powers dormant in ordinary vision, a secret pre-existence.  When through the water's thickness I see the tiled bottom of the pool, I do not see it despite the water and the reflections; I see it through them and because of them.  If there were no distortions, no ripples of sunlight, if it were without that flesh that I saw the geometry of the tiles, then I would cease to see it as it is and where it is -- which is to say, beyond any identical, specific place."

Returning to "Passages in Black and White," both artists have traveled with their cameras to unfamiliar places and have stories to tell about their experiences.  The distortions of the water in Merleau-Ponty's image -- a metaphor for the subjectivity and specificity of our sight -- plays to the painterly distortions employed by Kaufman and Weiss.  When looking at the work in the show, the question becomes, what are the artists' intentions in incorporating the painterly effects and gestures in their work?  Kaufman wants to express her feelings of being a stranger in a foreign country, in this case China.  Each of her images show lacy evidence of the way she chemically treats her negatives.  Her engagingly composed landscapes, urban scenes, and interiors are simultaneously exotic and familiar.  But what about the "voice of light?"  I can't help but think that the decision to alter the negatives has been uniformly applied to her work -- in fact she may have decided even before starting her trip that she would address her work in this way.  Her negatives have been transformed, but, lovely as the images are, I'm not entirely convinced that the traveler has been.

Addressing the disorientation caused by travel, Weiss has found a way back to equilibrium by becoming in-tune with each location she visits.  She inserts herself into both the image itself and the exposure process.  She responds differently to each location: spinning as a spiral of light deep inside a cave, flowing in a feathered rivulet down a jungle ravine, or illuminating a gesture mirrored over dark waters.  Often her body is not distinctly photographed or even visible as a human form at all, but her intention of showing us that each place requires a different way of being is evident.  The resulting images are printed in sizes suited to their subject:  small intensely contrasting compositions, along with large landscapes of subtile washes of gray.  Her physical engagement with her location, responding with sculptured gestures, results in mesmerizing photographic images that feel authentic and exemplify Merleau-Ponty's "seeing flesh."  

Ultimately, the rivalry of painting and photography, for me, is an empty debate -- it is not genuine.  From its beginning photography has been an art form, but as with painting, not all photographers are artists.  It is not the choice of the media, or even the decision to combine techniques from both media that is important. It is the intention of the artist and her ability to authentically express her vision.

Image courtesy of Susan Eley Gallery:  by Heather Boose Weiss, "Cala d"Ego", gelatin silver print, 50 x 50 inches, 2008 (Majorca, Spain)


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