Now you see me

If Deleuze could have only foreseen how fast the future would arrive! In a few short years since his piece was published, his ideas have become the ever more relevant and of great concern related to privacy, control and replacement. Not only is the deployment of mass public and private surveillance technologies a reality that is quickly encroaching on all personal freedoms but it is also reshaping human relationships. The idea of observation or being observed as means of social control, whether direct, implied or delegated is nothing new – two examples illustrated here are the panopticon building designed by Ledoux at a salt factory in 18c France and Lewis Hine documentary photography of inhumane conditions of child labor in early 20th Century US. The challenge nowadays is how we can possibly exercise our right to not be observed, to have complete privacy within the confines of our private space.  How can I do research online without having my data become part of a large algorithm, marketing tool and/or basis for further research?  Out relationship with technology has become highly suspicious and completely co-dependent.

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1+8

In what the director describes as a structuralist film due to its rigid and formal architecture, 1+8 by Angelika Brudniak and Cynthia Madansky enraptures the viewer through a profound and lyrical observational documentary of eight border towns in Turkey.  It is not lost on me that this movie could not be recreated today due to the current political climate in the region, which make this project the more relevant and urgent.

The opening short lecture by Madansky helped contextualize the project and quickly established her, at least for me personally, as an eloquent, passionate and courageous artist.  Her humble description of her travails to finish this project barely made justice to the enormity of the endeavor.  Having spent one month in each border town to capture thousands of hours of footage to eventually edit down into this piece is a daunting (and dangerous) project onto itself.  The more surprising, and in her words, is the fact that they were just two women and a camera.

From the beginning the film establishes a quiet, respectful and non-confrontational visual stance recurring to static medium-shots.  These moments act as like a transporting gateway into the visual moving tableau, making one feel not only connected but also present.  The result are haunting moving images that behaved like snapshots that quickly made their way to the subconscious.  They are both relatable and totally disconcerting.  There are no quick cuts, dissolves or any other cinematic crutches used to manipulate our attention. It is a raw and direct dialogue with the subjects.

A successful stylistic choice by the filmmakers is to suppress sound throughout the film – it is a violent act of confrontation which prompts an immediate sense of desolation. Quietness can often act as the most aggressive form of communication.  We jump and cut between action, establishing shots and interviews while gathering situational clues of each locale.  And it is though these interviews, which are honest and direct, that we build a context for the hardship and barrenness of their lives.

There is little to celebrate in these towns. They are desolate, aging, poor and riddled with illiteracy and lack of opportunity.  These are stories of individuals that seem to have been forgotten by the hand of modernity and technology. Is it really 2012??  Yet, I did not feel like they were being othered nor preyed upon as mere subjects for a great documentary. It strikes me that it was through the honesty and true interest of the filmmakers that they were able to establish a sincere and leveled exchange with subjects. Subjects that skewed female and a mix of old and young.

The one thread that weaves through all these towns is their celebration of music, culture and traditions. Rather than turning against their roots, they hold firmly onto their cultural identities as though it could serve as a buoy drifting towards redemption.

The content is disturbing, sad and infuriating.  Without the presence of a traditional script, the central theme and main character becomes the actual hardship and indigence themselves. This film represents less of a cry for help and more a call to action.  It is here that I question how and where this content is going to live going forward. I felt a strong sense of urgency to have this be experienced not just by the art going public, but with a wider audience.  It is only here that the hardship of filmmakers and most importantly the courage of the participants can be justified.

 

In praise of killing painting(s)


Rodchenko, a central figure of constructivist movement in Russia, implores the reader in his brief manifesto to kill painting as it can only serve as means of falsification. He synthesises the sentiment of the time, mainly, that photography can not only represent, but also capture the true essence of life.
Buchloh, in his thoughtful article for October magazines, contextualises the evolution of Russian avant garde as it reacts to Western European surrealism, first through original iteration of Faktura, where artists renounce to painting but create individualised works of art, through Factography, the second period that focuses on reproduction, access and mass dissemination. Photography becomes the tool to allow artists/social historians to create social movements. The surprising turn of events is the eventual incorporation of these techniques into emerging totalitarian regimes, which makes the entire project collapse.

Dark Grasses

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Diane Arbus by  Nona Jolley

In America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly, Susan Sontag takes on three giants of American culture on what eventually focuses a critique of the photographic work and subject matter of Diane Arbus. The architecture of the pieces is held together via the lens of Whitman, whom Sontag argues, set out to stir an all encompassing revolution (starting with culture) that ultimately failed and only recruited the enlightened elite as foot soldiers. In his evaluative view, the “beautiful” and the “ugly” sit alongside on the hierarchy of visual culture; both are worthy of praise and this subjective characteristics are deemed interchangeable. He is not killing the concept of beauty, he is simply expanding it.

The validity of the image, then, is the choice of subject matter – the very choice of becoming photograph ascribes relevance for contemplation and critique. There is no restriction on choice, though some contemporary tropes clearly become problematic. The image is finally liberated from prior evaluative constraints and is now considered through choices.
Walker Evans, especially through his earlier work, is presented as the last true and devoted American soldier of the Whitman crusade. His dedication to framing truth in images, photographs that are “literate, authoritative and transcendent”, are the manifestation of formal beauty. They are as poetic and coercive as Waltman’s Leaves of Grass.
The highly idealized, and arguably stylized, vision of America is shattered and co-opted through the fashionable representation of physiognomic typologies developed by photographers like Steichen and consequently Arbus. The realistic encyclopedic observational archives of human subjects create a problematique of ethics, morals and ownership for the viewer, the photographer and the subject(s) alike.
Sontag turns to the short and controversial career of Diane Arbus as an exploratory minefield of colliding values. Where Steichen created material as a vehicle for inclusiveness, Abus’ material is arguably an exercise in othering.

While the first read of Sontag’s opinion on Arbus seems to discredit the entire ouvre as an elitist exercise by a person of privilege, her nuanced description of the work reveals a more complex relationship with the material. The instinctual reaction is to discredit these iconic images of freaks and the disenfranchised as a superficial exercise of othering – an experiment to show the other face of America. Alternatively, Sontag guides us through a more supportive reading of the work when describing the photographer as a highly complex and wounded human being that is possibly  holding a mirror to her suffering standing tall, looking directly at the world and embracing her shortcomings through her subjects, freaks that are in fact a fair representation of all of us.

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LARRY CLARK – TULSA SERIES

This week’s readings circled around the idea of enshrining a symbolic moment – the thin line between an event and the quotidian – be it via an image or in our memory , that cannot be recreated nor reproduced. A moment, between seduction and death, between birth and conception, that I relate to the almost magical instant of capturing an image that becomes timeless and iconographic.  Does it become more real or truthful if represented by a photograph?

 

Avant-garde delight

The Russian film Man with a Movie Camera (1929) directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova is a celebration of movie making during the early days of cinema.  This silent film is as much a documentary as an experimentation of techniques and styles.  The tone established at the beginning generates great momentum and places the viewer right at the center of the process of the movie making experience.  Not only is the camera and the photographer present within the frame in the movie, but we come in and out of the actual scenes/fiction to break down the editing process.   To me, it feels like an allegory of labor and its interdependence with the machine working in unison towards progress. There is less concern with the magic of suspense of disbelief or storyline (where none seems to be present) and more emphasis on the process itself. The film acts as a catalog of possibilites, inventions and innovations in both still and moving images.  I enjoyed experiencing a day in small time Russia seen though personal and impersonal experiences as an informative exercise.  I recognize many of the techniques explored by photographers of the avant garde including birds eye, vertical framing, double exposure and many more.

 

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I chose the image above by Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt to frame both articles that were assigned for this week. On the one hand, this image “embalms time”  in a way that is unquestionable and relational to the viewer.   As Bazin so clearly argues, the “magic” of the image is created not because of or by the hand of the artist but instead through the compositional juxtaposition of modern symbols. It is an objective visual reference of modernity and cultural clashes.  It “lays bare” the discrepancy and almost disrespectful mix – I would be interested to know what came fist, the sign or the cross?  This loud viceral clash that we experience in the image is in fact the ne0-Colonial influences that the Resolution of Third Wold Filmmakers so clearly want to repudiate.  In what reads as a Marxist call to arms for third world image/content producers, distributors and promoters to band together and support local film and pohotography industries, the participants of the meeting are primarily concerned with pushing back on seemingly benign content serving as cultural dominance.  What is alarming to note is that this meeting took place in 1973 – and rather that a great flourishing of local industries, the tendency for dominance of content coming from first world nations has only exacerbated around the world.

Photo and meaning

The past three readings, Lentil Soup, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Performing Civic Identity: The Iconic Photograph of the Flag Raising in Iwo Jima come together as a tour de force in the history and iconography of photography.

In Lentil Soup, Coleman makes the argument that the use and fascination with the image pre-dates the invention of the camera by centuries.  In fact, the “lentil” shaped lenses, had been in use and aided image makers for quite some time.  The artist David Hockney wrote an interesting piece, similar in spirit to Lentil Soup, on the use of Camera Obscura by many artists to create and achieve realistic images since the Renaissance. The great achievement, then, of the camera as a mechanic object, is its ability to embed or imprint an image on a reproducible flat element that captures exactly what the “hole” in the camera sees through the lens.

The lenses, by design, will edit and synthesize an image into a static representation.  It is a point of view in time and place that situates the viewer behind the lens.  Obviously, this is an interpretation of photography that seems dated and somewhat conservative as technology and the medium have evolved into a more dynamic and elusive interpretation of reality.  Where photo-journalists have to represent and stand behind accuracy and true representation, art photography has exploded the medium into different realms of perception.

Focusing on the image of Iwo Jima, it was remarkable for me to learn that this is the most reproduced image in history. I am clearly a product of a different generation that not only did not live thought WWII, but has also very little emotional connection to the image.  This emotional distance from the event and the iconic image, allows me to have a different and perhaps colder read.  While I think that it is a beautifully composed shot, I have a hard time appreciating nostalgic images that glorify war. For me, rather than an allegory, this image takes on a commercial identity and celebrates a reductionist interpretation of the event. What makes it an interesting read, is how we follow the evolution of the use of this image, from becoming an instant beacon of freedom to a template for a 3D bronze sculpture and ultimately setting the standard and becoming a pre-cursor of modern day images of strength, victory and hope.