I have been wondering…. If software keeps improving, and the young does and bucks of the photography world all shoot digital, what happens when the ideas run out for extra-large, fully saturated colour photographs…. When perfect focus from front to back is no longer enough.
I am sorry to say that perhaps I have my answer in the work of a young photographer from Belgium. His work imitates classic fashion photographs from a golden age. Something a great photographer might have done in the 1960s. Sam Haskins perhaps, or David Bailey…..? Grainy fashion photographs that look very casual, but are actually the culmination of years of practice and skill in the studio and in the darkroom. You can see these images in your mind’s eye.
What I find so troubling is that rather than honouring the skill and expertise in lighting and darkroom work of the Masters and putting in the work, the young photographer does what seems all too common, he takes an average photograph using his digital camera and goes in and fixes it on his computer. He does what only a contemporary photographer shooting in digital might do, he disrespects those that paved the way and made his life possible by taking a digital photograph and fixing it to look like something from an age when true Masters of the medium showed off their skills in the studio, behind the camera, and in the darkroom.
In a recent quote the photographer said:
“I shoot digital but the inspiration of analogue photography is very important and I think I have found a perfect way of having all the advantages of shooting digital but with the complete aesthetics of the analogue photo.”
I wonder if it is just being lazy, or simply a sign of the times. A young-ish photographer – born in 1987 – would rather work on a computer using a digital file than setting up the studio and lighting properly and having acquired the skills to execute the perfect shot using the materials that define the medium. For extra measure, he adds in the grain at the end to resemble a classic analogue photograph and ‘Bob’s your uncle’, as they say.
Instant gratification seems to be the new normal. How quickly can I see the image. How quickly can I upload the file and get behind the screen to do my thing, before posting it on Instagram. Coco Chanel said the highest form of flattery is imitation……but to make a dress and copy a silhouette still takes skill. On an average computer you can do most things and I don’t find that particularly flattering. In fact, one might wonder; was there a studio, a model and a hat, or is the whole thing just a jumble of ones and zeros.
I have in the past lamented the gallery that forces a photographer, or any artist for that matter, to work in a particular way. In addition to often resulting in series of photographs in a certain quantity, I also mean that the gallery has a certain lay-out, a certain amount of wall space and will organize its exhibitions based on the limitations dictated by said space. The walls are the walls and an accommodation must be made to bring the art to the space, as opposed to the space to the art.
And here we have the crux of the matter: A gallery has an artist in its stable with a
contract. Perhaps even an exclusive
contract. It befalls the artist to work
with the gallery to get an exhibition of their work. If the average gallery has between 6 and 10
shows per year, and a stable of maybe 20, or 30 artists, it does not take a
world class mathematician to figure out that on average you wait 3 years to
have a solo show. This assuming of
course that the gallery does not play favorites. Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder
that the artists might be forgiven for trying to get their work to fit the gallery
Further, it stands to reason that the gallerist fancies him-, or herself a connoisseur and has great sway when it comes to the work of the artists in the stable. After all, they picked the artists and brought the artist a certain standing by having gallery representation in the first place. Of course, I am generalizing a little, but for most artists, this is their reality.
Given that the gallerist will decide what work is shown in their gallery, the work will be influenced by the gallery space. I have heard several examples of where an artist presents new work to the gallerist, only to be told that the work is not suitable for the gallery, or will not sell. Short of breaking their contract and walking away, with whatever consequences this may entail, the artist is basically destined to conform to the wishes of their gallery.
Galleries seem to have had artists over a barrel for the
longest time. Sometimes this
relationship can be a fruitful partnership that encourages an artist to do great
work, but sometimes it is the shackles that stifle creativity and evolution of
artistic expression. After all, it
mostly comes down to simply economics.
Supply and demand. If there is
supply and no way to create demand (as in no gallery representation), the
supply is no longer relevant, however great it may be. Case in point: Dora Maar, once the muse of Pablo Picasso, and
currently showing at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, was a great artist. Picasso blackballed her work by threatening
all the galleries in Paris with his wrath should they dare to show or sell her
work after their tumultuous break-up.
Great supply. No demand.
Let me give you an example from a very well known gallery in Italy, which has in its stable one of the greatest living photographers. Out of respect for both, I will not name names. The photographer one day came to the gallery with a whole box of 30 cm x 40 cm prints that he had just finished making in his darkroom. Each photograph was wonderfully printed. The tonal range perfect. The photographs were timeless. And they will never leave the box. Why? Well, the subject matter is drawn from a number of old and perhaps forgotten cemeteries, where tilted and fallen stones, exquisite sculpture and the undeniable fate that awaits us all is shown, as only a great photographer can present it.
The fact that these photographs will never hang on the gallery wall, or be shown beyond the confines of a single box in a sea of boxes, is a reflection of the gallery having decided that this work is unsellable and under no circumstances can it be shown or hung in frames along the walls of the gallery. Of course, the gallery may be entirely right. Not a single sale could happen, were the gallery to hang a show of dead people and their memorials. But, is the decision not to show the artist’s cemetery work the gallerist’s to make?
In a world where the gallery reigns supreme, there is obviously only one answer to this question. But with public spaces abound, is it the only answer? Sadly, here too, the gallerists hold most of the cards. Art is hung in public buildings, museums, and the like, but most often with a gallery deciding what should, or should not hang. In a word, the gallery is the filter. I can understand this, as it is easier for a public service, utility or institution to go to a gallery with multiple artists and simple say that we want a show each month and can you do that for us. Easier because there will be a variety of artists represented by the gallery and instead of having multiple artists to coordinate, there is a single point of contact. Working with artists who might have different ideas, different frames, different demands, or even a different esthetic may proved challenging. Working with a gallery is above all else simple.
I write this entry as a response to what I read in the most recent issue of Monocle. A gallery in Milan run by Massimo de Carlo – the article calls him ‘Milan’s most prominent gallerist’ – has moved to a new location. A villa, constructed in 1936.
The article goes on to say that: ‘The space is embellished with a rainbow of mixed marble and ornate wall decorations’. De Carlo is quoted as saying: “Artists don’t want cold industrial spaces and cement floors anymore”, he continues “The future of art is in locations with personality and history that can stimulate the artists.”
And there you have it.
The space for the artist to show his or her work is no longer merely a
blank canvas to serve as a neutral background for their work. No, now the artist has to accommodate the quirks
of a 1936 villa, designed and decorated for the use of a family, not as a
gallery. Built at a time, when the
Fascists ruled Italy. Now, the artist
is expected, as per de Carlo, to be inspired by the space and produce art
accordingly. This sounds a little
totalitarian, does it not?
In a rather flattering introduction to the new show at FOAM in Amsterdam, Alex Prager is described as being rooted in: “……. the photographic tradition of William Eggleston, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, each of whom mastered the art of freezing the indeterminable everyday moment.” I am sure being in the company of those that most photography enthusiasts, and novices, recognize for their brilliance, will make lots of people flock to FOAM, Amsterdam.
Eggleston is one of the early proponents of colour photography. Arbus observed people, mostly on society’s margins, and Sherman is famous for her Untitled Film Stills. All three are gods on the Mount Olympus of Photography, yet, each is known for a very different contribution to photography. I am not sure that you can find any overlap between the three, nor even with the best intentions any reasonable link to Alex Prager.
I might buy the argument that there is a bit of common ground between Sherman and Prager, but even there, I have trouble seeing the relevance. In Sherman’s break through work Untitled Film Stills, she uses herself as a model to make photographs that could double for those we would have seen in the front lobby of any movie theater through the 1980s. The genius of Sherman’s work is in the story she is not quite telling in a single black and white photograph. Sherman says nothing. There is no title. She lets the viewer develop a story in their mind’s eye. Different hair and make-up, different looks, different distances, different settings evoke different film genres. There isn’t a Museum today that would not fall over itself to have a few Sherman Untitled Movie Stills in their collection. The photographs are beautifully staged and executed in the standard 8” x 10” format that you would see at the movie theater.
William Eggleston made photographs that, one might say, broke the colour barrier in photography. Serious photographers before Eggleston were black and white photographers. Sure, others contemporaries shot in colour, but their success did not happen till much later when they were ‘discovered’. Think Saul Leiter and Fred Herzog. Eggleston uses saturated colour. His compositions, which are often deceptively simple and sometimes by appearance, almost random. Eggleston’s photographs are shot analog and printed with the best available materials, as dye transfer prints.
Diane Arbus, is the photographer with whom I have the most difficulty finding any common ground with Prager. Arbus usually shot square format, full frame photographs of consenting people on the margins of society. Portraits, one might argue. She showed those that were outsiders and often disadvantaged. Always photographing in black and white, Arbus is best known for her posthumous 16” x 20” photographs, printed by Neil Selkirk.
Now, let us have a look at Prager. She comes up with good stories, or suggestions of stories for her pictures, which are often helped along by a title (unlike Cindy Sherman, who did not title her film stills, just giving them numbers). Prager then uses advanced computer graphics, takes a sometimes large number of digital photographic files and blends them to create the setting and background she is looking for. She prints them in large sizes, in hyper-saturated colour. One might say, that Parger is more like Jeff Wall than Sherman, Eggleston or Arbus, but maybe less cerebral?
So my message to the person writing the infomercial copy for the Alex Prager show: Colour by Eggleston. Film still by Sherman? What by Arbus? I get that you need to get people through the door. I understand that: ‘Come and see Alex Prager’s oversize, saturated colour digital prints, made using advanced software skills, blending multiple digital files, made to resemble could-be-real-life situations…..’, might not sell, as many tickets.
Let us call a spade a spade, and let us not invoke those
that were trailblazers, to boost sales. This
is not fair to Alex Prager, and certainly not fair to Eggleston, Arbus and
“…the world you live in is colour: you must re-invent it in order to show, as the colour becomes the very subject of photography, it is not a mere recording…” – Franco Fontana
The work of one of my favorite colour photographers is on display in Modena. After almost 60 years of work, Franco Fontana is given no less than two exhibitions across three venues. I saw a retrospective of a reasonable size, maybe 100 photographs in Venice a few years ago. But the Modena exhibitions are supposed to be the main event. I hope to go there in the coming weeks.
At 86 years of age, Fontana keeps working, the quality and the eye remaining intensely strong. In a recent interview by Paola Sammartano, Fontana talks about his work. I found it enlightening. As you can see from the quote above, making colour photographs is challenging, as what we all live and see is in colour – well most of us anyway – and in order for this not to be just another postcard, enter the magician’s eye for composition.
Fontana explains that what the colour photographer has to do, is turn the colour of the everyday into the subject itself. To a photographer – me – who tries hard to see the world in black and white and shades of grey, this is profound. Fontana does not look for a particular composition of everyday life, as I do, he looks to take colour and turn the colour that he sees into the subject of the photograph, not actually setting out to record the object or scene that is in front of him. Fontana has a different way of seeing.
I first knew Fontana from books. He has done a lot of books. Still does. A few years ago, I bought a Polaroid by him, which I proudly framed. And more recently, I added a second photograph. It is one of Fontana’s most famous photographs taken in the south of Italy. The rolling landscape and the single tree are brought together by clear lines of precise colour coming from each field. Note that there is no horizon and aside from the tree, which could be large or small, there is no indication of scale. It is a wonderful colour composition. It works. Much better in colour, than it would have in black and white. This is a photograph of colour, not a tree, nor a landscape. This is pure Fontana.
Fontana says that: “….what you see is colourful and has to be reinvented [by the photographer] because the colour itself must turn an object into a subject. If it remains merely an object, then I think the film, and not the photographer, is managing the colour.”
To me this explains
why in his most successful photographs, Fontana is not making colour saturated,
beautiful postcards, but is using the colour that he sees to create
compositions that are about colour itself.
Colour separate from what is actually before him when he takes the
I think many would
probably suggest that Fontana’s most successful photographs have an abstract
quality to them, showing fields of colour that together with other fields of
colour create a splendid composition.
Fontana is asking the viewer to think about colour for its own
sake. Some will seek to find, and in
most cases can make out the original object of the photograph. There is nothing wrong with wanting to
understand the origin of genius. It is
to better understand what it was that Fontana saw, and reinvented, so well.
Among today’s hyperactive selfie-nation there are surely phone owners who can make Fontana photographs, either by chance, or by computer. But, I admire that Fontana with film, camera, lens and available light, repeatedly can produce profound statements of colour that are not only recognizable and in his signature style, but also represent the finest in colour photography.
The curator of one of the two shows in Modena, the one not curated by Fontana himself says that: “His bold geometric compositions are characterized by shimmering colours, level perspectives and a geometric-formalist and minimal language”, going on to say that: “The way Fontana shoots, dematerializes the objects photographed, which loose three-dimensionality and realism to become part of an abstract drawing.”
I like what Fontana
himself says a lot better, but then, he is only the photographer.
Note: See the exhibitions at the three venues in
Modena through August 25th at:
Margherita, Sala Grande, Corso Canalgrande 103
Giardini, Corso Cavour 2
MATA – Ex
Manifattura Tabacchi, via della Manifattura dei Tabacchi 83