Daniel Blaufuks with David Campany
Daniel Blaufuks, Works on Memory, Ffotogallery Cardiff, 2012
The artist Daniel Blaufuks’ book Works on Memory contains a long exchange between Blaufuks and David Campany on the subject of history, memory, technology and photography.
Size: 115 x 178 mm / Illustration: 92 b&w / Binding: Softback 152 pages / Text: English / Publication date: January 2012 / ISBN: 978 1 872771 87 8 / Price: £10 / Distributor: Cornerhouse Publications / Buy now
Daniel Blaufuks and David Campany – a Conversation
Daniel, your work in photography varies a great deal from project to project but I sense the connecting themes are ‘memory’ and ‘history’. Photography ‘as’ memory and history. The photography ‘of’ memory and history. And the memory and history ‘of’ photography. You explore and express these themes in different ways. More broadly the medium of photography has been understood by popular culture as having a special relation to memory and history. Against this runs a more ambivalent line of thinking – from Walter Benjamin to Roland Barthes – that sees photography as something that comes to disturb the very concepts of memory and history, revealing them to be constructs, not ‘natural’. Could you say a little about this in relation to your own photography?
Dear David, yes, I like to vary my ways of working, as I am also interested in different ways of showing images, although I think my approach to photography, or film, is always more or less the same. And yes, I am very interested in memory and history, or, rather histories, personal memories against the historical background. To try to answer your question, I think the medium, unlike most other mediums, has indeed a strong responsibility in these fields, as it creates its own constructions and meanings of reality, past or present. So, I am very aware of the importance of “reading” an image, understanding its possible layers and connections, perceiving that the family snapshot or the war image are indeed not “natural”, but are as close as we get sometimes to the information lying within. That is why I am interested in documentary film, as well, having made some myself, although I consider them and my photographic work full of subjective meanings. Maybe Barthes and Benjamin would approve of that.
Looking across the range of your work I don’t so much see a common theme as a common tension. It’s quite a productive, animating tension between the desire
to know and the desire to speculate. The ‘what is’ and the ‘what if?’ You’re something of a historian, a detective even, but there’s also a very playful streak. Does this make sense, does it ring true with you?
Well, not long ago someone, a recent acquaintance who didn’t know my work
very well, called me “the curious researcher”, which I took as a wonderful compliment. I am indeed someone interested in various subjects, and obviously that interest will find its way into the work, sometimes even undesired. And I do like to play, to follow a direction that some life-turn or event is leading me to. Also I don’t feel, like many other artists do, that I do have to stick to one constrained subject or way of working. I prefer to imagine that I am sometimes “writing” poetry and other times fiction or essays, some more profound, some more playful. But I do know that at the heart of every project I do, the underlying theme is my interest in memory and how we deal with it.
Is it photography itself that is being memorialized in your projects, a kind of working through of the privileged place once given to the photographic image as a token of the past? I ask this because my students, and more so my young children don’t seem to have this relation to photography. They see it more as a token of exchange than of memory. There’s not that great endowment of the still image with the weight of history. For example your book Terezin begins with an image of a room you saw in a book by the writer WG Sebald and ends with you having followed its threads to a wartime ghetto. Reading it I felt two things. The first was the sensation of being with a ‘curious researcher’, as your friend put it. The second was a realization of the immense historical burden placed on the still image, which it can barely carry.
But so is text or even a single word burdened. We can regard it as a simple note or as a powerful transmission device. Photography is an alphabet, so to speak, which contains many possibilities of depth. I agree, although our relation with the medium is quickly changing, as it becomes more and more fluid, not only in the making through digital cameras, but in easy sharing through the internet. But not every piece of writing is necessarily literature, and not every photograph needs to carry that burden you mentioned. The question is, if we are capable of reading the language the photographer is writing, is it a song or an aria? Cinema, in a way, is going through the same period of interrogation, as we lose the habit of seeing it on screens and among strangers, and therefore are losing the reverence we once had for it. I cannot work with photography ignoring its ancient power of becoming something like an instant memory of the present. So I think I am also constantly questioning that same power, that lost aura.
In many of your projects that questioning takes the form of a movement, often restless, cursive and curious between one image and the next and the next. Can you say something about this? How much of your work is constructed in the editing and sequencing? And how much do your projects evolve in the course of shooting and editing?
I am not interested at all in the single image, but in the sequence or flux of images, in a kind of cinematic prose. So, while shooting one image I tend to be thinking of the previous one, which does not mean that in the end this will work out. Same with my video work: I have an idea, but not the final product in my head. That will hopefully evolve from the shooting, the editing and the thinking while doing it. In the editing, I can change everything, by not only sequencing it, but most of all by choosing and erasing whole sequences. As with video.
It’s possible that editing and assembly are more integral to film and video than they are to photography. But it’s fascinating how photography became a modern medium in the 1920s and 30s through a suspicion of, or a need to exceed the single image. I think of László Moholy-Nagy declaring: “the picture loses its identity as such and becomes a detail of assembly, an essential structural element of the whole which is the thing itself. In this concatenation of its separate but inseparable parts a photographic series inspired by a definite purpose can become at once the most potent weapon and the tenderest lyric”; or August Sander: “A successful photo is only a preliminary step toward the intelligent use of photography… Photography is like a mosaic that becomes a synthesis only when it is presented en masse”; or Walker Evans: “After knowing what to take you have to do the editing,” etc. etc. This is still the dominant attitude – very few contemporary photographers make and present images in isolation. Suites, series, archives, albums, typologies, montages, collages, juxtapositions. Painters never felt this so strongly. Are there connections for you between memory and this multiplicity in photography?
Very few photographs function entirely on their own, I would think, apart from advertising, fashion or news photography. The original image from Terezín in the Sebald book (by Dirk Reinartz) is very strong by itself, but I was unable to halt there, I needed to understand and later work on the context. We can present a single image of a dead soldier and elaborate a long speech on the memory of war and of private suffering just from that, but memories are so much more complex than a single vision. How many images do we see alone during one day? And how many points of view from the same subject? Memories are images from images from images. Do we need memories? Do we need photography to remind us of memory? I don’t know. Also, by creating work, we are creating new memories. An image is a memory of something the photographer saw and that is about to be imprinted on the memory (long lasting or probably not) of the viewer. That is also one of the paradoxes of photography, we are actually seeing in our present something that someone saw in the past and eventually others will see in the future. We could say the same of painting, but the fact that in photography reality does not undergo any major transfiguration or construction (like in cinema), makes this eerier.
I agree that the isolated image is always a little eerie. But this is because the stilling and muting of the world is actually a major transfiguration. But might it be that very few photographs function on their own because they’ve not been allowed to? The instrumentalism of the archive and the magazine photo-essay, the narrative structure of the family album and the news report, such things certainly forced the image into the service of larger arguments and put it into relations to other images. This shaped viewing habits profoundly, perhaps to such an extent that we have trouble escaping them. Bourgeois culture assembles its version of history, memory and truth. Its critics pull them apart and reassemble them to reveal the mechanism. The eeriness is the uncontainable, unaccountable remainder that is revealed.
You are entirely right about the transfiguration of the world through muting and stilling. But so is the black and white photograph that we take for the absolute truth, more even than the color image. Generally we do not perceive this transformation, same with photographs in books or magazines. We do not consider that the real object has a proper size and framing defined by the artist. We take the reproduction for the truth, which is something that does not happen with the reproduction of paintings, where we know instinctively there is somewhere an original. Agnés Varda talked in her last film about the fact that her generation saw most of the paintings in reproductions in black and white, so that they had to add mentally the colors to it.
That reminds me of André Malraux remark’s on the way photography invented modern art history: “Baudelaire never set eyes on the masterpieces of El Greco, Michelangelo, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca or Grunewald; or of Titian, or of Hals or Goya – the Galerie d’Orléans notwithstanding […] What had he seen? What (until 1900) had been seen by all those writers whose views on art still impress us as revealing and important; whom we take to be speaking of the same works we know, and referring to the same data as those available to us? They had visited two or three galleries, and seen reproductions (photographs, prints or copies) of a handful of the masterpieces of European art; most of their readers had seen even less.”
But counter to that strong critique I think of all those moments when photography or film really has permitted us knowledge of the world, or even allowed us to contemplate it. How do we balance such things?
I don’t know. Eventually by learning how to read images and trying to understand their meaning and poetry, more than their actual information.
Yes, meaning and poetry. We are circling around the central tension in photography between ‘artwork’ and ‘document’. It’s a tension that was there from the beginning but has been explored in very different ways since then. It’s certainly a tension that you dramatize in much of your work. Many of your most striking projects contain images of what we might call the ‘apparatus’ of the analogue archive – the library, the postcard, the hand-written letter, celluloid film frames, files of various kinds, physical traces left behind, monuments and memorial sites. The material manifestation of the technology of modern memory. Put together they add up to an inventory of the ‘analogue’ archive. There is a kind of politicized melancholy at work here, I sense. A kind of taking stock within reach of the spectre of the digital with its very different regime of the visual (I think of the difference between the hand-written letter and email, between the filing cabinet and the folder on a computer hard drive, between the celluloid movie camera/projector and the digital equivalent, the manual typewriter and the laptop computer). The digital may produce infinitely more images but its apparatus is not so photogenic, slipping away from the visual register into the virtual. At the same time we human beings remain irreducibly physical beings with physical needs, analogue needs if you like…
I am very interested in the ways not only photography and film are changing, but also the archives and, obviously, our memory. I am going to sound old now, but I do come from a time when we kept letters, photos, tickets, notes, etc. as mementos or souvenirs from something or someone special. Some people still do that, because they need to have things that are touchable and not virtual. But the fact is that most of our communication now is lost in computers and hard drives and it will be interesting to see how historians deal with that in the future. I was recently in an archive in Germany that contains millions of files, lists and objects from the concentration camps. I was curious to see how such an enormous event could be stored inside files, cabinets and rooms. It was an amazing experience to see the actual vastness of it. In the future memory will be different, not better or worse, but different.
Is this change in the nature or register of memory your biggest challenge as an artist? And have you noticed the change over the decades you have been making work?
I cannot answer that. But I am sure that the fact that I started out in the “analogue days” and made a transition to digital is important to my work. I had worked a lot with instant cameras, made Polaroid diaries, so that the velocity of the digital image made sense to me from the start, but the way of achieving, distributing and perceiving a photograph has changed and therefore became a major issue in the process, parallel to the disappearance of the traditional snapshot on paper or the family photo album. You cannot ignore these occurrences.
Is the space of art for you a space of stability, not in the sense of fixed answers or attitudes but at least a stable space in which to pose questions about all this? After all the discourse of art implicitly demands that artworks stay pretty much the same, that they last for a long time and that they circulate under declared authorship. This seems to be in marked contrast to the promiscuous production, dissemination and ephemerality so often associated with the digital era. In other words do you see your own artworks becoming documents of a moment of transition?
Not really, that would be too presumptuous. If they become moments of thought when they are seen, even if only for a tiny fraction of time, I am happy. Also I think works don’t stay the same, with time they gain or lose meanings and layers, even if unintended by the artist.
Some of your projects are very compact and minimal – small series of images, found photos, found objects, short films. Others are much more substantial and involved. Is the scope of a project apparent and obvious to you early on in the process? And how are projects brought to their final form? Perhaps you could describe the genesis of some of your works.
The best example might be Terezín, which started out as an intriguing photograph in a book by Sebald. I thought that the theatrical image of what seemed to be an office with desks and file cabinets had a lot to do with what I was doing and thinking at the time. A few years later I followed my instinct and flew with air miles to Prague to visit Theresienstadt. Still, I was thinking I would copy that image, if I do find the place it was taken and I would integrate the image in some project I was working on, the idea of the archive. But then it started to fascinate me more and more and I started to research, I found out about the fake documentary done there by the Nazis and so forth. So in a way, I followed the project that was always ahead of me. Similarly in other projects: the Album grew, because it only made sense as a bulk of objects, a bulk of memory of an unknown collector; others shrink, because it does not seem that they get more interesting by size. Sometimes I feel you can say everything with one image, sometimes I need a film with sound and chronology…
It seemed for a while there was something of a split in photographic art, between those who made photographs and those who preferred to work exclusively with found images. You move very fluidly between the two, often mixing them up. Do you have the same attitude to photographs you have taken and photographs you have found and decided to incorporate into your work? Or are they all just ‘images’, first and last?
Found images or found footage have a special “aura”, that is unattainable by photographs I take. In my documentary Under Strange Skies I had the idea of doing just one shot (the rest of the film is with still images and archive footage). I wanted the film to start with a view of the Jewish cemetery in Lisbon. And then I found that my great-uncle had done that already in 1968 with a Super-8 camera. So I thought it was unnecessary to do it again. Also I like the idea of transmission, and that you give a different meaning to an unrelated snapshot someone did, perhaps with no further intentions. To change the status of the image that you find in the garbage or flea market or, for that matter, in an archive.
Have you made work consisting only of found images? If you have, are the artistic parameters very different?
I have. Memento Mori is made from found photographs of tombstones with only a last name on it, no first names nor dates. I have made video work with found footage or from known films. And Album is made of found objects, so to speak. The way of working is not very different, although the images already come with a history that “fresh” images don’t have. People react to them differently, as they usually trigger something in your mind, personal or collective memory, because of how they look or where they come from. My own photographs don’t have that power from the start.
Can the audience always tell the difference between found images and your images? By that I mean… is the aura you speak of a physical property of the found image or does it result from the suspension of its former use in your redeployment of it? I find ‘aura’ is such a complicated word! Even Walter Benjamin, whose inter-war writings are still vital on the matter, seemed to change his mind as to what aura was for him. But he would certainly be interested in the function played by aura in your re-photographic work. Somehow I’ve always presumed you’re a keen reader of Benjamin…
I would love that Benjamin would be interested in my work, if he was alive. Yes, maybe I should have used a different word, you are right. I think that the knowledge that you are looking at images that have somehow survived and reappeared in the constant flux of images, also with their technical problems, which became kind of charming in the digital age, makes us look at them differently. I saw the wonderful André Kertesz exhibition in Parisin 2010 and I don’t think we can look at those images in the same way people did, when they were new prints. Maybe aura for me has obviously something to do with time, but also with failure, scratches, dust, fading colors, etc. We won’t have that in the future, will we?
We may not have it in those particular ways, because they’re so much a part of ‘analogue’ culture and technology. But the digital has its own failures and I suspect it will have its own unexpected paths towards the auratic. It’s not for us to say that it won’t, put it that way. After all it was only a few generations back that people were talking about the birth of photography signaling the death of aura. I don’t think I can say what forms this new aura will take but history tells me we shouldn’t rule it out altogether.
You might be right, but just the fact that all prints are alike, no dust, no scratch, just pixels, makes it a bit “anti-auratic” from the point of view of today. This reminds me now of the Persian carpet tradition, where a voluntary mistake is always included in the pattern, because only G-d can be perfect. The necessity of error or we could even talk about the necessity of being able to be lost in the age of Global Positioning System (GPS), the necessity of boredom in the age of Playstations and so forth.
I’m reminded of the fact that the company that owns the copyright of the famous London A-Z maps always includes a deliberate mistake in each issue. If the same mistake appears in rival maps they know they have been copied. I agree with you about GPS. Think how much great art, literature and film of the last century was premised on chance encounters and getting lost. Rodenbach’s Bruges La Morte, Breton’s Nadja, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Situationism, street photography. But I see the voluntary mistakes of the Persian carpet makers in the reverse way, with little to do with fear of offending the Almighty. Might it not be a rather arrogant declaration that perfection is within their grasp? “Even our mistakes are deliberate!” I sense digital images are just as full of mistakes, or rather quirks of the moment of their making. The passing of time is likely to make them ever more obvious to us. Just look at how image retouching has an aesthetic that has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades.
I like your idea of the arrogance of the carpet makers. But aren’t all artists in one way or another arrogant? We create objects, produce images, films and think that the world will be a better place with them and that people need them, if not by possession, at least spiritually. And, fortunately, in the case of a few artists it is true.
Art is for anyone but probably not for everyone. The art that strikes us as arrogant is usually art we don’t like or care for. Good art never seems arrogant. I am grateful for good art. But what complicates this is the idea of the work of speculation, of just not knowing whether one’s art will reach anyone or mean anything to them. This we can never guarantee. I sense many of your own works are made and operate this way…
I like it if I can establish some kind of dialogue through my work. Some works do that better than others, but it does not mean that they are better or worse. They are just more talkative. But, like any other work based on a mix of instinct, taste and research, this is about trial and error. It is an ongoing process, where all works intertwine and eventually become one. A few years ago I wrote that “I would like my work to cover everything that I am, everything I have seen, everything I want, everything I remember, everything I know, everything that interests me, everything I have done, everything I haven’t done, everything I wanted to be”.
And the viewer?
The viewer? The viewer is, in a way, responsible for the existence of a mute dialogue, of a trade between him and the work, therefore between him and me. Eventually and hopefully we create a space of silence, of thought, of suspension.
Silence and suspension are very rare commodities these days. You work both in the gallery context and have made quite a number of books over the years. Do you think the wall and the page have different relations to silence and suspension? A viewer may see an exhibition only once and must rely upon their memory of it. A book can be returned to at any time.
The experience between seeing the work on a wall or in a book is totally different. Also the disposition of the viewer varies: in a show he is usually not alone, he is less concentrated. Also books allow a more precise configuration of the work, a swifter flow of the images, a much wider scope of the project, text if one thinks it’s necessary, etc. And I am here talking about books, not catalogues, as there is a huge difference in approach. Catalogues, like exhibitions, have a short life span, but books, on the contrary, are long lasting and become eventually proud possessions. In this sense they are very democratic, as almost everyone can afford a book but not an artwork. And I think, at least in my case, books represent much more what I want with my work, than the single image. And books can be art works in their own right.
Is your interest in memory and the material/ephemeral photograph related to your commitment to the permanence of the book form? Whatever else they are, books always seem to be made ‘for the record’.
First of all it is my love for books that compels me to make them. Then I really think most photographic projects are better served by books than by exhibitions. It’s a different medium, probably the most perfect one, and you don’t even have to connect it to a power source. Then I love to be able to carry and give my work away through books. And, last but not least, permanence is important, the fact that a book can be retrieved many years later, can be discovered by different people in other parts of the world. If you would choose one human invention, which would it be?
I agree, the book. But it’s fascinating how there has been a renaissance of interest in the photographic book in the last decade or so, and books are being made now that are as good as at any time before. And yet I sense this renaissance has been prompted by other things: a frustration with the limits of the gallery (despite the recent triumph of photography in art) and the displacing of the book by the computer screen… all this has alerted viewers to the specificities, the particularities, of sites and contexts – page, wall, screen.
Yes, I think photographers are more and more looking for other ways to show their work beside hanging images in galleries. There are very interesting projects on the internet as well, fully adapted to the medium and I think we will see more and more work presented through iPads. I did a show at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro this year, where I showed the images in a double projection, almost as an open book. The images would flow through cuts, jumps and fades, and you would see, if you had the patience, the whole work in an hour. I felt that it was so much more interesting than the usual photographs on the wall, where you need to constrain the number of works because of the size of the space, and also I liked the fact that I was monitoring the viewing time for each image. No fast forward here, either you wanted to see it at my pace or you didn’t see it at all.
Yes, I guess specificity is the key term here – the making of work specific to its context or mode of display. Photographers committed to the exhibition space often speak of large scale (larger than the page), while artist-filmmakers enjoy the uncinematic openness of a gallery, which isn’t a movie theater. But more importantly they talk of the mode of attention demanded by the gallery setting and the importance of a transient experience. We can experience and return to a book or DVD endlessly but a temporary exhibition may produce a unique and memorably intense occasion for seeing and thinking. Books are intended for one person. Or one at a time. Both cinema and to a lesser extent art are premised on economies of scale that demand multiple simultaneous viewers. As you say the DVD operates in a hybrid space. I felt this acutely when I watched the DVD of the staged propaganda film included in the back of your book Terezin. A film made during the war for a very different audience ends up in a book published in 2010, and played on the laptop upon which I’m writing these words to you.
Well, against my own words, I think that this is the kind of work that will be best viewed in a room with a fair sized projection and, most of all, an adequate sound volume, because it will bring out specific elements from the original film and from my intervention on it. The details of the decaying skin (film, pelicule) are somehow lost in the small sized computer screen, and so is the powerful original music that I slowed down, and now sounds like a funeral march. Also it is easier to concentrate on the screen, when you are in a dark room.
I recall when Chris Marker released his CD-rom ‘Immemory’ in the late 1990s he spoke of finally, after nearly fifty years, having a format that expressed his thinking, his way of making films, making photographs, writing. A few years ago I had a conversation with Susan Meiselas. She was just about to republish her book Carnival Strippers (1976) and she had the opportunity to include a CD of the sound and voices she had recorded at the time. Such examples show us that while our artistic imagination operates within given practical parameters there are moments when we are making work for a format to come, a context to come.
Chris Marker is a visionary, but there is also always an excitement with new media and new forms of expression. Then again, people reconsider and go back to more traditional mediums. Maybe that is why there has been this recent hype with photobooks, parallel to the appearance of iPads and Kindles, and lots of people, including me, are shooting in Super-8. And you have the wonderful work of Tacita Dean, which can only work with film, and she is making an appeal for its continuity. Our forms of expression became, alas, much too connected with technology and decisions of company directors. Imagine the outcry if paint or brushes were to be abolished and substituted by iPhones. Film is something you can touch and feel, something that exists, independently from projections or hard drives.
The argument that new technologies do not replace older ones certainly seems to break down the more involved and expensive they become. No, I don’t suppose paintbrushes and canvas will become obsolete. 16mm ciné-film almost certainly will. But new technologies do redefine and make newly available work made with older ones. Modern art history as we know it only got going through photographic reproduction, which allowed so many disparate images and objects to be compared and contrasted. ‘Cinema studies’ was made possible when critics and theorists got access to tabletop Steenbeck viewers to make close analyses of sequences. This was then democratized via VHS, DVD and the Internet. How does the fact that with the internet I can find and buy almost any book ever printed, or locate any film change those objects? One of the paradoxes of the electronic era is that is it infinitely easier to get our hands on analogue objects such as books, films, vinyl records, old photographs, paper documents and so forth. And you and I are having this exchange via email. How much of the ‘research’ for your projects is conducted online
Oh, yes, I agree, nothing beats the distribution through the internet. And I do a lot of research on it. I think it’s unavoidable and it is, as we all know, very useful. The fact that we can reproduce something almost as good as the original, or that in many arts we stopped having an original, is obviously shaping our way of thinking. And I know that everything changes, but what I am weary about is that technology changes the process. And I don’t agree that 16mm film will become obsolete. It will not be made anymore, but that does not mean that you can do what you did with it with newer technologies. You can’t, as much as you can’t substitute 35mm with digital. It’s easier and cheaper for the industry to produce and to distribute, but there are many things that are lost in the process. As your iPod does not substitute the sound of a vinyl record, it merely recreates it. And yes, we get used to the lower standards, but it is still a loss. Maybe there is a point in the progress of these technologies, where it stopped getting better and instead it started to get smaller, easier and cheaper.
When I said 16mm ciné film will become obsolete I didn’t mean it will be replaced by something. It won’t be. It can’t be. Its unique qualities will die with it. For me the broader point is that art and artists stand in an equivocal relationship to obsolescence. Most seem to find the latest technology either ugly or too novel, preferring either well-established media or slightly ‘eclipsed’ media (think of the rise of photography in art coming in its eclipse by television as society’s primary mass medium, or the reinvention of painting after its realist mandate had passed to photography). Recently I came across an amazingly perceptive remark made by Walker Evans in a 1963 issue of Mademoiselle magazine: ‘Design just a little dated will interest any artist. Design current is always terrible. Anyone who has tried to find a good contemporary lamp or clock will know what I mean.’ It’s a subtle point because he wasn’t denigrating the aesthetic or technology of any era, merely noting that not-newness is what often permits artistic access. One might even say that artists are first to sense the coming obsolescence. When artists get hold of a medium, you know something has passed!
Wow, Walker Evans knew it all. It is absolutely true. But artists vary, so we have people working with the newest and others (or the same) working with obsolete media. I, for myself, love Super8 film, but I use video most of the time and have been working with digital cameras for a long time. And recently I have been going back to Polaroids, as we have these new impossible films, who look like ghost images from the past. But it is probably nothing you couldn’t do on an iPhone…
On the way to my studio this morning I bought a copy of Intelligent Life (a current affairs magazine). It has a photo story, shot on Polaroid, of everyday life in the Middle-East. When I read the caption it tells me these images were made on an iPhone, then converted to the colors of Polaroid and given the distinctive white plastic borders. On the magazine page the images look like physical objects. In fact they look more like objects than they would on an iPhone screen. Paper reinvents paper, via the computer. A strange parallel is drawn between the physical immediacy of a Polaroid photograph (which can be faked) and the physical immediacy of political struggle, which is pictured and globalized electronically. These are strange times in which social change, technological change, and change in the regime of images are all deeply interconnected.
You can now shoot Daguerreotypes on an iPhone. But it is not more than a pastiche of the real thing. The same with the Polaroid. You are lacking the whole process. They might look good, maybe even better than the real thing, but, as you say, they are mere fakes. I think we should not forget that they are not true. You can also make Super8 films with your phone, but do we really need the scratches just as a digital effect? If you can’t touch it, it isn’t film. If you can’t interfere in the process by heating or scratching, it isn’t Polaroid. It’s just ersatz. Also, even if you are using a modern device, you are using an application that falsifies time, therefore today’s pictures will look much older than they actually are, which is also an interesting factor.
I can see these concerns inform the making of much of your work in photography and film. As image-makers were are particularly sensitive to them. Are you expecting your audience to be equally sensitive or is it a matter of introducing them to the issues?
Ah, what does one expect from the audience? When I am working, I am doing it for myself, I work because I want to pursue that path, understand something better or just because I am attracted to something, someone or a city, for example. Then, once I realize I am actually showing that body of work in a public context, I try to make it clearer, either through the installation itself or through text. But different people see different things, which is also part of the game and that is always interesting to me. The specific concerns about the development of photography and the archives we have been talking about are inherent to my thinking, therefore they become part of the work as well. I don’t think that you can work nowadays without seriously thinking about all these changes – how they affect the way we produce and look at images and so forth. And I think a lot of the people who see exhibitions are aware of it, otherwise why bother to go and see the actual space, if you can see it online sooner or later? But in her thesis in 1936, Gisele Freund wrote that photography is now present everywhere, so much, that it becomes invisible.
That’s interesting. Freund and other commentators on photography in the 1920s and 1930s – Benjamin and Kracauer especially – described very well the rupture in memory and history brought about by an accelerated a world of images. This was the beginning of what we now call the spectacle of mass media. From then onwards it has been one rupture after another and as you say it’s impossible for artists and filmmakers not to be aware of, and shaped by, this condition. Hopefully viewers too. But we’re at an interesting point now when the rupture seems to be as much about disappearance as abundance. The obsolescence of certain image forms in the context of the proliferation of newer ones. Too little and too much. Again this is a dialectic I see in your own work which often tries to resist the ‘generality’ of images by attending with great care to very particular images, whether they are your own or rescued from history.
One has to go against the flux of images that we experience everyday. Photography is not about the “well taken” or “beautiful” image, but about the meaning of the image, be it a document, a piece of poetry or both. The meaning changes and is often hidden or hard to convey, but there are some photographs still worth making or saving in the torrent. And one should not forget that owning a camera does not mean one is a photographer. Or that if you do videos you are a filmmaker. From all diaries written in the last centuries, very few are actually literature (and even fewer are good literature) and worth saving. But in time, some unsuspicious ones, like snapshots, do become interesting enough to survive and to be seen or read again. In this sense, all artists unconsciously try to reach this kind of immortality for their works.
Why do you distinguish between the well taken or beautiful and an interest in the meaning of images? You didn’t make the same distinction for literature. Is this a vestige of the resistance to photography as a pictorial art that surfaced with conceptualism? And does this relate to your suspicion about the single image and preference for the organized ‘body of work’?
Yes and no. I am not suspicious of the single image, but, yes, I don’t think a single image means you are an interesting photographer. Anyone can take an interesting photograph, as much as anyone can write a beautiful sentence. My grandfather took wonderful photographs, but he was never a photographer. I must say, I am also suspicious of works that collect things, which has been a trend in recent years – photographic surveys of fences, houses, trees, etc. Some are obviously interesting, but most are pale successors of the work of the Bechers. The problem with photography is that because it is well taken or beautiful, people think it is a good work. Go to any photo art fair and see what I mean. Did I suggest the opposite for literature? Maybe, but I cannot really imagine a book made only of beautiful phrases. We also need the subtext. This reminds me that when I showed Terezín for the first time, someone came up to me and said how beautiful the light is on one of the images. That was really frustrating, because for me beautiful light is probably the most uninteresting aspect of the work. But, I guess, as you can catch flies with light, you catch viewers with beauty…
I too find many of your works very beautiful, but I do not, cannot, separate that experience from the other things I get from them: an intellectual challenge, a provocation, a philosophical meditation, a re-seeing of history and so forth. Photography is light and as such it will have an aesthetic dimension. But even the negation of the aesthetic is an aesthetic act, an aesthetic position, no?
I am not negating the aesthetic of an image, how could I? On the contrary, I am opposing that the value of an image should be aesthetic only. Also, maybe I should clarify this, I do think that some photographs function and should be presented by themselves, because some do manage to have a depth, of layers, as if they contain a whole series of works within them. To be able to understand which ones do this is a difficult task. I don’t know if it makes sense here, but I remembered the famous Iceberg Theory of Hemingway, where he is not sure what the story is really about, meaning the writing is just the surface, the tip of the iceberg. Likewise ideally I see photographs as being just something you have to dig into, a pool of water that you can either observe from a distance or actually dive in and let yourself be part of it. Does this make sense to you at all?
Very much so. Your own work shows just how many lines of approach there can be. Photography is unusual in opening so many pathways into all of that, not least because its reference to the world – its stubborn indexicality – ensures that it can never me aesthetic only.
As photographs are mostly connected to some kind of reality, they usually contain information, as well. Therefore they can rarely extricate themselves from the world as we know it, unlike perhaps other forms of art, which can be more abstract. Even cinema with all its information is more abstract, because it is a constructed world.
I often feel that photographs record an actuality they can never explain or account for (you can photograph a person sneezing but the image will never tell you why they sneezed). Just like frames of a film they are forcefully factual but profoundly enigmatic. Perhaps this relates to your opening remark in our conversation about the difficult necessity of “reading” images in relation to other images, supplemental texts, history and so forth. Your work offers the clues and something of the mise-en-scène that will make them readable.
I hope so. The image is just a fragment of a much larger world, a real one and the ones in the minds of the photographer and of the viewer. They are similar but not the exactly the same. As Benjamin said, citing the Kabala, the world to come will be just like this one, but slightly different. We just have to move things a little and eventually we will get there.
When photography became Modern, around the time Benjamin was writing, for many it was the speed of photography that seemed so characteristic. Of course, Benjamin himself went the other way – celebrating the slow, incremental work of photographers such as August Sander and Eugène Atget, warning viewers that they too would need to proceed slowly in order to read the images. Few people today would associate photography with speed. It has become a slower, philosophical medium, one that is well suited to ‘moving things a little’, as you put it.
I agree, but at same time, it is a medium that is very connected with technology, just as cinema is. In the time of Muybridge, photography was very much related with the railroad and the telegraph, inventions that were made in order to annihilate space and time. Photography would do the same, in the sense that you can have the image of someone or something that is indeed very far away, in fact, you can have that same image in several different locations simultaneously, unlike a painting or a sculpture. The building of the railroads meant immeasurable speed and, not by coincidence, most of the experiences of Muybridge were paid by Stanford, one of the railroad moguls and breeder of fast horses. And Muybridge was experimenting with the speed of photography that eventually became cinema. Now, we have a very accelerated technology that produces, in your words, a slow, philosophical medium. But it is also a technology that can produce fast images by the millions. Like in cinema and literature, maybe the “fight” is between what one considers art and what one would consider entertainment. And can, nowadays, entertainment be something slow or does it need to be moving quickly like Stanford’s horses?
Ah but Muybridge was interested in stopping things. This is why he’s not really the ‘father of cinema’. Cinema merely re-creates the movement it films. I see Muybridge as being on the side of slowness. Anyway I’m more inclined to rephrase your last question: Can art nowadays be something fast or does it need to be slow? There’s a presumption in art and ‘art film’ that slow must equal serious and fast must equal entertainment. I understand the cultural and historical reasons for this but I am suspicious of it too. It’s a default position that allows too many bad artists and filmmakers to look credible, and it shuts off serious audiences from taking ‘fast’ films seriously.
You are so right about that. I could argue with you about Muybridge, because even if he was interested in stopping things, in order to achieve that, he invented camera shutters that permitted him to photograph with the high speed of a fraction of a second. He worked with zoetropes and made his images move and swing. But, yes, if we look at it now, it’s all about the frozen image, the fragmentation of a movement. To try to answer your question, I do think art can be something fast, if it makes us think or, at least, pause for a moment. Otherwise it will be just eye catching, and that I call, maybe presumptuously, entertainment. It can be a very thin line and I surely don’t have anything against something that gives your eye plain pleasure.
Maybe this brings us back to the imperative to think about photography as a process of assembly and movement from one image to another, overcoming the single image. Cinema and documentary film certainly had a deep impact on the development of the photographic essay as an arrangement of parts.
Yes, definitely. When you put two images together, you have a short film. All possible relations can be made from this simple exercise, which I have used in Collected Short Stories. And I added a title to these diptychs, which is kind of a third image, leading you somewhere else.
In his biography of the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, Colin McCabe remarks “…in a world in which we are entertained from cradle to grave whether we like it or not, the ability to rework image and dialogue … may be the key to both psychic and political health.” He has in mind Godard’s use of movie footage in his Histoire(s) du Cinéma, but it’s just as relevant to a photographer or filmmaker ‘reworking’ their own images – through the reevaluation that happens with editing, sequencing and writing.
Mmmh, I am not sure how to respond to this. But surely making my photographs and work has been a good reason to be and stay alive. Lots of the beautiful and interesting things I have done and people I have met in my life have been excused by my work and not purely by curiosity. And when I work on them afterwards, I try to make sure that only what can be also interesting for others will be used. Often I let time pass by between producing and post-production, so that I can rethink my original intents and results. More and more, I am convinced that photography is not about shooting, but about thinking.
Well I definitely think that finding beauty and interest in a world of flattened experience and mass produced apathy is part of what McCabe means by ‘psychic health’. I can’t remember who said it but the avant-garde has had two tasks: to show what’s wrong with the world and to find beauty in unexpected places.
I agree with that fully. And I would add another task: make people think and feel a bit differently than they did earlier that day. It’s just a moment, but make it last, at least for a moment and a half.