Definitively Unfinished

Joan Fontcuberta, Cultura di Polvere (Danilo Montanari Editore / ICCD), 2023

‘Definitively Unfinished’ is an essay by David Campany written for Joan Fontcuberta’s book Cultura di Polvere, published by Danilo Montanari Editore / ICCD, 2023

Definitively Unfinished

David Campany

The promise of photography, born at the onset of a rapidly changing modern world, was immortality in the form of the frozen image that would last forever and lend itself to the mastery of history, and of progress. But it was a promise that could not be kept. It is a cruel if poetic irony that photography, a medium tasked so often with the fixing of appearances and the preservation of history, should turn out to be so materially susceptible. And, it is perhaps more ironic still that a medium which finds the visual effects of time – decay, deterioration, mould, putrescence, entropy – to be so photogenic, should itself inevitably succumb to these effects. If photographs preserve anything of what they represent, it is only for a short time, and only if the photographs themselves are preserved. Photography seemed at first impervious and absolute, but it turned out to be human after all: bold, vivacious and unmarked for a while, but eventually frail, decrepit and headed for the grave. As Orson Welles puts it at the end of his last great movie, F for Fake:

Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’

Visiting the Gabinetto Fotografico Nazionale at the ICCD (Central Institute for Cataloguing and Documentation) in Rome, the photographic artist Joan Fontcuberta has found a set of images by Prince Francesco Chigi Albani della Rovere. A keen traveler, Chigi photographed the alpine region where Switzerland, France and Italy meet, producing a set of stereoscopic glass plate negatives. Over time, humidity and mould have severely deteriorated their photographic emulsions. Ordinarily, such images would be either restored or discarded. Fontcuberta does neither, preferring to accept them for what they are, for what they have become, for the song they now sing. These decaying images have been digitally photographed, and the files have been reproduced in this book. The glass plates will, unless rescued, continue their slow but inevitable transformation into that ‘ultimate and universal ash’.

Digitization and book publication are often undertaken as methods of preservation, of fixing images not just for a wide audience, but for posterity. Yet, as we know, digital storage has its own frailties and has not been in existence long enough to be truly tested over time. In less than four decades, methods of digital capture and storage have already been through several technical revolutions. Books, being bound sheets of ink on paper, begin the process of organic decay almost as soon as they are published. With great effort, the process can be slowed down, but it cannot be stopped entirely. Eventually this book will go the way of the prince’s glass plates. The bold modern era that gave rise to photography may well be coming to an end, its delusions faced at last. We are now, locally and as a planet, making our peace with the ephemeral, the temporary and the unstable. Joan Fontcuberta’s celebration of the natural transformation of the plates, which are decaying against the designated purpose and the desire of the archive, is also an act of acceptance. Fontcuberta’s images do not preserve the prince’s images so much as travel with them, giving them comfort on the same slow path to oblivion. “Be of good heart” cries the dead Prince, through the mouth of the living Fontcuberta.

With the use of word ‘Polvere’ (dust) in his title for this project, Fontcuberta has in mind Elevage de poussière (Dust Breeding), the photograph taken in 1920 by Man Ray of the thick dust that had accumulated on the glass surface of an unfinished artwork by his friend Marcel Duchamp, titled La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even ), also known as Le Grand Verre (The Large Glass), 1915-23. For a number of months, Duchamp had left open the window of his studio at 1947 Broadway, New York. The idea was to let dust from the polluted modern city air settle, and then clear it away from all but a few key areas. The remaining dust would be fixed and sandwiched between sheets of glass in the final artwork. Duchamp planned to secure several different thicknesses of dust that would produce different densities of translucent colour to embody different periods of time. Decay becomes a measure of elapse. In this way the fixing of the dust was akin to the fixing of a latent image on a photographic negative or print. Moreover, once upright the glass support would allow light through the fixed dust, like a slide in a slide projector. The critic Jean Clair even described The Large Glass as ‘a giant photographic plate’.[i]

Dust is marginal material, an unwanted by-product of modern life, but Duchamp wanted it. He found a way of ‘breeding’ it, harnessing it, and turning it into something significant. The photograph came about almost by accident. Man Ray had been complaining to Duchamp that the wealthy art collector Katherine Dreier had asked him to use his camera to document works in her collection. “The thought of photographing the work of others was repugnant to me, beneath my dignity as an artist,” he complained in his 1963 memoir, Self Portrait. Duchamp suggested Man Ray practice by shooting the dusty glass. “Since it was to be a long exposure, I opened the shutter and we went out to eat something, returning about an hour later when I closed the shutter.” Back home that night, Man Ray developed the exposed sheet of film. “The negative was perfect – I was confident of the success of any future assignments.”

When that image was first published, its caption was a complete lie: “View from an aeroplane.” Eventually it came to be called Dust Breeding, a title that alludes both to the idea of ruin or entropy being desirable, and to a process that is ongoing. In the hour-long exposure, time is passing and dust is breeding. The image captures not a fixed state but an ongoing process. And after the exposure was completed, the breeding process would have continued until Duchamp stopped it with his varnish. Years later, The Large Glass suffered a major transformation when the glass cracked dramatically in transit. Duchamp accepted the cracking as the pleasing intervention of chance and fate, and declared The Large Glass ‘definitively unfinished’.

We can see why Fontcuberta would enjoy this story of dust, and we can see the parallels with his own project. It seems that photographing these works by the Prince was not repugnant to him, not beneath his dignity as an artist. Indeed, Fontcuberta has built a much-celebrated career by immersing himself in so many of photography’s ‘undignified’ practices and materials. Vernacular images. Fakes. Social media. Fontcuberta is less interested in high art than in photography as a complicated set of activities that shape and mediate culture, and provide us with the means of understanding and misunderstanding the world. There is little space for dignity here. Fontcuberta is in some ways a Baudelairean figure, pursuing his conviction that a society reveals most about itself not through what it values as high and noble, but what it throws away, what it deems ‘low’ and disposable, what it consigns to the trash.

Of all the treasures he could have chosen at the Gabinetto Fotografico Nazionale, Fontcuberta becomes fascinated by a set of objects that are already half way to disintegration. The figurative images which these objects bear – of romantic landscapes populated by lone figures – are giving way to abstraction. But abstraction is never truly abstract, especially when it is in the vicinity of photography. It is an invitation to speculative meaning, but it is also a matter of distance: zoom in, and there is nothing abstract here at all. The growth on these glass plates is organic form, every bit as complex as the mountains, lakes, animals and forests depicted in the photographic emulsion. Zoom in further still and these forms are not static. There are microbes, alive and reproducing, feeding on the chemistry. The prince’s photographs have become moving images (and it seems quite fitting that the Gabinetto Fotografico Nazionale was founded in 1895, the first year of cinema.) Fontcuberta could have made a film of their living surfaces. Instead, he gives us freeze-frames. In any case, turning the pages of a book is a kind of cinema. It may not animate the images, but it can animate the mind, setting it free, letting it play, feeling time pass, in small steps closer to the end.

[i] Jean Clair, ‘Opticeries’, October no. 5 (Photography Special Issue) Summer 1978, p. 101.

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