Surgical and Sensual
Caleb Stein, How to Move a Mountain, Luhz Press, 2023
How to Move a Mountain is Caleb Stein’s photographic essay of the Carrara marble quarry, a series of intimate portraits of robotic arms and raw marble that offer nuance to today’s debate around artistic authorship and AI and computer-augmented art.
Sent on a commission for Smithsonian Magazine, Caleb Stein traveled to northern Italy to photograph Robotor, a company based in the Carrara quarries that utilizes digital schematics and robotic technology to translate marble into sculpture. The quarry has been mined for millenia, its marble sculpted by generations upon generations of artists and, now, with the introduction of new advancements in technology to the sculptural process, conceptions of artistic authorship come into question.
Shot in black and white, Stein’s portraits of this site lend an intimate eye to the process. As robotic arms carve topographic maps into the surfaces of the stone, water drips down the steel machinery, the lines mimicking the striations of gray found in the raw marble. This exploration of texture and light reveal the drama unfolding in this quarry–a place where artistic visions find their form, whether assisted by human hand or robotic arm.
The artist book is accompanied by an essay, ‘Surgical and Sensual’ by David Campany which details the history between photography and sculpture and Stein’s place within this lineage.
Photographs by Caleb Stein. Essay by David Campany. Design by Zoe Lemelson. Edition of 600. 9.25 x 6.7 inches, softcover. 100 pages / 40 plates. ISBN: 979-8-218-27261-6. Release date: 9 January 2024.
‘Surgical and Sensual’
by David Campany
Visually, there is a purity and elegance to Caleb Stein’s Carrara photographs, with their fine balance of formal rigour and clarity of visual communication. On other levels, however, it is hard to think of a less pure, more hybrid body of images. This is commissioned work but with its own artistic ambition; and even while it is art, it takes another art form, and the automation of that form, as its subject matter.
Artwork/document. Interpretation/record. Wish/fact. Hand/machine. Stein’s photographs may seem to break boundaries, or at least to unsettle them, but in truth they connect with attitudes that were there right at the very beginnings of photography. Many of the first photographers, including Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, Hippolyte Bayard and William Henry Fox Talbot took artworks as their subject matter, particularly classical sculpture. It was an ideal motif. Sculpture did not move during the necessarily long exposures; the tones and shadows of carved stone registered well in the relatively primitive monochrome chemistry of the first prints; and sculpture associated the new medium of photography with the established fine arts and their métiers. For a few decades at least, the photography of artworks was a respected and important genre in the newly emerging art of photography.
Among the best-known early photographs of sculpture are the two that William Henry Fox Talbot made of the Bust of Patroclus. To be more exact (and more complicated) they were photographs of Fox Talbot’s own plaster copy of the original marble sculpture that was in the British Museum. Photographing it at home, Talbot was able to take the time to control the background and light. Both images appeared in his The Pencil of Nature, 1844-46, the first commercially produced photographic publication. In his writing to accompany the images, Talbot did not admit to working from a plaster copy, but he had a number of interesting things to say:
Statues, busts, and other specimens of sculpture, are generally well represented by the Photographic Art; and also very rapidly, in consequence of their whiteness. These delineations are susceptible of an almost unlimited variety: since in the first place, a statue may be placed in any position with regard to the sun, either directly opposite to it, or at any angle: the directness or obliquity of the illumination causing of course an immense difference in the effect. And when a choice has been made of the direction in which the sun’s rays shall fall, the statue may be then turned round on its pedestal, which produces a second set of variations no less considerable than the first. And when to this is added the change of size which is produced in the image by bringing the Camera Obscura nearer to the statue or removing it further off, it becomes evident how very great a number of different effects may be obtained from a single specimen of sculpture.
Talbot included the two different photographs of the bust in order to help make his point. Elsewhere in The Pencil of Nature, he intuited something of a tension that will never quite resolve: while photography may be an art, it will also come to be seen an artless art of documentation of the other visual arts. Sculpture, painting and drawing will be known through and as photographic reproductions, but it will be a spurious knowledge, conditional upon photography’s terms of transformation – scale, tonality, lighting, loss of surface, loss of context, and so forth.
By the 1920s, the culture of art enabled by reproduction on the printed page had spread so comprehensively through modern society that an art of photographing artworks was somehow too confusing to be acceptable. Photography could be pursued as a modern art of its own, or it could be put to use for copy work, but mixing the two was to be avoided. The popular art culture could not risk undermining the authority of photographic reproduction, while the modern art of photography now needed to distinguish itself from copy work at all costs.
When, in 1947, André Malraux published Museum Without Walls, his illustrated work of world art history, he was so reliant on photographic reproductions to make his sweeping visual argument that he had to deny photography itself the status of art, lest it compromise his project. In truth, Malraux knew all too well that photography was always an interpretive, subjective and even manipulative medium with its own artistry. In order to learn just how the perception of art works could be controlled by the camera he commissioned the photographer Gisèle Freund to photograph a sculpture. She recalled:
I photographed from different angles and in changing light conditions, which made the same sculpture appear to be several different sculptures […] Malraux chose one of these reproductions for his book, but his choice was conditioned by his own taste and his perception of the sculpture.[i]
Malraux realised that photography was the founding disavowal of art history in the age of mechanical reproduction. Any modern illustrated art book or art magazine is on some essential but denied level a work of photography, since art must pass through the camera in order to get to the page.
And yet, so many of the great photographic artists of the last century or so have also been photographers of art. Gisèle Freund was an artist in her own right. Man Ray taught himself camera technique as a way to make images of his paintings and sculptures for publicity purposes. When asked by a collector to document her inventory, he at first recoiled: “The thought of photographing the work of others was repugnant to me, beneath my dignity as an artist.” (It was a paid job and he needed the money). Similarly, Walker Evans took commissions to photograph art, while confessing: “I could support myself copying paintings but I don’t relish the work.” Even so, both men learned (if not earned) a lot from doing that work and used those skills in their own photographic art.
Making art by photographing art works has never quite disappeared as a genre. There have always been artists wanting to explore the possibilities, and even to make work that unpicks and dramatizes the complications (think of Louise Lawler photographing art works in auction houses, Sara VanDerBeek incorporating images of sculpture into her collages, or Jeff Cowen making unique, hand-crafted darkroom prints of damaged ancient sculptures). One of these complications, related to the tension between artistry and copying has to do with work and money. The labor and financial reward for art making is seen by contemporary society as distinct from the labor and reward for ‘menial’ copy-work and reproduction, but the distinction can never be absolute. Moreover, similar grey areas have long been present in all the arts, especially sculpture and painting, in circumstances where the artist oversees the vital but anonymous work of assistants.
Charles Baudelaire once remarked that a shoemaker who makes a good pair of shoes today can be fairly sure they can make a good pair of shoes tomorrow, but a poet who writes a good poem today has no guarantee they can write one tomorrow. But all the arts, except perhaps poetry, involve a mix of the shoemaker’s practicality and the poet’s inspiration, and on a sliding scale, especially sculpture and photography.
Getting marble out of the ground and sculpted to its final form can require many shades of labor, from the tough and physically gruelling, to the highly finessed and inspirational. In fact, the more finessed and inspirational the final result – think of the greatest works of Renaissance sculpture – the less imaginable its tough origins in the earth. (Let’s presume this is why the depiction of quarrying and stone cutting was not much of a subject for Renaissance sculpture.) The prized marble at Carrara in Italy has been quarried at least since the Roman Empire but by the late nineteenth century conditions there were so arduous, and the laborers so neglected, that the place became the heart of the country’s strong anarchist movement. This is not necessarily something people around the world associate with Carrara marble, but it is an important part of its story, and an important part of the political history of labor in Italy.
In general, it is presumed that the process by which marble is quarried and turned into fine sculpture is a passage from ‘shoemaking’ to ‘poetry’, from brute work to fine art. However, the advent of Robotor in 2019, a computer-aided machine for carving stone that is the subject of Caleb Stein’s photographs, might appear to have upturned that presumption. If programmed correctly, Robotor does not make mistakes or get tired, although its makers do describe it as ‘anthropomorphic’, with its arm-like movements, thus softening (or perhaps dramatizing) the distinction between machine and man. Even so, Robotor does not ‘know what it is doing’. It is blind to its own procedure, but then so is a camera, which has no idea what it ‘sees’ or helps makes visible to us. I am reminded of a remark made by the musician, Bjork: “I find it so amazing when people tell me that electronic music has no soul. You can’t blame the computer. If there’s no soul in the music, it’s because nobody put it there.”
Much of the promotional material issued by Robotor and its parent company invokes the Renaissance and the supremely sensual depictions in stone by Canova and Michelangelo, while pointing out that these artists had countless unnamed assistants.[ii] The initial conception of the sculpture would be by the master artist, as would the finishing touches, while everything in between was anonymous labor. Similarly, Robotor does all the in-between donkey work, allowing the artist to concentrate on being an artist at the start and the finish of the process.
Nevertheless, it is fairly clear that today’s culture does not have too much demand for stone sculpture of sensuous human form, beyond copies of the great Roman and Renaissance works, or ironic derivatives by contemporary artist like Jeff Koons and Maurizio Cattelan. No doubt there will be some artists who will use the technology not merely to replicate, nor to save labor, but to explore what only this technology can do. However, it seems clear already that the greatest demand and the chief source of revenue will come from the making of copies of existing works from the history of sculpture.
If Caleb Stein had made images only of the finished works produced by Robotor, they could well have taken their place in the long but erratic genre of photographic interpretation of sculpture, but they could also have slipped into a Robotor promotional brochure. That ambiguity is inevitable. But what Stein has produced is a sequence, along the lines of what magazines might call a ‘photo-essay’, from quarry to finished work. As such the photographs feel more like a slow contemplation of the kinds of questions and paradoxes I have outlined here.
I am finishing these words in my London kitchen, sitting at a knock-off copy of Eero Saarinen’s famous ‘tulip’ table. Like the original, mine has a heavy circular top carved from Carrara marble (only the table’s base is truly fake). My right leg is stretched out horizontally on a chair beside me, as I am recovering from partial knee replacement surgery. I mention this because the operation was performed by a machine. After my surgeon had made the initial cut into my skin, the computer-programmed MAKO robot, working from a 3-D CT scan of my knee joint, proceeded to shave away tiny fragments of white bone to prepare the contours for my prefabricated titanium and plastic implants. The robot does not make mistakes and it does not get tired. Although my surgeon was present and guiding, no human can carve bone to instruction so precisely.[iii] The procedure was surgical, not sensuous, although returning me to sensual life was the aim. Maybe this is what Robotor is for. Somehow, a parallel version of Caleb Stein’s concerns is here with me, within me. Looking through the captions for his surgical and sensuous photographs, I am struck by this one: 3D views are shared with the Robot who then carries out the initial phase of production with human oversight.
[i] See David Campany, ‘Making Art from Art’ in Micol Forti and Alessandra Mauro, eds., A Matter of Light. Nine photographers in the Vatican Museums, Contrasto Books, 2018
[ii] For example, see this promotional video for Robotor: www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvGtdP-6IOU
[iii] If you’re not squeamish: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGYVhSymNN4