Archive for March, 2012
Within the dark and damp hydraulic power station at the Wapping Project, Edgar Martins’ photographs create an unusual yet also befitting contrast to the environment in which they are shown. The exhibition This is Not a House features a series of photographs taken in 2008, which depict half-built and abandoned residential buildings in America during the first wave of the credit crunch. By focusing on ambitious building projects that were started in the boom years and written off in the ensuing burst of the housing bubble, Martins’ photographs depict the devastating effects of a collapsing economy with the American housing market at its epicentre. It was here, in the leafy suburbs of Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, that the global economy began to unravel and morphed into the Age of Austerity as we know it today. Despite the magnitude of this crisis, Martins’ photographs are dry, cold and formal observations which evoke comparisons with New Objectivity – an objective post-expressionist style of documentary photography that emerged in the Weimar Republic in the late 1920s.
While the formal aesthetics of New Objectivity might function as a visual reference, Martins evidently questions the notion of ‘objective’ photography by digitally manipulating his work. These manipulations are subtle and, without specific guidance, likely not detectable for most viewers. Nevertheless, while Martins’ photographs might appear objective, they are, in fact, subjectively manipulated images. This point needs to be emphasized while looking at his work because Martins was at the centre of a major controversy which questions the rigid distinction between objective photography and subjective manipulation. For this project Martins was commissioned by The New York Times which has always prided itself for upholding the highest ethical and moral standards amongst both its journalists and photographers. Looking at a photograph printed in The New York Times should be akin to an encounter with the truth. Yet as Martins’ photographs were subsequently printed in The New York Times Magazine, disgruntled readers noticed that some of the depicted buildings and barren landscapes of post-boom America looked slightly different in reality. Facing a growing scandal about its journalistic integrity, The New York Times reacted quickly by removing all of Martins’ work from their website while distancing themselves from the project and the photographer.
At the time, a great number of critics, bloggers and commentators discussed the moral and ethical implications of Martins’ methodology. So while Martins photographed the architectural remains of the housing crisis, his photographs, ironically, created a crisis in their own right. The consensus was that Martins’ manipulations, while perfectly acceptable in the realm of fine art, were misleading and false in the context in which his photographs were shown. Martins himself sought to clarify his position in a lengthy essay on this subject. With the benefit of hindsight and some critical distance to the controversy, Martins’ case alludes to a fundamental question about photography: when does a photograph become manipulated? For most people digitally adding and removing objects in an image constitutes a manipulation. But what about an increase or decrease in contrast, cropping, darkening or brightening parts of an image? Do these changes constitute a manipulation to the extent that such images would be revoked by The New York Times? What about the act of photographing itself? When do optical distortions by a lens, the image quality of the photograph and the highly subjective decontextualization of reality by the framing of an image in a specific moment in time constitute a manipulation? Martins’ brightly lit photographs, magically floating in the eerie space of the hydraulic power station function as a powerful reminder that the distinction between photographic objectivity and artistic subjectivity is far less clear-cut than most would argue it to be.
Edgar Martins: This Is Not A House is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop. One of the ways to keep all your digital images in one place is with secure cloud storage.
Saskia Olde Wolbers’ twelve-minute video work Pareidolia currently on display at Maureen Paley is based on the following story: in the 1930s a German university professor called Cassar moves to Japan where he meets the Zen bowery master Okakura. Fascinated with ‘all things Japanese and Zen’, Professor Cassar felt that he could follow in the footsteps of D.T. Suzuki and write about his experiences in Japan. Here, the fictional story of Cassar meeting Okakura evokes many comparisons between the real-life story of the German philosopher Eugen Herrigel’s encounter with the Zen master Awa Kenzo. Herrigel’s observations on mystical religions and his encounters with Kenzo were subsequently published as Zen in the Art of Archery – a global bestseller which inevitably helped to shape the West’s image of Japan when the book first came out just after World War II.
In Olde Wolbers’ video however, the story of Cassar and Okakura’s culturally complex encounter is told in a fragmented and purposefully deconstructed format. Added to this, the story is told from the perspective of a Japanese translator who claims to have facilitated philosophical discussions with Cassar and Okakura, while neither of whom spoke each other’s language. The climax of this encounter occurred at an incident at which the translator was not present. Asked by Cassar if he could practice his art blindfolded, Okakura first shot one arrow at a bale target, before he shot a second arrow straight through the first one. Despite the absence of the translator, Cassar later wrote in his book that Okakura said: ‘The shot was not my doing but ‘It’, The Devine, has shot!’
The monotone voice and the Japanese accent of the fictional translator narrating the story is underpinned by atmospheric music which further locates the video in the realm of meditation and transcendence. Yet it is the images, those bizarre and totally unearthly images in Pareidolia that have the most dramatic effect. Filmed underwater, in slow motion and upside down, Olde Wolbers has created an utterly psychedelic and alienating montage of images that range from miniature interiors of Japanese rooms drenched in silver paint to strange impressions of colourful birds that appear fictitious as much as they appear to be real. These visually extremely stimulating images, coupled with the complex story told by the translator, makes for dense viewing. Olde Wolbers’ work literally overwhelms the senses.
The title of the video, Pareidolia, is derived from the Greek words ‘para’ and ‘eidōlon’ which, in combination, can be translated as ‘beside image’. Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon which manifests itself when a visual stimulus is perceived as another object: a cloud that looks like a rabbit, a tree that looks like a witch, a piece of toast that evokes the image of Jesus Christ. In Olde Wolbers’ video, the notion of pareidolia is probably best applied to the strange looking birds that, in reality, might be made of rubber. To focus on these technical aspects however would not to Olde Wolbers justice. Pareidolia actually refers to a larger overarching narrative explored in the video: the fictional versus the real. Even though the story might be based on a real encounter, all the details, the characters, the places are, much like the strange-looking birds, inventions of the artist’s imagination. The blacked-out space of the gallery further creates an atmosphere in which the viewer becomes completely subjected to a world that is surreal, comforting, and at the same time, haunting.
The Saskia Olde Wolbers Files: And While I Have Been Lying Here Perfectly Still is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
The provocative paintings of the French-Polish artist Balthus are the starting point for Japanese photographer Hisaji Hara’s visually arresting photographs currently on display at the Michael Hoppen Gallery. Like in Balthus’ work, the photographs are deeply voyeuristic, sexually suggestive, and fetishistic. As their titles indicate, the photographs are a study of’ well-known Balthus paintings that Hara generously appropriated from. Here, particularly in the context of Japanese photography, Hara appears to walk on well-trodden territory. In his acclaimed series Self-portrait as Art History, Yasumasa Morimura similarly appropriated iconic images from Western culture in his photographic montages. Rather than trying to match the original image as closely as possible however, Hara used Balthus’ work as a template, or a source, to produce photographs that are visually complex and culturally loaded in their own right.
The re-occurring motif of the Japanese schoolgirl in Hara’s work is less a reference to Balthus’ preference for young girls in his paintings, but rather, it more likely refers to the fetishistic value ascribed to the schoolgirl (and her uniform) in the context of Japanese culture. While this fetish is historically located in Japan’s troubled transition to a modern nation-state, it is intriguing to note that Hara’s photographs, in spite of being produced within the last two years, purposefully look aged.
The vintage quality of the photograph is achieved in a number of ways. Firstly, the prints are black and white pigment prints which have a brown tinge to them. The location for Hara’s photographs too, a derelict privately run Japanese medical clinic from the 1940s and 1950s, creates the atmosphere of a bygone era. In addition to that, Hara’s portraits are produced with a large format camera, which inevitably has a more narrow depth of field and subjects fall out of focus more easily. The soft focus in Hara’s photographs immediately brings to mind Pictorialism – an aesthetic movement that dominated photography in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Apart from creating images that look purposefully aged, the optical devices applied by Hara also contribute to the voyeuristic dimension of his gaze. In A study of ‘The Salon’, Hara appears to change the focus of the camera, comparable to the cinematic technique of split-focussing, by using multiple exposures. Like the masculine gaze naturalized by the cinematic apparatus, Hara’s focus is highly selective, voyeuristic, even intrusive.
The apparent voyeurism is further emphasized by photographing his subjects from low vantage points, from a distance, or through open doors and windows. The door or window frame at the edge of some of Hara’s photograph are poignant references to the framing of the photograph: a process in which visual information is not only included, but also excluded. In other words, the door and window frames function as an allegory for the dialectical relationship between inclusion and exclusion so elemental to the act of photographing. Hara’s photographs are however less about the process of photography than they are about the process of looking. Here, Hara appears to tap into a lineage of photographers such as Kiyoshi Yoshiyuki or, more recently, Noritoshi Hirakawa, whose work deconstructs and problematizes the act of looking itself.
In A Study of ‘Because Cathy taught him what she learnt’, Hara thus sets out a complex scenario in which the apparent voyeuristic nature of the image comes to the fore: though his eyes are hidden by a hat, a young man can be seen looking at a girl kneeling on the floor. His downward gaze is emphasized by his body diagonally leaning forward on a chair. Hara meanwhile, the apparent stage master of this scenario, produces a photograph which is being looked at in context of the gallery. These multiple levels of looking are completed in the realization that the young woman – the clichéd object of the photographer’s gaze – is knowingly looking straight back at us.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.