Archive for December, 2012
My new photographic project Right of Way addresses the failures of a modern project and the clash between urbanity and nature. Photographed in Canberra – an early example of a completely planned city – the series focuses on pedestrians attempting to cross, or in the process of crossing the street of the Australian capitol. In the photographs, people are purposely represented as if they are lost, disorientated or otherwise not entirely in control of their condition.
Designed in the early 1900s by the American architect couple Marion Mahoney Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin, Canberra represented a totally new ideal in modern architecture and urban planning. Taking natural elements of the valley into account, the main structure of the city is defined by major roads and highways which are interlinked by geometric shapes such as circles, hexagons and triangles. The city’s embrace of modernity is partially signified by the wholesale assumption that the automobile will be the future form of transportation. Yet more recently, as J.G. Ballard’s poignant question ‘Autopia or Autogeddon?’ indicates, the dominance of a single mode of transport suffocates man’s relationship with the urban environment. In a city that presumes the car is the only mode of transport, people struggle to navigate the complex matrix of streets and roads by foot. They become unwilling bystanders to a modern project that does not support, but actually hinders people to move from one place to another.
Makeshift and often hidden footpaths on the side of the major roads give an indication how the idealistic even utopian design of the city stands in contrast to the functionality of the city as a living space. The photographs in this series attempt to emphasize the cracks emerging in the structure of the city, as it is always pedestrians giving way, waiting and adjusting to the constant flow of traffic. Particularly in the context of the Australian capital, with capital hill at its very centre, the roads and highways become metaphors for the laws established and reinforced by the state. One photograph, titled ‘Capital Circle’, shows a man about to cross the circular highway around Capital Hill. His movements stand in contrast not only to the cars heading into his direction, but also, in contrast to the master narrative of the state and its laws.
The title of the series, Right of Way is a reference to an ancient English law that legally grants temporary access to footpaths on privately owned land. In this project, the ‘right to access’ functions as a reference to Australia’s troubled history as an outpost of the British Empire and its relation to the country’s indigenous population. Seeking to address the question of landownership, Australia’s public and private institutions habitually acknowledge indigenous regional groups as ancestors of the land they occupy. Australian TV channels for instance frequently display a message at the end of a show that pays respect and acknowledges the Aboriginal land they are located on. Yet in this culturally complex environment, Aboriginal people are nevertheless invisible in daily life and politics. The awkwardness of this arrangement is particularly apparent in Canberra: amongst the Embassies and High Commissions of an increasingly connected world stands the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – a semi-permanent structure which functions as a monument to the indigenous people’s ongoing fight for land rights.
Right of Way is the latest project in an ongoing body of work that explores the clash between nature and culture, peripheral spaces and culturally specific phenomena. III Please contact me at marcus.bohr(at)network.rca.ac.uk for image rights or if you have any inquiries about this project.
I wish all my readers Happy Holidays and New Year.
Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present is currently on display at the National Gallery in London. The lack of natural lighting and the dark walls in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing evoke the solemn atmosphere of a crypt. In complete contrast to the liveliness of Trafalgar Square, visitors quietly whisper to each other as they slowly move from one room to the other. The show features the work of some of the best-known photographers of the 21st century displayed alongside renowned paintings from the National Gallery collection or specifically borrowed for this exhibition. The paintings add an art historical dimension to photographs produced by celebrated photographers and contemporary artists such as Jeff Wall, Rineke Dijkstra, Sam Taylor-Wood or Thomas Struth – to name just a few.
The majority of photographs are presented next to a painting, which, in turn, informs the aesthetic and formal appreciation of the photograph – one image in conversation with the other. For the most part, this conversation spans at least a century: Luc Delahaye’s spectacular panoramic photograph of a landscape in Afghanistan, captured just after the US bombed Taliban positions, references a battlefield tableaux by Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet from 1821. Martin Parr’s photograph of a rather depressing looking middle-class couple from the early 1990s references Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews circa 1750. Or Tom Hunter’s richly textured photograph Death of Coltelli references Eugène Delacroix’s painting The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827. In all of these cases, the photographers’ approach to their subject matter is subtle and carefully considered. Even without knowledge of the art historical reference, the photographs must be appreciated for their visual and conceptual characteristics. Quite clearly, the photographs critically examine a political, social and economic condition specific to the present, while at the same time, referencing artefacts of visual culture from the past. Rather than paintings merely invigorating the photographs, it is actually the photographs that illuminate our perception of the paintings.
Despite the huge potential to establish a blossoming relationship of exchange and interplay between two artistic mediums, the title of the exhibition Seduced by Art reveals a rather one-dimensional approach to the subject matter. In the exhibition, ‘art’ refers to painting (or in some cases sculpture) that photography, it is suggested, effectively borrows from. More specifically even, photography (or photographers) are ‘seduced’ by this art, giving into the temptation, no longer able to resist the allure of some of the best known paintings of Western art history. According to the exhibition curators therefore, Rineke Dijkstra is not merely referencing the Venus, but rather, Dijsktra is seduced by her beauty, irretrievably trapped, and thus produced a photograph with uncanny similarity to Botticelli’s painting. The fact that Dijkstra, like many of her contemporaries, works within the format of the photographic series, producing dozens of typological observations that have spanned numerous countries over the period of a decade, is completely lost in the exhibition. The comparison between Dijkstra’s photograph and Botticelli, while amazingly convenient, does not necessarily illuminate her body of work as a whole. As a case in point, Dijkstra attempts to do far more in her work than the exhibition would actually suggest.
The premise of the exhibition (e.g. photography ‘seduced’ by painting) thus raises a number of critical questions. Many of these questions have haunted photography since its very inception. Can photography be art? Is photography an art only if it references art proper? And vice versa, is photography that does not immediately reference art proper, not an art? What about photographs – conspicuously absent in this exhibition – that reference cinema, theatre, literature, architecture, advertising, television, popular culture, mass media or indeed other photography? Is that photography not an art? What about photography that, in the first instance, only references the subject it represents? These questions in themselves point to a rather rigid definition of art inherited by the canon. This rigidity is further underlined by presenting the photographs in rooms such as still life, the portrait, the figure and so forth, as if to suggest that the foundations of contemporary photography can only be located with reference to art historical traditions. Contemporary photography is politically too complex, semiotically too loaded, visually too aware of its own histories that it could be approached, categorized and disseminated in the traditions of the ‘Old Masters’. III Originally published on photomonitor.co.uk.
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The Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the End of the Analog Era by the Canadian photographer Robert Burley is a carefully produced and edited collection of photographs that represent the collapse of the analog photographic industry. Over a period of a decade, Burley traveled the world to photograph once powerful companies such as Kodak, Polaroid, Ilford and Agfa spiraling into perpetual decline.
In the first instance, that decline is quite literally signified by the destruction or abandonment of factories that produced photographic paper or film. In parallel to the rise of digital technologies, these products (and the workers that produced them) became victim to a quickly shifting economy that saw no place for ‘old’ technologies. As people gather to witness the destruction of Kodak buildings in places such as Rochester in upstate New York or Chalon-sur-Saone in France – accredited with being the birthplace of photography – Burley produces photographs that are at once laden with nostalgia as much as they are matter-of-fact statements on an industry in crisis.
The first image neatly foretells the narrative explored in the rest of the book: it shows a 1960s style photo studio with several black and white portraits on display in the shop window. The photographs are produced and framed with great care, making ordinary subjects look like Hollywood film stars. Yet a tiny sign at the main door reads ‘Art Photo Studio is closed due to retirement. Owner’. The closed-down photo studio is perhaps less emblematic for the decline of the photographic industry, than it is a symbol to the respect and pride this industry once commanded. The Kodak Head Office in Rochester, for instance, towers over the rest of the landscape like a cathedral of commerce. Below its magnificent structures, however, lies a city visibly scarred by the collapse of a once proud company.
Burley’s photographs also reveal the internal struggles that Kodak et al were experiencing in the built-up to the collapse of the photographic industry. Adjacent to the executive entrance of a Kodak building in Toronto is a image display that shows a woman wearing a yellow raincoat as she stands on the edge of a cliff looking out towards the sea. Quite clearly, Kodak was preparing itself for a storm as captured in this photograph from 2005. Directed at the executives entering the building, the sign reads ‘The next big idea is right in front of you’, almost as if to beg them to save the decline of the company. It was not to be. A thousand dollar investment at the height of Kodak’s stock price in 1997 now buys little more than a cup of coffee. If the woman hasn’t drowned in the sea, she is barely holding on to the edge of the cliff.
It is with considerable irony that all the photographs in the book were produced with precisely the declining technology that it also seeks to represent. Technical notes at the end of the book give a breakdown of the analog processes used. In a sense, the book represents a meta-photography – or a photography about photography. The images suggest that photography has underwent such momentous and wide-reaching shifts that the very definition of a ‘photograph’ is also shifting. Is it an image that is framed and put on display? Is it an image that is tangible and exchangeable? Or is it an image that is posted, blogged, re-blogged and shared? Allow a child to play with an iPad, allow it to scroll, zoom and flip photographs, then the categorization of a photograph as a still image even becomes debatable. In as much Burley’s work represents the end of an era and the collapse of an entire industry, his work also alludes to a future that has yet to be determined. III Originally published on the foam blog.
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