Archive for the ‘Weegee’ tag
‘Have I seen these images before?’ one might wonder while looking at Stan Douglas’ new series of photographs currently on display at the Victoria Miro gallery. Presented under the title ‘Midcentury Studio’, the meticulously constructed black and white photographs appear to be taken in the 1940s and 50s by using old-fashioned photographic equipment and techniques. Despite being photographed in the last couple of years, the luscious digital fibre prints presented in this exhibition effectively allude to a bygone era.
In carefully constructed mise-en-scène, Douglas assumes the role of an anonymous (and obviously very gifted) press photographer covering subjects as diverse as film stars, the underworld, sports, fashion and other newsworthy items. Rather than being linked by their diverse subjects, the photographs in this series are linked, firstly, in the way that they are constructed and produced, and secondly, in the way the photographs appear to tap into the viewer’s collective memory. Although Douglas presents entirely manufactured scenes from his imagination, one cannot help but connect many of the photographs with real life events, and, by extension, with photographs of such events. In this psychological trickery, Douglas apparently borrows from well-known American ‘masters’ of photography such as Irving Penn or the illustrious Weegee.
In these imagined scenes, Douglas’ attention to detail is staggering. This becomes most apparent in the photograph ‘Hockey Fight, 1951’ which depicts two men brawling as they are surrounded by various onlookers in a hockey stadium. The photograph was taken from a high vantage point alluding to the privileged viewpoint of a sports photographer witnessing the incident from the press box. This quasi-voyeuristic viewpoint into the audience reveals a surprising number of narratives within the image: a little boy, undeterred from the fight, attempts to pick up a bag of popcorn lying on the floor, a young woman’s calm facial expression stands in contrast to the violence she is witnessing, the presence of another woman, though absent in the image, is signified by an unfinished knitting project resting on a bench. From the convincingly old-fashioned clothing of the various people in the photograph to the design of the popcorn bag, Douglas appears to indulge in details that could easily be taken for granted.
In many ways, ‘Hockey Fight’ stands out from the ‘Midcentury Studio’ series as a metaphor for Douglas’ body of work as a whole. Here, the hockey fight refers to Douglas’ cultural background as a Canadian, though more specifically, his cultural background as a Black-Canadian and the potential tension of growing up in a largely white middle-class environment. Apart from such a literal interpretation, ‘Hockey Fight’ also alludes to a slippage between the observer and the observed. Importantly, in the photograph it is two members of the audience who become the spectacle on the sidelines of the hockey game. In addition to that, by incorporating the onlookers’ gaze in the image, Douglas turns the observer of the fight into the observed in the photograph. The image functions as a powerful allegory for the exchange of gazes a spectacle (or a spectacle within a spectacle) entails.
Many of the photographs on display in this multi-facetted exhibition incorporate notions of play, game, trickery, even magic. In the first instance, the games in Douglas’ work relate to the ability to ‘fool’ the viewer in believing that the images on display are historically, politically and culturally accurate representations of the past. Yet the game also refers to a broader agenda as many of Douglas’ photographs appear to represent social microcosms governed by specific conventions, which can easily be disrupted and subverted.
Stan Douglas: Midcentury Studio is available as book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
If there is a dominant colour in Massimo Vitali’s photographs recently on display at the Brancolini Grimaldi Gallery it would have to be turquoise – the colour of the Mediterranean Sea. Water is the common denominator in the ultra-large scale photographs floating in the space of the gallery. While many images depict people in their bathing suits, lying in the sun or swimming in the sea, the viewer too, seduced by the beauty of Vitali’s photographs, is metaphorically surrounded by water.
Vitali works with a large format camera which has the effect that even though the photographs are printed extremely large, they are also extremely detailed. Added to that, Vitali appears to prefer to photograph on bright sunny days and from a high vantage point. This carefully considered methodology, comparable to that of Andreas Gursky, has the effect that the viewer is given a god-like perspective on the various people exploring well-known beaches, natural rock formations, water falls or other sites of natural beauty.
Vitali’s photographs are so detailed that even though the camera is several dozen of meters away from the people that are in the photograph, their clothing (or lack of clothing), their bodies, even their facial expressions can be analyzed while standing up close to the photograph. Amazingly, Vitali appears to go about his business unnoticed, as the various people in his photographs don’t look back at the camera. Only one image showed a young woman sunbathing on a boat in the distance, perhaps confusing Vitali with a Paparazzo, and looking towards the camera with suspicion. From that ‘perspective’, Vitali’s work greatly differs from Weegee’s iconic photograph of Coney Island taken in 1940. While Vitali magically appears to avoid the unwanted attention of his subjects, in Weegee’s image the very gaze towards the camera (with people squinting and shielding their eyes) actually becomes the subject of the photograph itself.
Much like the sun loving bathers depicted, in Vitali’s photographs almost everything is laid bare. His images are sharp, clear and in focus. As such, it would be difficult to define Vitali’s work as landscape photography since within each photograph there are smaller narratives unfolding: a young couple making out in the water, a proud father videotaping his family, a muscled man exhibiting his body. Vitali’s photographs are thus also deeply voyeuristic. In order to fully contemplate his photographs, the viewer is almost forced to go up close and deconstruct the image as a whole. This activity can be compared to dissecting the photograph into various smaller photographs. The viewer him or herself thus turns into a voyeur, perusing the seaside to uncover subjects that are already exhibiting their bodies. The dialectic between voyeurism and exhibitionism in Vitali’s photographs is thus deeply unequal: the photographer, and by extension the viewer, is free to visually explore the subjects beneath, while those beneath (the bathers, the swimmers, the sun lovers) are mostly unaware that they are being observed.
Yet those beneath are not simply just people. They are mostly young, good-looking Europeans with the economic and social freedom to go on holidays to places such as Las Catedrales in Spain, Le Due Sorelle in Italy and Sarakiniko on the Greek Islands. The press release alerted me to the fact that Vitali himself seeks to situate his work into a political dimension as he began to photograph in 1994, the year that Berlusconi came to power, in order to “look into the faces of the people that voted for Berlusconi”. In this exhibition, simply titled ‘New Work’, Vitali has evidently ventured beyond his initial starting point, quite removed from any political agenda, to catalogue his fellow men frolicking in the sun in idyllic natural settings. In spite what it says in the press release, there are no industrial buildings, factories or warehouses visible in the photographs. In other words, there are no visual markers that allow the viewer to understand that the people depicted have a life beyond the brief moment of joviality depicted by Vitali’s camera – they appear stuck, forever enjoying themselves in the water, unaware that they are being watched like a goldfish in a bowl.
Massimo Vitali: Natural Habitats is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
In this classic example of post-mortem photography, a mother and a father are sitting next to their deceased daughter. The long exposure of the camera has the eery effect that the daughter is completely in focus, while the parents, the live subjects in the frame, are blurry. The photographer might have even moved the daughter’s mouth so that it appears that she is smiling, while the parents facial expression is strained by their recent loss. The daughter is remembered via the photographic image, or, in other words, the photograph stands in for the missing subject. Here, the successful representation of a deceased family member hinges on the subject appearing alive.
Post-mortem photography tends to be a genre associated with the Victorian era (1837-1901), when photography was a technological novelty unaffordable to the working classes. The implication is that those commissioning a post-mortem photographic portrait of a family member also had the economic means to do so. Yet as much photography might have been celebrated as a novelty in the late 19th century, post-mortem photography is treated like a novelty from todays point of view. The strict association with the Victorian era tends to overlook a number of points: post-mortem photography is a global phenomena popularized in parallel to the inception and reception of the photographic medium all over the world. Post-mortem photography is not exclusive to subjects of the British Empire. Secondly, the association between the Victorian era and post-mortem photography underestimates to what extent a similar variety of this genre continues to be an integral part of contemporary visual culture.
From the very beginning, photographers explored death as a significant trope via the new medium photography. In ‘Self Portrait as a Drowned Man’, Hippolyte Bayard for instance theatrically staged his own death as early as 1840. Bayard’s fascination with his own death reflects a fetishistic attitude towards death photographers have explored ever since. Enrique Metinides’ strangely beautiful photographs of accident victims in Mexico depicts a morbid desire to capture the border between life and death. As I have explored in a previous post, the American photographer Weegee displayed an equally voyeuristic attitude in his photographs of car crash victims.
A far more personal interpretation of death can be found on a contact sheet by the Japanese photographer Seiichi Furuya. Married to an Austrian woman and living in a flat in East Berlin, Furuya appears to have been taking pictures shortly before and after his wife committed suicide by jumping of the balcony on the 9th floor. The violence that Furuya’s wife would inflict on herself is foreshadowed by two photographs of tanks taken from a television screen. A photograph of the balcony is followed by the morbid image of Furuya’s wife lying on the ground below. In the presence of the East German police, Furuya appears to photograph through his open jacket to avoid being stopped by the authorities. He photographed his wife’s dead body until the very last instance. As Roland Barthes famously wrote in his book Camera Lucida: ‘Death is the Eidos of Photography’. As Barthes exhaustively argues in his book, the desire to photograph is inextricably linked to the desire of capturing subjects that the photograph will outlive. In Barthes’ case, it’s a photograph of his late mother which prompts his nostalgia through the photographic image.
The controversial photographer Andres Serrano photographed dead bodies not in the place where the death occurred, but where it is investigated: the morgue. The titles of the photographs usually inform the viewer about the type of death the victims experienced (‘Jane Doe, Killed by Police’, ‘Knifed to Death’, ‘Burnt to Death’ etc.). The caption thus fulfills an important function with regard to the reading of the image. Here, the viewer becomes an unwitting participant in the evalution of bodily features and anomalies. In above photograph for instance, two distinct aspects stand out: the subjects arms are stiffened while her body hair is, similar to goose-bumps, pointing straight up. Foreshadowing the huge popularity of American TV shows such as CSI, Serrano provokes the viewer into his own crime scene investigation.
Yet the most common encounter of photography and death can be seen in photojournalism. From Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’ in the Spanish civil war, to more recent conflicts, death is an integral part of representing the horrors of war. The French photographer Luc Delahaye applies the aesthetic of the tableau to his photograph of a deceased Taliban soldier in Afghanistan. The soldier is doubly captured: by his enemies and by Delahaye’s interrogative camera. The soldier’s body position is strongly reminiscent of Christian iconography and more specifically the Pieta. In Delahaye’s photography, Mary morning the death of Jesus is replaced by rubble and dirt. The photograph depicts the loneliness of the soldier in the moment of death. The dirt and rubble, but also the reference to the Pieta, underline the initial perception that the soldier has died.
From Bayard’s staged death, to Victorian era post-mortem photography, Delahaye’s photograph represents the fascination with death, the macabre, the morbid. The main difference between Victorian era post-mortem photography and more recent examples of this type of photography can be found in the way these images are consumed. In the Victorian era the post-mortem photograph was usually a unique object commissioned for purely personal consumption. Contemporary art photographers or photojournalists on the other hand depend on the photograph entering a cycle of consumption. In addition to that, Victorian era post-mortem photography aspired to depict the subject as still alive. The photograph was seen as the medium which would momentarily enliven the deceased subject. More recent examples of post-mortem photography are far less ambiguous in its depiction of death.
I would argue that the way the photograph is consumed and to what extent the subject is enlivened in the image is deeply related to each other. As soon as the image enters a highly complex image economy via the mass media, contemporary post-mortem photography becomes the antidote to Victorian era photographs of the dead. Rather than depicting subjects that look alive, the dead are represented precisely as such.