Elsewhere

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The urban landscape is vast and ever-changing. While I am physically in a city, I’m photographing the fact of a city and not the locale as its own identity. What this means is that although I am a resident (or a potential newcomer), the issues of space and time and a human presence remain the same in whichever place I find myself. I can photograph this particular city and focus on those things that make it unique, or I can focus instead on what urban spaces mean, modified by locale.

While artistic excitement varies according to the stimulation an environment can bring (say an old lived-in city with a wide variety of architectural styles and cultures vs new towns with a personality yet to develop) choosing to photograph in this way means that cities which have more or fewer visual treasures to them can only help deepen a process of artistic discovery. Indeed, I would argue that urban areas that are seemingly devoid of much interest (i.e., with corporate architecture of the blah school or relatively new developments where time has yet to varnish or indeed tarnish the veneer) can force a search beyond the obvious photographic language of texture and detail to one of mood, light and traces. The New Topographics photographers I think were not only interested in making social commentary but also in the formal qualities of urban spaces, their suburban outcrops and how people interacted with their environment, oftentimes by implication rather than directly.

In the city in which I live currently, sprawl is enormous and of high density, be it of homes or office buildings. Excavation and construction are furious, noisy and constant. I see these developments as objects and as process. There is a poetry there in the actions of those men and women who actually do the digging and building. The confrontation of machine and land in the hands of skilled trades brings back memories of childhood playgrounds and sandboxes. These actions and memories suggest something else. Bachelard, in the Poetics of Space, argues that home is where you dream. Home is a place of constancy and memory. It is probably fair to say that generally developers and city planners want homes and offices built quickly and are unafraid to use the most generic of designs. A financial elite builds cathedrals of commerce designed to showcase success and power and above all longevity by using costly design and building materials. The combination of these behaviors forms a background of change and adaptation and memory. Against this backdrop, the ubiquitous handheld communication device has become ‘home’, a kind of permanent ‘elsewhere’, an oasis or perhaps a destination.

Ideas

Here’s an extract from my MFA research proposal that situates in part my art:

“Reflecting perhaps my willingness to think about the experience of places and spaces in my own life, and approaching my work from a visual literacy point of view as I just mentioned, my interest now centres on exploring ideas around abandonment and displacement ….

In my recent work I consider a moment in the street and its mysteries as a means to witness the unobservable in human behaviour: the border between the unintended expression of a daydream and the immediate world around. A thin line that expresses the inner monologue each of us has every day, that sometimes seem to be more apparent than we would like. These moments of stillness, frozen not only by my camera but reflecting an interior dialogue, merge the private with the public. This inner conversation of course, can be about anything but is it not in some way about an ‘elsewhere’, a displacement of some kind?

Reduced to a concept, I am interested in spaces and places, psychic and physical, as metonyms, the thing that expresses the inherent meaning of an image (Barthe’s punctum), derived from the elements in the image itself or that acts as a trigger for an association in the viewer’s mind. That I also use other rhetorical devices such as metaphor, irony and humour brings additional layers of meaning to the image itself.”

A new adventure

In December of 2013, I decided to do another master’s degree, this time in fine arts (photography). I want(ed) to take my art to the next level and to do so in a rigorous, critical environment. I applied in mid-January and was accepted for the fall term in September 2014. So, back to school full-time!!
Fundamentally, I see my artistic development as very much a function of a willingness to be vulnerable, both intellectually and artistically, to make images and with them tell stories that reflect what I feel in my heart and know in my head. This is not to say that my photography will be nothing more than illustrations of a prior concept; rather, allowing for vulnerability introduces an element of discovery. With discovery and a willingness to go deep in oneself and embrace the path s/he is on, I believe you can create an art that is honest and speaks to your humanity. The values of honesty and integrity in art-making are for me critical to growth.
In a world where billions upon billions of images of every kind have been made since the inception of the camera image-making machine**, the only way I can make art that speaks to me is by being true to myself. This entry then marks the first about this new adventure I have begun. And this now in my early sixties; it’s never too late start – right?

**See Trevor Paglen’s series of articles on this topic.

Photobooks acquired in 2013, Part 1

I thought it would be interesting to list the photobooks I acquired in 2013 and comment on those that I gravitate to more frequently than others. Each one is interesting and I find that as my understanding of my photography and contemporary photography changes so too for those photobooks that at first I found less appealing. I think that being able to describe why certain books hold more appeal than others or for which my understanding changed is part of the process of deepening one’s visual literacy and hence one’s image-making as a practicing artist. So this post is Part 1 of 2 where I explore these ideas.

Here then is the list of books, most of which are now, not surprisingly, out of print. Photobook press runs are quite small in general. (I have marked my favourites with an ‘*’, even if I hold each one in very high regard.)

Author Title
Adams, R. The Place We Live
Brodie, M. A Period of Juvenile Prosperity
Callahan, H. Harry Callahan
Carrier, J. Elementary Calculus *
Ferrato, D. Love and Lust
Ghirri, L. Kodachrome
Gill, S. B-Sides
Coming up for air
Coexistence
Gossage, J. The 32nd Ruler
The Pond *
Gowin, E. Photographs
Emmett Gowin *
Graham, P. American Night
A Shimmer of Possibility
The Present *
Hasselblad Award 2009 Graciela Iturbide
Israel, Y. The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey
Kawauchi, R. Ametsuchi
Illuminance
Leiter, S. Saul Leiter
Lutz, J. Hesitating Beauty
Maier, V. Street Photographer
Moore, D. Pictures from the real world
Moriyama, D. Reflection and Refraction
Parr, M., and Badger, G. The Photobook: A History Vol. 1 *
The Photobook: A History Vol. 2 *
Sammallahti, P. Here Far Away
Sugimoto, H. Hiroshi Sugimoto
Winship, V. She Dances on Jackson *
Yukichi, W. A Criminal Investigation

Pointing in photography

Picking up on the Atget theme from my previous post, I refer to the idea of the photographer as ‘pointer’from the article written by John Szarkowski in his introduction to The Art of Atget (Vol. 1, Old France, pages 10-11), the incredible series of four volumes the Museum of Modern Art published in 1981. Here’s the quote that has been part of my frame of reference ever since:

“To note the similarity between photography and pointing seems to me useful. Surely the best of photographers have been first of all pointers—men and women whose work says: I call your attention to this pyramid, face, battlefield, pattern of nature, ephemeral juxtaposition.
But it is also clear that the simile has its flaws, which become obvious if we consider the different ways in which the photographer and the hypothetical pointer work. The formal nature of pointing (if the notion is admissible) deals with the center of an undefined field. The finger points to (of course) a point, or to a spot not much larger: to the eyes of the accused, or a cloud in the sky, or a finial or cartouche on a curious building, or the running pickpocket—without describing the limits of the context in which that spot should be considered. An art of pointing would be a conceptual art, for the subject of the work would be defined in intellectual or psychic terms, not by an objective physical record. The pointing finger identifies that conceptual center on which the mind’s eye focuses—a clear patch of the visual field that one might cover with a silver dollar held at arm’s length—outside of which a progressive vagueness extends to the periphery of our vision.
The photographer’s procedure (and his problem) is different, for whether he means to or not he will make a picture of sorts: a discrete object with categorical edges.”

Website tweaked

I’ve tweaked the ‘popcorn’ section of the site by re-arranging the image sequence (www.fredericborgatta.com/popcorn-series.html) [Update: now deleted and in process of revision]. The images found there address really the art of seeing and pointing: amusing juxtapositions, ironies, moments that but for my presence would never have been recorded and that disappear just as quickly.

The issues I raised before about photo books and sequencing remain a concern and, I suspect, will be on-going. As this sequence is a work in progress, and thus subject to on-going revision. All of which led me to re-read the amazing series of books, long out of print, on The Work of Atget published by MOMA in the early ’80s, sparked in part by the essays that I started to read by Tod Papageorge in Core Curriculum. For now though the struggle of getting my work ‘out there’ has been interesting to say the least – at least I have a website now that is coherent from the points of view of content and graphic design.

The debate over the sheer quantity of bits and bytes found on the Internet (and before that billions of prints spewed out by photo labs all over the world) is for me uninteresting and irrelevant. What is interesting I believe is that the urge to create and share is at the core of human nature. Machines/devices/sites that help us do that are more than welcome and in fact are making some people very rich (sadly, not me).  I think it’s important to know the medium in which one works and its history. The more one knows his/her medium, the more it is possible to determine the extent to which the art on display in museums and galleries has currency. And the more one can decide where his or her art fits into the medium’s history. There is a lot of chaff to separate from the wheat.

Making a photobook Pt. 3: Finding a way through

In my view, a cinematic film is a structured series of images in time. Music is a structured series of sounds in time. My photographic method is about a stream-of-consciousness in time. The result is that often, I do not remember taking many of the images I value. Memory has to do with the spaces we occupy and less the calendar moment it marked. Thus, these images most closely represent what is truly me. The poetic of the moment in a space involves a series of emotional and / or mental associations to it. I photograph something because it evokes a reference to an existing association in my mind (e.g., a tattered national flag fluttering in the wind) or I wish to create an association with something else (e.g., red paint splatter on a wall). This is the domain of a single image.

Levels of meaning
I think it is hard to escape rhetorical elements of image-making drawn from the world, one not directly created by the photographer. Abutting one image with another to form a diptych creates a whole other level of associations within and between the images. Even if two images touch one another physically so that no space appears between them, in our mind a space still exists by virtue of the knowledge of the existence of two separate images, even if they are identical in every way. Thus a diptych really consists of three images: two representational and one apprehended intellectually. Scott McLeod clarified this idea (called closure) very elegantly in his amazing book Understanding Comics. Many gallery exhibitions seem to make use of this property to create new or reveal further understandings of an artist’s work in a solo show or that of a group in the case of a group show. My sense is that good makers of photo-books use not only the space between images (blank pages, page turning) but also spaces on a page when arranging more than one image on it.

And unlike film, a book can be read from left to right or right to left (some film-makers intend the film to be viewed backwards however). Unless the book designer specifically says the images are intended to be read from one direction only, the reader can do what s/he wishes. Consequently, a photo-book then has at minimum two levels of associations: one constructed by the author in specifically arranging images on one page after another (in either direction, including top to bottom, depending on the author’s language) and the other by the reader who can choose to read the book at any point (again depending on the reader’s language). There is a premium therefore on the quality of individual images taken singly (the within-image associations) and collectively (the between-image associations). The latter can be divided further into near/far associations: images relatively adjacent to one another in the book and those further away, much like a wave traversing the sea. Thus, an author must be concerned not only with juxtapositions but also with the overall affect sought. Juxtapositions both immediate and further away join those in the viewer’s memory both from those already seen in the book with those seen and experienced elsewhere in the viewer’s life. The accumulation of individual affects through the course of the book, as they wax and wane, yields an overall impression or feeling at the book’s conclusion. It is this feeling at the end that it seems to me one must strive for in choosing photographs for inclusion.

Finding inspiration in one’s own photographs
Although I have enjoyed photo-books over the years, my orientation as a photographer was to make prints destined for display on walls. And while I thought in terms of diptychs and sequences, again it was for placement on a wall. For a variety of reasons, I’ve downsized my possessions and thus carting heavy framed objects from place to place was/is a less than welcome prospect. As such, I have returned to the book format as a matter of necessity initially. Initially because I have discovered two things: first, that my style of photography over the recent past has changed and lends itself well to the book format and second, we are in the midst of a worldwide interest in photo-books. This interest is fueled in part by digital cameras, the decreased costs to self-publish and, I hazard to guess, an overall increase in interest in photography and the means to pursue it. Photography has never been cheap, even in the digital age. (In the analogue era, if you had first-class lenses, upgrading essentially meant acquiring the latest film technology, if you wished. Today, you must change your entire camera and attempt to sell it on eBay for a pittance compared to its original cost. Still, I would never return to the film days, even if some of my fondest memories relate to the many happy hours I spent in the darkroom acquiring technique and watching an image appear in the developer – pure magic.)

But here’s the thing: everything you need to know about the direction(s) one should take in his or her photography is found in one’s own images. This conclusion, while seemingly obvious at first glance, startled me when it popped into my mind. I recognized its truth immediately. As a young photographer I was deeply influenced by the Ansel Adam’s school: landscapes, sharply taken, containing a full range of greys that I had tried to pre-visualize. While I do not want to do a disservice to Adams’ remarkable work, I was caught up more in making technically good images than their inherent meaning. Indeed, I’m not sure that I could speak to them coherently beyond what was on the surface.

Over time though, my own instincts as to choice of subject-matter could not help but begin to displace those that I carried consciously in mind from the Adams world and pretty much for everywhere else too. We are filled with received images, published and those we see in our daily world. Whether we like it or not, we can’t help but by influenced by those we see in media of all kinds as essentially ‘curated’; that is, they have passed muster at some level and consequently bear the implicit stamp of approval and thus ‘worthy’. This mark of worthiness is especially pronounced in the gallery world, public and private. To find one’s own way then, especially in the image-besotted world we live in, is not trivial. The answer then must lie elsewhere. And indeed, it can be found directly in one’s own work. The trick is knowing what to look for. And looking is a struggle because, like it or not, one must fight the tendency to choose images that look like they are ‘worthy’ in the sense I just mentioned. One must be true to him or herself, both behind the camera and in front of the images thereby produced. I think that living with this struggle honestly will give you your truth and thus images that are uniquely yours. One must look at other work and one’s own critically and rigorously, informed by the insights thereby obtained.

Making a photobook Pt. 2: What are my images about?

Someone once said that in general, and I paraphrase, we as photographers are bound to the thing in front of us. We depend on light for our camera machines to make a record of what we choose to frame of the world. In reading an essay by Robert Adams on Eugene Atget, I was motivated to re-visit after many years the wonderful four volume series in my collection that the MOMA published in the 1990s. Although I know I owe a huge debt to Atget’s vision in my own photography I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t set the stage for much of photography for the rest of the 20th and now well into the 21st century.

The joy of juxtapositions
As I have been struggling with making sense of my own work, to establish its iconography, I am reminded that the principal themes I learned from Atget, reinforced by Friedlander, the world of ordinary things is merely the shadow on the wall. The world I put before my camera is layered, filled with collages, and contains sometimes humorous juxtapositions. In the Atget series, the curator John Szarkowski makes the point that Atget’s work takes the subject on its own terms.

In our image-intoxicated world, where the boundary between public and private has all but disappeared, the perfection of his point of view belies the sophisticated directness of his regard. It is easy to imagine what a difference a few centimeters either to the right or left would have made. And so in a very direct way, it is possible to see Atget’s photographs as portraits of the every day. Ones that invite repeated viewing and, when placed along side one another, suggest that while on one hand, there is a joy in discovering uncanny juxtapositions, on the other, the world is far less random than we think. At the same time, I find it difficult to ignore the overall affect (sic) of his images.

We are now aware of the implications of the documentary style (and of photography itself for that matter), one of which acknowledges the well-known idea that a photograph of something essentially freezes its current state for all time and thus a photograph also acts as an archive of the thing itself. One may argue therefore, and this is a point made by others, that Atget’s work taken retroactively acquires a rhetoric that is highly metaphorical. Why would we want to keep these images in our galleries and museums? They are a record of an earlier time and place and as humans we have a nostalgia for things of the past; a desire to belie the temporal nature of our own existence. At the same time, we take pleasure in objects well-made, something well-seen. And so while Atget’s images embody both the archival and the aesthetic, they are also educational tools for subsequent image-makers. Our visual language expands as these lessons become incorporated in our vocabulary (e.g. display windows). Finally, collecting and contemplating these images also become part of the building blocks of a culture.

The modern fascination with the self which, in Atget’s time was still in its relative infancy with the discoveries of Freud and his colleagues, remains outside the scope of Atget’s eye. The stillness of his vision allows the object of his gaze to take its rightful place in our minds and our hearts so that we feel a quiet joy in rediscovering the ordinary. The development of a visual language depends on the work of those artists who see the world in new ways, even if those ways appear to be free of any obvious rhetorical language. Does not photography then reflect whatever ideology is currently prevalent? In our post-modernist world, the dominant way of thinking it seems to me focuses on self-identity and whatever self-image we wish to project.

It is well known that there is no such thing as an objective record. Even the all-seeing Google camera depends on the driver to choose which way s/he will arrive at a particular destination. In spite of looking at photographs I have taken over the last twenty-five years, the process of choosing images that work together has given me pause. And filling this space has meant looking at these images now with a different eye, one less satisfied with the thing itself and far more interested in what it is all about. While it is still paramount the images I do select be technically as good as they can be, the image itself must speak to me. To paraphrase slightly Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space: it is in the accumulation of life’s contradictions that life is most keenly felt.