Surface Charge Theory 4
As the tumbleweed rolls across the screen of this blog and I peer through the cobwebs …!
It is almost two months since I last posted on here. It has not been an unproductive period; there is progress on some further portraits and more studio-based work has emerged, including the image above. But it has also been a period of mental struggle; primarily with Contextual Studies and how to articulate some meaningful connection between what I have read/studied and the work I am producing. It isn’t that I haven’t been able to deal with what I’ve read/studied (though it can certainly be demanding at times); and it isn’t that I can’t feel a connection with my Body of Work (I certainly can feel it, and quite powerfully at times). It is the structuring and articulation that has been a problem – and remains so, to an extent. I can identify any number of reasons – the differences between the two broad strands of my BoW, which might fit differently into a theoretical/critical context; an excessive concern with the clarity of articulation when, in a creative context, such issues are inevitably far from clear; a tussle with moving from the general to the specific in a complex situation; plain old muddled thinking, maybe (or maybe not …)! Whatever the reason (or reasons), it has been heavy going at times, but I am making some progress.
Which brings me to Joan Fontcuberta. A few weeks ago, I bought the new translation of his book of essays Pandora’s Camera, and I’ve just finished an initial read through. I had sensed that it might help with my contextual struggles, partly because of Fontcuberta’s oeuvre, which frequently operates within the spaces in and around photography and fiction, but especially because these essays deal with the digital technological shift and, as the title suggests, explore the extent to which it spells calamity for some and liberation for others. (I have not, as yet, been able to see ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ at the Science Museum, but it is coming up to Bradford eventually.)
This post is prompted, primarily, by the last essay in the book, entitled ‘Why do we call it love when we mean sex?’. It has nothing to do with either love or sex, of course, but (having got our attention!) it does focus on the challenges/opportunities for photography today – and it seems to link effectively with some of my other reading/studies, so helping to confirm and clarify where I am going. For, as he puts it, “… artists and other toilers in the vineyard of the image …”, photography, at its birth, could be seen as a pure translation of visual reality onto a surface, in an instant, extraneous to the human will (beyond a ‘superintendent’ role performed by the photographer). The history since that point has not, Fontcuberta asserts, been well-written – notably in its apparent failure to successfully integrate pictorialism into a coherent narrative. Photography has retained its documentary association. The hybridisation of image-making in the postmodern context in the 70’s/80’s provided a new challenge to that old association but it is the introduction of digital technology and image processing software that has “… transformed the original paradigm …”.
The essay compares the pixels to a painter’s brush-strokes and suggests a return to “… the iconic structure of painting and writing …”. Indeed, he goes a step further and asserts that “… analogue photography is inscribed and digital photography is written …” – inscription and writing being two stages of epistemological competence, from description to story. Hence, he says, the crisis of the documentary in photography. The essay has opened with a provocative quote from artist Christian Boltanski, addressing a meeting at an Arles Photo Festival – “Photography is photojournalism; everything else is painting”. So, at his conclusion, Fontcuberta accepts that we may be ‘post photography’ and that (for once) finding the right nomenclature for what follows could be important. But, until an angel appears to give us the answer, he wonders why we insist on calling it love when we mean sex!
The notion that digital image manipulation has much in common with painting compares directly with another article – Lucas Blalock, writing in Foam Magazine, in the Spring of this year, where he compares his work to drawing. It’s why I put Surface Charge Theory 4 at the top of this article. This image pushes my appropriation and manipulation of material from A Textbook of Photographic Chemistry to another level, so that it begins to look more like a Bridget Riley painting than a photograph. It may yet go through further stages of development that bring it back into the still-life/photographic/realism space – but these creative processes, like those of Blalock and others, are concerned with the very edges of what is ‘photography’.
It seems possible that, as I had hoped, Joan Fontcuberta has helped bridge the gap. I have Hal Foster in The Return of the Real explaining the recurring role of the avant-garde in shifting art into new directions; I have Vilem Flusser in Towards a Philosophy of Photography extolling the role of the ‘experimental photographer’ who is “… playing against the camera …”; I have Fontcuberta confirming that the original paradigm has been transformed; I have Charlotte Cotton (in that same Spring edition of Foam magazine) writing that the works of Lucas Blalock and others “… are active contemplations of the role of the artist and the meaning of the photographic within the evolution of our visual and cultural climate …” (and also referring to signs of human mark-making and painterly gestures when describing the work). I am, perhaps, beginning to find relevant contexts through which to articulate what I am doing and where I am going with my Body of Work.
I can still, however, express a word or two of caution – such as whether this is still all too general to work effectively in Contextual Studies (though that should be for consideration elsewhere, of course) and whether my portrait work does really sit comfortably in the context described. But the very fact that I am articulating something in the ‘public domain’ is progress.
Whoof … there go a few more cobwebs!