Now that i've finally got some quiet and lazy time home, i can not only catch up on crime tv series but also post a few stories that have been languishing in draft limbo for far too long. Let's start with Elena Chernyshova's Days of Night - Nights of Day, a photo series i discovered at the Fotofestiwal in Lodz. The series was among the finalists of the Grand Prix Fotofestiwal. It might not have won the award but it was the work that impressed me the most. Of course, part of my fascination is due to that typical look at the post-Soviet world but the images also made me realize the banality and almost romanticism of living right at the heart of an ecological disaster.
The young photographer traveled to Norilsk, one of the biggest cities above the Arctic Circle. In Norilsk, inhabitants live in darkness 45 days a year, temperatures can drop to minus 53 °C in the Winter and the air is one of the most polluted in the world. There is no green space in Norilsk and even leaving the city is a challenge. The easiest way to get away is by air (Moscow is a four hour flight away) and for most residents, plane tickets are barely affordable.
The reason why people would want to live there is that most of them work for the biggest metallurgical and mines complex in the world. Workers in Norilsk extract and process nickel and other metals making up approximately 2% of Russia's GDP.
Every year the metallurgical combine emits almost 2 millions of tons of gas into the atmosphere, leading to alarming rates of cancer, depression, respiratory, cardiovascular and digestive disorders, allergies, and other health dysfunctions are widespread. The amount of sulfur dioxide in the air is so high that almost 100,000 ha of the tundra around the city is dead or in danger. Residents are forbidden from gathering berries or mushrooms due to high toxicity.
Even the story of the city is dark, the city, mines and factories Norilsk were constructed by the prisoners of Gulag in the 1930s and 40s.
Days of Night - Nights of Day is as much about the city itself as it is about how people manage to cope with harsh climate conditions, environmental disaster and isolation:
I hope these photos awake some questions, Elena Chernyshova told National Geographic. Where are the limits of human ambition in the race for natural resources? How much are we willing to damage nature and the health of hundreds of thousands of people in the drive for riches? What are the limits of human adaptation to extreme living conditions?
More images and info in Lens Culture.
Also part of the Fotofestiwal in Lodz: A guide to life forms altered by the human species.
I'm spending a couple of days in Lodz for the Photo Festival. Or rather, the Fotofestiwal. I haven't seen all the exhibitions yet but so far, so good. I've been particularly fascinated by Zhao Renhui's A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World which has been selected for the Grand Prix Fotofestiwal.
The photo series attempts to document the ways in which the human species has altered the planet, and in particular other life forms.
The result of his research is a visually stripped back catalogue of curious creatures and life-forms. Some had to evolve in order to cope with the pressures of a fast changing world. Others appeared as the results of direct human intervention, mutations engineered to serve purposes ranging from scientific research to the desire for ornamentation:
Remote-controlled coakroach, peanuts injected with the DNA of a lobster so that they will never go bad, medicinal eggs with extractable antibodies against cancer, caterpillar-killing cabbage carrying the gene responsible for producing the poison in scorpions, tomatoes that do not go bad, sugar cane engineered with human gene, the first tiger mosquito found in Norway, etc.
Zhao's work addresses man's relationship with nature, and related issues of morality and ethics, paying close attention to how our attitudes assumptions about the natural world are often shaped by institutions of authority and the media.
Quick selection, with comments copied/pasted from the project website:
Every year, scientists report findings of bees being attracted to discarded soda cans, leftover drinks and various sweet things. This is due to the combined effect of a declining natural supply of nectar in the wild and the insect's possible craving for caffeine. In Singapore, a community of bees has been raiding a factory producing sodas of various colours. The red dye from a certain brand of soda remains in the bees' bodies even after they have processed their food into honey. Over time, it is found that the stomachs of these bees have turned red, changing from their usual orange amber hue. The honeycombs in the hives are also found to have turned into a shade of blood red.
A company in Japan has developed a technique to create eggs that are so strong that they cannot be broken. The only way to access its contents is to puncture a hole in its shell with a pointed tool. The egg was created by adding the plant protein of a banyan tree to a chicken, thus creating an egg with a bark-like texture.
Corn is the number one crop grown in the United States and about 88% of it is genetically modified. Although there is little evidence that these crops pose a threat to humans, scientists are still understanding the effects of genetic engineering on corn. Scientists recently discovered non-genetically modified corn emit chemicals when they are being attacked by pests. These chemicals, which signal wasps to attack pests, are not present in genetically modified corn. Through Kirlian photography, the aura of a non-genetically modified corn can still be seen.
A small population of white rhinoceroses in Africa has evolved to have horns so small that they are barely visible. Experts believe this could be due to years of hunting individuals with large horns. The remaining rhinoceroses with smaller horns left to breed will eventually created a whole new hornless generation.
It has recently been found in China that pork has been made to aesthetically look like beef. 'Beef colouring' and 'beef extracts' were added to pork to make it look and taste like beef.
China organised the first International Goldfish Championships in Fuzhou in 2012. Over 3,000 goldfish from 14 countries competed for different titles including the World Goldfish Queen crown. Goldfish are judged by five criteria: breed, body shape, swimming gesture, colour and overall impression. The show stealer was a giant goldfish weighing around 4kg. The judges noted that not all goldfish can grow this big as factors such as breeding may affect size. Goldfish are bred out of generations of genetic mutations since the Jin Dynasty and their exact origins are unknown.
Flowerhorn cichlids are ornamental aquarium fish noted for their vivid colours and bulbous humped heads. A man-made hybrid, the flowerhorn was popular in Singapore in the late 1990s. When their popularity waned, owners released the fish into the local waters. Today, the fish thrive in large numbers in local reservoirs and waterways. Scientists have reported that the flowerhorn has taken on a different adaptation in recent years. The bulbous and round head it once had has given way to a sharp, flat and rounded disc. It is posited that the more streamlined form allows them to swim quickly away from predators.
Less than 4% of Singapore exists in total darkness after 10pm. Insects are attracted to artificial light sources, though no one knows exactly why. The insects are usually killed by exhaustion or through contact with the heat from lamps. After being incinerated, their bodies become a heap of ash, collected in the covers of street lamps. The ash, also referred to as 'moon dust', is used by scientists to study the ecological impact of light pollution on insects.
Sold in a department store in South Korea, these square apples were created as gifts for students taking the College Scholastic Ability Test, with some inscribed with the words 'pass' or 'success'. A similar square watermelon was developed in Japan in the 1980s. The cubic fruits are created by stunting their growth in glass cubes.
Falcons are diurnal birds but have recently adapted to become nocturnal, like owls. Urban falcons have begun to use artificial illumination from street lamps and lit buildings to hunt for bats throughout the night.
Photo on the homepage: Remote-controlled cockroach., from the series, A guide to the flora and fauna of the world. More at The Institute of Critical Zoologists.
The Grand Prix Fotofestiwal is on view at ART_INKUBATOR in Lodz until 15 June, 2014.
The Michael Hoppen Gallery has just opened an exhibition featuring a selection of vintage prints by Dr. Harold Edgerton, a photographer whose works are found hanging in art museums and galleries across the world. He even won an Oscar with his short film Quicker 'n a Wink. Yet, Edgerton was adamant that he was a scientist, not an artist.
The professor of electrical engineering at MIT invented the ultra-high-speed and stop-action photography when he synchronized strobe flashes with the motion being examined, then took a series of photos through an open shutter that could flash up to 120 times a second. The invention enabled him to photograph motion that was too fast to be captured by the naked eye: balloons at various stages of bursting, bullets tearing through fruits, divers rotating through the air, devil sticks in action, an egg hitting a fan, drops of milk coming into contact with liquid, etc.
If that were not enough, Edgerton was also involved in the development of sonar and deep-sea photography, and his equipment was used by marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau to scan the sea floor for shipwrecks. Or for the Loch Ness monster.
During the Second World War, he pioneered superpowered flash for aerial photography used to create night time reconnaissance images, revealing the absence of German forces at key strategic points just prior to the Allied attack on June 6, 1944.
To trigger the flash at the right moment, a microphone, placed a little before the apple, pickes up the sound from the rifle shot, relays it through an electronic delay circuit, and then fires the microflash (via.)
Moments after the apple was pierced by the bullet, it disintegrated completely.
A .30 caliber bullet, traveling 2,800 feet per second, requires an exposure of less than 1/1,000,000 of a second. Edgerton turned the card sideways and the rifling of the barrel caused the rotation of the projectile, which, in turn, carved out the S-shaped slice of card between the two halves (via.)
After World War II, the Atomic Energy Commission contracted Edgerton and two of his former students to photograph atomic bombs as they exploded. The trio developed the rapatronic (for Rapid Action Electronic) shutter, a shutter with no moving parts that could be opened and closed by turning a magnetic field on and off.
Revealing the anatomy of the first microseconds of an atomic explosion, the fireball was documented in a 1/100,000,000-of-a-second exposure, taken from seven miles away with a lens ten feet long. The intense heat vaporized the steel tower and turned the desert sand to glass (via.)
The exhibition Dr. Harold Edgerton: Abstractions is at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London until 2 August 2014.
This year, BIP2014, the 9th International Biennial of Photography and Visual Arts in Liège, looks at the ambiguous relationship between images and belief. Image seduce, persuade, deceive and lie. And even if we are used to seeing images (and their meaning) being modified and manipulated, we still want to believe that what is under our eyes is The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth.
On the basis of this near irresistible attraction, power, whether it is clearly identified or ambiguous, relies on visual persuasion in its attempts to gain our conscious or unconscious consent. The fanaticism of the image and its attendant effects of belief have, in fact, today taken on a dimension that has never before been reached, perhaps in contrast to a society that claims to be rational. Included within the scope of the image are media and communication industries, spiritual and religious proselytizing of any kind, and marketing and economics, all crudely convened to force us to follow them.
BIP2014 was a passionate, curious, ambitious edition. I wish i could have written about it when the biennial was still on but i only managed to get to Liège as the event was closing.
The theme was great and i salute a biennial that refrained from dictating the audience what they ought to think about the power of deception that images hold. However, as i walked from one venue to another, i felt increasingly overwhelmed. The theme was explored in all its many facets, interpretations and directions. It wasn't just about 'believing' in a strictly religious sense but also about believing in the paranormal, in authority, in illusion, in technological dreams, in cultural icons, etc.
I also felt that the theme was stretched to its most lose ends. For example, i was glad to discover Raoef Mamedov's version of the Last Supper reenacted by people with Down's syndrome but it wasn't clear to me how the series fits with the idea of our ambiguous relationship with images. Still, the series is striking. Mostly because we are not used to seeing religious scenes inhabited by people who do not conform with what society regards as a 'desirable' or even 'normal' appearance. That goes not just for religious images but also for anything we see on TV and in magazine. However, you only need to go back in time to realize that society might have been more open-minded than we give it credit for. In the 16th century, Andrea Mantegna painted a Virgin and Child which, appears to have Down Syndrome.
End of the parenthesis. Start of a quick walk through the biennial:
Let's start with IDOLES, the exhibition that explores the image of power and authority. The show is hosted by the Cité Miroir. The building used to be a swimming pool. It used to be MY swimming pool. Why? What have they done with my swimming pool? I might not have set foot there for ages but that doesn't give them the right to transform it into a bland container of culture, right? Please give me back the swimming pool. Please!
Sorry, let's get back to business... Images are allies of dictators and democratic leaders alike. They command attention, speak to the masses, convey messages often clearer than long speeches. The show efficiently demonstrated that power of the image is so vast, it can propel an individual to the status of an idol.
Photo series taken around the world demonstrate the various forms of contemporary idolatry. Rows of uniforms facing a speech by Barack Obama, Syria's cult of personality, dehumanising May 1st celebrations in North Korea,
These powerful images, which reveal disturbing similarities, regardless of the "camp" to which they belong, express the fascination caused by the aestheticization of power, its staging and its decadence better than words ever could.
From 2007 to 2009, Oliver Hartung documented the monuments and billboards erected by the side of the road to honor the Assad family who ruled Syria since 1971. The homages were built by local citizens and business people to declare loyalty to the government. The photos were taken from moving vehicles as Hartung was concerned about drawing attention to himself in such a heavily controlled police state.
Obama's words and images are always sublimely engineered (If only his actions could follow suit.) Morris's photo series show the leader standing out in his dark suit, alone in front of identically attired young men.
Branislav Kropilak gives mundane "Billboards" a symmetrical nobility. They look like authoritative totems, not supports for marketing slogans and images.
In Arirang, Philippe Chancel document North Korea's flawlessly orchestrated annual mass games in Pyongyang where each move, each collectively sketched pattern reflects the tight control that the "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung holds over the country. The festival might be absurd in its antiquated extravagance and unsubtle propaganda but, strangely enough, it never fails to captivate "Western" audiences when images of the events are broadcast on tv.
The biennial presented the world premiere of Robert Boyd's The Man Who Fell To Earth. The triptych video installation uses archive images in a fast and furious montage to chart the fall of regimes and men. Former Romanian dictator Nicolae Caeusescu's deadly fall from power in December of 1989 is followed by images of Saddam Hussein's demise, George W. Bush's decline in political influence, the cracks forming in Kim Yong Ill's reign in North Korea and the political tumult resulting from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 2009 re-election in Iran. The historical moments are mixed with images of mass spectacles, military defiles and clips from Nicholas Roeg's sci-fi classic staring David Bowie in the role of a humanoid alien who lands on Earth in search of a way to save his dying home planet but ends up alcoholic and disenchanted. By comparing the end games of contemporary heads of state to the dejected alien of Roeg's film, Boyd's video reflects on the transient nature of power and its ability to corrupt, while serving as a harbinger to the politically ostentatious.
This is going to sound lame and lazy but i don't think anything i could write could reflect the mark that video left on me. It is by far the most stunning and moving video i've seen this year.
The sleepy and bourgeois atmosphere of the Ansembourg Museum, an eighteenth century mansion, is the backdrop of MIRAGE. This chapter of the biennial reflects on virtual reality, illusion and emptiness.
I was fascinated by Matthieu Gafsou's Sacré photographic series, a disturbing portrait of the Roman Catholic church in Fribourg (Switzerland.) Gafsou explores figures, spaces and moments that have a key place in catholic faith. the opulence of the rituals and relics appear to be disconnected from our contemporary life. In fact, there is in all these images an air of past grandeur that will never come back.
Fabrice Fouillet's series 'Corpus Christi' brings the church slightly closer to us by focusing on architecture of places of worship built in the 20th Century. Many of the cathedrals and churches caused an outcry when they were first built, such was their deviation from traditional notions of religious architecture, upsetting the more conservative members of the clergy. That series was part of another exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège (note that none of these art institutions has thought relevant to invest in decent online representation.)
OMG* was a very charming show set in the Chapelle St-Roch, a sixteenth century church decrepit and covered in pigeon shit. The MADmusée (Liège's museum for outsider art) chose it as a setting to exhibit photographic accounts of outsider artist environments built through the sheer force of conviction and commitment of an individual. I couldn't find many images online so i;ll have to limit myself to two pitiful photos:
Jean-Michel Chesne's collection of postcards that show locations and constructions that emerged out of personal faith and mysticism. These places are so eccentric-looking that have become touristic attractions.
The exhibition also included images that photographer Mario Del Curto had taken while visiting outsider artists in their working environment or homes. The photos selected show 'outsider environments' born of an epiphany, an unshakable spiritual will.
Related story: Manipulating Reality - How Images Redefine the World.
Most people are fascinated by ruins. The appeal of the crumbling and the decaying is such that it has its own term in photography. It is called "ruin porn" and Detroit is one of its most celebrated subjects. Tate Britain currently has an exhibition about the mournful, thrilling, comic and perverse uses of ruins in art. It is called Ruin Lust. Not because Tate curators are prude and proper but because they are erudite, the title of the show, i read, comes from the 18th-century German architectural word Ruinenlust.
The exhibition begins with the eighteenth century's fascination for ruins among artists, writers, architects and travelers. Think J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. I can't summon much enthusiasm for paintings, etchings and sculptures of the past so i'm going to stop the romantic trip here, shamelessly skip the first parts of the exhibition and focus solely on contemporary works. Most of them photography.
Contemporary artists see ruins, not simply as scenes for aesthetic pleasure and remembrance of past glory, they also question their essence and even view them as as sites of rebirth and new opportunities.
Even if i deliberately only enjoyed a small part of Ruin Lust, i exited the show content and ready to enjoy any overlooked and crap-looking bit of urbanism London has to offer (before they become a real estate 'prime location'.)
Here is a hasty tour of the show. It represent only a very subjective and photography-heavy perspective of it:
Jane and Louise Wilson have long explored architectural spaces that evoke power and control. The artists started photographing decaying Nazi bunkers on France's Normandy Coast, after having read an article by J.G. Ballard on their place in modernist architecture. "We were intrigued by the World War II bunkers that were being drawn back into the water," Jane says. "It was like something from an ancient civilization, but darker."
The Russian Ending, by Tacita Dean, is a series of photogravures with etching inspired by postcards documenting disastrous events. The title of the series refers to a cinematographic practice of the early 20th Century when the last sequences of European movies exported to America and Russia were filmed twice. American audiences would watch the 'Happy End' while a 'Tragic End' was made for Russians.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have photographed marks and drawings made on the walls of what seems to have become a tourist hotspot in the town of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: the Red House. The building was originally the headquarters of Saddam's Ba'athist party. It was also a place of incarceration, torture and often death for many Kurds. Broomberg and Chanarin
The artists photographed the marks left by Kurdish prisoners. We cannot tell what marks were made when and in what order. History presents itself as a palimpsest. If you wish you can sense in these photographs echoes of Brassai's surrealist images of scratched grafitti from 1930s Paris or Aaron Siskind's photos from the 1950s of daubs and tears made in hommage to abstract expressionist painting. But the context is more pressing and more fraught. The traces recorded by these photographs may relate to past events in the history of the Red House but nothing is settled in Iraq yet. While the photographs are fixed forever, these may not be the last marks made on these walls - David Campany.
In 1984 and Beyond, Byrne re-enacts a discussion, published in Playboy in 1963, in which science fiction writers - including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke - speculated about what the world might be like in 1984. Unsurprisingly, they were way off the mark.
Black-and-white photographs accompany the video work look like they came straight from the 1960s but if you look better you realize that they show objects, landscapes, cityscapes and scenes that might just as well belong to 1963, 1984 or now. They show the future that might have been, that probably never was but that still loiter in today's world.
Keith Arnatt's deadpan series A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) subverts the idea of what is picturesque and what deserves to get our attention by pointing the camera to the most prosaic man-made interventions in the landscape.
Five Sisters is a derelict land site in the Midlothian and West Lothian area which John Latham, during his artist's placement with the Scottish Development Office, recommended they be preserved as monuments. He also proposed that the 'bings' (huge heaps of coal waste) should be preserved as monuments. Latham's proposed to erect sculptures, in the form of books, on the summits of the 'bings'.
Instead of working like a photojournalist and look for dramatic scenes to document, Graham searched for subtle traces of political instability left in the landscape. Graham said: "It's a combination of landscape and conflict photography, using small seductive landscapes to reveal the details."
Savage photographed abandoned locations around North Kensington. In the 1970s, the area had very little in common with the chic neighbourhood it later became. He wrote:
These photos were taken on an old Pentax during January 1977: their purpose was to serve as an image bank for the second issue of the fanzine London's Outrage. The location was the square of North Kensington that lies between Holland Park Road, the Shepherd's Bush spur, Westbourne Park Road and the Harrow Road.
The bulk of the images come from the streets around Latimer Road and Lancaster Road: the district called Notting Dale. Here, as in other inner London areas like W9 (the Chippenham) and WC2 (Covent Garden), the tide of industry and humanity had temporarily receded. Slum housing stock had been demolished, but there was no reconstruction: squatting communities like Frestonia (based in Notting Dale's Freston Road) occupied the remaining buildings. Not yet the clichés of punk iconography, large tower blocks loomed like primitive monsters above the rubble and the corrugated iron. I was guided to this area after seeing the Clash and the Sex Pistols. I was very taken with the Clash, partly because their North Kensington manor was so close to mine. Songs like "How Can I Understand The Flies" and "London's Burning" reflected their environment with precision and passion. London was very poor in the late seventies. (via)
Rachel Whiteread's 1996 prints show tower blocks on three housing estates in east London at the moment of their demolition. The images were scanned from photographs and stages in each of these demolitions were documented in three photographs taken from the same view-point. A fourth photograph of each site from a different location records moments that preceded or followed the knocking down.
The Demolished photos record what Whiteread calls 'something that is going to be completely forgotten ... the detritus of our culture', creating a memorial to the past in the hope of generating something better for the future.
Tacita Dean's film Kodak explores the ruin of images and obsolescence of technology. The artist traveled to Chalon-sur-Saône (France) in 2006 to visit and film the final days of the production of the company's 16-mm film stock.
On the day of filming, the factory also ran a test through the system with brown paper, providing a rare opportunity to see the facilities fully illuminated, without the darkness needed to prevent exposure.
Please, don't let this post convince you that i don't like painting. Laura Oldfield Ford's look at brutalist estates and architecture's failed attempts to build an egalitarian society.
A couple of weeks ago i spent the day at the Dana Center in London for First Person Plural: The cult of the photographer and the culture of social media, a symposium hosted by The Science Museum in collaboration with Film and Video Umbrella.
First Person Plural accompanied the final days of Only in England: Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, the first exhibition of the Science Museum's brand new Media Space. The conference briefly paid homage to the legacy of Tony Ray-Jones, who chronicled the social rituals of the English in the 1960s, which he feared were at risk of disappearing with Americanisation.
In the increasingly globalised world of the early 21st century, are there equivalent expressions of cultural identity, or equally idiosyncratic social rituals and behaviours, that modern life seems to be passing by - and who are the contemporary artists and photographers who are recording them? Or, taking our cue from new technology, should we turn this question the other way round? In the age of the 'selfie' and social media, might it be the figure of the Photographer, as observer and recorder of social change, that is becoming passé, destined to be replaced by a new type of collective 'portrait' formed from the aggregation and analysis of big data?
The symposium looked at the impact that current technologies and social media have on the roles, image and identity of the photographer. Some of the highlights of the day included Natasha Caruana explaining how she met with married men in search of an extra-marital affair and documented fragments of their restaurant encounters using a disposable camera, writer and lecturer Julian Stallabrass reminding me how much i love Martin Parr's work (though i'm pretty sure that wasn't Stallabrass' objective) and a talk by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin whose work i've been following with enthusiasm since i discovered it At Strozzina in Florence a few years ago.
My notes from the events are going to be limited to Broomberg & Chanarin's talk because they highlighted valid points about notions of authorship, about the perception that technology is 'neutral', but they also exposed how representation is complicit in events, not only documenting them but being actually involved in them.
One of the first projects they discussed what the Afterlife series which reconsiders a photograph taken in Iran on 6 August 1979 by a very young Iranian photographer called Jahangir Razmi. Taken just months after the revolution, the image records the execution of 11 blindfolded Kurdish prisoners by a firing squad. This is the kind of photo that wins prestigious awards, like the World Press photo prize. And indeed it won the Pulitzer Prize award. But why is an image like this so beautiful and alluring? Broomberg and Chanarin found and met Razmi and discovered that he had taken many more pictures of the dramatic moment. They looked at Razmi's 27 other frames and dissected them in an attempt to deconstruct the moment. For example, each time the prisoner blinded appeared on an image, they isolated him and included him in a collage which aim was to stop the emotional response triggered by the original image. The collage revealed also the mechanical movement of the photographer around that event.
The deconstruction and reconstruction of the image was inspired by Razmi's answer to the question "What is your favorite film?" He answered that his favourite film was a film that hasn't been made: a film of the assassination of Kennedy but taken from multiple angles.
Next, Broomberg and Chanarin also explained the importance of chance in photo reportage. For example, Robert Capa's iconic photo of The Falling Soldier was an accident. Capa didn't even look through the lens, he held the camera up and clicked on the shutter. It truly was an accidental image.
B&C illustrated chance in photography with the project The Day Nobody Died, a work made while they were embedded within the British army in Afghanistan. Once there, they turned a military vehicle into a dark room. Each time an important event happened, the duo took up photographic paper and exposed it to light and then put it back in the box. The result doesn't reflect in a figurative way the events that Broomberg & Chanarin were supposed to document in Afghanistan.
The works questions the viewer's expectation from the proxy, the photographer who goes off to the war or to the scene of natural disasters to act as a witness, record and show it to to the public. How much do the images he produces have to be figurative to act as a piece of evidence of the events?
The piece of photographic paper they took to Afghanistan was there. It did go on a journey and, abstract or not, it stands in for this notion of the witness.
A fascinating point the photographers made was to question the assumption that there is an inherent neutrality to the technology of photography. They illustrated it with a couple of projects. The first responds to the photo of a woman called Shirley. When employees of professional photo laboratories calibrate the printing machine every day, a piece of paper comes out and it comes with various shades of grey to black, then the picture of a lama appears and finally, the picture of a woman. The woman is Shirley. In the beginning of colour films, the Kodak corporation photographed one of the workers, Shirley, and sent the picture out with the word 'normal' as the normal print for caucasian skin. Jean-Luc Godard refused to use Kodak, he called it racist.
Right after the end of segregation in the USA, black and white children started to sit side by side in the same class. Kodak's range was so limited that it was at the time impossible to take a photo of a black and white child in the same frame. It was just a basic limitation of way film had evolved and that's what Godard regarded as racist. Kodak didn't respond to the problem until 2 of their biggest clients, the furniture industry and confectionary industry complained and lobbied Kodak because they were unable to photograph the various nuances of wood and chocolate.
When Broomberg and Chanarin were invited to a ludicrous mission to document Gabon for two weeks, they went on ebay and collected unprocessed 'racist' films which they used in Gabon. They only produced one picture. It is pink (because the green pigment is more stable.)
From there, the photographers became increasingly interested in the idea that a camera or a piece of films could somehow embody ethical ideas, that a piece of technology wasn't ethically neutral. The collaboration of Polaroid with South Africa's Apartheid State is a clear evidence of this.
Polaroid developed for the apartheid government the ID-2 camera that was used to produce the pass book picture that all Africans had to carry around with them. The camera has two lenses so that you can make the portrait and the profile in same sheet of paper. There is also a special button at the back of the device that has been especially designed for black skin. By pressing it, you increase the flash power by 42 percent.
Two Afro American employees of Kodak ("Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement") campaign to convince Polaroid to retire from South Africa. They were fired but the Head of Polaroid eventually sent a delegation in the country and subsequently withdrew all Polaroid products closely linked to end of Apartheid.
Again, B&C went online, bought one of those cameras and traveled to South Africa to take pictures that turned on its head the toxic use of the camera. They decided to ignore the rules they found in the guide book that comes with the camera and proceeded to photograph the flora and fauna of South Africa.
The last work they mentioned is their ongoing curatorial project Shtik Fleisch Mit Tzvei Eigen, a Yiddish insult that means "A piece of meat with two eyes".
Once again, the work emerged from what the photographers call a 'ludicrous' commission. When the G20 met in Saint Petersbourg, one photographer from each of the G20 countries was invited to come and create a piece of work about Russia. B&C discovered a small Russian company at the avant-garde of surveillance software. Their cameras are invisible and can be placed anywhere. They capture data as you pass through and make marking of your face. The result is not a photograph but a 'data double', an algorithmic map of the face, a structure of your bone. The machine doesn't need the image to portray and identify a person. This technology heralds the breakdown of the photographer and the collapse of camera. At the same time, it announced the advent of software and computer.
The developers of the software said that the biggest challenge was developing a camera that could operate in a non collaborative mode. We are thus entering a new era of non collaborative portraiture, the subject does not even need to be aware that their face is being scanned in 3 dimensions, that can later be rotated and scrutinized. The technology totally substitute the meaning of the face with the mathematics of the face.
Some of the presentations are on soundcloud.
Previously: Only in England: Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr.