Gerhard Richter (Dresden, 1932) is one of the most influential artists of the postwar era. He has sought innovative ways to challenge painting and the representation and manipulation of reality, often through a dialogue with photography.
Richter is known for a stylistically varied exploration of the medium of painting, often incorporating and exploring the visual effects of photography.
I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency; I have no program, no style, no directions. I have no time for specialised concerns, working themes, or variations that lead to mastery. I like continual uncertainty.’ Richter 1966
In 1969 Gerhard Richter challenges the authority of the photographic image with his series ‘9 Objekte’. Each of the nine black-and-white photographs capture a different wooden construction in a quotidian setting. The ordinary context suggest the objects should also be ordinary. But their structure is in contradiction with all the rules of perspective. Richter created visual illusions, by retouching them. Like several projects of Richter, ‘9 Objekte’ challenges the image of reality, objective truth does not exist and we allow ourselves to be manipulated very easily.
‘9 Objekt’ made me think of Rein De Wilde still life series. What appears to be a conventional still life scene is in reality a strange combination of mainly mundane objects. He also includes the unseen objects of still life. He offers a blink of the surrounding environment, a room or studio and adhesive tape.
And surprisingly also Richter made some paintings with folding paper as the main subject.
The choice of the objects in combination with the often fragile arrangements and framing, offer challenge and discomfort. On top of this, Rein De Wilde uses a fragile light and soft pink and blue tones. This makes him a soft manipulator of reality.
On the occasion of the Gerhard Richter ‘About Painting’ exhibition at SMAK Ghent (Curator Martin Germann) I have chosen within the multitude of styles within the oeuvre of Richter some of his artworks and linked them with contemporary Belgian photographers.
Someone sits in a room and looks at photographs. What kind of photographs? ‘A highly variegated collection of competent snapshots’. The person isn’t looking at only a few photographs, but up to 2000 a day. Every photograph is looked at shortly, five seconds to be precise.
If this set-up wasn’t coming from a 1973 research article on visual memory [i], it might have been a description of a person in our current times, checking his or her social media feed. We are living in a time in which we can (and do) interact with a wealth of photographs each day, each scanned shortly before moving on to the next one.
How much time do you spend looking at photographs online? How many photographs that you encountered some days ago can you still remember? Could you distinguish between one of these ‘old’ photos and a photo you never saw before?
According to the study in 1973, you could. The researcher concluded that our capacity for the recognition of pictures was almost limitless. As a side comment, at the end of the paper, it was also shortly stated that those participants who had to watch 10.000 items over five days, found the cumulative effect to be ‘extremely gruelling and unpleasant’. Do you feel the same after too much Instagram or Facebook?
Not all photographs are equal, though. People seem to remember some photographs consistently better than others [ii]. There must be something in some photographs that makes us remember them better than others. What that ‘something’ is, is not clear. Researchers are searching for those golden characteristics. What kind of photographs are remembered better and, based on that, could we even train a computer to select the most memorable images?
Not only researchers are in a quest to find the most memorable photographs. Photographers are on this same quest when making or editing their photographs. ‘I strive for individual pictures that will burn in people’s memories’ Steve McCurry said.
So, which photographs are memorable? Or more concretely, which Belgian art photographs are most memorable? Wouldn’t that make for a good blog article for Democratic Jungle? I decided to try it out on myself: What photographs could I find in my own memory?
Belgian art photographs, Belgian art photographs, … my mind went. I quickly realised that actively recalling photographs is much more difficult than the passive forced-choice tasks used in psychology experiments. Instead, bringing up photographs seemed to require a detour. In order for photographs to pop up in my brain, I had to recall other experiences first. I went over Belgian photographers that I met in workshops and exhibitions I had seen. Only after recalling these persons or contexts, some photographs emerged.
Isn’t this an interesting tip for the beginning photographer? Make sure that people not only see your work, but that they can connect it to something else: a conversation they had with you, a workshop you followed together, a concept or story that was told about your photographs. Not only make your work memorable, make yourself memorable too.
If this article so far sounded too vague for you, let’s make it more concrete. Here are five Belgian art photographs that live somewhere in my memory. Maybe, they will find their way to your memory too.
Jan Rosseel – Belgian Autumn
The first masterclass I followed was BredaPhoto’s masterclass of 2016. Even though I travelled all the way to our neighbouring country, I ended up with a Belgian artist as a teacher: Jan Rosseel. The photograph that I connect to him is one of his project ‘Belgian Autumn. A Confabulated History’ focusing on a dark page in Belgian history, the violent robberies by the ‘Bende van Nijvel’ (Gang of Nivelles) between 1982 and 1985 and the investigations following this (but never catching the criminals).
The specific photograph shows a person wearing a caricature mask, in front of a black background. I remember the gist, but not the details. Was he facing left or right, I am unsure. He was wearing something black, I believe.
Following my mind’s trace about photography workshops, Matthieu Litt popped up. Both Belgians, we first met in Latvia, during the International Summer School of Photography (ISSP) 2016. The image connected to him is from his series ‘Horsehead Nebula’, a photograph from a statue representing a horsehead, facing downwards. Somewhere in a faraway country, I remember that from the general summary of his project. The rest of the details are fuzzy in my head. Was the statue on some kind of roundabout? Was the horsehead yellow or golden?
Another photographer now springs to mind: Katlijn Blanchaert. We shared some nervousness before having to pitch our projects at ‘De Donkere Kamer’ in Gent. Interestingly, the horsehead and mask theme turn up again. A new memorable image, now in a very different way. I remember an almost naked man (turns out my memory made the photograph somewhat more decent, because he seems to be fully naked after all), sitting on his knees, wearing a horse mask. The photograph was bathing in blue light. Was he sitting on the ground? On a bed?
Some stories are memorable and unfortunately, these aren’t always the happy stories. In the group exhibition of TWENS 2016, I heard about the loss that photographer Zoë Parton (and her family) had faced when the sister of the photographer died in an accident years ago. The name of the sister was Sofie, it is stuck in my mind. Trying to recall the photographs, I remember a poetic kind of darkness. I can’t exactly recall how the photographs looked, but I do remember a dark seascape.
Last but not least, ‘Rivages’ by Lara Gasparotto was the first photobook by a Belgian photographer I ever purchased. The image tied to this comes to me through a colour: a sensuous red. The image itself is a girl with bare shoulders with her back towards the camera but her face looking back, at the photographer, a mysterious look.
Why do I remember these photographs and not others?
After recalling these specific artists, the photographs outlined here showed up in my mind immediately. Only later, some other photographs emerged. There must be something in these photographs that makes them stick to my mind.
Is it because I have seen them more often? Some of the photographs played a central role in the respective projects, being put on invitations of exhibitions or being the representative photograph of the whole work. Do I remember them better because they have that status or do they have that status because they are so memorable? Other photographs must be memorable because of their distinctiveness or was it the way they made me feel uncomfortable or another emotional value tied to them? Still others mainly got to me through a certain colour.
Interestingly, the photographs are represented in some way in my head, but I can’t actively recall all their details. How do these photographs look in my head? If the details aren’t saved, then what is? Some essential characteristics? A summary that is impossible to put into words?
Aren’t these undetailed photographs, saved in other people’s memories, the ultimate end result of a photographer’s efforts? An image that keeps on living in someone else’s head and pops up in consciousness once in a while, triggered by an experience, a photographer’s name, a story, an emotion or the question to write a blog post on Belgian art photography.
[i] Standing, L. (1973). Learning 10,000 pictures. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 25(2), 207-222.
[ii] Isola, P., Xiao, J., Parikh, D., Torralba, A., & Oliva, A. (2014). What makes a photograph memorable? IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, 36(7), 1469-1482.
‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ by David Claerbout
We blink 15-20 times per minute. Our eyes make 2 to 4 quick movements per second. Light that does manage to get in reaches its destination – light-sensitive cells in the back of the eye – only after travelling through layers of other cells. The array of light-sensitive cells is essentially a flat sheet, a blind spot exists and only the part we focus on is coded in detail. Still, our brains manage, continuously and seemingly automatically, to work with this information and give us an impression of a stable, coherent, three-dimensional and meaningful world. Visual perception is not perfect. A perfect illusion, maybe.
A photographer looks through his viewfinder. Boys and men playing football, a Mediterranean setting, a guy lights up his cigarette, the sea behind the roofs of houses, seagulls flying over. Then, one of the men raises his hand with a piece of food – is it bread? – a seagull dives down and approaches the hand, a moment between man and bird.
David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ installed at Fotomuseum Antwerp
Click – a fraction of a second, that’s all it takes. The decisive moment is captured. The photographer took control of time and froze the moment. He didn’t dream it, it wasn’t an illusion, it is there – black on white – the man feeding the bird. Photography at its best – freezing time. Photography at its worst too – leaving out so much information surrounding that one decisive moment. The surrounding context that has the capacity to enhance the meaning of that one moment: The smiling face of a young boy looking at the scene from the side line – his laugh captured for infinity; the goalkeeper, leaning with one hand at the pole – his actions ceased by the short interruption; the man lighting up his cigarette. Photography is not perfect. A perfect illusion, maybe.
Can we ever fully grasp a moment, through our eyes or a camera, given that both are imperfect and new situations are unfolding every fraction of a second? We cannot see front and back of a situation at once. Once we move our body or eyes – to get more information – the moment is already gone and something slightly different takes its place. We cannot see front and back of the same situation; we cannot see front and back of a photograph.
That day, we paid our entrance free, walked upstairs and sat down – on a bench, in front of a large screen. Photograph of man feeding bird projected largely in front of us. Our imperfect eyes watched the incompletely captured moment.
Suddenly, another photograph is projected. We now see the smile on the young boy’s face, sitting by the side, watching that decisive moment. And another photograph, the man lighting up his cigarette. And another, the goalkeeper, leaning and waiting. New photographs, new context about that same fraction of a second. Time is frozen, the moment now infinite. Our eyes are free to wander into the photograph and explore the situation AND its context.
David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ installed at Project Arts Centre Dublin 2015 (photo Ros Kavanagh)
David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ installed at Project Arts Centre Dublin 2015 (photo Ros Kavanagh)
Free? Not completely, we are guided by the artist. He has chosen which aspects we will see – out of the 50.000 shots, he carefully selected 600 photographs – and in what order to show them. A seagull, an overview of the scene, a detail in the back, a view from another side, the artist is guiding our eyes – and thereby also our attention.
27.2 seconds, that is the average time people spend looking at a piece of art [i]. Quickly extracting the meaning of the work – then moving on to the next one. We wouldn’t want to miss anything on our trip to the museum.
Here, we stay seated – for 37 minutes – watching a situation of a fraction of a second through 600 photographs. The artist hijacked our attention by feeding us the situation frame by frame, adding more nuance as we spent more time with the work. Every new insight into the moment satisfies our inherent curiosity. What else is happening? Where is this scene taking place? What was that guy in the back doing? What was going on above, below, left and right?
Which artworks do we find most beautiful? Is it the one that is attuned to our eyes, so that we can fluently perceive it: the prototypical, the familiar, the easy to grasp? Or is it the one that raises challenge, shows us something in a new and different way, forcing us to put effort in understanding what we are seeing?
Can a work of art be both? The simplicity of a beautiful moment, captured at the right time, shown through the familiarity of black- and white photographs. Everyone understands its beauty; our eyes easily grasp the scene. Adding to this, however, the complexity and mystery of the combination of these 600 photographs, projected back to back. We are seeing the moment in a way we could never have seen it with only our eyes or only one photograph. Time was frozen and we walked in – our brain surprised by the new way of seeing. Our awakened brains now eager to find out more: How did the artist do this? Where were the cameras? We don’t see them in the other photographs. Did they all go off at the same moment. Was the moment choreographed? Was this the only moment photographed this way? Was something manipulated? Were we manipulated? The seemingly simple was complex after all.
David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’
Do I even want to know the answers? I am not sure. Maybe I like the work better without knowing all the details of its origins. Wonder might be the most central aesthetic emotion [ii]. And those 37 minutes with ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ by David Claerbout certainly made me wonder.
The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment by artist David Claerbout was recently on show in the exhibition ‘The still point of the turning world – between film and photography’ of the Fotomuseum Antwerp. It consists of 600 black-and-white photographs of one ‘happy’ moment projected in a 37-minute stereo audio loop. Impressed by the work, and how the artist played with my visual system, I wrote this article.
Il faut que je vous parle d’Aurore. Vois-tu, ce n’est pas forcément si simple. Je la connais peu. Je la connais un peu. Si je m’étais pris pour un autre, j’aurais dit « deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle ». Elle ne se livre pas. Non pas qu’il y ait, à fréquenter les autres, une « menace potentielle », notion qu’elle accole volontiers à son travail. Mais il y a comme une résistance, vois-tu.
Il faut que je vous parle d’Aurore. Elle pratique le Systema. C’est un art martial russe, qui remonte au Xe siècle, et a été développé pour les forces spéciales russes. Les coups, ils sont portés. Je digresse, mais tu regarderas un court extrait de la performance créée par Aurore, As long as : les coups ils sont portés. Et donc chez Aurore, s’il n’y a pas de coup porté, il y a cette résistance, cette distance maintenue coûte que coûte. Ce qu’on apprend d’ailleurs avec le Systema : maintenir l’adversaire à distance, garder la maîtrise de la situation.
Il faut que je vous parle d’Aurore. Du coup il y a un jeu qui se met en place. On avance, on recule, on va un peu sur le côté. Je parle avec elle. On aborde un thème. C’est assez direct : le nu, les autoportraits, les garçons aux corps offerts. Il peut y avoir de la provocation, ça fait partie du jeu : « Don’t love me, I’m your toy ». Ce qui était inscrit sur une carte noire, offerte à moi par Aurore, la première fois où nous avons vraiment parlé. Vois-tu, c’est aussi une technique : maintenir la distance, mais aussi se mettre en scène. Je parle avec elle. Sa série Figures : son dos, encore son dos, toujours son dos, jusqu’à être celui de quelqu’un d’autre. C’est la pudeur.
Il faut que je vous parle d’Aurore. Tu peux regarder les corps, chercher à (la) mettre à nu. Elle esquive, ce n’est pas elle. Tout est représentation. Tu es conduit sur un chemin. Ce n’est pas forcément le bon. Tu as des sensations. Ce sont les tiennes. Voilà. Je parle avec elle. Elle reconnaît les paradoxes. Tu penses à Deserts, les corps de garçons, les textes : crus, froids. Organiques et cliniques. Une forme de violence. Elle le sait. Destructrice. Pour mieux renaître ?
Il faut que je vous parle d’Aurore. Elle se détourne un peu des images, ces derniers temps. S’en va vers l’écriture. De manière forte. Les phrases, comme préparées à être dites voire scandées, sont affichées en grand sur le mur, dans son atelier. C’est du concret. C’est ce qu’Aurore souhaite, je crois. Elle tâtonne avec méthode : c’est un peu l’art de l’improvisation. C’est un peu une quête. Laquelle ? Etre soi ou hors de soi ? Vois-tu, tout est question de contrôle, Aurore.
Ce petit questionnaire à la mode de Proust a été réalisé via Skype, dans les conditions du live pour Aurore Dal Mas – et pour moi aussi, tant certaines de ses réponses me surprirent !
Sur le désir
La fête est finie
Il me guide vers la sortie. Je l’ai évité toute la soirée. Je pense que personne n’a remarqué. En descendant les escaliers, avant de reprendre la route ensemble, il glisse une main sur ma gorge et m’étrangle lentement. L’autre main fouille ma bouche, sentant chaque texture, comme pour chercher les mots que je n’ai pas dits. Les yeux révulsés, j’esquisse un sourire et souffle I want you anyway, avant de tomber inconsciente. Premier son d’os qui craquent quand il me laisse retomber. Mes genoux bronzés tremblent un peu sur le sol ciré quand il s’enfonce dans mon cul. Il reste là sans bouger, attendant qu’elle respire à nouveau. I want you too est ce qui sorti de son souffle à lui.
The party is over
He guides me to the exit. I avoided him all the evening. I think nobody noticed. Going down the stairs, before taking the road together, he approaches a hand on my throat and slowly strangle, the other hand in my mouth, like to feel the texture, looking for the words I didn’t say. Eyes revulsed, trying a little smile, I breathe out I want you anyway, before falling unconscious. First sound of bones cracking when he let me fall. My knees shake a little on the waxed floor when he comes deep down in my ass. He stays there without moving, waiting for her to breathe again. I want you too was what came out of his breath.
Extraits audio de la performance sonore Deserts
Sur la vie – et la violence
Extrait de la performance As long as
Fire is a sound installation based on the lyrics of the popular love song Wicked Game, which is re-interpretated to give a new sense to the words, letting go of the originally inoffensive pop aspect of it. This installation was created during a residency on a small island in Italy. The whole place was burned and deserted by its inhabitants a long time ago. Fire aims to throw light on the persistence, strenght and effect of some historic events in specific places, the human distress during certain catastrophes, and the power of the feelings provoked. For the installation, the house was closed, the sound was heard from outside only. There is a woman’s voice, yelling and screaming, like an SOS that puts the viewer in a helpless position, attracted by the sound but with no possibility of stopping that drama. The impossibility of entering the space and reacting to the call of the woman makes the visitor face its own imagination and its incapacity to save someone. This is also a metaphor for someone locked in themself, and therefore with no possibility of exchange, of being helped or loved, as the song suggests it. Finally, Fire is a call, a recall and a protection at the same time for this haunted woman.
Sur la mort
Lorsque tu qualifies ton travail, tu évoques souvent le concept de « menace potentielle ». Que signifient pour toi ces termes?
Il se passe peu de choses dans mes images, pourtant il me semble qu’elles contiennent souvent une tension qui est une forme d’énergie accumulée. On y voit souvent de la noirceur, ou alors les muscles tendus sont soulignés, il y a du mouvement, ou au contraire une étrange fixité dans certains paysages, il y a une œuvre électrique (Miracle), une installation où une femme crie dans une maison close de toute part (Fire), un rapace en liberté (As long as)… A chaque fois, il y a quelque chose de contenu prêt à exploser, un calme qui est plutôt celui d’avant la tempête, une dissolution dont on pressent la logique finale : la destruction. C’est ça, cette menace potentielle. Et c’est une question qui me paraît très actuelle. Dans les images cela crée selon moi une attente, un temps de lecture plus lent, une attraction. La tension dans l’image n’est peut-être qu’un moyen de retenir, de captiver. Et en même temps, c’est le fond même d’une image, c’est son rôle. C’est cette menace d’absorption ou de dissolution, ce qui fait peur ou rebute, la vulnérabilité, les rapports entre oppresseur et oppressé qui m’intéressent pour le moment ; la peur qui évoque également la notion de survie. Toute menace fait appel à cette forme d’instinct.
Par ailleurs, on constate dans ton processus créatif une évolution, l’apparition de la violence, du passage à l’acte, notamment dans tes derniers écrits ou dans la performance As long as.
C’est peut-être lié aux années de pratique ou à mon âge, ou aux évolutions du monde actuel, mais effectivement, il y a une envie de plus de concret, de plus d’action, d’une incidence. Comme l’envie de percer quelque chose – une condition restreinte peut-être – pour revivre, en quelque sorte. Mais je ne vois pas cet intérêt pour une forme de violence comme une fin en soi. C’est plutôt l’idée de renaître de ses cendres.
Par ailleurs, j’ai sans doute toujours eu un goût et un attrait personnel pour la violence, mais je ne l’avais pas exploré jusqu’à présent. Enfant, mes rêves étaient très violents, et il doit sans doute en rester quelque chose. Je m’intéresse donc à ce qui fait peur, tout en restant dans la provocation figée – par exemple, je ne ferai pas le premier pas pour pousser l’autre à se déclarer –, tout du moins c’est ce que j’ai souvent essayé de susciter chez le spectateur… Dorénavant j’ai envie de choses plus directes et un peu plus ancrées dans le monde extérieur.
Lors de nos dernières discussions, tu as mis l’accent sur la question des sensations, celles que tu entends faire naître chez les personnes qui regardent tes images, lisent tes textes, écoutent ou voient tes installations sonores ou visuelles. Tu dis vouloir « questionner la nature humaine », mais ce questionnement n’est-il pas avant tout personnel ?
Toute œuvre questionne sans doute toujours la nature humaine. Et je ne peux partir que de moi, de mon interprétation des choses, donc, en ce sens, c’est certainement personnel. Mais l’idée n’est jamais, même quand je réalise un autoportrait ou quelque chose qui s’en approche, de parler de moi, de dire qui je suis. Ce que je suis vraiment se résume à trois mots, et cela reste du domaine personnel. Par contre, je me dis humblement que mes questionnements peuvent nourrir ceux des autres… Si quelqu’un croit devoir chercher à me comprendre ou comprendre ce que j’ai voulu dire, c’est le mauvais chemin. On est seul face à une image. Ça me plait de chercher à voir ce qui nous anime. On a une personne devant une image, c’est le calme plat et c’est chiant comme tout, mais dans le fond qu’est-ce qui se passe ? Est-ce qu’il y a des mouvements invisibles qui sont à l’œuvre ? On fait une sortie « culturelle », on assiste par exemple à ma dernière performance, on croit qu’on va voir quelque chose – dont il ne restera plus rien de tangible dès la seconde où c’est passé (voilà pourquoi j’adore les choses qui se passent en live, et notamment le chant) – mais en fait l’interrogation demeure : est-ce que les gens
se rendent bien compte qu’ils ne verront que ce qu’ils sont capables de voir (et je ne parle pas de capacités intellectuelles, bien sûr, mais de sensations, d’intuitions, tout ce magma de vagues idées qui nous constitue) ? Comme le disait Cesare Pavese dans Le métier de vivre : « “Voir les choses pour la première fois” n’existe pas. Celle que nous nous rappelons, que nous notons, est toujours une seconde fois. » Il n’y a rien à voir, seulement à reconnaître. Et à travers ça je crois qu’on n’apprend qu’à se (re)connaître soi-même… C’est un questionnement philosophique personnel, en effet, mais tout à fait universel aussi. Ce qui est vu, je n’en sais rien. Chercher à me voir ou à comprendre ce qui moi m’anime a peu d’intérêt. Chercher à voir qui on est à travers une image, par contre, oui. La porte est ouverte mais il est impossible de forcer qui que ce soit à y mettre un pied, évidemment ; c’est un chemin solitaire. Cela dit, j’avoue que j’aime utiliser des aspects tactiles comme incitant, peut-être par pur esprit de séduction. Ça me semble être un premier pas vers l’appropriation de quelque chose, les sensations.
Tu m’as dit un jour : « A la fin, je n’en ai rien à faire de la photo. » Ce qui est attesté par ton récent travail centré sur l’écrit. Par ailleurs, tu m’as dit très récemment vouloir « prendre de nouveau des photos ». Qu’en est-il ?
Je ne sais pas ! J’ai envie, mais je ne vois rien à photographier. Peut-être parce que j’estime photographier des choses qui n’existent pas, qui se créent pour la photo et par la photo. Et que pour le moment je suis coincée entre «voir ce qui se passe à l’intérieur » et « voir ce qui se passe à l’extérieur ». Et puis j’en suis toujours à tenter de distinguer image et photo ; une image se crée, une photo se prend… Enfin, si tant est qu’on puisse « créer » quoi que ce soit. Ce sont les images qui m’intéressent, mais elles prennent toutes sortes de formes. J’aime le côté rapide de la photographie, mais parfois le résultat me semble trop « mort », trop inutile, trop bidimensionnel, pas assez physique, trop facile et pas assez dangereux, justement. Je suis un peu plus attirée par l’instant présent quand il s’agit de montrer un travail, et un peu moins par la collecte de photographies destinées à être montrées plus tard. Du coup, même l’écriture devient voix en ce moment. Par ailleurs, cette phrase que tu as reprise vient de loin : à l’examen d’entrée de la Cambre en Photographie, on nous demandait : « Comment tu te vois dans cinq ans ? », et j’ai très clairement dit : « En tout cas pas photographe ! ». Cela dit, ils m’ont prise quand même ! En fait, j’ai envie de tout, je ne vais pas me limiter, ce serait d’un ennui… Je tire le fil et j’ai l’impression de seulement commencer à comprendre le monde.
Antonio est photographe. Il vit à Bruxelles. Tu ne le croiseras pas au bar. Antonio est photographe. Il crée des images. Il n’a pas d’ordinateur chez lui.
Antonio est photographe. Parfois il se cache. Il aligne les images et les ordonne. Il doute.
Antonio est photographe. Ne cherche pas, il n’a pas de page Facebook. Antonio est photographe. Ses pellicules, utilisées notamment pour photographier Carmen, sont rangées dans une boîte en bois, à l’intérieur de laquelle est fixée une plaque : « Corps Diplomatique. »
Antonio est photographe. Il vient de lire ce que je dis de lui. Il est furieux. C’est beau à voir.
Invité par Vincen Beeckman, je participe au Musée de la Photographie de Bruxelles qui ouvre ses grandes portes [et ses petites boîtes] à Recyclart. Pour sa deuxième exposition, le musée hors les murs prendra place dans la Gare de la Chapelle avec une installation autour d’images d’auteurs de notre plat pays.
Cet événement éphémère trouvera son prolongement dans d’autres installations temporaires, à Bruxelles et ailleurs en Belgique.
Récemment, nous avons eu une conversation sur ta difficulté à te considérer photographe. D’où cela vient-il ?
Le manque d’école peut-être, la privation d’apprendre, sur les bancs face aux professeurs, de recevoir afin, plus tard, de pouvoir déconstruire, une réappropriation qui marquerait une forme d’identité.
Mais voilà, avec le temps on se dit qu’une vie d’autodidacte c’est riche, on fréquente d’autres écoles, d’autres lieux, ici c’est de construction qu’il s’agit, vivre aux contraintes de la liberté, sans trop de fioriture. A ta question, non, je ne sais pas si je suis photographe, cela m’importe peu en fait, je ne veux pas mais elle fait doucement partie intégrante de ma vie.
Antonio, tu revendiques dans ton travail une forme de violence. J’y vois plutôt une sorte de « fureur de vivre », et donc de produire. D’accord ou pas ?
D’accord avec toi mais je maintiens aussi la présence d’une certaine
« violence », mais pas dans l’image – mes images sont dépouillées de toutes formes d’agressivité, je les trouve plutôt sereines : la violence dans mon regard, c’est le silence de nos vies. Le silence fait à ceux, à nous, qui pour mille raisons, conventions, se (re)trouvent en marge, quid d’une bonne santé, de jeunesse, de repères qui peuvent, qui entraînent le retrait/repli sur soi. « Fureur de vivre », oui, depuis toujours, dans un excès contenu, exception faite aujourd’hui pour la photographie, car elle me permet de cadrer le sujet, en l’occurrence moi-même. La photographie, cette photographie me procure une douce sensation d’équilibre ; la fureur de vivre est le fuel de ma production.
Peu de gens le savent, mais tu écris depuis fort longtemps. As-tu déjà envisagé de mettre en rapport l’écriture et les images ?
Non, pas encore, un jour viendra, je prendrai le temps de me lire, on verra !
Dernièrement, tu t’es intéressé à la représentation des chats, que tu nommes les « sphinx ». Que pasa, hombre ? Ton sujet photographique premier, ce sont quand même les femmes, non ?
Les chats, oui, ceux qui se retrouvent affichés sur les poteaux des grandes villes, chats perdus, chats trouvés, affiches transformées par les intempéries en vrais petits chefs-d’œuvre d’abstraction. Il y a dans cet effacement, cette transformation, une similitude que je recherche dans mon travail.
C’est vrai, une grande partie de mon sujet se concentre autour de ma relation aux femmes, et Dieu sait si je ne suis pas un séducteur, justement. J’ai vécu entouré de femmes et le mystère reste complet, c’est une attirance qui dépasse le désir, ma timidité me donne beaucoup d’aisance (sic) et c’est rassurant pour l’autre personne, enfin, je crois… Prendre en photographie les femmes telles qu’elles aimeraient pouvoir se voir, sans le filtre du déjà-vu, c’est très fort comme partage, et puis, il y a les secrets qui nous lient, tout ce dont je traite à la troisième question.
Moins de 1% des personnes infectées par le VIH contrôlent naturellement la multiplication de l’infection en l’absence de thérapie. Chez ces séropositifs, le virus, bien que présent, est indétectable. De plus, leur système immunitaire reste suffisamment résistant pour protéger leur organisme des maladies opportunistes. Cependant, on ne peut en aucun cas considérer ces résistances comme un acquis définitif.
Elite Controllers – 2016
Un grand merci à Andrea Copetti pour l’élaboration de cette vidéo.
Together with the other extras, the photographer and the actor returned to the dimly lit conference room where in the meantime dozens of empty water bottles had accumulated across the table. In the background the photographer could hear Priyadarshan lethargically calling his troops to resume position. Slowly the machine came back into action. Professionally, the actors slid their tongues across their teeth, checking for any misplaced pieces of lunch. Hair was brushed, cables laid, and cameras clicked onto tripods.
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Beijing) 2007-2011
The photographer could feel the extras looking at him; they said nothing. Willem, the Dutchman, was making jokes with the two French women, and although the photographer couldn’t hear him, he knew it was about him and his defeat. “I was so close!” said the photographer frustratedly to Diane, with whom, out of his clone-colleagues, he had the most contact. She couldn’t manage more than an empathetic “I know …”
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Berlin) 2010
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Dresden) 2010
Mansoor asked Diane, Willem, the actor, and the two French women to follow him to the next scene. The photographer tagged along briefly just to see what would take place next. The scene was relatively complex. Everything had to be perfectly synchronized. While Anil Kapoor argued with Boman Irani about a difference of opinion concerning the lights on the control panel, Kangna Ranaut entered the frame with more bad news. The photographer couldn’t understand anything from their Hindi, but it all looked very dramatic. At exactly the same moment that Kangna appeared, in the background the actor had to give information to Willem who would then immediately exit the frame. In the foreground Diane was assiduously typing at the keyboard of a computer that wasn’t plugged in. The two French women had to pass one another in the far background; of all the extras they were the most expendable. The scene was rehearsed briefly first, and then during takes it continually went wrong. There was always someone stumbling over their lines, or entering the frame too soon or too late.
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Amsterdam) 2011
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Guangzhou) 2011
The photographer went back to the conference room where in the dim light Herman was sitting on the floor in a corner. His head was leant back against the wall and he gazed upwards—without really looking—towards the ceiling. His knees pulled towards his chest, exposing his blue socks. A strip of his pale, hairy shin seemed to undermine his “British” image. The photographer propped himself beside him and offered him a cold bottle of water, wet with condensation. Unintentionally he assumed the same posture. They bonded instantaneously. “Do you think it will work out, your photo shoot?” he asked, with concern and skepticism. “It’s going to have to, even if I have to move heaven and earth!” replied the photographer with more confidence than he really had. “I think Mansoor was bothered by how it went just now, I have the feeling he’ll organize it better this time round, he promised me it’d work out.” “Yeah, no doubt it will,” Herman responded.
There was a short pause; they drank from their bottles. “You know, I used to be a photographer?” Herman started up a new conversation. “I was a real fanatic, I had a darkroom installed up in the loft. I had a Durst enlarger with a Schneider lens. In the mid nineties I bought a Nikon f4 and a couple of lenses. Not long after that the digital cameras starting coming out. I’ve actually hardly used the Nikon. What do you work with?” “I’ve also always been Nikon.” The photographer heard himself say he was Nikon, you don’t use a brand, you are one. “I had an f3,” continued the photographer in the same jargon. This conversation was very familiar. “My first serious digital camera was also a Nikon, the d70. Then I swapped over to Canon, they were a bit faster with the digital developments and, moreover, a bit cheaper. The lenses weren’t as good. I bought a 50-mm lens for over a thousand euros, an f 1.2 from the professional series, you know the sort with the red ring, and I still had to correct the barrel distortion. Due mainly to the nature of my subjects, I have a lot of horizontal and vertical lines in my photographs.” “How come? What do you photograph when you are traveling?” This was usually the point at which these kinds of conversations stagnated, so a bit hesitantly he replied: “Well, walls actually, facades. In short: small details of our everyday surroundings, I refer to them as ‘inadvertent spaces.’” To his surprise this seemed spark Herman’s interest. “And why then only everyday places. There’s so much to be seen in foreign places?” “I photograph what we have in common,” the photographer tried to clarify, “the places where we park our cars, leave the trash out, places we continually pass but never give attention to. I try to capture these places as precisely as possible, over-aestheticized and often reduced to little more than their form, and so creating a stage for the exasperating banality and meaninglessness of my subject. A bit like we are ourselves … After all, see how we are sitting here. We are in Mumbai, thousands of miles from home and we’re sitting in a dark, stuffy studio, propped against the wall, drinking water out of plastic bottles. That’s what we do. We have a drink, eat a sandwich. It’s not a constant crisis … ” (Without saying so, this was a reference to a quote from Anton Chekhov that had always stayed with him: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out”.) “And then I’ve not even started on what we do when we’re just at home. The farcical television programs we waste our time with, the ridiculous products we buy in even more ridiculous supermarkets. I find thinking about it simultaneously funny and frightening. We are creating our own demise while we stand by and watch, apparently indifferent and even bored by it!”
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (HongKong) 2011
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Istanbul) 2011
Herman smiled and nodded in agreement. “You know,” he went on, “I understand exactly what you mean, in the past I used to get really stressed about it too. I would often get into arguments about it with my wife. Sometimes right in the middle of a holiday, in some or another resort where we were supposed to be perfectly happy, I’d just get completely overwhelmed. It would have the total opposite effect on me. The all you can eat buffets, the activities, the artificial waves in the swimming pool would all drive me completely crazy.” Herman laughed, this time the photographer nodded in agreement. “I have a different take on things since being ill, I think. Without warning you’re suddenly met with the start of the next chapter. You don’t want to be there, certainly not yet.” Herman took the last sip and crushed his empty water bottle, screwing the cap back on whereby the bottle froze in its new crumpled form. “In any case, I no longer have the luxury to think about things in this way. Every moment is a very conscious one, for me. I refuse to let my last seconds be consumed by ‘The Wheel of Fortune!’” A silence fell, the photographer looked around the darkened room where the non-acting extras were sitting talking with one another in small groups. There was a resigned atmosphere in the room. Everyone was waiting patiently; no one rebelled. Besides, Mansoor was really very friendly and everyone was given as much coffee and water as they wanted. All the same, it seemed they had been taken hostage by this disaster movie and its successful actors. The photographer was doubtlessly the only one with an ulterior motive, with a plan for the end of this endless day. “It hadn’t been going well with my wife,” Herman continued, “and then, when I got ill, it became untenable, I just felt I no longer had the time to question whether things would get better, or resign myself to the fact that everyone has problems and I just had to accept it. Once I had been given the all clear—which remains relative in my condition, my health is reassessed every six months—I rented a studio and left my wife. She wasn’t at all surprised.” The photographer wanted to ask Herman what kind of cancer he had overcome, but given they had only just met and actually he had no idea whether liver cancer, for instance, was more life-threatening than throat cancer, he decided to refrain from asking. He also took the last swig from his bottle and placed it against the wall beside him. “What kind of camera would you recommend I buy?” Herman went on, as though they’d been talking about photography equipment the whole time. “I have a small pocket Nikon at the moment, but it’s pretty limited. I’d actually really like to pick up photography again.” The question caught the photographer unawares, moreover, he didn’t have the knowledge of a salesman. “It depends what you want,” he cautiously began. “I assume you’d like to replace it with an slr?” “I think so,” said the German in his English suit. “As long as you stick with Canon or Nikon you can’t really go wrong. Of course, within those ranges the prices vary massively. You could opt for a full-frame, that’s a camera with a chip as large as the old 35-mm films. That doesn’t only offer a better technical result, it also gives you more creative flexibility to play with the depth of field.”
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Lisbon) 2010
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (London) 2010
“I understand what you’re saying,” Herman affirmed, “I used to have a medium format camera, an old Hasselblad from an uncle, and because of its larger format it had a much smaller depth of field. I loved how you could accentuate just one element—an insect or what have you—by leaving the rest unsharp. What kind of camera do you use these days?” asked the German for the second time. “A Canon 5d Mark ii. Within its price range it’s probably the best on the market.” “How much does it cost?” Herman wanted to know. “The body is about two thousand euros, a bit cheaper than the top line from Nikon, and far below the real professional digital backs from Phase One or Hasselblad.” The photographer had had this conversation over a hundred times, but for one or the other reason he was happy to oblige Herman, he seemed sympathetic and sincere, although it remained difficult to detect who the man really was behind this British mask. The photographer heard his voice, his English with German accent, listened to his particularly personal story, interchanged with trivial thoughts about the technical aspects of photography, but had no idea how this man was usually “presented.” In fact the photographer struggled to imagine him in anything other than a suit with a side parting. “Why is it you want to capture the things we have in common, and why travel to Mumbai, for example, to do that?” Herman moved on to the content of his work (he was evidently conscientious that the conversation had become somewhat one-sided). “My starting point for this project was the idea that so many places on the planet are interchangeable with one another, as though there’s no longer space for cultural identity in our globalized world. So I started traveling, to Beijing to photograph the parking lot of Ikea, then Cape Town to photograph the preparations for the World Cup reflected in the building site of the Green Point Stadium, or here to the Mumbai film studios to capture the ultimate fictional construction and the image of decadence just a stone’s throw from the world’s most notorious slums. Mumbai is also the most heavily populated city on the planet and within the city there are both the richest and the poorest people in the world. I also went to Havana, to test my resistance in view of such a picturesque setting as the context for the endless communist revolution and isolation, through which equality manifests in the bitterest form of extreme poverty. I wanted to investigate how I could play with the demise of the exotic painterly image without falling into its trap. Each of them is a loaded location, owing to their political or social situations. It was in Havana that I really discovered that my concept didn’t add up, that not every place on the planet has been saturated by Ikeas, Toyota garages, and gigantic shopping malls.” “If I understand rightly, in your opinion globalization—and the subsequent visual monotony—is then largely the result of neo-liberalism. In other words, that would mean that so-called cultural identity is related to isolation and poverty and an unrelenting grip on failed political ideologies,” remarked Herman. “With that in mind, I think you should really go to North Korea!” “I’m afraid you’re most probably right, and North Korea is certainly on my list, although I’m nervous I wouldn’t get the same amount of freedom of movement as I had there in Havana.”
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Paris) 2010
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Shanghai) 2010
“I think I more or less agree with your cynical conclusion. But isn’t the new globalized culture precisely our new cultural identity, however impoverished that might be? Isn’t what we’ve become (or who we are becoming) the universal mix, the hybrid of all races? Everything is adulterated in this age. There are no more real flags; everything seems to be the same. More and more often you hear people asserting that they’re left wing, after which they begin a nationalistic appeal and defend the establishment. These days you can easily be against same-sex marriage and for abortion (although you come across the opposite more frequently). Should we oppose headscarves or not? And is nuclear energy not the only realistic alternative?” “We waver from the one to the other and go with the winds. Everything is made permanently available whereby we don’t know what to choose first. We live in a permanent state of indigestion—a perverted, noncommittal, postmodern mindset. And what we understand as cultural identity has in fact become an exploited cliché: Belgian fries, Venetian gondolas, tango dancers in Argentina. I’m certain that once Cuba moves towards a more liberal society (which seems inevitable and is already underway) the old-timers from the forties and fifties will keep driving, but with environmentally friendly Hyundai motors or something: an icon of cultural identity, that by that point has nothing more to do with its original. It’s precisely for that reason that I photograph everyday spaces, because they are far more tied up with our cultural identity than the Forbidden City or the Moulin Rouge.” “Cultural identity is who we are and what we do, how we live, build, move, and eat. Cultural identity isn’t something we cherish, it’s an invisible thing we carry in us, which continually fluctuates. And it’s the first thing we let go of in exchange for the delights of the free market; the call of uniformity and its Ikeas. I fear we give up our cultural heritage for the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ all too easily!” The photographer wanted to add that our society would perhaps benefit from the shock therapy of cancer, but he swallowed his words out of respect for his German companion.
“I speak of the things that are there, anywhere and everywhere – easily found, not easily selected and interpreted.” Robert Frank
Robert Frank, Santa Fe, 1955
If there’s a photographer with a patent on existential disorientation then without a doubt it’s Robert Frank (born in Zurich, 1924). He emigrated to the United States in the late forties. While the ruins from ww ii were still smoldering and Europe didn’t know where to begin with rebuilding, Frank opted for the call of freedom and opportunity. The myth of “The American Dream,” however, soon got too much for him and he set off to South America and then back to Europe to photograph Paris and London, among other places. With the work he was producing he convinced a Guggenheim committee to give him a grant enabling him to undertake a road trip through the us. Between 1954 and 1957 he would produce the legendary book The Americans. Frank, who first and foremost wanted to be sincere towards himself, created an entirely new photographic style: the autobiographical document, in which the ambiguity between registration, interpretation, and metaphor manifest as a mirror rather than a (window) frame. (11)
“I am always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true.” Robert Frank
Robert Frank, Luncheonette, Butte Montana, 1955-1956
This also brings us back to the aforementioned notion of “invisible contamination.” After all, how can a photographer work introspectively, referring to his deepest impulses, when he simply registers what takes place in front of him (outside him) with a mechanical instrument (the camera)?
It seems as though the photographer has little choice and is entirely dependent on the frame of his camera. Of all the arts, photography might be the most impotent because it is inextricably bound to what is there. And yet …
Robert Frank photographed roadside diners, elevators, gas stations, his wife, his children, in short: he photographed on the move. (12)He captured everything that crossed his path, and yet at the same time it all seems to escape him; not only the moment he presses the button, which is always and irrevocably in the past (the tragedy of photography and its relation to death), but particularly in the way he surrendered himself to the unfathomable nature of imagery that, no matter the interpretation, can never fully be pinned down. Take the off-centered photograph of a bumper pool table (Luncheonette – Butte, Montana) or the “Save” gas station (Santa Fe, New Mexico). It’s precisely the aforementioned impotence (in this case, bound to Frank’s existential discomfort) that defines the poetry of this work.
Robert Frank belongs to a group of artists without a determined destination but for whom traveling itself is the journey’s end. Frank is the action painter and free jazz musician of photography. Searching, scraping, groping in the dark, drunk on impotence. And as such, he drew a sad poem from American society. (13)Frank’s position is highly subjective; he doesn’t aim to give an overview. His photographs in The Americans therefore say more about Frank’s own demise than that of the United States.
11 John Szarkowsky, director of the photography department at moma (New York) from 1962 to 1991, curated the exhibition and book Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960 (Museum of Modern Art, 1978) in which he made a distinction between photographs that function as a window on the world and photographs that function rather as
a mirror through which, by means of the external world, the photographer is introspectively reﬂective.
12 Fellow comrade of Robert Frank, Jack Kerouac: author of the introduction to The Americans and writer of the cult novel On the Road, bible of the “Beat Generation.”
13 In reference to the introduction by Jack Kerouac of The Americans: “Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto ﬁlm, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”