Posts Tagged ‘Studio Portrait

07
Oct
18

Exhibition: ‘African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Part 2

Exhibition dates: 26th June – 8th October 2018

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

“To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.”

“With the clear perception of things as they are, must stand the faithful rendering of things as they seem. The dead fact is nothing without the living expression.”

.
Frederick Douglass. “Pictures and Progress”

 

“True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”

.
Jeanette Winterson. “Art Objects,” in Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, 1996

 

 

Without worry … here ‘I am’

Part 2 of this glorious posting: mainly 1940s, African American “studio” portrait photography. Lets see what we can garner about these “studio” spaces by looking at the photographs.

Firstly, they are very small, usually with bare floorboards, carpet or linoleum on the floor. Some (such as the photography of the man holding his child) are literally just big enough to pose and light the subject. As can be seen in the photograph of the lady holding a large handbag, the painted backdrops can be changed in and out, in this instance the scrim placed in front of another painted background. Notice also the worn lino in this photograph, where so many people have walked in an posed in this studio, in this very spot. Historically, painted backdrops have been used since the earliest days of photography, appearing in ambrotypes and tintypes of American Civil War soldiers. It would not surprise me is some of the studios from that time were still going in the 1940s.

Secondly, we can observe the lighting and depth of field. The lighting seems to be either by one or two lights (probably not moved between clients) that sit on axis, meaning there is a horizontal line between the light, the camera and the subject – a nearly horizontal light source. The depth of field is low, the camera probably pre-focused on the table, chair or pedestal within the studio space. Because of the small studio space, the subject placed up tight against the painted backdrop, and the low depth of field… there is a consequent flattening of the subject within the image plane. The photographs are either full figure standing, sitting or cropped closer at the waist.

While the idyllic painted backdrops add context to these studio portraits, it is the pose of the sitters that is so mesmerising in the photographs. These people were living in anxious, dangerous times – the Second World War, the Cold War, and the ever present racism against African Americans were some of the issues that they had to deal with – and yet they pose quite confidently for the camera, seemingly with no hidden agenda or deception. They are choosing to pose for their own reasons. As Jeff Rosenheim, the Met’s photography curator observes, “In these pictures, we see them in reflection of where they are and what their conditions are.”

I think there are a few things happening at once here. These studios give the impression that they are really joyous places. Is it the staff, or the need to document an important occasion like the birth of a child, a marriage, a graduation, or sisters, or is it something more intangible? The studios seem a great place to be. There is this JOY that seems to radiate off of the sitters and then there is a pride that is not referencing being accepted in a white community, but has layers of self containment / their own self, their friends, and something else.  

“You live the life you’ve got.” So says a character from one of my favourite British TV series Vera. And that is what these photographs picture – the life they are living, the life they have got. In these photographs there is a direct vision, direct seeing… and looking, which is what makes them so powerful and effective. Unlike contemporary popular portraits, blasted over the airwaves on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, etc. there is a direct connection to the lives of these people. While they lived in anxious times, their representation by the camera is clear and focused. Today our anxiety is more prescient, more at the forefront of out consciousness, our identity formation, the way we interact with the world. Who is looking and who is watching, and what is our image. Selfies on sticks or images in front of mirrors step to the front.

When looking at these photographs I have to ask, is there something here that is gone? Something we can remember yet has been sneakily stolen from us?

In contemporary portrait photography what has been stolen from us is the sense of joy, happiness, and intimacy in our own self, and how devolved we have become from the essence of our own being. The “dead pan” looks on people’s faces, the anxiety to get the right shot, the hands in the air with mobile phones to capture anything that is seen as worthwhile (just because you can) has become ubiquitous the world over. We have gone through a recent period of devolution and may need to regain lost ground, for what makes these photographs special – magical in the truest sense sense of the word – is that they just are. No ego from subject or photographer, no prejudice encroaching from the outside world, these people and their photographic trace just capture the essence of their being. Without worry… here ‘I am’.

Marcus

.
Many thankx to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

This exhibition will present more than one hundred and fifty studio portraits of African Americans from the mid-twentieth century, part of an important recent acquisition by The Met. Produced by mostly unidentified makers, the photographs are a poignant, collective self portrait of the African American experience during the 1940s and 1950s – a time of war, middle-class growth, and seismic cultural change.

 

Charles "Teenie" Harris (1908-1998) 'John Davis after being beaten by police officer Dan McTague, in his home at 1303 Wylie Avenue, Hill District, August 1951' 1951

 

Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908-1998)
John Davis after being beaten by police officer Dan McTague, in his home at 1303 Wylie Avenue, Hill District, August 1951
1951
Gelatin silver print

 

Charles "Teenie" Harris (1908-1998) 'Mary Reid holding threatening notes with swastikas and American Nazi Party propaganda, in July 1964' 1964

 

Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908-1998)
Mary Reid holding threatening notes with swastikas and American Nazi Party propaganda, in July 1964
1964
Gelatin silver print

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, on view June 26 through October 8, 2018, will present more than 150 studio portraits from the mid-20th century. The exhibition offers a seldom seen view of the African American experience in the United States during World War II and the following decade – a time of war, middle-class growth, and seismic cultural change. Part of an important acquisition made by The Met in 2015 and 2017, these photographs build on and expand the Museum’s strong holdings in portraiture from the beginning of photography in the 1840s to the present. The exhibition is made possible by the Alfred Stieglitz Society.

The portraits on view generally feature sitters in a frontal pose against a painted backdrop – soldiers and sailors model their uniforms, graduates wear their caps and gowns, lovers embrace, and new parents cradle their infants. Both photographers and subjects remain mostly unidentified.

In the wartime economy, photographic studios became hubs of activity for local and regional communities. Some studios were small and transient, others more established and identifiable, such as the Daisy Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Using waterproof direct positive paper rather than film, the studios were able to offer their clientele high quality, inexpensive portraits in a matter of minutes. The poignancy of these small photographs lies in the essential respect the camera offers its subjects, who sit for their portraits as an act of self-expression.

African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s is organised by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Joyce Frank Menschel Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs at The Met.

Press release from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

SAME STUDIO AND PERSON

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

SAME STUDIO, SAME AND DIFFERENT BACKDROPS

You can tell by the legs of the seat.

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

SAME STUDIO DIFFERENT BACKDROP

You can tell by the curtain at right, and the pedestal.

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print with hand colouring
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

SAME STUDIO DIFFERENT BACKDROP

You can tell by the style of the painting, the positioning of the flowers, and the decoration on the carpet of the stairs.

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Unknown American maker. 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Unknown American maker
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print with hand colouring
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

DAISY STUDIO

 

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s) 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s)
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s) 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s)
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s) 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s)
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s) 'Studio Portrait' 1940s-50s

 

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s)
Studio Portrait
1940s-50s
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

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Phone: 212-535-7710

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09
Feb
16

Text: ‘The multiple singularities of photography’ / Exhibition: ‘Every Photograph is an Enigma’ at Fotomuseum Winterthur, Zurich

Exhibition dates: 24th October 2015 – 14th February 2016

 

The multiple singularities of photography

Photograph, photographer, negative, print

.
I have never thought of photography as a “singularity” – the singularity of photography. For me, photography has always been about possibilities, multiplicities rather than singularities.

In Kathrin Yacavone’s text below, the “singularity of photography” is defined as the relationship – the hierarchy – among valuable, perceptual and imaginative relations between the beholder and the image. It is the singularity of the individual and their response at any time to a photograph, but these responses cannot be systematically codified, in the sense that no response can ever be relied upon… certainly, no response to a photograph of a mother could be more singular than the response of a son (as claimed by Barthes Camera Lucida).

In other words, the singularity of photography is how the viewer engages and reads a photograph in a singular way at one point in time, from one “point of view.”

While this point of view is singular, it changes from moment to moment, from context to context, from different points of view. Hence, we have a multiplicity of singularities or, if you like, a multiple singularity of photography. Hasn’t it always seemed false to you in Camera Lucida where Barthes talks about his response to an image (for example, the supposed “lost” image of his mother*), he allows it to freeze in his text? Surely he would feel different later (another singularity). And yet the freezing is necessary for the arguments Barthes makes.

It continues to haunt me – much as photographs haunt our memory – why Barthes stuck with the singularity of a photograph, when at the same time he was pushing the multiplicity of readings in his other texts eg. S/Z (1970). Are we missing something really basic here? Why should a photograph be frozen and a text not?

In this exhibition, Michel Frizot defines a series of classifications (or themes, see below) that seek to organise the ambiguity and perplexity of vernacular and surprising photography. As Frizot himself puts it, “the photograph is not in its essence a transparency through which we gain access to a known reality but, on the contrary, a source of ambiguity and often, perplexity. The photographic image is a constellation of questions for the eye because it offers viewers forms and signs they have never perceived as such and which conflict with their natural vision”.

Frizot suggests questions for the eye offered through forms and signs that are in conflict with natural vision. Barthes pushes further, suggesting that it is not the forms and signs of the photograph that challenge natural vision, but a shift away from a semiology of photography to a phenomenology of photography. From guided message (forms/signs) to emotive response (imagination). Umberto Eco comments that, “Semiology shows us the universe of ideologies, arranged in codes and sub-codes, within the universe of signs, and these ideologies are reflected in our preconstituted ways of using the language,”1 but Barthes, in works such as S/Z, stresses the multiplicity of a reading (its intertextuality). He contends that there can be no originating anchor of meaning in the possible intentions of the author, and that meaning must be actively created by the reader through a process of textual analysis.

An emotive response to a photograph is an “encounter with the represented other [is] a dialectical relationship between the specific and the general, between the personal and the universal, where the dialectic is seen in the psychologically unsettling potential of photographic images, the status of the photographic referent and the poignancy of the relation between time and image.” Thus the photograph can have a capacity for plurality of meaning which is not restrictive.

This response is based on an individuated, ‘feeling’ viewer whose encounter with the photograph is guided by desire and emotion, grounded in his or her unique experience and life history. It is to engage with the photograph in imaginative, affective, and emotional ways. Here, the codified reading is subsumed? by the emotive reading of an enlightened and fully “conscious” reader in the phenomenology of photography. Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object – a photograph for example – by the imagination, by thought. Phenomenology requires a bit to grasp – to read a phenomenologial text like Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space as its author intended requires a cultivated mindset – but a prepared reader has many pleasures.

This is one possible response by the viewer to unsettling photographs. But what of the photographer?

Les Walking (my lecturer at RMIT University for many years), used to ask “what are you pointing your camera at?”… so this would permit an imaginative journey on his part as he imagined the subject matter, what he knew of the person, and all possibilities. Sometimes everything happens at once (in photography), and sometimes we recognise the richness of where we are in photography’s ability to generate many singularities within us at rapid fire.

As a photographer we go on an imaginative journey when we take a photograph – we previsualise, snap, extend the “point” of exposure (long time exposure), double expose or do away with the camera altogether. Taking a photograph is a multiplicity before the moment of the pushing of the shutter (decisions, angles, camera, film, light, place etc..), and a multiplicity afterwards… but for that split second it is a singularity, “an encounter with the represented other” as Walter Benjamin puts it…. as though time, history and memory are all focused through the lens (of the camera, of the enlarger, of the scanner) at the object – like a funnel – which then expands afterwards. At the point of “exposure” there is only ever one singularity. Multiple contexts before and after, multiple phenomena if you like, but only one outcome when the negative is exposed. Being aware of all that happens around us leads to that one singularity – the negative. That’s what photographers do, they focus that energy into a singularity.

But the resulting negative is NOT singular!

Of course, there are some things that are forever predetermined in the analogue negative, eg the depth of field, the focus, the grain. Even in the digital negative these determinations apply. But then you think, if I push this film or pull it back in development “other” things may appear. Probably the Leica manual is as good as any for what come after that – they say that when shooting a roll of film with a variety of tonal scales the exposure should be more than the meter indicated, and the development time less. In the Zone System this would be N-1. And a negative like this is what gives the greatest options with graded papers. Multiple options for printing, multiple options for interpreting a negative. I feel these multiple options have been more or less forgotten in the era of the digital print. What you see on the screen is what you aim to see in the print, which negates the multiplicity of the (digital) negative, often leading to bland and underwhelming digital prints. The pre-determination of the screen leads to an over-determination of the print.

While Minor White observed that there was a dragon in the negative that could be reached by careful printing, this locks you into looking for the “one road” in the negative. One person who didn’t was the English photographer Bill Brandt who printed first in a straight documentary style before “unlocking” the surrealist elements of his negs with very contrasty work. He was open to the multiple contexts of the point of exposure of the negative, and it is his later reprinting of his earlier work for which he has become famous.

While it comes down to only several elements when talking about the phenomena of the negative, it is our direct experience of it IN OUR IMAGINATION that, perhaps, gives the negative presence and transcendence. It is the direction of our thought towards the object of our being. And that is what makes us truly human.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

* Of course, the photograph of his mother did exist, it was just necessary for his argument that we never see it, and that he said that it did not exist.

Word count: 1,400.

  1. Eco, U. (1970). “Articulations of the Cinematic Code,” in Cinematics, 1(1), pp. 590-605
.
Many thankx to my mentor for his advice and thoughts on this text. Many thankx to the Fotomuseum Winterthur for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Photographs often seem familiar and understandable, a visual common sense intimately related to our daily lives. But they can also provoke a spark of amazement or generate a more sustained perplexity and inquiry. Curated by the renowned French photo historian, Michel Frizot, Every Photograph is an Enigma interrogates this paradox. Drawing exclusively from photographs in his private collection, many of them anonymous, he presents a selection of photographic moments at once ordinary and marvellous. Frizot develops a system of classification that explores the strangeness generated by the camera lens. Taken by family members, lovers, or unheralded professional and amateur photographers, the assembled images amount to nothing less than a phenomenology of photography.

The exhibition and book are divided into eleven themes, such as:

Ambiguous assemblages
The enigma of relationship
The enigma of context
The enigma of attentiveness
Challenging the figurative order
The aesthetic solution
Original configurations
The photographer’s options
The space of the gaze
The spirit of the place

 

 

“Every photograph is an enigma for the gaze: for the enigma is part of the photographic act itself. It ensues from the distance between the natural vision and the camera’s photosensitive capture process. By widening this gap, the modes of capture, the photographer’s intentions, and the reactions and involvement of the “photographer” together create new forms and perceptual requirements specific to photography. It is a question, above all, of understanding how much photographs, by transcending our visual capacities and going beyond our intuitions, also give rise to empathy and the need to project personal concerns. The element of enigma in photography bears witness, in fact, to what it is to “be human”.”

 

“The answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, it should be remembered, is humankind. And looking at a photograph means discovering oneself and the human species. Through the disparity and the dissonance between what it shows and what we experience, photography testifies above all, and at every moment, to what “being human” means. And the riddle, the enigma inherent in looking at a photograph is that of our presence in the world.”

.
Michel Frizot

 

 

Photography and Subjectivity

 

Kathrin Yacavone. Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography. Bloomsbury Academic, 2012, pp. 123-124

 

Anonymous. 'Untitled' c. 1930

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled
c. 1930
Silver gelatin print
13 x 18 cm
© Private collection

 

Anonymous. 'Professor Piccards Balloon' c. 1930

 

Anonymous (Keystone)
Professor Piccard’s Balloon Destroyed by Flames
25th May 1937
Silver gelatin print
13.4 x 18.5 cm
© Private collection

 

The stratosphere balloon of Professor Piccard catches fire in the moment of ascending over the area of Brussels, Belgium

 

Anonymous (Press Photo) 'Rock and Mud 'Grand Finale',' California, c. 1930

 

Anonymous (Press Photo)
Rock and Mud ‘Grand Finale’
California, c. 1930
Silver gelatin print
19.7 x 24.7 cm
© Private collection

 

Mr. Brodsky. 'Marchand ties, Paris' 1935

 

Mr. Brodsky
Marchand ties, Paris
1935
Silver gelatin print
© Private collection

 

Anonymous. 'Untitled' c. 1930

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled
c. 1930
Silver gelatin print
5.9 x 8.1 cm
© Private collection

 

Anonymous. 'Untitled' c. 1950

 

Anonymous
Untitled
c. 1950
Silver gelatin print
6.5 x 9 cm
© Private collection

 

Anonymous photographer. 'The Photographer set on by His "Victim",' Hollywood Press photo 1938

 

Anonymous photographer (Hollywood Press photo)
The Photographer set on by His “Victim”
1938
Silver gelatin photograph
16.9 x 22 cm
© Private collection

 

International News Photos. 'Untitled' Nd

 

Anonymous (International News Photos)
Untitled
Nd
Silver gelatin print
16.5 x 21.5 cm
© Private collection

 

International News Photos. 'Untitled' Nd (detail)

 

Anonymous (International News Photos)
Untitled (detail)
Nd
Silver gelatin print
16.5 x 21.5 cm
© Private collection

 

France-Presse. 'C’est demain mardi-gras', 5 mars 1935

 

France-Presse
C’est demain mardi-gras / Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday
March 5, 1935
Silver gelatin photograph
© Private collection

 

Interpress. 'Avant l’ouverture du Salon des Surindépendants' Paris, 1952

 

Interpress
Avant l’ouverture du Salon des Surindépendants / Prior to the opening of Superintendent’s Fair
Paris, 1952
Silver gelatin photograph
© Private collection

 

 

Mondial Photo-Presse. 'Réunion de modélistes' c. 1930

 

Mondial Photo-Presse
Réunion de modélistes
c. 1930
Silver gelatin photograph
12.8 × 17.6 cm
© Private collection

 

NYT Photo. 'Wind Tunnel in Chalais Meudon' 1935

 

NYT Photo
Wind Tunnel in Chalais Meudon
1935
Silver gelatin print
18 x 24 cm
© Private collection

 

 

“Photographs often seem familiar and understandable, a visual common sense intimately related to our daily lives. But they can also provoke a spark of amazement or generate a more sustained perplexity and inquiry. Curated by the renowned French photo historian, Michel Frizot, Every Photograph is an Enigma interrogates this paradox. Drawing exclusively from photographs in his private collection, many of them anonymous, he presents a selection of photographic moments at once ordinary and marvellous. Frizot develops a system of classification that explores the strangeness generated by the camera lens. Taken by family members, lovers, or unheralded professional and amateur photographers, the assembled images amount to nothing less than a phenomenology of photography.

Immediately a photograph is taken it generates a distance between what the image reveals and what we have seen for ourselves only seconds before. This observation of disparity is central to the phenomenon of photography, creating a sense of indeterminacy that we might describe as the singularity of the photographic. As Frizot himself puts it, “the photograph is not in its essence a transparency through which we gain access to a known reality but, on the contrary, a source of ambiguity and often, perplexity. The photographic image is a constellation of questions for the eye because it offers viewers forms and signs they have never perceived as such and which conflict with their natural vision”. Every Photograph is an Enigma draws out the full implications of this disparity, everything which constitutes the singularity of the photographic process. This begins with the selection procedure itself: Frizot has collected the photographs over many years, with no predetermined objective, finding scraps and castoffs at flea markets and jumble sales. Abandoned photographs escape traditional standards of classification and judgement and are often the work of anonymous photographers. For Frizot, this artlessness offers ‘an extra touch of photographic naturalness which is not shrouded in conventions’. It is the work of the exhibition to reveal, and the role of the visitor to discover, this photographic supplement.

The exhibition explores the modalities of photographic capture and the out-distancing of the senses that results, above all in the relationship between photographer, subject photographed and the operations of the camera, a technical device. Recording different intensities of light on a photosensitive surface, photography is an index of states of light rather than the reality perceived by the eye. The formal consequences of photographic technique are considerable, whether determined by exposure time, framing, exhaustive detail, or the projection of three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional surface. At the same time, what are fundamentally physical processes are also determined by the split-second decisions taken by the camera operator. It is precisely this that gives rise to the puzzle of photography: the contradictions between the precision of a physical world and the decision-making of the photographer.

Every Photograph is an Enigma explores other aspects of the riddle of photography, including the complexity of the exchange with the subject of the photograph, embodied by a reciprocal glance. The ability of the camera to record human form and gesture is what lends it its quasi-magical vocation. However, that act of recording is dependent on a vast array of potentialities and constraints, including perhaps the demeanour of the participants. The photographic act transforms emotionally-charged, interpersonal experience into uncertain, interpretable signs, a distillation of affect. At the same time, those signs are also dependent on the astuteness of the eyes that scrutinize the photograph, igniting, perhaps, an empathy with others. A photograph is a fragmentary capture and the gaze of the viewer operates in similarly fragmentary bursts. A viewer’s optical capacities are decisive, interpreting, for example, the photograph’s excess of data. The enigma of photography also emerges from the inadequacies and impasses of the energetic viewer’s scrutiny. These, and many other riddles, are explored across eleven separate chapters in the exhibition, which together provide a method for specifically photographic viewing. They probe the way the photographic device is used to celebrate the subject, or the way that processes unique to photography and the photographer’s command of his or her equipment help determine the final image. A further theme investigates the way that viewers are involved in a perceptual relationship which ordinary vision has not accustomed them to, including a display of stereo images. We encounter the myriad ways that photography overwhelms our senses and the many puzzles it presents.

Every Photograph is an Enigma brings together a remarkable selection of everyday photographs, selected over many years by one of the sharpest eyes in the history photography. It offers us the opportunity of a liberated escape into a ‘pure’ photographic act stripped of artistic pretension or historical portent. As Frizot proposes, there are no hierarchies in photography – it is the activity of the gaze that reveals the richness of the image. For the eye, every photograph is an enigma.

Catalogue

The exhibition is accompanied by the fully-illustrated catalogue Toute photographie fait énigme/Every photography is an enigma, by Michel Frizot, in collaboration with Cédric de Veigy. Published by Éditions Hazan. English/French with a German translation of the main texts. Price 45 CHF.

Credits

The exhibition is curated by Michel Frizot and organised by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris and the Musée Nicéphore Niépce, Chalon-sur-Saône in collaboration with Fotomuseum Winterthur.”

Text from the Fotomuseum Winterthur website

 

B.W. Kilburn. 'The Surging Sea of Humanity at the Opening of the Columbian Exposition, Chicago' 1893

 

B.W. Kilburn
The Surging Sea of Humanity at the Opening of the Columbian Exposition, Chicago
1893
Stereocard
Albumen photographs
© Private collection

 

B.W. Kilburn. 'The Surging Sea of Humanity at the Opening of the Columbian Exposition, Chicago' 1893 (detail)

 

B.W. Kilburn
The Surging Sea of Humanity at the Opening of the Columbian Exposition, Chicago (detail)
1893
Stereocard
Albumen photograph
© Private collection

 

Anonymous. 'Untitled' c. 1900

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled
c. 1900
© Private collection

 

Anonymous. 'Untitled' c. 1955

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled (Flagrants délits / Egregious crimes)
c. 1955
Silver gelatin print
5.5 x 5.5 cm
© Private collection

 

Anonymous. 'Untitled' c. 1970

 

Amateur anonymous photographer
Untitled
Instamatic Kodak
c. 1970
© Private collection

 

Anonymous. 'Children Watching the Apollo 12 Flight on Television' 1969

 

Anonymous photographer
Children Watching the Apollo 12 Flight on Television
1969
Silver gelatin photograph
© Private collection

 

 

For many years, Michel Frizot the historian and theorist has been collecting neglected photographs which have been overlooked because they were taken by anonymous, unknown photographers, unheard-of or non-celebrated artists, throughout the entire history of photography. Avoiding “museumification” and classification, selected first of all for their capacity for surprise, these photographs are no less generous, moving and perhaps “photographic” than others. This exhibition reflects on the element of mystery in all photography.

“Because they are so familiar to us, because they are part of our visual space, photographic images seem to be immediately accessible and understandable. But everyone has experienced that sudden burst of amazement they can set off through suspended movements, the rendering of colours, unexpected coincidences or abruptly frozen expressions. If we pay attention to such features, they provoke the feeling that we are faced at once with something obvious and with a question. When we can look at a photograph as soon as we have “taken” it, we immediately, moreover, sense the distance between what the image tells us and what we have been able to see for ourselves only seconds before. The observation of this disparity, recognisable at every moment, is proper to the photographic phenomenon. We grant each photograph an element of truth but suspect its indeterminacy and sense its contradictions.

The photographic image is a constellation of questions for the eye because it offers viewers forms and signs they have never perceived as such and which conflict with their natural vision.

The enigma, the riddle, the puzzle would thus be fundamental to the photographic act itself.

Inherent in the photographic process, it results from the irreducible distance between the human senses and the camera’s light-sensitive capture: it arises from the split between visual perception and the photographic process.

For the eye, every photograph is an enigma.

Whether they are kept in archives, family albums or agencies, or dumped in the street, photographs are virtual objects which only begin to exist when they find a viewer. The selective collecting process is thus carried out “by eye” and not the eye of the connoisseur or the historian, but the paradoxical eye which goes against the tide of the canonically “good” photograph, it is a slow eye which opens itself to the pleasure of choice. The pursuit of irreplaceable strangeness. A determined eye, in search of what it does not yet know and yet perceives as the baring of the “photographic”, the liberated escape into a “pure” photographic act stripped of its eloquence. By repeating the selections, the eye discovers the unknown properties of the photographic image: it spots the elements of a puzzle to be savoured without anticipation of any solution. As a kind of practical application, when we look closely, these photographs seem more “photographic” than so many other images with more conventional features that quickly lose their interest. They reveal what escapes us in the recognition of the world, what lies beyond its photographic figures repeated over and over again.

The answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, it should be remembered, is humankind. And looking at a photograph means discovering oneself and the human species. Through the disparity and the dissonance between what it shows and what we experience, photography testifies above all, and at every moment, to what “being human” means. And the riddle, the enigma inherent in looking at a photograph is that of our presence in the world.”

Michel Frizot
Extract from the book Toute photographie fait énigme  / Every photograph is an enigma, Hazan, 2014

“Every Photograph is an enigma,” on the Musée Nicéphore Niépce website

 

Marius, Paris. 'Photomontage' c. 1865

 

Marius, Paris
Photomontage
c. 1865
Albumen print
© Private collection

 

Anonymous. 'Untitled' c. 1910

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled
c. 1910
© Private collection

 

Photomontage, photographic postcard, c. 1920

 

Anonymous photographer
Photomontage (photographic postcard)
c. 1920
Silver gelatin print
© Private collection

 

Anonymous. 'Studio Portrait' (Photographic postcard), c. 1910

 

Anonymous photographer
Studio Portrait (Photographic postcard)
c. 1910
Silver gelatin print
9 x 14 cm
© Private collection

 

Anonymous. 'Untitled' c. 1930

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled
c. 1930
Silver gelatin print
© Private collection

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Transcendental photography with faces of ectoplasm' 1939

 

Anonymous photographer
Photographie transcendetale avec visages d’ectoplasms / Transcendental photography with faces of ectoplasm
1939
Silver gelatin print
© Private collection

 

Anonymous. 'Untitled' c. 1935

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled (Surimpression)
c. 1935
Silver gelatin photograph
8.2 × 5.4 cm
© Private collection

 

L. Olivier. 'Recherches sur l'appareil tégumentaire des racines Marsilea Quadrifolia' (Photomicrographic plate), 1881

 

L. Olivier 
Recherches sur l’appareil tégumentaire des racines Marsilea Quadrifolia 
(Photomicrographic plate)
1881
© Private collection

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Patriot Missile Warheads Promoters' 1991

 

Anonymous photographer (Press photo)
Patriot Missile Warheads Promoters
1991
Gelatin silver print
25.3 x 20.2 cm
© Private collection

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Dans un local désaffecté de Budapest, les corps de patriotes hongrois voisinent avec une statue déboulonnée à la gloire du sport soviétique', Budapest. 1956

 

Anonymous photographer
Dans un local désaffecté de Budapest, les corps de patriotes hongrois voisinent avec une statue déboulonnée à la gloire du sport soviétique /
In some abandoned premises in Budapest, the bodies of Hungarian patriots lie beside a statue removed from its base [dedicated] to the glory of Soviet sports

Budapest, 1956
Gelatin silver print
29.8 × 22.6 cm
© Private collection

 

Victims of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 brutally put down by the Russians.

 

 

“The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 or the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 (Hungarian: 1956-os forradalom or felkelés) was a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from 23 October until 10 November 1956. Though leaderless when it first began, it was the first major threat to Soviet control since the USSR’s forces drove out Nazi Germany from its territory at the end of World War II and broke into Central and Eastern Europe.

The revolt began as a student demonstration, which attracted thousands as they marched through central Budapest to the Parliament building, calling out on the streets using a van with loudspeakers via Radio Free Europe. A student delegation, entering the radio building to try to broadcast the students’ demands, was detained. When the delegation’s release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were fired upon by the State Security Police (ÁVH) from within the building. One student died and was wrapped in a flag and held above the crowd. This was the start of the revolution. As the news spread, disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.

The revolt spread quickly across Hungary and the government collapsed. Thousands organised into militias, battling the ÁVH and Soviet troops. Pro-Soviet communists and ÁVH members were often executed or imprisoned and former political prisoners were released and armed. Radical impromptu workers’ councils wrested municipal control from the ruling Hungarian Working People’s Party and demanded political changes. A new government formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped and a sense of normality began to return.

After announcing a willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Politburo changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. On 4 November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. The Hungarian resistance continued until 10 November. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter. By January 1957, the new Soviet-installed government had suppressed all public opposition. These Soviet actions, while strengthening control over the Eastern Bloc, alienated many Western Marxists, leading to splits and/or considerable losses of membership for Communist Parties in the West.”

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

International Newsreel Photo. 'Governor of Alabama Arrested for Breaking Prohibition Laws' 24 november 1926

 

International Newsreel Photo
Governor of Alabama Arrested for Breaking Prohibition Laws
24th November 1926
Gelatin silver print
20 x 15 cm
© Private collection

 

Amateur photographer. 'Untitled' c. 1950

 

Amateur photographer
Untitled
c. 1950
Gelatin silver print
7 x 4.5 cm
© Private collection

 

 

Fotomuseum Winterthur
Grüzenstrasse 44 + 45
CH-8400
Winterthur (Zürich)

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Sunday 11 am – 6 pm
Wednesday 11 am – 8 pm
Closed on Mondays

Fotomuseum Winterthur website

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Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Études’ 1994

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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