Since it’s earliest days, photographers have constructed their own visual reality. Photography is not just the capture of the natural or urban environment that surrounds us. At “Paris Photo 2017” a number of contemporary photographers were featured who choose to build their own “reality”, or manipulate an image taken, to express a point of view. Five photographers, of different nationalities, use photography as a artistic tool, rather than an instrument for documentary evidence, to convey a social, environmental or political message: Juan Manuel Castro Prieto (Spain), Michel Le Belhomme (France), Philippe De Gobert (Belgian), Weronika Gesicka (Poland) and Deborah Oropallo (American). The constructions of images varied from a basic still life, to an assemblage of multiple images, the use of multiple mediums and the literal construction of miniature models that are then photographed.
The Juan Manuel Castro Prieto image “Naturaleza Muerta Redonda (“Round Still Life”), Caspedosa, 2015” causes one to pause and examine whether it is a painting or a photograph. The still life might have been the earliest example of a constructed image. “Photographic still lifes are usually made in a studio setting where artists use precise composition and lighting to render shape, show the surface of objects, establish mood, and draw the viewer’s attention to certain elements. Artists often use natural and manmade objects carefully selected and placed in the scene to serve as symbols or metaphors.”
Prieto’s image is from his series “Cespedosa”, 2007-2012, “…the village of his childhood, in which he pays homage to his parents and grandparents who lived their whole lives there.” The image has the qualities and appeal of a 17th century Dutch painting. The image is a very simple setting that comes alive as the light is layered on to the table. The pastel soft colors, and the evidence of water on the the fruit, give the bowl of fruit life. The lines of water on the table give the setting context and keep the eyes centered. We feel as if we could reach into the image to extract an apple or plum. This still life is a basic example of construction of a scene by the photographer to create a sense of mood and place.
Image by Juan Manuel Castro Prieto, “Naturaleza Muerta Redonda, Caspedosa, 2015”, image courtesy Galerie Vu’(Paris)
A seemingly simple construction may have a much deeper story and meaning. Michel Le Belhomme, a French photographer, in “Two Labyrinths”, constructs the image, taking inspiration from the work of other artists done in a different medium, using photography as the tool to make it his own. The Two Labyrinths has the appearance of two rocks, one balanced on the other. Within this work are multiple images put together to create a fictional reality. A labyrinth is a maze that has passages, in this case visual, that make it confusing and difficult for a person to find his way. On the surface, one’s first impression is to consider how the image revisits and offers a different way to view a landscape. “Landscape, the ultimate romantic subject, most often expresses itself from the angle of the contemplative or the breathtaking. Etymologically, a landscape is a layout of traits, characters, and shapes of a limited space. …It’s a portion of space that is represented or observed, subject to a point of view… But it is to be seen firstly as a system, perfect theorem of time and space, of flows and crossings, of borders and intermixing. In this series, I firmly choose to stand ‘in conflict’ with the landscape, as a vision and as a product of space and despite its apparent obviousness I assume it can be put in perspective and thus reinvented.”
Le Belhomme’s image is a construction of a construction. It is a reconstruction rearranging the images in a visual arrangement inconsistent with how it would appear in reality. “The title of the body of work, The Two Labyrinths, is taken from a (very) short story by Jorge Luis Borges.The tale compares two types of labyrinths – one complex, full of tricks and devices, and one deceptively simple – and is a tale of hubris. A Babylonian King, of overweening ambition, built the first labyrinth in a bid to create fear and inspire awe. The second labyrinth was the downfall of the Babylonian King, a desert in which he met no obstacles and perished.” The viewer has to reflect carefully as to how each image has been placed. What appears obvious is not and appreciation grows for the careful construction.
The pyramid structure is like a deck of cards. It is fragile and would presumably collapse in a strong wind, unlike rocks, yet we are looking at and thinking – rock and weight. What we see is not consistent with what has been constructed. The physical three dimensional construction is not the object – it is a two dimensional image. Another psychological ambiguity. There are clearly two rocks, that appear to balance one on the other, but visually it does not appear that the top rock could possibly remain on top of the other rock. The manner of how the rock images are placed gives a precarious visual imbalance. The top rock appears to be slipping and falling off, yet it is suspended in air. There is tension and unease in the image and fragility in both the construction and the objects. In this way, Le Belhomme has made the appropriated concept his own construction of a visual “Labyrinth”.
Image by Michel Le Belhomme, ”#109, After Fischli and Weiss, Série les deux labyrinthes [“The Two Labryniths”], 2014-17”, courtesy Galerie Binome (Paris)
The actual physical construction of an object or space is yet another way that a photographer creates, literally, artistic expression. Unlike Prieto’s traditional still life arrangement of existing physical items, or the approach taken by Le Belhomme with the re-arrangement of images, Philippe De Gobert , chose to physically construct a space which he then photographs. For some artists working in other mediums, such as sculptors, the photograph becomes the art object more than the constructed art piece itself. The artist constructs a space, place or environment to embed his view, emotion or feeling of that moment using a variety of materials, color and lighting to construct what becomes the photographed image. In many cases, the actual constructed art object is destroyed, and the photograph is the statement.
Construction of a scene or diorama , which is then photographed to create an art object, dates back to the earliest days of photography. The “Landscape with Bear” (c. 1870) by French photographer Louis-Joseph Deflubé was determined to be such a diorama. This work was discovered by the excellent academic study and detective work of Malcolm Daniel, Curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Daniel explained: “…a handwritten note by his grandson…reveals Deflubé’s landscapes to have been made in his attic: ‘On a board supported mostly by old boxes . . . he built the foreground of dirt and sand which he colored as necessary; massive trees are branches of junipers, pines, or others, the palm trees are the feathers of a feather duster bound together into a bundle, the water of the lakes a mirror placed horizontally, the mountain waterfalls cotton and ice floes baking soda. …’ Once clued in by Deflubé’s grandson, one can easily recognize that the landscape here is a mere diorama, and see past the common assumption that photographs always tell the truth. In the age of Photoshop and computer-generated imagery, one knows to be on guard, but the same skepticism also was warranted 150 years ago.”
De Gobert has a foundation in the construction of miniature replicas of rooms and spaces that he then photographs. In each, De Gobert adds his own secrets. The light reminds one of Mondrian images and lines. In particular, the light in “NY 9246 Mondrian” coming through the window hits the wall and floor and creates a familiar pattern for both the fabricated interior and exterior giving the image a false sense of reality. On the wall, different sized blank papers of various shades of grey are scattered to imply paintings or works of art on the wall. There is a fireplace on the right wall which does not really seem to be a fireplace, but whose simple construction clearly brings that to mind. There are no people in the image, only evidence of people through what is seen on the two table tops . His modeled scene is a copy of something real, but retains a mystery of what and why this particular space was selected. “ ‘What is really important, he (De Gobert) once commented when talking about his work, is the nature of dreams and the imagination. If art is merely to bear witness to daily life, what is the point?’ Philippe De Gobert creates his “bricolage” in order to transfer his world of dreams and imagination to the viewer or collector… . ”
Image by Philippe De Gobert, “NY 9246 Mondrian, 2016, tirage numérique”, courtesy of Galerie Aline Vidal (Paris)
“Philippe De Gobert’s photographs are neither photos of architecture nor even photos with an ordinary referent (interiors of houses): his photographs are constructed images. The photographer makes no secret of it and willingly consents to describe his approach… he reconstructs, with extraordinary accuracy and precision, the studio as it appeared in photographs or in paintings. He also occasionally reconstructs certain famous scenes… . ” Despite all the effort put into creating this fabricated model, the art object for the viewer is an amazingly engaging photograph printed very large in black and white.
A number of other contemporary photographers were seen at Paris Photo, who like De Gobert, construct a diorama which is then photographed. Some of those exhibited at Paris Photo were Sandy Skoglund, Thomas Demand, Lori Nix and James Casabere.
Sandy Skoglund, an American, is a painter, sculptor, and photographer. “The constructions speak to issues she wants to deal with. These are not decorative constructs. But thought out to a particular purpose. Her constructions are stages for performance by the objects and materials she is using…Key is her use of alternative materials in constructing her scenes and making garish nonrealistic creatures ….and unconventional building materials.” From an exhibition of her work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the curator comments: “Skoglund hand-sculpted each of the animal forms to create her lavish installations for the camera. Though the cats, fish, and dogs frozen in motion suggest a singular, captured moment, each photograph is the product of months of work and tedious arrangement.”
Thomas Demand, a German photographer, is well-know for his constructions, which are built , photographed, and then usually destroyed, with the photograph being all that remains. “The reconstructions were meant to be close to, but never perfectly, realistic so that the gap between truth and fiction would always subtly show. … The photographs provoked a double-take after the inevitable first assumption that the scenes might be real. Then, on closer inspection, other issues revealed themselves.” Demand selects sites which remind us of a political or news event that encourages the viewer to recall the event and study the images for clues as to what was there and how to interpret Demand’s thoughts on the setting.
Lori Nix, another American artist, builds dioramas of scenes she then photographs. Again, it is the photograph that is the product of her artistic effort. Lori Nix describes her work : “ In our own work, Kathleen [Gerber] and I are interested in depicting danger and disaster, but temper this with a touch of humor. … The fact that it is an image of a model and not a real place, can make it easier for viewers to place themselves into the scene and imagine what may have led up to this point.” They deal with issues of mankind’s encroachment on nature, climate change, and what they find “exploring the world through books, magazines, television and the internet.”
James Casabere, American, also constructs environments and, as some of the other photographers, he blends the real and the fabricated showing hints to the viewer of the place, time and a message. As with others, his scenes exclude people. His images are of a space, a room, a place, alone and empty. “His photography, which depicts hand-made miniature models primarily of architectural spaces, falls somewhere in between the realistic and the artificial. Casebere’s often stark constructions tend to tackle social, political, and historical issues, conveying his narratives solely through physical structures.”
The photographer Weronika Gęsicka , in her series “Traces”, builds an image by layering in other images or deconstructing the image. In Image “16” – we see what looks like a 1950’s style “Leave it to Beaver” environment with the father-figure, very cleanly and properly dressed, mowing the ubiquitous grass of the American suburbs. It is reminiscent of the Monkey’s (a music group of the 1970’s) song “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”
“They serenade the weekend squire
Who just came out to mow his lawn
Another pleasant valley Sunday
Charcoal burning everywhere
Rows of houses that are all the same
And no one seems to care…”
Weronika Gęsicka, Untitled #16, from the series Traces, 2015-2017, Copyright Weronika Gęsicka, Courtesy of InCamera Galerie (Paris)
Like other images in this series, Gęsicka is showing us an imperfect memory. It is a digital reconstruction, of what we might remember or think we remember of a past time. Some might view it as an idyllic period, but depending on your ethnic identity or where you live or your own life experience, you might pause to examine this image more closely. Indeed, this seems to be what Gęsicka intended the viewer to appreciate: “ The project is based on vintage photographs purchased from an image bank,’ Gęsicka explains. ‘Most of these photos came from American archives from the 1950s and 1960s”. On closer examination, we see the smiling face, presumably the man mowing the yard, disembodied, in the left center window, getting ready, perhaps, for a late afternoon cocktail. He is a suburban white male, middle aged and presumably middle-income, with the ideal middle management job. At the same time, we see in the upper right side window the top of his perfectly combed head of hair. He does not seem to be a laborer or craftsman working with his hands day-to-day. The lower right window focuses our attention on the blue sweater-shirt he is wearing that may have just come back from the cleaners, with none of the sweat or stain evident one might expect from mowing the lawn in the mid-day sun.
Deborah Oropallo’s compelling images are a construction of photographs and other media. The construction of the image here helps Oropallo convey her message on societal roles. Rather than a literal image taken from activity on the street of a documentary nature, she constructs an image that conveys her point of view as a writer might in an article or a book. “Although originally trained in painting, Oropallo’s practice incorporates mixed media including photomontage, computer editing, print technique and paint. …” An article in LensCulture commented on “Guise”, another similar series of Oropallo’s work: “ In ‘GUISE’, Oropallo further explores the concept by layering the images of men from 17th and 18th century portrait paintings. Painted portraits did not simply document the likeness of the sitter but were often contrived to convey a sense of his importance and authority. Nobility and dignity were attributes portrayed through stance, gesture, and attire, and portraits often involved costume and props. Soldiers wore elaborate uniforms and weaponry to show their bravery and stature; noblemen donned luxurious articles of clothing; and scholars and politicians stood with books at hand attesting to their knowledge. … The print George features George Washington as a uniformed soldier on the battlefield, over which is layered a woman in a provocative sailor outfit also standing with an arm akimbo. In all the prints, the vast symbolism of classic portraiture is employed, raising issues about gender, costume, fantasy, potency, power, and hierarchy. The artist asks, “Does the popularity of fetish fashion stem from the fact that it makes women appear strong and very powerful?” In the image “Potus”, on the mid upper right we see blond hair that reminds us of President Trump. On Washington’s left shoulder we see what looks to be neatly combed black hair that we might be told is the North Korean leader – Kim Jong-un. Washington’s shirt reveals female breasts. The body is faceless, but not headless and positioned in a noble Napoleonic stance. Seeing the work in person one notices layers of paper used, the paint and varnish. The viewer can stare at this image and find many hints of Oropallo’s visual commentary. It is a case where the image may indeed speak louder than words.
Image by Deborah Oropallo, POTUS, 2017, photomontage, paint, paper and canvas. Private Collection. Used with permission of Catherine Clark Gallery (San Francisco)
Discovering “constructed” photographs at Paris Photo 2017 became one point of focus for what is happening in contemporary photography today. Wandering the many exhibitions and galleries, this technique was evident. The art of construction linked these photographers who clearly had made unique images. While all these work communicate very different messages, the visual diversity was intoxicating. The viewer comes to appreciate this dimension of the photographic arts. The attraction to an image does not need to be anchored in the reality and accuracy of the photograph. A “literal”, documentary, image can convey a valuable statement about a situation. A “straight” un-manipulated image can capture a photographer’s view of the natural or urban environment that surrounds us. However, these “constructed” photographs add a very broad spectrum of what can be done with photography as both a means of expression as well as an art form. The variety of these images envelop us, the viewers, in an amazing and wonderful frictional visual realm in which to wander.
At an event like The Medium Festival of Photography there are plenty of opportunities to discover new means of artistic expression through photography-based works. The works exhibited ranged from excellent craftsmanship in the traditional use of photography, both as film-based silver gelatin and digital work to sculptural applications. From the many excellent photographers at Medium, four gave me pause to consider their work more deeply: Rob Grad, Krista Svalbonas, Drew Leventhal and Jodie Hulden.
Rob Grad , previously a professional musician, has over the last several years, transformed into a photographer blending images with other media. His work demonstrates an interest in experimentation as to how he wants to express his vision. The series “With Open Eyes” is designed to grab and engage the viewer with the image. Grad explains: “ This series began with a collection of close up black and white photographs I took of peoples’ faces. …I found myself particularly attracted to their eyes, so I experimented with overexposing the images to minimize facial context. The eyes seemed to lack emotional attachment to the particular moment and embodied a depth of experience. Distractions like race and gender also became less important….our eyes are the most contrasted points on our face, so they are naturally what we are drawn to … “Four Eyes” is a self-portrait. It contains a simulated multiple exposure of three separate black and white images of my eyes (the fourth eye is implied at the top), layered with photographs I took of objects and nature in two different locations where I’ve lived. …“Four eyes” was a derogatory term used in my childhood for kids with glasses. The term was also used as a condemnation of children who were either intelligent, or desired to be so”.
The works are three dimensional pieces, with a combination of painting and photography layered on to two or three layers of plexiglass and wood. The surface materials used may be hand cut into various shapes, not just square or rectangular. “All of the shapes in this series are hand drawn and hand cut from the wood using a hand router. The plexiglass accents are cut by machine due to the difficulty of the material, but the shapes are also drawn by hand.” The viewer gazes at the art object looking for a photographic image hidden amidst swirls of paint on multiple layers. There is a careful delicate balance between the presence of the image and the use of other media. The image would be out of visual balance if one dominated the other. There is a sense of chaos in the images, but as one looks more closely, an eye and face will emerge.
Image by ©Rob Grad, “Four Eyes”, 52”x50” UV cured ink, Acrylic and Spray paint on tri-level hand cut MDF and plexiglass panels.
Another of Grad’s portfolios, “Through a Cloud of Noise”, is done in black & White. As in “Four Eyes”, the longer the viewer looks at the image, the more the details of the image emerge. Unlike the portfolio “Four Eyes”, he chose to print the image in black and white to highlight the emotion of the subject without the distraction of color. “These photographs that clearly had one subject in a contemplative moment amidst the busyness in the street surrounding them”. He again surrounds the image with painted swirls and lines infusing the image with a sense of chaos. There is a connection between the works as Grad developed his feelings about different situations he observed. He commented that : “[t]hese two series are most related by the use of physical space between the layers, and the gestural language…to represent the atmosphere and energy of the subjects and/or situations. The physical space between layers in both series conveys distance between what may or may not be happening internally, versus the outside world. … In “With Open Eyes,” the space is more about giving physical space to the various conflicting aspects of our personalities, and trying to connect to each other as humans in the midst of that.”
Image by ©Rob Grad, “On the bus, Capri”, 32”x60” UV cured ink, Acrylic, Spray paint on bi-level Plexiglass.
Several artists influenced his work. He quickly mentions Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Rausenberg, and Joan Miro, as well as Aaron Siskind and the abstract quality in their art. With photography, we most often capture a literal image of what we see. In other cases, a literal image is taken, but stitched with other images, blended into a panorama or layered into a collage. Here, Grad takes four extra steps from what we normally expect with a “photograph”: he adds other media, a non-paper surface in the use of wood and plexi; the surface in “Four Eyes” is not just square or rectangular, but cut in wild flows and swirls; paint and varnish are added; and, then photographs, applied to the non-traditional surface in a non-traditional process. It will be interesting to follow Grad as he continues to refine and balance his photographic images against the use of other materials within these unique art objects.
Krista Svalbonas is another artist who is following a non-traditional path of photography-based work. Where Grad’s work was internally focused, Svalbonas has a focus on the environment that surrounds and embraces us. Like Grad, her work is multi-disciplinary and sculptural.
Image by ©Krista Svalbonas “Eichstatt 1”, Layered Laser Cut Pigment Print, 14”x21”, 2017
She has a longstanding interest in architecture, particularly urban environments. Her images contain old buildings and new. However, there are two intensely different motives and styles in the presentation of these structures. One series is “Displacement” and the other “Migrator.” The series “Displacement” is about the memory of departing a place. “Migrator” is the experience of arriving in a new unfamiliar place.
Displacement is a series that follows her family’s post-WWII experience emigrating from the Latvia/Lithuania to the United States. She commented: “My past work has dealt with low-income housing complexes; modernist architectural ideals, drawing from Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Soviet architecture; and the phenomenology of space. I am fascinated by the language of spatial relationships and by the effect of architectural form and structure on the psychology of the human environment. … My parents spent many years after the end of World War II in displaced-person camps in Germany before they were allowed to emigrate to the United States. My connection to this history has made me acutely aware of the impact of politics on architecture, and in turn on a people’s daily lived experience. My work explores architecture’s relationship to cultural identity, social hierarchy, and psychological space”. Svalbonas comments that the displaced person camps and the buildings used which she has been photographing are constructed cheaply without insulation, adequate plumbing or heating. These physical spaces impact how people in a transitional situation feel and exist.
She has cleverly conveyed an historic experience in combining a photograph of place with the words from the letters of refugees, of that place, who are seeking to move on to another country. Svalbonas commented that, for these emigrants, “‘home’ were temporary structures, appropriated from other uses to house thousands of postwar refugees. These transitory spaces of mass habitation, demolished and rebuilt over the years, have left only a vague imprint on the earth. … ‘Displacement’ captures the traces of this existence by drawing on historical refugee letters as well as my photographic documentation, combining past and present in a series of laser cut images on photographic paper. …laser cutting plea letters the refugee were sending [into] the photographs.” The multi-layers of images in her work give a sense of presence and depth to a free-standing cultural art object.
Svalbonas realizes that photography is not only a tool for expression and to capture what exists, but is a critical link to one’s own past and history. “[P]hotographs were among the few possessions my family was able to take with them when they fled the Russian occupation. Photographs documented a home and a country that most Baltic refugees, including my parents, thought they would never see again. I was raised on these visual memories, and the accompanying stories of a “homeland” that remained distant and inaccessible — until the unimaginable happened in 1991, when the Baltic states regained their freedom”. Vernacular images are usually intended for personal use only, but life events may make these images a link needed to communicate about our past, present and future.
Image by ©Krista Svalbonas, “Migrator 5”, UV Print on Dibond and Wood, 12.5”x9”x4”, 2016
The “Migrator” series are three dimensional images that look like wall sconces. While the “Displacement” series are three dimensional sculptural objects of art that set to rest on a flat surface like a table, the “Migrator” objects are sculptural objects that are intended to be mounted on a wall and angel out. Unlike “Displacement, which is a single building, physically cut and defaced by the words from emigre’s pleading letters, “Migrator” are photographic images of new and old buildings from cities in the United States: New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. These are images of a new life. Images of a new place very different form the pace the immigrant has left. The objects seem to convey the awe, sense of discovery and amazement of life in a new place. Each of the “Migrator” sculptures in the series differ from each other in shape, images used and architectural perspective, but convey a similar sense of wonder and discovery.
When asked who influenced her work, she commented: “Because of my interdisciplinary nature, I often find sculptors to be the most inspirational artists with my work,… I adore Gordon Matta Clark. I am often in awe of Rachel Whiteread. I immensely enjoy the work of, Erin O’Keefe, Georges Rousse, Letha Wilson and Lisa Sigal.” The strong connection between photography and sculpture is discussed in a related Foto Relevance Commentary “Paris Photo: Trends in Photography (November 28, 2016)”.
Another artist at Medium, Drew Leventhal has experimented in the abstraction of images within a very traditional photographic image. While, Grad and Svalbonas physically abstracted with mixed-media their photographic images, Leventhal keeps his images in a traditional two dimensional work on paper, but abstracts the image within the defined space of the paper.
Image by Drew Leventhal, “Sitting Protestors”
His portfolio reflected a number of themes that hit on the challengingpolitics of our time. It was striking how the image of protestors, taken recently, could just have well been taken in the 1960”s/70’s. While the image could be documentary or vernacular, the combination of many images, reminiscent of David Hockney’s style, makes these images speak loudly and reverberate a sense of motion, action and commentary. These invite the viewer to participate and engage in what is happening. His style of capturing and presenting protestors, as he has done, confronts us with a timeless question of who are they, where are they, and what is driving their exercise of the right of political expression? The discussion is not directed, but open ended. What is wonderful about his technique and compositions is how we are forced to examine the image for clues. The only truly visible statement in his image “Sitting Protestors” is a sign that says “ I can’t believe we still have to Protest this sh*t”. We then see on a white cap of another protestor the hint of words “America”, “was” and “Great”. We can only guess what the full statement night be. On another protestor we see a crown that hints at the word “feminist”. We also observe that all the visible protestors are girls and women. Even though the image does not betray when it was taken, one might assume that this is a current social discourse in one of our major cities triggered by an issue with our current government. The fragmented arrangement of the image is the explanation point on all other hints within the photograph.
Image by ©Drew Leventhal, “Washington Monument”
With his image of the iconic Washington Monument, he challenges what we might think about our institutions. This is especially true with today’s dialogue on statues of soldiers of the Confederacy and their place, or not, in our visible culture in public places. Leventhal’s image of what appears to be a collapsing Washington Monument ties well with the other image of protestors. It’s as if Leventhal is suggesting America should be politically awaken to what is happening today. It is a a visual scream to look at what our leaders and institutions are doing. It is a visual statement as to whether we should remember that people have a voice and power within our fragmented political system that can be heard, or lost if not exercised. His images are an exercise of his voice. The question as to their effectiveness and reach is whether others look at these images and “think” about what these images might “say”. It’s one of the most important and basic characteristics of a photograph. Does the image “speak” to the viewer? Does the image have something to say to the viewer? And, is the image compelling enough to force us to listen?
Jodie Hulden’s images are traditional photographic images. Unlike the others discussed above. She took straight images and masterfully printed landscapes and scenes from “Bodie” an old mining town. Like Rob Grad, she challenged whether the images should be presented in color or black & white? It’s a questions all photographers ask – is an image stronger in color or black & white? The pastel color palate of Hulden’s images give life to the scene of this place where people used to live. She commented: “They are a departure in two ways: they chronicle humanity within a certain location and they are in color. I regard them as still life photographs, with the recognition that as human beings we live in the “small moments”, within the intimacies of our lives. Even my landscapes, however, are more personal, maybe more humble ones that celebrate a brief encounter in a small moment of time.”
Image by ©Jodie Hulden, “Torn Curtain”.
In the image “Torn Curtain”, we see the corner of an old room. Torn, thin, transparent curtains barely cover a window with a gentle light from outside coming through. Any other time of day, the light might of been too harsh and bold and would have disrupted the sense of this image. We see the bare wood walls where some type of paper or material is falling away. The wood is weathered as is the material. A pair of strings hang loosely down that at one time served a purpose, but now just floats in the image. Peering through the window we can just make out barren walkway and old wooded fence. The image suggests that there was no view for the person(s) in this room. Whatever view there might have been was given-up a long time ago. The window was probably there only to let in light.
Hulden’s prints draw in the viewer. Her traditional images capture what she observed. She was influenced by many traditional photographers including Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, ,Josef Sudek, George Tice, Minor White, Eliot Porter, Wynn Bullock, Laura Gilpin and Robert Adams, to name a few. She is able to develop her style from the study of photographers like these as their images have survived to be seen and shared. With billions of images created everyday, one day, those images will be lost as technology changes or the digital files are deleted or lost. Think how often we look to images created in the past to understand a point in history, society, family or culture.
At the same time, a print gives us visual pleasure, memory and a sense of peaceful coexistence with a place like “Bodie” or a landscape. Hulden brings a very different perspective to our environment. Where others created sculptural works, a work on paper can be held and felt. Physical prints are disappearing as a percentage of all images created. Without physical images to see and study Hulden, and other artists, would not be able to learn from other photographers. We have seen how important seeing art in person, or in images can be to influencing artist and ourselves. It makes an artfully created physical print all the more precious.
To live with one of her images is to enter into the past. The power in these images is to carry the viewer back in time, carefully and gently.The pastel colors give a gentle feel, not abrupt or shocking. We feel the emptiness of the place, but at the same time know that people once lived there.
Image by ©Jodie Hulden, “Spectacles”
In the other image “Spectacles”, a pair of old eyeglasses rest on fading papers of some kind. What is notable is the layered dust, on everything. Both the lenses of the spectacles are thickly covered in dust. One arm of the glasses had broken off some time in the past. Dust covers the papers on which these spectacles rest. One can imagine the former resident, in a period before TV, or maybe even radio, sitting quietly by a oil or gas lamp reading. We wonder why the glasses were left there? Did that person just get up and leave, never to come back or just forget to take them? Or, perhaps died and no one ever came back to claim this place and clean it up. This image gives us open ended questions and a sense of time and place.
When we stop and reflect upon the work of all four of these photographers, we have a unique stage from which to view ourselves, what we are doing, and how we live. The differences in these photographic styles, in part, arise because these photographers represent a range of experiences. The review of photographers at the Medium Festival of Photography turned out to be a very democratic process. These artists were selected based on the images produced. Looking beyond these images to the artist, one realizes that, by total coincidence, there are two men and two women in this commentary. They are young, just emerging photographers, mid-career, and well experienced photographers. Some are in the beginnings of their careers and others are on a second career. Some have trained as photographers and others have spent time in other artistic areas and migrated into photography or incorporated photography into their newest works. At the end of the day, the appreciation of an art object is all about the image or the object. Some of the objects are small works on paper and intimate, others large, and still others are three dimensional. These photographers show that appreciating a work of art is not about “how” it is created, or the pedigree of who created it. The appreciation of a work, is all about the work. These artists have created works that should, and will be, appreciated.
The Photolucida Critical Mass Top 50 (CM50) is an opportunity to see work from a very large number of talented photographers. Among the photographers in the final 2017 Top 50, selected from hundreds of entries, are some that educate us on how photography can be used for an expression of who we are and challenges we face, both internal and external. While there are too many to write about, five created a voice in images that have matured through repeated visual experimentation. Looking beyond the submitted portfolios, one found artists who kept working and re-working a concept embraced in a challenging subject. Studying the origins of the current projects for Patty Carroll, Marina Font, Nicolo Sertorio, Dotan Saguy and J. Frederic May, we learn to more deeply appreciate the arresting images that hold our eyes to a message they wanted us all to consider.
“All photographers have a relationship with the world” was expressed by Patty Carroll. It is true. What is difficult is showing and sharing that relationship to others in a meaningful way. Carroll’s relationship with the world is focused on the issues of women and “domesticity.” Her visual expression of women and how they are defined by themselves and others, and by the “stuff” they gather to surround themselves are embedded into these images of camouflaged women hidden under cloth. Each image is a statement on an aspect of a domestic situation which Carroll models into both still photographic images and video.
In “Anonymous Women: Demise”, her most current series, we see a staged scene acted out in a studio setting. We do not actually see the person under the fabric. Clearly the body, real or mannequin, is meant to be symbolic of women in challenging situations. One might argue more broadly that any gender of person can be trapped in a life that they or others construct for themselves. So, these vignettes can be applicable to anyone as no facial identity is revealed. Carroll does seem to style situations most commonly applicable to women in a western society. An affluent society. In “Booky”, a woman is buried under piles of books. She is dressed more formally than one might expect. The shoes, stockings and dress, the tea pot, cookies, vintage phone, wall paper and shaded lamp all give the scene a 1950’s sense of the perfect homemaker. The books and book shelves are collapsing around her. There is a disorder in this life, and we notice an unusual, seemingly hand drawn picture of a woman with a less than perfect figure in a partially open book on the floor marked by a pair of glasses hanging on the page. There are actually multiple pairs of glasses, perhaps reading glasses, on the floor, and a phone that is knocked off its cradle so phone calls cannot intrude on this person’s apparent collapse in her chair. There is both a sense of someone waiting, bored, but educated. There is a sadness in the sense of an intelligent well-read person who has been sidelined or idled, not reaching their full potential and “trapped” in a boring situation, living life through the words of others in all these books.
“Booky” – Image by Patty Carroll from the series
“Anonymous Women: Demise”.
Used with permission of the artist.
Her own description of the Anonymous series from the Photolucida Critical Mass Top50 site gives the viewer a perspective on this work. “The subject is the merging of woman and home. …In the newest narratives, “Demise,” the woman becomes the victim of her home, to her fatal end. … The scenes and narratives that I create in the studio are about women who use their objects and décor to shore themselves up against a dark, scary world. Obsessing and perfecting home life with its objects, decoration, and activities fill a void of futility, and invents usefulness beyond caring for family or career.”
Carroll’s frustration with how one can live their life is evident in her other prior bodies of work. “Diner Ladies” “…are fictional portraits of ladies who have loved, lost or been left. They seem to be caught in the time warp of their own thoughts, overtaken by memories or life that might have been, perhaps waiting for life to find them.” Her series “Perfect Lawns” was very purposefully photographed in black and white, as her other work is in color. She says in her description of this series that “[t]he suburbs are constructed places of solace, where everyone has a perfect life, home and yard; places where nature and culture exist in harmony, where children are free from harsh, urban truths, where there is no crime, and people are ‘normal’. The manicured suburban lawn is the living display of this cultural myth.” A woman’s world was also examined in “Objects of Desire.” Patty Carroll is a photographer taking a theme and working it over and over, changing it and challenging it until what she feels is there for a viewer to share and experience.
Marina Font is an Argentine woman, now living in Miami, whose portfolio “Mental Maps” embraces a visual expression of the complex emotions and challenges of women in a very different way. She wanted a tactile feel and dimensional visual expression to her images. It is important to her to be engaged in the “construction” of the photograph beyond the image itself by using thread or gold leaf, vintage crocheted doilies or other materials and fabrics to give a three dimensional tactile appearance to her images to emphasize and illustrate her message.
Adding material to an image has been done before. For example, similar techniques can also be seen in the work of Iris Hutegger and Elene Usdin. In these photographs, the incorporation of other media enhance the image, but do not replace it. However, Font uses these materials to a different purpose from other artists. Her materials replace part of the image, layering onto a recognizable photographic image. In her image “Connections”, we see the head and shoulders of a woman, but not her eyes or the top of her head. The body is in a very neutral position. The pose is calm with lips that lack emotion. In choosing a black and white image of the visible body, this person becomes more of a stage for a performance by the materials that Font chooses. The viewer is forced by the photographer to really pay attention more to what is incorporated into the photograph, than the actual photographic image itself. That goes against our normal impression of what we expect a “photograph” to look like. The head is replaced by a very geometric arrangement of multiple colored threads. The arrangement of the patterns extend well beyond what we would expect the normal size of the head to be, implying perhaps that her thoughts are exploding on the inside. That explosion imagery might mean a call for help, or of frustration or a need for self expression. Because the threads are shown in such an organized manner, we do not have a sense of violent expression, but something more systematic. The title “Connections” give us a hint that this person is in thought. Thinking. We do not know what she is thinking about, but the use of multiple colors, expanding well beyond the size of what we would expect her head to be, might imply complexity and deep thought. When compared to others in the series, this image conveys the most calm and control of thought – a woman in control.
“Connections” – Image by Marina Font from the series “Mental Maps”.
Image used with the permission of the artist.
Capturing and realizing how one feels is part of Font’s upbringing. Growing up in Argentina, she was exposed to constant conversation about Freud and psychoanalysis. Perhaps that is why the pose of the model is very clinical, shown as a naked body in black and white – covered by materials that are very colorful. The body, almost as if laid out in a morgue for examination, is in the same pose in most all the images. If not a full frontal body pose, it is the repeated use of a head and shoulders image. Much of her work seems to connect a part of the body to another or a focus on a part of the anatomy or organs via the non-photographic materials added. Some of the material, like the gold leaf, according to Font, was used because over time, and exposure to light, the material changes, as we change both mentally and physically with time. She has several works that focus on the head and material exploding from or covering the head. In some, the head is covered in gold leaf like a crown; in others, multicolored thread explodes from an eye or mouth, or a geometric pattern replaces where we would normally see the top of the head, as a metaphor for the brain.
Like Patty Carroll, Font takes hold of this examination of a woman’s emotion and challenges in a number of earlier portfolios. In Mental Maps (2014 – ongoing), Font acknowledges that this series builds on the work in “Dark Continents.” “The construction of these mental maps evokes diverse psychological states and emotions with meanings that are in constant flux, never fixed, just like our identities.” Dark Continents (2012 – ongoing) was another “exploration of womanhood, a mystery in constant flux and evolving mutability.” She notes that the physical work on the images are “engravings” that impart and reveal private thoughts, feelings and persona. At the same time, the viewer is invited to contemplate as to what the images may mean, for themselves. The Weight of Things (2014-2015) examined how one relates to “memory, tradition and a life lived.” In The Weight of Things, she repeatedly used a weight scale to metaphorically challenge what value we put on physical objects. The scale is there to provide a visual “measure” of objects “used, acquired, inherited, preserved” and the emotional meaning attached to those.
Font’s emphasis is on our identity, who we are, why we are and what we have to express to others. While other artists may be more focused on external evidence of our selves, Mental Maps is an exploration of the internal workings in our minds, versus an outward physical expression through objects. Imprinted (2010-2011) was a series also commenting on the state of women in society. “Women have been, for generations, the keepers of our culture, bearing traditions on their shoulders.” She adds the dimension of immigration in these images as she explores “immigrant memories” as to a “particular place or personal history to explore ideas about identity, gender territory, language and memory.” El Contrato (The Contract) was “a series of photographs depicting a woman’s journey of self discovery and identity.” Womanhood became a series of photographs that explore the evolution of womanhood as her body changes from youth to giving birth to children, and domestic responsibilities and changed roles. If we study the photographer and what might have preceded her current portfolio of work, we gain a much deeper and rewarding understanding of what her art is now communicating, expressing and positioning. And, we learn that a photograph is not the end in itself. Artistically, a photographer can extend their ability to express themselves using more than one media as Font has done here.
Unlike Carroll and Font, Nicolo Sertorio is photographer concerned with our relationship to our external environment. He wrote about his series, “(Dis)Connected” that “[t]his series is thus based on the idea that the current sense of disenfranchisement derives from the fundamental disconnect we have from the natural world and the social isolation that comes with it. In turn, the perception of the natural environment as something external drives our uses and abuses of resources.”
Sertorio is a visual storyteller. Like Carroll and Font, he has been deeply engaged over a number of years and portfolios in exploring a subject in depth. In this case, our relationship to our external environment. In “Disconnected Landscape (2010)”, Sertorio expressed that “[w]e experience them without acknowledging them. And in so doing, we perpetuate our disconnect: nature as something external, to exploit, and at our service. We work against nature instead of within it.” “(Dis)Connected” builds on prior work he has created and shown. In “Once We Were Here” his focus was on damage to the environment, consumption and social inequality issues. “Rest Areas of the US Southwest” was another examination of man’s footprint, abandoned, on the landscape and now mostly “meaningless” or less used. Past their time so to speak. Peregrinations (2011) seems to be a beginning of these works illustrating a care and concern and appreciation for the natural environment in a positive image presentation rather than an evidence of its demise and infringement in the series above. All of this seems to relate to the concept of indifference he illustrates in “(Dis)Connected.”
“Make Believe” Image by Nicolo Sertorio from the series “(Dis)Connected”.
Image used with permission of the artist.
In this series, Sertorio makes use of diptychs. Two images that alone would not tell a story as well as both seen together. (The use of diptychs is discussed in an earlier Commentary by Foto Relevance, “The Metaphorical Image”, September 21, 2016). In the image “Make Believe”, we see two “mountains.” The left image is a photograph of a beautiful mountain landscape on a wall as wallpaper in a room – an image within an image. We see two tables and chairs in the foreground in a sort of dining room. Visitors in that room, and us as viewers, appreciate the beauty of that mountain landscape. The other image is a pile of rubble. It begs the question of how many mountain tops have been flattened and reduced to rubble from man’s activities like mining or land development. Together, Sertorio lets the images tell a story. It is a story that questions how, on the one-hand we travel to see and enjoy natural vistas, and on the other-hand, engage in a destruction of our environment in the name of profit and development. Interestingly, people are nowhere seen in Sertorio’s images, but are ever present nonetheless.
Dotan Saguy has a very different approach to his images, but no less an artistic journey. Unlike Patty Carroll who constructs and stages her work in a studio, or Marina Font, who adds materials to her images by hand, Saguy is out on the streets photographing. He adds nothing to his images nor does he delete anything. Where Carroll and Font are inwardly reflective, Saguy is a photographer who has a keen interest in people and their environment, the story behind who they are and what is happening at the moment of capture. His “Venice Beach” project was the result of multiple visits to Venice Beach and other locations in the area where he would wait patiently for the right things to happen to capture an image he imagined. He deepens the story in his images “layering” in many different elements or content in the composition of a photograph.
“Boy and Snake”. An image by Dotan Saguy from the series “Venice Beach”.
Image used with the permission of the artist.
In this beach image “Boy and Snake”, the snakes are a center of attention. The reptiles are out of place for most of us in our normal world, but for a young person’s intense and child like innocence in watching one, while another snake crawls off elsewhere. We see several buff and deeply tanned young men engaged in different activities. A young lady, perhaps the young boy’s mother appears to be either doing sit-ups or lifting her head to get a better view of movement around her. Two men in the center appear to be engaged in conversation. A man, entering the image from the left wearing a cross on a large beaded necklace, seems to have just noted the snake on the sand in front of him, with the beginning of a startle or surprise. Maybe not. Yet, in the far left background a young man with a backpack is looking at this person with a broad smile, as if to say “of course there are snakes here on the beach !.”
Saguy is an Israeli who grew up in Paris and now lives in California, who shoots primarily in black and white. He follows a tradition of social documentary and street photographers. Two photographers who have influenced him, among others, are Henri Cartier-Bresson because of his geometric compositions and his sense of moment, and Alex Webb for layering in the composition of a work. Both are evident in “Boy and Snake” where Saguy successfully captured the moment and layered the image with stories.
He has studied photojournalism techniques to get deeper into a project. A diligent editor of his portfolios, he challenges himself on why he was capturing certain images to best invite the viewer into the image, rather than leave us an outsider to what is happening. This journey then evolved into a study of documentary photography, and then travel photography. What is interesting about Saguy is how many genres of photography he has consciously and purposely learned and experimented with to improve his craft. He trained his “eye” to see enough content in the story for the viewer to react and engage in the image so, in their own mind, one is able to create a story out of the image.
J. Frederic May is a photographer who combines a very different internal physiological examination of self and looking at the external world in his series “Apparition: Postcards from Eye See You.” May commented that these are “digital images created during my recovery from a stroke that left me legally blind in 2012. …. vivid visual hallucinations from a condition known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome.” The Charles Bonnet Syndrome (or CBS) is defined as follows: “The visual hallucinations caused by CBS can vary and can range from simple shapes and dots of colours, simple patterns, straight lines or a network of branches, to detailed pictures of people, animals, insects, landscapes and buildings. When you have lost a large amount of your vision it may be difficult to see everyday things, but you may find that your CBS hallucinations are very detailed, and much clearer than your normal vision. The images can appear “out of the blue”, lasting for just a few minutes or in some cases, several hours. At times, the hallucinations may fit alongside the background you are looking at, making them feel quite real, like seeing cows in a field when the field is actually empty or seeing a fence across the pavement.” Yet, his work has been noticed and interest validated by his inclusion in Photolucida’s Critical Mass Top 50.
“Author’s Hallucination No. 3”. An image by J. Fredric May from the series “Apparition: Postcards From Eye See You”.
Image used with permission of the artist.
With May’s images, we have an opportunity to literally see the world as this photographer sees it. Unlike the other photographers discussed, he appropriates some of his images. Interestingly, May commented: “I collect imagery from swap meets, from eBay, anywhere I can find them. I’m a crate digger. The messier it is the better it is to go through and find those little jewels.” During his recovery he took these vintage portraits of head shots and mug shots that he had collected or found and put them through “deconstruct” programs. He then “coerced” certain processing algorithms by creating certain blurs and certain contrasts within the image “by blowing out certain areas with highlights and crushing some shadows.” He would look at hundreds of images. From his website we find that “[h]e then creates layered composites and prints these as cyanotypes. … Ultimately, he digitizes the altered cyanotype and creates an archival digital print.”
In “Author’s Hallucination No. 3”, we see the black and white abstraction of a face. It is not clear if it is male or female. An eye is directly staring at you, with an eyebrow that gives an intense expression that seems to challenge the viewer, almost to the point of intimidation. There is a mouth that looks feminine rather than masculine as one might expect if one assumes the eye is that of a male. The lips are closed tightly, yet seem layered with lipstick in a sensuous expression of control. The ears are minimized as this image is not about listening. It is about seeing.
However, May very much realizes that no matter how he constructs these images for us to “see” as he does, this is not perfect. May stated that “I would like the viewer to really bring their own story to my images. I think that’s what most viewers do in art. Whatever their life story is and whatever their life experience is, they are going to be moved and drawn into the image or not. They may relate to it based on an entirely different set of circumstances that has nothing to do with me.” It is very insightful of him to realize that our own life experiences jade what we see and how we appreciate an image. CBS may have influenced his creative vision, but in his mind “the images pretty much stand alone on their aesthetic value aside from Charles Bonnet Syndrome. … the intent is to have an almost startling yet mesmerizing image in front of you because it is really what CBS sufferers have always described – startling, disturbing facial features. Some CBS sufferers describe more teeth, I describe more lips and eyes which are similar shapes and I don’t know why that is.”
In a sense, May had a journey both like and unlike the other photographers in this commentary. His journey was similar with the years of work and discovery for his artistic expression. He said: “during my recovery creating these digital images with glitch programs I had no conscious idea what I was creating. This was all subconscious. It wasn’t until 2015 (three years after I lost my vision in my first stroke) that I revisited that imagery and it became clear to me that those thousands of images formed the base of my apparitions. At that point I needed to get them out of a digital form and make them into an object and that’s where the cyanotype process came in.” Apparently May was always drawn to portraiture. Specifically to the portraiture of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the work of Danny Lyons and Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, but also the aesthetic and composition of Aaron Siskind.
These photographers were selected into the Top 50 of Photolucida’s Critical Mass 50 through exploration and experimentation of how best to help others visualize concepts or ideas they felt important. This group of five photographers have, through their images, invited the viewer to engage in the image and visit their own imaginations. Each defines their view of a relationship with the world and provides a platform for us to challenge our own. Sharing one’s view of our internal or external relationships clearly is an evolutionary process as these photographers demonstrate. It seems that the first images out of the box, so to speak, are not always an end, but a beginning to a long journey. These artists worked again and again on their form of expression and visual communication with us, the viewer. In the end, we all benefit from the opportunity to study and engage with them through their art.
“Photography is the only “language” understood in all parts of the world, and bridging all nations and cultures, it links the family of man”
– Helmut Gernsheim
While photographic images are a universal language, there are different approaches a photographer can take to record what they see. Just as different languages have similar words, how the word is used can have a very different connotation. An image can be about everyday events, informally captured as a kind of snapshot—or a “vernacular” photograph. Alternatively, the image can be a more intentional documentary or journalistic/news-type capture.
There is a distinction between a documentary photographer and a photojournalist. Arguably, a sub-genre of documentary work might be referred to as social documentary photography that represents a photographer’s deep long-term involvement in creating a literal or artistic study of a human condition. It has been said that a photojournalist captures the current moment without creating a project or long-term engagement with that current event and then moves on to the next assignment. The documentary photographer invests time to understand and research a situation using photography as the tool for communication. The focus of documentary photography is not about a moment in a place, but the emotion or emotional reaction to somewhere, something and/or someone.
Marti Corn, if she must place her photographic style into a category, views herself as a documentary fine-art photographer focusing on creating a visual dialogue on issues of social justice. The camera is her tool to say something about what she sees. She once stated, “I share the stories of dismissed and marginalized communities through photography and ethnography.” Her images are an expression of what the subject of her images have seen, felt and experienced. For Corn, it’s all about people. Broadly, her passion is helping the viewer empathize with human-beings who live on the fringe of society.
Corn is currently focused on lives suspended in limbo while living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Kakuma was established 25 years ago, and many of the residents, in particular the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” have been there since it was established in 1991. Life here is reflected in her images of Roadside, a body of work she’s been creating the past two years. As Corn has expressed, “ … while hundreds of thousands have walked this road to find safety in this camp, the cruel irony is that few ever take this road out. They are refugees trapped with nowhere to go.”
The story of Roadside indirectly hints at what initially drew Corn to this project. Curious and concerned for those Lost Boys and Girls who were left behind, stranded in Kakuma for 25 years, along with many others refugees due to civil war, persecution, and famine, is what has sent her to travel half-way around the world twice yearly for the past two years. As Corn relates the story, more than 20,000 boys, as well as many girls, left southern Sudan (now known as South Sudan) in exodus during the genocide in 1987. After spending four years in Ethiopia, they were forced again to flee when that government was overturned, an estimated 10,000 surviving children arrived in Kakuma with the help of the United Nations. The Lost Boys and Girls of the Dinka and Nuer tribes cannot return to their native South Sudan where two million have been killed and millions more displaced, because the civil war rages on. The United States took in about 3,800 of those in 1991, but for various reasons, 410 were left behind. This was partially the result of the tragic events of 9/11 in 2001. They arrived as children but now are middle-aged with children of their own. The situation for these Lost Boys and Girls has not been resolved. Today, Kakuma offers refuge to more than 160,000 people. More than 100 travel the road each day to Kakuma in search of safety. This camp was ironically, or perhaps cruelly, named Kakuma, which is the Swahili word for “nowhere.”
Image by Marti Corn ©2016
Corn is an activist who has made several trips, at her own expense, to photograph and document the lives of the Lost Boys of Sudan along with those other refugees whose lives are suspended in limbo. No magazine, news organization or other group has directed her in this effort. Because of this, she is totally free to compose and present how and what she wants. Through these images, Corn is helping the Lost Boys of Sudan tell their story.
Photography can be used to form and manipulate public opinion. While the Roadside images are intended to be documentary, Corn has made these images her own. Photography, regardless of genre, is tainted by the photographer’s eye (composition of the image and technique) which becomes the thumb print of the photographer on the image. Photography is like writing. Each writer, as each photographer, has their own identifiable style—a way of speaking or use of language. Like writers, photographers communicate their imagery with different visual volume and clarity. A photograph provides information but can also reflect and capture an image that allows a viewer to carry into it their own interpretation based on their biases and life experiences. An incomplete image can have multiple meanings and interpretations. A measure of a great image is one the is both clear and unambiguous.
Why should a photographer travel halfway across the world to photograph people to comment on their issue and focus attention on their plight? This is part of what a viewer should consider when evaluating the image. It’s a necessary question underlying the importance of what is captured in the image. Without asking that question, then perhaps the photographer’s image is more vernacular and less an intentional statement. There are certainly enough issues to focus on in one’s own city, state or country. On the other hand, should this effort to go somewhere, foreign and unfamiliar, allow a photographer more sense of purpose and attention? Corn is not the first to focus on photographing places and the people in Africa. Noted Magnum photographers George Rodger and Stuart Franklin have done extensive documentary work in Africa, albeit not camps like Kakuma. Photographer Fazal Sheikh however did spend considerable time photographing Sudanese refugee camps in Kenya and other areas. All share a common interest in images of people sharing space and coexisting, but with different visual words.
Image by Marti Corn ©2016
Corn’s Roadside images convey isolation. This thousand-mile-long road connects the camp to a near-by town in Turkana where camels, goats, vegetables, and supplies can be acquired. Corn’s sepia-tone usage for the images in this collection feel perfectly aligned with the dusty dry environment. The images are clear evidence of the interwoven cultures shown by their dress and what they do each day. We see people performing a daily activity, traveling to and fro gathering the essentials needed to sustain their lives. Her images illustrate isolation. The use of so much sky in each of her images deceptively suggests a sense of freedom, but her intent is to illustrate their lives in a constant state of limbo.
Should the photographer consider what the viewer will search for in a portrait of a place? What is shown in an image like Roadside? What evidence is presented by the photographer? The photographer captures what that location, subject, or person(s) is willing to reveal. However, the placement and context is within the control of the photographer. The subject controls what is revealed, unless outwitted by the photographer to reveal more. In this setting, people are like actors on a stage. Here, the images are purposely printed in a sepia tone which tells part of the story. Looking at the landscape and the people, we feel the heat and taste the dust. It looks like a harsh place. There’s a sense of vastness yet in contrast to confinement.
Despite the tone of harshness, Corn has created intriguing and beautiful images. Her stated philosophy is to “reveal the grace and integrity in those living in oppressive circumstances.” Roadside represents the positive attitude and beauty in these lives. Despite the tragedies that sent them to Kakuma, Corn recognizes the daily effort to live and be positive about the next day. Their environment is barren, yet, in the expression and posture of the people in the images, they appear to have adapted and reconciled to their situation and somehow have found purpose in their lives.
Image by Marti Corn ©2016
How should the images of Roadside be studied? What is the merit of the image that depends on knowledge by the viewer of a situation? Can it stand alone? Why this refugee camp? Why this road? There are hundreds, maybe thousands of refugee camps around the world. Corn’s efforts are centered on Kakuma in Kenya, but her work is symbolic of a much larger human condition/situation. It’s symbolic of many roads that lead into these camps. In theory, roads are to take someone to somewhere to get someplace. If the viewer knows nothing about what has happened, does the image become more or less impactful? The importance lies in whether the documentation captures the depth of the moment and situation for future study. These images are successful because, as an image, they grab our attention. We want to explore them a little more deeply. It may not matter where the road is. The road has no beginning nor end in these images. Clearly, the road is well traveled. Through her photography, Corn is trying to make a difference by asking the viewer to engage with each image and question mankind’s greed for power over tolerance as evidenced in the continued civil wars which tragically affects millions of innocent lives and to question the humanity of our current system for dealing with those who are forced to take on the status of refugee.
To understand why a photographer undertakes a project, the viewer should know something more about the artist. Each image should draw out our curiosity about the photographer and why the people and places shown are important to them? Is the photographer driven by a sense of moral duty to record, document, and comment? The photojournalist is capturing the moment as news. Even news of the moment can be artistically and elegantly captured. An excellent eye and technical ability allow a photographer some measure of control over what story is told, limited by a need for objectivity rather than commentary. Read a very important article on challenges for photojournalism in “Fact and Fiction in Modern Photography”, by James Estrin, the New York Times (April 24, 2015). https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/fact-and-fiction-in-modern-photography/?_r=0 The documentary photographer is given credit for investing his or herself in the story, an we expect the image and a personal involvement with the people and place to reflect the photographer’s view (commentary). What is the “truth” in an image. The viewer should challenge whether the image is unfiltered and unadulterated or is it a prepared, staged construct of reality. Corn’s images have the appearance of a foreign reality and not a construct. The way she acts as a passive observer of the activity at the side of the road, gives the image a truthfulness. It’s a sharing of what she saw. The images are not obscured or abstract. They are clear, unobstructed, and concise. A successful image, whether photojournalistic or documentary, will take and hold of us, albeit in different ways.
What in the photograph is unfamiliar? A viewer is usually comfortable with images that comport with their own perception of the world. For most viewers, Corn is introducing an unfamiliar landscape. What may be missing for the viewer is how unfamiliar that landscape also is for the people suspended and isolated in Kakuma. Here, the viewer has most likely been presented a very different place with people conducting their daily lives in a very unfamiliar fashion. All the images give the viewer just one perspective. Corn has chosen to direct our view as if standing there by the road ourselves, as she was. It’s a straight eye-level view. It’s not a study with 360 degrees of selected images. It’s not an aerial perspective. The artist anchors our feet firmly in one place. Because of the simplicity in the composition, her images yell at us to look at the people. They allow the viewer to look at the people on that road and study them, witness what they are doing, how they travel, and what they carry, and possibly imagine what it would be like to live this kind of existence.
Image by Marti Corn ©2016
A photograph should not need words to accompany and explain the image to engage the viewer. An image should speak for itself. That does not mean that an explanation doesn’t help deepen an appreciation for an image. Robert Capa’s image of the beach’s surf during D-Day could have been taken in many war locations, but it is a powerful, classic image regardless of knowing where it was taken. Lewis Hine’s images of a little girl in a factory is compelling even if we do not know in what city or country it was taken. August Sander’s pre-1945 images of women, farmers, laborers, and others in his series “People of the 20th Century” are powerful images regardless of where they were taken. The same is true for Gordon Park’s series on gangs in Harlem (or his iconic “American Gothic, Washington D.C.) and W. Eugene Smith’s images of a country doctor. We gladly look at and engage with the images of any of these photographers. The explanation allows us to appreciate and engage more deeply in the image and event. When the image alone can make the viewer engage, study and appreciate the composition, then, perhaps, it has become “art”, whether in a photojournalistic or documentary style.
Documentary photography, like Corn’s work, is a visual story about lives and needs. A photographer like Corn may be motivated by emotion to click the shutter, but the image now has its own voice and speaks for itself. When the context of the image is understood, she gives voice to those Lost Boys and Girls who’ve suffered a horrible tragedy and human failing.
Kakuma is a limbo set in the margins of a society that has become a permanent “temporary” existence. Her photographs show it as an inconvenient truth for the involved governments and organizations with conflicting priorities. She is shouting to the viewer that no responsible party is stepping forward to give this road a destination for its travelers. To that extent, these photographs provide direct evidence of that failure.
In Roadside, Marti Corn has placed us in a voyeuristic position to examine a place where humanity and inhumanity exists, where few of us wish to venture. Through her images, she has contributed to our geographic and worldly knowledge of a place far beyond the comfort we inhabit. Somehow, her images allow the viewer to feel that people all over the world, and in particular, Kakuma, are people the same as us. But, we cannot be comfortable with that feeling. We, the viewer, are forced to contrast our place, family, friends and sense of community with those in this refugee camp. Armed with the story behind the image, we are unsettled as we are confronted by the evil, destructive, self-serving people who killed, displaced and orphaned the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and the other refugees forced into this place with similar stories. While the images on their own are engaging, the story Corn shares forces us to look closer and reconcile what we see in our own mind. These are images of a place where none of these people are from. It is not “home”, yet a place they cannot leave. It is land they don’t and cannot own. They know that they can never return to home. Their only future is what they do in the present, with little incentive to build a future. Yet, there is a sense of normality and optimism that they can one day leave. It’s been 25 years for the Lost Boys of Sudan who were brought to this place because of circumstances they could not control. We, the viewers, can leave Roadside and return home.
Image by Marti Corn ©2016
Last month at Photo Lucida in Portland, Oregon there were opportunities to make new photographic discoveries. Innovation in photography is evident in both traditional analog silver gelatin prints and digital archival-pigment prints. The old technologies coexist with the new. In each of the following situations, the photographer found the ordinary and made it special, in the spirit of Elliott Erwitt’s comment:
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
RJ Kern expressed the sentiments of many artists when he quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“Love of beauty is taste. Creation of beauty is art”.
Kern is a traditional photographer who has created images in the tradition of 19th Century painters and the Pictorialist movement. Many photographers take their inspiration from other media. Kern commented that he was inspired by the painters Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Sidney Cooper, among others. One can see these influences his images. Kern captures the landscape like a 19th century American painting. Bierstadt for the landscapes and Cooper for animals. In his portfolio “Out to Pasture” he captures “bovidae”, cloven-hoofed animals. “Out to Pasture” serves as a secondary, deeper glimpse of his series “The Unchosen Ones”, offering insight into the cultural landscape these animals call “home”. In “The Unchosen Ones”, Kern is focused on the young people and their animals which were not chosen at the Minnesota State Fair. He explores a concept personal to him: “One isn’t born a winner or loser, but a chooser.” In “Out to Pasture”, the images are about the animals in a natural setting. But, what sets these images apart are the masterful landscape settings. To achieve that, Kern shows a mastery of natural and artificial lighting. The lesson in his images is to reveal the details on the shadows. “…after studying old paintings …, subtle shadow details revealed what my camera couldn’t. There was something missing and I didn’t know how to put my finger on it. Painters, I guess, have it easier to create the light they desire. With a brush, they can create all the shadow detail they want, with desired contrast and tonality. … I attempt to bathe (the) subject in soft light to establish the minimum amount of shadow detail.” What is more notable is that he minimizes his use of digital tools like Photoshop, and relies, in the field, on both natural light and the use of artificial lights that he brings. One would expect that RW Emerson would be very pleased with the result.
Photograph by RJ Kern, “Escapé”, Benton County, Minnesota, from the series “Out to Pasture” ©2017
The studio work from the series “Oggetti di Vetro” of Robert Calafiore brings forward an older tradition in photography. He uses a hand-built pinhole camera to make one of a kind large “C-prints”. A “C-print” is a chromogenic color paper that is exposed to light and developed in the wet chemistry of traditional “analog” photography before the digital revolution/evolution. The term “C-print” itself is of interest as it is passing from the common lexicon of photographers whose only experience with image capture and reproduction is digital. “The first commercially available chromogenic print process was Kodacolor, introduced by Kodak in January 1942. Kodak introduced a chromogenic paper with the name Type-C in the 1950s, and then discontinued the name several years later. The terminology Type-C and C-print have remained in popular use since this time.”  ; It produces a very different image, both in appearance and texture, from a digital pigment print. Calafiore’s images are of elegant and somewhat elaborate glass vases and the like he has found. The colors radiate from both the glass and the studio lighting he uses. The uniqueness of the images result not only from the physical characteristics of the chromogenic color paper used in-camera, but the way chromogenic paper reproduces color, and from the way images and light are captured by a “pinhole” camera. A chromogenic paper has an emulsion of silver halide dyes that react to light, and a developer solution causes the image to emerge. This is fundamentally different from a digital printer that places drops of ink onto paper to create the image, especially because C-prints have a more continuous color tone than the sprayed ink droplets in digital prints. The ink for a C-print lies within the paper and not on the paper as in a digital print, so there is a different look and feel that presents a different visual aesthetic. Calafiore’s work is made even more special by the unusually large size of his images (24”x20”), especially given the self-constructed pinhole camera used. Most cameras capture the light reflecting off a scene or object through a glass lens, that then reflects that light on to a light-sensitive film held in the darkness of the camera body. A pinhole camera does not have a lens of any material. It is a hole in a light-proof box that allows the light through the pin-sized aperture in the wall of the “box” of a scene or object into the box and is reflected on the opposite wall within the box or camera. As Calafiore describes the hole: “The pinhole diameter used on this camera is the equivalent of f/958.” To put this in context, most cameras have an aperture that ranges may range from f/2 to f/64. Historically, the “camera obscura” echoes the earliest foundation of photography when Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot were experimenting with the capture of these very images.
Photograph by Robert Calafiore, a unique C-Print, “Untitled” ©2017 from his series of Pinhole Camera Chromogenic Prints
The images themselves are one-of-a kind and interesting. These are studio-created still life objects. As he describes the work: “The subject matter is ordinary glassware collected from family and ongoing purchase (amassing an extensive and obsessive collection), and then assembled by stacking and balancing pieces into a single tableau within a constructed set or on shelves, recalling the well-known cabinets of curiosity of the 17th century and “Articles of Glass”, salt prints by Henry Fox Talbot. It is transformed by the unique recording characteristics of the camera’s wide-angle, long exposures of 45 mins or more, and color interpretation by the light sensitive paper. I manipulate the still life to control the results; altering the saturation, color, density and translucency of certain areas of the scene by live dodging and burning as well as moving objects during the exposure.” The images are not “straight” captures. He elaborated further: “Lighting is altered during the exposure to control density and saturation. Live dodging and burning of areas in the image are required to achieve the end results desired. Objects are inserted and removed to create layers and depth as well as add texture. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces are employed to get a sense of movement and artifacts left behind from the bouncing light. Many other methods of manipulation during the shoot are used to impact color, light and shadow.” This is the artistry in what Calafiore has done without any digital manipulation. It is his thumbprint, the touch of the artist so to speak, that is placed into each image. Calafiore’s images thereby are made very special objects given his methodology and the interest and quality in the images themselves.
“Measuring Space”, a series by Lyle Gomes , is a “study of what we see and what we tend not to see – an investigation of spatial ambiguity.” His image “Silos, Arbuckle #2” was an interesting extension of his landscape work on dunes and his book “Imagining Eden” . In an interview with Karen Sinsheimer, he responded that he drew inspiration from Fredrick Sommer (for the elimination of the horizon line), Eugene Atget and Joseph Sudek (for their use of light and Sudek’s “panoramic” approach). In his earlier (and some newer) dune images, the contrast of light and shadow create an amazing abstract that sets the stage for what we now see in the image “Silos, Arbuckle #2”. Arbuckle is a small town in the North Sacramento Valley. It takes a moment to realize that we are looking at two large silos with some form of telephone or electrical wires passing in the background. It’s an image that many probably walked past innumerable times, never noticing this natural composition. It’s a wonderful visually-caught moment where the light is hitting the silos at the right moment to create the shadow cast we see in these images. The image has the look of a panorama, as is Gomes’ style, but it’s a straight image. In later images, he begins to stitch images together, and this image, he mentioned, was the “nudge to enter that world”. So, this image is relevant not only for the image itself, but for where it led him as an artist. This image also stands in contrast, literally and figuratively, to his prior work. In that same interview with Sinsheimer he commented that he would normally photograph on days with “fog, rain or falling snow… cloudy days..[for] soft, delicate, shadow-less light” to instill a certain “atmosphere” into his images. This image is shot on a rather sunny day, it appears, with sharp shadows and a very graphic appearance that almost denies readily understanding what you are actually seeing, other than as a black & white abstract of form and line.
Photograph by Lyle Gomes, “Silos, Arbuckle #2 ” ©2007 from the series “Measuring Space”.
Kerry Mansfield’s series “Threshold”  ; is as light as a feather both in the immediate visual sense and essential nature that endures throughout this collection. It is really a deeply felt personal statement. The imagery is symbolic of an episode of insomnia she suffered through. The beauty in the images is in their delicacy and their very personal expression. Mansfield explained: “A friend shared that she could sleep “at the drop of a feather”. Employing no digital manipulation or double-exposure, the Threshold series illustrates the physical passage of time through movement. The resulting pictures capture feathers falling for a full second through different wavelengths of light while subsequently compressing the variations into a new form”. This is what is so attractive and imaginative about this series. The technical excellence is using traditional photography without manipulation to capture time and objects in very simple, clean images of feathers from different creatures. The meaning is her expression of “self” following a long history of conceptual photography Mansfield has embraced.
Photograph by Kerry Mansfield, “Wild Parrot 1” ©2017 from her series “Threshold”
Conceptual photography is a type of image creation that illustrates an idea. Conceptual art was a movement that had roots in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea of “conceptual art” today arguably has broadened and expanded. For her, that idea is non-documentary examination of the passage of time.
We do not have to understand the physics, or technical aspects, of how the image was done to hold and appreciate the artistry and technical knowledge of the artist, Mansfield, who was able to make these images. These are not images many of us could create without resorting to manipulation techniques. There is an elegance and weightlessness as the feathers float. Her focus was on holding time accountable, because she could not. Photography is all about capturing a moment in time, but more importantly, continuing her use of the visual as a form of expressions of self. John Szarkowski had the following observation about personal visions in photography: “In metaphorical terms, the photograph is seen either as a mirror–a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window–through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality.” Images such as Mansfield’s can be both: as mirrors (self-expression) and as windows (exploration). It need not be either/or. The issue is what the image triggers for the viewer. Like looking at a Rothko painting, these images need to be studied and reflected upon. Some viewers might say “Ah, feathers”. Other viewers will see that there is no context for the feathers. The feathers are just there frozen in a space, without a reference point. The feather is in different positions in that space, so it is moving, or has moved. Once we realize that it is a feather in motion, we might relate time to the motion (time frozen in a captured moment, but not one “decisive moment” as expressed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson).
The white space surrounding the feathers is like a stage for performance. Unlike other works of self-expression where we see the photographer, we have no evidence of Mansfield’s presence. It is the evidence of her existence and personal challenge with time as a “threshold” that cannot be controlled or breached. It just “is”. The “Threshold” portfolio is like Robert Smithson’s “Nine Mirror Displacements, Yucatan, 1969”. “Part Earthwork and part image, the displacements contemplate temporality; while the mirror records the passage of time, its photograph suspends time.” Mansfield’s work has both elements too: passage and suspension. Floating and frozen.
David Reinfeld is a photographer who trained at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and studied under Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Lisette Model, and Minor White. He was also influenced by another artist, Wolf Kahn, a German/American abstract painter known for his use of color in realistic settings. These influences are evident in his work. His abstracted works have that feel of graffiti and decayed walls, yet with his own touch added. Unlike the others, Reinfeld makes composite images using Photoshop. Yet, he also has very traditional imagery. He is photographing the artifacts of our culture. Many of his composited images are covered in mystery (as in some of his other portfolios, such as “A Walk in the Woods”, “Shrouded” or “Shadow People”). He is prolific and he does experiment. That’s what was interesting about Reinfeld’s work. He has more experimental portfolios than many photographers. And, while many are reminiscent and clearly influenced by his former professors and others he has studied, he has been photographing long enough that his own style has begun to emerge. In the work “Bloodline #1 (2017)”, he suggests that the cracked and decayed walls are “the stresses we feel from social interaction”. It is the facelessness of the outline of the person and the wall’s texture that catches one’s attention. It feels as if someone is about to emerge from a mist; or, alternatively, fall back into a shroud of fog and uncertainty.
Photograph by David Reinfeld, “Bloodline #1” ©2017, from his series “Bloodline”
Joana Cardozo is a Brazilian/American photographer whose series “Blueprints” has creatively blended architecture, the silhouette technique used in past eras and creative photography and printing to define people by their environments in a new way. Cardozo commented: “Blueprints is a series of images about how our everyday objects help define us. I usually introduce the project by defending that our home is the reflection of ourselves. Therefore; I go to my subjects’ homes and select objects I think will help me convey to the viewer who that person is, or what he/she does, etc. Then, I photograph just the shadow of the objects selected and I place each of them within the floor plan of the subject’s apartment or house. … The colors and texture play an important role in helping me depict the person portrayed. … Like a mirror, a home reflects the identity of its’ inhabitants. The way the content of a house is arranged reveals, in a whisper, whether the person is organized, chaotic, romantic, divorced; everything I imagine to know.” It was intriguing to visually wander from room to room, and examine what objects, pets, clothing, musical instruments and other items were selected. It makes one self-conscious of what we might unintentionally reveal to our guests and visitors by the objects we have around ourselves, and where and how those objects are placed about. Her images are revealing not just about her subjects, but ourselves, too.
Photograph by Joana Cardozo, “Blueprint17” ©2017 from her series “Blueprints”.
Photo Lucida was four days of meeting a large number of creative and exceptional people. But for a space limitation, many more could have been included in this commentary. These images are a conversation about people and our things, with an absence of portraits of people. It’s an interesting contrast, that each of these artists is dealing with some human issue, emotion, impact or constructed space. Yet, in none of these images does a person appear. Much of the photographic work today is focused on struggle, memory, and other personal, very human, emotions and challenges. Stepping back, these images show imagination and creativity, using alternative methods to reflect human events without putting themselves or others explicitly into the image. It is also interesting to note practices from the past, both in type of equipment and technique, were revised and resurrected. The influence of prior masters of photography and other media revealed themselves in these images like some form of genetic code we carry forward from the study of art and history of photography. We cannot help but be influenced by this past. Yet, these photographers are not just repeating the past. They are putting their own imprint into their work, and these images may, in turn, change someone else’s path.