Sunday, January 3, 2010

I Am a Pilgrim: Introduction

In my teens I took snapshots, as everybody does. Like all such images, they were of no interest to anyone but the subjects. I neither knew nor cared about niceties such as composition and correct exposure. For reasons that are now unclear to me, I took fewer and fewer such photographs after I left home in 1988. The very last roll of film that I began innocently, with the purity of heart that a true snapshot requires, dates from early 2000. I lost the camera before I finished it.

As a replacement, I bought one of the newfangled digital cameras – I think it had one megapixel – but it seemed too easy, too banal, so I traded it in for a second-hand Polaroid Spectra. After that, I steadily ‘regressed’ through the history of photography, beginning with a manual 35mm SLR, followed by an even older Rolleiflex, and finally a large-format bellows camera.

Nostalgia does not interest me, so I avoided photographing anything obviously related to my personal life. I also worked at night with a tripod. I wanted to slow things down, to make everything more laborious and more self-conscious. I wanted images that were the exact opposite of everything implied by the word ‘snapshot’. Some of these photographs can be found at www.letusburnthegondolas.com.

At the end of 2003, I was preparing for my first visit back to Europe after moving to Australia a year before. This global tour seemed a good opportunity to review my relationships with the people and places that mattered to me. With this theme in mind, I decided to take a series of 35mm colour slides. Again the choice of an obsolete format had nothing to do with nostalgia. Rather, it is no longer a ‘natural’ or obvious choice, so it cannot be taken for granted

What, then, are the specific properties of a 35mm slide? Like a Polaroid, it is a unique, positive image. Its creation neither requires nor permits any intervention from the photographer beyond the initial moment of exposure, and it records colour ‘objectively’. Unlike the eye, it cannot compensate for the cast of artificial light, and unlike a print from a negative, it transmits rather than reflects light. Finally, its speed is relatively slow, and its exposure range is narrow.

Traditionally, the goal with a large-format camera is to produce a hand-crafted, black-and-white print: monumental in both subject and scale. Not only does the photographer adopt a patient, meditative, awe-struck attitude, but he implicitly demands the same attitude of the viewer. Each image makes the same claim, separately.

By contrast, here we have a sequence of seemingly-casual images whose technical limitations are often glaringly obvious and which – in their original format – are experienced in succession for a few seconds as an intangible projection on a wall or screen. They no sooner arrive than they are gone. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to remember every detail.

I was looking for a balance between two opposed states of mind: dislocation and intimacy. Since this balance is a delicate one, I tried not to disturb it by thinking too much about any shot. Nor did I repeat any that failed. I did not plan, and I did not direct or solicit responses. Many of the images were shot at night or in poor interior light – all without flash. They are literally fleeting in that they are obscured by grain, deep shadows and a minimal area of focus.

It is easy to take slides in which everything is blurred. It is almost as easy to take slides in which everything is in focus. What is difficult is to make photographs that lie on the thin line between order and chaos. To put it another way, while some of these images were taken in the cold light of day, the most representative are trying to capture the precise moment when ‘not drunk enough’ is about to tip over into ‘too drunk’. In reality, that moment is anything but precise: it is as impossible to isolate as the moment when you fall asleep. But it can be identified in a photograph – if only retrospectively.

[The text above can also be found here. The slides from I Am a Pilgrim will be posted here in pairs in successive entries over the next six days.]

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Jacob Riis and Nan Goldin

Jacob Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement – ‘Five Cents a Spot’, New York, 1889.

Above: Jacob Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement – ‘Five Cents a Spot’, New York, 1889.

Jacob Riis was a social reformer who worked in America at the end of the nineteenth century. He used photography as a weapon in a political and legal struggle rather than an end in itself: as evidence, not art. I use the word 'weapon' advisedly. Riis characterised himself as a war correspondent, who sent back reports from the front line of the battle against the slums. On his first forays with a camera, he was accompanied by policemen, who guaranteed access to the boarding houses and beer dives he photographed, and who also provided a bodyguard. As he explains in his autobiography, [O]ur party created terror wherever it went. The flashlight of those days was contained in cartridges fired from a revolver. The spectacle of strange men invading a house in the midnight hours armed with big pistols which they shot off recklessly was hardly reassuring … and it was not to be wondered at if the tenants bolted through the windows and down fire-escapes wherever we went. [1] Clearly, Riis was not concerned with the issue of consent and was not interested in establishing a relationship with his subjects.

Obviously there were occasions on which Riis had to ask permission, since he was not working with a hand-held camera. In such circumstances, the ideal subject was a docile, unresisting one, whose sufferings could be made to appear exemplary. [2] In the texts he wrote to accompany his photographs, Riis often describes his irritation at subjects who insisted on negotiating a fee or tried to assert some control over the image’s content. [3] In fact, many of Riis’ images beg the question of how he managed to get a camera into the locale pictured, or what his subjects thought about his presence, but his commentary usually declines to elaborate on these questions, probably for fear that he might compromise the image’s claim to objectivity. For Riis, the photograph had to appear to speak for itself (although in fact, it never did, since Riis either used explanatory captions or supplied a live commentary during slideshows). But the idea that a photograph could speak honestly for itself and be heard above the mendacious self-presentation of its subject was for Riis inextricably tied to the idea of objectivity, and this objectivity in turn guaranteed Riis’ integrity as the camera’s operator. The justification for this aggressive approach was that Riis was at war. The privacy and dignity of his subjects therefore had to be sacrificed to the greater good. [4]

In almost every respect, the relation between Nan Goldin and her subjects is the polar opposite of that between Riis and his. Indeed, they are such different photographers that it might seem redundant to compare them, except that the comparison helps to highlight the issue of consent that concerns me here. Goldin only photographs people who are known to her. As she explains, The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me. There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party. [5]

Riis regarded his subjects’ attempts at self-presentation as an irritating distraction: he needed them to serve only as evidence of a sociological or statistical trend. By contrast, Goldin’s intention is to serve as handmaiden to her subjects’ self-realisation, to assist in the creation of identities that are neither given nor fixed, and in so doing also fulfil her own potential. In these images, there is no definitive or final truth, a state of affairs symbolised by Goldin’s use of photo-sequences and grids, which are constantly revised and updated. Riis tried to categorise individuals according to national and other ‘types’, which his images served to reinforce. Goldin is primarily interested in the ways individuals can redefine gender and other stereotypes.

Many of the differences between Riis and Goldin are explicable simply as differences between the late nineteenth- and the late twentieth centuries. From our ‘enlightened’ perspective, it is easy to dismiss Riis for his arrogance (forgetting his achievements as a reformer), and join in the warm, mutual, emotional experience that Goldin offers us. That is not the lesson I wish to draw from the comparison. If Riis represents alienation (or purported objectivity), and Goldin identification (or avowed subjectivity), then I have tried to superimpose these two states, surrendering any claim to either objectivity or intimacy.

The project in which this attempt is most successful is a short series of slides entitled ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, which was published recently in 1:1, an online magazine. I shall post the introduction, followed by successive images from the sequence over the next seven days.

[1] J. A. Riis, The Making of an American, 1970, p. 173.

[2] In other respects, Riis did not like passivity. As a self-made man, he admired hard work and initiative, and sought to encourage it wherever possible. For Riis, idleness was one of the deplorable consequences of allowing people to live in slum conditions.

[3] However, Riis was apparently quite happy to pose ‘street arabs’ (homeless boys) in sleeping poses, partly because such images were part of an established pictorial tradition.

[4] Riis is often linked with Lewis Hine, but there is a fundamental difference between them. Many of Hine’s early photographs show factory workers and other labourers, but whilst Riis effectively identified with the point-of-view of the police whose help he needed, Hine’s work started from the premise of his opposition to the factory owners. Moreover, he always obtained his subjects’ co-operation (but not necessarily that of their employers).

[5] N. Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1986, p. 6.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mirror Shots

Mirror shots are a popular motif in photography, usually used to make self-portraits, or to draw attention to the constructed nature of the photograph, in which case the mirror stands for the image-making capacity of the camera.

Mirrors – and more generally, reflections  – also allow the photographer to laminate or superimpose different kinds of representation. Often the implicit message is that all of these representations have equal epistemic or evidential value: that a reflection – or indeed a photograph itself – is no more or less real than anything else in the world. [1] The acknowledged master of this kind of photograph is Lee Friedlander, whose book of ‘self-portraits’ showing only his shadow or reflection, far from being an exercise in egoism, is actually about the dissolution of self, its splintering and refraction. 

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, USA, 1983.
Above: Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, 1983.

This famous image by Nan Goldin (a cropped version appears on the cover of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency) is part of the same genre (even though no mirror was involved in its creation), but it has a rather different subtext. It is a self-portrait taken with a cable release, but it is also a portrait of a relationship. Behind Nan on the wall is another photograph of Brian, which shows him in a similar pose to the one he adopts here. It was probably taken on the same bed. The version of Brian who looks out from the print is the only figure who appears to meet the camera's gaze, which has here been separated from the gaze of its operator, just as Brian's gaze has been separated from that of his image within the scene. The ‘real’ Brian stares off to one side, also failing to meet Nan’s gaze.

Here, then, the different layers of representation clearly play off each other, but all affirm the coherence of an identity or persona, which is made up precisely of the play between these various layers, and realised in the context of the relationship with another, even if that relationship seems to be defined by a series of unanswered questions: that is, of unreturned gazes (even the image of Brian on the wall only appears to be looking at us).

In this photograph, there is no mirror to represent the image-making capacity of the camera. Instead, the terms of the substitution are reversed, and the camera performs the function of a mirror. [2]

[1] Quotation from Kazuo Nishii, Daido Moriyama, 2001, p. 8.
[2] I'll Be Your Mirror (from a song by The Velvet Underground) is the name of one of the chapters in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, and also the title of a recent retrospective of Goldin's work.