February 10: The condition of being portrayed by the camera has been described by a number of writers, but to look at the results of such confrontations is constantly new.
Exhibitions launching tonight are Henri Dauman The Manhattan Darkroom (vernissage tonight at 7:00pm) at Musée Nicéphore Niépce; Alfredo Jaar Shadows (tonight 7:00-9:00pm) at Galerie Thomas Schulte; and Heiko Tiemann Die im Dunkeln at Kunstmuseum Mülheim an der Ruhr which launched last night but opens to the public today.
Henri Dauman is a French-born (1933) Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Paris who went to the USA, fell in love with the glamour of Manhattan and stayed. Little known himself, his feature photos and celebrity portraits appeared on the covers and inside the pages of major American magazine through the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Though his pictures are familiar, the man is being recovered from relative obscurity, with exhibitions in Europe and America and a bio-pic. It is the sense of familiarity with his subjects that his pictures transmit which is impressive; his portraits (for which he was unafraid to sometimes use a wide angle lens) feel as if they are taken by someone close to them both in terms of acquaintance and of physical proximity.
He conveys what others missed; Marilyn Monroe’s insecurity, the unworldly style of Yves Saint Laurent, and the brittle fortitude of Jacqueline Kennedy.
Alfredo Jaar is a Chilean-born (*1956) artist, architect, and filmmaker who also lives in New York City. Though reported less prominently since about 2008, he continues to be prolific and represented Chile at the 2013 Venice Biennale. His work is politically provocative and he often incorporates other artists in installations and performances and it is partly for that reason that his exhibition Shadows is attracting the full spectrum of criticism.
He discusses the political nature of his work on one occasion in an interview in the Australian ArtAsiaPacific May/June 2016 issue with Inti Guerrero, a co-curator of “Afterwork” in which Jaar showed in 2016 in Hong Kong.
...images still matter. They can affect the way we understand the world. But they struggle to survive in a sea of consumption. It is up to us- artists and visual producers- to make sure we do our job. That is why art is important. We create models of thinking about the world and for the world, through images and through words. The so-called art world is our little world. It is not perfect, for sure. But it is the last remaining space of freedom.
Collaborating with others is a part of Jaar’s practice, but he has also recently appropriated others’ images in his artworks. For example in his installation, May 1, 2011 Jaar uses the photograph of the scene in the Situation Room, documented by offcial photographer Pete Souza, visibly retouched to disguise sensitive information before being disseminated. In the picture the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden was being broadcast live to the White House by cameras physically mounted on the Navy Seals who conducted the mission.
Jaar accompanies the light box exhibiting Souza’s news photo with a similar sized screen toward which the White House occupants seem to stare. It is blank, signifying the absent and never-released image of an act that was said to be real, but importantly it projects white light, a white wash, dazzling the eyes of the viewer. An outline tracing of the image to the right of the photo has a key naming the people in the press image, while that on the left side next to the white screen bears no information.
Jaar has made multimedia works around others’ photojournalism in a trilogy that continues in this, the second of the series, to be exhibited at Galerie Thomas Schulte tonight. At a previous show he used South African Kevin Carter’s controversial Pulitzer-winning photograph of a starving child stalked by a vulture, about which Roberta Smith raised questions at the beginning of her New York Times review:
Using human tragedy as an artistic readymade has definite pros and cons. Relevance is usually guaranteed; the heartstrings are likely to be pulled. But the art may be overshadowed by the story, which may in turn be trivialized and exploited by the art.
Her last sentence turns out not to be her judgement of the show. She records that Jaar has employed his own documentary images (in 1985 he shot photos for, and exhibited, his installation Gold in the Morning at Serra Pelada opencast mine the year before Sebastaio Salgado documented it) and she points to his ongoing history of installation work and in particular his use of light and light boxes (as in May 1, 2011) as a means of illuminating, his audience, in all senses, about the social and political dimensions of Carter’s photograph. It was its effectiveness as an artwork that brought her back to view it again.
In Australia, I cannot see this show but Jaar describes it on his website. In Shadows we are confronted with not one, but several of Dutch photojournalist Koen Wessing’s September 1978 photographs surrounding this one of grieving sisters who have lost their father in a shooting by US-installed dictator Somoza’s National Guard.
The lightbox is an ubiquitous form of commercial display that we find above fast food counters and over supermarket green grocery departments, imparting a luscious (the retailers hope) glow to the supersaturated colour of the transparencies they bear. It is also favoured by Jeff Wall as a means of imparting a window-like clarity to his often subtly distorted images. While Wall matches the intensity of the light box just slightly above ambient light in his gallery exhibitions, Jaar shows his in darkness, and in a sequence, in his installations, with video. As Jaar describes it “This image [Koen Wessing’s Estelí] is first seen complete for a few seconds, then the background darkens to absolute black while the girls illuminate to absolute white. A complex lighting mechanism hidden in the technical space behind the image is then triggered and throws an enormous amount of light through the silhouettes of the two women, blinding the audience for a few seconds.”
As with May 1 2011, The Sound of Silence (incorporating Carter’s child and vulture) and Gold in the Morning, the lightbox is not a window. In The Eyes of Gutete Emerita (1996), a horizontal lightbox with a million 35mm slides, each one showing the eyes of a woman who has witnessed a massacre, the photograph becomes sculpture. It is conceptually the negative of a print, transmitting light instead of absorbing it. With it the image is made a lightsource, which in turn transforms the photographic content into an emanation, an icon. The ‘shadows’ of this new show are in fact afterimages deliberately imprinted in the eyes and mind of the viewer, not of the original Wessing picture, but of its essential form, of its absence, a shock to our detachment, short-cicuiting our ‘compassion fatigue’.
The announcement on Kunstmuseum Mülheim an der Ruhr website of Heiko Tiemann’s new exhibition is short and sweet, but it was the intensity of this photograph they used that drew me in when I happened upon it.
A girl is seemingly asleep amidst a halo of blossoms fallen from a plum tree that casts the shadows of its spring leaves over her. One spent bloom nestles at the crook of her wrist, drawing attention to her gesture; there is a tension, a torsion that is not that of one in deep sleep. She poses as sleeping. Is this where she would like to sleep, if she could?
A plum-pink, that of the blossoms, pervades the scene as if the tree has filtered the sunlight with melancholy. Is it sadness, a sad anger, that will not let her rest? It changes the colour we expect in fresh green grass, and of the girl’s skin which is of a pallor dappled and faintly bruised with the colour of her crimson lips that appear now, as we look closely into her face, to have stained the blossoms, everything.
What we see in Tiefer Schlaf, this intensity of expression, can only have been generated in the interaction between photographer and subject. What we might read in this image has been put there by the subject ‘constituting herself’ as Barthes has said, for the camera. Only some deep agreement between them, or of collusion, could have produced what affects the viewer, and there is nothing to indicate it is disingenuous, that they have conspired to produce a fiction, though there is a narrative to read here. To confirm, we ask ourselves; is this how a fashion shot might look if the subject were to be the jacket and not the young woman? Does she act as a fashion model does?
This picture comes from a series shot at a ‘special school’ for disadvantaged children with various learning disabilities caused by Asperger’s syndrome or other trauma, in Duisburg (Germany) which was about to close so that they could be included in an integration into mainstream education, as has been done in some states in Australia, with mixed results and at risk of them being ‘lost in the system’. These are already neglected individuals, says Tiemann, and in this institution their problems are more apparent. This is what we detect in another photograph of the same subject above.
To document such an institution is now all but taboo, but important, and Tiemann’s undertaking using the genre of the portrait to deal with it is ethical. While clearly not all of his subjects enjoy or even seem to actively participate in the process, others engage willingly, and even the disengagement, defiance or suspicion, or the need for sympathy, or shyness, is left evident.
The reactions and interactions are validated in the process. No ‘carers’ or teachers are evident, though they must have been present at times. What we are given is a meeting with each individual on their own terms, with time and patience given by the photographer as our proxy. Tiemann’s use of large and medium format slows the making of these images but also, because of the presence of such equipment, makes it an event for the subject, an unusual attention paid especially to them. For the viewer, in turn, the high-definition large scale prints present an almost life-size confrontation with the subject.
In Vault we do not even see the subject’s face, but Tiemann’s selection of the location makes it still a portrait; it is full of psychological signs. Shot with a medium-format lens on a 4″x 5″ camera, the ‘bulls-eye’ distortion in the glass of this double-glazed window is heightened by the resulting darkening of the corners of the image, and the optical effect is psychologically powerful, especially given the way the subject’s hair adheres to the glass.
Tiemann has a career in exhibiting his work that stretches back to 1996 and he has gained numerous awards. His training in Psychology at the University Münster and experience in art-therapy and psychoanalysis in Berlin result in the depth of understanding behind these remarkable portraits.