February 11: Photography as a means of memorisation through the making of a photograph is still not fully explored as it is an experience in the orbit of the photographer, not the theorist.
On this date in 1800 Henry Fox Talbot was born. To him we owe the negative / positive process and printing on paper that sustained photography until the advent of digital imaging which in effect resembles the daguerreotype in which exposures are made on a metal plate, though it does share the capacity of Talbot’s calotype of being able to give us multiple copies, something not possible with Daguerre’s process which produced unique images.
The story of Talbot’s invention is well known. On an extended Continental tour with his wife in 1833, they were joined in Italy by his sister and other relatives where they experienced what he described as “the lovely shores of the Lake of Como, in Italy” (right).
The glorious view was well worth recording but the only means available then were to commit it to memory, write about it, or draw it. Talbot, a polymath so used to excelling in everything, was embarrassed to find that he was the only one of the whole party who could not draw. As he wrote in his ‘Introductory Comments’ to his 1844 The Pencil of Nature, he applied science to the problem and used Wollaston’s camera lucida to assist him.
The device is a prism set on a stand that gives a stable view of the subject superimposed on the paper on which it is to be traced, though it is demanding to use, as Talbot found;
…for when the eye was removed from the prism—in which all had looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold.
The camera lucida renders perspective accurately but it takes some experience in drawing to render the tones and shades as they are seen, so the results Talbot got are precise, except where he fudged details of foliage, but rudimentary, and they probably made his companions’ efforts look much more sophisticated.
This frustrating experience played upon is mind and, as a John Henderson wrote in his 1898 rebuttal of a newspaper account in which Daguerre is given the credit for inventing photography;
Fox Talbot made his first discovery of producing Sun Pictures through observing the effects caused by passing clouds upon the shores of the Lake; upon returning home he carried out a series of experiments which convinced him it would be possible to produce such pictures upon chemically prepared paper, in this, after much trouble, he was successful, & by the year 1839 he had obtained a distinct recognition of what he termed the Calotype process.
Two exhibitions open tonight which relate to the role of photography in memory. That is a hackneyed subject in literature on the medium – one has only to recall Oliver Wendell Holmes’ purple metaphor ‘the mirror with a memory’ of 1859 – but the nuance of photography as a means of memorisation through the making of a photograph is still not fully explored as it is an experience in the orbit of the photographer, not the theorist.
The first of these shows is by Gunnel Wåhlstrand and is being presented at MAGASIN III, a former dockside warehouse in Frihamnen, at Frihamnsgatan 28, Stockholm. Her exhibition continues until June 11. The other is at Aura Gallery, Taipei, where an opening reception will be held from 3pm today to launch a retrospective exhibition of the conceptual Japanese photographer Takuma Nakahira
Gunnel Wåhlstrand (b. 1974) is not a photographer, but her work does open up vital questions around photography and memory. Instead of using a camera she makes large-scale ink wash paintings from photographs; a reversal, if you like, of Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype. The stimulus for these is a box of family photographs that were the only connection that she had to her father who departed during her childhood.
In making these ink paintings she enlarges the snapshots by a factor of ten. The originals are small prints probably from a fixed-focus box camera, so the process of enlargement involves guesswork and a process of deduction to fill in missing detail; each blade of trampled grass in Instön (above) for example.
And where is her father? That is a question I often asked as a child, only to be told “He was taking the picture”, a response which I remember never seemed to be satisfactory until I was old enough to understand the physical circumstances of making photographs.
Of course, he is there, watching her. He has been inspired to take this photo, not of the view from the top of Sydhälsö, an island south of Oslo, but of her, his thirteen year old daughter, for whom the background only enhances her beauty, and who returns his gaze fondly with the indulgent love girls of this age have for their father. These are records of idyllic family adventures in what is now the Kosterhavet National Park.
What I have just interpreted from this image is entirely fiction, a ‘false memory’.
These are pictures of Wåhlstrand’s family before she even became a part of it; she was born in 1974. Her father killed himself when she was just a year old so she never knew him and she is separated from these photographs by a generation; they are the pictures from his childhood, of the 1950s. In the painting Instön (which is another Swedish island, just NW of Göteborg) the boy may be him.
She says she paints these at large scale in order to enter another world and to minutely examine it, in effect to live there in a place and time denied to her by her father’s death. “As is the case with all photography,” she says, “any knowledge of what took place after becomes part of the photo, and changes the way you look at it.”
Never mind these facts. Photographs, any photographs, can be read as if they were memories. We make them as a mnemonic, it is the reading of them that is the memory.
Do photographers look this closely at their own images?
Devastated in World War II, Japan was subsequently occupied by the American military, who brought modernization and upheaval to which photographers reacted with a new visual language. While they broke radically with tradition, they memorialized the old culture as they recorded the new. Takuma Nakahira’s image above is representative of the rough and ready, bure, boke (rough, blurred, out of focus) aesthetic of the Provoke movement (Purovōku, プロヴォー, named after a short-lived but influential magazine co-founded by Nakahira in 1968), which asked “What is photography?”, “Who becomes a photographer?” or “What is seeing?”.
This picture is from his essay about a nightclub district in Tokyo called Shinjuku, or Golden-gai, the old barracks left over from the occupation and which in the 60s was full of tiny bars able to seat only a dozen or so, frequented by specific groups; the photographer Tomatsu and his friends met in one of these, where he took this picture of a drug-affected girl.
After 1970, Nakahira changed his thinking about photography and turned to process-based installations. Circulation: Date, Place, Events for the 1971 Paris Biennale was one.
I felt hesitant with the idea of bringing photographs taken in Japan all the way to Paris as finished works of art. For me it seemed meaningless to try and force photography into the reductive framework of an ‘individual’ work of art, as if to plaster it with my flimsy assertions and ‘concepts.’ I rejected the expression of my own ‘concepts’ and ideas in the form of a work of art… Thus, to put it concretely, I set myself to photograph, develop, and exhibit nothing but the Paris that I was living in and experiencing.
Over a week, Nakahira took pictures out on the streets of Paris every day, then every evening quickly processed them, gluing the photographs to the wall and floor inside the biennale hall on the next day. After one week, there were nearly 600 pictures in all, an action which transformed photography into performance.
In 1973, Nakahira, an habitual barbiturate user, suffered a mental collapse and destroyed almost all of his negatives and prints, with only Circulation: Date, Place, Events remaining after a rediscovery of the negatives. Then in 1977, Nakahira lost his memory and and could not speak. However, he started taking photos when he traveled to Okinawa for treatment in the following year and kept enthusiastically taking photos as he recovered from his sickness.
A year later he started to make images of everything he saw everyday on the street, in colour to produce Why an Illustrated Botanical Dictionary? published in 1973;
Anyway, I think I will restart my work with the Illustrated Botanical Dictionary. I am going to capture subjects in daylight with colour photography; I will compile them into the Illustrated Botanical Dictionary. For that, they must be colour photographs.
He did not process the colour negatives or print from them himself since he wanted to remove all expression, to discard entirely the Provoke characteristics.
In 2003, he had a big retrospective show Degree Zero – Yokohama, which was enthusiastically received. About the work, he said;
My photography is an absolute necessity for me, having forgotten everything.
I believe that photography is neither creation nor memory, but documents. The act of shooting a photograph is not something abstract. It is always concrete. No manipulation to make simple things complicated through conceptualization. Only the real I encountered through the medium of the camera is here in my photographs.
One of his last exhibitions continued this process. It was called Kirikae, which translates as ‘self-renewal’, self-discovery anew that he made with every image.
Aura Gallery’s show is the first since the artist passed away in 2015.