February 12: Stand in a shopping mall, an airport, a housing estate, in a petrol station on the edge of the highway, and you are nowhere, or anywhere, ‘no-place’. A sense of place is as fundamental as a sense of smell, which it may recruit along with every other one of our senses. Can the genius loci be transmitted by a photograph?
On this date in 1857 Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget was born in Libourne. His photographs transport us, and place us in another Paris. He had moved there in 1878 and served in the army while undertaking acting studies, and made an unsuccessful attempt at publishing a satirical journal called Le Flaneur. Atget was to become the flaneur par excellence.
He took up photography at the end of the 1890s, a time when photography was becoming accessible to everyone since the arrival of the first model of the Kodak camera, followed by the first transparent nitrocellulose roll film in 1889. Perversely, Atget, right into the 1920s, used used an anachronistic and weighty camera on a wooden tripod, taking his photographs on 24 x 18cm (8″ x 10″) glass plates, seven times the size of a 35mm frame; with such cumbersome equipment he could not be a ‘street photographer’ in the modern sense. His photographs, ostensibly produced as artists’ reference, are architectural, made using the rising front on the view camera to preserve rectilinear and parallel verticals.
Despite Atget’s reclusive nature, the people who appear in his pictures are not incidental; his 1924 version of a photograph of rue de l’Hotel de Ville taken in 1921 from the same angle shows the figure of a doorman in the same spot and posed in both images, staring directly at the camera.
There have been several projects undertaken to rephotograph Atget’s Paris, the earliest and most notable of which is in the book Paris Changing by Christopher Rauschenberg, son of Robert, the Pop artist. ‘Rephotography’ as espoused by Mark Klett, is a ‘geo-temporal’ survey, scientific in intent, but in Rauschenberg’s project what becomes obvious is the enduring ‘spirit of place’.
Never mind the passing decades and intervening new centuries, an atmosphere, the genius loci, outlasts renovation of old buildings, the advent of the automobile, gentrification, safety-consciousness, and the crowding of the streets, to exert the same frisson in the viewer of these photographs. Certainly Rauschenberg’s 1997 scene appears less exotic to our eyes, but it is the same human scale of this place, the play of light, the same elating sense that this crossroad presents a subtly life-altering choice of routes, that, incredibly, spans the seventy years between them.
To engage Atget’s photographs is to enter into them, so redolent are they of temporal atmosphere.
Janine Niépce was also born on this date too, in 1921, incidentally related to the inventor of photography, Nicéphore Niépce. In the midst of WW2 in 1944, she graduated from the Sorbonne with a degree in Art History and Archeology while assisting the French Resistance by developing their surveillance films and faked ID photos. She took part in the liberation of Paris as a liaison officer.
After the war she became a photojournalist and traveled extensively in France, recording the changes in French culture for ordinary people and everyday lives as a humanist photographer among the likes of Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis, and contrasting life in the countryside and the towns and the capital, Paris. Her photographs continue the construction of what is nearly universally appreciated as the ‘psycho-geography’ of Paris.
Niépce’s photograph of the Panthéon follows Atget’s by 25 years, viewing it along the rue Soufflot at right angles to Atget’s rue Valette. Hers is cosmopolitan and densely populated while Atget’s is austere and deserted, photographed very early, with summer morning sunlight streaming down the rue de Panthéon so that the monument looms from within a mist of light. What is absent from these screen shots (below) from Google Earth’s robot camera, taken from roughly the same angles, hints at what is added by these two photographers and how they comprehend and encompass the idea of these locations, not their mere geographic particulars.
Finnish photographer Anni Leppälä last night launched her show at the Kunstverein Galerie Am Markt in Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, and it is open to the public from today. Her website indicates the way she works, constantly adding to a body of images which can be reorganised for each exhibition. She writes;
My works do not consist of separate series, but the recent images expand the already existing entity of works […] The connections between the images are essential to my work. How the images affect each other and what kind of relationships they create between each other. I try to trace this emerging “third image” between two or several images; the various combinations of images compose different interpretations; it is like an uncovering of new thoughts.
The northern light, the pervading presence of nature, confirm the Finnish origins of her imagery. She was born in 1981 in Helsinki, where she now lives and works.
I have been to Scandinavia once in my life and sadly never expect to return; we are ruled by the tyranny of distance here in Australia. I will never forget the astonishing light there, nor the great sheets of glacier-polished granite rock. Leppälä’s 2013 image Driftwood could be a satellite view of her country, all mountains and sheets of ice; it is only in the foreground half of the image, defined by the bridging, momentarily stranded wood fragment, that marbled detail emerges from under its reflective surface, a semblance of the alternately forested and rocky geography of Finland.
Her photographs derive from, and form in the viewer’s mind, a mental landscape. Feeling, not factuality, guides her, so that a tiny forest set on her bedspread serves as well as a scene photographed in a real forest to convey her attachment to her environment.
People in her images serve as a proxy for the photographer. Sometimes the subject is her younger sister, but their identity is usually obscured, leaving visible only their experience of the temper of their surroundings.
Not for Leppälä the cliché image of the spectacular sunset; for her it serves as a projector, imaging the poignancy of its setting on the wall of a girl’s bedroom. We join her, with her shadow, to witness the dying light in this image titled Embers. This is the way that, urged by the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke whom she admires, she uses the everyday; the picture on the wall formed by the last of the sun through a window behind us is a proto-photograph she has discovered in her own house. It is well worth the witness of all these spectators.
The Finnish forest is the setting for the mythic Finnish figures who appear in the runic poems of the Kalevala – the national folk epic compiled in the 19th century by Elias Lönnrot. In Leppälä’s image below, a picture within a picture, a strange forest takes form, as if enchanted by these legends.
In this latter image the only the traces of the couple in the title are their long shadows; their figures having been replaced with dead leaves in a magical transformation, overlaid on their image and rephotographed. In this same spirit this tiny figure of a girl stands amidst wreckage wrought by elemental forces.
We observe her companion from behind, who is equally dwarfed by the lush vegetation but shares its colour.
The Genus Loci of Finland is Anni Leppälä’s familiar, an entity that she can identify in a detail like the paint flaking from painted cypress.