March 9: How far can the camera see?
Madrid-born artist Alejandro Guijarro opens his second solo show, Lead, at Tristan Hoare gallery Six Fitzroy Square, London, W1T 5HJ for a private view today 6-9pm. The show continues until 28th April 2017.
Two pictorialist photographers were born on this date; one, Marcel Bovis (*1904) was a French photographer, most notable for his photographs of Paris, the other, Jaroslav Kysela, born today in 1913, photographed Prague.
I’ve checked the image above which is definitely taken in Prague in the 30s as the grill of the very new-looking car in the foreground is that of a Škoda 645, typically a chauffeur-driven saloon, a model sold for the first time in Prague during the autumn of 1929.
It is more difficult to find information of Kysela himself, but if he was taking very capable night photographs like the one above in 1934 (and there is also a record of a Solarisation made by him in 1932, a rare technique) then he must have had training in photography by the time he was eighteen.
In biographies of Josef Sudek one finds that during WWII the great Czech photographer of light provided asylum in the form of an apprenticeship to several young photographers including Kysela, who was studying ophthalmology and who was a photo documentarist at the time. Much of his work was lost in 1942 and though his work fetches good prices at auction from time to time, shortage of examples is probably the reason why there has been no book on him yet. Little else is known other than that Kysela obtained a Diploma from the National School of Graphic Arts in Prague and was a member of the Czech amateur photographers group, though dates are not available.
It is his love of atmosphere that interests me in relation to this topic of obscurity. Here are two of his pictures, taken about ten years apart, both of the backs of solitary pedestrians.
In both there is a strong sense of recession, of the figures being about to vanish into the depth of the image, particularly where that is demonstrated by the repetition of besuited gentlemen descending stairs under bare winter trees in the 1942 photograph.
There is a strong taste of Sudek in these images in the aerial perspective and a hangover of pictorialism, a similarity, or at least an influence, that is confirmed in this obliquely spotlit still life (left), which also shows a modernist sense of abstract forms for their own sake, while Sudek’s imagery remains representational even at its most geometric.
A similar tendency to pictorialism dominates only the earliest photography of the nearly ten years older Marcel Bovis, a medium he took up during his army service in WWI. No doubt by his studies at the National School of Decorative Arts in Nice and his later work as decorator in Paris has a bearing on this taste. He taught himself photography in order to produce photos of Paris, predominantly at night, from 1927. After 1936, he became a professional photographer.
It is these night images which are most relevant here, dripping with the riverine dew of Paris which catches distant lights in both of these shots, the first of which is on a glass negative. Both push the medium to extremes, testing the not-so-sensitive emulsions and maximum apertures of the era. The expedience of hiding the light source in the 1927 Rue de Nuit makes a powerful diagonal form of the props holding up the crumbling stone of this laneway.
The unshielded lantern is not the light source for the shot below, which is lit by a street light to the above left, out of shot, and which casts strong shadows on the freshly laid cobblestones.
To identify mistiness with pictorialism is to emphasise its painterliness, thought that is not to say that atmosphere was solely the preserve of that early twentieth century photographic movement, because it remains attractive to modernists too, and we can see a transition to that in both photographers’ oeuvre.
The halos and dazzle that appear in both of these shots are not entirely due to backlighting and heavy mist of the variety that turns daylit Le Point Transbordeur in Marseilles into a Whistleresque nocturne, or that softens so much of his imagery shot bravely against the light for a whole range of luminous effects.
His efforts at atmospherics are aided by the lack of anti-halation backing on films, especially the glass plates that he used, the latter effect being visible in the fairground lights above and which would require a soft-focus filter (or much turning down of the clarity setting in Photoshop import) to achieve with equipment today.
Lens flare affects both of the images below because of the uncoated lenses being used. The first is titled Brouillard (‘Fog’) even though there is little of that apparent; what has happened is that including the sun in the shot has caused optical fogging. It likewise softens the contrast of the lower half of his contre-jour image of 1954, in which sun coming through the springtime foliage of the street trees has been partly shielded at the top of the image, but the shadow of the branch (or of his hand) has not covered the lower part of the lens.
The mist in Alejandro Guijarro’s Broad Daylight series of 2008 to 2011, is not due to an interest in pictorialist, painterly effects, but in a conceptual test of photography itself.
Choosing quite ordinary subject matter of culinary duties, music practice or a quiet siesta, common states in which consciousness is abstracted, he injects artificial fog, a smoke generator, to thicken the air and thus calibrate depth with this fade-to-white. “How far can the camera see,” he asks, a question that is posed even more forcefully in Desert, and his parallel series Studies for an Endless City (also 2008-11), in which combinations of real aerial perspective, real or generated fog, overexposure and shooting into the light come into play.
Interleaved with, or compared to, the close-range peopled images, these cityscapes become a lesson in perspective in stages or layers in which only the surfaces closest to the camera are rendered in near-solid tones while everything else grades to near-white, leaving the viewer with the sense that photography fails to register anything but what is nearby.
There is plenty of the ‘autographic’ mark in his series Momentum but again, that is mere surface appearance that elicits a double take, like the title of the series in referring both to the physics of motion and to the moment of capture.
These are not the work of Cy Twombly, but are the erased notations and densely scrawled formulae of nuclear physicists and quantum scientists theorising aloud, in lecture theatres or on the blackboard in their offices, and accompanying the discussion with the visual language of mathematics.
Reproducing the boards at actual size Guijarro preserves an instant in what are the most the most far-flung imaginings of humankind, the dense intellectual activity that is attempting to come to grips with the fundamental substance of reality. For most of us, a mist falls; we cannot decipher these markings, though some betray the glimpse of goals we know hold revolutionary potential, written in our own language.
Photographs of these blackboards serve as a metaphor for this threshold of human comprehension, and Guijarro’s latest series, that on exhibition at Tristan Hoare gallery which also hosted Momentum, further investigates where the boundaries of the photographic image break down.
These are not photographs of his own. Where photographs of backboards, carefully to presented at 1:1 scale, are a permanent copy, an indelible proxy for the real thing, these new pictures also stand in for other objects at their original size.
These are X-Ray and UV images, not made by Guijarro, but scanned, of scientific, forensic investigations of great paintings in collections of The Prado Museum, Madrid, The Louvre, Paris and The National Gallery, London. What they record is what we would see of these works if our vision operated at those wavelengths. We are looking at again at chalk and also at lead, but through the surface. These were substances used by the Great Masters for corrections in, or to speed up drying times of, the paint used to make the images.
We are left peering for any recognisable image, and glimpse it only here and there, but instead are provided with scrambled evidence of the making of these works as the artists grappled with representation. Denied the visible spectrum, we see little that makes sense.
How far can we see, what can we perceive, through photography, or with our own eyes?