May 13: Photography: likeness or light?
Four people share this date; Ralph Eugene Meatyard (*15 May 1925), William A. Ewing (*15 May 1944), photo historian and curator, Nigel Henderson (†15 May 1985), and Oliver Möst whose show PINHOLY: Portraits aus der Camera Obscura at the Municipal Gallery Berlin, Hohenzollerndamm 176, 10713 Berlin, which was officially opened by Mayor Heike Schmitt-Schmelz yesterday, opens to the public today, running until 20th August.
Möst’s exhibition, a joint show with Berlin sculptor Richard Heß, is curated by Kathrin Kohle. He imagines the saints of the Christian tradition as patrons of contemporary professions.
A signature example is his St. Veronica, posed by fellow Berlin photographer Claudia Rorarius. According to legend she was the woman of Jerusalem who handed her head-cloth to Christ on his way to Calvary. He wiped his brow and returned it to her. The image it was seen to bear is supposed to be the likeness of Christ, arguably a kind of photograph, and it was called Vera-Icon (true likeness) and the woman consequently became St. Veronica. At the heart of this idea of the likeness lies the premise that it is the face, and not some other body part, that represents the soul, and that a ‘true likeness’ (a term used when verifying a passport photo, for example) is therefore almost sacred.
Möst’s version follows that of El Greco, and in fact repeats a copy of the face of Christ from the painting. For other saints such as Anna – saint of goldsmiths, Florian – patron saint of firefighters, Vitus – patron of actors, the models imitate the poses and attributes of historical religious paintings, and all are acquaintances of the photographer and they each practice the contemporary version of the profession each saint represents, wearing everyday clothing, and all are acknowledged in the exhibition by name.
To make the photographs Möst uses a large pinhole instead of a lens on his camera, calling it a camera obscura, though there two devices contribute here; pinhole ‘lensing’ was first recorded not in a ‘dark room’ (camera obscura) but out-of-doors during an eclipse, when openings in shadows of leaves under a tree changed from circular to crescent as the Moon passed in front of the Sun. The camera obscura is a later development that coincided with the availability of glass lenses, much used in the Dutch Renaissance but according to various sources it was in use before.
Even though a pinhole effect can be observed being formed by light coming through a gap in curtains and projecting onto the opposite wall of a room facing a bright scene, a lens really is necessary to form an image bright and sharp enough to be useful to the artist who is tracing it inside a dark room or box.
The pinhole used by Möst for several recent series is so large that it projects an image bright enough for reasonable exposures of his subjects, but the result is blurry. It is the most apt technique for his Saints. It generates an ‘aura’ around the subject both optically and symbolically. The highlights ‘glow’, especially the ‘fire’ in his Florian – Patron Saint of Firefighters, Adrian Ahme, Füssen; though it is an ordinary electric heater the soft image endows it with a flamelike emanation. The shadows and darks seem to shrink back in turn, which is fitting, given the holy quality of these subjects.
In other series Kind (or Child, now in book form, by Pepperoni Press) and Clackastigmat 6.0, Möst, who is myopic and has astigmatism, achieves an all-over soft focus effect by adding his 6 diopter spectacle lens to his Agfa CLACK snapshot camera to yield images which he says are how he sees without the aid of his glasses due to his myopia. As I also suffer from myopia I enjoy the way this calls into question the nature of ‘normal’ vision; there are many things that look better this way!
Soft focus, in fact all optical effects, like the ‘attributes’ of saints (Catherine’s Wheel, or Veronica’s Veil for example), is an emblem of photography, available especially to the ‘photographers’ photographer’, the one most sensitive to the qualities of their chosen medium.
Perceptual or ‘optical’ photography might be distinguished as a parallel stream to ‘subject-based’ photography. There is continuous, if often submerged, history behind this stream, dating back to Julia Margaret Cameron’s ‘out-of-focus’ portraits, and forward to Uta Barth (*1958, Germany).
Internationally in the 1960s photographers were conducting perceptual experiments, comparing or differentiating human and camera vision. In the United States these include Minor White, and at the Chicago Institute of Design (born out of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s New Bauhaus), Harry Callahan, Ken Josephson and Ray Metzker.
Some of it diverges from formalist modernism and was instead driven by philosophical concerns and particularly the influence of a trend to seek spiritual renewal in Oriental belief systems, especially Zen Buddhism. Such interests can be traced in the contemporary abstract expressionist painting. It is ironic that so literal a medium as photography might also lead efforts to create images of spiritual abstraction.
A Zen orientation is strong in the work of the marginal (but posthumously appreciated) Ralph Eugene Meatyard and these images are meditations on space. His serial imagery comprising Zen Twig (1960-63), and more or less concurrently, No Focus (1959-60), Light on Water (1957-62), and a little later Motion Sound (1967-72), reflect a spiritual ardour that springs from his association from 1956, via Van Deren Coke, with Aaron Siskind, Minor White (who introduced him to Zen) and Henry Holmes Smith.
The series were part of his ongoing exploration of the abstracting potential of complete unfocus, extremes of shallow focus, compressed tonal range and motion blur that move beyond the formalist abstraction of modernist photographers like Harry Callahan and which, taking up tendencies from the work of Minor White without imitation, become visionary both in the optical and spiritual sense. These series spring from his desire, that photography should enable visual meditation, as Meatyard indicated to mentor Van Deren Coke:
The No-Focus and the Zen awareness can produce a photograph of simplicity, power, interest, and the intuitive realisation on the part of the seer or viewer that he is seeing more than he realises.
In one example (1963) of the (untitled) “Zen Twig” series we see spaces and voids vacillate. Lines ghost, flare, flicker and fuse across the square format in an apparently non-objective, abstract array which was then mostly unexpected of this medium, but with which Meatyard had experimented extensively in the (1960) No-Focus series, begun a year earlier, in which he eschewed any point of focus. But here a dominant delineation or section of arc is seemingly forced sharply into point of contact with the surface of the print. It is at this point that we recognise that what we see is in fact derived from real objects. The print seems to be a direct translation of the ground glass of his Rolleiflex, as if there is no lens and twig is placed directly against glass. The effect of this concise focus against the tender ground materializes, with full force of the sense of touch, a human consciousness of twig.
Knowledge of this work illuminates Meatyard’s more celebrated series (1969-1972) of theatrical fictions around Lucybelle Crater. Against the optical experiments of the Lexington optometrist, these seem to be anomalous or even deliberately perverse. At a stretch they might be related to other maskers’ appearance in the ruined buildings in which Meatyard so often posed his sons for experimental slow-shutter or shallow-focus photographs like the posthumously titled Child as a bird (1960). They were made as he became aware of the terminal nature of his illness, and they first came to attention during the 90s rush to staged imagery.
Photo London holds it previews on the 17th of this month and its Talks Programme is curated by William A. Ewing who is former Director of the Musée de l’Elysée, and former Director of Exhibitions at the International Center of Photography, New York. In his writings, The Body, The Century of the Body, and Face: The New Photographic Portrait, Edward Steichen: Lives in Photography and Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years 1923-1937, Landmark: The Fields of Landscape Photography (Thames and Hudson, 2014), Edward Burtynsky: Essential Elements (Thames and Hudson, 2016), and William Wegman: Being Human (Thames and Hudson, 2017) and, ironically, including his introduction to the catalogue of the 2012 Saachi exhibition Out of Focus: Photography, William A. Ewing’s photography history is oriented to the subject, content and the photographer themselves rather than to the perceptual qualities of photography for itself.
In his 2005 article in The Guardian he discusses ‘the new generation’ which;
demonstrates an ongoing curiosity about the world, as well as an understanding that it takes ingenuity to penetrate some of its most private places…hospital operating rooms, corporations suspicious of intruders with cameras, the inner sanctum of a Haitian senator.
Then there are those who prefer to construct realities…it’s this line between reality and fiction that intrigues many of the emerging generation.
Where he mentions focus in passing, again it is in regard to subject;
Conversely, photographs that look staged often turn out not to be: Miklos Gaál’s photographs of children at a swimming pool strike the eye as maquettes, complete with miniature figures, but the illusion is merely the result of his use of a bird’s-eye view and selective focus.
In fact it is by a tilting of the lens, much more radical than ‘selective focus’, that Gaál manages to produce this effect. Once only possible with a bellows camera with a tilting lens panel, this off-axis tilt is now built into specialist DSLR lenses, but more cheaply achieved by ‘free-lensing’; holding the unmounted lens by hand in front of the camera body and swivelling it.
While Ewing’s ideas on photography are valuable contributions, his sidelining of the making of the photograph typifies a lack in much criticism that hampers an understanding of the potential of the medium and the way photographers work.
I’ll get off my high horse to introduce, too briefly as midnight draws near, a much overlooked British photographer, Nigel Henderson (*1917) whose early work is quite individual street photography before he became involved with the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, pioneering structural engineer Ronald Jenkins and the architects Alison and Peter Smithson, in the design and building of the iconic Hunstanton School in Norfolk, conceived by the Smithsons in 1949, and their radical exhibition Parallel of Life and Art.
Working in the urban landscape of post-war Britain, these five, the “Independent Group”, worked to make communicative images legible to post-war society.
This ‘stressed photograph’ is one of a series by Nigel Henderson made around 1950, not long after he had taken up photography. Transforming the bathroom at his home in Bethnal Green into a darkroom, he experimented freely with printing techniques:
I noticed … that when I had an actual negative that interested me (let’s say a boy on a bicycle) I could sometimes enrich the impact of the image by slanting the paper under the enlarger projecting lens … If I pleated the paper horizontally I could create a pattern of stress which further animated the situation by putting the wheels and frame ‘through it’ as it were and creating an identification with the boys’ efforts and the tension of the wheels and frame in a somewhat ‘Futurist’ way. (Quoted in Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949–1952, p.5.)
Nigel Henderson (circa 1950) Stressed Photograph of a Bather
These quite radical distortions are thus optically achieved, this time in printing with the enlarger lens, and come into play again in work that he contributed to Parallel of Life and Art, January 1953 that spanned science and art and created a ‘total environment’ with black and white images taken from a range of art and non-art sources.
It was curated by Reyner Banham, who referred to the controversy around it in his seminal article New Brutalism which celebrated the work of the Smithsons:
…students at the Architectural Association complained of the deliberate flouting of the traditional concepts of photographic beauty, of the cult of ugliness and ‘denying the spiritual in Man’. (Architectural Review, December 1955, p.356)
…thus, a demonstration that optical effects may serve quite contrasting subject matter, the sacred (in Möst), and the profane (Henderson)!