December 1: A photograph may be a fetish. For its photographer or for the person who owns it, might it not also be made a talisman; a charm, charged with magic, made to bring good luck or to ward off evil, like a totem or an idol?
Of course we treasure images of those whom we love and are with us only in pictured form.
Such power extends to other instances. There are a number of artists who exercise this aspect of photography and who are auspiciously or propitiously – or providentially, if you are superstitious – associated with this date.
One is Czech Tibor Honty who died on this date in 1968 and who during WW2 took pictures of graveyard photo-tributes, themselves instances of that first kind of talisman or fetish, which traditionally takes a three-dimensional form.
While Honty was was one of the prominent photographers who collaborated with the influential illustrated magazine, the Pestrý týden (Colourful Weekly) during the 1930s, his subsequent work is a characteristic of Czech mid-century photography.
It becomes clandestine, driven ‘underground’ by the oppression of the period in which Czechoslovakia was the first country to be invaded by Nazi Germany (1938) and occupied until 1945, then governed till 1948 by a communist coalition government which ceded Slovak Carpathian Ruthenia to the Soviet Union, before in 1948 the whole country became a socialist state under Soviet domination. After 1960, the country was absorbed officially as a Soviet satellite state until the collapse of the USSR in 1989 and the Velvet Revolution.
It was as a protection of personal safety in an increasingly secretive, paranoid society, that Honty often resorted to making statues the ostensible subject matter in his images, substituting for real people who share his political beliefs.
To any German soldier nearby in Hradcany Square, Honty would have appeared to be photographing one of Ignaz Platzer’s fighting giants (1768) on the gates of Prague Castle, the parliamentary building, for this 1945 picture (left). One can imagine the vengeful satisfaction the result gave him. Even if it were never seen by anyone else until after the War, for him it would have been, as he titled it, a symbol of struggle against oppression.
Born in 1907 and having studied ceramics (1930–33) which he exhibited in Prague and Paris, when he began photographing in 1935 his sensitivity to the sculptural prompted the discovery of forms that are equally loaded, even where, in one case below, the subject is human, not made of stone.
Juan Carlos Alom born in Havana on this date in 1964, advances this sculptural interest in a series Our Toys, a series about the post-1959 generations in Cuba, where the fetishes of childhood, toys and games, were rationed like everything else by the revolutionary government.
He describes the situation;
Once a year every family received a rationing card with coupons. On each one appeared a letter and a number. Each community was assigned a specific store where corresponding toys could be purchased. There you could find a list of the toys offered at that moment, and the day that corresponded to your family, according to the assigned letters and numbers. The toys were grouped into three categories: basic, not basic or additional. Our parents stood in never-ending lines to get to buy the toys. These faces [of the toys] are witnesses to that era.
Alom photographed those he found incorporated in the Jardín de Afectos (Garden of Affections) in enormous totems made by folk artist Hector Pascual Gallo (*1924) known as “Gallo” whose inspired artworks had lifted him from poverty and despair during Cuba’s great economic difficulties following the fall of the Soviet Union.
This was an era that affected Alom also. He trained in photography at the Institute of International Journalism in Havana in the late ’80s, a period oppressed by increasing government regulation to curtail artistic expression. A vexed separation was developing between official and cultural discourse for the first time since the revolution in 1959 and was stretching the limits of official tolerance when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet bloc collapsed. As the United States’s economic embargo tightened, Cuba entered a crisis that became known as the Special Period (c.1991–2002) when country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and famine resulted.
Alom began his artistic career during the easing of restrictions on artists and their interaction with the outside world that accompanied these emergencies. After having joined group shows in Europe and been the subject of a 1995 Aperture special issue No. 141 ‘Cuba: Image and Imagination’ with a poem ‘Eleggua’s Eyes / Los Ojos de Eleggua’ by Cuban Nancy Morejón translated by Kathleen Weaver, he came to the attention of New York gallery Throckmorton Fine Art, who exhibited his series El Libro Oscuro (‘The Dark Book’) in 1996. As an insider, the authenticity of Alom’s work makes it a strong rival to contemporaneous series which American Roger Ballen (*1950) was doing in South Africa.
El Libro Oscuro (‘The Dark Book’) exercises apotropaic magic, intended to turn away harm or evil influences and misfortune, and to avert the evil eye, and indeed their magic realism does impress an occult power on the viewer. His imagery relates to that of the Secret Society of Abakua, a black brotherhood from carabali slave origins practicing a magical religion found only in Cuba, in the provinces of Havana, Cárdenas and Matanzas. Among them iremes, dress in suits of jute adorned in cowbells, hoods and other accessories to symbolise ancestral spirits.
Where the rubber, celluloid or plastic of the old dolls’ faces of Our Toys have frozen into elvish expressions, benign or malign, he achieves the same patina on human features through marking of the photographic surface. Parts of some images are pierced, torn or obliterated with paint or ink and it is such intervention that is the hallmark of the talisman, considered especially effective if made by the owner themselves.
In others following the prescription of The Dark Book, a hand or bird’s wing appears to have been dissected from the live body in an action meant to exercise a metaphysical influence. Simple gestures become significant through the ritual petrification of photography.
Margot Wallard (*1978), who holds a book launch and a vernissage tonight for her show opening tomorrow at Dorothée Nilsson Gallery, Potsdamer Strasse 65 D-10785, Berlin, goes still further in personalising the talisman by turning her own body into one.
Her series Natten is made in Sweden where its title means ‘overnight’;
I moved in the Swedish countryside in 2011. At that moment, I was in the middle of a project about the relation between my brother and his partner, both living behind closed doors with an alcohol addiction. I was obsessed by this project and I had no desire at all to photograph my new environment. My attention was entirely on my brother, who I saw every two months in Paris. The rest of the time, I just tried to find a life rhythm in Sweden. Then my brother and his partner both died. After that I went much less frequently to Paris. I concretized my project with the pictures I took of them in a book, published by Journal “My brother Guillaume and Sonia”.
Natten is cathartic, made in the manner of a quest, a test of endurance and exposure in conditions of darkness and cold;
I used my body as a farewell song and the camera as a shield against the pain caused by the death of my Brother and his partner.
This is an act of faith, the photography a psychological aid.
It is also a very physical measure, a coming to grips, with her new environment, a small hamlet in the wilds, where French-born Wallard lives with her Swedish partner, the photographer JH Engström (*1969).
Accompanying these portrayals of self and the landscape are scans of animals, some of which have died naturally, or are road-kill or the victims of hunters.
Dead creatures are laid on the glass of a flatbed scanner, as if between the pages of the Scandinavian Svartebok (black book) of the klok gumma (a wise woman). It renders them suspended by dead black, stark and cold…”I needed to look death in the face”, says Wallard, and that, for those who believe in them, is the purpose of the amulet or talisman.
Some may say that apotropaic magic actually resides in the object itself, but each of these photographers reveal that it is their actions and insights that instil power in the image.