March 23: Photography is a medium that encourages obsession (just look at this blog). Two photographers that exemplify that in their separate ways are associated with this date; one in terms of technique, the other with a singular subject matter.
Joaquim Pla Janini, born this day in 1879 in Tarragona, Spain (†1970) was a loyal devotee of the Pictorialist bromoil process even right into the 1960s, while Sanne Sannes (*1937), killed tragically young in a car accident in Bergen aan Zee in the Netherlands on March 23, 1967, described himself as an erotomaniac.
Joaquim Pla Janini, known as Pla Janini, first took up photography at the age of fourteen. Son of Joaquim Pla Pujolà who was a General in the Army Medical division, throughout his childhood he frequently changed residence wherever his father was required; he undertook a Bachelor degree in the Institute of Seville in 1896, then began his studies of Medicine at the Pontifical University of Sant Tomàs in Manila, in the Philippines. With the loss of the Spanish colony the family returned to Barcelona the 1898 and Joaquim continued his studies at the Faculty of Medicine of Catalonia, where he qualified with a thesis on rickets in 1903, then opened a practice in Madrid. Appointed for four years as registrar at the Hospital de la Santa Creu in Barcelona, in 1906 he married Concepción Guarro Casas, the daughter of the owners of the Guarro Paper Factory, with whom he had four children.
He continued his photography alongside his professional medical practice in Méndez Núñez Street Barcelona sharing it with Dr. Ignasi Guitart Lladó. Then he moved a short distance to a consultation at 37 Via Laietana in the Gothic quarter nearer the harbour, before in 1931, he was able to take advantage of a favourable family economic situation to devote himself exclusively to photographic interests. It seems that a health problem he was suffering at that time may have necessitated his early retirement from medicine, but his understanding of chemistry remained an asset in his artistic progress.
Throughout his career he used labour-intensive pigment techniques, at which he was a virtuoso and almost all of his works are bromoil transfers, which he exhibited at national and international photographic salons to great acclaim. With Pere Casas Abarca, José Ortiz-Echagüe and Antoni Campanyà, he was a strong exponent of Catalan Pictorialism, which promoted bucolic or spiritualised visions of nature and classically-inspired poetic scenes as the pinnacle of photographic art which, as is distinctive of Pictorialism, is equated to painting. This is a sense encapsulated in his scene (above) of the painter in the open air, and bromoil did permit the manipulation and reworking of the tonality of the print.
Pictorialism was a benchmark of excellence and artistic achievement amongst photographic societies both professional and amateur. By establishing regular competitions and publishing beautiful high-quality illustrated journals there developed a selective system for approval. The amateur photographic society was an international phenomenon that made of Pictorialism a widely accepted style well into the 20th century. In Spain, the Agrupación Fotográfica de Catalunya and the Real Sociedad de Fotográfia in Madrid were among the two most active and long-standing associations.
Janini helped found the Agrupacio in 1923 and was president of the society from 1927 to 1930. Along with Madrid-based Jose Ortiz-Echague, he developed a reputation as the foremost representative of Spanish Pictorialism in Barcelona, and an expert technician. He was situated on the more conservative side from the more avant-garde contributions to Pictorialism of Josep Masana, Josep Batlles, Pere Català Pic and Emili Godes, and his early ’20s Portrait of a student typifies his traditionalism; its brushwork, dense blacks and the addition of a sideburn to the subject’s cheek, exemplifies what could be done to alter and exaggerate when making a bromoil.
In 1934, the journal Art de la Llum (‘Art of Light’) dedicated a monograph to his work alongside Claudi Carbonell (one of the cofounders of the Agrupaci), praising Pia Janini’s technical skill as a model for upcoming generations of Catalan photographers.
Pla Janini promoted his work within the competitions and Journals sponsored by amateur photographic societies and took inspiration from the traditions of the Academy: he sought to bring to photography a painter’s attention to pigment, process, and materials.
Pia Pianini is celebrated for his landscapes and costumbrista scenes, all of them sumptuous photographic prints made with an enjoyment of texture and compositional finesse, and a love of cultivated landscapes that he shared with modernista painters such as Santiago Rusinol.
El jardín de la fábrica Guarro (‘The Guana Factory Garden), an undated early work by Pia Pianini records the recreational spaces of the industrialist family into which he married and of their workers, nevertheless it does little to document any of the potential social context of the environment; instead a sense of timeless classicism is represented in the way he responds to its symmetry
In two landscapes below, separated by many years, we see a continuity in his vision and a development in his technique toward a more graphic style with higher contrast, though they remain Pictorialist.
The print above from late in his career is a transfer print made using a press like the one he is seen using in this photograph roughly contemporaneous with the making of the print, while on the wall can be seen examples of his imagery, which from this distance might be mistaken for etchings or engravings.
The Bromoil process originated in the development of the oil print. In 1839 Scottish inventor Mungo Ponton (1801–1880), while experimenting with Henry Fox Talbot‘s talbottype, discovered the light-sensitising effect of potassium dichromate and though he did not attempt to patent the process, published his findings in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal. Through others’ experiments, dichromate sensitisation became the basis for the carbon print and gum bichromate photographic processes, as well as some photoresists used in the printing industry.
In particular Alphonse Louis Poitevin (1819 – 1882) separately discovered the light–sensitive properties of bichromated gelatin and in the 1850s found that gelatin in combination with either potassium or ammonium bichromate hardens in proportion to the amount of light that falls on it and that it could be used as the matrix for the transfer of an inked image, as in lithography. This led others such as Josef Albert, Joseph Wilson Swan, Paul Pretsch and Charles Nègre to develop subsequent photographic printing processes such as heliogravure, photogravure, collotype, autotype and the carbon print. G.E.H Rawlins (forenames and dates apparently forgotten) published an article in the 1904 British journal Amateur Photographer on an oil transfer from gum print method that would permit alteration with a brush.
A drawback of these processes was that the print could only be as big as the negative. E.J. Wall in 1907 described how it could be possible to use smaller negative to produce a positive silver bromide which would be cured and bleached to then be inked.
C. Welborne Piper then put Wall’s theory into practice, giving rise to the bromoil process in which a normally developed print exposed onto a silver-bromide paper is chemically bleached, hardened, and fixed so that when the still-moist print is inked, the hardest (driest) areas take up the most ink while the wettest areas reject the ink and become the highlights. Fred Judge (an early inventor of the photographic postcard) developed a transfer print variation in 1909 which allowed photographers to make several transfers from the original bromoil print. Hence the plate mark visible on the paper surround in Panini’s They listened to Chopin.
For identification, bromoil transfers exhibit an irregular stipple pattern as the grain will vary in coarseness with the brush used, and prints lack sharp focus, contours being of a “soft” appearance. The image appears to sit on the top of the print, not buried in the emulsion. A bromoil print is pigment image on a gelatin paper base while a bromoil transfer print is on art paper and a plate mark will be present because a press is used to transfer the image. The oil base typically introduces a slightly yellow hue and prints resemble a painting, drawing or engraving.
From about 1915 to 1930, Pia Janini engaged in a series of mythological works, including the triptych Les Parques (‘The Fates’) which is redolent of a Symbolist drama found in much of the work of Jose Ortiz-Echague; a distinctly Spanish application of Pictorialism. Draped figures roam mournfully amongst rocky island shorelines. There is a sense of departure into a spiritual realm reminiscent of Arnold Böcklin’s Die Toteninsel.
Still using the bromoil process until the end of his life, into the 1960s when graphic high-contrast printing and Pop Art subject matter dominated photography, and perhaps influenced by Catala-Pic’s call for photographers to experiment and use the camera to capture new subjects, Pla Panini belatedly explored the possibilities of abstract composition and the dynamic use of light and shadow.
His undated Still Life above, likely from the 1930s, hints at German New Objectivity and modernity with a subject matter at odds with the softness of bromoil, the cactus, set in strong lighting and raking shadow.
Amongst his other imagery of this period this is the most visceral, a quality that is most apparent in the work of the short-lived Dutch photographer Sanne Sannes whose work, it is hard to believe, was contemporaneous with Pla Janini’s last decade;
There are many men who’ll never see a woman in ecstasy. They change from one thing to something else completely different. Human emotions are my subject matter. I photograph people. They’re what interest me, obsess me. I want to know what pushes them to do what they do. I don’t look for them in the street; I don’t do random photography. I direct them and record the moment they open up and become naked. I chose the most emotionally charged moments, the point of no return. I’m fanatically zealous!
This is the era of the release of the contraceptive pill and a consequent sexual liberation, the rise of an anti-establishment counter-culture, of Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1962), and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963).
In the Netherlands Amsterdam was the epicentre of a radical shock when it changed from provincial town into one of the main centres of the sexual revolution, suddenly developing from stalwart conservatism to acquiring a worldwide reputation for being among the most free and tolerant of cities with, from the late 50s a sexual underworld, inhabited by the leather-clad Teddy-boy nozems (from the Dutch slang penoze; “underworld”) and an openly available red-light district which served local people and, as a harbor city, sailors and other foreign visitors, including American soldiers on leave from occupied Germany.
The Provos (anarchist provocateurs), the disaffected youth of the post-war who came after the nozems in the mid-sixties, advocated a general amoral promiscuity and anti-authoritarian behaviour. The first issue of PROVO (left) announced;
Why is PROVO called PROVO? Are we negative or positive? What is our standard? How are our ways? PROVO = PROVO, because the provocative behavior in this community is still the only acceptable to us. Climbing the social ladder and occupying a ‘position’ means participating in the b.s. nuclear downfall, capitalism and militarism […] The worker produces the inferior lust objects with which the capitalist nevertheless expresses his surplus value, the official administers the victims of bureaucracy, the inventions of technician scholars are immediately abused for military purposes.
Against this background Sanne Sannes, who had no formal education as a photographer but was trained as a graphic artist and painter, practiced his own anarchism, free from the formal and technical constraints of conventional photographers and not at all precious about the process of making a photograph; his images are grainy, often reticulated through hasty processing in inconsistent chemical temperatures, out-of-focus, shaky. For him the imperfections were evidence of emotion and were necessary atmospherics in an investigation of an underworld of ecstasy, love and lust.
Sannes favoured available light in dark intimacy with his subjects, exposing them at 1/25th of a second apparently in blur of passion that renders them to a large extent anonymous, available for the viewer’s own fantasised self-inclusion.
As there are apparent similarities of subject — young women, sometimes with their lovers — Sannes may be compared with Gerard Fieret and Ed van der Elsken to see that there is something in his approach that is less voyeuristic than van der Elsken’s and less egocentric than Fieret’s.
Sannes’ work did not remain unnoticed by the art world during his short working period of eight years. It was exhibited at the public institutions Groningen Museum and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, included him in a group exhibition in 1963. Then in 1964 his work was published as illustration of the poetry of Belgian Hugo Claus (1929-2008) in Oog om Oog (Eye for an Eye).
Sannes resented the fact that he couldn’t live from his art but of necessity worked as a commercial photographer. It was on the way back from commercial assignment that Sannes smashed his car into a tree, was killed instantly and his passengers badly injured. They included his assistant Gerrit Jan Wolffensperger (*1944), extramarital child of sculptor and war hero Gerrit van der Veen (1902–1944), and half-brother of Gerda van der Veen (1934–2006), who incidentally was the second wife of Ed van der Elsken.
Despite his relative obscuity since his death, the radical nature of his work has become more widely appreciated and featured in solo and group exhibitions in museums and galleries all around the world, including the Rijksmuseum, Foam Amsterdam and the Institut Néerlandais Paris and acquired for public collections.