Framed, photographs become three-dimensional things, their content, which is necessarily of the past, becomes part of a present and tangible space. Thus, they meld the experiences of looking and handling, and underline the fact that the image is an extract of a larger scene. They retrace a crucial and conscious compositional act of the photographer in making the image.
But what if the photograph contains a frame? As early as this carte-de-visite below may be (1864), photographers and their subjects had already caught on to the idea that adding a frame within the photograph inserted a playful parenthesis into the portrait (the frame acts as brackets do in a statement, as a qualifier or an aside).
Such an insertion might indicate that those inside the frame were doubly ‘photogenic’, a mise en scène frozen within the lively—’real life’—action going in around them amongst a more canny crew who parody and ironically reverse the photographic routine for the sophisticated amusement of a knowing audience. Here, the parenthetical placement of the frame signifies that the photograph is about ‘being photographed’.
One might expect such a device to have exhausted its effect after 155 years, but it remains a current cliché in social media, and is still a powerful format in the hands of the artist whose innovation and purpose refreshes it.
Sophie Calle (*1953) and Daesung Lee (*1975) both are currently exhibiting work, and each, in their reinventions, is just such an artist.
Calle’s 1990 project, the series Ghosts, realises a simple but provocative concept. Major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum frequently loan work to others and, if they are part of a permanent installation, perhaps a note will be left on the wall from which they have been removed.
Calle’s Ghosts instead were art objects themselves hung to replace pieces removed from museum walls, on loan, for cleaning and restoration, or temporarily placed in storage. Each is a frame containing not actual images, but texts on canvas; transcripts of interviews with museum guards and officials in which they describe their memory of the work.
The poignant sense of absence is represented in others of Calle’s projects; the man who disappears (Suite Venitienne, 1979), a chambermaid’s observations of absent hotel guests’ possessions (The Hotel, 1981), beautiful sights imaged by blind people (The Blind, 1986), a non-existent character (Double Game, 1999), somebody who dies (Rachael, Monique, 2010) and in these works, something that’s gone.
On March 18, 1990, two men dressed in police uniforms stole thirteen works from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, including five drawings by Degas, Jan Vermeer’s The Concert (1658–60), Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638), and three works by Rembrandt, cutting two, and the Vermeer and Flinck, out of their frames, including Storm on the Sea of Galilee. The museum’s curator Pieranna Cavalchini described it as ‘rape’.
One year later, in a cathartic response to the loss and sense of violation, Calle again used the format of Ghosts, frames containing people’s recollections and observations about the absent works hug alongside photographs of the museum’s newly empty walls, of the labels, empty pedestals, and bare wall hooks left behind after the theft to create Last Seen.
Cavalchini invited Calle to show Last Seen at the Gardner in 2013, and told her the empty frames were back on the walls, prompting her to propose a new version of the project, What Do You See?;
“When I did Last Seen in 1991, the sense of absence was kind of unclear—just something missing—but now the absence was totally framed.”
In this case, for What Do You See?, visitors to the museum, as well as curators and museum workers, were asked, not to describe the missing paintings, but to answer “What do you see?”, and accordingly they describe their reflection in the glass, the piece of black cloth that replaces the stolen painting, their memory of the work, or the frame itself. Her images present the empty frames and a person standing in front of each with their back to us, thus flipping the portrait convention, in order to create a portrait ‘in the round’, or an ‘environmental portrait’, augmented by the interviews, of the missing work.
The series obliquely includes a self-portrait. Having asked a clairvoyant to locate the stolen works by studying their photographic copies, she returned to the museum at night and photographed her own fading shadow projected by torchlight onto one of the empty frames, and an ‘audience’ of red-upholstered antique chairs below.
In Le Major Davel (1994), Calle asked staff members at the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne to describe the missing parts of Major Davel, a painting by Charles Gleyre, that was partly destroyed by fire. Finally, her Purloined series (1998/2013) represents the absence of a Lucian Freud painting and two Turners belonging to the Tate Gallery in London, a Picasso at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago, and a Titian from the Marquis of Bath’s residence, Longleat House, all of which had been stolen.
Today, Calle opens her retrospective Un Certain Regard, which includes works from these projects, at Fotomuseum Winterthur, 44 Grüzenstrasse, Winterthur in Switzerland. The show runs until August 25. Significant of her reversals and transposals of framing, Un Certain Regard may be translated as “from another point of view”.
Photographer Daesung Lee is a 2003 graduate of the B.F.A in photography from Chung-Ang University. Korea, and is now based in France. He frames impending absence in his series On The Shore Of A Vanishing Island (last exhibited in September 2016 at Passage St. Croix, Nantes, France) and Futuristic Archaeology (2014) currently being shown by Galerie &CO119 until July 13, at 119 rue Vieille du Temple, Paris.
Though their urbanisation increases, 35% of Mongolians still live as nomads. Their endangered lifestyle and vanishing Mongolian cultural traditions are the subject of Futuristic Archaeology.
Again, in this series, the frame is enclosed within the camera viewfinder, presenting us with a novel take on the picture-in-picture and alerting the viewer to the clash of present and past, nested one inside the other. The frame again is tangible; it is a bodily presence, a mural print propped up in the landscape, that must be negotiated by his subjects.
He has created a series of dioramas of idyllic, green landscapes, such as those one might find in a museum display, but which he places in the native environment that is in a state of creeping desertification. The mural image in each case was made in a lusher, greener landscape and is precisely aligned in-camera so that it seamlessly continues the horizon of the space in which it now stands.
These he ropes off just as they might be in a orthodox public institution. Behind the barrier, which runs precisely from one edge of the backdrop to the other, a narrow space created in which Mongolian people perform a variety of traditional occupations, including the famous Kazakh eagle hunters like the one above. In one case (below) the ropes are gone and the landscapes reversed so that descending generations appear to be entering, over lush pastures, a desiccated desert.
Dramatic increase in sea level, driven by climate change is submerging and eroding the shores of Ghoramara island in a delta region in West Bengal. Since the 1980’s, more than 50% of the territory has vanished, and from it two-thirds of the population have moved away. The future for those who remain is unknown, other than rumours that the Indian government will relocate them to another island, but without financial support for resettlement, or compensation for lost homes and livelihoods.
Where in these images is the frame?
The tunnel vision of the novice rangefinder or DSLR photographer results in their aiming the viewfinder as if it were the sights of a rifle, rather than as a window—though because the screen of a smart phone presents the image ready-framed this mistake is made less often. However, Lee’s calculated centralising of each broad composition in his viewfinder encompasses and underlines the three-dimensional parenthesis described by the island remnants.
Together they contextualise the subject in a present that is being overwhelmed by the tides of the future.