It was Balzac, as reported by Nadar in his Quand j’étais un photographe, who believed that “each body in nature is made up of series of spectra, in infinitely superimposed layers, foliaceous in infinitesimal films, in all the senses in which the optics perceive that body” that “each taking of a Daguerreotype therefore captures, detaches and retains in itself one of the layers of the affected body. Thus for the said body, and with each renewed operation, comes the obvious loss of one of its spectra, that is to say of a part of its constitutive essence.”
Here we ask; what if it is the reverse?
What is it that we ‘take’ through the lens, and preserve in a photograph ? What is the “essence” over which Balzac is so fearful? He did allow Nadar to make a portrait of him…so perhaps not so much afraid as desirous of making a philosophical point, and Nadar supposes that Balzac, “once started, was not the man to stop on such a good track, and that he had to walk through to the end of his hypothesis.”
Taken by others to an extreme, Balzac is interpreted as saying the camera “steals one’s soul”; but perhaps, as a visionary, he was predicting then what we all fear of the camera now; that each exposure takes away a piece of our privacy. The advent of the daguerreotype—the ‘mirror with a memory’—did indeed replace the glass in which we could see ourselves only when we were there in front of it, and when we chose to look.
Our image thus once always stayed with us, but now it separates from us, is “taken”. In some instances it remains our asset to exchange, say, for a right of passage, when it appears in our passport, or to verify that we have qualified to drive a car, when it identifies us on our licence. But we know what might happen if we are ‘captured’ by a traffic camera! Pornography shows us how this dissociation of body and person objectifies. We know that disappointment is inevitable when we try to fix a sunset in a picture that cannot match its luminosity and temporality.￼
Let us imagine the reverse; making not taking. The making of a photograph might project rather than extract, and rather than taking an impression, make an expression of the subject. But how to make this apparent? There might be many ways to do so, and surely it is a driving force in the production of art photography.
The couple Inka (*1985, Finland) and Niclas (*1984, Sweden) Lindergård are Swedish artists who met in the south of Sweden while studying photography in 2005, Niclas having worked previously in the steel industry and Inka being a lifelong vegetarian into old photographic processes, and each having found the other strange and interesting, they have collaborated since 2007. Their techniques and approaches are imposed on their landscape subject as an expression of it.
Their project Watching Humans Watching (2011) conducted over four years in widespread “picturesque” locations was a straight documentary series that introduced the viewer to the idea of observation, of witnessing the ‘tree falling in the forest’, as an effect on the landscape.
Since then they have journeyed to remote places to make photographs out of the same impulse — awe — that prompts the Instagram post of a beautiful sunset, but by subverting the stock photo cliché with an action or intervention. Their imagery pays homage to the sublime of Romantic painters, most notably Caspar David Friedrich (1774 –1840)
They augment the sunset or rugged mountain view, or the moment that the ‘Girdle of Venus’ appears in the western sky after sunset, through their use of coloured light projected onto the dark side of features in the foreground, whether it be a rock, a cave or even a wave…
…or even what looks like the setting sun itself which appears, to the viewer’s astonishment, to be floating in the dark waves.
These are not sights we will see in nature but are a product of photographing it to produce effects that are momentary and witnessed only by the camera at the moment of exposure. The Saga series takes the grandeur and glamour of nature and deconstructs the enchantment of sunset in spray paint, pink smoke and mirrors, working in and on the landscape to transpose the sunset colours and set it in the foreground, offset from the original, as a phenomenon of their own creation.
The series Family Portraits inserts their own presence against such scenery, standing in for the requisite selfie. Wearing reflective costumes they and their child pose in the middle ground of late evening or in night scenes. A flash fired from camera position illuminates them to the point that the reflective material renders them in glowing, haloed white — though as anonymous human forms, they might be read as empty voids torn out of the scene — vivid apparitions that underline the egoism of humanity’s repeated representations of itself in the landscape.
Their replicating and peeling-off of a foil or skin of the aura of the landscape is made vivid when their imagery is transferred onto three-dimensional geometric forms and elements from the natural environment (sticks, branches, rocks) in a 2016 series Adaptive Colourations, and in the “flags” — photographs on velvet cloth — that are part of their current exhibition Luminous Matter being held at Dorothée Nilsson Gallery, Potsdamer Strasse 65, Berlin until May 22 2021.
While their previous work has been the result of frequent travel to grand landscapes outside their native Sweden, this exhibition concentrates on more humble subject matter closer to home; the common wildflowers Smörblomma (Buttercup), Hundkäx (Cow Parsley) and Midsommarblomster (Woodland Geranium). Whether this more restricted focus is due to COVID, or to flygskam is not explained. While these are plants that bloom in midsummer, they are photographed in the short night of high latitudes, and the couple intervene by throwing retro-reflective powder into the frame coating the plants and also caught in mid-air around the flowers as they fire a flashgun.
Melbourne-based Mira Gojak (*1963) shows part of Cutting through the vast plain of day (2018) at Castlemaine Art Museum in a group exhibition Cloudy, a few isolated showers, themed around skies and clouds, which continues during the Castlemaine State Festival. It is drawn mostly from the collection, though Gojak’s work, which includes sculptural elements, is on loan from the Murray White Room gallery, Melbourne
These six photographic deconstructions start with photographs she took as the sky above Alice Springs in Central Australia gradually became darker as evening fell. These photographs transmit that intangible, that ineffable; the sky, through gradations so subtle as to emerge as a subject only after a long inspection and interpretation, and for some whom I accompanied to the exhibition, only by referring to the title or wall notes.
But that delicate representation is brutally and iconoclastically interrupted; the photographic illusion is torn open by rips, cuts and tears, its shreds folded back so that from a distance they might read as clouds, in accord with the theme of the show.
Importantly here, they return us to Balzac’s “spectra”, his “foliaceous”, gossamer films of essence, through Gojak’s demonstration that a photograph, in its full and credible depth of rendering, is merely thin emulsion, a physical thing, yet vanishingly insubstantial. Accompanying them is a sculptural form, a slender armature around which Gojak has densely and patiently wound a single thread of sky blue as of the pigment of the now unravelled dimensions of the mirage, as if it were a kite, and the string, a futile means of tethering it.