Monday, 6 May 2013

Inspired by... immediate family

'No!' c. 2003 ©  Lise Utne
(By Lise Utne)

How can we ever say anything truthful about life, except through something of which we have first-hand knowledge? And yet, how can we be certain of our observations? Do we ever know the truth about others, no matter how close to us they may be? Do we even know the truth about ourselves? Is there such a thing as ‘the truth’? If I set out to show something real and truthful, all it will ever present is one tiny aspect of a complex reality. And yet, even that small glimpse may be too much, for how can I be certain that what I see is mine to show if it involves others? Thus, even self-exposure is potentially difficult terrain, since lives are always intertwined.

There are laws regulating these matters, of course, and unwritten codes of conduct accompanied by more or less severe sanctions on different levels. But some well-known photographers seem to have managed to navigate the complex territory of photographing their own family and friends and living to tell the tale to the enrichment of us all.

Nan Goldin’s extensive photographic record of her friends and lovers – her ‘tribe’, as she calls them – is an
intimate exposure of a chosen non-conformist lifestyle. While in
From Nan Goldin (2003)  
The Devil's Playground *
some senses continuing the tradition of the family album (she photographs the people close to her over time), Goldin breaks radically with the convention that only the happy moments, the highlights, should be recorded and remembered. Her tender and honest photographic approach takes in the subjects’ ups and downs with the same open gaze – birth, love, sex, intoxication, dependency and death are all allowed into the ‘album’. Sometimes the camera records her parents and other relatives, and she has regularly turned the gaze on herself. ‘Nan after being battered, 1984’ (see The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1986; or I'll Be Your Mirror, 1996) was taken in the aftermath of an attack by her then boyfriend to remind her that although she did not want to give up the rewards of her intimacy with him, it would be unwise to go back. Perhaps her entire oeuvre can be a reminder to the rest of us that life is not black or white. Neither is it grey, as testified by Goldin’s often beautiful use of colour.

Richard Billingham’s photographs of what is often described as his ‘dysfunctional family’ were meant as sketches for paintings, but became a book in their own right (Ray’s a Laugh, 1996, an expensive collectors’ item). They are all the more striking for their raw observation of the photographer’s own family members, challenging the myth that family life is necessarily a territory of happiness.

From Sally Mann (1992) 
Immediate Family **
There are others too, of course, but I shall restrict myself to one additional name. Sally Mann's portraits of her own children in Immediate Family were taken with her son and daughters collaboration (with a large and cumbersome camera). Above all, they seem to reveal children’s immediate presence in their own bodies and their unconditional trust in those who are close to them – although some may see the beautiful black and white aesthetic qualities linking them to a tradition of art celebrating beauty as an end in itself as more prominent. Injuries and hints at looming dangers widen the catalogue of subjects traditionally addressed in a parents photographs of their children. At the same time, taking the immediate family as the subject of self-conscious artistic treatment was not a commonplace approach in the early 1990s. The great controversy accompanying the pictures’ publication, though, seemed to be about the childrens vulnerability, and especially their state of undress in some of the photographs, exposing the photographer to criticism about the ethics of her approach from some quarters.

I admire Sally Manns photographs greatly. She brings out the tensions in a seemingly idyllic setting; the fears that something might go wrong: life is unpredictable, and there is only so much we can do to protect our loved ones from harm.

The difficult lifestyles and acute human tensions of the relationships involved in the relationship between photographer and subject in those photographs by Nan Goldin and Richard Billingham make them seem particularly true and honest and open. In addition, the formal qualities of these works make them seem closer to home, both figuratively and literally speaking although the situations shown are mostly not the stuff of traditional family albums. Nan Goldin’s self-declared aesthetic starting point is the snapshot:  

Fever. 28th August 2007  
©  Lise Utne 
‘My work does come from the snapshot. It’s the form of photography that is most defined by love. People take them out of love, and they take them to remember – people, places, and times. They’re about creating a history by recording a history. And that’s exactly what my work is about. The reason I’ve maintained that “snapshot aesthetic” is because I think the snapshot is one of the highest forms of photography.’ (‘On Acceptance: A Conversation. Nan Goldin talking with David Armstrong and Walter Keller.’ In I'll Be Your Mirror, p. 450.)

I feel enriched by those famous photographers’ courage to show some of the more challenging aspects of human relationships using the aesthetics of the family snapshot, or to treat the seemingly mundane events of family life with all the trappings of an art-photography approach. Nevertheless, some of my happiest photographic moments are spent poring over the family albums, or when I have managed to take what I consider a good snapshot of my own close family or friends (sometimes unwittingly inspired by those great names). But whether truth and honesty come into it at all, I don't know.

* The spread shows the works My father shaving, Swampscott, Massachusetts, 1997 and My mother doing Tai Chi, Swampscott, Massachusetts, 1997.
** The work shown here is Last Light, 1990.

Richard Billingham (1996) Ray's a Laugh. Zürich/New York/London: Scalo Verlag.
Nan Goldin (2003) The Devil's Playground. New York/London: Phaidon.
Nan Goldin / Elisabeth Sussmann (1996) I'll Be Your Mirror. New York / Zürich: Whitney Museum of American Art / Scalo Verlag.
Nan Goldin (1986) The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York: Aperture.
Sally Mann (1992) Immediate Family. London: Phaidon.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Is 'the decisive moment' passé?

Henri Cartier-Bresson
behind Saint Lazare station, 1932
 by Dana Iordan       

A man in a mid-air leap over a puddle: I can still recall my burst of excitement when first seeing this picture. It was a Tv interview with a Cartier-Bresson (jotted down the author's name). Couldn't pinpoint what triggered my instant, vivid response; didn't give it much thought. After all, I wasn't into photography.

Meanwhile, I've started taking pictures. Along the way, other kinds of photography – more contemporary, let's say – have taken their turn in getting my juices flowing, and framing pictures for me whenever I looked at the world. But there are peaks and valleys, and for a while now, things have slowed down for me in the department of enthusiasm. A search for 'something' is going on, again. I've eventually decided to not get in its way, and withdraw into the generic direction of some basics.

So at some point I've set my camera to black and white: it should simplify things, for one. (If it subtracts from pictures, color can be put back into them – one of the advantages of 'RAW' files.) There's also a shift in perception, looking through the viewfinder in color, then checking the b&w result on the camera's screen. Color distractions are gone, and the picture's formal properties become more apparent. Even more so on the computer screen: structures, their weaknesses, opportunities that were within reach, but now are lost, come through like bones in an X-ray. (Cartier-Bresson used to look at contact sheets upside-down).

Going back to the famous picture behind the Gare Saint Lazare: I feel no surge of enthusiasm for it now (perhaps it is already 'known'), but still, the picture holds. What makes it? It may be the contrast between the boldness of the leap, and its already visible futility: we can predict that the man is going to land into the water, though the photographer freezes him just before that happens. But it couldn't be only that. 

There's a whole system of visual forces and contrasts that pumps energy into the picture, and contains it at the same time: the visual alliteration of the man's leap (upside-down in his own reflection, while the poster ballerina leaps into the opposing direction, and finally reverberations in the shapes of the roofs around), the contrast between this man's energetic movement and tonal appearance and the other one's gray stillness, etc. 

In “The Photographer's Eye”, John Szarkowski talks about 'the decisive moment' (a syntagm that an anarchist Cartier-Bresson did not approve of as a label) as being “decisive not because of the exterior event (the bat meeting the ball) but because in that moment the flux of changing forms and patterns was sensed to have achieved balance and clarity and order – because the image became, for an instant, a picture. 

I have felt this 'falling into place' of things, when one can almost hear a voice saying “Yes, this is IT” or “press the shutter NOW”. But many more times I've missed it, and even more times settled for empty, serial mechanical exercises. I can only hope that preparation, practice, and cultivating a space for yet unknown possibilities can set someone on a collision path with the 'moment' more often – no matter what kind of photography they're into.

Cartier-Bresson said he didn't take photographs: photographs took him.
This is one of the first pictures that
'took me'.

Where the author is not specified, photos © Dana Iordan.