Beyond Vision

On Saturday I attended the Beyond Vision: Photography, Art and Science symposium at the Science Museum in London. This was associated with the Revelations: Experiments in Photography exhibition I saw there last month, with the curator and a couple of the artists represented. 

The symposium opened with David Alan Mellor, Professor of Art History at the University of Sussex, who gave an enjoyable ramble of an introduction which began by connecting Harold Edgerton with Kiss Me Deadly and went on to discuss science’s exploration of nature to reveal occulted secret worlds, Walter Benjamin’s investigation of patterning in the plant photography of Karl Blossfeldt and on to the viral landscapes of Helen Chadwick. A consideration of photography as a membrane led to the eyeball-slicing scene in Bunuel’s L’Age D’Or, where even in the golden age death is ever-present. Mellor identified moments of illumination in photography as instances of the Spectral. 

Kelley Wilder, from De Montfort, examined how science photography became visible. Some of the same images were present in Fox Talbot’s 1839 exhibition and in the exhibition Brought To Light: Photography and the Invisible at the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art in 2008. How were they seen differently? By 1845 most people had still not seen a photograph. Fox Talbot’s exhibitions defined what photographs were supposed to be. In the 1840-50s photography exhibitions were demonstrations of science. 

Wilder compared the Brought To Light show with the Film und Foto (FiFo) exhibition curated by Moholy-Nagy at Stuttgart in 1929.
Are pictures shown in an art museum necessarily art? Very few 19th Century photographers thought of themselves as artists. 

Scientists have never particularly valued photographs. Once evidence has been gleaned from them they can be discarded. But there is a modern and abstract quality to early science photography that gives us a view of the origins of modernism. here can be found non-picturesque concepts of the beautiful and the pleasures of seeing hidden things revealed. 

Scientific imagery changed the visual culture of the 19th Century. William Parsons’ sketch from a telescopic image of a whirlpool nebula seems to have influenced Van Gogh’s starry night. 

An astronomer from the Royal Observatory, Marek Kukula, pointed out images of space that were composed in the tradition of sublime landscape photography, with reference to Elizabeth Kessler’s book Picturing The Cosmos. 

After lunch, Marta Braun discussed Marey and Modernism and John R Blakinger explored Gyorgy Kepes’s new landscape in art and science. 

The final afternoon session was devoted to contemporary art. Artist Ori Gersht began with Goya and Manet’s paintings of executions by firing squad and explained how individual moments of time could not be conceived of visually before photography revealed them. He showed his photographs of exploding flowers and a video showing flowers reflected in shattering mirrors and asked if high speed photography captures such moments or creates them. 

Ben Burbridge, also from Sussex, who curated the exhibition and edited the accompanying book, finished the day by examining how our understanding of images shifts over time and space. At first there was sceptism about the legibility and transparency of photography. How can this data be verified? Photographs are technological products and emblems of cultural transformation. Now, at a time of greater speed of development of new information technologies, can something from the late 19th Century finally be recognised?                   

Saul Leiter

Early Color by Saul Leiter was the first photobook I bought, in 2009. The first real, expensive photobook. It was a big deal then to pay so much money for a book, but as soon as I held it in my hands I knew it was worth it and I would treasure it. And I would go on to collect more. The book shows photographs of life on New York streets made up of fleeting impressions and fragments, unusual perspectives and sensualist use of colour. 

The follow-up, Early Black and White, was on my wishlist for years until I got fed up of waiting for it to come out. Then when it did come out last year I missed it. By the time I noticed had finally been published it was already sold out. I had to settle for the second edition. The black and whites are mostly earlier, in two volumes, one of interiors, mostly portraits of (presumably) lovers. As such it’s both more intimate and varied than Early Color, but has less of an impact because of this diversity and also because Leiter’s use of colour was so distinctive, especially for the 1950s.

I saw the film In No Great Hurry - 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter at the Bath Film Festival in 2013. It’s quite a touching portrait of an eccentric old dude in his small chaotic apartment, but doesn’t get to grips with his approach or techniques. He was too cantankerous to explain himself. Narcissistic too, in a protest-too-much kind of way. but at his age he was entitled to be. He died the week before I saw the film.

At Photo London this year I was excited to find Here’s More, Why Not? at the table of Fifty One gallery from Brussels, who published this small paperback of less familiar pictures to accompany an exhibition there in 2013.

What has kept me coming back to Saul Leiter’s work are his various strategies for reimagining and reconfiguring images of everyday life. His is a non-confrontational kind of street photography, where people are unaware of the photographer and are shown mainly as shapes among other shapes.

He shows how a great photograph doesn’t have to be technically correct or conventionally framed. With Leiter objects are blurred and things get in the way. He lets the weather plays its part in obscuring a scene, especially snow, and he shoots through windows that are iced or misted up.

He uses reflections in mirrors and windows to arrange various elements of the scene almost like a collage, forcing them into asymmetrical relationships. Background and foreground get mixed up like superimposed images on acetate (or Photoshop layers). Here are chance meetings where people, things and signs come together momentarily. People, cars, signs and shop window displays float in the picture plane, but it’s hard to tell what lies where in the real 3 dimensional space beyond it. It’s like a kind of cubism, an uncertain space arisen by chance. 

There’s also something surrealist about how the solid, constructed world of city streets can be made to appear dreamlike, submerged and occulted. Everyday life and its urban environment is rendered strange, transitory and transparent to open up ideas of new spaces within it. 

Tripe & Revelations

I had a couple of hours in London on Monday, just passing through, but still managed to fit in two photography exhibitions: Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860, at the V&A, and Revelations: Experiments in Photography, at the Science Museum.

Captain Tripe’s photographs are mostly distanced, objective views recording landscape, architecture, archaeological sites and monuments. Almost everywhere looks deserted because of long exposure times. It feels very much a colonial project of getting the measure of their surroundings and reporting back on things of value to be found there.

Tripe used the calotype process of waxed paper negatives, which gives a soft focus appearance to his prints, and he retouched the negatives to improve the skies, painting in clouds and shading to add atmosphere.

The exhibition also includes a section of a very long panoramic scroll showing the inscriptions around the base of the Great Pagoda temple in Tanjore, as well as large format bound albums of photographs.

There ’s something uncanny about seeing photographic images from the 1850s. It just seems too long ago for photography to have existed. I suppose we assume that photography was much more primitive then, but although techniques were different, these pictures are recognisably part of the mainstream tradition of the landscape genre. They are windows into the past, images from another world, but perhaps because there are no people here, the images don’t seem dated in the same way portraits might.

Revelations begins with a series of scientific photographs beginning from the earliest days of photography in the mid-19th century, including beautiful early microphotographic images of plants and insects, e.g. by Bertsch and Fox Talbot as well as astronomical photographs of the sun and nebulae, and x-ray images. As much as for their visual appeal these photographs fascinating for their age and for their place in the context of development of new industrial and communication technologies.

The exhibition moves on to cover European modernist and avant-garde artists such as Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray.

I was very glad to see the strikingly clear and minimalist black and white photographs by Berenice Abbot which illustrated American physics textbooks in the 1950s. You can find an excellent article on Abbot’s science photography at Photomediations Machine.

The show follows the influence of scientific imaging up to date with contemporary art images from Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Walead Beshty’s images made from unexposed film scanned by x-rays at airport security. The Science Museum’s blog has a good overview of the exhibition. 

I was interested enough to buy the book, which features an essay by Ian Jeffrey, whose book Revisions came to mind when I was walking round the exhibition, as an alternative history of photography that emphasised its no-art applications. The photograph on the cover of Revisions (Two Frogs by JM Eder and E Valenta) actually appears in this exhibition. I might also be interested enough to attend the Beyond Vision: Photography, Art and Science symposium at the Science Museum next month.

Perspectives On Place

When I first heard of Jesse Alexander’s book Perspectives On Place it seemed perfect for me. And it is an excellent introduction to the history and current practice of landscape photography. The book shows a great range of photographers with excellent reproduction of the work. It’s well-written and clear, with little use of academic jargon.

Alexander reviews a lot of themes and issues in 180 pages, including landscape as genre, nature and culture, the picturesque and the sublime, and pictorialism and ‘straight’ photography. He also covers New Topographics and more recent avenues such edgelands and urban exploration. It’s a brisk survey, skimming the surface a bit, but gives plenty of references and ideas for further research.

However, the book is also a slightly uneasy mix of history and critique with a smattering of technical advice. Alexander is a lecturer at Newport and sometimes this feels like a textbook aimed at BA students, with assignments at the end of each chapter. He occasionally switches to the second person with instructions and guidance which felt a bit jarring. He covers health and safety and the law, then the basics of composition, the zone system, lenses, filters, lighting and tripods. All very sensible, but if you’re looking for technical advice there are more in-depth sources out there.

Generally the book is somewhat detached and even-handed in tone. A lot of the work and debates are familiar to me, so I would’ve preferred a more concentrated book that took the subject further into detail, something more personal and argumentative. Turns out I’m not quite the intended audience for this book, but I’d definitely recommend it as an overview and a starting point for study of landscape photography.

To go deeper, Alexander has an excellent blog with a great range of other resources. 

Susan Derges

Susan Derges taught on the Media Arts degree I took at Plymouth University in the mid 90s. I wasn’t all that into photography then, but I remember her showing her photographs of frogspawn in jars and she taught us how to make photograms in the darkroom.

The frogspawn or tadpoles in a jar photographed from below looked like biological cells or ancient maps, or surfaces of other planets. The glass of the jar looked like a cell wall. Here is life enclosed in a vessels, like skin or an atmosphere.

The photogram technique is is as old as photography itself. William Fox Talbot’s photograms of lace and feather were shown in the first ever exhibition of photography in 1839 and Anna Atkins’s famous cyanotypes of plants were printed in one of the earliest photobooks in 1843. The photogram remains the most direct means of transmitting existing forms onto photographic emulsion. It’s a real trace, a visual footprint on the same scale as the original, with no redundant information.

This was all interesting at the time, but it was later, when I saw Derges’s work on rivers, waterfalls and seashores that I was most impressed. These pictures were made in situ at night using a kind of natural darkroom where large sheets of photo-sensitive paper were submerged beneath the surface of the water and exposed by flashlight and by ambient light from the moonlight and stars and distant streetlamps, fixing patterns of the movement of water and a range of colour casts from the various light sources. The process of photography is here immersed within nature’s complexities.

I first saw this work at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh in 1997 and have followed Derges’s projects ever since, including at Purdy Hicks gallery in London and in her books Elemental and Azure. Her whole body of work is the most fantastic example of how you can go deeper into nature with photography.

Derges is part of a tradition of experimental cameraless photography,
but she takes her experiments away from the ideal set-up of the studio and darkroom out into the natural world. Nothing in her work feels abstract or artificial because it comes from a direct engagement with nature.

She’s said that working with natural processes in the landscape felt like being liberated from all the baggage carried by the medium of photography and also by the self. She evades the black box technology of the camera and instead creates an interplay between inner and outer worlds that emphasises an inclusive relationship with nature, a belonging. Her images show not the point of view of an observer from the outside looking in, but a view from within nature looking out.

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