Alternative processes as media critique (f295 cont’d)
While the focus of the f295 symposium was on the relationship between techniques and execution, there was also a powerful thread of critique in much of the work that was presented. The alternative and adaptive photographic methods around which the symposium is organized are alternatives to and adaptations of what have come to be conventional consumer, scientific, and journalistic photographic processes. Speakers Robert Hirsch, Jill Enfield, and Jerry Spagnoli all have produced work that speak to the limitations of media conventions, and suggest that there are risks and consequences to accepting conventional media language at face value. By no means was it the only or the most central common thread at the symposium, but I thought it would be interesting to photojournalists and documentary photographers, especially those who do not work with alternative processes.
Robert Hirsch has produced an installation piece, World In A Jar: War and Trauma , that isolates and decontextualizes images of violence and suffering that surround us, combining photojournalistic images (iconic pictures by Eddie Adams and James Nachtwey are here) with ones from popular culture (publicity still from Pulp Fiction). The pictures are printed twice and mounted back to back, then installed inside glass jars which are then stacked in groups. The pictures are thus recontextualized and meant to raise questions by speaking to one another.
Hirsch has written a lot about photography , and it’s fascinating to see how he has chosen to realize those ideas in a piece. The work is, in his words, a meditation on loss, tragedy, religion, and the nature of evil; Hirsch states that this work is a response to his own questions about the nature of evil that began when he watched the Eichmann trial on television with his family as a boy. It’s also interesting as an example of a kind of stream of consciousness edited group of pictures (not unlike the Tim Barber show at New York Photo Festival) in which the selection of images is necessarily significant, but the specific arrangement is not, and in which the seeming arbitrariness and sheer volume of pictures is part of the argument that is made: the pictures matter but that they are meant to be considered here not as individual pieces but as part of a large and flexible whole.
Where Robert Hirsch works with well-known found images, Jerry Spagnoli has produced several series of pictures using various techniques that question what a photographic document is supposed to look like, and what the world is that it is meant to describe. Jerry Spagnoli’s work includes daguerrotype street scenes, grainy images made from blowing up tiny fractions of negatives (using an enlarger elevated to 12 feet), “photomicrographs” in which he places negatives under a microscope in order to further enlarge them. In these latter two projects, he’s interested in the degree to which he can break down an image and still have it be legible, thereby questioning the reliability of the image as a document. One image that stands out is of police observing an anti-war rally from a San Francisco rooftop. The picture is evidence that someone was there but the only reliable information is the photographer’s statement and the posture, which speaks volumes. The daguerrotypes, he notes, allows for a powerfully vibrant experience of seeing a scene “captured” even as the technology heavily circumscribes what’s possible at all, as “an extraordinarily limited medium for describing the world” but one on which we have no less relied on for documentary information about the past.
Spagnoli’s most interesting work may be his Pantheon (made with a pinhole camera) and Local Stories projects. All of the images in these projects- wide tableau of city scenes, gatherings, or landscapes- feature the sun in the center, the exposures reconciled with photoshop. The projects are inspired by a classical theory that the sun is not an object in the sky but actually a hole in a protective dome that shields us from a great light outside. If the sun is an aperture, then the world is a camera, and we are projections of some reality “out there”. It’s a fanciful idea that informs a group of pictures that are humanistic and comforting. These pictures have the opposite effect of his other projects, which produce a sense of distance; I want these pictures to be reliable.
Jill Enfield’s series of portraits of immigrants in New York came about after thinking about her own family’s experience of immigration as Jews fleeing Germany in 1939, in relation to the ways in which immigration and immigrants have been portrayed in news media since 9/11. Her portraits, all shot in her apartment on wet collodion, require the subject to sit still for 45-60 seconds. That period of silence and immobility, says Enfield, allows something to come through. By using the collodion process, Enfield seeks to access something not available to conventional photography, and produces an image that in its formal qualities is more forceful in its demand on the viewer to consider what the portrait reveals.
For those interested in alternative and adaptive processes, this is a good week to visit Pittsburgh:
Work by f295 presenters and others is on display at 707 Penn Gallery, Pittsburgh PA through 5 July 2008.
Robert Hirsch’s World In A Jar is on display at Pittsburgh Filmmakers to 6 June 2008.
Alternative Focus , featuring the work of Jessica Ferguson and Tom Persinger, is on display at Silver Eye Gallery, Pittsburgh to 14 June.