Thursday, December 30, 2010

There is a red light that never goes out

Let's end this year on a nostalgic note, with Richard Nicholson's Last One Out, a typology of the few remaining professional darkrooms in London.

Sean O'Hagan points out on The Guardian that "perhaps the world is simply too fast-forward now for the craft and the clutter – the roll of film, the negative, the chemicals, the contact sheet – of old-fashioned photographic printing. Perhaps, too, the darkroom and photographic film will go the way of the analogue recording studio, the cassette player and the vinyl record and become beloved by a relatively small group of obsessives".

Other examples of photographic obituaries of the analog art are Michel Campeau's Darkroom and Robert Burley's The disappearance of Darkness.

It's something that has been said many times over the last years, and maybe this is already happening, analog printing is already a niche, small but somehow healthy: it's not a big business, not a widespread profession, but something where craft, meditation, fun or whatever else somebody might feel inside when, full of excitement, turns off the light in a basement and start messing around with easels and trays.

I've always had mixed feelings for elegiac photoworks about the diappearance of analog photography, I think that the beauty of it is in its results and there is not much that can come out by turning it into a vintage visual object in itself.

Now it's all computers everybody says, and maybe one difference with the darkroom is that those analog tools from back then made sense only when able hands could take something out of them, while today's devices and techniques often seem to turn into instant cult objects or fetishes, no matter what the real use or outcome that can be achieved with them.

On this topic, I suggest to read my interview with b&w fine art printer Jim Megargee.

So, paradoxically we celebrate objects from a supposed distant era as lost glories, but today's objects are probably even bigger fetishes, and are constantly replaced by new ones. Objects are losing endurance these days, and a technological device doesn't seem to age with the grace of something made of steel and springs.

So I guess a new year's resolution could be stopping mourning about analog photography, and maybe start looking in what it is actually becoming. Rather than another sad story about how all is getting digital and cold, I'd rather hear about how some people happily keep using the darkroom, what they get from it, why they keep doing it, and so forth.

I'll be happy to receive darkroom stories by all of you out there.

Happy 2011 to everybody!

UPDATE: as soon as I've put this post online, I've found a story on the New York Times that I thought I should include: For Kodachrome Fans, Road Ends at Photo Lab in Kansas.

All images taken from Last One Out © Richard Nicholson


Monday, December 20, 2010

'Coin operated' - A review of 'Dear Knights and Dark Horses', by Thomas Roma

For many, the role of photography in building the great book of history is still to produce icons of our time, images that can sum up the essence of a moment - defining pictures. We need to see the events in the photographs, we need to receive them like a gift from the photographer. History often cannot afford ambiguity, lack of clarity, or worse lack of force in a photograph: hence strong subjects, strong moments, strong composition. Drama, intensity and a clear message are the usual requirements for the narration of real life, the same ones needed for a good popular fictional story, after all. Moviemakers often fear silence, as it might make them lose the attention of the viewers - they need to be entertained, after all.

The war in Iraq is of course one of the major photographic dramas of the last decade, and we’ve seen it covered in all fashions: soldiers shooting, women in desperation, children crying, towers of smoke, humvees cruising the desert.

What remains unclear in all this is the role of the viewer: are we meant to be entertained, informed, shocked? Are we considered as just passive receivers of pre-packaged content or is there some space to feel something through those photographs, to imagine what goes beyond (or lies behind) the things we are shown?

Dear Knights and Dark Horses, the latest book by Thomas Roma, attempts to address that question in a somehow radical way: the photographs are divided in two sections, the first showing a sequence of old coin-operated horse rides in the streets of New York, while the second presents a series of portraits of US Army Reserve soldiers about to be deployed to Iraq. Rather than raising awareness through showing strong content, Roma asks the viewer to fill the empty space between these two worlds, the old-fashioned and now neglected kids’ entertainment and his subdued portraits of militaries, stripped of both any heroic appearance or dramatic setting.

Even if the association of these two opposite worlds leaves space for a rather obvious metaphoric effect, Roma still manages to create an interesting visual experience, with a photographic language reduced to the essential, a sober black and white supported by a very simple framing. The coin horses are almost merely recorded, collected from the streets into images who seem as casual as the occasional distracted glances these forgotten toys now get from passers-by; the soldiers photographs look like placid snapshots, straight portraits of men whose eyes are so difficult to penetrate, almost expressionless and yet full of the weight of a choice we might never fully understand.

The book itself appears like a small delicate object, almost square, with a gentle hardcover and a pretty simple graphic design: reminding the style of children books in its appearance, Dear Knights and Dark Horses calls for the viewer’s imagination and sensibility to re-imagine events we have been hearing over and over, inviting us to listen to a melancholic fairy tale in black and white to rediscover the story of a war we always see so full of colours and sounds that we might have become blind and deaf to it.

Dear Knights and Dark Horses. Photographs by Thomas Roma. Introduction by Alec Wilkinson. powerHouse Books, New York, 2010. 100 pp., 35 duotone illustrations, 6¾x7¾".


Monday, December 13, 2010

"Home is where nobody is"

"Private mythologies" is the expression used by Mirko Smerdel to describe his work: a visual archive made of memories, of icons of our times, of images layered one on top of the other. Can we ever experience something like an unconditioned vision, or are we always pushed back to what we already saw, to what we remember, to how we decided things have to look like?

Using found photographs, postcards, newspapers and all the other byproducts of our visual past, Smerdel chose to wander accross the many roads of a "mental geography of contemporary life", an atlas of our endless iconic production, which we might never really learn how to read.

(thanks to Andrea Botto)

All images © Mirko Smerdel


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Yaakov Israel - Thoughts on a repressed lansdcape

"What happens to a landscape which is intentionally ignored by a large part of the population? Does it still exist?"

A few weeks ago I got in touch with Yaakov Israel and I was immediately fascinated by his investigation of the Israeli landscape and its human geography. I asked him if he wanted to have a conversation about his photography, his country and all that happens when the two come together, and I am happy he agreed to share his thoughts.

Enjoy the read.

FABIO SEVERO: Israel is a territory many photographers would put all their efforts to show it loud and clear in their images, and yet you say you are interested in showing all those small details that usually go unnoticed. What brought you to work in this way?

YAAKOV ISRAEL: My current interest in photography revolves around the idea of using this medium to research and understand the culture and country I live in and which I am constantly trying to analyze and better understand.
I am a firm believer in personal biography and the affect it has on ones interests, work and subject matter. I am 100% Israeli, born and raised in Israel, while on the other hand I am the son of immigrants. My father never really assimilated into the Israeli society and was always observing and pointing out social injustices and Israeli idiosyncrasies. This influenced my way of looking at my surroundings and this is what enables me to simultaneously be part of the Israeli reality and still question it.
As a result of my visual research I have discovered that we have a lot to learn from what we inflict on our surroundings and the way we chose to construct the reality around us. The focusing on details unravels part of a story that could never be told as a whole.

FS: One of your project is called The legitimacy of landscape, but maybe this expression can be extensively used for the totality of your work: to use photography to unveil the fake seamlessness of a landscape, to interrogate its nature and its history, its legitimacy. What does this term really mean to you?

YI: I have always been interested in the land and the way people connect to their land. Thoughts about the traditions and of the meaning of landscape in art and photography, worldwide and locally, occupy me constantly in my work.
For me the question explored in this work was; what happens to a landscape which is intentionally ignored by a large part of the population? Does it still exist?
This lead to a series of queries about physical vs. perceived vs. imaginary existences and it is this legitimacy that I ended up exploring in my work.
In a way each photo created an existence of a place and gave it a fleeting legitimacy even if imaginary.

FS: The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey is described as a wide exploration of your land, in search of a man, of a feeling, of an idea, maybe. A wide search in a small land, you wrote, where any wandering would have brought you back to the starting point, to begin again and look for new images. Is it a survey of a territory or rather the expression of a private geography you found inside yourself?

YI: I started out purely on a mission to survey a territory – Israel. However on the day I crossed paths with the man on the white donkey this journey turned into a personal quest. From then on my external travels reverted inwards and I started to explore myself in relation to my surroundings. I feel that this was a crucial turning point which made me understand that my work does not only document and show reality, but in a way creates a reality.

FS: Among all the photography produced about Israel, what is it that you don't like, and also which are the photographic works that you loved most? Is there any aspect of your country that you feel is not enough explored (or maybe even ignored) by photography?

YI: Personally I find that the main Israeli photographic narrative that makes it out of Israel is the journalistic, political photography. This is obviously important but it portrays only one aspect of Israel and thus helps create a very stereotypical image.
There are many other realities being documented in Israeli photography that are not ignored but simply not exposed. Naturally I find interesting the work of fellow contemporaries who are using photography to question, and not to make statements.

FS: How was your work received domestically as opposed to abroad?

YI: Domestically I have been received well. My work instigated the interest and debates I hoped for. When I have the opportunity to present my work abroad I find that the pre-conceptions regarding Israel must first be broken down and in a way my work is what helps do this. I find that the interest in Israel is always strong and that my work provides them with new insight.

FS: You use a 8x10 camera for your projects. Why did you choose this kind of camera?

YI: When I started out in photography I was fascinated with the ability of the medium to render and capture an accurate piece of reality and it was this power that I wanted to use. As I progressed and started to find 'my way' in photography I understood that I wanted to use photography to create a discussion about reality, and the way in which I wanted to show things was just as important as what I had to say and point out. This is why I chose to use the most descriptive tools available and why I mainly use an 8x10, as it promises me the hyper realistic results which I need in order to show details more sharply than would be possible to observe with the naked eye.

Yaakov Israel, A Repressed Landscape, The Open Museum of Photography at Tel-Hai Industrial Park, July 2005

All images © Yaakov Israel