Perceptions/ Reconstructions, about photography
An essay by Christine Barthe
“Facts checking, recognizing, reconstructing. It’s all a fiction sometimes. (…) I like to think that our perception of a vision becomes distorted at the very moment we reconstruct in our minds”
These sentences are taken from Mario Garcia Torres’ work The Way They looked At Each Other (undated). The piece is a video projection consisting of a montage of several photographs combined with a commentary that we hear in voice-over. As in many of the artist’s other productions, the work not only explores questions of landscape representation but also the evidential value associated with photography. It also questions our relationship to time, to the reconstruction – perhaps impossible – of an event from the past (here in 2003 the shooting by an American tank in Baghdad of the Hotel Palestine, which resulted in the death of two journalists). The work is inspiring, and constitutes a real lesson in photography, through the prism of entirely real events that we nevertheless perceive as possible fictions. The question of constructing a truth through photography, obtained through the elements of the real, has been a recurring concern associated with this medium since the beginning of its existence.
Disturbances in perception
Echoing the reflections inspired by the work of Mario Garcia Torres, managing a photographic collection whose images date from 1842 to 2020 presents me with many stimulating and creative perspectives. The musée du quai Branly’s collection, in addition to this broad historical field, boasts other characteristics, which invite a reflection on the notion of truth. It is in fact largely made up of photographs produced or compiled in the 19th and 20th centuries for a scientific purpose. The first artefacts in the collection were consequently produced at the request of scientists from the prestigious institution then known as the National Museum of Natural History. This impressive and early accumulation was given a second life in the 20th century when the discipline of anthropology which had been more one of anthropometry, based largely on the visual and statistical observation of the human body, gradually transformed into a cultural anthropology more oriented towards social reality and its structures. Profoundly transformed, the paradigm of visual observation associated with this science thus emerged strengthened, with new challenges, new demands and new models. More generally, our confidence in photography as “real” proof has become more complex over time, both in the field of science as well as in the field of art. These two fields have rarely remained strictly parallel or impermeable. Artists have regularly drawn on scientific resources, and science itself has used the means of art more often than one might think. The great malleability of photography allows it to continually reinvent the meanings attached to it. At the same time, however, it is this very plasticity that enjoins us to a critical analysis of these meanings. Thus, exploring a collection organised historically around the accumulation of thousands of images, visual documents organised around this central notion of confidence in photography’s descriptive capacities, is a very fruitful exercise. Observing precisely these descriptions and describing them might seem a simple and laborious academic exercise. Yet this fully participates in the production of meaning, and is part of the work of both artists and curators. The discrete details from a margin of a photograph, or the obvious transformation of a part of the image can be identified, decrypted and interpreted. Let’s take as an example the transformation by the colouring of an image (Charles Kroehle, Excursion del fotografo Kroehle al Rio Ucayali (Indios Campas Perú), 1893, postcard ref PP0153529). The comparison with the monochrome photographic print (ref PA000010) highlights not only the coarse colouring of the figures, but also shows the accentuation of the whiteness of the European figure occupying the centre of the image. This transformation is hardly surprising for an image with the usual iconography of the heroic hunter in an exotic setting where the Amerindians are secondary props.
Other manipulations are more astonishing, such as in the one showing busts of two Amerindian men, emerging from an area covered with white gouache (José Menéndez, untitled, ref PP0209392). The comparison with an unpainted version of the same photograph shows a much more complex scene (José Menéndez, Indians of Gualaquiza (Bishop Costamagna and two priests: all Salesians), circa 1900, ref PV0061782).
During the research that the artist Brook Andrew conducted at the musée du quai Branly in 2015-2016, we were able to experiment both in searching for this type of manipulation, as well as—and most often—in tracing micro gestures, those unexpected “accidents,” when taking pictures. These can consist in off-camera elements that could transform our reading of the image, or bear witness to another reality of the scene represented. This immersive research into tens of thousands of images leafed through more or less randomly has brought to light sometimes quite improbable images. For instance, this alternative reading allowed Brook Andrew to select a set of diverse images grouped together as a set of “residents”: most often indigenous people photographed where they lived. In contrast, a group of “visitors” was formed by a set of photographs showing cartoonists, photographers and colonial officers: all foreigners to the country they represent through their images. Travelling with this extract from an archive he reconstructed, the artist interviewed several people whose family history places them between two continents. He suggested that they create a portrait in which they pose accompanied by images of their choice, taken from both sets of “Residents” and “Visitors”. The work points out the important question of access to archives, but also underlines the way in which these photographs can benefit from a new life through this transformation via a new use.
This questioned dichotomy also forms the basis of Michael Cook’s work. In his recent images Livin’ the Dream (Welcome Home) (2020), he depicts traditional representations of the Western family: posing in front of the house, welcoming the guest, etc. The fact that all the characters in his photographs are embodied by aborigines underlines the artificial nature of the codes of this imagery and questions the normative referents of these ‘banal’ everyday images. Cook uses manipulation to effect significant shifts, however, other treatments may be less noticeable. In the work of artist Robert Zhao Renhui, we witness a manipulation of information and material that results in the viewer’s uncertainty confronting these images. Fascinated by the codes of the scientific universe, Zhao Renhui recreates a surrogate environment which allows him to cast a cloud of doubt over our spontaneous confidence in the truth of the photographic image. Through the Institute of Critical Zoologists, his work plays on the ambiguity of the medium, by combining sophisticated technological tools to the study of interactions between the natural world and humans.
Historical truths? (from History to stories)
The photographic image has regularly been used in this scientific context as a means of proof, with one of its most historical roles being that of a witness. Artist Sammy Baloji creates images and often uses found images as well. One of his landmark works entitled Essay on Urban Planning (2013) takes as its starting point a small photographic image from the archives of the mining company Gécamines. It has the particularity of clearly showing a scene that is nevertheless difficult to understand: two men sitting around an indistinct heap. The caption on the back of the image serves to clarify the meaning: “Fighting flies: each worker must bring 50 flies to the daily distribution of rations. 30 October 1929”. But the relationship that is established between the visibility of the scene and the meaning of the caption disturbs our understanding a little more. Despite these factual elements, despite this evidence placed before us, we still struggle to understand the meaning of such an absurd action. The colonial context of this policy of controlling insects and people is then brought to light thanks to an extract from a 1931 text entitled “Urbanism in Katanga”, which coldly details the segregationist urban planning of the city of Lubumbashi (then Elisabethville). It evokes the installation of a sanitary cordon separating the white and black residential areas, with a width calculated according to the range of the mosquito’s flight, in order to avoid the spread of malaria to the white neighbourhoods. Baloji regularly works on the question of colonial continuity, on how the structures built at the time of actual colonisation then survive in a more or less visible way. It is this new visibility that the work unlocks. In his “Essay”, the artist takes several aerial views of the city of Lubumbashi and juxtaposes them with photographs showing the insect boxes kept at the National Museum of Lubumbashi, the direct heir to the collections organised in the thirties and sixties.
In this piece, Baloji uses the evidential capabilities of photography. But the way he combines these different material elements together gives the piece a new eloquence. The plastic force of the work fully participates in a clear demonstration of the persistence of the colonial fact in contemporary Congo (DRC).
This way of drawing our gaze to a particular photograph is found in the work Windows on the West (2019) by Egyptian artist Heba Y. Amin. Here she chooses to reproduce a little-known image from the history of photography. This daguerreotype, the first to be taken on African soil by Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet on 7 November 1839, is known to us only through an image engraved from the original photograph. Heba Y. Amin uses new digital reproduction techniques to create a new updated version of this representation. Embroidered on textile, it becomes a tapestry – an object traditionally produced by women. By employing this paradoxical reversal, the artist underlines the deeply voyeuristic nature of this first image showing the outside Sultan Mehmet Ali’s harem, photographed by a French man. Each sign takes on a particular meaning: the half-open door or the windows where no silhouette appears. Amin’s reappropriation of this image, characteristic of a male gaze in its exotic and colonial dimension, requires a new lighting, a transformation and an enlargement. It should be noted that the very gesture of the diversion assigns a new truth to the image itself, which is not much modified in terms of its representation. The image of the building thus remains perfectly perceptible. The major change is made through the new author who appears. We are no longer faced with the metaphorical image of an Egyptian woman conjured by the French photographer, but with an image signed and claimed by a female artist, herself Egyptian. In an elliptical way, the question of self-representation emerges through this work.
Ambiguities of the portrait
I wish I had written this sentence by Allan Sekula, published in Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works 1973-1983: “I was initially drawn as a spectator to that genre of photography which was most clearly the outcome of an intersubjective play or conflict of intentions and representations: the portrait”. This conflict of intention can be seen as a rich potentiality. I am thinking here of the collecting work that constitutes an important part of the work The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng. Presented as a slide projection alternating images and commentary, the piece brings together numerous reproductions of portraits, re-photographed by the artist. During the 1990s, he researched several Soweto families in search of representations of the black South African bourgeoisie. He thus accumulated numerous examples of portraits taken between 1880 and 1950, before the apartheid era. He found that these images have become rare, fragmentary and sometimes almost forgotten even by their owners, just as they have been erased from our imaginary landscape. His gesture as a photographer then consists of simply reproducing them in slides and projecting them. The projection in large format suddenly lends both a new visibility, and a new topicality to these images. Yet the artist has seen how much oblivion has played a part, and how certain figures have become anonymous. He chooses to accompany the projected images with comments that may be factual information, but which can also become questions about this lack of information, such as, “this couple is unidentified”. The comments can also become reflections on the status of the image: “Are these images evidence of mental colonisation or did they serve to challenge prevailing images of ‘The African’ in the western world?” “Who are these people?” “What were their aspirations?” This work impresses by the combination of its modesty of means with the quality of evidence it produces. One is struck by the simplicity of the sentences and their impact on the visitors. The questions it raises are such essential questions that we often forget them when faced with images. The way Mofokeng poses them by mixing them with images that have almost disappeared gives them a resonance that acts on us like the revelation of a forgotten truth. Here the commentary of the image often adds little real information. Instead, it tends to ask us to consider the meaning of the image for each of us.
Most of the artists I have mentioned here can produce photographs themselves, or reuse those of others, using almost archaeological practices. However, I would not want to set these two practices against each other, between those who capture images and those who update “found” images from the past. These two forms of photography are mixed in the productions of many artists. Here we should mention Samuel Fosso, who has been practising photographic self-portraiture since the 1970s. It is interesting to relate it to the work The Black Photo Album/Look at Me, where Mofokeng demonstrates the possibility of reinventing genealogies and of weaving threads between people and between eras. Through this piece we verify that the representation of self can be made through the representations of others and that this frontier deserves to be explored. This is what Samuel Fosso does, regularly oscillating between social representation, up to the snapshot (i.e., the Tati series) and the intimate self-portrait (Mémoire d’un ami [Memory of a friend]). In the African Spirits series, these self-portraits take on a new dimension that is at once personal, social and political, intimately linked facets of the same image: replaying figures of black leaders through more or less well-known historical photographs, he reactivates the person but also the image of that person. African Spirits becomes an “imaginary museum” which the artist aims to reintroduce into the public space as well as the space of the collection. The images themselves bear witness to the artist’s chameleon capacity for transformation. The intertwining of personal history and social representation and the projection of the image of self through the images of others is a framework that can be found in Damien Shen’s formally very different works. Here there is also a play with the historicity of the material, with the artist using the collodion process, used in the 19th century to produce negatives on glass, before the industrialisation of photography. By using collodion, the artist draws motifs from the Coorong region (Ngarrindjeri homelands) and also reinterprets ancient Chinese paintings by placing his own face in the place of the important figures (warrior, emperor etc.), traditionally represented. The seduction of the drawn line and the accidents of the collodion process create a fascinating material that draws the visitor’s attention to the hybrid character of the object and the journey of the artist, himself from Ngarrindjeri and of Chinese lineage. In these images (Know Yourself and You Will Win All Battles, 2019, Never Venture, Never Win, 2020) the element of stability, that which does not change, is the photographed face of the artist. In this respect, it seems useful to establish a new detour through the work of Samuel Fosso.
In 2016, with the spectacular SIXSIXSIX piece, he created a return to a very primary form of self-portraiture, using the complex material of the Polaroid, organised in a sophisticated way. The work is a combination of very raw self-portraits, without any transformation of Samuel Fosso’s face. Simply centred on the face in an unchanging protocol, it could be the repetition of a passport photograph. But this portrait is “repeated” in 666 expressions, all different, with often quite slight variations, all with a quite serious tonality. Faced with the vertiginous unfolding of the whole, the viewer finds himself confronted with this ancient and daily experience of the mirror, facing another person, multiplied and always changing. It is difficult to reproduce this feeling of familiarity and at the same time of strangeness that develops little by little as one crosses the 75 metres or so that the piece occupied when it was first shown. The book that compiles them offers another perception of it, in an equally dizzying leaf-through. But the physical work manages to strike a difficult balance between an intimate relationship with the faces shown close to their real size on the one hand, and the monumental character of the piece on the other. A never overwhelming monument, which envelops the visitor, asks them to get up close and confronts them with their own image, and with the ambivalent truth of any portrait. A monument indeed, but without the high overhanging situation that usually characterises these constructions. A monument we confront face-to-face, rather than a building that looks down on us and forces us to raise our heads up to it. Let us place the perception of this work within the context of today’s movement of questioning many historical statues around the world. In this time of demanding better images of the community and calls to re-examine the reality of the monuments that punctuate the public space, the work SIXSIXSIX stands as an important marker, which finds a particularly relevant resonance in its time. We know that artists have this capacity to perceive and work on issues well ahead of the moment they finally come up in public debate.
In Kate Golding’s series Near this spot (2012 – 2020), reflection on the monument as a reference to be reinvested is central. She alternates “direct” views of archaeological traces of Captain Cook’s visits to Australia with photographs of statues on which she intervenes by drawing. These images become supports in which the motif of the statue is reduced to a simple ghostly silhouette. Some views show the statue as it must have been perceived when it was erected: from below. The artist specifies moreover that the beginning of this work finds its sources in photographs she took as a child. “As I’ve been reflecting on those 1988 bicentennial events I photographed as a child I can see where the seed for this work was planted all those years ago”. Several years later, she produced an alternative body of work that questions this formerly heroic figure. The link between photography and statue can be witnessed in Nicholas Galanin’s sculpture Shadow on the Land, an excavation and bush burial (2020) commissioned and exhibited as part of the 2020 Biennale of Sydney . This quasi-grave designed and excavated from the shadow of James Cook’s statue also offers a variation on colonial ghosts and their place in the public space. As a hole dug in the ground, it will undoubtedly have an ephemeral life, although it can probably be regularly reactivated and re-installed. Like many of the works produced at the biennial, in a time of pandemic, it has had to adapt to real-life (or in-person) and deferred visibility, made possible thanks to its photography. Even if we can see and imagine the size of the sculpture from various photographs, one of them certainly remains more present in our minds: the one taken from above by Alex Robinson. This photograph allows us to see the whole thing from a bird’s-eye view, thus adopting that overhanging view that was once characteristic of the statue itself. As in the images taken by Kate Golding as a child, this statue looked down on us. This relationship is reversed in Galanin’s installation.
Reversing the gazes, taking the opposite tack and proposing reversals of meaning: these works allow us to reflect on established truths and suggest alternative ways of thinking. The photographic metaphor is rich in the work Shadow on the Land, an excavation and bush burial. To be interested in the shadows of things, people and “great men” is to think like a photographer. It means choosing a point of view according to one’s own place, in the shade or in the sun, and being aware that what one shows depends on the ways in which one looks at it.
Christine Barthe is Senior Curator, Head of the photographic collection, musee du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris