Sun Gardens

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For literally everything that is in my view right now, there must have been someone who thought first of any of the many, many aspects that go into the making of all of these objects. Only when I turn my head to the left do I see objects for which this does not apply: trees outside. I personally find this aspect of the world very interesting, because even the seemingly simplest solution might have come at the end of an arduous process that possibly entailed many failed attempts to find it.

How this general process played out in the world of photography is relatively well known. But still, at times it amazes me, especially when I look at pictures made by people who were very close to the point in time when something was invented. It’s so easy to pick up one’s phone and snap a quick picture now. When I grew up you’d be able to also snap a picture, but to see it there’d be a lot more work involved (yours or someone else’s): someone would have to develop the film etc. Even earlier, there was no such thing as “film” – you’d have to make the equivalent yourself — in a time when there was no electricity.

Make no mistake, I’m no romantic. I don’t think the “olden days” were better (they were absolutely not) or more desirable (ditto) or simpler (ditto). I’m simply in awe of the dedication with which some people in the past must have approached the making of, let’s say, a photograph, given that without this dedication there wouldn’t have been a photograph (in contrast, all I need to do to take a photo is to press a button, swipe, and press another button). My own amazement about this dedication is directly tied to my being in awe of the result, with the latter driving the former (the other way around doesn’t necessarily work for me in the arts: craft might make art, but it also might just remain craft).

In the world of photography, Anna Atkins‘ cyanotypes of algae clearly belong to these types of images. The process itself was invented in 1842 by Sir John Herschel, and very shortly after, Atkins already used it to make hundreds and hundreds of images, sets of which she gave or sold to other people who, in turn, would have the sheets bound into proper books (so even as a recipient, you had some work to do, assuming you’d want to see what Atkins actually had in mind). A catalog produced at the occasion of an exhibition at the New York Public Library (NYPL), Sun Gardens, now offers deep insight into the artist, both in terms of her life story and the images in question.

Turns out, the NYPL owns two copies of Algae books, one — the so-called Herschel copy — acquired in 1985, the other one in 2016. Along with a variety of related material, these copies were put on display in the exhibition co-curated by Joshua Chang and Larry J. Schaaf (the former is curator of photography at the NYPL, the latter wrote the seminal 1985 version of the book which is out of print). Being able to see these books in person for me was one of the highlights of 2018 (beyond the scope of this review, but still: the accompanying exhibition of contemporary artists working with cyanotypes was also very good, even though the quality of the included pieces varied greatly).

Sun Gardens demonstrates how the format of the catalog can be used perfectly to bring the material in the exhibition to an audience that might not have had a chance to see it. For example, right after the table of contents and preface, Part I of the Herschel copy is reproduced in its entirety as a facsimile. With the attention to detail that clearly went into this effort — colours and tones were accurately matched, and the catalog’s paper choice is exquisite — the reader/viewer is brought as close as possible to what Herschel would have been able to hold in his hands in 1843.

A lavishly illustrated fifty-page section by Schaaf reveals the full story of both the artist and her work, placing her into the societal and scientific context of her time, and diving deeply into the process of making the prints itself. Reading this part had me deeply fascinated — more so, in fact, than looking at many of the actual images. I have the same reaction for various other well-known bodies of work by other artists. For example, I yet have to be able to look through the copy of the Bechers’ water towers book I own. Theirs — much like Atkins’ — is a magnificent achievement, the point of which for me lies in the unfaltering dedication to the subject.

Beyond the aforementioned facsimile, Sun Gardens contains a large number of images from the various volumes of Atkins’ books. Consequently, the viewer can experience the variety of material her or himself. There also are more detailed sections on what is known about the books — where they are, where they came from, etc. Plus, there is a section on the process itself, written by Mike Ware, for those who want to know a lot more about it.

There possibly is no need to stress the importance of Anna Atkins’ work in light of increased efforts to bring to light (pardon the pun) previously underrepresented if not outright ignored efforts by female artists (c.f. my review of How We See). Still, the timing of the release of this catalog is fortuitous.

It will hopefully help lay to rest whatever concerns that might still exist about the validity of this work in particular (concerns that I actually never understood — the discussion centering on the camera-less aspect of the work has always seemed positively pointless if not outright petty to me) and about the contribution of women artists to the history of the medium in general.

Sun gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins; images by Anna Atkins; essays by Joshua Chang, Larry J. Schaaf, Emily Walz, Mike Ware; 216 pages; Prestel; 2018

(not rated)

The Universal Photographer

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The art of photography does not consist of being able to take a good picture. Anyone can — and actually will at some stage — take a good picture. The art is to be able to do it on a consistent basis, in a consistent manner. Of course, over the past decades the idea of what the word “art” means has become sufficiently watered down for any photograph to be considered good (plus, what does “good” mean anyway?). So it would be straightforward to throw all art ideas out of the window and simply enjoy things as they come.

There’s a small industry of people who have been doing exactly that — think, for example, Erik Kessels, Joachim Schmid, or Melissa Catanese (if you don’t throw the idea of art out of the window, you’re in Christian Boltanski territory). Their is a fun game that in part derives its appeal from the fact that using photographs by people who according to the professionals have limited skills is a somewhat subversive maneuver, which pokes holes into photoland’s vast pretensions.

As much as I find these pretensions tiresome myself, I personally couldn’t spend too much time with the work produced in this industry, though: with enough holes poked, the idea of doing that gets a little stale, a little too self-satisfied. Plus, as is the case for all kinds of activities, too many low hanging fruits picked tend to spoil the overall experience.

Luckily, there still are plenty of gems being produced, such as the most recent The Universal Photographer by Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy (larger parts of the industry appear to be based in the Netherlands). The basic idea is simple: the book presents the work of a fictitious photographer, whose name is reduced to merely one character — U.

The book starts out by establishing U.’s relationship to the well-known world of photography. This is a tongue-in-cheek endeavour that where it succeeds particularly well manages to perform the aforementioned calling out of of pretensions (“Where Winogrand said: ‘I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,’ U. stated ‘I photograph to find out if I am still looking’ and sometimes ‘I am looking to find out if I am still photographing.'”).

The book then presents the artist’s presumed bodies of work much like a serious catalogue would, starting with — of course — “Early Work” (in b/w), moving to Tichy style “Voyeur”, and from there onward to “Wedding Photographer”. I suspect at this stage, things could have easily got tedious, but with the next section, “Theories”, things take a turn towards the unexpected. “Theories” is comprised of photographs onto which someone types text with a typewriter. “Collages”, the following section, then involves photographs getting stapled together. And on and on it goes — I won’t give it all away here.

So whatever expectation the viewer (well, this one anyway) might have had (“Oh, I know where this is going”), they are being subverted. It’s mad fun. Deftly, Geene and De Nooy manage to re-insert a lot of fun into their industry that of late had felt a bit too predictable.

In addition, the authors are clearly aware of what already has been done, to push things a little further to an absurd conclusion. An example would be the chapter “Corrections” where sections are cut out of photographs; however, instead of just faces (to be used in passports, say), a knee might be cut out (needless to say, this description falls far short of what the visuals are able to deliver).

The Universal Photographer concludes with a 70 page section entitled “Notes.” This section is subdivided into a larger number of smaller parts, each of which contains dozens of quotes. For example, under “Authorship,” you find “Cameras don’t take pictures.” (A.D. Coleman) or “Can an art without an artist still be an art?” (Pierre Bourdieu). This is good stuff. The section “Character” alone is enlightening, as it reveals the sheer pomposity with which some of photography’s “greats” have spoken about themselves.

All of this makes this book one to get. It’s hugely enjoyable, it’s clever, but it’s never too glib about its own cleverness.

The Universal Photographer; various photographers and authors; edited/appropriated by Anne Geene and Adrian de Nooy; 420 pages; De Hef; 2018

(not rated)

As a postscript of sorts that seems oddly connected to the above: I came across Failed Images: Photography and Its Counter-Practices by Ernst van Alphen by chance. When I found it, the cover look interesting enough for me to flip through its pages, and the plethora of images I encountered had me look further. Truth be told, I ended up being intrigued about the inclusion of a seemingly bewildering variety of photographers and theorists — here, someone clearly was approaching photography from a somewhat unusual angle.

The general idea of the book isn’t all that different than your run-of-the-mill book of writing around photography. But instead of setting out from solid ground, Van Alphen decided to do the opposite, specifically to test ideas around photography based on images that clearly deviate from the ones usually considered.

These images comprise staged photographs, blurry/blurred images, over- or underexposed images, and archival material (actually, the photographs in the “over- and underexposed” category all are actually properly exposed — they mostly conceal information through a variety of techniques). The basic premise is that theories around photography ought to be able to apply for all kinds of photographs and not merely “straight” ones.

In addition, the book casts a very wide net around existing theoretical writing, including not just Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, but also Villem Flusser, Siegfried Kracauer (whose writing around photography deserves to be read a lot more widely), and others. In addition, Van Alphen combines a variety of artists in an initially slightly perplexing but ultimately very rewarding manner.

I’m not sure I agree with all conclusions in the book, but for sure the general insight offered makes it a very worthwhile book to get.