Fotograf Magazine

Photography?? Photography!!

When I interviewed Lukáš Jasanský and Martin Polák some years ago, among the themes we broached was the barrier between the adherents of of “pure” and “impure” photography, a barrier actively present on the Czech art scene for nearly a decade. When I asked what role they felt they might play in this context Jasanský and Polák answered: “On the one hand we belong to neither camp, but on the other it is evident that we are backers of «pure» photography! For us photography is representative of reality. Photography offers proof that the situation captured really existed. As for the frowns at our presence among painters, sculptors or conceptualists, we are frowned at mostly by those who call themselves theoreticians and historians of photography…They don’t like us because the approaches, criteria and values that photographers most commonly try to acquire, are those we deliberately ignore. Moreover, we were well- received right from the start by «non-photographers», while the so-called photographic community took no interest in us whatsoever, which further strengthened our conviction that any kind of community based on an artistic discipline is in fact ideological nonsense, and is only severely restricting. The photographic rule, its Ten Commandments, in short we sneer at this photographism «en masse».”
With this artistic duo it is hard to say where matter-of-factness gives way to mystification, and to what extent both artists, in accordance with their proclamations, actually reject the traditional photographic canon. Similarly, it is hard to determine which of the given categories or groups Jasanský and Polák belong to. As graduates of the Photography Department of FAMU they ought to be part of the world of photography, and this definition is also supported by the aesthetic and technical nature of most of their work, which carries traces of the socially engaged aesthetic of Neue Sachlichkeit, and moreover, their works are not processed by computer but by hand. The keen sense of irony they direct towards visual clichés, and even more so their critical reflection on the medium of photography (and its formalist offshoot which they sarcastically dub “photographism”) nonetheless place Jasanský and Polák in the other camp – among those artists who exploit photography but do not revere it, who understand it as a means of transgressing the firmly established borders between reality and illusion, as well as opposing the received opinion that photography is an imprint of that reality. The work of the J+P duo aptly shows, that to separate so-called “pure” photography from “derived” photography, or to distinguish photographers from artists who work with photography in a “non-photographic” manner (thus discrediting it in the eyes of the former) is in the contemporary world of multimedia not only senseless, but also obsolete.
Although five years have passed since the above-mentioned interview, the lack of communication (and often animosity) between both communities – photographic and visual arts – continues. Despite occasional attempts to bridge this schism (I believe a good opportunity to do so in the future is the newly-constituted Jaroslav Funke Award), nobody has thus far seriously attempted to make a direct comparison, much less to articulate the problem in historical perspective – that is, to try to find parallels not only within contemporary visual language, but also between the visual languages of the present and the past. This makes all the more significant the exhibition that was organized by curators Jan Freiberg and Pavel Vančát for the Galerie U Bílého jednorožce in Klatovy (30. 5. – 18. 7. 2004) under the title fotografie?? Perhaps it is also significant that the articulation of the given problem had to wait for independent curators of the youngest generation. In contrast to their (often just a few years older) colleagues they are not burdened with either intellectual prejudice or professional jealousy and institutional policies, having emerged on the scene at a moment when there could be no doubt about the significance of the overlapping of photography into other areas of visual culture. Freiberg and Vančát embarked on an experiment, and surely tread on delicate ground. Thanks to their intellectual background and in particular their solid knowledge of post-war Czech photography, they have succeeded in showing that the polarization of photographic production is an art historical construct rather than an extant fact. As one of the curators states in the catalogue, “the reason is not the quality of the work but rather their origin and original catalogisation.”
fotografie?? has confronted artists among the “non-photographers” of the 1990s – i.e., precisely those whose work has provoked the photographic world with its icono-, or rather photo-clasm (Jasanský and Polák, Markéta Othová, Alena Kotzmannová, Michal Kalhous) – with artists that the photographic world had already embraced in the 1970s and 1980s. The core of the latter group, and in a sense the thread that runs through the exhibition, is Jan Svoboda, whose work weds the formal points of departure of the modernist aesthetic with a conceptual and supremely subjective attitude. Svoboda’s work is accompanied by works from Ivo Přeček, Miroslav Machotka, Marie Kratochvílová, Štěpán Grygar, Jan Hudeček, Martin Stein, and Petr Faster. Though at first glance this group may appear heterogeneous in their diverse approaches to the medium of photography, and the emotional charge and significance ascribed to each representative by historians and theoreticians of photography, there is still something which links them together: a sobriety with which they regard the world around them, and at the same time a need to break away from the conventional modes of perception. In this context, Vančát speaks of a “self-reflective” photography inspired by minimalism and conceptualism that thematizes the relation of photography to itself and to reality. What is the outcome of this confrontation, and what can it offer to the further evolution of Czech thought on art and photography?
First we must note that the curators did not base their concept on a mere formal similarity, just as they did not seek to equate the two tendencies. For while the works of the older generation of Czech photography pay homage to the legacy of surrealism and magic realism, as well as provide an obvious link to interwar avant-garde movements (with the exception, in my opinion, of Štěpán Grygar, whose photographic cycles are truly conceptual and relate interestingly to the later large format photographic series of Markéta Othová), the generation of “non- photographers” has an altogether distinct sensibility. Their trademark feature is an authorial detachment that has little in common with the premises of existentialism or with the subjective documentary of the generation of their predecessors. Theirs are at first glance “banal”, dispassionate statements about ordinary things, that often resign from established patterns of composition or requirements of technical precision; at times their cold, seemingly disinterested gesture places us in front of things seen a thousand times over. Still, this is not a mere skimming of the surface of reality. The works of the artists of the “non- photographic” generation show the transitory nature of surrounding phenomena, something that cannot be captured by either ideology or aesthetic norms. Their photographs, which are often – depending on the exhibition space – conceived as installations, or which employ a form of adjustment that renders a two-dimensional medium as an “object”, reflect by default the tempo and lack of concentration of the contemporary world, as well as the volatility of its perception. They neither capture an event, nor celebrate a respected object removed from reality. They seem rather to be a testimony of reality-as-lived, “including contemplativeness and social sensitivity” (Vančát). Morover – and let me stress this – neither are they strangers to a sense of wonder (though but for a brief moment) at the beauty and magic of ordinary things.
In this sense, the encounter of the various generations and diverse photographic sensibilities did not register as a “confrontation”, but much more as a dialogue, showing that there is no “one” photography, but rather a medium that resists classification. Another evidence of the absurdity of trying to separate photography from art (and vice versa) is the rigidity of language used in the Czech lands until today to describe work by representatives of both trends. Why should Alena Kotzmannová’s engaging, and moreover aesthetically sophisticated photographs, which transport the viewer via still lifes (whether indoor or outdoor) into an extraterrestrial reality with a touch of science fiction, be called “nonphotographic”? And why should Jan Hudeček, whose still not fully-appreciated work has an atmosphere of an unexpected encounter of things in space simialr to that of Alena Kotzmannová’s, be considered a representative of “pure photography”? And – going back in time – why does no one ask how it came to be that an artist like Jindřich Štyrský, whose education was in painting and not photography, and whose outlook udoubtedly resonates with the artists of contemporary “non- photography” (Freiberg) rate among the “celebrities” of Czech avant- garde photography? Is it not high time to abandon such pseudo- categories, and to actually regard art created by pressing a shutter without prejudice and the effluvia of repressed ideology?
fotografie?? has doubtless become an important contribution to the debate about the status of photography in the framework of contemporary art. Still, in conclusion I cannot refrain from striking a brief critical note. Both curators mention in their texts in the catalogue the certain “end” of photography. Jan Freiberg writes of the present day as of a period “in which the era of traditional photography is coming to a close, and in which it ceased to be meaningful to use the camera as a tool of learning about the world.” Pavel Vančát in his turn speaks about the new media that “herald new times for us. The photographic grain and celluloid will soon be as obsolete as sgrafito or acquatinta.” None of us are prophets, able to affirm with certainty that a particular technique, style or value will vanish forever into the dustbin of history. Such prophecies, after all, have been countless. Roughly ten years ago I puhlished an article entitled “Painting? Painting!“ It was at a time when the notion of the “death” of painting began to gain currency – the very term painting became (even in Bohemia) a pejorative term. And yet painting goes on living, and even seems lately to be getting its wind back. It is true that many such proclamations of the “end”, or of “death” (Barthes, Foucault, Fukuyama, and so forth) have been understood as metaphors within the philosophical realm since the 1960s, as a challenge to re-evaluate the current social, cultural, and political discourse. Still, I believe that to condemn photographic grain and celluloid film would be not only premature but also counterproductive. Or are we to replace one exclusive system (“pure photography”) with another system (“non-photography” or “post- photography”) that is equally exclusive?
This review is scattered with such question marks. As the double question mark in the title of the exhibition held in the Klatovy Gallery indicates, things are not so simple with photography as they might seem at first glance. Photography is not an imprint of reality. In a world that is progressively more glutted with photographic (and “non-photographic”) images, it becomes ever more difficult to understand photography. This is more reason for us to place it in as broad a context as possible – not merely in the context of art, but also in non-artistic spheres; not only in the present, but throughout history. Even with the knowledge that we will never fully understand it.

martina pachmanová