Fotograf Magazine

Joan Fontcuberta

Pandora‘s Camera

The first photograph reproduced in the English edition of the selected writings of the Catalan photographer Joan Fontcuberta is a portrait of the artist’s father, who had his picture taken by one of the minuteros – street photographers in Melilla, North Africa – at some point near the end of the Spanish Civil War. He then sent the picture to his future wife, Fontcuberta’s mother, before they had even met. The picture of a tanned young man in a white shirt, his gaze directed away from the camera and involuntary smile serves for Fontcuberta as the pretext for telling the story of how his parents met through correspondence, while also revealing his approach to photography. Fontcuberta here goes directly against the example of Roland Barthes, who in his Camera Lucida described a photograph of his mother in a conservatory without actually showing it to the reader. Barthes thus illustrates his belief that experience is unique and cannot be shared – and that this experience is confirmed by death… and by photography. Fontcuberta on the contrary associates photography with life, as is reflected in his vigorous writing. He makes notes of his practice of photography, as this process fascinates him every bit as much as the resultant image and the various ways of relating to it. Most of the essays included in the volume were written over the course of the last decade for Spanish or South American periodicals, or as forewords for the publications of other photographers. The present anthology is rather like a collage, a feature amplified by the diffuse meanderings of Fontcuberta’s chain of associations. His texts are more akin to “snapshots” than posed photographs. Fontcuberta strives to outline the current state of things. He aims “to review the evolution of photography and also to inscribe in both a history of curiosity and a history of the spectacle” (p. 26). His concern with photography as art is only secondary. Where he does write about it, he conceives it more as consciously bringing to a head some general features of society permeated by images. He does not delve deeply into the subject, in order not to lose perspective. Neither does he dwell on explanations of technical parameters or theoretical aporia. He instead peoples his reflections with characters derived from both myth and cinema. Absorbing fragments of specialized discourse, he plumbs the literary sources of famous essays on photography, bringing to life more or less well-known episodes from the history of photography that open (among other things) with a view from a window. He also shares autobiographical stories, reminiscing about stumbling into the grave of Borges in Geneva by chance, or about taking a picture of himself with the Spice Girls in London in 1997. Fontcuberta winks to the reader – he is funny, at times even overly witty. He adopts the pose of an old man – wise at times, and at others lecherous. The writer-photographer becomes one with the blind writer, a figure he likes to invoke. Several lines of thought stretch across several essays. Fontcuberta re-assesses the binary approach often employed in thinking about photography. He observes that documentary and fiction are mutually intertwined; a passage dedicated to the mysterious Voynich manuscript in fact goes so far as to mix historical fact with outright fibs in order to inevitably drive the reader to doubt. He does not see digital photography as a break from analog technologies, but instead envisions a wide range of potential uses. He sees them as differing mainly in terms of “tempo.” Whereas classical photography is associated with the period of mourning, digital photography, according to Fontcuberta, heralds the hope – and uncertainty – of expectation. In the case of the former, the gap between pressing the shutter and looking at the developed image is filled with a desire and expectation very similar to that experienced by lovers. Digital technology, on the other hand, promises instant gratification, even though this may be just as shallow as Fontcuberta’s belief in the non-material nature of digital photography. The impression of Spanish Baroque evoked by Fontcuberta’s essays is augmented by his use of his Hispanic background as well as his peculiar metaphorical imagery: when he counters the statement of the death of photography, he claims that it did not die, but rather was crucified and that we may thus expect its resurrection; he also compares the noise of the shutter to being pierced by Cupid’s arrow. Using the language of the iconography of saints, Fontcuberta discusses post-produced images of Hollywood stars.

The theory of digital photography in his rendition is condensed into the theory of vanishing nipples. Fontcuberta expands on the idea that digital surgery is replacing plastic surgery by querying whether photography can really capture the naked truth. In terms of issues of exposure and truth, ethics meets aesthetics – and photography becomes a key tool in answering these questions.

Vojtěch Märc