Something from Nothing / Memory from Novelty

August 15, 2010

First, I’m still fundraising for my trip to Afghanistan, link and explanation below or right here:

Second: I’ve been looking at early color experiments by Moholy-Nagy and thinking: this looks a lot like what you get when you make a “mistake” with a contemporary color film/digital camera.   They’re collage-referencing plays of light that look like you meant to take a picture of light on a surface but forgot to use the flash or a tripod so you got kind of a blur, but a vaguely geometric one.  I don’t mean to underestimate the importance of these photos: color photography wasn’t seen as legit in the art world until Eggleston started using it in the mid-1970s (!) but Moholy-Nagy was messing around with what the technology could do as an art form a full forty years earlier.  That speaks volumes about the conservatism of the modernist photography Weston-glorifying print-fetish world–forty years!–but mostly I want to talk about something else: mistakes.

Everybody with a camera has probably done this: you take a picture and accidentially there’s too long of an exposure you get a blur instead of a Thing to See.  What you get, in essence, is a picture about seeing instead a picture that replicates seeing.  Abstraction in photography has been increasingly (re-)embraced in the art world over the last forty years but it’s still a heavily loaded conceptual abstraction.  The only heavy hitters I can think of who are doing major bodies of work that might be called “decorative” abstraction are Uta Barth, Walead Beshty and Wolfgang Tillmans, and all have their conceptual explanations and do a lot of other work, but the upshot is that those images look like mistakes.  And yet: when you take a digital photo like that you erase from the camera–it never even makes it to a computer.

But I’ve gotten interested in this act of seeing idea.  Still camera as motion camera.  Plus it dovetails with another thing I’ve been interested in lately: cheapness, and what it looks like.  I’ve been making memento mori out of dollar store stuff and it bothers people I’ve shown it to because it looks cheap and crappy, but shouldn’t a proper memento mori look shifty and thrown together?  We’re talking about a visualization of “all things must pass” here, so why not render that in materials that are close to trash?

Anyway, so: cheapness.  A digital mistake blur doesn’t have a subject aside from itself so there’s nothing to point at so there’s no money involved in doing this–anyone with any camera can.   So I made some preliminary sketches with my digital camera, and what’s great is that it doesn’t matter that it’s cheap: what matters is swinging a camera around in a relatively dim room, and that’s it.  Some examples:

And I didn’t do any “sweetening” in Photoshop by making these more colorful or higher-contrast; what you see is what I got.  Why I’m going on about this: 1) this seems like its own kind of memento mori and 2) I’m excited by the idea of unjustifiable photography.

Starting with the latter, what’s exciting is that the only defense for making/showing these photos is that they are examples of things that have been deemed wrong/unacceptable.   Which is implicitly political because of how it suggests that photography is located in what out brain wants and not what in our eyes see.

As for reason one, it strikes me as recording something as temporary as a blur of light itself is the ultimate catching of the temporary, the thing that will not last.  And the idea that a memento mori doesn’t need an actual subject is compelling to me.


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