Saturday, August 19, 2017

Tomás López's The Portrait Series at The Lowe Museum (open until September 17)

Darby, Tom López, 2010-2017

A still photograph is simply an isolated frame taken out of the infinite camera - Hollis Frampton

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The photograph, above, of the late Darby Bannard, is part of Tomás López's The Portrait Series at the Lowe Museum. López's black-and-white, silverish print, has the prompt of a chancy shot with a focused center and out-of-focus periphery. We see Darby's inquisitive expression, almost hinting a smile, his quick-witted eyes scrutinizing the observer from yonder. The subject's countenance exudes a steaming melting quality, as if we got a composite of Darby-moments before and after the shot. López has suffused this photo with a "condensed" mobility. The trick is part of the history of photography. This is what photography has to its credit that film betrays, the implicit potential change of the permanent.1

How is Darby suffused with history? The portrait brings to mind the concerns of portraiture photography during the last half of the Nineteenth Century, the epoch of the Human Sciences, a time when, as Wilhelm Dilthey suggests, "society looks at itself," or else, as a postmodern avatar would hint, "the same century that invented History and Photography." How to negotiate the intrinsic mimetic quality of the medium with the complex and contradictory nature of the human psyche?

Take Chuck for example: handsome, strong-necked, broad-shouldered, self-assured and laid back.

Tomás López, Chuck, 2010-2017

The success of this picture depends of the "absorption" of the sitter, in part looking out and looking in. Whatever Chuck's countenance, let's keep in mind that in portraiture photography the sitter presents himself to the camera. Clearly, the genre has wrestled with this implicit tension. Michael Fried in a recent book about Photography has called this presenting/representing dichotomy "theatricality." Add digital photography and Photoshop to the mix and the tension gets amplified. 3 López accepts the fact that he deals with theatricality when he writes (for the folded catalog to the show): "My intention was to reveal a moment of collaboration and connection with each sitter, however brief." So, let's assume this sitter/camera "connection" plus López's digital manipulation of the visual information, which only amplifies the truth/fiction divide at the heart of photography. 4

Coming back to Chuck's portrait: Is he really relaxed or is he just successfully conveying the disposition for the camera? We'll never know (neither López, and surprisingly, neither Chuck himself). What makes the human psyche so complicated is that behavioral dispositions do not necessarily reveal the sitter's mental states. But that doesn't matter. As Fried observes, we understand that photography is a form of theater, and the best theater happens when the sitter shows (as if there was) no regard for the camera.

In the folded catalog to the exhibit, López acknowledges his debt to Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron. But there is little of Nadar in this series. The French photographer was not particularly interested in "raising photography to an art" (nothing wrong with that either). Nadar, a supreme documentarian of his epoch, wanted, not the "inner" Delacroix (below), but the famous painter. 5

Paul Nadar, Delacroix, 1856 (where the painter strikes the à-la-mode "Napoleonic" pose). For Nadar, it's secondary that Delacroix looks at the camera. This is portrait as epochal documentary.

To better understand López's work, let's follow the lead of Julia Margaret Cameron

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sir John Herschel, 1864

Compared with Nadar, Cameron is breaking new ground. Sir John Herschel was a respected British astronomer and mathematician. Other photographers of the epoch would have depicted Herschel full figured, grave, amidst weighty academic tomes. Instead we have a close up of the scientist, draped in black. His face rendered in chiaroscuro appears three-dimensional. His unkempt hair diffracts the light infusing the figure with a sage-like aura. As it were, a speck of light coming from Herschel's eyes under his salient bushy brows, brings the present of the moment back to us. Herschel's dignified fragility reminds us of a Pre-Raphaelite disenchanted prophet. 6

Let's recall that by the 1850s photography was the ideal medium to render preciseness and accuracy. But the form, particularly landscape study and portraiture, lent itself to an aesthetic contemplation already explored by the art of painting. No wonder John Ruskin, a strong critic of anything "mechanical," embraced early photography as a way to explain perceptual aberration. Ruskin saw in photography the potential to distort and/or enhance epistemological assumptions.7 From this point on, the mimetic quality of photography was negotiated with a perceptual softness more common to art. 8 This is when Cameron's chancy, blemished style comes in. 9

Cameron's art is, on the one hand, the result of the chance implicit in analog photography, and on the other, a specific sensitivity of letting accident become a formal element of her work. In his Photography and the Art of Chance, Robin Kesley argues that serendipity plays a central Cameron's work, so that the picture "manifests the intention to put accident to a specific use that attests to the maker's sensitivity and supple mindedness" (p. 74). A hundred a fifty years later, López's postmodern sensibility "recreates" Cameron premodern methods for a new medium. In a sense, Cameron's semi-deliberate accident becomes López's deliberate scheme. To that effect, he designs a specific algorithm that introduces the "visual noise" of the ambrotype and collodion prints of the 1860s on a high-dot-gain quality thick-paper print. López employs a high resolution digital camera and a lens that actually "mimics" the optical quality of Nineteenth Century flaws, such as astigmatism and chromatic aberration.10

López's Cameronian "out-of-focus" procedure demands an extremely shallow depth of field with a maximum "bokeh," which causes the soft-edged, yet selectively focused image. One slight difference is that López exaggerates the preciseness of the sitter's eyes vs. the slightly "out-of-focus" quality of the sitter's face and body, thus making this alleged "softness" different than Cameron's. In other words, if the softness is already built-in, is it really "soft"? (we don't have time to debate this precious point here).

Tomás López, Bill, 2010-2017

In the portrait above Bill turns his head to look at the camera. His face does not occupy the whole frame —as if the sitter's upper torso could offer a relevant clue. Bill's buttoned up shirt squeezing his neck accentuates his chubby frame. The camera, a little lower here than in other shots of the series, reveals the sitter's drooping shoulders. Bill's broad face is crossed by expressive deep wrinkles, showing a life devoted to artistic and pedagogical pursuits. The sitter's whitish mane standing on end —as if excited by a Tesla coil, adds a humorous touch pertaining the sitter's character. The added insight now is that the imprecision around Bill's face is far from imprecise. López succeeds. The sitter's ambiguous countenance compels the observer to zoom in on Bill's baffling gaze (i.e., Cameron's signature). This form of theatricality is not naïve and López embraces it. I bet that what the artist cares about is that Bill is a friend and colleague and the photo is a proof of it. The rest should be left open-ended.

Tomás López, Ruth, 2010-2017

Ruth is graceful and delicate, and a subtle counter to Cameron, who considered the eyes to be the windows of the soul (López shows that there are alternative windows to explore). 

If style is the relatum issue between López and Cameron, clearly López is not appropriating Cameron's style. Rather he employs Cameron's style to inform the theatricality of photography with an added layer manipulation. By "programming" Cameron into his digital method, López delves into Dilthey's unique status of interpretation, and the difference between "hard" and "soft" explanations in the Human Sciences (we can't pursue this point here, which is very much at the front of digital photography right now). López reconstructs Cameron's style for the digital medium with a different sensibility and for a different epoch. This is not far from the Pre-Raphaelite reconstructive program, which is why López feels connected to Cameron's work. Theoretical underpinnings aside, López is open about his intention to "reveal a moment of collaboration and connection with each sitter, however brief." 

Photography is a medium old enough and pervasive enough to manipulate the artless and the artful not to mention that the face has been rendered flat by our selfie-centered narcissistic culture (which explains why López chooses to sign his exhibition with a selfie a-la-Cameron)

Tomás López, Self-portrait Scanogram, 2010-2017

This selfie opens up the possibility of a new López series.

1 Christian Metz defines the "ideal" movement as that transition between one image and another "even if each image is still." Cited in Justin Remes, Motion(less) Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis, Columbia University Press, 2015, p. 11.The first quote is from the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. He  coins the term Human Sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) in his Introduction to the Human Sciences of 1883. Human Sciences range from disciplines like philology, literary and cultural studies, religion, anthropology, and psychology, to political science and economics. Regarding the advent of History and Photography, I'd like to bring this interesting quote from Barthes:
But history is a form of memory fabricated from positive recipes, a purely intellectual discourse which abolishes mythic Time; and Photography is a sure testimony, but a fleeting one; to such an extent that today, everything tends to prepare our species for an incapacity, which will soon be with us: an incapacity to conceive, either affectively or symbolically, of duration: the era of photography is also that of revolutions, contestation, assault and explosion—in short, of different forms of impatience, of all that is opposed to the notion of maturing.
Stephen Bann's Introduction to Roland Barthes, "The Discourse of history," Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook 3 (1981) 5,6). Bann advances that Nadar is "one of the most dedicated memorialists of the Nineteenth Century." 3 Matthew Biro states: "The rise of digital recording and Photoshop manipulation have called into question the photography's claims to truthful representation to such a degree that some critics prefer to consider digital photography a different medium that that of analog photography."  4 The definition of digital image is clear: A numeric (usually binary) representation of a two dimmensional image. Michael Fried's point adds a new layer for the reception of objectivity in Photography. There are three moments to "theatricality": 1- Between mid-Eighteenth and mid-Nineteenth centuries, painters developed various strategies to defeat theatricality, each one ultimately failing. 2- With Courbet we have the climax of this development, since the artist merges with his paintings as he recognizes and abolishes theatricality's pull. 3- Manet embodies the final crisis of the antitheatrical ideal. His work explores a new radical "facingness" through the direct gazes of his subjects. Now theatricality finally acknowledges the presence of the beholder while making them participants. On the other hand, "anti-theatricality" happens when the elements of a picture are constructed without any visible concession being made to an audience, or even to the idea of an audience (Minimalism for examples achieves it). The image stands by itself as if independent of the audience's participation. This doesn't apply to López's Portrait Series. 5 At the bottom of this Daumier lithograph (1856), at the MET, one reads: "Nadar élevant la Photographie à la hauteur de l'Art." 6 Cameron is perhaps the first to use close up photography. See Martin W. Sandler, An Illustrated History of Photography, (Oxford U. Press, 2002) p.  31. 7 This point in worth keeping in mind. Cameron, as a distant member of the Pre-Raphaelites, exhibits a "forward" sensibility masked as a rejection to the present and a return to a past. See Lindsay Smith, Victorian Photography: The Enigma of Visibility in Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites (Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 92, 135.  8 Lady Elizabeth Eastlake who wrote about photography for a number of magazines contributed vitally to photographic practice by offering a modern aesthetic. 9 In her study of Cameron's style, Mirjam Brusius suggests that Cameron’s work should be situated between "error" and "deliberate impreciseness," used as a visual style. Before the critical conversation concerning photographic detail became explicit, Cameron already understood the value of omitting details in a photographic portrait. But in 1860s the tradition of photography is a bit far from the achievements of Pictorialism (the international aesthetic movement in Photography of the 1890s and early Twentieth Century). Even "in" and "out of focus" were not established categories until the 1890s, when they became normative parameters in the nascent movement of art Photography. See Mirjam Brusius, "Impreciseness in Julia Margaret Cameron Portrait Photographs," History of Photograhy, 25 October 2010, Vol. 34 (4), p. 342-355. 10 López digital modus operandus was disclosed to this writer via email.

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