Friday, February 26, 2010

A Critical Review: In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes Before the Digital Age

By Sarah Miller

This show on display in the West building of the National Gallery holds an ambitious goal: to present, through pieces from the permanent collection of the museum, the evolution of photographic processes since its origins, thus covering approximately 170 years of work in this medium. The tone is immediately given: the processes are the guideline, the intention is didactic. The show is purposefully hanged chronologically, starting in the first room with the 19th century discovery of the medium, followed in the second with the first half of the 20th century's expanding explorations in black and white, and ending in the third room with the second half of the 20th century's use of color. This curatorial choice of presenting an overview spanning over a large expanse of time is of no surprise in such a location, as this historical basis allows the museum to display the varied highlights of its collection in a perfectly rational way.

And here comes what must have been the main struggle in setting up such a show: how does one find a balance between the rational and the sensitive, the Apollonian clarity of the argument (the evolution of processes) and Dionysian freedom of the medium (the expression in each piece). In other words, how does one find a balanced way to underline technical components without overshadowing the aesthetic quality and specific implications of each work on display, or extracting them from their context.

I must admit that my first experience of the show resembled that of watching a movie with subtitles, where the eye is at first caught to the writing and distracted from the visual frame. Each label is indeed rich with explanations, and one easily gets caught up in them (in a positive way, re-freshening one's knowledge), with the potential danger of reading more than looking. This aspect is accentuated if one takes the time to look at the accompanying catalog where the 27 processes, to be exact, are presented in alphabetical order. The book thus becomes a referential tool rather than a literal catalog with illustrations of the work on display. It becomes a manual, organizing facts which may be found in generic textbooks on photography, instead of recording an event, the reunion of a certain selection of works from a certain place at a certain time.

Though the explanatory aspect of the show is definitely present, it is luckily not completely overwhelming. No facsimile darkroom was set up, nor were any devices such as developing tanks, pans, enlargers, drying racks, nor were any papers, glass or negatives displayed. Thus I do feel the focus can still be kept to a certain extent on the works themselves.

The first photograph on entering the show perfectly epitomizes the issue raised here and illustrates the curatorial decision of explaining photographic processes whilst trying not to make a purely cold technical statement or being too demonstrative. The piece in question is Under the Dark Cloth, Monument Valley, May 27, taken by Mark Klett in 1987. It seems like most visitors barely notice this lead-in photograph and jump to Talbot's Lace, missing the introduction. This gelatin silver print is interesting in several regards. First of all, it presents a mise en abyme as it is a photograph of a photograph being taken: a shot taken from “under the dark cloth”, looking through the view finder of an old fashioned camera, showing the landscape of the American West upside-down. The basic operation of the camera obscura, ancestor of modern photography and known since the Renaissance, is therefore astutely recorded. This piece hence becomes a picture of the original darkroom, the one where the outside world reflected itself upside-down through a tiny hole of light, the one which helped Canaletto draw Venice's perspectives, and which even before that, was discussed by Aristotle. But this piece is certainly not simply about documenting a process as it carries a somewhat melancholic feeling, bringing into a contemporary image both the memories of the camera obscura, and the grandeur of nineteenth century landscapes. Layers of time echo through the piece, just as the composition is itself filled with echos: the frame of the picture is repeated in the rectangular frame of the view finder. The photographer's hand positioned on the latter with a thumb raised upward resonates with the famous anthropomorphic rocky form. The light-skinned human hand detaches itself on the dark ground of the curtain, while the dark natural shape of Monument Valley is cut out on a clear sky. This photography is particularly well chosen for the general theme of the show as it is demonstrative and expressive all at once.

If one manages not to be overwhelmed by the didactic aspect of the show and allows himself to forget the possibly claustrophobic feeling created by this reunion of almost two centuries of work in such a small place, one must then deal with another issue: a great number of works are famous images which a viewer with a minimum of photographic culture will immediately recognize, and what is immediately recognized becomes invisible. The Baudelaire portrait by Carjat struck me the most in this regard, as I associated it directly to the cover of my copy of the Fleurs du Mal and had difficulties truly looking at it for its intrinsic qualities . However, the placement of this portrait at the epicenter of the show was very interesting and seemed meaningful in regards of another issue: the status of photography as document or art. I found myself looking back and forward at two pieces curiously hanging face to face: a portrait by Diane Arbus and Baudelaire's taken by Carjat. And there was the shifting point: For the first, the name of the photographer came to my mind, for the second, it was that of the portrayed. However, Baudelaire's portrait is no less art, as it functions just as an anonymous religious icon would. Indeed, though photography records every little detail under the light at the moment of the shot, the end result is never a replica of life and always becomes something else: the portrait by Carjat is not Baudelaire, but part of the myth created around this figure, now established as the father of modernism. The photography thus becomes a signifier, as much as a painting would be.

As a last point, I would like to comment on the chronological organization which allows a clear development to be shown, but does on the other hand come with constraints and an unavoidable limitation: it does not leave much space to display the multiple discoveries explored within one given process. It places the processes on a time-line where each of them is fixed and anchored to a point, becoming part of the past and revolved as soon as the next process is discovered. The whole creative range sparked from a specific technique, from its invention to the present day, stays concealed. In this regard, I was lucky enough, shortly after my visit at the National Gallery, to travel to the Metropolitan in New York where an other photography show entitled Surface Tension is currently on view. This exhibit focuses on contemporary artists addressing the question of tension between the photograph as a window with illusionist depth, and as a physical two-dimensional surface. No chronology guides the viewer yet examples of cyanotypes, gelatin silver prints, polaroid, chromogenic prints, along with digital images are all on display. The most recent piece of the show made in 2008 by Chrisitan Marclay is in fact a cyanotype, which is the first process shown at the National Gallery with Ferns by Anna Atkins. Thus older discoveries are re-actualized and the possibilities they engendered seem open-ended.

Furthermore, this show at the Metropolitan explores not only technical processes but also other creative processes such as scratching, burning, or painting on the photograph. Lucas Samaras' Photo transformation may illustrate this the best, as the artists scratches the wet emulsions of the instant print while it is developing. The specificity of the polaroid as a process thus become very explicit through this work., much more so than David Levinthal's large piece Untitled (from Mein Kampf) which was, according to the label at the National Gallery, an example to observe evidence of the peel apart process (the viewer was advised to look at the edges of the photograph to notice the visible traces of the peeling). Looking at the process in this perspective in this particular case became a sterile activity. The Metropolitain show was liberating and complimentary to the National Gallery as “process” in this parallel context no longer strictly designated technical invention, but rather inventive ways of using technique.

Finally, one last questionable aspect concerning a chronological decision may be raised: that of stopping the show “before the digital age”, as though the new age ended the old. The old being the darkroom, where manipulations are complex and timely, the new may appear to be defined through this implicit opposition as easy and instantaneous, which is interestingly what early photography was considered to be (in opposition to painting which was considered much more tedious and time consuming). Without going too far into this interpretation, we may also notice that the title “in the darkroom” is not strictly followed as several of the processes included in the show have no relation to the darkroom and avoid it altogether. It is indeed the case for the early cyanotype , or the photogenic drawings by William Henry Fox Talbot, or even with the later Polaroids. Hence, instead of an implicit opposition carried through the title between the “Darkroom” (which is not rigorously respected) and the “Digital Age” (which stands as a great enigma-taboo), it would have been interesting to introduce an opening on digital photography, and maybe develop the idea of a continuum with the precedent processes.

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