Paris Photo 2014 Panel Discussion

I was given the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion at Paris Photo this week. It was a group made up of established members of the fine art photo community, led by Rick Wester, a well-known gallerist and former auctioneer. Lisa Erf, curator of the highly respected JP Morgan collection was also on the panel, as was Victor de Bonnecaze, from the Galerie Daniel Templon. This year Templon dedicated its entire Paris Photo selection to Staged Photography, my favorite sub-genre within the world of photography. Also on the panel was Vanessa Hallett from the auction house Phillips, where she is the Senior Director and Worldwide Head of the Photographs group. Finally, we were joined by Sondra Gilman and her life-partner Celso Gonzalez-Falla, who began collecting photography in 1955.

The goal was to discuss how technology has changed the process of collecting photography. We spoke about the ways it’s becomes easier for a gallerist to show collectors an artist’s work beyond the gallery space, and how artists are able to maintain their own web presence. We also touched on the problem inherent to image overload. Art work is all over the internet without attribution to artists, never mind the galleries where a viewer might buy such an image. Some art blogs, like the Staged Photography Tumblr do a good job of attributing the artists to the respective work, and even identifying distinct series.

I explained that I use social media and my blog as a tool to stay in touch with people who like my work, and to share some of the thought process and the production that goes into my work. I don’t simply feed images into the ether. Simply put: Facebook “Likes” may be fun, but they don’t necessarily translate into work that makes it way into curated collections or people’s homes.

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Another problem is scale. Even the largest monitor is not as big as many pieces of contemporary fine art photography. This matters a lot, because the eye travels through an image differently according to size. Elements within a picture have a certain relationship, and they take on different levels of importance if they cannot be seen within the same field-of-view. Consider a portrait, for example. I can view it on a monitor, and can focus my interest to a specific part of the face. But a huge portrait on a wall doesn’t permit me to see the whole face at once unless I step way back, and a normal viewing distance forces me to look at it the same way I might explore a landscape… I see an eye, a mouth, the line of the hair… but not the whole face.  This is an important and powerful part of photography.

I think we missed a real opportunity though. I tried to broach the topic of technology in the creation of new work, but it didn’t make its way into the broader conversation. I believe it matters, but more traditional collectors still think about photography and the underlying collecting process as something based on paper prints. But contemporary photography doesn’t require a film negative, nor the positives that are made from it.

There are artists who use digital technology as a primary tool in their work. Ruud van Empel and Simen Johan are both artists who are deeply involved in digital collage, one more overtly than the other. Other artists such as Erwin Olaf or David LaChapelle fine-tune their image using digital post-production. But most importantly, contemporary artists have a myriad of display materials available to them. We can use a large selection of surfaces on which to print images. I have seen artists print on linen, leather, cardboard, aluminum, and all kinds of paper that is then bonded to glass or acrylics. I use a combination of waxed paper and a difficult-to-use matte acrylic in combination, and neither the material choice nor the production pathway would be an option if I didn’t have the proper technology available to enable it. You can read about my process in a previous blog post.

Unfortunately, at Paris Photo I also saw a number of photographers use material that I consider inappropriate for the image or its subject. Some images work well on a light box, but many do not. Another material which is frequently misused is acrylic Diasec, which is an incredibly rich and glossy material that brings out contrast and saturation within a picture, but is also quite reflective. Nuances are lost when an image has to compete with the elements reflected from the room in which it hangs.

I was able to make this point to collectors: the new materials are one more reason why you really have to see the work in real life. No matter how good an image looks on a screen, the ultimate choice made by the artist trumps all prior efforts. No matter how good the work is, the wrong presentation will kill it. A print needs the proper frame, a passe-partout, and some museum glass, but contemporary photographic art is more complex than that. A photographer can focus on taking pictures, but an artist has to make creative choices all the way through to the final piece.

The Crop

At some point in the late 1980s my father came home with a painting by Paul Delvaux. He’d never really been into Surrealist art. On the contrary, at the time he was collecting work by Photorealists, a painting style that at first glance emulates the gloss and shine familiar from photographs, and relies on ultra-realism to make its point. But this painting fascinated him. Simply entitled Tête de Femme, it was a beautiful face of a woman, her shoulders rising and suggesting that her arms are aloft, like so many other women in Delvaux’s paintings. It’s smaller than most of Delvaux’s work, who used to paint relatively large canvases. There’s a reason it’s smaller.

Paul Delvaux - Tete de Femme

Apparently he was unhappy with the painting, or at least the direction it was going. Delvaux cropped the head out of the canvas, and discarded everything else. I have always wondered what else there was. I’ve seen plenty of Delvaux’s work since, but the light on the face is unlike any of his other work. It’s not a painting he attempted again, nor are there any pencil sketches or water-colours of a related motif. Because Delvaux was a Surrealist, almost anything could have been happening right beyond that frame. It lit up my imagination, but the lack of information also frustrated me. I wanted to see the rest of the painting!

So when I began to reduce my own work down to various crops that held my attention, I realized that some of the images might be visually compelling, but I feared they would become meaningless without context. At the same time, I found a conflict between the elements I found visually compelling, and the narrative. The story told by the image may be interesting, but sometimes the beauty is in the smaller details.

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The image above is one of two Paolo and Francesca pieces. The original image I created around the two lovers was very tall, the two of them laying spent at the bottom of a tall frame with soft fabrics rising high up into the darkness. But the two of them seemed lost in it, and it didn’t tell the story. It is hard to depict the trance two lovers enter into after they consummate real love with deep lust. So the image was cut down to leave only the lovers, impossibly folded into one another after they had exhausted themselves. I found their hands beautiful, they said so much about the moment, but after cropping two reduced little frames I felt there was nothing left to connect them to the story I had set out to tell. They had no context. I decided to retain parts of the image, but to present them differently. You can read about the physical production in my previous post.

Two nights ago I was sitting with my creative assistant Lars Theuerkauff, we were arguing over whether crops without context work, whether they sufficiently communicate the intended moment. He felt strongly they did, but I told him that context is key. If we know the image, then a visual abbreviation is all we need. We can mentally reduce an image to its visual shorthand (pun intended!) if we know what happens around it. Ironically enough, the Taverna we were sitting in near Kollwitz Platz in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg had this poster hanging from a cross-beam above the entrance:

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But Lars made another valid point. As beautiful as Baroque religious art may be, most of it was illustrative in nature. Its goal was to tell a story to people who couldn’t read, not to communicate a feeling exchanged in a moment. Those paintings rarely elicited a sense of beauty and recognition within the eye of the beholder, but told a story while imbuing their viewers with a sense of awe. My goals are lot more earthly and simple.

…and sometimes, you simply can’t trust a crop.

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Quiet Devotion

I have been shooting my Quiet Devotion project for over two years now, and have undergone a number of major life events that have impacted upon the evolution of the series. What began as an angry lash-out at whatever residual issues I might have had with institutinalized religion has finally resolved itself in post-narrative depiction.

The images have become reductions of stories, more like pencil sketches rather than sweeping epic dramatizations. My early illustrative images with large sets and groups of people have been replaced by simpler constructions. Like any feeling, thinking artist I am awed by late Renaissance and Baroque masters, whose paintings illustrate the greatest stories ever told, whether biblical, mythical, or ovidian. These paintings often hinge on their details, which give the key to the work. I came to love and look at them through these details, so I sought to bring that out in my own work, and my original title for the series was The Sacred and the Profane. But photographers have faired poorly when attempting to cover this narrative territory, convoluting their images with details that turn into meaningless props and pointless postures once they are no longer accomplishments of painted labor. As an artist working within the genre of staged photography it is liberating to distill a story to its core emotion captured in a simple gesture or curve of the back, illuminated through the use of chiaroscuro.

As a photographer I arrange the elements in my images rather than simply catching a certain moment, and place distinct emphasis within the overall frame. Creatively, staged photography offers both substantial narrative opportunity, but also a certain risk to clarity. It is tempting to fill an image with symbolic elements, but if the shot composition isn’t perfect then the image can slide into illustrative overload, or a simple aggregation of meaningless beauty. I found myself obsessing over details, and isolating those through a series of ever-tighter crops. However, these cropped details are lost without their context. A set of intertwined hands, a basket of fruits, or the folds in a curtain become meaningless if there is no bigger picture behind it.

I wanted both: to draw attention to certain elements of the image, and to show the context in which they occur.

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Two years ago I discovered a printing process that only one fine art print shop in the world can execute – and the way to produce the images I had envisioned. I only found out about the exclusive nature of the material after I fell in love with it, but I knew this matte acrylic Diasec C-Print process was the medium I needed for the Sacred & Profane series. It is incredibly beautiful, but very difficult to use. There is a richness to the texture, but at the same time it makes the image feel removed, in some ways otherworldly. As part of the cropping process, it was my plan to use different print media, one I had used previously. I crop out certain parts of the image, and print those on a waxed paper using a Ditone archival pigment process.

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Two of these images were hanging on one of my studio walls, though one of them has since been sold. Key to this series is that every piece is unique. There are no editions. When I’ve created pieces that are related to one another, the crops are different. No image will ever be used again, nor will a related image have an identical crop.

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The steel frames are German precision work. We tried to weld some ourselves at the studio for the first prototypes, but were unable to get anywhere near the level of quality that I require. I use 3 millimetre rolled steel throughout the series, it represents a vestigial reminder of baroque ornate gold-leafed framing. The slightly shiny reflective areas where the oiled steel bounces light off the edges gives it a formal setting. It’s at odds with the industrial nature of the rolled oiled steel, as is the physical weight of the material in contrast to its appearance. It’s steel, but it looks fragile and elegant.

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Notice the detail of the shadow reveal that is defined by the 3 millimetre steel running less than 2 millimetres away from the matte acrylic Diasec print. I ask for fully detailed CAD files for every piece before it enters physical production, so that all participants have plans to work from. Click here if you’re interested in seeing a screen shot of this particular piece.

I am grateful for German precision coupled with an appreciation for fine art. I’m glad that my team has made it possible to execute work at this level of quality. Because once we get to the internal frames, which define the crops and give the project its conceptual architecture, there is no tolerance for fault at all. The frames run nearly flush against the matte Diasec acrylic, but also encase the Ditone print on the waxed paper. The cropped component is set back a full 25 millimetres (or one inch!) from the front of the image.

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In the first phase I print out the complete image using the matte acrylic Diasec, and then use a computer-driven precision saw with a diamond drill-bit to physically cut out the cropped area. During the second production phase the frames are set into place, around the outer perimeter as well as within the crops. In the final phase the waxed paper crop prints are mounted on aluminum, and then installed into the sawed-out and framed spaces.

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I will write more in the coming days about the series. There is a lot that I want to explain about its evolution and my arrival at the cropping process, as well as the technical production. I am very excited about where this project has taken me, and even though it took several years, I look forward to shooting a lot more images. But obviously I’m also quite proud of where the project has gone physically and technically.

Paris Photo 2014

Every November the fine art world comes together to focus on photography. The loose umbrella over hundreds of different shows is the European Month of Photography, or EMOP, as no one ever really calls it. Member cities besides my hometown Berlin include Athens, Bratislava, Budapest, Ljubljana, Luxembourg and Vienna. Just in Berlin alone there are over 250 different shows being mounted over a four week period, ranging from the highly respected to the young and collegiate.

But the one city – and the one show – most of us think about during this Mois de la Photo is Paris. Because every November, the most important art fair for photography is the venerable PARIS PHOTO taking place in the magnificent Grand Palais. It is the most important photo art fair of the year. The leading galleries present their contemporary artist’s new work, classic prints in their rarest editions are on offer, and the various photo book specialists display their first editions and published eccentricities. PARIS PHOTO has become such a heavy-weight in the world of fine art photography that a number of satellite shows like Foto Fever have sprung up around it, the local galleries display their photographic artists, and the major auction houses Sotheby’s as well as Christies hold their photography auctions in Paris at the end of that week.

After showing at fairs like Milan’s MIA, and Tokyo Photo, it is my great pleasure to be represented at Paris Photo this year. It’s my first time, and I’m excited to finally show my “Sacred & Profane” series. And I’ll be honest – seeing my name on the roster of artists feels good. I’m confident in my work, so I’m looking forward to seeing it amongst photographers whom I consider role models, peers, or contemporaries. As an artist, the knighthood you seek to have bestowed on you is to be represented at Paris Photo. It means you have finally ascended to a place where your work is being seen by those who who have made photographic art a major element of their lives. Stop by Stand D11 to meet Galerie CAMERA WORK, who will be happy to tell you about my work, and that of other great photographers they represent.

Profane

The first time he calls you holy,
you laugh it back so hard your sides hurt.
The second time,
you moan gospel around his fingers
between your teeth.
He has always surprised
you into surprising yourself.
Because he’s an angel hiding his halo
behind his back and
nothing has ever felt so filthy
as plucking the wings from his shoulders—
undressing his softness
one feather at a time.
God, if you’re out there,
if you’re listening,
he fucks like a seraphim,
and there’s no part of scripture
that ever prepared you for his hands.
Hands that map a communion
in the cradle of your hips.
Hands that kiss hymns up your sides.
He confesses how long he’s looked
for a place to worship and,
oh,
you put him on his knees.
When he sinks to the floor and moans
like he can’t help himself,
you wonder if the other angels
fell so sweet.
He says his prayers between your thighs
and you dig your heels into the base of his spine
until he blushes the color of your filthy tongue.
You will ruin him and he will thank you;
he will say please.
No damnation ever looked as cozy as this,
but you fit over his hips like they
were made for you.
You fit, you fit, you fit.
On top of him, you are an ancient goddess
that only he remembers and he
offers up his skin.
And you take it.
Who knew sacrifice was so profane?
And once you’ve taught him how to hold
your throat in one hand
and your heart in the other,
you will have forgotten every other word
except his name.

 

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Poem by Ashe Vernon, image by me. It’s a crop from an image that I’m probably not using in the Sacred & Profane series.

Fighting the Church

I was reading Georgio Agamben on my long flight to New York, and I had to think about the infallibility of our banks. I am very far away from occupying Wall Street any time soon, I have no problem navigating the new religious order most of the time. But my father always said that if the state or the banks want your money, they will find a way to take it.

In order to understand what is taking place, we have to interpret Walter Benjamin’s idea that capitalism is really a religion literally, the most fierce, implacable and irrational religion that has ever existed because it recognizes neither truces nor redemption. A permanent worship is celebrated in its name, a worship whose liturgy is labor and its object, money. God did not die; he was transformed into money. The Bank—with its faceless drones, delirious traders, and its finance-structure experts—has taken the place of the church with its priests, and by its command over credit (even the granting of tax certificates, which has enabled the state to blithely abdicated its sovereignty), manipulates and manages the faith—the scarce and uncertain faith—that still remains to it in our time.

The claim that today’s capitalism is a religion is most effectively demonstrated by the headlines appearing on the front pages of major national newspapers these days: “Save the Euro Regardless of the Cost”. Well, “salvation” is a religious concept, but what does “regardless of the cost” mean? Even at the cost of sacrificing human lives? Only within a religious perspective (or, more correctly, a pseudo-religious perspective) could one make such plainly absurd and inhuman statements.

We need to save our banks because we need banks, we need to maintain our system because we are not anarchists, but we need to remember that it’s an ecosystem that serves us all.

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Love is hard

The truth is that the more intimately you know someone, the more clearly you’ll see their flaws. That’s just the way it is. This is why marriages fail, why children are abandoned, why friendships don’t last. You might think you love someone until you see the way they act when they’re out of money or under pressure or hungry, for goodness’ sake. Love is something different. Love is choosing to serve someone and be with someone in spite of their filthy heart. Love is patient and kind, love is deliberate. Love is hard. Love is pain and sacrifice, it’s seeing the darkness in another person and defying the impulse to jump ship.

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A picture I took a long time ago.

Poetry and Mystery

People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image; By asking what does this mean? they express a wish that everything be understandable. But if one does not reject the mystery, one has quite a different response. One asks other things. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.

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Quote from René Magritte, image from my Sacred & Profane series.

Lilith

If I failed, Adam,
to gratify your every whim,
look me in the eye,
ask that I leave by

blue dusk to mask the flame
of my hair, your tearful shame
only witnessed by our Sculptor
as you demand He mold another.

Make certain she is formed from you
so she will never question the true
nature of her existence,
so the only resistance

you’ll encounter is in dreams,
my hands and mouth and streams
of flaming curls, your throat choking on
my name as you roll awake at dawn.

Your lips will part to call the one you’re with
but all your heart will ever howl is Lilith.

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Poem by Ciara Shuttleworth, image from my Sacred & Profane series.

You will remember

We all have the potential to fall in love a thousand times in our lifetime. It’s easy.

But there are certain people you love who do something else; they define how you classify what love is supposed to feel like. These are the most important people in your life, and you’ll meet maybe four or five of these people over the span of 80 years. But there’s still one more tier to all this; there is always one person you love who becomes that definition. It usually happens retrospectively, but it always happens eventually. This is the person who unknowingly sets the template for what you will always love about other people, even if some of those qualities are self-destructive and unreasonable.

You will remember having conversations with this person that never actually happened. You will recall sexual trysts with this person that never technically occurred. This is because the individual who embodies your personal definition of love does not really exist. The person is real, and the feelings are real—but you create the context. And the context is everything.

The person who defines your understanding of love is not inherently different than anyone else, and they’re often just the person you happen to meet the first time you really, really want to love someone. But that person still wins. They win, and you lose. Because for the rest of your life, they will control how you feel about everyone else.

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Artist Block

One reason that people have artist’s block is that they do not respect the law of dormancy in nature. Trees don’t produce fruit all year long, constantly. They have a point where they go dormant. And when you are in a dormant period creatively, if you can arrange your life to do the technical tasks that don’t take creativity, you are essentially preparing for the spring when it will all blossom again.

— Marshall Vandruff

Desire to make Art

It seems to me that the desire to make art produces an ongoing experience of longing, a restlessness sometimes, but not inevitably, played out romantically, or sexually. Always there seems something ahead, the next poem or story, visible, at least, apprehensible, but unreachable. To perceive it at all is to be haunted by it; some sound, some tone, becomes a torment – the poem embodying that sound seems to exist somewhere already finished. It’s like a lighthouse, except that, as one swims towards it, it backs away.

– Louise Glück, Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry