Photofairs San Francisco opens this week. It’s one of the major global photographic art fairs, and to my taste the most interesting one in North America.
Unfortunately, my work will not be showing there, for the simple reason that it involves nudity. My gallery was literally briefed not to bring any of my “sexy nudes.”
It’s a huge disappointment, because artists have few other possibilities to show work to the public. Every gallery show and especially every fair is a great opportunity to connect with people who genuinely care about art. Artists usually work on their own or with a small team, so the chance to present the work and interface with the public is extremely important. I feel particularly strongly about this, since my work is sculptural and not simply photographic, which makes it difficult to fully grasp if you just see a two-dimensional jpeg on the internet. I am a firm believer that art should be experienced in person anyway. My new pieces have a specific physicality. They are made from various acrylics and metal, and extend beyond the image, which is a deliberate choice to introduce an interplay between light and shadow that changes with the light throughout the day.
I am particularly disappointed, because this year the fair has a special section for staged and sculptural work. As the curators describes it, “STAGED explores the relationship between photography and other art forms such as installation art, sculpture, video and painting.” …if ever there was a theme which encompasses what I do, this would be it.
But I was disinvited, probably out of an overabundance of caution in the current atmosphere where museums have been called upon to censor contentious works or artists. This is frustrating because my work is not intended to be sexy, and I was not given a chance to show different pieces or to plead my case. It is worth mentioning that the very same organisers had approved it for Photofairs Shanghai in the past. But apparently nudity cannot be shown in America at the moment, unless it’s vintage, ugly, or of/by someone famous.
Nudity is part of the universal human art language, and has been around since the beginning. I’m not about to walk my readers through art history. If in doubt I recommend Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images, a must-read anyway.
Nudity cannot be automatically equated with sexuality. Most of my images depict the human body as an expression of emotion, not as a sexual object. Also, in a lot of my work, most of the body is obfuscated. That decision is not about objectification, but an artistic device to include a second shot composition and direct the eye’s consumption of the overall piece. That’s hard to understand when viewing a small picture on a screen, but when experienced live in full size, that is how the pieces are intended to work.
There’s a hundred and fifty years of art school arguments that I don’t want to rehash. I don’t make work for the viewers to perceive a power differential between their own clothed presence and the nudity of the subject. Looking at a nude body does not make the viewer a voyeur or a sociopath. Not all nudity is unequivocally pornography. What about Ren Hang? Nan Goldin? Is nudity only acceptable if it is “real” and shot with on-camera flash? Is Herb Ritts’ work welcome at the fair because he’s famous? Do we reject his idolisation of beauty in favour of zits and armpit hair to permit nudity into contemporary photographic fine art? We need to be careful not to reduce photography to simple decoration, or incomprehensible abstraction. I’m not saying staged fine art nude photography is the only path there, but I wish it wasn’t closed off in fear of bullies.
I was especially hopeful to show my work in San Francisco because it’s a community that appreciates modern technology. A lot of the CNC (computer-numerical control) robots that I use to create my new work were developed in the Bay Area of Northern California. It’s German exactitude and American ingenuity, but in this case used to showcase my contemporary interpretation of Italian modernists. I’ve really been enamoured with Paolo Scheggi’s work, and he’s one of the artists that has served as a point of departure for the Spatial Concepts series.
His work was done with canvas, wire, and wood frames, whereas I rely on robots executing a carving program. I also use lasers to cut aluminium plates, but I combine this modern technology with one of the oldest art forms, the depiction of the human figure.
Paolo Scheggi is at the top, the other two images are simple previews and renders out of the 3D software. Over the next week my team and I are assembling the first ten pieces before my April show. I will be posting a lot of original new work, with actual installation shots. Regardless, I am very sorry to have missed this opportunity to be part of Photofairs San Francisco, and hope that next year they’ll reconsider the inclusion of nudes. I wanted to show this new work, and to explain my process to a receptive audience.
We have all heard about the casual easy life that artists get to live. Get up at noon, have a long breakfast while re-reading Infinite Jest, then meander over to the studio. Late night work with nude models, organic cigarettes and art-house dub-step…
Yeah, not really.
If you’re serious about being an artist you have to pay attention to the details, and push yourself out into the world. This notion that an artist toils away in a rarefied world of exquisite isolation is a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t work. No one is going to just discover you one day, then lift you out of obscurity. Those days are over, and I’m not sure that ever really actually happened. Unfortunately no one is going to do this work for you, so you have to do it yourself. It is a LOT of work to stay in touch with people in your network, to let people know what you’re working on, and to present your work at the appropriate time in the best venue.
Being an artist isn’t just making wonderfully creative work. The hard part is often the execution. If you paint you better have clean brushes, stretched canvases, and access to good framing. You need your tools to make art, and to present it. The same is true in every other discipline. As a photographic artist, I need my gear to be ready. But the most time-consuming work is printing. It takes inordinate amounts of time to find the right paper, to profile it correctly, and then to fine-tune the images until they look they way you envisioned them.
Preparing the Hanjo book right now is even more difficult, because it is a collaboration between several craftspeople. The printer is helping me evaluate different papers and the way the ink penetrates the surface of the hand-made paper. The carpenter is building the very detailed and exquisite boxes, silk screens are applied to the outside, and a book-binder is assembling the leporellos. The graphic lay-out requires fine-tuning, and the business around it needs to be put in place. Display stand, limited edition certificates, and shipping crates are all being made to get everything to Japan in time for Tokyo Photo 2013. Unfortunately none of these people are even in the same city, so everything needs to be shipped back and forth, or picked up and driven half-way across Brandenburg, before it can get on a plane to Asia.
All of this has me pretty frazzled and stressed. This is how I felt yesterday afternoon…
But I’m not complaining loudly. It’s being managed by my publisher at Galerie Vevais, I’m just high strung and hyper nervous. And honestly…? This is the good stuff. This is what it means to be an artist in this genre. Yes, we love to create images, to sketch out new ideas, or to pin mood boards to Pinterest. It’s the emergence of the image from a great data file into the physical world that lifts it into a new realm. I envy my friends who shoot Polaroids or Collodions… they end up with a piece of art much faster.
Last night I attended Eugenio Recuenco’s gallery opening at the respected and influential Galerie Camera Work in Berlin. The show is hanging at the CWC Galerie, their space at the Alte Mädchenschule on August Strasse. It’s a marvelous space, and an appropriate venue for Recuenco’s work. Camera Work represents some of the best-known photographic artists in the world, but also fosters a growing roster of emerging artists. I am one of these emerging artists, as is Eugenio. He is a well-known and much-loved commercial photographer, and has created some of the most memorable campaigns. Often compared to Tim Walker, I find his editorials to be less whimsical, but with a nice nod to a certain darkness, not unlike Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen or even his City of Lost Children. Even though Eugenio Recuenco is a well-known photographer, he is only now emerging into the world of fine art photography.
Eugenio and I work in the same style. We come up with an idea, and then we stage and construct it. Sets get built, clothing is created, and make-up is matched to the story. None of the images are serendipitous shots that are stumbled upon, we create carefully composed pictures. This particular show was a sort of retrospective, a compilation of greatest hits. Although I usually prefer to see photographic art in a cohesive series, it made sense in this case; Recuenco has an incredibly large body of work to draw from.
I’m not going to pretend. When I am looking at the work of a fellow photo artist in the same genre, I cannot help but look at every aspect of the work, and critique it. This isn’t a question of being snarky or jealous. As an artist I make creative choices, and I see where a fellow artist made the same choices, or different ones.
One deserved compliment must be made for Eugenio’s overall technical excellence, especially the detail to set design and props. His images are wonderfully staged, and the colors and lighting are perfect. You can see years of editorial and commercial photography as a base. It is a powerful tool-set being wielded by competent hands.
The gallery invited some collectors and artists to dinner afterwards, and following a truly Bacchanalian amount of wine the conversation invariably turned to the work. I was asked by a small group of friends what I really thought, and I must admit I had some comments. One important creative choice that I would have definitely made differently is about the presentation of the work. A lot of people look at images on the web, or in magazines, so the question of appropriate presentation never arises. If you look at these two images from his fairytale series all you see are two beautiful photographs. But when you create art to hang on a wall, certain choices can make or break a piece. You need to consider the framing, the materials, and the size. Eugenio used different ways to show his work, much of which was printed photo paper behind glass. I don’t think that works, and it does the images a disservice. The glass is too reflective, and a lot of the darker images lose their impact because the glass becomes a mirror.
A small series inspired by the sinking Titanic was printed directly onto aluminum, and those pieces worked extremely well. There’s a brushed texture to the metal that makes it almost look like canvas. But these dark images reveal their metal surface in the highlights, and it is a pleasure to see the light reflect from the models’ faces or the white caps of the waves washing around the action.
Like a painter looking at another artist’s painting, I see the brush strokes. These are creative choices, there is no wrong or right to these decisions. I am intrigued by the slight softness around the faces of the subjects. A closer look at the prints shows they are razor-sharp in certain areas, but the faces aren’t. That’s a choice I quite admire. There’s a human instinct to seek eye-contact, and by softening the faces it sends the viewer back into the image to explore the rest of it. His prints are quite large, and there is a lot to explore.
There is one fundamental difference though. I have always sought to include a narrative element in my images. Even in my early work, my series called Hopper’s Americans, my goal was to create pictures that triggered a story in the viewer. My content criticism is that many of Recuenco’s images in this show are extremely beautiful, but the chance to re-envision the story was not taken. I love the classic fairy tales, but why not add a new twist? I like the Princess on the Pea and Cinderella, these are perfect pictures… but why not go one step further? Take the characters and add to the story. It seems like such a lost opportunity. Much of the work being exhibited in this retrospective of his work shows perfect execution, but only one image that I saw made a genuine attempt at re-imagining a situation. It is a visual quotation of Vermeer’s style.
It’s hard to tell how much of the work on display is pulled from fashion editorials and commercial campaigns. I mention it because it is unclear to me why the woman kneading the dough is wearing a couture dress and fine jewelry. Is it part of a fashion editorial, or is it an artistic choice he made for purely creative reasons? Vermeer was very specific in his depiction of the working people in his household. He was one of the first painters to show ordinary working people performing everyday activities, so seeing this well-dressed woman while a couple is having sex right behind her back leaves room for a lot of narrative interpretation. I like that. I did not have a chance to ask Eugenio why he staged the image like this. I saw the rest of the series on his website, and I love his version of the Death of Marat, though once again I don’t learn anything new about that story. It is purely a citation, not a jumping-off point.
I don’t want to criticize Eugenio Recuenco. He is a great photographer, a skilled craftsman, a colleague, and a genuinely creative person. I reflect on his work only because it makes me question my own choices. I look at this work in terms of what I might do different, and revisit my own creative decisions. His work is selling very well, which makes me happy for him, for this small genre of staged & constructed photography in which we both work, and it also makes me happy for Camera Work. People underestimate how much risk galleries take when championing an emerging artist – it would always be easier for them to show artists that already have committed collectors.
The reason I explore these differences is to point out how my work differs. My Sacred & Profane series is an on-going project. In it I explore my relationship with religion through the language of Baroque light. I try to look at it in a contemporary way, and I allow it to wander into uncomfortable territory.
Not all the images in this series are reinterpretations of classic depictions. There are plenty of image that work purely as aesthetic exercises, so I’m not about to fault Eugenio Recuenco’s work for being simply beautiful, or for people wanting to own it. I’ve got a few images that are primarily pretty rather than narrative. But you’ll got a chance to comment on my work April 2014, I look forward to hearing what you’ll think. I’m not showing much from the new series until then.
We see thousands of images every day. On websites, in magazines, on money, and selling us products and services from every conceivable surface… walls, buses, high-rises, billboards. There are marvelously beautiful, perfectly cast people smiling down at us. The images let us know that if we buy these products – if we use these services – if we take that trip – we will be better. Not quite as good as those incredible people in the advertisement, but better. They promise us that others will find us more attractive, or that we will be safer, or more respected by the community.
That wasn’t always the case. Until very recently, people only saw images occasionally. Go back four or five long generations, and people saw maybe one or two images a day… and before that, it would be a painting at a rich man’s house, or something dramatic in church. Those paintings served the same purpose… though they were selling a slightly different product. They would illustrate stories from the bible for the illiterate public, but the images also did something beyond being narrative. They let the beholder know that if they were pious, it would make them better. Not quite as good as the saints, but it would make them more attractive in the eyes of God, it would make them safer, it would make them respectable.
People have developed image filters. We had to. When dealing with so many images every day, we have learned to look and promptly dismiss what we’re being shown. We look, and instantly understand we’re supposed to use a certain body spray, buy a car, go on adventure, or simply smell like we might. We filter them out of our conscience.
But it is exactly at this point where I find creative opportunity. By using the language of commercial and fashion photography… Showing beautiful models, well-cast character actors, agile dancers, all placed inside narrative images, I breach the viewer’s image filter. The viewer recognizes the familiar language… but nothing is being sold; the filter breaks down. It is unclear what is being pitched, what the product is… and that is where I try to tell stories, to engage the mind that back-fills the missing narrative.
The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit… The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff… Any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours, it belongs to you. It’s yours to take, rearrange and re use. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe those companies nothing. You especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.
Banksy wrote that. I’m not planning on stenciling my images on concrete walls, nor re-purposing corporate logos or placing my art on top of their images, but I do like appropriating parts of that language. We’ve all become so fluent in it, why not use it for some visual storytelling…
I’m reading Camille Paglia’s “Glittering Images”, a book I recommend to anyone interested in art history and interpretation. It’s a series of short essays, covering about one hundred major pieces of art throughout history. The sub-title says it all: “A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars.” Of course her essays all have her strong dissident feminist twist to them.
In describing Titian’s “Venus with a Mirror” she writes: The hushed spectacle of a woman gazing into her mirror has exerted a powerful fascination on male artists. Is she a puppet of vanity, or a sorceress in eery dialogue with her double? Most feminists reject the mirror as Woman’s oppressor, the internalized eye of judgmental society.
Or, as John Berger wrote in “Ways of Seeing”
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear.
One of my all-time favorite images from a session I shot a long time ago, featuring Angela.
As a fine art photographer, I constantly find myself coming up against several important theoretical voices that have contributed to our field. Susan Sonntag’s essays “On Photography” is an important piece in that body of work.
Susan Sontag’s thoughts on photography were prescient when she wrote that “today, everything exists to end in a photograph.” It’s not quite how she meant it, but it seems people in the days of social media are incapable of living the moment… thousands of phones come out at every concert and sporting event. It is a permeable border to citizen’s journalism. People are somehow trying to preserve a moment rather than experiencing it. They’ll take a picture of the celebrity although pro-shooters will capture that moment much better and have it uploaded to the internet before the rest of us get home. I have always recommended to young photographers that if they shoot anything at such events, focus on the people around them… That will be a much more interesting and creative historic document. Or, as she put it in a rather snarky way: “Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.”
Much of what Susan Sontag wrote struck me as very condescending. “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” I prefer Robert Frank’s take on it, when he said in 2008 that “there are too many images…Too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.”
Of course, Sontag still thought of the photographer as a documentarian, not someone who stages image… which of course is ironic because she later became the life-partner of Annie Leibovitz, one of the great creators of staged and constructed images. Sontag wrote that “the painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” That’s nonsense when you back off the assertion that photography is defined by a caught moment. There is more to photography than a well-trained eye that perfectly captures the moment serendipitously stumbled upon. “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.”
Well, that isn’t true.
Some of us create our images, rather than prowl around hoping to find one… although this is the point where many parse the difference between a photographer and an artist. Photography as an art form is about creating a narrative, rather than capturing one. Sontag writes that “all photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” This sounds almost native-aborigine. The artist does not destroy, rather he brings stories to life. Especially when the goal is to engage in the retelling of myths, the images come from gifted ears and eyes that hear and see the song and dances of life. To freeze them is not to kill them, but rather to keep them alive.
There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.
— Émile Zola from a letter to Paul Cézanne
Art is rarely the result of true genius, rather it is a combination of hard work and skills learned and practiced by regular people and, in my case, I practiced my skills in spite of self-doubt so profound it can masquerade as vanity.
– Sally Mann
Shot a long time ago near the Sylter Watt, as I acquired my skills to become a craftsman.
Archaeologists have not yet discovered any stage of human existence without art. Even in the half-light before the dawn of humanity we received this gift from Hands we did not manage to discern. Nor have we managed to ask: Why was this gift given to us and what are we to do with it? And all those prophets who are predicting that art is disintegrating, that it has used up all its forms, that it is dying, are mistaken. We are the ones who shall die. And art will remain. The question is whether before we perish we shall understand all its aspects and all its ends.
Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Beauty Will Save the World
Fine art photography works best when it starts a story. An image doesn’t have to tell the whole story, but as a kick-off point few things can beat an interesting picture. Obviously this is what we expect of documentary-style photography, but it is even more acute when creating narrative images from nothing.
One thing I have learned about my style of photography is that it requires a personality. It is impossible for us to be small and grey, because we have to work with so many people to create the image.
Take a look at this wonderful video about Eleanor Antin and her recent series Inventing Histories, and you can see how much fun she is. Of course as an artist working in this particular medium you have to be deliberate, you have to know exactly what you want, and leave just enough to photographic coincidence to allow for magic.
The same holds true for Gregory Crewdson. In spite of the melancholy and pensive images that he creates, Gregory is a gregarious and generous person. On set all of us get a little bit more tense (and intense) than at other times, but working with a large team still requires the leader of this creative endeavor to hold it all together, to get people to do what needs to be done, and to stay creative throughout it.
Erwin Olaf may not seem unusually charming in this particular video, but I think it’s important to see how hands-on we have to be to get the shot. You have to do all of it… fine-tune the set, perfect the clothes, set the perfect final angle of every light. But where we obviously agree the most is our complete disdain for television and the obvious emotion, and our respect and homage to the great painters.
To create photographic images this way is a lot like painting. Every item must be justified, and then placed perfectly. Why is there a telephone in the picture? And is that the perfect spot for it? But unlike paintings, you can’t really paint over it afterward.
Antin references the Neo-Classicists, Crewdson told me he got a lot from Edward Hopper (I know that feeling!) and Olaf emulates Vermeer and probably the whole slew of other Dutch painters that used soft light so marvelously.
The other artist who draws a lot of inspiration from painters is David LaChapelle. I will admit that he is the exception to my observation that it requires huge personalities… Those of use who know him or have met him understand why that is.
I bring him up to make a final point: we all try to make beautiful images. If you have a deep understanding of the painters that came before you, and you’re going to create images out of nothing, you can bet that they will use Beauty as a key weapon in its visual arsenal. I have written about ugliness in contemporary photography before. I find it to be an admission of creative bankruptcy.
Being an artist is something I’ve returned to. I studied photography via photo-journalism, but after finishing university I focused on business. For a couple of years I was selling syndicated television shows and advertisement in New York. I left the City and returned to Berlin within weeks of the wall coming down, and worked with my father developing office properties during the day, while building my own business at night. D’Vision Records was a techno label, and it was one of the great and important experiences of my life to live through two parallel booms simultaneously. During those first years of unification real estate exploded in Berlin, while the city also became the epicenter of music and everything that came with it.
I’m not going to go on with an autobiography here, suffice it to say that I moved to California after a while and built some very exciting software companies in the course of my thirteen years there, which gave me the chance to experience yet another boom first-hand. When I moved back to Europe in 2007 it was because I had taken over a hotel refurbishment, briefly putting me back into my real estate mode.
The reason I point all of this out is because every business comes with its own distinct jargon. There is a certain lingua franca to every industry. It serves as a certain shorthand for concepts that are well established and don’t need to be reiterated at every point in the conversation. But honestly, a lot of language helps define a community, and acquiring the proper vocabulary is a rite of passage amongst younger people entering their particular world. Bright eyes filled with eager hope will parrot back words that barely make sense to anyone outside of the anointed circle. As you get older you take more pride in finding commonalities and analogies between practices, and then of course there is the smarmy self-confidence of business school graduates who force a language of their own on everything because in their mind, business is just business. Who needs details and experience if you can describe the template?
But no language is weirder, more insular, and as contrived as International Art English. Just read the artist statements in galleries, and you will quickly see what I mean.
Read the User’s Guide to Art English in the Guardian, which summarizes a study conducted by David Levine and Alix Rule. It’s fabulous. They conducted an investigation into thousands of artist’s statements and published their report on Triple Canopy. They call IAE “a unique language” that has “everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English. It’s oddly pornographic: we know it when we see it.”
The Guardian cites a great example. I’ll skip the artist and gallery’s name because I know neither, and don’t want to disrespect work I’ve never seen simply because some eager Gallerina wrote up a text to impress her fellow art-school alumni, but the article describes the work, and then cites the statement in full International Art English:
[The work is a] dozen small pink skulls in glass cases face the door. A dozen small bronze mirrors, blandly framed but precisely arranged, wink from the walls. In the deep, quiet space of the London gallery, shut away from Mayfair’s millionaire traffic jams, all is minimal, tasteful and oddly calming.
Until you read the exhibition hand-out. “The artist brings the viewer face to face with their own preconceived hierarchy of cultural values and assumptions of artistic worth,” it says. “Each mirror imaginatively propels its viewer forward into the seemingly infinite progression of possible reproductions that the artist’s practice engenders, whilst simultaneously pulling them backwards in a quest for the ‘original’ source or referent that underlines [her] oeuvre.”
Awesome. Mission accomplished … and that wasn’t even that bad or incomprehensible. Nonetheless the general audience feels stupid, while insiders can use the same language to reference work by other artists, thus eliminating the need to interface with the work on hand. It’s wanky, it’s called playing to the curator, and is a prime example of how language can be exclusionary.
Art needs language, as much as we want to insist that it should speak for itself. It is rarely given that opportunity. And invariably it will require esoteric terminology, and words that are shorthand for entire concepts. I understand that this is easier to do in hindsight, and careers or whole movements are clearer than individual pieces or series. It’s been only a week since I asked for help defining my particular style of narrative photography. There is a need to express what we do as artists. But there is no need to veer into deep bullshit. And believe me, I’ve seen worse. I read an artist’s press release recently that was describing the work to be shown in Miami while Art Basel’s Miami fair was going on. It sounded like a compilation of Scrabble winners served over a bed of Hollywood dot-com blather… No, I’m not gonna link to it.
But… if you’d like to have some fun, here’s a link to Arty Bollocks, a site that will generate a statement if you’re having a tough time writing your own. And just to “keep it real” I’ll link to one of my own wankier concepts.
I am a fan of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. I have been since my first tastes of art history in boarding school, but as a photographer it has taken me many years to get to a point where it was clear how I would approach this subject matter. It is a challenge on so many levels. There is the technical aspect of dealing with darkness and how to transition out of the backgrounds into the subjects. There is the need to build minimal sets that provide a setting, but don’t dominate the image. His work was always about the characters, rarely about the setting itself. Casting has to be right, the poses need to be deliberate, and then finally – and most importantly – there is a fine line that must be crossed again and again between beauty and content. If you are going to play with Renaissance light, then you also need to tell stories, and they must be beautifully told.
Caravaggio’s narrative and dark style attracted many artists. Unlike other painters at the time, he never set up a formal school or studio where artists could apprentice. Frankly, the man was too busy living the good life. He was attractive, talented, considerably wealthy, popular, and maintained a sultry bad-boy image. He loved hanging out with wealthy patrons as much as the sketchiest fringe members of society. His followers, dubbed the Caravaggisti, were propagators and defendants of their founder’s style, and many were inventors in their own right. Some of his most famous Italian followers include: Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio, Mario Minniti (one of Caravaggio’s former models), and Giovanni Baglione… Caravaggio’s fame spread internationally, and his followers include such personalities as Peter Paul Rubens, Georges de la Tour, Valentin de Boulogne, and Gerard van Honthorst (read The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr!) Spain boasts impressively popular Caravaggisti: Velazquez, Ribalta, Ribera, Murillo, and my other favorite, Francisco de Zurbaran. Many Caravaggisti established and deserve fame and recognition in their own right. One you’ll definitely have heard of is a Dutch painter called Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.
Baglione and Caravaggio got into a really nasty feud. Caravaggio loved the good life, and enjoyed getting into sword fights (and is accused of murder) whereas Baglione was a blow-hard religious painter for whom violence was considered below his station. At some point Caravaggio was accused of circulating some nasty scatological poetry. Actually, rather than defend himself Caravaggio trash-talked Baglione’s work in front of the magistrate, which led straight to jail for Caravaggio… for two weeks.
How did this start? There was a general harsh rivalry between artists at the time. The well-timed put-down was as much appreciated as the witty repartee. Much of it was ultimately good-natured, but Caravaggio and Baglione hated each other. At some point, Caravaggio painted a wonderful image called Love Conquers All. It shows a beautiful boy as Amor, happy with his arrows and a mischievous smile. It became the pride of the patron’s collection, who displayed it proudly…
But moralists were outraged. The model had previously been featured in a religious work, and there wasn’t sufficient conscience of piety for their taste. Baglione, a conservative painter, created a counter piece… for the brother of Caravaggio’s patron no less, a cardinal! Baglione’s Triumph of Heavenly love over Earthly Love shows the original Amor being slain by Heavenly Love. So much for conquering all.
It didn’t work. If anything, the attempt to humiliate Caravaggio backfired. Baglione’s patron ignored the rivalry, and the Caravaggisti scorned and insulted him. Baglione then created a second painting, nearly identical, but he changed the faceless sinner at bottom left into Caravaggio as the Devil, ostensibly interrupted by Heavenly Love as he was in the middle of sodomistic acts with the young Amor.
This is what ultimately led to Caravaggio distributing leaflets with tawdry poetry about Baglione, but it was hardly the only example of creative competitiveness. And just because one artist hated another, it was no reason to give up a certain style.
I will show my own work in October 2013, although I’ve already teased out a few work-in-progress images on this blog. For better or for worse the world has become too big for real artistic rivalries, and frankly I respect and admire the few artists out there doing narrative photography.
But one final comment… I live in Berlin, a city known for its art community. We have more writers, musicians, photographers, and painters per capita than any other place in the world. But through a number of very odd circumstances, Berlin also has one of the biggest collections of classical art in the world. We don’t quite have the Louvre, but in terms of numbers, and certainly in important and well-known work, the Gemäldegallerie is one of the top museums in the world.
BUT… the place is empty. No one ever goes. I go all the time, I have an annual pass, and I will just go and wander the big halls for hours by myself. When I read the story that I just repeated here, I realized something… both these paintings are here in Berlin! Hanging next to each other. Here’s a picture I took with my phone yesterday afternoon:
Come visit Berlin. And visit the Gemäldegallerie… because the plan is to convert this museum and replace the work with modern art. I’m a realist, I get that Berlin is well-known for contemporary art as well as modernist, surrealist and expressionist work from the early 20th century, and that we need to show the collections the city has. But no new home has been found yet for these classic masters, and chances are they will disappear in storage for years to come.
I’m stumped. I’m not sure how to describe my own photography. My assistant Thomas Schäfer has begun a new project, and I seem to have inspired the guy… he built a set, rented a lot of furniture, and worked with actors to create some highly narrative images. We were talking about this style today, and even though I can think of plenty of photographers who inspire me, who have gone before me, or who I consider contemporaries… I wish I could find a quick phrase to sum up this style.
The great masters of this are Gregory Crewdson and David LeChapelle, but there are guys like Erwin Olaf and Eugenio Recuenco who are doing technically inspiring work.
Maybe it’s a good thing that there isn’t a phrase yet. On some level, it’s a very deliberate process, much more like painting than it is photography. Every item gets carefully placed, and is vested with some meaning… why put a pomegranate there? Why aren’t they looking at each other? Should the light be coming from slightly below the main character? What I do isn’t simply taking a picture, it’s making an image. And that is very distinct and specific way to stage a shot.
…here’s another teaser from my new series, tentatively entitled the Dark Project. Obviously a lot of Caravaggio, but also some Füssli in the mix.
EDIT: I’m just going with “Narrative Photography” for now. It’s kinda what I do …
Art must have four things to matter: concept, craft, discourse and aesthetics.
Art without concept is simply decoration. The world is filled with pretty pictures, clever drawings, and cool stencils, but without an underlying concept it is meaningless. Conversely, art cannot live by concept alone. The idea must be graspable. Hyper-conceptual art may curry favor within a very select circle of art crit MFA candidates and those seeking to justify the curatorial choices they have made, but it does not stand the test of time.
Out of this concept must arise discourse. The viewer must engage with the piece. It is not enough for it to be clever. Art must be a trigger, it must elicit an emotional response, an intellectual response.
Art without craft lacks respect. The coincidental arrival at a strong piece of work is not a deliberate choice. It reflects the moment, not the artist.
Art must make an aesthetic choice. It should appeal, or repel, or intrigue – on purpose.