15 September 2011

River of Shadows/ Motion Studies Guest Review!

UK edition, published by Bloomsbury Publishing
As mentioned here some time ago, I've managed to manipulate my fellow bookclub members into generating some blog content.. That is to say, for our last meeting, they all kindly read Rebecca Solnit's book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (also known in the UK as Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge), discussed said book, and one of their number has now gone above and beyond the call of duty to contribute some of his thoughts to PLATE!

US edition, published by Viking Adult
I'm really interested in the conflicts and connections between the written word and visual materials and I wanted to read Solnit's book, in particular, to see how she would incorporate art criticism with biography of Muybridge and cultural criticism. I had been really impressed by (for which, read, 'I fell in love with') her book A Field Guide To Getting Lost, after it was recommended to me by a colleague, and came to River of Shadows hoping for the same absorbing, lyrical, reading experience. I was also interested to see how the bookmakers would present the photographs in question.

I have to say, I was slightly disappointed by the book. I felt that, despite Solnit's in-depth knowledge of and passion for her subject, she struggled to weave together all of the historical and cultural strands in the book into a coherent whole (I'm inclined to agree with Carl, that the book's cultural analysis becomes too repetitive). As a fan of photography - and particularly the work of Muybridge - I was also hoping for more extended criticism of his work, and was only really satisfied by the section discussing his 'Yosemite' photographs in this respect. However, there were lots of things to like as well, and I will leave my excellent guest writer, Carl Fulbrook, to give you an idea what these were!

US edition, published by Penguin
Carl Fulbrook - I had few expectations before beginning River of Shadows; I hadn't heard of Eadweard Muybridge, I barely knew anything about the history of photography, and I (still) have only obscure notions of American history during Muybridge's. In frankness, these are not subjects I'm usually drawn to. But that's the beauty of a bookclub: you read things your friends want to read and discuss, and this usually yields a reading process of enjoyment and critical analysis in a more-or-less fruitful balance.

So I began Solnit's book knowing only that it was about one of the great innovators of photography and cinema. And it is in part a biography of Eadweard Muybridge. But the great strength of this book is that it is a lot more than biography; Solnit deftly traverses several usually discrete genres to develop a book that is at once the life story of Muybridge, a history of photographic technology and Silicon Valley, a cultural critique, and a portrait of an era in America's mid-West that is too often distorted by myth - including fascinating accounts of the so-called 'Indian Wars' and the General Strike. There's even a bit of sassy murder trial courtroom drama and, at the very end, a nostalgic personal postlude. In fact, one salient feature several people noted during our bookclub discussion was that Muybridge the character is almost the book's ellipsis. Something of his tenacity emerges through his achievements, but his photographic career was so varied (in the best sense) that it is hard to gain any definite impression of him through his work, and the brief flashes of personal drama (most obviously, murdering his wife's lover) occur like aberrations in a rather anaemic account of the externals of his life. No matter - Muybridge was evidently not remarkable for his charisma.

At her best, Solnit handles her subjects with a confidence that figures genre as irrelevant: it is quite often a very carefully woven narrative. I didn't find that this level was maintained throughout, however, and there were a several passages that seemed repetitive and didn't maintain my interest. I found The River of Shadows most compelling when it placed the concerns of Muybridge and his contemporaries in a larger historical frame. It was sobering and unsettling to realise how rapidly and dramatically technology have altered our relationship with both other people and with the physical world. By the twenty-first century almost every experience of our lives is structured and mediated by increasingly bureaucratic technological apparatuses. As Solnit points out, in a commentary inflected by Marxism, new technologies did not simply feed but created an appetite for a commodified representations of the world. By framing and freezing phenomena through human innovation, we lent ourselves the impression we were mastering the world; by converting this spirit of innovation into a means for profit, we commodified and alienated ourselves from it, although in doing so feverishly stoked the desire to innovate. Solnit is nostalgic in her commentary, although not wholly bleak - cinema is, after all, a very exciting and potentially reflective technology. The book ends in a very ambivalent key, and I'm grateful for it: it is rich food-for-rumination.

If you've read River of Shadows and have your own thoughts about the book that you'd like to share with PLATE readers, just drop me an e-mail at platethephotoblog@gmail.com - I will aim to publish a collection of new comments on the blog in a month or so. Even better, if you have photography-related book recommendations for me, the bookclub or other readers, send them over and I will incorporate these into another post!

11 September 2011

Ordering Principles: Taryn Simon

Installation view. Courtesy my smartphone..

The following article appears in the August-September 2011 issue of Hotshoe magazine - available from all good bookstores/ newsagents! Apologies for the lack of illustration - more to come when my computer stops crashing..

I first encountered Taryn Simon’s work in 2007, when An American Index of The Hidden and Unfamiliar - later nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize - was presented at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. Walking round that exhibition a friend declared that he enjoyed the work but found it too ‘magazine-y’; in other words, too editorial. While, admittedly, the images in that show – arresting, technically excellent photographs of unexpected subjects, including the art collection at C.I.A. headquarters and the results of exotic animal inbreeding at American ‘refuges’ -  did seem destined to appear in every Sunday supplement for months, implicit in this sort-of criticism of Simon’s work is the idea that her projects rely on human-interest storytelling, novelty value even, rather than technical and ideological rigour; that her use of the word ‘index’ to describe her photographic investigations is , at best, an ironic device and, at worst, lazy.

new exhibition at Tate Modern dispels these doubts. A Living Man Declared Dead And Other Chapters I-XIII is the result of four years (2008-11) research and travel, during which time Simon has compiled photographic, anecdotal and documentary evidence into a visual exploration of 18 ‘bloodlines’ and the internal and external forces that have shaped the collective destiny of these groups. In the meantime, of course, Simon has also exhibited Contraband (2009), for which she spent four days and nights at John F. Kennedy Airport, New York, continuously photographing all items seized before entering the country – a rigorous conceptual exploration of bureaucracy, illegality and the lives of dumb objects. A Living Man, however, simultaneously reaches further afield for its subject matter and delves deeper into themes that preoccupy Simon; the collision of physical, psychological and historical forces in determining our lives, the significance of those lives and the limits of any medium, photographic or otherwise, seeking to record or ‘index’ them.

Each ‘chapter’ of
A Living Man consists of three panels; the first (usually the largest) presents a grid of half-length portrait photographs, each taken in a deadpan style reminiscent of a mugshot or medical record photograph, ordered meticulously according to the age and position in the bloodline of each subject ; the second provides neatly ordered and scrupulously complete biographical captions to these images, in addition to textual information relating to a ‘post person’ or central figure in the line; and, in the third, ‘footnote’ panel, a more abstract collection of ephemera and photographic material is scattered across the ground, touching on contextual and peripheral matters. The sheer abundance of this material – bear in mind that each ‘chapter’ may deal with a bloodline of over 100 individuals – is overwhelming and it would be a hardened gallery-goer whose heart didn’t sink ever so slightly at the prospect of absorbing every scrap of research Simon has collated. Not only this, but the visual flair of An American Index is restrained here, with Simon self-consciously borrowing from scientific methodology to present work stripped of decorative or ‘editorial’ appeal. She has said herself that she became, at one point, ‘tired of photography’ and has begun to take photographs in a far more forensic vein.

The result, however, is complex and fascinating, if not always easy to assimilate. Even the grids of portraits display variety, personality and, very occasionally, direct evidence of family’s intersection with history. The most terrible case of this is in the chapter dealing with the
Srebrenica massacre in 1995 – six ‘portraits’ in this genealogy are composed of only the remains of the men who died in the atrocity.  Elsewhere, evidence of violence and trauma is affecting when juxtaposed with the apparently cool presentation of fact, as when Simon presents a grid of portraits showing a Tanzanian bloodline effected by albinism and, in the footnote panel, photographs of albino men, women and children affected by skin cancer. 

Of course there are questions to ask here: amid all this order, what organizing system generated Simon’s choice of her bloodlines?  It can feel, as you move into the fourth large room of this work, that you are on the look-out for the next ‘issue’ Simon is addressing, be it censorship and propaganda in China or, in the chapter from which this exhibition takes its title, a false declaration of death, used in order to cheat family members out of their land in rural India. Where these contextual ‘issues’ relate to racial identity, could you accuse Simon of restating the circumstance that conditions her subjects lives? 

These questions would be harder to dismiss were it not for the fact that Simon herself so insistently challenges any system used to document or organize human history, even her own. Her ‘chapters’ throw together straight photography, text and documentary evidence, including government records, newspapers and medical photography – all making competing claims to authenticity. Contradictions emerge between disparate sources – the portrait of a living man and the certificate that declares him dead – and occasionally they declare their own falsity, as with photographic ‘reconstructions’ in which members of the ‘Druze’ religious community (yet another subject) re-enact their deaths from past lives for Simon’s camera. The exhibition format itself stages a conflict between artistic and scientific approaches to documentation. In its use of ‘chapters’ and the juxtaposition of individual with genealogical, political and social external factors, the show is reminiscent of the novel form. At the same time, Simon’s deadpan portrait style recalls medical and scientific forms –
she even describes her grid-like arrangement as ‘like a periodic table’ and the exhibition itself as a kind of ‘experiment’ – as well as ethnographic portraiture.

There are blanks – absences – in
A Living Man and they draw attention to Taryn Simon’s continuing interest in what is invisible or hidden. Literally blank photographs take the place of those who cannot be photographed in the portrait series. There are formal ‘gaps’ in the work where we are encouraged to speculate about the meaning, the truth, of what we are seeing. It is these spaces that generate the mystery and complexity in an original and absorbing exhibition.

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters is showing at Tate Modern, Bankside, London from 25th May – 6th November 2011. Sunday to Thursday, 10.00–18.00; Friday and Saturday, 10.00–22.00; Entrance Free. A catalogue is available from Mack Books/Neue NationalGalerie, Berlin for £80.