On Pictures, Seeing and Criticism:
Three Preliminary Notes to Festival X 2012
Randy Innes, May 2012
A photography museum in Florence provided me with an experience that I would like to use to frame my first instalment as guest essayist for Ottawa's Festival X, 2012. I would like to offer a few preliminary reflections on the theme I have proposed, Otherwise than Seeing, on its relationship to photography, and on my role as guest essayist. In the Fall, coinciding roughly with the opening of Festival X, I will publish an essay that will blend traditional exhibition catalogue format, critical commentary, and some exchanges with curators and photographers.
To begin, I'd like to draw some links between renaissance Italy, some pictures at a photography museum, and my thematic approach to Festival X.
1) Point of View and Pictures
My scholarly and historical interests do not lie in renaissance history or culture. However I have drawn on the renaissance in lectures when I thought that certain well-established turning points would help advance an argument. I want to address a well-known turning point in renaissance visual culture here as a way of situating my own approach to photography and to visual culture more generally.
The renaissance saw important advancements in linear perspective, a technique that received significant attention from Leon Battista Alberti (Alberti's tomb is in Santa Croce Basilica in Florence). One can find evidence of efforts to absorb and incorporate this technique throughout renaissance art. Linear perspective made it possible to create the illusion of depth on a flat surface: a network of lines organized around one or several points allowed draughtsmen to systematically identify and visualize any planar dimension they could imagine. This illusion allows the viewer to interpret the flat picture plane as an extension of lived, everyday space.
One consequence of linear perspective has been the popular reception of pictorial space as an objective, universal and 'natural' slice of an extended real world, to be absorbed passively by the viewer. In a page from his treatise De Pictura (1435) Alberti locates a disembodied eye at the limit of a drawing that demonstrates how to set up a grid of orthogonal and parallel lines.
Linear perspective has attached to pictures the idea that this point-of-view is somehow a natural extension and an invisible function of the space represented in the picture plane. The exterior viewing position is a function of the structure of the picture, and spectatorship can, in this configuration, be considered to be both a creation and an extension of the picture itself. Linear perspective made these constructions more 'natural' and less visible, less apparent as constructions and conventions to the viewer.
The invisibility of linear perspective, its location within the structure of representation, had two implications. On one hand the exterior "eye" rationalized and systematized the subjective experience of looking. On the other hand, the eye that engages the picture is a place-holder that can, in (picture) theory, be occupied by an infinite number of individual viewers whose observations activate the perspectival and pictorial system. Linear perspective coincides with the re-birth of a faith in human insight and reason. Renaissance humanism introduces a tension that has informed many aspects of western cultural history: namely, the tension between faith in a singular, universal subjectivity, and a need for discrete, individual experiences that will affirm the universal point of view.
The beliefs that a picture should be legible, should operate like a window onto the world, or should tell a story or convey information continue to inform discussions on art and visual culture. Modernist picture-making practices such as cubism and critical methodologies such as feminism, among many others, helped us to challenge and shift our points of view by opening our vision to what had previously remained unseen or invisible to us. John Baldessari's 1968 The Spectator is Compelled to Look Directly Down the Road and into the Middle of the Picture confuses and interrupts points of view, leading us to question the logic of the picture and to be uncertain of how we as viewers are to 'read' the picture.
On the one hand, then, Otherwise than Seeing is concerned with asking how pictures produce viewers, how they establish the conditions for understanding, and how they work to either conceal or make visible these conditions. The former option views pictorial representation as an illusion, while the latter views pictorial representation as a system in need of decoding.
However pictures are also the result of cultural activity and individual - not universal - vision. They can be compelling and beautiful, disturbing and challenging. In Michael Schreier's Storyteller/Waiting for Words the photographic image investigates the work of memory, place, and representation. If my first objective suggests a desire to 'explain' pictures and to ask how seeing has become attached to knowledge and understanding, my second objective is to consider how pictures remain connected to the sense of individual vision, exploration and expression. Schreier's concerns extend beyond the visual object but coalesce and become meaningful there, as an aesthetic, affective object.
Otherwise than Seeing aims to draw attention to ways in which photographs and other works of visual culture interrupt and disrupt invisible and continuous pictorial régimes. In a slightly more theoretical way, however, I also want to ask how the notion of 'seeing otherwise' might lead us to points of view that resist the universal, and that exercise instead individual aesthetic and critical faculties. An important dimension of the ethical and political function of art can be found, I believe, in moments of opacity and resistance that the artwork offers to us - as large or small, as polemic or beautiful as these may be.
2) The Unseen at a Photography Museum
Leopoldo, Romualdo and Giuseppe Alinari established Fratelli Alinari, the Brothers Alinari photography firm, in 1852 in Florence. Fratelli Alinari is the world's oldest photography firm: it published its first catalogue in 1856 and it continues to be an active organization. In addition to the Museum, Alinari maintains wet and digital labs, it houses over five million photographs, it has an active publishing program, and it maintains a variety of partnerships and initiatives.
It is difficult to consider the strengths of this photography museum without making a brief note on the absence of a museum dedicated to photography in Canada. The Alinari Museum offers a diverse and dynamic model for a photography museum. An extensive permanent exhibition of photographs ranges from Daguerreotypes, to salted paper and silver gelatin photographs, to ink jet prints and more. A section dedicated to negatives and transparencies is followed by a series of rooms that present a large collection of lenses and cameras from the early nineteenth century to the present. The last rooms include a variety of photographic albums, from formal to familial, and a series of commercial objects decorated with photo-based images. A special exhibit featured rarely seen as well as iconic works by the British fashion and commercial photographer Brian Duffy.
This cultural history of photography reflects the diverse uses and manifestations of the medium, from fine art to memory objects, from commercial use to moving picture. The historical development of the camera, along with other apparatuses and devices, are treated as important parts of the exhibit. The Art Gallery of Ontario has begun to exhibit photography in a similar manner in its permanent exhibits. Considering the diverse holdings of photographs and photographic equipment in storage in institutions in the Ottawa-Gatineau region alone, a National Photography Museum would not be difficult to fill.
One initiative at the Alinari museum had a particularly strong impact on me, and led me to consider again the idea that while a picture is typically associated with the faculty of sight, an image might not depend on what we conventionally regard as 'seeing'. Picture and image might be viewed as two sides of the same coin: while picture suggests a material presence or the material 'signal' that makes an impression on the viewer, image evokes the work that the mind and the imagination engage in when they process this signal.
The Alinari museum has collaborated with the Stamperia Braille - a Braille publishing house - and the Region of Tuscany to produced Braille catalogues as well as Braille texts for the museum’s exhibition spaces. This innovative project has been complimented by a remarkable "Touch Tour": twenty photographs representing the history of the medium have been reproduced using a variety of materials. Each tactile reproduction extends at an angle from the wall next to the photograph it reproduces, and visitors are invited to run their hands over the relief surface. A carbon print of rock formations in the ocean off Capri taken by Giacomo Brogi’s studio in 1900 is reproduced using tree bark. A photographic experiment in formal abstraction by Franco Grignani is reproduced by layering and bunching up plastic ribbons, while the tactile, relief portrait of Peggy Guggenheim includes a pair of plastic glasses and jewellery that match those Guggenheim is wearing in a 1965 Vogue photograph.
The Alinari museum's inclusive approach to its exhibitions suggests that 'seeing otherwise' is not only more inclusive, but is also a strategy that challenges or renews established points of view.
The conclusion of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931), a movie that addresses and is deeply concerned with all of the senses, offers an encounter that similarly opens new modes of understanding the processes of image formation. Chaplin's tramp falls in love with a young, blind flower-seller. A sequence of events leaves the tramp with enough money to both help the young woman avoid eviction and have an operation that will restore her sight. Following a spell in jail, the tramp and the flower-seller meet again. The flower-seller has had her sight restored; she is working in a sun-filled flower shop, and when the tramp recognizes her she is at first dismissive and indifferent.
After giving the tramp a fresh flower she presses a coin into his hand. The moment of touch initiates a moment of reflection, and as the flower-seller explores the texture of his hand and battered coat she recalls her former love. Her hand lingers first on his hand, then on his breast, and she recalls a friendship that cannot exist again the way that it once did.
"You?", she says to the tramp.
He nods, Yes. "You can see now?", he asks.
"Yes, I can see now."
Rather than the look of distain she proffered when the tramp first showed up at her storefront, the film closes with the young woman staring at the tramp with a familiar yet melancholy gaze. The new sense of sight marks a difference between two worlds: while she knows she will not be able to return to the friendship that is now a memory, she clings to the tramp’s hand. The conclusion is ambiguous and inconclusive, and the viewer is left negotiating the intersection of two different world views.
The strength of Chaplin's films can be found in the way he opens these moments of reflection, moments that resist conclusion and that ask us to imagine two ways of seeing the world at the same time. The theme Otherwise than Seeing invites exploration, questioning, and a spirit of openness towards artworks whose purpose may be to excite precisely those critical faculties, and to lead us to see the world otherwise.
3) Reflections on the Role of Essayist
When Festival X first approached me to become involved in the 2012 edition I was asked whether I would like to act as curator. Given time and logistical constraints it became clear to me that I could not lay claim to this title: it can take more time than I had to curate an exhibition at one institution, let alone co-ordinate one visiting curatorial program over several institutions. I thought, however, that some of my recent thinking on photography would allow me to contribute constructively to both the Festival and to the evens scheduled at participating galleries.
I have introduced a theme that I hope will be evocative, flexible and thought-provoking for curators and for visitors and readers alike. This theme will also allow me to follow some threads of my own devising. The thematic essay that appears in the fall will address the photographic works and curatorial projects that are running at galleries participating in Festival X. Additionally I hope to integrate some of the Festival X events with the events that will comprise Ottawa’s first Nuit Blanche.