The Theater of War or La Petite Mort
by Stephen Mayes
Tim Hetherington, photojournalist and filmmaker, was killed in Misrata on April 20th, 2011 while covering the civil war in Libya. Shortly before his death, Hetherington's friend and colleague, Stephen Mayes, talked with him about his fascination for the front line and what it had taught him about masculinity, aggression and war. Tim Hetherington won the prestigious World Press Photo Award for his coverage of the Afghan conflict for Vanity Fair, which he later worked into the Academy-nominated film Restrepo (co-directed with Sebastian Junger). This is a continuation of his ten-year exploration of aggression and masculinity that began when he lived in Liberia for five years, during which time he covered the brutal civil war with visceral intimacy.
Death cannot exist without sex. There's an obvious connection that without sex there is no life and without life there can be no death. It's about flesh, pulsing blood and that hot, wet loss of control that marks the start of life and its end. We seek to manage the vicissitudes of life, to control our destinies, but we abandon that control at orgasm and at death. It's no accident that the French capture the experience of orgasm in the phrase la petite mort, expressing our joyous fear of the release that transports us from the world in the pure physicality that is the body taken out of the control of the mind. Shakespeare revels in the salacious metaphor of death meaning sex, and in Sanskrit nirvana means to extinguish, to be blown away. Susan Sontag wrote, "What pornography is really about, ultimately, isn't sex but death."
We fear it yet we seek it, and we will find it. And what man cannot control society seeks to contain. The experience of both sex and death is held distant from polite society; we don't see it, we don't hear it and we don't speak of it except in metaphor and the theatrical circumstances of fiction and of course in some representations of war. We must understand though that the out-of-control experience of war and the sexualized fetishes we attach to it, is experienced differently on the front line and on the home front. The theater of war means one thing to the actors and another to the audience, and as we cannot witness the performance first hand (or so most of us hope), we are dependent on the image-makers to mediate the reality for our consumption. What better than photography to bring us into intimate yet vicarious contact with the action? The sweaty, bloody physicality of men performing society's wishes is caught in the frame for our prurient fascination.
This conflation of violence described in sexual language hints at a deep human interest and the interpretation of sensual, sexualized and aggressive masculinity. Its representation reaches back even before photography. Goya's print series The Disasters of War was made twenty years before photography was invented and vividly depicts violence with a strong sexual dynamic. Hetherington looks even further back. "Look at The Iliad, which is all about war and sexuality - how can our princess leave us and go off with our enemy? It was over a woman and the control of sex." It seems that the audience has always sought a sensual, sexual dynamic in its war reporting, finding in it the same horrified fascination through the ages. We want our men lusty, lusting and lusted. For some viewers images of aggression are about desire and for others it's a vicarious expression of suppressed intent and for nearly all, it's about raw emotional fascination with the life forces of sex and death.
It's easy to see how such fetishes develop. "Defining your masculinity is part of the process [of war]. You go to the front to prove yourself and you'll be rewarded; defining your masculinity is part of the process." ("And the same is true of photographers," Hetherington adds, including himself as part of the process and very much more than an invisible observer.)
"Young men are instrumentalized by the state using their energy and aggression and that's why they end up the vanguard of the fighting force. Young men have that energy that can be channeled and that energy is about defining themselves as men. And they're willing to risk a lot to define themselves as men. And how does society deal with representations of that?"
Hetherington’s answer is to subvert by seduction. The apparent naïve honesty in his imagery wraps a subtle message. The series of images, Sleeping Soldiers, shows us fighting men naked, vulnerable and sensual in their beds. His images of fighting men out of “role” as soldiers and revealed as men at play, often close and physical in their activity, create powerful sensual representations that overtake the fetish of the uniform. This is indeed about love and this is where the viewer’s confusion starts.
"War is one of the very few places where men can express love for each other without inhibition." Hetherington's work is very much about love, but on examination, it's less about sex. These are images that are explicitly masculine showing men in sensual intimacy with each other and with the camera, onto which the viewer imposes their own fantasies. The sexual energy of men on the front line is real but more often finds its expression in displaced activities such as horseplay, exercise and, of course, fighting. But then the viewer steps in to share Hetherington's intimate gaze, imposing secret desires on these public displays of physicality.
The mechanism of photography plays a particularly important part in the process, sharing a crucial role as it does in depicting the forbidden topics of sex and death. The erotic physicality of fighting flesh is an illusion, partly sought by the viewer and part imposed on the viewer. After all, photographers are performing for the audience too, working in collaboration with editors, and of course, with the soldiers (often "embedded", no less) to give the viewer a taste of what they want. While Hetherington's work explores many aspects of these men, mixing sensual intimacy with more familiar representations of "kinetic" warfare, he is clear that the sexual experience is more in the viewer's mind than in the hot, dirty experience of conflict.
"Trying to understand my own fascination with conflict and war has become something that's started to focus on what it means to be a man. What is it about war that really draws men? Is there something that's connected with masculinity and the answer is yes." Hetherington comments that editors stereotype certain subjects as "women's subjects" and women are routinely assigned to cover issues such as pregnancy, domestic activities, women at work, and similar subjects. "Well, there are men's subjects too, and mostobviously one of the real male subjects is war," he says, referring to frontline action (described as The Bang Bang Club by photojournalists Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva ). Sontag opens her book Regarding the Pain of Others with a discussion of Virginia Woolf's 1938 essay Three Guineas, saying in summary, "Men make war. Men (most men) like war, since for men there is some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting... war is a man's game, the killing machine has a gender, and it is male."
Hetherington takes this as the starting point for his work on the front line. "The fighting of war seems to be a particularly male preoccupation, wrapped up with aggression and masculinity. And yet when you come to the subject of war and looking it's interesting that there are so few [other] straight men making the connections. I think they all get drawn into the thing of producing genericphotography." Pictures of equipment, uniforms and dramatic action dominate war reporting, disguising the humanity of the men that drive the war machine.
Many photographers have made serious and important studies of the war machine but so much war photography is about the equipment, the role of the soldier in uniform, the history and context of conflict. And yet, says Hetherington, there's more. "The truth is that the war machine is the software, as much as the hardware. The software runs it and the software is young men. And in some ways I'm part of the software. I was a young man once. I'm not so young any more but I get it, I get the operating system. I am the operating system, this is really the domain that I understand. I understood this back when I was living and working in Liberia. It dawned on me when I was with the fighters that if there would be a choice between sitting in a refugee camp or being on the front lines and fighting I would be fighting. There's something about me that, hell, I would be fighting. My interest is in the zone of conflict, with that software where you can see the code more clearly. My gaze is very particular. War is interesting because it's where killing becomes legalized and if you're not in that zone you're far from the very place where people are killing and being killed."
Here, Hetherington makes a direct connection between sex and death. "We know that war is a zone of killing just as we know that the bedroom is a place of sleeping but also of sex. We know these are two intimate things, sex and killing, and we're fascinated by them both but we have an inability to allow ourselves to represent them. Interestingly, sex is the one that we allow ourselves to represent, and we call that pornography. Killing is something that we don't allow ourselves to represent. It's filtered out even though the photographers are taking the images of killing to the best of their ability, or indeed their desire. But those images are filtered out by the editors and by society itself."
The imagery of war exists to fulfill a need and it's shaped by photographers and editors to express social expectations and indeed desires. The uniform has long been a fetish object, sexualized by generations of men and women, representing asit does so many male attributes of disciplined strength and channeled aggression. And with it comes the fascination of violence eroticized by those same qualities, enhanced by the exposure of raw flesh, hot blood and extreme emotion. What began as the Military-Industrial complex has evolved in recent decades into what James Der Derian has called the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network  as strategists have embraced ever more subtle techniques to bottle the lightning of public opinion and to pacify dissent. This is a step beyond the age-old performance of nationalist propaganda. Learning the lessons of Vietnam, states around the world have come to embrace imagery as part of the very fabric of conflict, willingly aided by the image-makers and publishers serving the system. Seventy years after socialist realists launched their heroic vision of the man-machine in service of the Soviet state, image-makers and publishers continue to perpetrate the iconography of military fantasy. Maybe here the word pornography has a place, referring as it does to characterless objects devoid of history or any role beyond their visible form, empty vessels to receive our projections.
In recognizing our warriors as living men with all their frailties as well as strengths, rather than as mere mechanical operatives of political commands or as avatars of our most violent desires (and perhaps the repository of those now forbidden and shamed masculine virtues, those martial virtues, in which we take secret, even erotic pleasure), we will learn to separate our own longings from theirs. And in the process maybe we can learn a little more about the world and about ourselves.
1. Partisan Review, Sontag, Spring 1967.
2. Regarding The Pain Of Others, Sontag, Picador, 2004.
3. The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War, Marinovich and Silva, Basic Books, 2000.
4. Virtuous War - Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network, Der Derian, Routledge, 2001.
Tim Hetherington was born in Liverpool, UK, studied literature at Oxford University, and later returned to college to study photojournalism. He lived in New York, serving as contributing photographer for Vanity Fair magazine. Hetherington was interested in creating diverse forms of visual communication, ranging from multi-screen installations and fly-poster exhibitions to handheld device downloads. Known for his long-term documentary work, Hetherington lived and worked in West Africa for eight years, reporting on social and political issues. His directorial debut film, Restrepo, about a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan, was awarded the Grand Jury prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fellowship from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (2000-04), a Hasselblad Foundation grant (2002), four World Press Photo prizes, including World Press Photo of the Year (2007) and the Alfred I. duPont Award (2009). Hetherington was tragically killed on April 20, 2011 while covering the conflict in Libya.
Stephen Mayes' fascination with photography has led him to work in the diverse areas of photojournalism, fashion, art and commerce. He has worked as Director of Network Photographers, a co-operative of world-leading photojournalists, also as SVP Content for Getty Images and as Creative Director of eyestorm.com, working with artists such as Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, Richard Misrach and others. Stephen spent three years as US CEO of Photonica and as Director of the Image Archive with Art + Commerce in New York representing work by Steven Meisel, David LaChapelle, Robert Mapplethorpe and more. He is currently CEO of VII Photo Agency and has maintained his annual assignment as Secretary to the World Press Photo competition since 2004. Stephen has written, lectured and broadcast extensively on the ethics and realities of photographic practice.
A Reflection of Life Itself from within the Seed: Dornith Doherty with Elizabeth Avedon
Photographer Dornith Doherty has been working for more than three years on her series, Archiving Eden, a photographic project using individual seeds as its most basic subject.
Working in collaboration with the national Center for Genetic resources Preservation in Colorado, the Millennium Seed Bank in England, and the Carestream Molecular Imaging in Connecticut, Doherty traveled to the north Pole in 2010 to photograph the Svalbard Global Seed Vault - also known as the Doomsday Vault.
The importance of Doherty's work is both timely and spiritual. In case of world disaster, seed conservation is of global importance to everyone as we all depend on plants for food, to create oxygen and to purify our air and water. Many of Archiving Eden's images radiate a spiritual dimension, emanating wordlessly like hieroglyphs from nature, seeming to reflect life itself from within the seed.
ELIZABETH AVEDON: What motivated you to begin your series, Archiving Eden?
DORNITH DOHERTY: When I first read about the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in 2008; I immediately wanted to photograph it. I was inspired by the hopeful/pessimistic nature of the seed banks; on one hand volunteers and governments from around the world were collaborating to create a global botanical back-up system, and on the other hand the gravity of climate change and political instability created the need for an inaccessible ark located near the North Pole. It's such a vividly heroic vision.
EA: Would you discuss what you were aiming for vs. the final result - including your process in achieving these images?
DD: Initially, I worked with a view camera to photograph the spaces and technology of seed banking. I'm interested in what photographs of the architecture, technology and types of collections reveal about our cultural aspirations and fears. It's interesting to see how scientific heritage, philosophical perspectives and access to economic resources are made manifest in the photographs.
My project expanded in an important and unanticipated way when I was granted permission to use the on-site x-ray machine at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. A collaboration with a leading research scientist, Dr. Dave Ellis, allowed me to choose clones and seeds to grow for photographic purposes. Each time, the process takes about two to three months from germination.
Using x-ray technology, I am able to peer into the infinitely delicate structures of seeds and plantlets not visible to the human eye. When I look at the seeds, I am looking at the beginning of life. The collages made from the x-rays, which vary from aggregates of monumental numbers of seeds such as 1,400 Ash Tree Seeds to individual plantlets such as Pea are a way for me to address questions and philosophical concerns I have about the role of humans and science in relation to genebanking. The mission of seed banks is to conserve seeds or clones at a certain point of perfection and then stop time or try to prevent the botanical materials from changing further.
EA: What seed bank contains the rarest species?
DD: For the most part, seed banks don't collect rare plants due to concern about the impact of removing and reducing the number of important seeds from the native habitat. Instead, they collect plant species with robust populations that are typical for their habitat.
There are some really interesting exceptions to this rule. For instance, the head of research at the Millennium Seed Bank in England, Dr. Hugh Pritchard, showed me a very odd looking plant in their research greenhouse. A family had found a leather wallet in their home that belonged to a Captain of a ship that traveled to the South Pacific about two hundred years ago. It was filled with unidentified seeds he had collected as part of his natural history collection. The scientists at the Millennium Seed Bank were able to germinate some of the seeds and found that the plant is extinct. They are researching it to see if they might be able to save the species.
Speaking of rarity, about a year ago, Egypt's seed bank collection was destroyed during the rioting and the political instability there. Its collection focused on desert plants, and unfortunately there was not a back-up collection for the species contained in that collection.
EA: Many of your images, for example Seed Head 1 and Seed Head 2, appear to have an "aura" emanating from them. What are your thoughts on these images?
DD: The photographs pose questions about life and time on a micro and macro scale for me. I am struck by the visual connections - some look like astronomical bodies or microscopic cells. When I work with x-rays, you are literally gazing into the plantlets and seeds - things you cannot see with an unaided eye. Tiny seeds (many are the size of a grain of sand or smaller) that generate life remain simultaneously delicate and powerful. The scale of time that is ingrained in the process of seed banking, which seeks to make these sparks last for two hundred years or more, makes the life cycle very much on my mind while I work. I also contemplate the elusive goal of stopping time in relation to living materials, which at some moment, we would all like to do.
EA: How did you construct the image, Whip It, 2009 - were you influenced by the geometry of snow crystals?
DD: Ha, I like that question, Elizabeth. Do you know those wonderful 19th Century photographs of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley? I love those, especially in light of how he made them. I made Whip It before Iwent to Svalbard, but I wasn't really thinking about snowflakes at the time. I was thinking about time cycles and human reproduction. However, now that you ask that question, it makes me think about how a snowflake's perfection is only perceived for a fraction of a second before it melts. It's a perfect metaphor for seed banking and photography.
EA: What do you see as the role of an artist and your works of art in society?
DD: That's a tough question and one I think about a lot. I frequently encounter situations that pose this question while teaching. I can't speak about the role of artists in general; I can only speak for myself. What I'm interested in is making original work that connects to really important issues like environmental justice in a poetic and Szarkowskian "trusted witness" kind of way. It's like reading a novel - you have an intimate, one-on-one experience with a work of art, and maybe the work makes you think about things in a way you hadn't considered before. In regard to my current project, we are at a serious juncture environmentally, and I hope Archiving Eden will serve as a catalyst for thoughtful action.
Dornith Doherty, born in Houston, Texas, received a BA from Rice University and an MFA in Photography from Yale University. She is currently Professor of Photography at the University of North Texas. She is a recipient of grants from the Fulbright Foundation, the Japan Foundation, the United States Department of the Interior, the Indiana Arts Commission and the Society for Contemporary Photography. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Milwaukee Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Elizabeth Avedon has received recognition for her curatorial work and publishing projects, including the exhibitions and books: Avedon: 1949-1979 for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Avedon: In the American West for the Amon Carter Museum, the Corcoran Gallery and the Art Institute of Chicago; Tibet and Zanskar for the Menil Collection; and worked with the Estate of Diane Arbus. She is a regular contributor to La Lettre de la Photographie, as well as a curatorial consultant and designer. elizabethavedon.blogspot.com
Stephen Shore and Tarek Al-Ghoussein with Madeline Yale In November, Stephen Shore and Tarek Al-Ghoussein conversed about their recent work made in Abu Dhabi. Over a 4-month period, Shore, assisted by Al-Ghoussein, led a series of workshops with 10 emerging Emirati photographers. Both discuss Emirati Expressions, their newest series, and their experiences as educators (Al-Ghoussein is also the Professor of Photography at American University in Sharjah (AUS) and Shore is Professor of Photography at Bard College). Emirati Expressions culminated in an extensive publication and exhibition on view at Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island from November 2011 - January 2012. Madeline Yale begins by asking Shore about the project.
MADELINE YALE:What is Emirati Expressions and how did you become involved?
STEPHEN SHORE: Following my commission for TDIC (Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development & Investment Company) in 2009, I was asked to lead a series of workshops that culminated in the exhibition and publication Emirati Expressions. I reviewed portfolios and selected 10 photographic artists to participate. I wanted to build a group who collectively achieved a variety of aesthetic goals and approached the medium from different skill levels.
TAREK AL-GHOUSSEIN: TDIC was committed to fostering a dialogue between the "international" artists, like Stephen Shore, JR (another artist) and myself, and the participating Emirati artists.
MY: Emirati Expressions is accessible from varied semiological perspectives. Some work contains language that is foreign to some Western audiences. What are your perspectives on work that may carry a mystique of foreignness for some?
TAG: It's interesting that you refer to a different 'language' because ultimately all photography is characterized by a shared language. The actual written text contained within some of the work is obviously important, but I don't think it is the strength of the image.
SS: I can understand the pictures in visual terms, and I think they are completely approachable and wonderful, but I know that there is another layer that you [Tarek] as someone living here might see in some of this work because of specific cultural references.
TAG: Just as with any other culture, it is difficult to define what is essentially Emirati. I think that some artists in Emirati Expressions present ironic juxtapositions that seek to comment on what is considered Emirati and what may be understood as Emirati but may have originated elsewhere and been assimilated over time.
MY: How do you see culture and identity as a construct of place? And how are these entities communicated photographically?
TAG: Since coming to the UAE, my understanding of the words identity and culture has been challenged. I also feel there is a struggle to define identity. The UAE - the Middle East in general - is changing rapidly in ways that we do not yet fully understand. We may assume that identity is fixed and static but that may not necessarily be the case.
SS: One of the workshop participants, Salem Al Qassimi, said that 'we are creating the tradition'. At the time, I asked him what regional and cultural identity meant to him. His work, Here, There, is a lot about this - it is about the exchange of language and culture. As soon as he said it, it just made so much sense. I look around here (in the UAE) and see some architecture that is essentially international style architecture with 'Arabic' fenestration. That's not cultural identity.
TAG: Exactly. But often people think that these architectural elements are the way to maintain identity but often the elements are merely decorative.
MY: Yet it may provide clues to geographic identity.
SS: The other aspect Salem is saying is that he and the other artists here are making contributions to that identity. These (young artists) are a product of their heritage, they are as exposed as anyone in the contemporary world is to cultural influences from all over the world. They are taking all of it in, and adding what they bring to it - they are producing the living tradition.
TAG: My earlier work is an exploration of the term identity. I'm of Palestinian origin, born in Kuwait, residing in the UAE. I've lived in the US, UK, India and Japan. The self Portrait series considered how many in the West may perceive Palestinians, and Arabs in general, as terrorists. I wanted to use the headscarf, the keffiyeh, as a kind of symbol to both reference and challenge that perception.
MY to TAG: Your new series (In) Beautification, all shot on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island in 2011, further explores the relationship between identity and landscape.
TAG: (In) Beautification series documents processes associated with landscapes in transition. The images illustrate a desire to diminish the distance between the subject (myself) and the environment.
MY: In 1713 the earth and the vines seem to reclaim you as their own, while modernization in the distance is fast encroaching. There is a beautiful cinematic foreshadowing to this work.
TAG: Relying on subtle interventions and non-invasive interactions, the images explore how constructed landscapes reflect struggles to forge an identity while abandoning indigenous horticultural elements that are particular and serve to define a place.
MY: Stephen's exploration of Abu Dhabi is visually quite different, though it thematically draws some parallels with explorations of cultural space. Stephen, you previously said you don't want to repeat yourself. When you're aware of repeating yourself you look in different ways, see in different ways and perhaps explore different spaces?
SS: With the Abu Dhabi series, I wanted to find a middle ground between approaching a culture that is very different from mine with the freshness of the eyes of an outsider, but with the insight of someone who can tap into some of the forces that are creating the culture. In a way I was being a visual anthropologist. I am interested in cultural forces, but I can only photograph them where they become visible. I found myself attracted to architecture and artifacts where I can see cultural forces manifest. For me, this has simply grown out of traveling and looking at places in the same way over and over again, for years.
With a good digital camera, I can take a kind of picture that couldn't have been taken 5 or 10 years before. I used a Nikon D3X, which has extraordinary optics. It produces a print that might have been made with a 4x5, but I have the flexibility and spontaneity of a 35mm.
MY: You said you enjoyed the process of slowing down through the use of large format negatives for Uncommon Places (a semi-autobiographical exploration of America begun in 1973, following American Surfaces which was shot with a 35mm).
SS: That slowing down forced me to be consciously aware of every decision I was making. Because of the cost of 8x10 color film, I couldn't shoot five pictures. I didn't bracket, I didn't shoot from two different angles. It was not meant to be an intellectual discipline; it was a matter of simple economy. I didn't want to take pictures that I only knew would be good, because I'd only take safe pictures. After a number of years of doing this, I got a sense of what I wanted. The end result was I would walk down the street and see dozens of pictures around me; I would see far more pictures than I could possibly take with an 8x10. What happened over the years is my mind speeded up. So I made the decision that I would give up the ultimate quality of the 8x10 for the pleasure of solving more photographic problems in a day with a smaller camera.
MY: How do you negotiate between the "matter of simple economy" approach to photography and your students' introduction to thephotographic medium through their cell phone cameras and online networking? Going back to what Stephen said about Emirati Expressions photographers "producing the living tradition," how do you as educators help students develop their photographic engagement with a place where its identity is characterized by its exponential development?
TAG: I introduce film as a starting point, but we soon move to digital. Working in large format certainly changes the way you work - not just because of economy, but because in most cases it demands that you work on a tripod. I work digitally, however I always use a tripod because it forces you to slow down the process of making an image. For my students, working digitally allows them to shoot more images of a particular scene. A follow-up critique is necessary in this context because many of the students at AUS come to the program with no formal visual background. However, they learn very quickly.
SS: What you're saying, implied in your question, is a serious pedagogical problem: how does digital affect the discrimination that young artists learning the medium are expressing? I think what Tarek said about the tripod is absolutely insightful. Not only does it slow you down, it changes your relationship to the camera. The camera is no longer an extension of your eye. It becomes a tool that is outside of you that you manipulate. And that simple change alters your consciousness about photographic decisions.
Stephen Shore's work has been widely published and exhibited for the past forty years. He was the second living photographer to have a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He has also had one-man shows at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; International Center of Photography, New York; George Eastman House, Rochester; Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Jeu de Paume, Paris; and Art Institute of Chicago and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. His series of exhibitions at Light Gallery in New York in the early 1970s sparked new interest in color photography and in the use of the view camera for documentary work. Books of his photographs include Uncommon Places; Stephen Shore: Photographs 1973-1993; The Velvet Years, Andy Warhol's Factory, 1965-1967; Essex County; American Surfaces; Stephen Shore, a career survey in Phaidon's Contemporary Artists Series, and most recently, A Road Trip Journal. Finally, The Nature of Photographs, a book in which Shore explores how photographs function visually. His work is represented by 303 Gallery, New York; and Spruth Magers, Berlin and London. Since 1982 he has been the director of the Photography Program at Bard College in New York State, where he is the Susan Weber Professor in the Arts.Tarek Al-Ghoussein is an artist based in the UAE. His work has appeared in international exhibitions throughout Europe, the United States and the Middle East. His images are also featured in several anthologies and a monograph on his work In Absentia was recently published by Page One and The Third Line. Tarek Al-Ghoussein's photographs are in permanent collections at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Royal Museum of Photography in Copenhagen, Darat Al-Fanun in Amman, Sharjah Art Foundation, the Barjeel Art Foundation in the UAE and Mathaf Museum in Qatar. Tarek Al-Ghoussein is currently Professor of Photography at the College of Architecture Art and Design at the American University of Sharjah. Madeline Yale is an independent curator and writer of photography based in Dubai and London, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in photography in the Middle East at University of the Arts London and is a member of TrAIN, Chelsea College of Art & Design's research center for transnational art, identity and nation. She is a visiting lecturer at Sotheby's Institute of Art and a consultant to Bonhams. Madeline is a member of HCP's Advisory Council and spot's Editorial Board. She was the organization's Executive Director/Curator (2006-09) and Adjunct Curator (2009-10).
Ben Ruggiero and Chris Wiley discuss how a discarded piece of glass led Ben to photographically revisit Frederic Edwin Church and American Romanticism.
CHRIS WILEY: Your series After Icebergs With a Painter consists of a collection of cyanotype photograms and traditional photographs - taken both in the studio and out in the landscape - and take their cue from a found piece of plate glass that bears a strange resemblance to an iceberg. This led you to an investigation of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church's monumental Icebergs (1861), and the contemporary fate of the notion of the sublime. Since this project is both historically and autobiographically dense, I think it would be good to start with a little background. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to Frederic Church and to Icebergs in particular?
BEN RUGGIERO: Having grown up very close to Frederic Church's estate Olana, in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York, I was always aware of his work. In my recent project, I am revisiting his painting aesthetic, motivation and history in order to contend with the imprint his work has had on a contemporary American visual aesthetic, especially in photography and my own practice. I am interested in what American Romanticism fulfills for the viewer, the methods that Church employed in expanding visual naturalism, and his ability to render a lens-based illusion of a receding landscape. I am interested in the assertion that materials inherently inform process - in Church's era as well as now - their ability to render and reveal intention. Icebergs is perhaps the most emblematic image from the Hudson River School from a time period that began the complex relationship between painting and photography's as mediums. I took the opportunity to use that historic moment to address a series of questions that I have as an artist working with photographic processes now.
CW: The shift from photographing in the landscape to making cyanotypes in the studio is a fairly radical one, both in terms of process and representational strategy. How did this shift occur, and how did it change your understanding of photography?
BR: I would say the shift for me was process based and unexpected. Eleanor Jones Harvey's book, with contributions by Gerald L. Carr, Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Church's Arctic Masterpiece (2002) wonderfully details the rich history of Church's painting. At around the same time I was reading this text, I came across a discarded piece of glass. I began to photograph the glass on the site where I found it. As I was revisiting the site, and the glass was breaking and being repositioned over time, I began to see qualities in my compositions that were unintentionally akin to Church's. Bringing the glass to my studio to shoot then shifted the context. I began using it for its material properties like the distortion of lenses in photography, as well as its ability to reference an ice peak. It seemed natural to make reproductions in multiple ways. I chose cyanotype, because it is an applied emulsion, but also because it was a technology that was available to Church. In the contact printing, it was my intention to utilize photography's most objective or mechanical potential (contacting on a one-to-one ratio). I wanted to be as apparent about process as possible (as opposed to Church's illusion), yet there were still unexpected results, which were the catalysts for the images that followed.
I followed the wall text from Church's exhibition of the painting in Brooklyn over 150 years ago that instructed audiences in seven different ways to view the mammoth work. I used Church's seven ways of looking as a framework for the project. I tried to resolve a series of questions that are both contemporary and consistent with Church's steps. By working with the glass in photographs, I followed the ideas of making representational images out in the world, subsequent iterations in the studio and ultimately within a studio space. The final image completes a cycle that inverts the situation in which it was found - that is, on the edge of the shared public and consumer environments by displaying the glass against the inside of the front window of my studio, and viewed it from the outside. With the cyanotypes, I confronted the direct representation in multiple ways. In one instance, I placed a one-to-one negative of the glass under the corresponding area of the glass it copied and then contact printed them together. The two misaligned representations reveal their inherent distortions. I also broke the glass of the contact printer to challenge the assumption of the mechanism's supposed neutrality. By using Church's structure, an intuitive logic emerged that allowed me to communicate while realizing more of the potential of photographic processes.
CW: We've also talked a lot about what seemed to be the increasingly narrow possibilities available to artists working with photography in a world in which everything seems to have been photographed - what philosopher Vilem Flusser referred to even in the early 1980s, long before the ubiquity of the Web, as a world of "redundant" images. Do you think that this project represents a way forward to you?
BR: Yes, I think that this does represent a way forward for my work. The digital workflow has brought forth new challenges. For me, this moment happened when I no longer had access to Chomegenic printing for making enlargements from negatives. Many assumptions about my process had disappeared - it was a way to for me to address questions about materials and their inherent effects on the interpretation of imagery. "Photographers" like us are excited about the potential of purely photographic images to extend the new lens-based imagery into a wider art context. I see this as the continuation of a historical pursuit from Henry Fox Talbot onward. There's a great opportunity to utilize precedents from history that have already addressed similar concerns. The grouping or re-contextualizing of imagery, like Oliver Wasow, Cory Archangel, and Penelope Umbrico represent really interesting tactics for utilizing "redundant" imagery. I feel that sequences of straight photographs will continue to have their own unique sensibilities.
CW: One of the most interesting things we've talked about concerning your series After Icebergs With a Painter is the work's relation to 19th century conceptions of the sublime - how you've attempted to explore, and perhaps update, the idea of the sublime for a present in which our relation to the natural world is radically different from that of Frederic Church and his contemporaries. Can you talk a little about this?
BR: I am infatuated with the desire to recreate the sensation of an experiential awe-inspiring moment that is invoked by one's natural surroundings in imagery. My proximity to the actual paintings and landscapes (that were being depicted) by Church and Thomas Cole make them the most overt examples of this type of endeavor. I was inspired by Ed Ruscha's Course of Empire (2005), and that he exhibited these works alongside Cole's Course of Empire (1833-36). Ruscha acknowledges Cole's cautionary tale but amends Cole's logic with more detail, specificity and nuance of current conditions. They vacillate between Cole's rigidly dictated stages in the progression of mankind's effect on the landscape, until it cannot support those systems. Producing work well after the New Topographics, I find that many sentiments from American Romanticism are still present in our relationship to landscape. There has been a shift from traditional moments of heightened introspection towards looking for the same outlet in the "social landscape" or the increasingly urbanized landscape. Projections made in relation to natural elements in American Romanticism can also be realized in communal man made spaces. The materials that are used to achieve these affects equally intrigue me. In this project, I had the ability to physically utilize materials from the landscape and call attention to those that shape our ability to render with photography.
Ben Ruggiero received his MFA from Bard College. He had a solo show at Testsite entitled After Icebergs with a Painter and is a member of the Austin-based photography collective Lakes Were Rivers. He lives in Austin and teaches at Texas State University.Chris Wiley is an artist, writer, curator and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has appeared in numerous publications and catalogs, most frequently in ArtForum.com, Frieze, and Kaleidoscope, where he also acts as an Associate Editor. He has worked on numerous curatorial projects at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, as well as on the 8th Gwangju Biennial in Gwangju, South Korea. A solo exhibition of his photographs will be mounted this spring at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in New York.
On Redwoods, Spaghetti Westerns and other American Myths
BEVIN BERING DUBROWSKI: Aaron, this interview intends to focus on your own work as a photographer rather than your curatorial and editorial projects; what are you working on now?
AARON SCHUMAN: Photographically, I'm working on a project called Redwoods, which I started about a year ago. A friend of mine in England, a tree surgeon, told me over lunch that he'd been pruning a number of redwoods in a nearby estate the previous day. I was surprised to discover that there were redwoods in the UK, as I'd always thought of them as a distinctly American species. But once I knew about them, I kept spotting the tops of these trees piercing the horizon, towering over the rest of the landscape. I began to do some research and discovered that during the California Gold Rush a number of British botanists and seed collectors traveled to the American Northwest in search of 'exotic' plants that would flourish in the British climate. They sent back sacks full of seeds, cultivated them in vast nurseries, and then sold them to the landed gentry, who planted them in their estates and gardens. The redwood was one such plant, and acted as a symbol of wealth, stature and imperial reign — in fact, the Giant Sequoia, one of the most famous indigenous plants of North America, was also dubbed Wellingtonia gigantia, in honor of the 1st Duke of Wellington, who died around the same time, in 1852. Anyway, I started to photograph them.
BBD: How have you approached this subject photographically?
AS: Since they were planted, many of the original redwood seedlings have matured into fully grown trees, but many of the estates and gardens where they were planted have changed hands, have been subsumed by urban and suburban expansion, have been turned into housing developments, retirement communities, public parks and so on. Nevertheless, the redwoods have managed to survive, albeit completely out of proportion with the rest of the surrounding landscape. So I've started by visually toying with their scale in relation to their surroundings. And I've developed a real affinity for them; almost a camaraderie, in the sense that I've now lived as an American in England for most of what I would consider my adult life — I've grown roots, begun a family, matured and in a sense flourished — and yet I still often feel slightly awkward or at odds with my surroundings. It may seem strange, but every time I find a redwood over here, I instinctively feel the need to walk up to it and give it a good pat on its trunk, like I'm patting the back of an old friend; it's comforting. Then I gradually circle around it, finding different vantage points within the surrounding environment, and make photographs.
BBD: Beyond the personal and historic, are there some other topics that this series brings to the forefront for you?
AS: Yes, apart from these obliquely autobiographical or personal references, I have also found that there is fascinating allegorical potential in the photographs in terms of notions of imperialism, dominance, strength, power, allusions to the respective rise and fall of the British and American empires.
BBD: You have such a strong knowledge of photographic history; I'm wondering, is there a piece of this history you are working through here as well?
AS: As you said, I'm very interested in the history of photography, so when I look at photographs I initially try to read them as literally as possible — or at least as the photographer intended — but subsequently I can't help but see various links and relationships between them and other photographic works, both past and present. The exhibition that I curated for the 2010 FotoFest Biennial, Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs, was very much about this; it looked at how contemporary photographers depict and define America today, but also drew distinct parallels between their work and Walker Evans' American Photographs (1937), and explored the embedded legacy of this particular photographic history within American photography's most current practice.
Similarly, when I started to look at and edit Redwoods, I began to notice similarities — visual, strategic and conceptual — between my photographs and those shown in New Topographics, the now infamous exhibition at George Eastman House in 1975. Firstly, I realized that the mid-century British bungalows and housing developments that I found in England bore an uncanny resemblance to the tract houses and suburban developments of the American West, as photographed by Robert Adams and Joe Deal. Furthermore, the notion of maintaining a constant motif throughout the work, and collecting together a sort of 'typology' — in my case, redwoods; in their case, industrial structures — shared something, conceptually if not stylistically, with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. And finally, the way in which I was composing the photographs — in black and white, incorporating street furniture, telephone wires, road markings, foliage and so on, and playing with these elements in terms of their linear, geometric and formal effects within the frame — reminded me of the seemingly casual but rigorous compositions of Frank Gohlke, Henry Wessel Jr., and again, Robert Adams, in which otherwise unassuming environments are constructed into subtly complicated, two-dimensional visual puzzles. So again, I found myself developing a sense of affinity or camaraderie, but in this case with photographers of a previous generation, with each unconscious nod to their work also acting as that sort of fraternal, comforting pat on the back.
But, it's important to stress that, firstly, these photographs came from an interest in photographing the subject matter itself in a way that felt most appropriate and natural to me, and that the historical echoes only emerged in the process of making the work, rather than vice versa. I didn't set out to make a New Topographics project; I stumbled upon something that I thought would be interesting to photograph, began to make pictures, and then realized that the photographic solutions that I was coming up with when faced with this particular subject matter shared something (but not everything) with several of my favorite photographers — which was thrilling.
BBD: Your earlier series, Once Upon A Time in the West also explores national identities. Could you tell me a little more about this project and the political aspects of it?
AS: Once Upon a Time in the West is a portfolio that I made on the eroding sets and locations of Sergio Leone's 1960s Spaghetti Westerns, in the Almerian deserts of southern Spain. At the time, I was interested in photographing American myths and 'ruins' abroad, in an attempt to explore how America as an empire has colonized parts of the world — not necessarily in a physical sense, but in a cultural and ideological sense — and to understand how the rest of the world continues to see, understand, absorb, portray, reflect and occasionally propagate certain notions of America. In this case, it's a distinctly American archetype, but the place itself — the reality — was created by an Italian in Franco's Spain for the purposes of fiction. And again, there's an autobiographical subtext embedded within the project as well.
BBD: How does your own role as an American who is now rooted in Europe come into play in this project?
AS: When I first moved to Europe, I was surprised by how people perceived me as an American. I grew up in a liberal part of New England and moved to New York for college, so in terms of the stereotypical portrayals of American culture as seen in mainstream media, I don't have much experience. I've never been particularly religious, nationalistic, or obese; I've never lived in a sprawling suburb, dated a cheerleader, or held a loaded gun. But, these were all things that, when I moved abroad, instantaneously became associated with me in some strange way. So Once Upon a Time in the West was initially an attempt to explore and photograph America without actually stepping foot in America, but instead by way of representations of an America that, in reality, was entirely a fiction, and wasn't in fact American at all. Nevertheless, for many people (including many Americans), this particular archetype — the cowboy, the Wild West — remains an important symbol in terms of defining America, the American character, American culture, and the American spirit at large.
BBD: Do you see this work as a critique or a form of investigation?
AS: To be honest, it started as an investigation, of the place itself and what it might represent. But in the editing process I began to notice certain motifs and metaphors reoccurring that implied that there was a definite critique, or at least a critical investigation, embedded within the work. The project was made in 2008-9, just at the end of the Bush administration and in the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there were obvious associations — cowboys patrolling (and dying in) the deserts, and so on. So ultimately, I would say that in Once Upon a Time in the West I'm actively critiquing a national identity (one that I don't particularly identify with personally), in terms of the way it is disseminated and is subsequently perceived, imagined, and understood by others; whereas in Redwoods I'm, in some ways, quietly investigating and identifying with my sense of national identity — as both an individual and a photographer — and exploring its relationship to and within other wider physical, historical, cultural and conceptual contexts.
Aaron Schuman is an American photographer, editor, writer and curator based in the United Kingdom. He exhibits his photographic work internationally, and regularly contributes photography, articles, essays and interviews to publications such as Aperture, Foam, Photoworks, ArtReview, Modern Painters, Hotshoe International, The British Journal of Photography, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Sunday Times. Schuman was the curator of Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs, one of the principal exhibitions at the 2010 FotoFest Biennial; most recently, he curated Other I: Viviane Sassen, WassinkLundgren, Alec Soth for Hotshoe Gallery (London, 11 October - 27 November 2011), and he is currently curating an exhibition for the Houston Center for Photography, opening in September 2012. Schuman is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton and the Arts University College at Bournemouth, and is also the founder, director and editor of the online photography journal, SeeSaw Magazine.
Stephan Hillerbrand speaks to two photographers selected for Master Class: An Exhibition of HCP Master Class Students.
Everywhere we look today, we see photographic images. They are on our phones, computers, TV screens, as well as countless books, magazines, billboards, posters and, believe it or not, they even reside in our cameras. Last year, an article in the The Wall Street Journal reported that Creative Writing is the number one MFA program in the United States. The article went on to say that the statistic was not surprising because this type of program simply does not just teach the technical aspects of how to write better, but teaches the students the lifelong skills of creative problem solving, which translates into success in any profession one might to pursue.
This is where the Houston Center for Photography steps in. Photography is not just cameras, software and technical know how, which are so easily attainable with a simple Google search. Photography is a way of creatively seeing the world. HCP doesn't teach people photography, but how to take a picture - and there is a difference. This exciting literacy is exactly what I encountered when asked to jury the HCP Master Class exhibition in December 2011. The evidence of fervor and commitment to photography made the selection process difficult, but fun. Even more challenging was the opportunity to choose two works that represent a balanced view of the scope of exceptional work that HCP educational programs and Master Class have nurtured both formally and conceptually. The two artists featured are Tiina Anttila and Mary Riggs Ramain.
- Stephan Hillerbrand, Assistant Professor, Photography Department, University of Houston and HCP Board Member
Stephan Hillerbrand: In your photograph that was presented in Master Class: An Exhibition of HCP Master Class Students, there is a wonderfully rich dichotomy of both beauty and foreboding, as if something strange was about to happen. Do you think this is true?
Tiina Anttila: I am inspired by the magical and dreamy side of life. The life that moves between the real world and the imaginary world that at first appears dark or hidden. I like finding the mystery or magic in the commonplace. Sometimes this may create the dichotomy that you observed. I am also interested in the shadow side of life and finding the hidden beauty there. As a psychotherapist, I get to hear lots of secrets; and those secrets become an everyday occurrence to me. Bad things happen to good people; the line between good and bad, as well as normal and abnormal become blurred. Normality may be a myth; imperfection and expression of the shadow side seem to be the condition of everyday life. It is often times in the shadow area of life that the magic and potential exists.
SH: Your image seems to celebrate the idea of process. How important is the role of craft in your studio practice and did taking a Master Class at HCP help develop that?
Mary Riggs Ramain: In capturing my images, I am not afraid to let the process show. In fact, my work celebrates beauty in the imperfection of my process. However, in fine-tuning the images, I am all about the craft. But most important to me is what the image expresses. In my critique Master Class with Sally Gall, I was able to see that some of my images allowed too much of the process to show, which was distracting to viewers and would prevent them from looking for my meaning - that was very helpful to me in developing this series. I am definitely a low-tech person. I only know just enough technical information to do what I want to accomplish -so, I really won't talk about lenses, etc. But what I want to get from and give to the community of photographers is communication - what we are expressing and what else we do in our lives to support that process.