A place where the soul can rest (visiting Aunt Louise), 2019
I have always loved the way bell hooks celebrated photography’s role within Black Southern homes. In Art on My Mind, a book that continues to linger with me, hooks acknowledges that within the domestic interiors, photography often takes on a ceremonial role, enshrining its Black subjects with a perpetual dignity. As I have learned, it is often the matriarch who uses a narrow mantle to proudly display that one photograph of the aunt captured wearing her favorite Malcolm X t-shirt, her grin wide as she points to the late Civil Rights Leader’s face while sitting in a white dining room chair. Sometimes we gaze at the photograph mounted on the hallway that leads to the bathroom that features your eldest cousin in his best Easter suit from three years ago because, as grandma had reminded you, he looked so sharp that day. Other times, grandma will leaf through an old photo album from her girlhood, stored in the attic, to find that photograph in which she and her girlfriends slyly pose for the someone off camera.
These vernacular images become embedded with meaning beyond what we immediately see. How do we reconcile ourselves to their subtexts and subplots, the invisible stories from which they emerge? How do we, as Tina Campt suggests in Listening to Images, listen to them in order to unfold these subtexts and subplots? This question becomes especially important as we consider how these images have traveled through time, passing through the hands of generations of kin. Each encounter introduces new moments of interpretation.
I am reminded of Emmanuel Iduma’s words in A Stranger’s Pose: Photography is a charismatic medium. Sometimes it takes five decades for a photograph to unravel itself.
So, what does it mean to come to these photographs and their (psychic) landscapes in new contexts and eras? These questions emerge in Zalika Azim’s exhibition, in case you should forget to sweep before sunset.
Azim, who grew up in Brooklyn, follows her paternal traces of these remnants back to South Carolina, as a careful, if not spiritual, pilgrimage to a place that is of her lineage but from which she is still removed. How to describe a relationship with a place that we have known, primarily, through the memories of others?
I have often thought the American South to be the soul of Black America. A site in which we can see the origins of a cultural lexicon that spread north and west, in large part, via The Great Migration, even as it remains a pivotal nexus within the African Diaspora. As Black folks dared to escape the violences of the region in great numbers as the twentieth century rolled on, they followed the train routes away: Mississippi to Chicago and Milwaukee; Louisiana and Texas to Los Angeles and San Francisco; South Carolina on up to Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. If you look and listen closely, you can see, hear, feel the South as it pulsates far beyond its geographic boundaries.
Forging a new intimacy with an ancestral home, Azim approaches this task through a sacred communion that includes images made by her late grandmother Mary E. Lemons (It is always the matriarch, isn’t it?). Azim’s reconciliation contemplates the tools needed to close a proverbial loop that is defined by an unknowing and she undertakes the task of unraveling blood memory by collapsing, merging, and layering temporalities and materials—in which memory, text, and the photograph itself are all included.
Sunday Portrait (Habibi), 2019, is a 5”x7” image comprised of five smaller black-and-white archival images that have been layered on top of one another and covered with an archival photo sleeve to collectively become a familial homage to a Black cool. The photograph most clear is the image of a toddler in a swing. The last and largest image is of a sharply dressed young man wearing a suit whose likeness appears as a bust due to the manner in which the other photographs have been stacked. I have known these images in my own way, a particular kind of inherited visual code that denotes the occurrence of a significant occasion, play, or a rite of passage.
I know this too: this textual intervention, this minding of the gap, if you will. This nonlinear grappling with an intangible inheritance. To make sense of who we are as Black people in the U.S. and from whom we have been made, we might also have to conjure our haints. A gesture of significance that is taken up by Azim in To speak of a lush hot blooded land, to the dispossessed, too busy to visit, 2019—a striking image of a forest at sunset on Edisto Island, South Carolina that becomes a plot on the map that Azim is creating as she calls forth familial connections:
He use to bring those pretty yellow flowers home on weekends when
he’d work long hours uptown at the jazz club. They were the kind my
sister Carrie said reminded her of the first time she laid eyes on Lina,
and those evening trumpeters she placed in her hair on their last night.
I’d sit by the window for hours, long after I’d put Junior and them down,
watchin’ as the street lights flirted with the curtains
while thinkin’ those thoughts.
Every now and then I’d get a whiff of that perfume Mama wanted sprayed
On her resting dress, so she’d still feel warm—like sandalwood,
newspapers and vanilla. Or the saltwater Papa always joked about
sending up, lest we forget we had a place to come back to.
Finally he’d round the corner, stopping briefly at the ol’ fruit stand before
entering the building and climbing the three flights to our apartment.
In he’d enter, kicking his shoes off at the front door, before whispering his
evening greeting which nowadays sounded more like a dispossession than
the first few notes of a hymn.
Is this not what it means to embark on pilgrimage?
Like Azim, I am wrestling with my origin (story). I say this to her the day we meet for coffee and she greets my admission with that familiar Black women affirmation—a deep, guttural yes—an embodied spiritual code itself. And as a Black Southerner, I understand the desire to wade through memory and re-memory in the effort to untangle my relationship to a place that remains more complex than it is often considered to be.
Photography, for Black folks, carries our many knowledges even as it makes space for us to expand upon, revise, and reckon with these ways of knowing. With in case you should forget to sweep before sunset, Azim steps into this work, this infinite unraveling (can this task ever be really be finished?), creating, as an exhibition, her own shrine to the Black Southerners, in particular, of whom she is part.
The following text comes from a conversation between Sam Margevicius and Beau Torres about the exhibition Twenty-six. They spoke over coffee at Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York on February 4th, 2019.
Sam Margevicius: I call this an installation piece because it’s not reproducible. When I show someone one of these pictures or even an installation shot, it really has very little relation to the renascence of actually being here because your body becomes this vessel for engaging with the work, and you create the meaning through the sequencing, through your own subjective sequencing and which images you encounter before and after every other image. So, you kind of are given this active role as a body that can walk around this space and so you build the narrative through that traveling.
The sequence of these images has been for the most part fixed—It’s still the same every time that you’ve seen it. What’s changed is that I’ve shown the piece on one long wall, two intersecting walls, and the current installation is spread across three walls.
SM: In many ways I think of this piece as a kind of film. A moving images film where you can, as the viewer, become enabled to move forward and backward within the film. It’s almost like you’re looking at the timeline, let’s say on Netflix, it says the film is two hours and you can just zip your mouse and go wherever you want. That’s how I sometimes imagine being here with these images.
That is really at the heart of what I wanted to do with this work, to somehow provide a way for other people to get in, to contextualize that situation without it being from a distance. I wanted to give the viewer an opportunity to go through that.
I think that it’s the act of viewing and deciding to read pictures in a way where you’re really looking into and trying to pull meaning out of it. Reading is a creative act that requires a lot of filling in blanks.
SM: I tend to lean more towards a structural model of making work. To think more intuitively with this piece you can start at the first picture and say “okay, those vessels are about the chemicals in the air in a darkroom,” then take that sentence and run with it, go to the next picture, fill in a couple more sentences, and keep going. But then you can step back and look at what’s happening with the whole structure and ask, “what are the factors that establish relationships between pictures here—there is a middle line and a then fluctuation above and below that.” I think I had to remain, in ways, more aware of that structure throughout the making of this piece.
As a viewer I appreciate moments when I discover something new or recognize a new version of something I already know. I enjoy when someone sees this piece and it reminds them of a walk they might have taken yesterday. I think that those moments reveal a chance circumstance within a sequence of so many decisions they have made and so many they have not intentionally made. That’s a very fortunate event, when a viewer can really relate—it’s rare. We might not even have these experiences every day. There has to be a balance of having lows and having highs and having in-betweens. So, when you get those moments of resonance, it’s this beautiful appearance and can seem as though everything led up to that momentary understanding.
Beau Torres: I think sometimes that looseness, letting go of structure is really the most helpful thing. Sometimes I’ll have three or four stacks of reference materials, where there’s this stack of books for this project and that stack is for that other one. I also have this one program, Papers, it’s essentially iTunes for PDFs, where I have a selection of readings for this project, and a selection for that project. I’m also adding to source imagery folders in Adobe Bridge. Everything’s constantly being sorted and everything’s ready for me to look at. And then I realize I’m spending all this time sorting and the project’s not even started—The project is all jumbled in my head and stored in piles and files. Sometimes we have to throw all that away and do the project. Actually start the project and then see where the next step goes. Once you let everything commence, you start to find what you’re looking for, and then you begin to make meaning. I think that’s the most important thing about meaning, and about this project—nothing has meaning. It’s not about a fascination with nihilism, it’s more about meaning not being inherent, but that it’s, in fact, made.
SM: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more with that!
BT: I was curious to know if you were thinking about cinema as film or cinema as a space; a place for meeting. And then I started thinking about the coffeehouse, and a nostalgia for this place as a beatnik environment for intellectual conversation. The same goes for the idea of the cinema of the past as this place where one would throw on a suit to have an experience. Even tonight when you go to Anthology Film Archives to see the Merce Cunningham films.
SM: Nathaniel Dorsky, whose book is on that shelf right there—Devotional Cinema, he’s talking about the cinema as a place. Essentially you’re in a large cavernous space that’s dark and you see at the edge of the room, illuminations. He describes that as a very good analog for our brains and the process of seeing through our eyeballs. Sitting in there having this experience where you’re totally focused and honed in on the screen. The other day I watched Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, it’s about a person who gets in an accident and is stuck severely in their body—“locked-in syndrome” it’s called. The character can think, hear, and see; he can move his eyeballs and blink, but he can’t control any other part of his body. I thought, wow, this is the perfect content for a film. It’s almost like every film should be about a person who can only see and not physically interact with the world, because that is the condition one is put in when watching a film. You get audio and visuals, and you can think but you cannot engage anything.
What initiated my real appreciation for going to the cinema was actually the space of getting out of the movie theater and walking home or walking to the train. That five, ten minutes, one hour, whatever that time is that elapses once the film has concluded lets you think of the work and kind of place it into your memory in a way that makes sense. It’s an important time and space to develop your interpretation and build it into your day-to-day life.
BT: What’s your impression of reading photography in a wider context? Is reading photography something that anyone can easily do? A couple of photographs that I’m looking at here have visual clues we as photographers would recognize. This one has bits of grain where I can tell it was taken with a film camera. And then you’ve got this other one that maybe was taken with an iPhone and it’s not digital or film grain, it’s concrete and that surface texture could be a nod to film grain. So how do we as photographers who do have a kind of photographic language bring that to an audience who might not be photographically trained? How can we make pictures, in a way, words?
SM: It’s hard work to sit in front of a photograph, and try to describe, or create some system of meaning for oneself. So, how do we contextualize that? Well, I like to remember that everyone has their own ways of trying to put meaning onto things.
I feel like I speak with people a lot who are really eager and open, they are confused and curious and want to understand an artwork. They want to know, “What does it mean?” and “What’s going on here?” and “Why have you done this?” But then sometimes people are inclined to say, “Hey, I don’t get this!” and are really critical right from the onset. I think that it’s the act of viewing and deciding to read pictures in a way where you’re really looking into and trying to pull meaning out of it. That is a creative act that requires a lot of filling in a lot of blanks.
Filmmakers and Directors of Photography take wonderful images, but I think it would be strange for them to pull one image out and say, “Oh yes, this is the best image,” because it has to work within that narrative. I think that’s one reason I don’t work so much with film, even though I’m really interested in all these ideas around motion picture film. One of the original media theorists, Marshall McLuhan, identifies motion pictures with sound as a hot medium. When you watch a film, it’s giving you the sound, and it’s giving you a ton of moving images, and you can sit there and not move at all, there are a lot of stimuli dropped into your lap. Painting, photography, music, and other mediums are seen as cool mediums because you come to the picture and it’s not giving you very much—it’s mute or it’s invisible. So you have to do the work and become an active interpreter.
So, that is something that I find daily in life. I think it’s good to be talking to you about this, because of apophenia and, When Things Come Together (referring to BT’s exhibition of the same name). The idea that sometimes everything is right and easy and flowing and seems magical, and you’re walking around, and because of something that you saw on the last block, then you see something on this block and you experience this moment of total awe and joy. This possibility of something that loosely resembled magic to me.
BT: It’s all magic.
There is a poetry and lyricism at work in Keisha Scarville’s photographic and mixed media series Placelessness of Echoes (and kinship of shadows). It appeared in the narrative assembly of works across the Camera Club of New York’s white walls. The images lean on, extrapolate, and depart from the words of Wilson Harris, Jamaica Kinkaid, the artist herself, and other writers who have sought to explore the complex interplay of subjectivity, place, and power. Placelessness of Echoes… speaks of landscapes that are alive, possessed, and have stories to be told.
Journeys – both metaphorical and actual – are the foundation of Scarville’s artistic inquiries. Whether tracing her parents’ migration from Guyana to the United States (Passports); addressing her mother’s passing through material ciphers and their potential to conjure (Mama’s Clothes); or the excursions undertaken to produce Placelessness of Echoes… movements that transform bodies and individuals are explored by Scarville’s photographic gaze, in images that convey texture and shadow in seemingly impossible ways. Placelessness of Echoes… luxuriates in darkness, simulating the experience of an eye adjusting to the lowest levels of light. The series is performative and process-oriented; from scouting, to returning to traverse and negotiate the chosen terrain, to camping, observing, and engaging in the discrete and little-known rituals Scarville created to capture her photographs – this body of work meditates on time, place, and space and how each informs, overlaps with, and produces the other.
The “placelessness” of the work’s title, calls attention to the paradox of space, of how the wilderness confounds our attempts to command, locate, and describe it. The landscape in Scarville’s photographs refuses to be fixed in place. Further, the composite nature of the series, staged as it is in numerous, unnamed topographies, is quietly suggestive of the un-geographic facts of Blackness. (After all, where is Black?) To be dispersed, located, placeless, and out of place – all at once.
With her camera – a tool for fixing in place and measuring time – Scarville creates bifurcating narratives of a black female body in and of its rural surroundings. In these we see how the landscape lives in the imagination of the artist – and how perhaps, it stands as a signifier for other spaces. One of these is the fictive space of Harris’s Mariella, the territory in Guyana that is the setting for his novel Palace of the Peacock. Another is the idea of a landscape at night, that in the artist’s words, “becomes everywhere and nowhere, occupying multiple spaces at the same time.” This sense of multiplicity and hybridity is intimately tied to subjectivity’s constant process of formation, and how these transformations are prompted and determined by spatial paradigms. For Scarville, the series is a way of decentering the body in thinking about place – resisting the urge to describe it as a dichotomy of body and nature, instead to think, in Katherine McKittrick’s words about “how bodily geography can be.”
The scenes created by Scarville are the diametric opposite of the cityscape, that which is constantly illuminated, surveilled, and controlled; these qualities programmed into its very topography. As such it is largely vacated of mystery, intrigue, darkness, and the unknown. For Black Americans, experience has taught a suspicion and fear of rural landscapes for the stage they provided for acts of racial terrorism; from lynchings and slave blocks to centuries of uncompensated and cruelly-cultivated labor all carried out on stolen indigenous land. Adversely, the landscape (especially at night) evokes stories of refuge and sanctuary, it conjures the fugitives who traversed the land in the era of the underground railroad. Scarville’s series captures glimpses of the ghosts of those whose self-emancipatory journeys are etched into the land. Making space for the unknowable, mystical, perhaps even magical qualities of the landscape at night mirrors the very capaciousness of the land, and seeks to recuperate the Black female body in nature. Partly through the guise of the shapeshifter – a central figure in Palace of the Peacock, and across a selection of Kincaid’s short stories – she is at once a metaphor for the placelessness of the Black female, the diasporic figure, and a vessel through which the individual navigates, commands, and is enveloped by space.
In a number of images, we see a woman’s body, and the foreground and ground illuminated by red light; chosen in part as it is invisible to most nocturnal animals, and therefore undisruptive to their nightly pursuits. These strongly invoke traditional spiritual practices of the Black diaspora, themselves radical acts of resistance. They also call to mind the mystic or the witch – a maligned figure, whose roots are located in the first anti-capitalist struggles of feudal Europe and the newly-colonized Americas. Scarville’s photographs allow us to grasp and consider the complicated embodied history of the landscape: as a terrain of many terrors, as a fertile ground for growth, a place of imagination and becoming, and a setting for kinship and community.
– Daniella Rose King
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Our body is more elastic than we think. Teasing, pulling, receding, absorbing the welter of forces that press towards it, splitting off into pieces, coiling in upon itself, endlessly deforming and reforming itself, informed by all in its surround.
How large the surface of a foot is, I think, as I face up the first work encountered in Nandita Raman’s recent exhibition, “Body is a Situation.” Not quite gigantic, yet not quite familiar, the three pictures each frame a vermillion impression of the sole of a forefoot or the pads of the toes, each different in scale, each paper sheet different in size, dancing around an invisible center point on the wall. A footprint expresses the contact zone between the body and its physical grounding in the world. This work–is it drawing or painting or photography or all of these?–lays out the thematic chords of Raman’s show. For Red Feet (Triptych) simultaneously foregrounds and destabilizes the fleeting traces that demarks one’s location. The images initially offer the illusion of immediacy, which is equally undermined by the distancing effect of abstraction. Abstracted because, despite the indexical nature of body prints, this picture is a reproduction, the original impression enlarged, scaled up, expanded to defamiliarize this malleable, elastic body.
The exhibition was composed of disparate marks and signs, slipping across and hybridizing mediums: Photographs, drawings, texts, all pinned to the wall, variously representing a journal, a body print, sculptures, books, and tightly framed architectural forms. The underlying subject is Varanasi, the city of the artist’s birth. A city I have never visited, indeed thousands of miles from any ground upon which I have ever walked. And yet I have an image of this city already, conditioned by hundreds of photographs, cinematic views, tourist postcards, and literary romaniticizations of the historical city on the Ganges: the steps rising from its banks, the rituals of daily ablutions, the funeral pyres.
None of that is pictured by Raman.
In fact little of what is depicted could be said to capture the city through genres of representation that conventionally signify place and location. No landscapes, no architectural studies, no street scenes–nothing that would lend itself to the tourist postcards or the immediate identification of eager gazes wishing to confirm what they already think they know.
The significance of this refusal is brought home by Picturesque, 2017, an overhead photograph of layers of printed text: An open book, Ginsberg’s Indian Journals, reveals a concrete poem describing the descent of a staircase, the vectors of its lines of verse visually mimicking the zigzag of irregular steps, the poet’s enjambments drawing the fall of footsteps. Ginsberg’s volume partially obscures several overlaid photocopied sheets. The poet’s image of the staircase recurs in the academic text through the quotation of 19th-century British captain who exalts before “The immense flight of steps called the Ghauts of Benares [sic].” This art history describes the romantic exoticization of India in which British representations framed the colony to discipline it under the aesthetic paradigm of the picturesque.
Staggered this way, Varanasi’s construction through the European and American cultural imaginary archive is re-formed as a collage within Raman’s photograph. The discourse itself becomes a subject for photography, to be studied, arranged, composed before the camera, offered as subjects of attention. But the tradition that they stand for is resolutely rejected. This genealogy of white men’s exotic fascination with Varanasi, and their program of capturing it as an object of delectation within their pictorial and poetic paradigms is re-framed for what they are: projects of the colonial imaginary. More than that, perhaps, they are framed as accretions of preconceived ideas, mythologies in their true ideological function.
Between the body and a city: That is where Raman situates the conceptual frisson of the exhibition. “I’m moving through the city, wishing to reclaim it, to make this heady and almost mythical place my own,” Raman writes, her text pinned aside her pictures. “How do I experience my body as I traverse this metropolis full of female deities but where women are conspicuously absent from public spaces?” Maha Maya, a diptych, shows a temple offering of garlands and petals. In one picture, hands reach into the downward frame, sweeping back the drape of silk garments to reveal the feet of a deity. The understanding of the body is posited as a dynamic practice of mimesis and recognition of culturally determined figurations. Artwork and the embodied self engage in a relay of formation and alteration.
This concept was expanded and refined in two photographs of wet clay torsos, truncated of all appendages: one de profil, one de face–only missing de dos to complete the classical poses. Still, even seen in these nearly identical forms, it is not clear that the sculpted figure in each photo is one and the same. Raman’s shallow depth of field obliterates any peripheral detail. What matters is what is close to the figure. A sense of its material, and its position.
What is commonly known as culture is perhaps less elastic than a given body. But it does give, bend, and mold in response to changing values and the dynamic pressures of history. Representations and rituals are reservoirs of history–perhaps, what anthropologist William Mazzarella has called the mimetic archive, a repository of practices, like those techniques of the body passed on through generations. To locate the possibilities of one’s own body requires perception of an existing social matrix. But those guidelines are not absolute.
Raman makes clear that the body’s situation is not precisely geographic, nor confined to position or locality. Situation is a contingency. Raman’s drawings map the contours of the feet. Outlines, seen from above, doubled, as if following or proposing a step aside, a second position. A mark, perhaps a scar, atop the right foot. I think of my own scar, on top of my own right foot. Another drawing of a foot, seen in profile, again twice. The second time, with studiously delineated epidermal ridges and sweat glands filled in, giving depth to the form, and an unexpected intimacy in looking so closely at another’s foot. It is difficult to see one’s own foot in profile.
“The body is a situation.” The concept is Simone de Beauvoir’s, who, in The Second Sex, declares, “if the body is not a thing, it is a situation.”(1) The the body is reformulated as always already culturally formed and embedded within a social matrix. For Judith Butler, the consequences of this redefinition serves to denaturalize the body as reducible to binary distinctions of sex, and furthermore to conceptions of gender that claim to be essential and absolute categories. The body’s situation is constructed repeatedly, constantly, over and over again through myriad performances and impositions, the projections and rejections that inscribe the body of the subject within the space of the social.
Searching for another figurative model on which to understand the gendered construction of the city, Raman turns her camera to remark another language of forms through which to situate the body in Varanasi. Anatomy undergoes a graphic process of abstraction, translated to circular forms that Raman reads into urban topography and geological formation as signs of a navel and a vagina. Towards these drawn and carved forms, the situation of a body located in or known through Varanasi might be re-oriented through the conceptual machinery of the exhibition.
As this meandering account has sought to sketch out, Raman’s drawings and photographs conscript religious iconography, colonial politics, cartography, the intimacy of daily experiences, and the recursive practices of reading, writing, and walking. To view the images and unpack their citational politics is to follow Raman as a reader. In the exhibition, I, the viewer-reader, follow her nimble body-gaze. Competing systems of representation collide, brought into dialogue in order to tease out their respective inadequacies. Photography serves as a means of annotating and sharing the practice of reading and researching, and then of projecting one’s knowledge and experience back into the world, to see it anew, as transformed by the experience of–and rejection of–this archive. Raman posits this action of processing within the figural possibilities of the exhibition, as references and competing forms aggregate between visually disparate works. From the outset, the body’s situation is constructed within and against representation. Yet even when imprinted on a solid surface, the image of the body is not singular: Raman’s use of the device of the diptych and the triptych structures the exhibition, so that signs and bodies are never fixed by a definitive representation, whether drawn or photographed. A figuration is constructed in parallax. Reading becomes dancing. The body is nimble.
(1)“[S]i le corps n’est pas une chose, il est une situation.”
Earlier this month, noted art critic John Berger passed away. His death immediately sparked ripples of mentions throughout photography and art communities online. Though his writings may have been eclipsed by the more-celebrated musings of Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Berger’s observations on the propagation of the photographic medium are nonetheless as crucial and still relevant today.
When I heard of his passing, I immediately looked for my copy of About Looking (Pantheon Books, 1980) which I happened to find years ago amongst a pile of books left on the street. The book is a collection of essays by Berger written over ten years which were all previously published in New Society magazine and The Guardian UK newspaper. About Looking not only discusses the act of looking at photographs, it is “a fascinating record of the search for meaning within and behind what’s looked at.”
Berger’s most direct critique of our lens-based medium is an essay titled Uses of Photography, in which he writes down “some of my responses to Sontag’s 1977 book On Photography.” Without publishing the entire essay, below I’ve highlighted select quotes that introduce and elaborate on Berger’s idea of “an alternative photography” to counteract the medium’s nefarious functions and realize it’s altruistic possibilities.
WARNING: The following quotes contain radical (or what could be considered socialist) views on photography’s historical role in modern, Western society. Proceed with a decolonized mind.
“The speed with which the possible uses of photography were seized upon is surely an indication of photography’s profound, central applicability to capitalism. Marx came of age the year of the camera’s invention.”
“Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearances.”
“A mechanical device, the camera has been used as an instrument to contribute to a living memory. The photograph is a memento from a life being lived.”
“Has the camera replaced the eye of God? The decline of religion corresponds with the rise of the photograph.”
“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.”
Upon (re)reading this quote I immediately recalled photographer/ethnologist Edward Curtis who made it his mission to document the North American native population because of his imperialist belief that they were “a vanishing race.”
“… the current systematic public use of photography needs to be challenged, not simply by turning round like a cannon and aiming it at different targets, but by changing its practice. How?”
“The truth is that most photographs taken of people are about suffering, and most of that suffering is man-made.”
Certainly this quote speaks to the historical and systematic utilization of ethnographic photography of native and indigenous populations around the world. In our globalized era, suffering is injected into (public and private) visual culture through images of war and illicit pornography which is a byproduct of modern slavery or human trafficking.
“It is possible that photography is the prophecy of a human memory yet to be socially and politically achieved.“
“The task of an alternative photography is to incorporate photography into social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of any such memory.”
“The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images.”
Next Berger argues that photographs are typically used in a “unilinear way… to illustrate an argument, or to demonstrate a thought…” Consider the way a forensic photographer records the initial appearance of a crime scene as the first encounter and experience it through their subjective perspective. Berger also cites a photograph’s more common, tautological use so that it only “repeats what is being said in words.”
Although Berger argues that memory is not linear and works radially, with an “enormous number of associations all leading to the same event.” This radial pattern of memory is compared by Berger as being like the spoke of a wheel, which is a bit simplistic with just a single radiating plane. In my opinion, memory’s radial pattern has multiple (perhaps intersecting) planes and instead mimics the fractal-like, radiating pattern of a dandelion seed head.
“If we want to put a photograph back into the context of experience, social experience, social memory, we have to respect the laws of memory. We have to situate the printed photograph so that it acquires something of the surprising conclusiveness of that which was and is.”
“A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.”
I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this profound “radial system” and ways in which it can be used in storytelling and to display photographs in physical locations (galleries, public sites, etc.) More importantly I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps Berger was signaling our use of the #hashtag as a descriptor and curator of images on social media.
Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther Party and The Black Female Self in Landscape.
Daniel Terna is a lens-based artist whose work is marked by absence. His images balance the emotional with the conceptual. We sat down with him to share food, drinks, and conversation shortly after the election.
Martha Naranjo Sandoval
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m the child of immigrants. My folks were not born in this country. Still, it sounds so strange to say that because I’m just a New Yorker.
Where are your parents from?
Dad was born in Vienna in 1923 and grew up in Prague, which was at that time in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Mom is also Jewish, Eastern European, but comes from Colombia. She was born in Paris after the War, but grew up in Bogotá. In 1959, when she was 12, her family moved to Brooklyn.
How did they meet?
They met in a therapy group for children of Holocaust survivors. My dad is a survivor, and my mom is the daughter of survivors. At that time there was a movement around supporting first-generation children of survivors, exploring how they dealt with growing up in an environment where their parents were psychologically fucked up because of their experiences in the war. My dad was a speaker, and he saw my mom afterward on the train and asked her to get a cup of coffee. They got married three months later. She was 35, and he was in his late 50s.
How do you identify, especially since you’re adopted?
I identify as an ethnically Colombian, culturally New York Jew. I have no cultural connection to Colombia. I identify a lot with being your typical over-analytical pseudo-intellectual New York Jew. The Colombian thing rarely comes up because nobody really knows or asks. Somebody today thought I was from Lebanon. My birth mother was from Bogotá, but I was born in Manhattan.
Have you been to Colombia?
No. I started asking my mom for some information about my birth mom. Every time I think about it, I’m like, “I need to make this into an art project.” Then I get stuck, because I’m like, “I need to call the lawyer that was involved with the adoption.” Then I’m like, “Do I need to record the conversation? How do I record it? What kind of camera does it need to be? Can it be the computer camera, or can it be my iPhone? Do I need a setup? Do I have a camera on the lawyer’s end, so do I call beforehand to tell them that I’m going to call them?” Then I don’t do anything.
You just get caught up in technicalities?
Which might just be an excuse not to want to open a can of worms. But I did start looking into it, and the crazy thing is the lawyer just died. So that’s another one of those things where I wonder, What if my birth mom died right now? Maybe she’s in Queens; maybe she’s in Bogotá. What if I just missed that by a day? How awful would that be? Because I spent the last two years thinking about doing it, and then I didn’t do it, and then I did it, and now she’s dead.
It’s so Jewish. It’s very Jewish, that sort of anxiety, like worrying so much you don’t get anywhere. You’re standing in one place. You’re just standing in one place worrying.
Like a Woody Allen character.
Like a Woody Allen character. Yeah. But I’ll do it. Don’t worry. I’ll do it somehow, but what if I have siblings? It’s weird. I probably do have siblings.
You don’t know what’s waiting for you on the other side.
No, I don’t. Every Colombian I meet is like, “You have to go to Colombia, it’s awesome, I’ll tell you where to stay.” I have a standing invitation at an artist-residency in Medellín.
I get the hesitation, though, because you don’t know what’s waiting for you and it’s easy just to guess instead of confronting it.
My dad says that I should use his story and experience in my art. He’s like, “It’s a very special situation that you still have access to a Holocaust survivor, and you should use me as much as you can.” With these newer pictures of his skin, I’m doing exactly that: looking closely at his body.
It sounds like a collaboration because he’s urging you to tell his story.
I don’t know if I would call it collaboration. I’ve collaborated with another artist, and it’s a very different experience. With this, he’s more game to do stuff, but I don’t know if he would call it collaborating because he’s more like, “Do your thing. I’m here for you, and if you want to do this idea with me, great.” I use his body and the objects in his studio and his paintings as props, but there isn’t an active conversation going on.
In our classes at ICP there were a lot of people working with family. It’s interesting.
For me, it comes from a fear of his death and wanting to go to places emotionally that we just wouldn’t under any normal circumstances. My father’s long life and his eventual death is the elephant in the room. He says that with his first wife, who was also a survivor, the Holocaust was the elephant at the dinner table. Through my pictures and my work, I have a portrait of my dad, and if I have kids I can say, “This was your grandpa. This guy.”
I’ve always had a fear of his death and anxiety about losing him. I grew up knowing that he was old and that he would die when I was young, so I’ve always been preparing for it. But he’s 93 now and very active and healthy. I think many of us photographers want to make work about our families. I think we’re all trying to understand ourselves better.
For me it’s not about death, but rather memory as it relates to personal history. Both my parents are orphans, but they are very young, so I never associated them with mortality. It makes sense that you have a closer relationship with death.
My dad is an artist, and he paints because the paintings are going to outlast him. His art is a record of his survival. He paints with acrylic because it lasts longer than oil or he covers it with a veneer after he’s done painting so it’s damage-resistant. When people come to look at his paintings, he starts scratching them. He’s like, “See? Nothing is happening. They’re good. They’re going to outlast you; they’re going to outlast your grandkids. If you’re going to spend money on this, it’s going to be made well.” I think a lot of that is his personality, but I also think it’s interesting to think about it as his desire to make a little mark on history. His paintings are essentially documents of him, portraits of his psychological state.
I started taking pictures of his skin and his wrinkles because I was interested in texture. His paintings are very textured as well; he uses sand and pebbles. He wants blind people to be able to see them. When you look at them you can see light and shadow; I wanted to do that with his skin. I wanted his skin to be my canvas. I wanted to make pictures that could relate to that physical sensation. I don’t know if I succeeded, but they’re not bad pictures.
Technically, I had been shooting with a flash, and that work was beginning to blend with some of my commercial work. It started to go in a direction that a lot of other people were headed, so I started thinking of the assignment Nayland Blake gave of breaking your own rules or setting boundaries. I decided not to use a flash. I put all these magnifying lenses on the camera so I could get really close. I also wanted to make something that was about going back to the beauty of optics, which to me meant using natural light, really soft focus, and doing something that wasn’t so trendy.
When I saw them, it was not what I remembered from your show or from what I know about you. It was very interesting.
Yeah, it looks different from what I had been doing.
Also, you don’t want to get into the trap of yourself.
Exactly. I wanted to break it up, to try not to have a visual style—or even a style of personality. Sometimes I can be really depressing and sometimes I can be, in my opinion, hilarious. I have a huge variety of interests and approaches, which is sometimes to my detriment. While there are recurring themes of isolation, absence, labor, my relationships to others and specific sites, I don’t think my work is identifiable by a specific visual style. Sure there are strategies I use myself because they’ve worked for me in the past and I have a lot of trust and confidence in the instincts I’ve sharpened over the years, but I can’t entirely say that everything I do looks like it was done by me, Daniel Terna. I could see myself having a solo show and someone thinking it’s a group show.
Sometimes the story wants to be told a certain way.
When did your dad become a painter, and did you get into the arts because of his work?
My dad started drawing in the concentration camps. One of the first camps he was in was Terezin, in Czechoslovakia. Terezin was a gated fortress concentration camp, but by most standards of the time, it was not so bad. There was a degree of freedom of movement so that Jews could congregate. Terezin was a hub of intellectuals, so there were a lot of famous painters, musicians, composers, singers—all kinds of artists. They got together and had these sessions and even informally taught those who would listen, like my dad, who had been taken out of school.
He became interested in the arts. He was like, “Okay. I want to be an intellectual. I want to be involved with this kind of community and live my life (if I survive) like this.” That’s where he got exposed to some artists that were drawing on paper, what little they could find. When he was in some of the worst camps later on (Auschwitz and later Dachau), he drew with a twig in the dirt. If a Nazi walked by, my dad could easily erase what he had made. He was teaching himself. After being liberated in 1945, he went back to Prague and discovered that his father, brother, and everyone he knew had been murdered in the camps. He married his first wife Stella, whom I made a film about (My First Wife Stella), and in 1946, he went to Paris and started taking a few art classes there, sketching and painting. He’s been doing it for his whole life.
But I didn’t get into the arts because he’s a painter. I was into photojournalism, especially war photojournalism. I always looked at the names of photojournalists in the New York Times, and I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to photograph in Afghanistan or Iraq when the wars broke out. In high school, I started taking pictures. The first things I shot were the Jews in Borough Park. I just wandered into buildings and businesses and openly photographed them.
Martha and Groana
Then what happened?
I went to Bard, and I started seeing fine art photography, and that started shifting my perspective. I started reading Susan Sontag and learning about the problems with photojournalism, and I realized that what I really wanted was danger. I wanted the adrenaline rush, but I didn’t care enough about making pictures of people in trouble and telling the world about them. I didn’t care about doing that myself. Pornography is a really strong word, but I see some photojournalism as this twisted form of media entertainment.
I realized I couldn’t do it. An adrenaline rush was the wrong reason to be a photojournalist in a war zone. I took a class with photographer Gilles Peress at Bard, a human rights class, and I told him I was interested in being a war correspondent. He sat me down and said, very seriously, “I’ve lost a lot of students to war, who wanted to go to war, who got killed, and you will get killed if you go to war.” I laughed, and as a result, he body-checked me. He lifted me up and threw me to the ground. This was in front of some people, but it was really intense, and I was like, “He’s not kidding.” It was a supremely bold statement on his part, and it really cemented what he meant. He’s an incredible person, a true intellectual and deeply affected by the wars he’s photographed and the Rwandan genocide. I still see him around Fort Greene.
Why didn’t you end up in a journalism school instead of Bard?
I did journalism in high school, and I loved journalism, and I still love journalism. One of the reasons I love photography is because you go into these unknown places. I think that’s why a lot of us are photographers. You have your camera, and you just go. Especially if you’re younger, you’re like, “Okay. I’m just going to go explore with this camera.” You discover people’s stories and talk to people, and sometimes even pretend to be someone you’re not, which is what I did a lot of times. I looked at colleges for journalism. I was looking at Boston University because I thought maybe I would be a reporter. But then I went to Bard, and I studied art history and photography, and the photo program was so intense that I ended up really dedicating myself to it. I also worked on the school paper, the Bard Free Press, eventually becoming the Editor-in-Chief, which is something I’m really proud of.
One of my photography teachers was An-My Lê. She photographs with a view camera, but she works within fast-paced worlds, such as army bases, the military in training, even shoots on aircraft carriers. She works with subject matter that a photojournalist might be interested in, but she doesn’t approach it in the way that a photojournalist would—with an SLR, shooting a lot of frames. She takes many steps back and is like, “I’m making landscapes and pictures of huge systems.” I loved how she perceived the world, instead of documenting up-close the pain of others, which is this endless conversation we can have over and over. Every time you see a picture of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach, and say, “This is a powerful picture. This picture will get the world to change, to get off their asses and fix the refugee crisis.”
That conversation is always happening, and it doesn’t seem to stop, but it doesn’t seem to help enough. I have faith in the new power of virtual reality, like Clouds Over Sidra, where they made a documentary in a refugee camp. They set up a VR camera inside a tent. You see groups of kids walking right past you, and it’s like you can touch them. You’re there, and it’s so effective. It’s a really intimate picture of a situation in the world that is hard for us to imagine ourselves. It’s been really amazing as a technology.
I would love to use that kind of technology with my dad. For my thesis, I put a GoPro on him. The idea was to get the viewer to be in this old body that was moving on the stairs, and I was trying to think of a way I could relate his trauma and his survival to people, and I don’t know if I accomplished that. I don’t think I dug into it deep enough. After I did that, you started seeing this VR stuff coming out. I would like to do things with my dad with that kind of technology. What is it like to be a 93-year-old taking a shower, cutting your toenails, eating, just being in your body.
You still wouldn’t get to the experience of being. You would be watching him. So it would be more visual porn.
Yeah, but you could also do this GoPro kind of thing with VR, in a way. You could. I don’t think you could feel exactly what old age is like, but that shouldn’t limit one from trying it. I thought, “How can you make somebody feel a physical sensation by looking at a photograph?” I tried to do that with some of my photography early on in grad school, and I don’t know if I failed or succeeded, but I was thinking about when I used to go fishing. I remembered the feeling of the fishing line on my finger. Or if you ever played the piano, the memory is so intense that you can almost feel it on your skin. You could feel the weight of the keys or the feeling of the fishing line, so I had my dad put on his socks, or tie his shoe, or comb his hair and brush his teeth.
How did you start 321 Gallery?
The gallery started with my buddy Mekko Harjo. We wanted to show our work, but we knew it was impossible to be noticed by any galleries. It was 2012, which is actually not that long ago, but it feels like an eternity. We put up a show. Then I did a second show a year later. Two of the artists who were in that show, Tin Nguyen and Tom Forkin, asked if I wanted to team up and convert the space into a functioning gallery that mounted shows more frequently. I said yes.
Now Tom and I are working constantly at the gallery, helping people realize their projects. We’ve done 22 shows, including three art fairs. Well, we’re about to go to our third art fair, NADA Miami. Which is a ludicrous thing to think about in comparison to the election.
Shifting away from the gallery, I’ve been thinking that all these Trump supporters have identities, and I wonder who they are. It’s the first time that I felt the liberals were almost mean and overlooking a huge amount of people, especially when Hillary said, “A basket of deplorables.”
That kind of rhetoric is so offensive, and people knew that it was offensive then, but now we’re sitting here thinking, “Oh, my God, we’re fucked.” Who are we to sit on our overeducated chairs and judge a lot of white people in America who are not as educated and have been barely scraping by? When I go to D.C. in January, I want to see who these people are. Even saying, “these people” sounds so fucked up.
Of course they’re not all in the same.
No, of course not. Also, can you blame them for being pissed off? It’s a weird position to be in. When Eric Garner was killed, I saw this moment that photography was about to have. Charlotte Cotton had just made Photography Is Magic, and she closed the book on that way of making work. And in a way, I’m thankful that conversation has died down. I need a long break from it. For what seemed a long time we were seeing the kind of work that Charlotte Cotton was really putting on this pedestal. I don’t give a fuck about that shit at all right now. It makes me angry to think of making work about the medium, photography about photography. It’s like when Daft Punk comes out with a new summer hit that gets overplayed everywhere. It’s exciting for a week, and then you just want to turn it off or leave the room.
When Garner was killed, I thought we were going to see a lot of work about people, and humanity, and emotional subject matter. I thought my interest in photojournalism and the problems I had with it would coalesce into something. We’re seeing work being celebrated now by artists who have been making socially-concerned work but were overlooked for a while.
I think this election has woken up all of us, and that includes artists. I haven’t seen energy like this since 2003 when the war in Iraq started.
What are you working on now?
I’m still working on the skin and canvas idea, and playing around with masks and theatrical setups with my dad and sometimes my mom. Meanwhile, I’m working with an amazing designer, Rory King, finishing the publication of my From Several Angles Over Several Days project, which I first showed as a photo installation at Baxter St. at CCNY in the 2015 juried show. I’m also helping my dad curate a large show of his paintings at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, opening in January. And most recently I began giving him these assignments to make political paintings, and photography will be incorporated into it. Definitely a new, unusual direction for both of us, but something to do in reaction to the current climate.
Daniel Terna (b. Brooklyn, NY) has participated in select group exhibitions at MoMA PS1 (NYC); the International Center of Photography (NYC); Foley Gallery (NYC); Baxter St. Camera Club of NY (NYC); New Wight Biennial (UCLA, Los Angeles); BRIC Arts Media Biennial (Brooklyn, NY); New York Film Festival (NYC); Eyebeam (NYC); Museum of the City of New York (NYC); The Wild Project (NYC); the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts (Cambridge, MA); Armory Center for the Arts (Pasadena, CA); Contemporary Arts Center (New Orleans, LA); and Gallery Tayuta (Tokyo, JP). Terna was a resident in the Collaborative Fellowship Program at UnionDocs, Brooklyn, and was awarded the Cuts and Burns Residency at Outpost Artist Resources in Ridgewood, NY. Terna graduated with a BA in photography from Bard College and received his MFA from the International Center of Photography-Bard. He runs and co-curates 321 Gallery, Brooklyn.