2. Boundary Problems: Addressing History in the Image
Published: 22.04.2014
in the series Abigail Solomon-Godeau
Previous Next

In the powerful group exhibition entitled Re-framing History at the Galerie Lelong in NYC, only one of the 21 works on view falls under the rubric of “photography.” But even so, in addition to its seven photographs, fifteen 35mm slides, and a contact sheet, the work includes two videos, a set of 20 matchboxes, and four reproductions of printed matter. I refer here to Susan Meiselas’ mixed-media The Life of an Image: Molotov Man. In fact, within the exhibition it is only Meiselas who would be described as a professional photographer, subspecies photojournalist. The others in the exhibition, Sarah Charlesworth, Juan Manuel Echavarría, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Emily Jacir, Alfredo Jaar, and Krzysztof Wodiczko are better described as artists using photography (as well as video, objects, installation, and text). In some instances, such as Sarah Charlesworth’s April 19, 20, 21, 1978 (1978), even to categorize the three b&w prints as “photographs” is something of a stretch.

Sarah Charlesworth, April 19, 20, 21, 1978 (1978), three black and white prints, reproduced same sizes as original newspapers; dimensions variable (installation view), © www.galerielelong.com

These were drawn from her larger series Modern History, consisting of her photographs of newspaper front pages with all the text (except for the masthead) whited out.1Charlesworth died suddenly this past summer and as is so often the case with women artists, there is now—belatedly—a heightened interest in her work, and one may expect a future spate of exhibitions. Her last retrospective was in 1997-1999, organized by the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. What remains in the blank spaces are the news photographs reproduced on the page. 

Her title, April 19, 20, 21, 1978 refers to the days of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro’s kidnapping and murder by the Red Brigades. But on April 19, his captors had released a photo showing Moro holding up that day’s newspaper, proof he was still alive. Depending on the country and individual publication involved, the picture was reproduced in different scale, typically a marker of the editors’ decision as to the story’s importance for their readership. Thus, in a Canadian newspaper, it was a smiling Queen Elizabeth holding her baby grandson that dwarfed the picture of the captive Moro. Charlesworth’s Modern History is something in the nature of a Barthesian semiotic, iconographic, and (implicitly) ideological investigation of the role of the image in the news print media. Thus, she was not especially concerned with the image qua image, whether as photograph or reproduction of a photograph, but rather, the image as part of a complex and highly mediated system. That in some elusive way these works are also graphically beautiful, is difficult to explain, and not necessarily relevant to my arguments here. But one obvious question this series provokes is categorical: is this work “photography?” A positive response means it belongs in the same company as Robert Adams. Or, for that matter, William Henry Fox Talbot and Alfred Stieglitz. And even though Charleworth’s ostensible subject is “the news” and its internal imagery based on editorial or journalistic photography, as works of art these series cannot be slotted into the category of the vernacular. A negative response to the question triggers an even larger constellation of issues—issues that are epistemological, institutional and discursive.

To this question I will return, but as Re-Framing History also demonstrates, contemporary work made even by a bona fide photojournalist can put pressure on or put in question the desire (or nostalgia) for medium specificity. The Life of an Image: Molotov Man takes as its central and structuring element the photograph Susan Meiselas made in 1979 of a young revolutionary in the act of hurling a Molotov cocktail during the final assault on Somoza’s National Guard Headquarters in Estelí, Nicaragua.

Susan Meiselas, Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters: 'Molotov Man', Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16th, 1979 (1979), chromogenic print, 16 x 20 inches (40.6 x 50.8 cm). © Susan Meiselas, www.galerielelong.com

This particular photograph belongs to the category of photographs conventionally termed “iconic,” that is, widely recognizable images that distill, synthesize, and come to symbolically incarnate historical events—in this case, the Nicaraguan revolution. Such (analogue) photographs are photographically akin to the Holy Grail, or better, the Shroud of Turin, insofar as they are often thought to represent some kind of higher truth, even when staged (cf. the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima). Mounted in succession on the gallery wall, The Life of an Image begins with Meiselas’ color print of the young insurgent and a selection of related color slides, and next to these is her b&w contact sheet with her grease pencil marking of the two exposures selected to be printed. The contact sheet depicts the temporal sequence—the before and the after of the act; the preparation, igniting, and tossing of the bottle. Looking at the contact sheet, it seems clear why Meiselas chose the exposure she did; it was, so to speak, “the decisive moment” of the action, the apogee of its drama. But The Life of an Image is doing something larger than demonstrating the photographer’s choice. In the video mounted next to it is an outtake from a feature-length documentary made by Meiselas, Richard Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti in 1991; an excerpt from an interview with the same man, now identified as Pablo Jesus Arauz. Holding his restless child on his lap, he affirms his identity as the Molotov man and his pride at having been a former revolutionary. Next to the video monitor is a grouping of matchboxes featuring his silhouette, or the silhouette of Sandino, both commemorating the twentieth -year anniversary of the revolution. This is succeeded by a series of photographs made by Meiselas between 1982 to 2009, depicting the stenciled version of the Molotov man on walls and other surfaces in Nicaragua, one effaced with black paint, as well as a home-made monument and his image on a T-Shirt. Following those are a tear sheet from a Swedish newspaper, a flyer soliciting funds for the American-backed contras, the cover of a church magazine and a Sandinista poster, all bearing the same motif; and last, another video excerpt, accompanied with only the ambient sound of traffic, displaying Meiselas’ own poster-size blow-up on a wall in Estelí, made in 2004. Two young children pass by, briefly look at it, touch its surface, and move on.

Susan Meiselas, The Life of an Image: Molotov Man (installation view), www.galerielelong.com.

Each of these elements demonstrates (some) of the vicissitudes of the original picture, but also provides at least a glimpse of the individual who took up arms in the cause of the revolution. Much more importantly, Molotov Man literally “re-frames” history in multiple ways. The past cohabits with the present; the history of the Sandinista revolution—now open to retrospective interpretation, the reference to the illegal American war against the Sandinista government (cf. the arming and funding of the contras), the fragility of historical memory—the list is easily enlarged. To do this work, Molotov Man required other media (video, objects, texts), a continued personal stake in Nicaragua’s ongoing history by Meiselas over several decades, and the demonstration that an “iconic” photograph is open to many uses and many meanings. Indexicality does not trump ideology, for despite the textbook semiotic analogy of an (analogue) photograph to a fingerprint, the iconicity of the photographic image makes it both polysemic and context-dependent.

Re-framing history is not a revisionist view of history but a demonstration of how quite different artists take historical events and/or their media representations as a subject of artistic reflection; Charlesworth’s kidnapping and slaying of Alfredo Moro; Gonzales-Torres’ momento mori of  the U.S. weapon Trident II falling into the sea, the bombing of Hiroshima (Wodiczko); a massacre of peasants and the forced displacement of others in rural Colombia (Echavarría); a Mossad assassination of a Palestinian poet in Rome (Jacir); the American president and his staff following the killing of Osama bin Laden on live feed video and the use of garbage can lids in popular protest in Belfast and Chile (both works by Jaar).2Jaar and Wodiczko are the only artists represented by the gallery, and the work in the exhibition was not for sale.  As of today, the exhibition has garnered no press, as often happens with exhibitions considered to be of “political” art. How this characterization is ritualistically invoked in the U.S. deserves a blog of its own, but generally it is employed as a synonym for “tendentious.” Even more problematically, in its disparaging sense, it effaces the fact that the political is not the same as politics, insofar as the former term includes such concepts as social relations, including those of sex, race and class, the politics of representation; in other words, the politics of the signifier as opposed to the signified.

Be that as it may, just as the juxtaposition of Sigmar Polke and Robert Adams in last week’s blog was meant to contrast the modernist aspirations and values of art photography with the hybridized, heterodox, anti-aesthetics of Polke’s Capitalist Realism, so too does Re-framing History provide a point of departure for some broader observations. In this respect, the question of the identity and the place of an entity once unproblematically labeled “photography” is fractured not only by the new technologies of digital imaging (subject of endless discussions), but by current artistic practices themselves. There is some irony here, insofar that at least in the U.S., it was only in the early 1980s that university departments, related teaching positions, consecrated exhibition spaces, museum departments, specialized journals, auction houses, galleries and, not least, an expanding marketplace, were  (more or less) securely established. And then, in a temporal blink of an eye, following fast upon the so-called Pictures Generation, photography was everywhere and everything within contemporary art.3The term originates with Douglas Crimp’s 1979 eponymous exhibition at Artists’ Space in NYC. This exhibition, however, was by no means “photographic,” including as it did drawing and film, but in which all works drew in various ways on mass media representations. Although this overdetermined centrality was already perceptible in conceptual art and feminist-influenced production of the 1970s, within the emporia of the now-globalized art world, photographic imagery, digital or analogue, is taken for granted. What then constitutes or grounds the spaces and discourses of art using photography as a medium specific practice? The existence of nominally medium-specific fairs and exhibitions (e.g. Paris Photo) in which artists like Cindy Sherman or Jeff Wall are featured, or conversely, those like Allan Sekula, Robert Mapplethorpe or Juergen Teller, previously positioned in the category “photography” are now assimilated to contemporary art proprement dit, are all indices of the instability if not collapse of boundaries based on the medium and the technologies employed. Here one can better appreciate how Meiselas, a Magnum photographer with a profound allegiance to the ideals of documentary photography, has nevertheless had recourse to a form of construction/assembly in which photography is only one element.4This is also the case in her multi-media project on Kurdistan, including the book version of this ongoing work.

But there are other pressures and determinations operative even on those artistic practices that deploy photography as a self-contained medium. Although this itself begs the question of whether the images are analogue or digital. An examination of the work of Juan Manuel Echavarría is suggestive. In Re-framing History, he is represented by the stunning and deeply moving Bocas de Ceniza (Mouths of Ash) of 2003-04.

Juan Manuel Echavarría, Bocas de Ceniza (Mouths of Ash; 2003), color film with sound, running time: 18:15 minutes (film still).
© Juan Manuel Echavarría, www.galerielelong.com

In this eighteen-minute video, seven individual Colombian peasants (one sees only close-ups of their faces against a white background) sing songs they have composed about massacres and displacement they have experienced, caught between the FARC, the paramilitaries, and the Colombian army.5Bocas de Ceniza was recently shown in the exhibition at the Fondation Cartier entitled America Latina Photographies: 1960-2013. Notwithstanding the exhibition’s title, here as elsewhere, video is included without comment. Unfortunately, it was shown in a small format, in an open space where it was difficult to even hear the soundtrack. As with his earlier La Maria, a video/photography/and text work about the experience of Colombian women taken as hostage by ELN guerillas, the emotional, indeed visceral power of the video, including its subjects’ direct address to the spectator, dwarfs that of mute, discrete photographs. That said, a few streets away from Re-framing History, at the Joseé Bienvenu gallery one could see an exhibition of photographs from Echavarría’s series Silencios (2010-2013). These are large-scale color prints taken in the area of the Montes de Maria showing abandoned or ruined school houses (the blackboard is often the identifying element) which in some cases, have become living spaces for displaced and homeless peasants. Handsome as the pictures are with their bright saturated color, classical composition, invariably frontal, formally elegant, they are metonymic, melancholic and elegiac, but, in a certain sense, this is the problem. “Beautiful” photographs of the terrible or the tragic are integrally and innately contradictory, although they are therefore all the more readily consumable. While I would not want to argue that video or multi-media is inevitably and in all cases a more effective medium for historical/political/critical purposes, it does seem to be the case that even those like Meiselas whose careers were and are made “in photography,” have to reckon with the reification of the medium as a self-sufficient entity. In this sense, one must take into account the tensions that arise between the muteness of a photograph and the political or ethical demands of the subject. And, on an institutional as well as epistemological level, it is an open question as to what will be the future of those spaces, places, and discourses that defined photographic practice as something other and apart from all the other camera-based media, and within which still photography is only one of many—and constantly expanding—options.

Cancel reply