Psychogeographies – B&W and surrealism -Canon Fodder

Brief notes:

Guy Debord – founder of the Situationist movement…

Psychogeography – a multisensory perception of the environment concerned with:

unpicking the manner in which the contemporary world warps the relationship between psyche and place – (Self, p.11)

Look at Graciela Itubides images of Juchitan – these ‘resonate with the legacy of the surrealists of inter-war Paris.’

The coursework tells us:

The surrealists …understood [the photographic document] as a charged, enigmatic fragment that left as much unknown as it revealed, coaxing the viewer back onto their own judgement or imagination. (Barson et al, 2006, p.54)

In looking at her work you can see parallels with the work of Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and Kertész: the cropping, shadows, odd compositions and juxtaposition of objects.

I also need to look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, (whose work I saw at Somerset House)  André Kertész, George Brassaï, Man Ray, Paolo Pellegrin and Tony Ray-Jones, noting the key visual and conceptual characteristics that their work has in common. It was brilliant that I had been to the recent exhibition at the Atlas Gallery and seen work of these photographers first hand.

Back in 2011 I went to an exhibition of Hungarian photography and saw many original photographs from ManRay, Brassaï and Kertész. Although at the time I did not mention their surrealist leanings I bought the book, eyewitness Hungarian Photography in the Twentieth Century, which has many examples of their work, plus others. This review did a much better job than I did of describing what was there, and another from Beetles and Huxley.

Fortunately I work in a secondary school and support regularly within the art dept, therefore don’t struggle with the concept of surrealism within art or photography and quite like the idea of the surreal supplanting ‘reality’ within ‘straight’photography. Elliot Erwitt is one of my favourite street photographers who does the surreal so well.

Bullet pointed below is a list of some of the features regularly found within surrealist photography:

  • Dreamlike
  • Mystical/mythical
  • Depiction of the unseen
  • Alternative angles of the everyday/distortion
  • Reality/fantasy
  • Intangible/obscure/abstract
  • Erotic
  • Bizarre /unsettling
  • Juxtaposition
  • Everyday objects , people, and places shot in an unusual way
  • Use of lines /curves /shadow/light
  • Conceptual ideas
  • Choice of camera angle /lens/ light / framing/altered perspective
  • Post-processing/ darkroom techniques / digital manipulation / cropping
  • Double exposure / collage /photomontage/ etc
  • Unusual subject matter

All of the above photographic examples include several of these techniques. I can see why this is included within the coursework as it shows the crossover between documentary and surrealism, and the use of abstract/conceptual ideas which can be used within assignment two. Atget is mentioned in quite a few academic papers/essays as being the ‘father of modernism’ or using ‘surrealism’ to name but a few of his labels, so it is always good to research as to why and how this occurred.

Eugene Atget 1857 – 1927

Not that much really seems to be known about Atget, despite him amassing an archive of over 8,000 negatives which compiled ‘a visual compendium of the architecture, landscape, and artifacts that distinguish French culture and its history.’

Atget called his images ‘documents’ but is nowadays recognised more as a ‘forerunner of Surrealism’ as his urban scenes feature ‘snatched glimpses, tangential perspectives, odd reflections and bizarre details.’

Exercise

Read Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugene Atget by Abigail Solomon-Godeau.

Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugene Atget

At first I dreaded analyzing what appeared to be an overly long essay, full of overly long and academic language. However, I actually found it quite enlightening and in places amusing… I mean who doesn’t like poking fun at the establishment? Even though some of the language was tricky the overlying message was clear. I think it helped to read the brilliant americansuburbx article first, which set the scene.

The title itself gives you an inkling as to the content of the essay; the play on cannon fodder/canon fodder implies that Atget had no choice in the role he has been made to play within the battle of academia, and the designations being set out within the ‘art of photography’. He was sent out to fight the battles whilst the generals/curators and philosophers stood at the back and watched the raging debates: Atget held up as a standard, a model, a rule…

This is quite amusing as Atget didn’t even want recognition, nor to be described as a photographer:

In 1926, Man Ray reproduced an Atget photograph a group of pedestrians shading their eyes as they looked at the sky, watching an eclipse on the cover of a Surrealist magazine. When he told Atget of his intention, the older man replied, “Don’t put my name on it. These are simply documents I make.”

Atget was conferred the title of ‘author’…but of what? With a vast back catalogue of 10,000 images he could be called a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none; allow ‘the Atgetian deck to be shuffled’, sort them into ‘suits’ and you can make him fit any genre you like: primitive, documentary, modernist, unadorned-realist, surrealist, Marxist… it would appear that many philosophers, writers, photographers and curators have tried to claim him for their own.

The premise of Solomon-Godeau’s essay is that Atget is an invention of modern critical theory, the desire to have a pigeon-hole for everyone and a need, specifically, for a canon for the ‘art of photography’ and, like Meadows when the stars aligned for his project, the stars aligned for Atget to fall neatly into the firing line.

Solomon-Godeau pokes fun at Bernice Abbott, John Szarkowski and Margaret (Molly) Nesbit with regards to their deification of a man hard to classify, and the slavish way they hold him up to be the ‘father of photography’, whilst contradicting themselves within their own essays about him – effectively turning to wishy-washy waffle to describe his work when all else failed, or ‘swooning aestheticism’ as she puts it.

Abbott had her own agenda, after all she had previously owned the collection of Atget’s work; Szarkowski had a vested interest because MoMA bought the collection from her; as curator he had to make good on his investment. Solomon-Godeau writes:

Szarkowski, more than any other photography curator, has articulated a clearly defined position from within a particularly powerful institution of aesthetic validation.

This ties in closely with the previous exercise on Avedon and the positions of power held by institutions to further their own agendas. Apparently, Martha Rosler ‘dubbed MoMA “the Kremlin of Modernism”.’ Szarkowski shuffled the deck and imposed ‘thematic organizing’ onto the museums exhibitions and subsequent volumes.

Relieved to discover that she was not the only person questioning the deification of Atget, Solomon-Godeau cites Rosalind Krauss as another Doubting Thomas. In her essay Photography’s Discursive Spaces (Bolton,1992, p.294) Krauss also questions the interpretation of ‘this apparent incoherence’.

So who would you rather go with? Szarkowski who holds Atget up to be ‘an exemplary pedagogical lesson’ or Krauss who describes him like ‘the blind man’s elephant’?

Research

4127, amer (2011) Back to the past – Eugene Atget (2001) | #ASX. Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/07/eugene-atget-back-to-past-eugene-atget.html (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992) The contest of meaning: Critical histories of photography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Eugène Atget (2016) Available at: https://www.moma.org/artists/229 (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Here, S. (2013) Start here. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2013/09/30/6-lessons-eugene-atget-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Iturbide, G. (2017) Juchitan – amber. Available at: http://www.amber-online.com/collection/juchitan/ (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Self, W. (2013) Guy Debord’s the society of the spectacle. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/14/guy-debord-society-spectacle-will-self (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) ‘Canon Fodder’ in Photography at the Dock. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Victoria, Museum, A., Museum, O. and Team, W. (2013) Eugène Atget – Victoria and Albert Museum. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/e/eugene-atget/ (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.