Indifference in identity
On the construction of the photographic image of the city of Guimarães
Originally published on Visual Narratives: European Capital of Culture Guimarães 2012
“What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire”,
Susan Sontag, On Photography.
Susan Sontag’s concerns, which led to her well-known essay On Photography, may today be easily understood within the context of the emergence of photography and following Walter Benjamin’s remarkable essay on this new, yet mechanically reproducible, visual art. Nevertheless, both authors’ concerns and doubts about the art of photography seem now solved or taken as facts, given to us by the infinite probabilities of photography, not only as an interpretation of itself, but also through the multiplication of different viewpoints, of different subjects relating to those same viewpoints or searching for new ones, in and out of the photographic image, instead of taking it as a “miniature of reality”, which itself (the reality) has proven to be infinite as of both the unconscious gaze and the camera itself, as Benjamin had stated. Today, it seems evident that photography is no longer just a document, capable of replacing a bygone reality (although it may work as such), nor is it merely the result of the photographer’s desire to keep a memory alive (not just his memory but a collective one). Photography isn’t pure fiction as well, an invented narrative, albeit on the surface all may be fiction, all elements may be manufactured, invented, masterfully arranged to create a troubling picture between fiction and reality, or a latent ambiguity between document and narrative. Not even Demand’s photographs reenact that doubt today, since what is interesting is not the manufacturing of reality through models later photographed by the author, but the fiction told by those models transformed into images, making the process of storytelling visible, without any ambiguity. Similarly, the ambiguity can be generated not only around the dichotomies imaginary-reality or document-fiction, but also around several parallel dichotomies, in all the frontiers capable of creating a visual disarray, where photographers start (and have started) by questioning the genres and their identities, following, once again, the history of facts, the different struggles cities, societies and cultures have faced.
Considering Sontag and Benjamin’s ideas, there is another connection established by both authors: one of them warns of photography’s potential dangers (which are also strongly contextualized), the other warns of the more playful, albeit historical, gesture of a collection of images (in fact, the collection image is explored by both: the monument postcard or the souvenir). Photography and tourism seemed to be natural correlatives in the naked eyes of these authors. The impact photography began to hold in the cities themselves became unquestionable, conditioning and transforming them into new forms. Even today, in the work of some authors, the photographic image seems to embody the time to come, always seeming to anticipate the urban or artificial transformation that has not taken place yet.
If we consider these ideas as facts or as issues raised and solved by the photographic image, we reach what the photographic narratives from this contest were pursuing, when their starting points were those, returning to Sontag and Benjamin, fulfilled the desires of early photographic image: an historic city whose monuments soon called the attention of the photographers, a rich folklore and an event like the European Capital of Culture, which called for the reinvention of culture with an updated or “modernized” iconography and a set of ephemeral transformations. The photographic image would emerge out of its own condition, out of the need for a document of historical value, which from the start would bring the subject’s gaze over the city and its transformations, over the culture and its processes of metamorphosis, emerging also out of a postcard destiny, an icon maker. However, the work of the several photographers seem to confirm the other question that arises from the consummated facts. Photography wouldn’t be not a document that replaces the memory of an event or tells personal stories of the people who created it, but it would be clearly related to a subjective gaze (both the photographer and the viewer’s) that survives its own purpose (the purpose of the event, the city, the present time). The question was then how to create a photographic narrative about Guimarães, the European Capital of Culture, without creating an image that would match the city’s identity (summoning all the metaphors of the birthplace of the nation), or its folklore, or the ephemeral events of an European capital of culture, or even its ashes and scars, answering questions raised by other domains, in crystallized images: what remained of it, what can be drawn from it?
It seems that the answer meets one of contemporary photography’s concerns, especially when it presents itself as a work of art, a living autonomous construction, which does not simulate or intend to simulate, but just presents and presents itself, in and out of its limits, when these carry in themselves the whole expression of photography (and of its art): how to create an indifferent surface in identity? How to create an image of Guimarães and of Guimarães European Capital of Culture that may cross time, compressing its very difference (the difference in the way each person thinks and sees), and become just photography? Interestingly, this question does not rule out the possibility of an iconographic record; on the contrary, it would be up to the photographer to decide whether to capture it in that record. Plus, there was still the a priori condition of the construction of a narrative. As aforementioned, building fictions in photography have become a regular practice (for Baudrillard, for example, the photographic image is not a representation but a fiction, whereby the world in itself begins to act and impose its own fiction, not far from the “unconscious reality” defined by Benjamin, when he awoke to the infinite creation, a condition stimulated by the mechanical reproduction through the construction of the eye-camera mutual desire). The photographer’s gaze is not an indifferent one. It is always subjective, even if photography might be considered a document or a record, because it holds the infinite possibility of the mechanical medium (the camera). Even at a second level, at the development or post-production, the result may still reveal invisible layers of reality, the unconsciousness of reality. Since its inception, every photograph has a story (which many choose tointerpret from its historical context) and the story of the desire to capture something (which is what makes the photographer photograph): a fragment of the possible to which photography gives life and legitimizes. Taken as a work of art, photography works from the inside with exclusive means, such as the frame, which is not identical to frames in painting or film: in the first, the frame implies an infinite (while, at the same time, it sets its boundaries, such as in Bacon’s need of limiting it within a contour); in the second, the frame means a forward and backward movement, even in static plans (with a voice or a sound), even in silence. Photography can bring up all this: the infinite in the boundaries of reality, a voice or sound in the tonal values of light and color, an invisible movement, imperceptible to the naked eye, extracted from a long period of exposure.
This simple idea has been expanded and several photographers have introduced multiple layers of subjectivity, multiple ambiguities, multiple stories, multiple fictions, maximizing the infinite ability of photography to create a reality within a series. Then, the narrative appears in each photo and along the different photos within a series. The series, that has easily become an idea behind the photograph itself (somehow after Sontag and Benjamin’s ideas of fragment and collection), increasingly tells a whole story, through pictures only, allowing for the emergence of ambiguity, in the void, the void between images, the non-images, which the eye takes to the mind.
Finally, we were pleased to find many of these ideas in the series of the award-winning authors, because, in a way, they knew exactly how to extract a visual matter rich enough to survive time, from history, territory, tradition, and iconography or from the ephemeral event celebrating the city’s culture and its transformation by the very same event. For example, in the series “Intermission”, by Cláudio Reis, we can find an attempt to draw a continuous line, crossing different places and trying to create a city, but the city is precisely found in the interval, in the void created by the author in order to raise the doubt, which leads us to build another possible city. In “Industrial Symphony”, by Nelson Miranda, instead of finding the photographic tradition that creates a memory of a distant time, of an apogee about which our era dreams, regretting its loss, we are given another image, or even a stronger and more despairing sound, in the tones of its colors and strong contrasts of light and shadow, a terrain vague (as the author calls it, quoting Ignasi de Solà-Morales who, in turn, took it from by Marcel Carné’s film). In the series “When I blink my eyes I see the world twice”, by Bruno Carnide and Cátia Biscaia, despite the apparent distance that the authors established in relation to the city, they used the very mechanics of building a fiction to create a fairytale city and, at the same time, a far too real one. These are the only photos where we can exactly watch the saturation of the real which photography allows for in a singular way. At the limit, it is the photographic series that strongly deconstructs the idea “seen by the eyes”, revealing a continuous and living process much closer to our understanding of the world, where several kinds of image occur and are transformed through our memories and experiences.