How can I see what I see, until I know what I know?
“‘Everything straight lies’, murmured the dwarf disdainfully. ’All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.’" 1
In June this year I completed the fist stage of an artist-in-residency program at one of the most unique natural habitats in the world, in Florida. It was at this time that Michael Jackson's untimely death (or imminent - if you believe the rumors) and subsequent saga started monopolizing all air time.
Having wrestled with mosquito infested lands for the best part of ten days, I finally succumbed to the idiosyncratic demands of a city boy turned anthropophobic and booked myself into a Miami Beach hotel.
Whilst quietly and reticently watching CNN, in an entirely unconnected part of my brain I realized that history was no longer linear.
In the pulsating world of binary number systems that we live in, history is made, negated and reinvented, all in the space of one minute.
Modern media no longer just report events and communicate ideas. While doing so, in real time, they also inadvertently expose the processes, which underpin all communication and human condition. As fraught and as contradictory as much of the information being portrayed often is, it reveals a polymorphic and multiform reality, a world of flux and flow that is in a perpetual state of uncertain transformation and where the constant search for answers only leads to more questions.
I can't help but draw parallels between this observation and the work I produced (and perhaps, on a different level, to some of the reporting and blogging surrounding this issue).
The images and constructions I created allude to processes that define real time response mechanisms to the spaces I am photographing. But this is not about asserting artistic authorship.
To look at these photographs is to rehearse one’s own exclusion. To understand how they are produced is to call into question the complexity of a collective unconscious.
The work, itself, points to photography's inadequacies, its insufficiencies.
Whilst this is how I would prefer to contextualize my decision making process, I suspect it may not be enough for some.
The truth is that at the core of this issue lies not a debate about deception or misrepresentation, nor one in which Art and Journalism exist in 'febrile rivalry', to coin Susan Sontag. After all, as Peggy J. Bowers observes in ‘Through the Objective lens: The ethics of expression and repression of high art in photojournalism’2 despite the ontological, epistemological and moral chasm concerning truth, verisimilitude, and authenticity, Art and Journalism have been using the same methods for artistic expression for many years (except in one context they are done explicitly, in another implicitly - and no, I am not referring to the use of Photoshop).
Was I fully aware of the context the work would be presented and understood in? Had this been previously communicated to me? Were my actions a gesture of provocation, exploitation of an unclear brief or naïve idealism? Was I aware of the ethics guidelines for journalists? Furthermore, do the constructions contribute to or invalidate the photo story?
I realize that this project and recent turn of events have raised many ideas well... about ideas and various other questions about boundaries and parameters.
However, I would like to clarify two important misconceptions.
I do not believe I have misrepresented The New York Times or the work I produced, moreover, my oeuvre.
I acknowledge that digitally altering photographs, in itself, does not constitute a problem when presented in a non-indexical context. However, aside from illustration, fashion and the occasional portraiture based project, how often are social/politically driven issues conceptualized and understood outside the scope of the canonical photo-documentary?
Whilst my contractual arrangements with The New York Times have solicited much scrutiny and conjecture, of greater importance is the need to renegotiate the terms of the wider contract between author/newspaper/reader.
Over the past 10 days, I worked closely with the editors of The New York Times’ Lens blog, in order to make a selection of images available to their readers as well as to provide an insight to my way of working.
Naturally, I feel let down with the introduction to the slideshow, which like the original text published in the magazine, I did not preview or approve.
It is my view that there was a clear misunderstanding concerning the values and rights associated to the creative process which made a renown publication like The New York Times Magazine, commission a fine-artist, such as myself, to depict a very specific view of reality without taking all the necessary measures to ensure that I was aware of its journalistic parameters and limits.
It is quite plausible that two parties might start on an assumption that there are no-misunderstandings.
In the introductory text of the feature my work was defined as 'with long exposures, but no digital manipulation'. Regrettably this is not entirely correct in either sense.
From the 13 images displayed online only 5 made use of long exposures. From the 73 images which I produced, only 15 comprise long exposures.
On the 24 June 2009 22:51:41 BST, two days prior to the project being published, I emailed the New York Times’ writer a synopsis which I had included in the introductory page of a mock-up book which I had produced of this work. The text finished with the following words: In a study that goes beyond pure formal investigation and documentation, this work catalyses and reunites new experiences of a new form of American architecture: 'the ruins of the gilded age'.
I accept the probabilistic nature of the universe as a fact. Just as in Physics Uncertainty broke down the movement of particles to probability functions, in Photography my starting point to any project is that all reality is manipulated; all facts are a construction, shaped by those who record them.
I have long expressed concern at how a vast majority of Photojournalism is incapable of representing process; whether it be the process leading up to or underpinning the event being covered or the process of assimilation, appropriation and communication of the real by the photographer. Perhaps this has something to do with Photography or the single-frame's inability to represent time. Perhaps because for journalists objective reality is not only attainable but can manifest itself through the veracity of the lens – the ‘incontrovertible’ photograph. Or perhaps because in process there is no real end product... just a set of propositions.
I have always believed that even in an editorial context there should be an attempt to raise ideas about communicating ideas. This taps into the latent potential of Photography's failings.
These photographs are no more commentaries than observations. They are meta-photographs.
They deploy the metaphor of struggle between poetic failure and the promise of success to suggest a place uncertain of its future.
However, as Peggy J. Bowers correctly argues, metaphors are closer to fiction than reality, thus inviting a line of questioning at odds with Journalism's preferred figure of speech: the metonymy.
Bernardo Soares (one of Fernando Pessoa’s many heteronyms) wrote ‘some truths cannot be told except as fiction’3. Perhaps it may also be the case that some truths are better told as ‘fiction’.
Photojournalism has never felt the need to challenge or contravene certain rules, aesthetic or ethical. Yet, within this framework there is a perpetual search, not to mention a real need, to find new ways of assimilating and representing the real.
Though I do not subscribe to the notion that it doesn't matter what the photographer knows or believes, what matters is that he creates images which will help others articulate or challenge what they believe, my intentions with this work were not to deliberate on the condition of Photojournalism nor on the need to claim artistic authorship over pictures.
Was I aware of how the story would be presented to the readers? Are some of the constructions not sufficiently self-evident to have opened up a line of questioning much earlier than they did? Do I understand the New York Times' decision to pull the slideshow? Could there have been a different way of dealing with this issue? Do these constructions expose a previously unannounced way of working by the artist? Was this the right platform to invite any kind of debate?
I believe it is more pertinent to ask: can we look at an image at one and the same time as a fact and a construct and be aware of the processes that underpin it?
I believe we can.
And does this invalidate its journalistic purpose?
I don't know.
Whilst I welcome some of the debate that is taking place, I did not envisage that it would be mostly centered on polarities such as ethical/unethical, right/wrong, real/unreal.
Photography is a simulacrum. In reconstituting its subject, argues Barthes, it creates a new world, not seeking to duplicate it but to make it visible.4
Each and every construction serves this purpose. As does each and every factual image. Together they form a synthesis of sorts.
Factually and metaphorically they permeate one another to create a wider temporal reality. One, which we cannot fully identify, nor deny.
And let’s not forget that an observation is also a synthesis between what we perceive and what we conceptualize.
In a society where visual communication prevails, the transparency of the camera promotes unattainable expectations. As Peggy J. Bowers rightly observes, this does a disservice to the public. ‘And it contributes to a voyeuristic culture who use and view images carelessly and gratuitously.’5
It is my view that this attitude towards Photography also does a disservice to Journalism.
Whilst it is true that my work is mostly defined by the use of non-computer assisted processes, it is not however accurate to state that I have always taken a purists stance towards Photography.
Earlier projects such as 'The Rehearsal of Space' (05'-06' Portuguese and European forest fires), 'Landscapes Beyond: The Burden of Proof' (06' Icelandic glacier regions in recession) and ‘Approaches’ (06’ airport series) deal with a more conventional approach to the medium. Reality is treated less like a construction, but as the title names might suggest there are other issues at play beyond the visible.
I see Photography as a complex medium that concerns wide latitude of processes and mechanisms.
I have increasingly made more use of varied and experimental analogical and even digital techniques to both convey ideas and simplify my overall visual language.
Such is the case with projects like Parables of Metaphor & Light, Monologues, amongst one or two others.
The same goes for many of the photographs which exemplify impregnable symmetry (and no… I am not referring to projects such as The Accidental Theorist).
These images are present in many past bodies of work and are quite clearly distinguishable from other images.
They serve the same thematic purpose as the first images of fire, which I ever produced (though not the forest fires series, referenced above).
In Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire, the phenomenon of fire is presented as the prime element of reverie, an object of consuming essence where one is able to see oneself mirrored. A metaphor for performance, fire is also associated to the process of change - Bachelard maintains that ‘all that changes quickly can be explained by fire’6.
The fires published in my first ever monograph ‘Black Holes & Other Inconsistencies’ (and contrary to the rest of the work from this series) were staged – something that I have always publicly stated. As ambiguous and as otherworldly as the remaining work is, these images stand out for their visual prowess. They are as distinctive a construction as the mirrored photographs included in the online slideshow pulled by The New York Times. They are hyperbolic statements.
They evoke a disturbing elegy of a reason at the point of exhaustion.
However, whereas the fires (like many of the subtler constructions created for this commission) function as allegories - representing the metamorphosis that each and every reality undergoes every time it is observed (could this be another Romantic appropriation of Heisenberg’s UP?) - the doubling/mirroring of certain images serves another function. Reality is fragmented, repeated and polarized. The doppelganger is introduced.
The doppelganger has become ever more prevalent in recent bodies of work.
The symmetries at play in my images operate not only on the visual level but are also intricately woven into the philosophy, which underpins the work.
In Notes on a Visual Philosophy, the artist Agnes Denes refers to symmetry ‘as a way to give form to invisible processes such as evolution, changing human values, thought processes, human contradiction.
It helps to map the loss that occurs in communication, i.e. between viewer and artist, between giver and receiver, between specific meaning and symbol, between nations, epochs, systems and universes.’7
I concur with these observations.
Human beings spend their lives seeking to achieve wholeness when this goes against our perceptual systems and their cognitive counterparts, certainly language.
For Lacan, it is the mirror phase, an early constituent for identity (and best understood as a metaphor for subjectivity), which provides an imaginary sense of "wholeness" to the experience of a fragmentary reality.
For this Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst the mirror stage establishes the ego as intrinsically dependent on an Other.
The concept of lack, as essential to human consciousness and behavior is therefore pivotal to Lacan’s work.
Symmetry helps to map the parameters of human existence and communication, moreover its inconsistencies, its dialectic impetus.
For me it also highlights that ‘the camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses’8 and that in the presence of the lens the photographic subject ‘instantaneously adopts another body, transforming itself in advance into an image’9.
In a world of speedy access to information, truisms can sometimes be formed on the basis of intermittent and indolent internet searches.
Some have found it difficult to reconcile the use of digital technology in the work I produced for New York Times with the fact that I stated in other contexts that I did not resort to digital processes, particularly in a monograph entitled Topologies, published by Aperture Books, in 2007.
A more thorough research would reveal that in monographs or publicity material for shows pre late 2006, I had always avoided discussing process.
In this context it made sense to include constructed images, which increased the fictional properties of the work.
In 2006, however, my work started addressing issues of construction and theatricality, but without resorting to actual physical or digital constructions.
Unlike previous bodies of work, I felt that with The Accidental Theorist series, in particular, there was a need to establish a connection to reality from the outset. I could then draw the viewer away from any sense that what they were looking at was a construction, a pastiche of fragmentary or imaginary realities.
Holding on to the analogical photograph’s undeniably powerful implicit truth claims is a way of recovering reality.
The work seeks the viewer, envelops it and asks for more time.
This series depends on the presumptive anchorage of the photograph to the real.
But there is a disturbing suggestion that all is not what it seems. The moment of recognition that there is something else going on, the all too crucial moment of suspended disbelief, is the highest point that one can achieve.
This process of slow revelation and sense of temporal manipulation is crucial to the work.
This is the reason why in the Topologies monograph, and contrary to past bodies of work, I decided to divulge some information concerning the relevant production process.
The work is analogically produced and portrays found scenario, using only available lighting.
I took and take the view that making a distinction between the bulk of the work and the small minority of images, which required any kind digital mediation/restoration, was wholly irrelevant.
After all, it is not about revealing, omitting or negating the process but inciting in the viewer a dialectic of sorts, which will make them engage more actively with the images.
Articulating, questioning and challenging this process is the viewer’s role.
In the end a photograph is silent and can only be confronted visually.
I do not believe I have inadvertently contributed to an erroneous perception that some seem to have formulated concerning my views on digital technology.
I realize I have cultivated the experience of illusionism (some ask if I have taken it too far), omitting precise labels, using heteronyms, purposefully creating singular and highly symmetrical constructions in otherwise fairly conventional photographic bodies of work, using long exposures to portray mundane phenomena and landscapes or found scenarios in such a way that it borders on magic.
Is it possible that even the artist can start loosing track of the real and the boundaries between objectivity and fiction, reality and its image start blurring and overlapping?
I can only hope so.
Photography is not merely a primitive kind of theatre. At its best it is a spectacle for the gaze and mind.
‘Believe not what I say’, ushered a strangely dressed man, as I stepped into the theatre. ‘For I say what I say to invite you to look closer’.
Notably, this is my sole recollection of the only magic act, which I have had the misfortune to see. Notably, the act started even before the curtain was raised and the public took to their seats.Discussions about process are all but irrelevant in today’s world.
I, for one, am happy that my images will once again be viewed with a degree of ‘skepticism’. Perhaps now the focus may shift from ‘how’ to ‘why’ (…eventually anyway…).
I recognize that when the contract between author/newspaper/reader is broken it negates the newspaper’s raison d’être and alienates its public.
However, and to paraphrase a curator who recently commented on this issue, I do not believe The New York Times commissioned me because my work is defined by the use of ' long exposures, but no digital manipulation', but because the strength of the work resides precisely in the illusion of photographic transparency.
I fully understand the need to protect journalism and its ethics.
Conversely, in the same way as journalists derive their authority from a binding relationship to truth, would it have been possible for an artist, such as myself, to render his views obsolete and tackle this project in any other way than its present form?
I suspect that, if I had done this, I would surely have misrepresented my work, moreover the viewer.
Just as the ‘transparency of the camera can represent the honesty of those who wield it’10 so too can its ambiguity.
Lewis Hine has famously stated that whilst photographs do not lie, liars may photograph.
This observation, moreover, this polemic, has hinted at a very peculiarly contemporary condition, a society which is particularly sensitive about it’s own crisis.
We live in a world affected by post-modern uncertainty, post-capitalist nihilism and post-colonial doubt. ‘The center no longer holds’.
In a society where truth is as fleeting a construction as our ever changing cultural values, we resist this process of self-interrogation by holding on to certain mythic archetypes.
Mythic archetypes are employed in photography as a means of propagating and addressing the question of truth.
Whist Photography still delimits areas of contestation, particularly when introduced into a political or scientific debate, challenging photography’s inexorable links to the real is therefore questioning the last few tools at the disposal of the purveyors of myth and truth.
(to view a wider selection of images from this project, please visit www.edgarmartins.com)