Pair of found photographic portraits, signed by ‘Fotografia Beleza’, Porto (Portugal). Date unknown.
(…) “There is nothing in the world less ‘natural’ than an image… with the possible exception of silence: Both are supreme artifices.” (…)
The anatomy of the photographic object
This work involves two twin-framed portraits (50×60 cm), of a man and a woman. Found (and bought) together on a thrift store in the city of Porto (Portugal), both have the signature of ‘Fotografia Beleza', a photographic studio well known and very active in the first half of the twentieth century. The portraits show no identification of subjects or dates, they represent unknown people to this day. I am calling them Mrs X and Mr Y.
The fact that these portraits were found together suggests they were a couple, but this affiliation is not verified, it’s more like an evidence that remains to be proven if need be. This is an artistic simulacrum that is more concerned with building a universe of possibilities from the finding of two portraits depicting a man and a woman, than to reconnect the photographs with the reality behind them.
On the wall where I first saw them, the portraits were hung side-by-side, man and woman (the basic units of the family), a couple that persists in staying together even when frozen into photographic images. That persistence in the unity of two (the suggestion of love and death) was the most intriguing and attractive feature about them. I believe that none of them would capture much attention alone. Under a dim light, at a distance of one and a half or two meters (from viewer to wall), they did not stand out for their facial features or indeed for any formal aspect of the photographer’s work.
It must be said though, that the use of light and composition is good, as much as would be expected from a notorious commercial studio. Soft light, precise focus, careful arrangement of clothes and accessories, frontal gaze towards the camera despite a slightly oblique positioning of the body. Light in the faces comes from above on the left side, it is diffused and seems the kind of natural light that enters a glass roof, reflected by the northern sky.
Formally these are the kind of portraits, which could be miniaturized for identification documents or enlarged and put behind frames for the wall, as is the case.
To identify the people in these portraits should not be too difficult, since most of the assets of this studio were bought by a private collector and subject of an inventory around 2007. According to the report published on the website created to advertise the project, the studio kept very accurate and organized records of their work, which made the job of classifying much easier. Therefore it is likely that the negatives and a record of a commercial transaction still exist which, could help recover a possible identity and a date. Despite all that, I do not intend to clearly identify these portraits, I do not claim property of them and I do not refuse the possibility of giving them away to anyone who can prove to have a relationship with these people.
The reasons why I cherish these findings and decided to undertake this analysis does not have to do with identity, it is much more about a constructed appearance, amplified by the photographic process and the successive layers of pictorial retouch and chemical mutations. This way I try to establish a dialogue with the materials and processes of photography and allow myself to think and build other images from the observation of these portraits, without hiding that my observation may be invasive and even destructive.
If a corpse in a morgue can become a body to dissect and learn anatomy, so a portrait of a person, I hope, can be the object of study and speculation in a research process about the anatomy of the photographic object.
The memory of materials
On a close inspection the portraits reveal layers of paint over the photographic tones and grain, more visible and notorious on the woman’s portrait. The paint is most evident in the eyes where the photographic detail is completely hidden, but was also applied freely in the earrings, which seem to have been created solely from brush strokes. Being a woman seems to demand more attention and greater pictorial effects (make up).
The signature ‘Fotografia Beleza, Porto’ is also painted and seems to point out that what we are looking at is an ‘authored’ work, making more obvious the hybrid nature of these portraits. Nonetheless its authorial identity is not of a single person but instead a commercial brand, denoting very likely a collective work.
The fact that the portrait of the woman has much more paint over certain areas than the portrait of the man, could have another explanation though. The photograph seems to have less definition and detail itself when compared to the other, this could mean this is not a print from a first generation negative, and if that’s the case the paint could have been intentionally applied to help sharpen certain areas blurred by the reproduction of a photographic print (probably a small one) on a new negative, and consequently a new print.
A photographer (or an employee of a photographic studio) would only recur to the reproduction of a printed portrait on the event of the disappearance of the person and therefore the impossibility of making an updated one. It could be then, that a widowed Mr Y wanted to hang the picture of the late wife next to his in the wall of the living room, went to ‘Fotografia Beleza’ with just a small print and asked what could be done of it. Not an uncommon request then and now, just different means to achieve the same porpose.
On a photographic studio of the fist half of the twentieth century, the manual retouch of negatives and prints was a very serious matter. Graphite pencils with several levels of hardness would be used in large negatives or printed positives on mate papers, to subtract or add wrinkles and other beauty marks. A red translucent paint would be applied to certain faces on negatives, to avoid reproducing them too dark, due to the lack of sensitivity of some photographic materials on near red and green wavelengths of the spectrum. The final retouch on the print would be applied by the most skilled on the painterly arts. Special watercolour would be used to add subtle colour tones without covering photographic detail in some cases. On others, the photograph merely became the matrix for a complete new painted interpretation.
All of these pictorial modes of intervention on a photograph seem present on Mrs X portrait, making it a perfect hybrid and a good object of study.
The cinema of life
Many of the first photographers began their artistic practice as painters and although the medium was predominantly monochromatic in the first one hundred years of its history, colour was desired, researched and apllied pictorially, since the birth of the early photographic methods. With or without colour, the fate of photography as an image making process was to learn from the centuries long pictorial history, in what concerns the representation of light, composition and even the themes explored. Naturally, the crossing of frontiers (if frontiers exist) of the photographic and other representation techniques is nothing new in artistic or commercial image making.
It is my belief that one of the strongest connections among the artistic means of expression we recognize today, is the relationship they have with the inescapable continuity of time (movement), a kind of cinema of life that drawing, painting, sculpture and photography speak about, even when there’s no intention of their operators.
It is perfectly clear what came first from a chronological point of view but outside of the historical facts engraved in books, it is not so clear how one medium relates to the other. As Hollis Frampton points out in his essay ‘For a Metahistory of film: Commonplace notes and hypotheses’, it could be the case that photography is conceptually a consequence of cinema despite appearing first, like a daughter that gives birth to it’s own mother. I dare to add that so could painting and sculpture be a consequence of photography, not of the technique as we have experienced from the nineteenth century onwards, but of its concept, of photography as a natural observable occurrence. Isn´t the photographic phenomenon analogous to the processes of vision?
The photographic (or should we say the ‘cinematic’, since what is observable inside the camera is actually moving) was there before the painter, the architect or the scientist, long before the medium was invented historically (the possibility of recording a photographic image permanently).
The potential for the representation of moving images has always been in nature and was witnessed by renaissance painters on their cameras obscuras, and by scientists long before them. Maybe one could argue the works of Caravaggio, Vermeer and Canaletto, mediated by optical instruments, anticipate and desire the photographic, as David Hockney reveals.
Painting (as much as photography and cinema) can be the result of the desire to arrest movement and deny the passage of time through an accumulation of gestures. In the making of a photograph or a film, the gesture could be minimized or automated, but that isn’t necessarily true for all photographs, not even in such a common photographic portrait of an unknown and almost indistinct person as Mrs X. Here the gesture of photography, which goes far beyond the moment of the click in the camera, is amplified by the gestures of painting.
The pictorial layers over Mrs X portrait not only deny time but they transform it into a kind of palimpsest, an accumulation of gestures imprinted on a face.
The negative, true matrix of every black and white gelatine silver print, is not physically present in the final image, we only see its inversion and enlargement on the printed positive.
The negative is the result of the gaze mediated by the camera, but also of successive decisions respecting the selection of available sensitive materials and chemical processes (in their immense variations). These will strongly affect the technical and aesthetic quality of the photograph by itself, but in the large silver gelatine glass negatives (produced industrially until the second decade of the twentieth century) we can also identify the gesture of the manual retouch with graphite and other pictorial materials and therefore verify that the idea of the mechanical reproducibility in photography can be put into question.
The negative is truly unique in its reproducibility because it can only give birth to its opposite and not an exact copy of itself, and yet it remains there as the ghost of the photograph. Daguerreotypes are a very special case in that respect because they keep the ghost visible, negative and positive live side by side, assuring their irreproducibility (unless re-photographed, like every other image or work of art).
Printed photographs like the portraits of Mrs X and Mr Y are unique because in practice it is impossible to reproduce exactly the same conditions in which the photographs were created, before and after the uncertainty of the hand manipulating pictorial matter concluded their final appearance. In this case, the original negatives were just the beginning of a complex process of image making, if compared to the finished product they would reveal nothing but an impression, a footprint. Ultimately it is the layers of painting that strengthen the uniqueness of the photographs and render them irreproducible.
I am surprised and delighted that the portraits survived decades, keeping a relatively healthy appearance, not showing strong signs of fading or chemical deterioration, revealing that possibly they have spent most of their existence in subdued light.
The physical and chemical processes from which photography depends are unstable, no matter how perfected they are, therefore the permanence of photographs is impossible to ensure, we can only delay their process of decay. The variables behind this process of mutation are identified: light, temperature and humidity. Museums and institutional archives carefully monitor and control these variables to extend the life of objects, slowing down as much as possible the process of change.
One of the most important rules of preservation of works of art and specially photographs, is to keep them away from any direct light. Light changes matter, it modifies our skin, it fades colours of clothes and billboards. The raw material of all photographs and the spirit behind all works of art is both an agent of creation and destruction.
If exposing (real, photo-chemical) photographs to light means to destroy them the only possible good we can do is to keep them in the dark. Absolute preservation means to hide images and keep them away from sight.
The ageing process imposed by light in photographs, varies with the intensity and quality of such light, the nature of the materials exposed and interaction with the other variables. Under normal circumstances, in a framed portrait hung on a living room away from direct sunlight, the process of change can be very slow and only noticeable over long periods of time. Therefore, as our experience has been proving, it is very likely that photographs outlive the people who made them or the ones they refer to, and so the portraits I am submitting to this experiment should outlive me, despite the exposure I intend to give them.
All historical photographs universally recognized as such, either for their economical value or true aesthetic content will inevitably spend most of their existence in the dark (the gruesome law of the archive). We must be satisfied with the limitations of books, beautiful and useful as they may be, or with the illusion of the digital reproduction of images. Historical mages must be mediated by other images.
The beauty of dealing with found photographs is that they do not belong to that category of material considered valuable and consequently meant to be hidden away forever, thus I can expose the portraits of Mrs X and Mr Y to any intensity of light I want, and allow them to be looked at freely even if that means to accelerate their destruction (their slow permanent movement).
The first time I recall being confronted with the concept of the palimpsest was when I saw Joan Fontcuberta’s series Palimpsestos, in 1993, at Galeria Pedro Oliveira, in Porto.
Fontcuberta’s Palimpsestos are a series of photograms printed over sheets of floral wallpaper and a variety of other kitsch printed materials. The wallpaper was coated with photosensitive emulsion and exposed to light with real flowers and birds, on top of the ones represented in the patterns. After processing, the photographically precise negative shape of the real objects reveals the pictorial representation on the image underneath.
These are unique photographic negatives printed over industrial multiples representing painted images. They address and question reproducibility, the commercial value of works of art, the reality and the fictional representation of objects, and even the presence of photography in art as a kind of ghost, long before its invention. Fontcuberta manages to trigger all these ideas through a simulacrum, which involves a reading of mass produced images of the present, through the shape of the primordial negative image, reminiscent of the experiments of Thomas Wedgwood and Henry Fox Talbot, invoking and sharing their intense desire for the image.
Geofrey Batchen disserts about the desire within proto-photographers in his book ‘Burning with Desire’. At the beginning of the preface Batchen explains the title: ‘This book examines recent accounts of photography by way of a detailed analysis of the medium’s conception. It’s title, Burning with Desire, comes from a letter written by Louis Daguerre in 1828 in which he tells his partner Nicéphore Niépce that ” I am burning with desire to see your experiments from nature.”
The images in Fontcuberta’s ‘Palimpsestos’, are very much about desire, stimulating the viewer to imagine the continuity of the picture underneath, they have a latent eroticism.
The paint over Mrs X’s eyes, hide its imperfections underneath. It is the superimposition of these layers that make it interesting and erotic, the artifice enveloping the image.
While further researching on palimpsests, I came across an on-going investigation on an old book known today as the ‘Archimedes Palimpsest’. The story tells that behind the religious text handwritten (drawn and painted) in the parchment folios, sometime in the thirteenth century, inhabit some Archimedes treatises in geometry as well as texts by other authors, written many centuries before.
It seems the animal skin from where one text was scraped to give place to another, actually retains some precious memory of the first inscriptions and true reason for its sacrifice. The medieval euchologion, a byzantine prayer book, which is the last layer of written text on the recycled parchment, is in itself of historical value, but some of the treatises by Archimedes hidden under it are unknown anywhere else, therefore much more important, justifying the interest of the scientists in this object.
Most of he scientific analysis of the folios was made recurring to imaging devices with a method described as Multispectral Imaging, dealing with wavelengths outside of the narrow visible light spectrum, invisible electro-magnetic radiations, like infrared and x-ray, which cameras can be made to see.
The resulting images reveal ways of seeing unknown to the eye, in colours that seem unreal. Texts and illustrations, centuries apart, appear at times superimposed, creating new unexpected images of the process of duration. The compression of centuries is revealed in these photographs, coded in very cryptic ways, nonetheless, at times they just seem like they came out of Andy Warhol’s Factory.
While researching the concept of the palimpsest I was at the same time deliberately looking at the spaces, devices and methods used in the study and conservation of works of art, somehow attracted to its aesthetics. The aesthetics of white gloves, of invisibility and machines with slow and precise movements.
One of the things that interested me in the process of research on the Archimedes Palimpsest, as documented in its own website, was that many devices were experimented and developed to capture the images, such as dedicated cameras, special filtering and sources of invisible light. At one time the team introduced an X-Y stage to make the leaves of the book travel under the camera with precision which inspired the development of the piece of work I am describing here.
I had experimented with a small X-Y device on a microfilm viewer before, and had ever since desired to capture that movement combined with macro photography. When inspecting photographic transparencies with such a device it always seemed to me it was a lot more revealing what happened in between one point or another in the image, the movement, the interval, the denial of stillness and time.
The movement over static images became one of my exploration fields because it is a challenge on stillness through the duration of the gaze. It is an exploration of immobility and movement simultaneously, an attempt to bring photography back to its conceptual nature, being the single indivisible unit of the cinematic.
In this work I wanted to conciliate the moving image over the portrait of Mrs X with the staging of the technical process of the research in an installation, somehow suggesting the aesthetics of the conservation lab, while submitting the photographs to a detailed and continuous exploratory observation. Such staging of a process required not only a sophisticated device for the capture and projection of a video feed, but also a permanent exposure of the images to intense light.
Light will reveal but also impose a slow destruction of the image, therefore the work manifests itself as anti-conservationist.
The device, applied to the portrait of Mrs X is a robot capable of scanning the image on a perpendicular plane on an X and Y axis. It can be programed to move the video camera attached to it very slowly across assigned coordinates, delivering a continuous traveling over the portrait, fed to a monitor in real time.
There is no recording involved, the camera moves on a programmed itinerary as a loop, meaning it will go back to the same place where it began and repeat the same movements and pauses, indefinitely, this functions as a kind of visual editing. The variables that can be edited in the code are limited to speed of movement of the head (camera), location and duration of pauses. The itinerary was carefully delineated to pause in some key places of the face of the woman, for periods that range from 5 to 30 seconds. The loop takes about 9 minutes to restart.
The moving image is presented on a video monitor masked as a circle, as if we were observing the projection of light through a lens in the camera obscura. We are in fact merely witnessing the projection of an image not recording it, therefore it does not intend to be a movie. The projection is the event, not the recording in a still or moving image that one could replay over and over.
By choosing Mrs X as the centre of the attention in the installation, the man Mr Y, is left standing in the shadow, as if waiting in line, but never out of sight. He waits and suggests the work should evolve and become more complex (he may also be submitted to some kind of accelerated mutation on a next level of development).
At the beginning of this description I referred to this work as a simulacrum, that’s what I think the work becomes when installed on an exhibition space, but I want to finish by manifesting the conscience that, through this process, I am submitting the portraits to a slow disintegration by exposure to light. I am deliberately damaging these photographs in order to call attention to the state in which our photographic records exist and will remain after our brief passage through the time of the living.
Ultimately, this work brings a strong presence of robotics and video as mediators/modifiers of photographic images, a reflection of present times and an important factor of experimentation in my practice. This connects also with my previous exploration of movement over still photographs (Short Narratives). On another level it brings the family as an underlying theme in my research. The scan over the portrait of the woman is a conscious meditation and a comment (at least in my vision of things) on the gaze of genre (male-female or vice-versa) and of surveillance and its political implications in our privacy and freedom.