fig. 1: Play Time, 2015. Cesário M. F. Alves
The 9×12 cm silver gelatine negative below, was obtained in a street market in Porto, Portugal, found among a set in the same format, depicting cast metal objects like picture frames, mirrors and chandeliers. Numbers related to each model engraved in the negative, indicate that we are probably facing a photograph for a commercial catalogue, a professional job commissioned by a maker or dealer of this sort of products.
fig. 2: Original 9×12 cm negative
The negative releases the typical smell of acetic acid which plagues plastic cellulose acetate (a kind of plastic introduced by the photographic industry in early twentieth century), revealing a form of degradation known as the ‘vinegar syndrome’. It is encrusted with chemical crystallizations of plasticizer additives, taking the shape of small round eruptions on the film surface. They have conquered visual space over the silver grains, as if the photograph is inside a glass dome that has just been shaken.
Cellulose acetates were developed and perfected from the 1920’s onwards, intended to replace nitrate film, a much more unstable and flammable material, but it was soon discovered that the failure to preserve acetates under strict temperature and relative humidity control, would accelerate its deterioration (Fischer n.d.).
Rather than submitting this negative to a rigorous process of stabilization in a controlled environment, as could have happened in the hands of a conservation scientist, in this work it will be the subject of a poetical visual analysis, where the chemical degradation is assumed as a pictorial layer of the image. This work is therefore about arresting an instant of the mutating state of this negative, in recognition of a statement by Susan Sontag, from some time ago:
The real difference between the aura that a photograph can have and that of painting lies in the different relation to time. The depredations of time tend to work against paintings. But part of the built-in interest of photographs, and a major source of their aesthetic value, is precisely the transformations that time works upon them, the way they escape the intentions of their makers. Given enough time, many photographs do acquire an aura. (…) For while paintings or poems do not get better, more attractive simply because they are older, all photographs are interesting as well as touching if they are old enough. (Sontag 1979, p. 140)
Despite being just one black and white negative it re-photographs other images inside frames (fig. 3), which seem to be industrial print reproductions of colour and/or black and white photographs; the kind that could be seen in calendars and other products of the printing industry, licensed from commercial image banks; generic multiples, which may have been reproduced thousands of times for different purposes.
fig. 3: Original 9×12 cm negative, inverted digitally.
We are facing three different photographs inside four frames, since one is repeated. The lower left one is a technical reproduction of a painting, a photograph made invisible by faithfully reproducing a work of art. In this case the disappearance of the photograph is only possible because of a good performance of the photographer, in the sense that Walter Benjamin alludes to, it in the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility:
To photograph a painting is one kind of reproduction, but to photograph an action performed in a film studio is another. In the first case, what is reproduced is a work of art, while the act of producing it is not. The cameraman’s performance with the lens no more creates an artwork than a conductor’s with the baton; at most, it creates an artistic performance. (Benjamin 2008, p. 29)
The other two photographs have more in common, as they are obviously fabricated and shot with a careful production, lighting and framing. Both employ models, which look very convincing in their artificial roles. They have the quality and refinement demanded by advertising.
Inside this catalogue photograph, those images become accessories and by-products of the business of making and selling frames. They inform the potential buyer about the function of this product, while at the same time suggest idealized models of what could be displayed. They are varied in subject and intended audience.
In organizing four models of frames in one shot, the photographer allows their comparison while saving time and film. Furthermore, by reproducing the set in black and white, he levels and attenuates the impact of each photograph inside of it. This serves perfectly well the purpose of selling monochromatic frames, if not the images inside of them.
Besides the photographer who made our 9×12 cm negative, there must have been a different photographer for each of the other photographs, reflecting specific formal and technical concerns, as well as intent. The pictures inside this photograph contain at least another three different narratives and a multitude of meanings radiate from them.
Frame 202-B includes a painting dated from 1742, clearly a photographic reproduction of an allegorical portrait of Anne Henriette of France (1727-1752) as Flora, deity of Roman mythology (fig. 4). Anne Henriette, the older daughter of king Louis XV of France, a prominent young woman interested in music and the arts, made herself a model to several portraits by Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766) and other painters.
This reproduction of an eighteenth-century painting is held on a frame with a floral baroque arrangement, suggesting a closer relationship of the painting style and the decoration of the frame. Interestingly the painting depicts the figure reclined on the slope of a hill, while arranging a crown of flowers, with a distant, dark landscape behind.
fig. 4: Anne Henrietta of France in the guise of Flore. Jean-Marc Nattier, 1742. (Nattier & Getty images n.d.)
The pose is carefully staged and the whole scene looks like a theatrical diorama. The light falls brightly on the woman’s body and helps to the effect, like a sunbeam that escapes through dark clouds, leaving everything else in an un-natural obscurity. Loose clothes, exposure of the shoulders and chest, as well as the direction of the look, suggest a flirt with someone outside of the frame (the place of the painter and the viewer), to whom the eyes of the model are directed.
This unique portrait, commissioned and owned by powerful patrons, must have been envied and admired by the privileged few who may have seen it in its time, preserving only a fleeting memory of it.
Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936, that before the development of means of mass reproduction, paintings were not objects of collective reception, as architecture has always been:
In the churches and monasteries of the Middle Ages, and at the princely courts up to about the end of the eighteenth century, the collective reception of paintings took place not simultaneously but in a manifoldly graduated and hierarchically mediated way. If that has changed, the change testifies to the special conflict in which painting has become enmeshed by the technological reproducibility of the image. (Benjamin 2008, p. 36)
In the era of photography and the modern means of technological reproducibility, every owner of an affordable metal frame could own a copy of Anne Henrietta’s portrait, even if only a multiple, deprived of value and authenticity. The emancipation of the work of art came at the cost of the aura, which Benjamin poetically outlined as: ‘A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be.’ (Benjamin 2008, p. 23)
The photographs in frames 212-B and 214-B depict a young woman laying down in what looks like a massage table. The woman poses with her legs up and fancy shoes in front of a couple of toy rabbits, facing the viewer with a smile. Everything looks very much like a constructed studio scene and every object in the photograph seems to be a fake adornment.
Although this image could not be identified (figure 5), a web search for images with women and rabbits returns a great number of old photographs depicting these subjects in a variety of staged scenes, in what seems to have been, throughout most of the twentieth century, a popular way of representing the commercial iconography of Easter with an erotic charge, the so-called Easter Pin-up girls.
fig. 5: Fragment of original 9×12 cm negative, inverted. Detail 214-B
If we compare this portrait of a twentieth century woman with the eighteenth century painted representation of Anne Henrietta of France in the role of a roman fertility goddess, one might find some intriguing similarities and differences. Both women are laying down in a relaxed erotic stance and both are facing and challenging the viewer. The presence of rabbits in the twentieth century photograph could also symbolize fertility, eroticism or simple naïve playfulness.
It is known that a man painted the portrait of Anne Henrietta, in an era when most painters were men. Over two hundred years afterwards, the pin-up photograph was likely made by a man and probably meant to become the object of the male gaze.
On the upper right side of the negative we find the last picture (228-B). It uncovers a group photograph, depicting a family gathering around a 1950’s slide projector (fig. 6). Unlike the other images, in this one the gaze of the models is not directed towards the viewer. All five people, representing parents and children, look convincingly in the same direction as the projector, towards the outside of the frame and all of them are synchronised in their smiles. For a moment, we may even forget that a slide projection implies a darkened room to be seen properly.
fig. 6: Fragment of original 9×12 cm negative, inverted. Detail 228-B.
Slide projectors became necessary and popular with the spread of colour 35 mm positive film, from the 1930’s onwards. Kodachrome film appeared in 1935 and was initially used mainly by photography and cinema professionals, relying on its detail and richness of colours. Soon Agfa developed their own positive transparency film, followed by colour negative film and steadily colour processes were perfected and marketed globally throughout the 1940’s and 50’s.
fig. 7: Advert of Kodak Cavalcade projector, 1958. (Costin n.d.).
The period after the Second World War in the United States of America and Europe, was of a considerable growth of vernacular photography, a consequence of an aggressive industrialization and advertising directed to the amateur market.
The number of brands and models of slide projectors we can find from the 50’s and 60’s in the second-hand market today, is astonishing, as are the advertising pages produced for them. The ads usually represent beautifully arranged sets and extremely well dressed models around this machine, suggesting it is very suitable for social events and family reunions (fig. 7).
Kodachrome transparency film and the slide projectors that followed it, where a celebration of colour. Photographs in advertising for photographic products, as in most advertising, are always elegantly produced, representing idealized concepts of happiness and well-being, therefore they’re most of the times deceiving. Despite this, those advertising photographs certainly helped shape a general appreciation of colour photographs, even if the ones from most amateurs cannot compare with those advertising pages.
fig. 8: Play Time, composition experiment in the light-box.
The negative presented here as an object of research, is a professional photographic record primarily intended to promote commercial products, whose function could be to display and preserve the imperfect vernacular photographs made by amateurs. Ironically, the images it transports inside are meant to encourage the making of more photographs and teach what a good picture could be. However, the content and historical times of the images it holds, suggest other interpretations of their political and economic implications. This container of images can be read as a kind of micro-atlas, an attempt at a totality of the history of art and humanity, from the eighteenth century up to the present.
“Play” is what all the photographs included in our 9×12 cm negative are about. They show actors/models playing roles, which are about leisure and taking a time out from reality. The metal frames are meant to hold the photographs of the times of play. No decorative frame was ever meant to display images of terror and no vernacular photographs ever aimed to reveal but the instants of pleasure that could be found in times of suffering.
The work is in fact a photographic composition made on a light box, from a set of samples of light filters (fig. 1 and 8). The filters contain their number and identification: Medium Red # 027; Light Blue; Yellow # 101; Sunset Red. They were recycled from photography/cinema production sets and suggest cinematic environments. This mutating piece derives its name from the film by Jacques Tati – Playtime, from 1967 – which is also about the era and the colours that are suggested and simultaneously denied by the original black and white negative under observation.