Marc Lenot about GESTE Paris 2017 Photographic Materiality

- English version (french below)

In his essay "The gesture in photography", the Brazilian philosopher Vilém Flusser (1920-1991) considers the photographer's gesture as a philosophical gesture : search for a point of view (a position from which to look at the situation), manipulation of this situation by means of its apparatus in order to adapt it to the chosen point of view, and finally exercise a critical retreat allowing to see the success or failure of this adaptation. This relationship between man and camera, central to Flusser's thought, presides over the selection of works from this exhibition, which is placed under the aegis of gesture and photographic materiality.

The photographer's gesture is not necessarily limited to the eye in the viewfinder or the trigger finger. Some of the photographers presented here involve their bodies in the photographic process in an active, mobile and creative way, while others favor the device, the process of mechanical creation of the image.

The oldest are those of the group Generative Fotografie in Bielefeld around Gottfried Jäger, himself a friend of Flusser, to whom he will devote a book, Thinking Photography; Flusser had dedicated a test to him in 1988, claiming that machines were better able than men to change the world, but that men had to program and control those machine. This applies quite well to Jäger's practice of which Lochblenden Strukturen (Pinhole structures) are obtained with multi-aperture camerae obscurae according to a systematic process. Programmed in eleven steps, and therefore "generative" because generating these geometric patterns: the camera obscura machine, once programmed by the artist, executes an automatic process where a single luminous point generates the complex architecture of these images, according to the inclination of the light beam and the rotation of the sensitive surface.

From Hein Gravenhorst, another founder of the group Generative Fotografie, is presented here a photograph realized on a horizontal rotating plate on which the artist evolves a form in quarter to obtain a lunar circle image. Its evokes the Op Art, what he calls Photomechanical Transformation. Here again, it is the "how" that predominates, the technique became central in the artistic creation: the camera became the true generator of the image, the artist is there only to program it.

Herbert W. Franke, close to the group Generative Fotografie, uses analog oscillographs to create waveforms, which he then photographs with his shutter open in front of the CRT screen. This cybernetic aesthetic is the ancestor of computer art; Franke was inspired by Max Bense's theories on the artificial production of aesthetic states that can be reproduced according to a program’s instruction.

The work of Heinrich Heidersberger is based on the luminogram, the displacement of a light source in front of the sensitive surface, and thus the photographic recording of this trace. Unsatisfied to do this manually, Heidersberger designed and built large devices that create this movement with clocks, mirrors and light sources. The results, these Rhythmograms, are  geometric constructions, immobile vertigo. Jean Cocteau said they evoked "the disobedience of an insect or a flower, finally tired of obeying the rules of the species," adding "we have to admire without understanding, this is the only way to escape the dull of Cartesianism."

We can add to this group Karl Martin Holzhäuser's mechano-optical analyzes, where light passes through colored filters before impressing the sensitive surface, and Heinz Hajek-Halke's glass slides, who revisits this ancient technique by applying various materials on the surface itself.

Nicolas Schöffer, better known for his cybernetic sculptures, is also shown here for his photographic experiments obtained by using an optical "diversification" with twenty facets in front of his plastic light boxes (varetras), thus obtaining repetitive photographic frames by diffraction.

While these photographers favored the construction of an original photographic device by giving the automatic process on top on the autonomous creative gesture, another founder of the group Generative Fotografie followed a different path, privileging the pictorial gesture in his photographic creation. Indeed, Pierre Cordier, the inventor of the chemigram, whose pieces presented here were made in collaboration with the Austrian Gundi Falk, is at the border between painting and photography. Without apparatus, without enlarger, it coats in full light a photosensitive paper with painter, oil, wax and varnish ingredients in addition to developer and fixer. Intervening on the paper, he creates geometric forms, more or less abstract, without indexical relationship with any representation of reality. Again, the artistic form is not predefined, but is the culmination of a technical process, the unpredictable result of an experience, and also a physical artistic gesture. A young artist, Fanny Beguely, pushed this gestural dimension of the chemigram further, realizing almost choreographic performances and obtaining images with a more granular texture, full of coulures, sparks and flashes.

In 2010, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London organized an exhibition titled Shadow Catchers, the shadow-catchers, where Cordier's works were next to photograms of four other artists. As for the chemigram, artists practicing the photogram experience are in need for gestures, physical actions in their dark room; moreover, the direct contact of the paper with the represented object gives the image a materiality, a presence’s testimony, a proximity that the mediation of a camera would make disappear. Susan Derges produces "classic" photograms, by putting the photographed object in contact with the photosensitive paper, most often inspired by nature. Adam Fuss does the same, with human motifs (a baby) or animals (the entrails of two dead rabbits and their interaction with silver salts, an extreme photographic materiality). He also compses abstract images : drops of water falling on the paper or a luminous pendulum rotating above the sensitive surface, creating hypnotic colored circles. Perpetual experimenter, Fuss, always preoccupied with metaphors and symbols around essential themes - time, energy, memory, absence, loss – he also explores other techniques, like this daguerreotype of a baptismal dress. Melancholic and funereal. Chris Bucklow, very concerned with mysticism and esotericism, tries to capture the spirit of his models and friends in his portraits of Guests, which are, in a way, the reverse of a photogram: a real size drawing of the subject’s silhouette is carried on a sheet of aluminum and pierced with 25 000 small holes; the sheet is then placed on top of a photosensitive paper and exposed to the sun. It is a portrait "in hollow", a ghost or an angel. Garry Fabian Miller creates seasonal photograms of leaves, as well as images of a more abstract appearance: in his dark room, in total darkness, he has containers of colored liquids, which the light will cross before insoling the photosensitive paper. The luminescence of these images and their geometric rigor make them works of abstract aspect, simple and pure, more sensitive than rational.

These are also images of light made by Pierre Savatier, for whom the object represented on the photogram, scarf or skein, is only a means of obtaining an imprint of the light events that affected it during the shooting. view. Jean-Pierre Sudre used a technique comparable to that of Fabian Miller, but in his case, the objects crossed by the light were glass plates on which a process of crystallization took place: it depends on the state of transformation of the crystalline material that Sudre decided, at a given moment, to take a picture, Materialographic Landscape, which he then etched, creating strange unreal landscapes. As for Joan Fontcuberta, always adept at exploring the borderline between reality and fiction, between image and representation, he presents here a palimpsest, a photogram of flowers on cardboard (here a box of tissues of paper) already printed with a floral pattern and that it covers emulsion. Thus superimposing an object of nature to a cultural representation of nature, it combines in a single image a multiple printed pattern and remote, and a single photogram by direct contact.

Maureen McQuillan combines drawing and photography by first drawing abstract linear shapes on sheets of transparent paper, then superimposing several of these sheets on a photosensitive paper, which she then insoles. After reordering the transparent sheets, she obtainins each time different and complex composite images of her drawings’ shadows.

While Tatiana Kronberg makes her photograms on mutiplied times folded photosensitive paper with a strobe light, those of Wolfgang Tillmans shown here are the results of a complex (and secret) gesture where the artist "paints" the photographic paper with luminous brushes or a laser beam in an approach reminiscent of abstract gestural painting; it is photography, not painting, but involving a perception of the paper, an intuition of the gesture and the necessary duration, a symbiosis with the photographic materiality. In a way, Juliana Borinski performs a similar step by waving a sparkler over her sheets of photographic paper: the sparkles of the candle insolent the paper and generate these shaded forms, a picture of artifice revealed by its own light. Marco Breuer's interaction with his photographs is more physical, because he attacks the emulsion, scraping it, scratching it, burning the paper before revealing it and making it emerge traces of its violence: the scratches form a weft, strange colors appear on black and white paper, the whole photographic process is turned upside down.

Radical gesture as that of Sylvie Bonnot, which takes off the epidermis of gelatin carrying the image to rest, somewhat wrinkled, on another support, transposing the visual infra-thin by this flayed image. For her, photography is not only a representation, an image, it is also a material that can be cut, scratched, separated, creased, burned, folded. This is another form of violence, that of the time that transpires in these polaroids of Driss Aroussi, with the inevitable degradation of the chemistry and the paper which causes the image in its decrepitude, its corrosion: the hazards of the manipulations, the heat and light reveal, in these polaroids recovered in flea markets, abstract images in the past colors.

On the contrary, it was a natural destruction that affected Shiva Lynn Burgos' Natural Disasters, the violence of Hurricane Sandy, which liquefied the emulsion of these pieces of photographic film on which recognizable forms, bodies or landscapes, still appear. Thus transformed by the creative chance of the violence of the waters, they have become dreamlike paintings, with crystalline or cloudy forms. The perforations of the original film frame these disappearances of the memory image as if they were paintings and inscribe them in history.

Lastly, we note the computer manipulations by which Thomas Ruff transforms manga images recovered on the net into raw-colored photos, and Manon Wertenbroek's three-strip process, which cuts and cuts silver Chromolux paper, reflects images. colorful of the screen of his computer, and takes a picture of the result.

What do these photographers have in common ? First and foremost, an attraction for photography as an autonomous medium, rather than as a tool of representation. Then, a fascination for the materiality of the image, its physical, tactile side. And also a desire to build processes (and sometimes devices) relatively sophisticated to get the images they want, well beyond a simple click. Finally, for the most part, a gestural, physical dimension of the act of shooting. The oldest were born in the 1920s, the youngest was not yet thirty. Except for the members of Generative Fotografie, they do not form a group, a school, a movement, but all find themselves in a form of questioning the traditional parameters of photography, in an experimental questioning of what Vilém Flusser has named photographic apparatus, the set of rules and programs that make most photographers work within the constraints dictated by this apparatus.

It is striking that most of the essential books on photography have been content with a very limited definition of photography, implicitly postulating that it must necessarily represent the photographed object, be obtained exclusively by a negative / positive technique by means of a device and respect the rules of brightness, immediacy, development and circulation, the basic rules of the apparatus. Susan Sontag, an essential book such as Sur la Photographie, which brilliantly illuminates the problematic of image and representation, does not explain or analyze at any time the reasons for these restrictive postulates. We included in the exhibition a photograph of Idriss Khan representing all the pages of this book on a single image, which obviously makes it illegible. This restrictive definition of photography has long framed the entire theory of photography and has prevented the emergence of a reflection on a photograph that stands out, which would rebel, an experimental photography. That's what I tried to do in my book, Playing Against Devices.