With Quentin Bajac on a Walkabout Through "An Ocean of Images"Barbara Confino
Perhaps more than any of his predecessors, Quentin Bajac, the chief curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, is a scholar who partakes of a scholar's pleasures. Interested in the genealogy of the image as much as in its purely visual qualities, in tracking its lineage and web of associations, he embraces its entire history. No longer taken in isolation but in context, the photograph is seen longitudinally across time and vertically across categories, so that it becomes an extended image. Echoing a perennial debate among critics, photographers today debate the virtues of the standalone approach versus the contextual one. In Bajac one finds a reaffirmation of the school that emphasizes cultural lineages and contexts. For him the entire plant, roots and all must be examined—even the soil it grows in must be taken into account. In our walkabout through An Ocean of Images, Bajac talked at length about many of the works presented, discussing the ramifications of each, and how those elements have enriched the photographic experience.
Barbara Confino: What was the concept behind the show? Quentin Bajac: We were trying to sketch a landscape of contemporary photography using the title Ocean of Images. I like that liquid metaphor. As water, photography can take many different forms, from a print on the wall, to a poster on a palate, a magazine, a self published book, a photograph included in a sculpture. There is no technological determinism and that is really important. We are showing a very open landscape that goes from digital to analogue, from a straight forward documentary to more a manipulated and appropriated one. Take that work by David Horvitz which is called Mood Disorder. He is someone who uses photography but does not call himself a photographer. He did this work on the internet, posting one self portrait to Illustrate mood disorder, and then documenting the way that image circulates on the internet over three years. It is about the process, about the circulation of images. It is about the internet yet it goes back to book form which is interesting because that is one of the lessons of the internet. It has given a new vitality and a new visibility to the printed page.
Basim Magdy, an Egyptian photographer, did a lot of photographic and film work that echo the Arab Spring, the protests, the revolutions, and what happened after. It is a meditative work about how our society marches to progress and yet it is not a linear march but one that can take many forms. He mixes images from engineering, family snapshots, strange images, and uses a film he treats with vinegar, coca cola, other chemicals. It is a metallic film that gives these very bright colors.
Once again going back to the printed page with The Newsstand, curated by NY based Italian photographer, curator, and artist, Lele Saveri. We recreated the real newsstand that was in Lorimer Station in Brooklyn for 8 months in 2013. It was a place where people would gather, drop their zines, their self-published books, their photos, a place of exchange.
BC: It is very witty. QB: It is, it is. We invited a NY based collective called DIS that works on and from stock photography, a very common but overlooked form of photography. In a way stock photography is a vernacular form of the medium. They decided to work with that strange character, Conchita Wurst, an Austrian drag queen who is very viral on the internet. She is someone who has been known through a European pop contest called Eurovision and suddenly becomes an internet icon with her images circulating. It is what a large part of the art of 20th and 21st century art is about, making canonical or legitimate some forms that are popular or vernacular or amateur— taking that kind of mainstream photo such as stock and using it in an artistic way. From low to hi.
BC: One of the motifs of the show is this notion of recycling. QB: Recycling, appropriating photos. A lot of photographers could call themselves paraphotographers, if you want to use the term Robert Heiniken coined in the 1970's. This piece is from an Israeli artist-photographer, Ilit Azoulay, who did a one year residence in Berlin and who tried to do a portrait of Germany and German history. She went to places, took photos, collected objects, some of them she took back to photograph in the studio, others she photographed on site. She wanted to have a kind of jig saw puzzle with missing pieces.
BC: Are the images meant to be read as pictographs, or are they meant to be read concretely for what they are? QB: I think they are meant to be seen more as signs, visual signs.
BC: An approach I find in much of this work. QB: Absolutely! The representation becomes almost a visual sign pointing to something else. And then there is the feeling that the photographic medium has its limits, which is why she decided to do an audio guide. To collect not only photos but also sounds connected to these places.
BC:: How would you read these images? QB: I would read it as I would read the pages of an encyclopedia that has illustrations and information. Very loosely, like a visual encyclopedia.
BC: This whole wall seems to contain warlike images. QB: Yes and sometimes more personal things. What about that fly on that stone? Some places have been chosen for their symbolic meaning but others are more personal and more random. Other times she chooses things that are strictly historical; for example, she went to Dessau and photographed the same staircase Katharina Gaenssler photographed. Here she gathers architectural fragments from very different provenance and places. One in Dessau, another in a concentration camp, one from a church, always mixing temporalities and places.
BC: I don't see her using a lot of metaphorical juxtapositions. It is more linear. QB: That's true. John Houck is a LA based photographer. This is a series he did with objects related to his childhood. He loved drawing and these are layers and layers of photos. He takes a photo and then repositions the objects on the first photo, etc. etc. which explains why the shadows are in different directions. I find the layering interesting, the parallels he establishes between the layers of photos and layers of memories. If you think he was going through psychoanalysis at that time.
BC: Does it require that personal information to deepen the interest of the image?
QB: I don't think it does because it is also about undermining the authority of photography. With David Hartt, a Canadian photographer, we have a documentary use of the medium. His is a very straightforward use of the media, documenting a place. It is about the relation between architecture and things and what objects tell you about ideology. And in fact this is a conservative think tank in Michigan. There is the American flag but if you look closer you see Made in China.
BC: So the content is all important here. QB: It about information. About having a very straightforward and objective approach and not trying to influence the viewer.
BC: Yes, there is a certain blandness to this work. It is trying to be impersonal. QB: Impersonality is, in fact, what Indre Serpytyte wanted to move away from in this project around places of interrogation and possibly torture by the KGB in Lithuania during the occupation in the 40's, 50's, 60's, and 70's. First she did photos of these places, the facades of the buildings, then she thought that it was not enough. It did not convey the kind of emotion she had seeing these places, so she decided to work with a Lithuanian woodcarver to whom she would send these images. They never met. He worked strictly from the images, not knowing the actual buildings, and did these wood carvings that she then re-photographed. She felt that these traditional Lithuanian wood carvings conveyed the emotion that the images of the real places did not.
BC: So she is saying that straight photography has certain limits, requiring her to go elsewhere. QB: Yes. We were talking about the limits of photography with Ilit Azoulay who added sounds and recordings. In a way it reminds me of what Bertolt Brecht was saying in the 20's and the early 30's about an image that was representing the façade of a Krupp factory in Germany. He said that a picture of the Krupp factory does not tell us anything about how the Krupp factory really functions. For him the idea was that the photographer should work through photo-montage and other forms to try and construct his narrative.
BC: What is also interesting about this work is that it has the flavor of children's toys, of doll houses. She is taking something horrific and presenting it in this childlike, folksy manner. What is your take on this? QB: I think it is also about going back to a kind of memory of an old Lithuania and remembering her own childhood.
BC: In cinema, in a film like The Lives of Others, for instance, this is done much more easily. But film is also a medium of synthesis. This work seems to be attempting to make photography into a medium of synthesis as opposed to a medium of analysis, or isolation. QB: Yes. Right from the start of photography there was the idea that what differentiated photography from painting was that painting was a medium of synthesis. You would compose from different elements, whereas photography was a kind of analytical medium where you just extracted a fragment from reality. You took the surface. Delacroix says that very beautifully. It seems as photography is becoming more and more integrated into what we call the image world, this frontier is more obvious and more porous. BC: I am finding there is a return to many of the experiments of the 20's and 30's.
QB: It is, it is, and I think it is a return to an impure photography, constructing the image, etc. Lulas Blalock, for example, mixes analogue and digital. He uses as 4 x 5 analogue camera to do these still lifes and then scans the negative. First he photographed the strawberry candies on the bubble wrap and then added the real strawberries so it is a kind of positive/negative, confusing the viewer.
BC: A kind of a visual joke. QB:Y es, there is a lot of humor in his images. We decided to scatter his works throughout the show. Because he works in pairs and series we thought it would be nice to have one photographer who would be a kind of spine of the exhibition. We loved the idea of the visitor going back to that image and asking himself “Did I already see that?” Yes, you did, but it was slightly different.
BC: So it sets up a rhythm. You structure the show in a kind of musical way which goes with your notion of fluidity. QB: With fluidity, with repetition and yet subtle variations. The Czech artist, Zbynek Baladran, created a photo-based video filming these images burning in front of the camera. Something you found in other experimental films by Hollis Frampton or Michael Snow already in the 70's.
BC: But you can find it in 40's Hollywood films, the burning letter. QB: If you read between the lines, it is about the relationship between dream and reality and draws a parallel between photography and reality, that the uncertain boundaries between dream and reality are almost the same as the unclear boundaries between photography and reality. So in a way it is photography seen as a waking dream.
BC: Almost since its inception film has been envisaged as dream. Photography, I think, has usually been seen as more grounded. QB: That's true. And it is true that right from the start cinema went into that kind of fiction direction whereas photography stayed rooted in the ground. _______________________________ This article is part of an ongoing dialogue on contemporary photography with Quentin Bajac. Readers are invited to look at an earlier interview with Bajac here. For a review of "Ocean of Images" by NYPR critic John Haber click here.
About the Author
BARBARA CONFINO is a writer and visual artist working in video, sound, text, stills, and the web. Her work has been featured in the Brooklyn Museum's ground-breaking show, Digital Printmaking Now, and is housed in such collections as the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the British Museum Library, the Staatsbibliotek of Berlin and the National Film Board of Canada. Her video, HUM, has been seen in concert in New York's Symphony Space. She is Managing Editor of the New York Photo Review.