Photography as photography and not as representation

Most visitors to my studio ask questions such as – Where was that taken? Is that really a photograph? Who is that person, or where is she from? How did you take it? etc. I’ve even heard people asking, when looking at a complete abstraction of some trees, Where did you see these trees?

All these questions reveal a – perhaps unrecognized – assumption, namely that photography is about representing something in the known or perceived world, of something I can relate to because “I have also been there” or “I like trees too” or “this reminds me of a holiday we were on where I also took some photos like this…”

What does this tell?

Let’s notice that the same comments would not come up if they had been to a gallery or museum and enjoyed oil paintings. You don’t look at Monet’s lillies, Kelly’s geometric figures, Johns’ flags or Pollock’s paintings and ask questions such as those above. There is an implicit assumption that the painting is a painting in and of itself and that it can be even abstract or painted in a style in which it distances itself from some kind of real world objects. The painting is permitted to be a reality of its own, the photograph is supposed to be representational. Well, not always, but often.

In the first years when visitors asked me questions of the above type, I easily jumped in and answered something like – “Oh, that is a very early morning in Hyde Park, I was there in…” and then it comes – “Oh, yeah, I’ve been there too, lovely place!” Or – “I see, but how did you get those colours there, hand-coloration?” With both answers I now recognise that we have left the image as it is!

OK, sometimes I do take and show photos to say: See what I have seen. When I hang my photos of Burundian street boys and beautiful young women, I want to say: Look at these proud expressive young people, Africa is not just the hopeless continent of darkness that the media basically tell you; it is full of strength, beauty and optimism! This is the reality too, as I see it! And I use my pictures as representations or documentary – to show other people what I have seen.

That is as it should be in terms of various types of documentary photography: I want to tell a story from some place where my visitors may not have been or where I feel a strong urge to balance wrongheaded, propagandistic or even demonising photos – such as e.g. the image of Iran these years.

But when you look at this image for instance, there is no documentary aim; the important thing is not where it was taken or why and also not how I made or how I printed it.

Art Floors
Art Floors © Jan Oberg 2013

It’s about many things, more theoretical – it’s about approaching reality but also about photography itself – even though I am not doing art photography for any theoretical purpose or to prove something or to feel that I belong to any particular school.

This photo has undergone a lot of detailed manipulation without changing its original character. I was fascinated with the three faces and their relationships, with one being a photographed person – by Brian McGinley – gazing somewhere when the two other men pass by seeing that photographed young man and somehow not seeing him. The one on the left stares upwards in my direction (but beyond me) and the other is absorbed in looking at a painting we can’t see, hanging outside the picture. The left face has an almost Rembrandt-like character – however it is purely coincidental that his shoulderbag’s strap and T-short offer us the illusion that he is wearing an old-style leather west over a white shirt; it is, however, his face and hair style that gives this classical character.

Most of my visitors see it as a collage of two main pictures. Or they don’t look more closely at all. But it isn’t a collage, it is one piece, in that sense very documentary…representational. It is one, it is shot in the middle of two floors and the upper part with its reddish, blue and green colours are naturally related but contrasts completely with the bottom part. The upper space looks empty, there are neither persons nor art pieces to be seen, actually just some geometric lines.

Perhaps the lower part is about art – it is at least a photo of an art photo piece; it is also about seeing – seeing the photo on the wall or staring away from it, it’s clearly about watching, or being watched, and it’s about visual movement and interaction, vertically as well as horizontally. The photograph’s colours – which I have basically not touched – are soft, harmoneous, and “warm”. The upper part is about the opposite: non-movement, more conflictual lines, contrasting colours. Perhaps it’s nonfigurative, geometric patterns are interesting also as constrasts to the lower 1st floor or basement element of the picture.

Are the two parts connected? Should they be?

Well, the two yellowish ceiling/perspective lines of the upper floor points you downwards to the photo of the young photographed man; it happens to be about the same breadth as the mittle part of the second floor pillars. The boys arm interacts, or corresponds, with those movements in the upper floor pillars and creme coloured metal girders in the ceiling up there. Also, the two floors are dominated – and connected – by red colours, the green and red corresponds of course to the brownish basement floor wall, the men’s hair, etc.

In summary, there is so much more to be seen and reflected over than whatever any answer to the question, Where did you take this picture? – would ever reveal. The moment I would say, It was taken at the Basel Art Fair in 2013, it was actually a fast shot, it was much bigger but I cropped it down to what I think is essential and…” it will close off the viewer’s own ability to see the photograph as anything more than a representation of a real place at a real time.

And, by the way, that place is no more. It was a moment’s shot in a historical perspective, a four-day long art fair. When I visit the Basel Art Fair 2014 and may go to that particular staircase between floors it will have no resemblance whatsoever with what is in this picture. So, if it represents anything beyond itself, it is time gone (but that you can’t see without knowing what it “is”). I prefer to see it as a photo about photography. No more, no less.

And I will answer my visitor’s “representational” question from a different angle from now on!


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