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Photography and Time. What Remains

BY NATALYA REZNIK, KSENIA BELASH


A report about photographical course by Natalya Reznik in Fotodepartament (Saint-Petersburg, Russia)

The theme of the course

I decided to teach the course «Photography and Time» in Fotodepartament Foundation, because it is connected with the topic of my theoretical research. I work on the PhD thesis with a title «Aging in photography — forms of representation». I have also been exploring such themes as time, aging, disappearance of image, memory etc for a very long time in my own photo projects.
I asked my students to investigate why a question of time is so important for photography. It seems like photography could be measured in time units. How many second’s fractions could be «caught» by a photographer and saved from the disappearance and dissolution into the Nowhere? A photographer collects fragments of reality like Noah in his ark, saving them from disappearance in the Flood of Time. After all, time is always about dynamics and photography is always about statics, about «saving» something very vulnerable which is going to be changed in the next second and will never be the same.

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© Natalya Reznik, ‘Looking for my Father’

Nowadays the philosophy of «the decisive moment» gives way not only to «the indecisive moment», but to something that happened in-between of two shutter-releases. It won’t be surprising if the very important and valuable, something that can not be gazed at, hidden in a photo album and taken to the future does indeed happen there.
The topic «Photography and Time» was open for the interpretation by students in their own projects: it could be maturing and aging, time which is created by a sequence of photographs, time on photos and time in-between them, interaction of past and future in photography etc.

The teaching experience

My students and me met once a week online during an academic year (10.2013- 06.2014) and talked for three hours and more. We used Skype for talking and chatting and Ustream for the video translation of my talk. It was quite hard time, especially, at the beginning, because I had almost no experience of teaching online at that moment. The situation turned out to be very different in comparison with the usual offline teaching. Most of the time I do not see my students, sometimes I even don’t hear them properly because of problems with their microphones. When you teach online, sometimes you have a feeling that one of your sense organ is suddenly broken. You cannot feel the atmosphere of the talk nor can you follow the mood and reactions of your listeners — you need to smile to your computer and talk to him as if it is your friend. It is quite unusual and tricky experience and, moreover, you lose a lot of energy. Of course, I would prefer to teach a normal offline course, but if students are located in so many different places (London, Malta, Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Perm, Minsk etc), it is the only way to bring them all together.  Also we had an opportunity to invite to our webinars photographical experts from other countries and to discuss with them students’ portfolios (among our guests was Steve Bisson, the editor of Urbanautica).

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© Natalya Reznik, from ‘A Stolen Archive of Otto Steiner’. Exhibition Hourra, L’Oural! National Centre of contemporary arts (Ural Branch), Yekaterinburg. Photo by Alexey Ponomarchuk

During the course we explored the topic «Time» from very different points of view, tried to define and visualize «qualities» of time and to find the same qualities in photography as a medium. Students made presentations, wrote texts, read number of related books and articles and made a lot of practical assignments which are connected in some way with the topic «Time». The most successful realization of the assignments by each student was extended to a final project by the end the class.
A former student of the course «Photography and Time», Ksenia Belash, who is not only a photographer, but a writer and researcher of photography as well, analyses her mates’ final projects:

Alexander Agafonov. «Don’t blink!»

Time and memory are two main themes that underpin Alexander Agafonov’s work. In his latest project the artist turns his attention to the notion of nostalgia and explores photography’s intrinsic capacity to trigger involuntary memories in the viewer. The resulting work takes a form of an installation which includes a number of mounted photographs, as well as several teddy bears - reminiscent of popular Soviet toys - whose glittering eyes are immediately noticeable in the purposely dim light of the exposition room. The toys become the focal point of the arrangement: their heads turn out to contain intricate stereoscope devices through which the hidden photographs can be viewed in 3D.

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© Alexander Agafonov

The images presented on the wall and the ones concealed within the bears are closely related: both are photographs (either found or taken from the artist’s personal archive) depicting children. However, while the mounted pictures are simple, straight-on and, more importantly, highly formal portraits, the stereoscope ones are just the opposite: they are candid, spontaneous, fragmentary, ambiguous, ephemeral, distant - and yet also uncannily familiar.

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© Alexander Agafanov

The notion of engaging with the ambivalent, “not for show” and easily forgotten or repressed past is at the heart of Agafonov’s project. However, by juxtaposing the everyday imagery with the “official”, ideologically shaped representations of childhood he goes further than simply exposing the constructedness of a typical Soviet child picture. The artist looks for the points of connection between different layers of memory - conscious and subconscious, constructed and immediate, individual and collective. The bear, being a personal, nostalgically charged object from the past and at the same time a very common, easily recognisable cultural attribute of a Soviet childhood, becomes an embodied metaphor of such a point.

Tatiana Galtseva. «Forest»

Tatiana Galtseva’s project also deals with childhood reminiscences, however, in a strikingly different way. Her work, while visually indebted to surrealism, taps into a recent trend of creating stories where fact and fiction become intermingled to the point that they become virtually indistinguishable. Here such an interconnectedness is particularly justified, as the underlying narrative is centered around the notion of false and constructed memories. The act of interweaving fantastical, sinister elements into what could be otherwise described as “normal”, possibly plain pictures, is quite literal — the use of collage reveals the made-up nature of the photographic composites. However, alongside the eerie collages, the project, still largely in progress, is also going to include a fair bit of archival materials and photographs!

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© Tatiana Galtseva

The story takes place in the allegorical “deep dark wood” - a primal, archetypal place which is a typical fairytale setting and also a well-known metaphor for subconscious. We cannot access any direct information about the events that may or may not have happened in that wood - all specific details have been carefully hidden, or rather replaced with symbols and signs that are left to the viewer’s interpretation. The central character (whose past and memories are being questioned) is also only to be guessed - his face remains obscure, most often concealed behind a collaged animal mask- which creates an uncanny and troubling effect. This is hardly surprising, because the project has been initially inspired by crime detection documentaries, a genre which has proved very popular in post-Soviet Russia. This brings an unexpected social, if not historical dimension to the narrative.

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© Tatiana Galtseva

The project is yet to be finalized, but it certainly has a potential not only to entertain the viewer, but also to reveal something quite interesting about the myths that permeate today’s collective unconscious.

Lita Poliakova. «Landscape»

Lita Poliakova’s work defies an easy definition - she is one of those artists who tend to favor fluidity and ambiguity over fixed meanings or precise labels. Her latest project is a series of quasi- abstract, bizarrely shaped compositions which the artist refers to as “landscapes”. In fact, the “landscapes” turn out to be collages assembled from the pieces of torn up fashion magazine pages. Although it is impossible to recognize the original images, one quickly realizes that the fragments have been taken from ads or fashion shots depicting idealized female bodies.

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© Lita Poliakova

Although the body/landscape connection has been quite a popular subject in visual arts, especially in photography, Poliakova is not looking for obvious parallels or graphic affinities. Instead, the point of connection between the two concepts lies in the fact that both of them are social constructs, shaped by the culture largely dominated by the idea of an unreachable perfection. In contemporary society the polished, photoshopped body has become a kind of an “idyll” - something to admire and to aspire to.

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© Lita Poliakova

Given the theme, one could be easily mistaken in interpreting the artist’s gesture of deconstructing and mutilating the “idealized” body images as an act of feminist protest. However, Poliakova’s main concern is not the objectification of the female body as such, but the conflict between the “artificial” and the “pure”, or rather the disappearance of the latter. By adopting a playful, intuitive approach she literally points out the constructed nature of the image and creates her own subjective version of “picturesque” - rough, enigmatic and intimate.

© Natalya Reznik | FotoDepartment 

© Brian Rosa and Adam Ryder

new entry on the night landscape page!

These photos were created while we were artists-in-residence at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah during the summer of 2010. In this gallery we present a collection of nighttime photographs of Wendover that record our investigations of the area. We explored the interstitial, unoccupied spaces at the edges of the interstate, among the ruins of the military base, and between nightlife zones and the casino workers’ tract housing. We set out to document the ambient light emitting from commercial, municipal and residential light sources in an attempt to find a mythical ‘edge of light’ in the high desert.

© Juliane Eirich

new entry on the ‘night landscapes' page!

In the 1960ies, around 30.000 korean guestworkers came to Germany. Women worked as nurses and men as miners. These workers are now retiring. The german village was created to welcome back those workers who lived in germany from 20 to 40 years, want to go back to korea to enjoy their retirement back home, but still don’t want to give up german lifestyle. I felt quite confortable there, since it did feel a little bit like Germany and people were really nice with me. But on the whole, there are many problems and the place is very ambivalent. Over the years it became a tourist attraction, so the pensioners are quite upset and can not really enjoy a quiet retirement. 

© Luigi Bussolati

new entry on the the ‘night landscapes' page!

Reseaching the use of artificial light at night to unearth a forgotten landscape, recreating it and rescuing it from oblivion. Derelict houses and hydroelectric power stations lying in the darkness are illuminated and transformed along the Po river floodplains. A beam of light on the power of symbols; from the inconscious to the conscious. What lies hidden, but urges to be seen, is brought before our eyes. [Luigi Bussolati]

Light and its presences The artist is constantly elaborating dreams that are somewhere between matter and light, alchemist’s dreams filled with light in which substances are concocted, violent colors softened and contrasts created. Here the battle of the elements is waiting to be discovered. Gaston Bachelard Perception does not offer the certainty of geometrical form, only presences. Maurice Merleau-Ponty A motionless body. Silent in the darkness. Naked without shade. A presence that is still holding onto its secret. A presence like silent stone, waiting for the moment when darkness will begin to lift. A poignant yearning can be sensed in what is not yet visible, but which is aspiring to become object, form, body. An acute longing can be sensed in what the light will obliterate: mystery. These ideas – or rather, the multiple metamorphosis of matter and its submission, in part at least, to a transparency that erases all depth and substance – are given expression in the photographs collected in the book AKH. Toward the Light. In the shaded parts there is always an element of the unknown, of which the eye can make little sense. The ancient, masterly art of the chiaroscuro, the play of light and its reflection, the precarious balance between what appears and what is only illusion: this is the dilemma and tension governing all artistic expression. “Dreams situated between matter and light” is how Bachelard defined it, adding that “the artist lives so close to revealing the world through light that it is impossible for him not to participate with all his being in the constant rebirth of the universe.” Every time we choose an angle from which to observe things the triumph of rebirth is accompanied by a profound sensation of loss. When focusing on just a part of what is visible, something will be lost, yet the parts that remain hidden in the shadows are perhaps even more important. It is the surrounding darkness that will either enhance or undermine what we can see. There is a Wall bound by the silence of time, a rapid ray of light that crosses lonely landscapes, which rise up from obscurity and sway in the darkness. Precarious yet imposing, they are like something appearing – once again, perhaps for the last time – before vanishing again. The things around us are without importance; in that sudden apparition we can feel all the weight of the past, present and future. The tragic sense of history materializes for an instant, immobile and eternal. It is an incontestable truth with which all that aspires to last must reckon. Here the image is freed from any type of metalanguage: the artist’s means, that is, light, becomes the very subject of representation. Shadows, colors and objects transform into physical, living presences that testify simply to their being. They remind me of a few of the pieces in the Light and Space movement, an artistic trend involving the study of the relationship between matter and light, that began in California in the mid-1960s. The direction of exchange is twofold: Robert Irwin starts with matter, dissolving it into light; and James Turrell, instead, proceeds from light, transforming it into matter. Turrell’s Roden Crater Project, where a crater in Arizona was specially reshaped and designed to become the natural vault of the heavens, is most memorable. The revaluation of the corporeality of light is evident in these artists’ works: it is no longer an intangible experience or, as in painting, a magic halo. Rather, it has become a physical element of reality. In truth, it should be said that light found its master in Monet. The French painter’s meticulous work with colors and shades – seen in his serial works – is clear evidence of the power of light. Light is the voice of silence, the “impression” of the visible, the revelation that frees forms from the swathes of darkness; yet it is also the tomb of things that reveal themselves only to be obliterated. By its very nature light is the emblem of all living things. It is the first word of the biblical genesis, as with almost all cosmogonies. It is as if it is impossible to talk of an existence before light. Whatever lies motionless in the darkness (and it is often mysteriously dangerous) is only the essence of something that will reach maturity. Only by becoming visible can it define itself as a subject worthy of narration. The analytical  analogy is obvious: Freud himself would talk of the need to “throw light” on the subconscious. By necessity, this is accompanied by the painful, obstinate recalcitrance of darkness and shade. Paraphrasing Goethe, for whom “colors are light’s toil and suffering,” that which we submit to the conscious mind is the fruit of the toil and suffering of the psyche. The psyche, like color, is the dynamic component of light, or rather, a constant submission and subtraction of the static component, or form, to its fate. These changing states can and must be content with the fixed space of a mere instant and the elusive flash of a revelation, to succumb only a moment later to new shadows. The ultimate risk of those who “play” with light – aware of its power – is its absolute transparency: as the shadows fade, the tension that gives a dynamic sense to existence is eliminated. White dissolves all colors in an everlasting struggle. Those who wish to see too deeply are condemned to blindness. It is the empty sepulchre of an absent presence. [Aldo Carotenuto]

© Michael Lundgren

new entry on on the ‘night landscapes' page!

As an artist, I have always been drawn to the field of landscape. It is the perfect subject with which to explore our history and our desire, two urges bound deeply together in the mythology and experience of the American West. As well, working in wild places always feels like coming home. For seven years I worked exclusively on a series entitled, Transfigurations. I began this work in 2000  as a graduate student at Arizona State University—culminating in a monograph published by Radius Books (October 2008). Born from a long-term relationship with the desert, these pictures refer to the heart of these places, not by description, but by metaphor. If I have learned anything from Postmodernism, it is that photographs are not the thing itself. Photography’s burden of representation has been lessened and yet I am still able to access real experience with these pictures. While this work is about being on the surface of the earth, the images do not proceed by literal content; their meaning comes from an engagement with the transformative capacity of photography. Through sequence they speak of a search for the elusive, through layers of phenomena unfurled as a story of desert experience. These photographs are a lust for the primitive, for what lies behind personality. They are a search to understand beauty and terror, which are bound to one utter certainty—change. In the desert nothing is static, even rocks move. Through intuition, I hope to photograph the impossible, to fix the fugitive on film. Early on, landscape was grounds for the idealization of nature—the creation of an Eden whose existence is surely at question. Contending with the devastation enacted upon the earth, landscape photography has in many ways become a medium of political motivations—a necessary pursuit given the dire circumstances. However, a summary of intention for both of these approaches might be: “Look at how wonderful nature is, but do not mistake, it is better off without us.” My work has always been an effort to shift this paradigm—we are nature. Perhaps our one chief distinction is that we are forever trying to control entropy—and things always fall apart. In Transfigurations, I hope to walk the line between apocalyptic-transcendence and our own perseverance. 

© Anargyros Drolapas

new entry on on the ‘night stories' page!

Amfissa is a small town in central greece. Population almost 10,000 people that seem to vanish after midnight. Nobody is wandering around the city during the night, only houses’ lights reminds us that this place is  inhabited. Houses’ windows. Sometimes open, sometimes closed as light comes from within. Different colors of light maybe reveal different kinds of mood. I enjoy walking around the town that time with a small camera which is vulnerable to low light noise. A colorful noise that contradicts the not-a-sound environment.”

© Maria Sturm

new new entry on the ‘Israel Focus' page!

The series ‘Common and Uncommon Places in Israel’ is a series by photographer Maria Sturm. We read on the interview featured by Urbanautica: «I photographed the series “Common and Uncommon Places in Israel” in April/May 2010. I was visiting two friends of mine, who were doing a semester abroad at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. So during my stay I went to visit some classes at their school and we also rented a car and did a round trip through Israel. We visited the Negev, the Golan Heights, Lake Kinneret, the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, a couple of cities and some more. We’ve basically seen and stopped by many touristy places and I started to photograph. It was the formal and quiet scenes, the colors, the structure and geometry that caught my eye, although I wasn’t looking for these qualities in the first place. I chose every picture very intuitively.»

© Florian Maier-Aichen

new entry on on the ‘night landscapes' page!

Supplanting the expanses of classical vistas with futuristic tableaux, Florian Maier-Aichen recontextualises the romantic sublime to reflect modern day experience. Using a combination of traditional photographic techniques and computer imaging, Maier-Aichen slightly alters each image to heighten the tension within vast contemplative space. Maier-Aichen’s Untitled takes as its theme the American wilderness as conceived through 19th century painting. Through his lens, the unharnessed frontier with its associated promise and divine inspiration is transformed with unnerving effect. Impossible lighting conditions, too-manicured composition, and strange mushroom clouds give the landscape an aura of eerie expectancy. Subverting the expected documentary quality of photography, Florian Maier-Aichen approaches his medium as a form of painterly illusion. Adopting his process as a means to ‘draw with light’, his photos blur fact and fiction, creating ominous evidence of a rapidly changing planet. Barren of conspicuous landmarks Maier-Aichen’s Untitled is an anonymous anywhere space. The receding grid pattern of lights weighs the composition with a dulled sleepiness, as the horizon seems to encroach in an electric blue haze. Shot from an extreme angle, Maier-Aichen’s landscape verges on the abstract; the unnatural phenomenon reading as subtle shifts of colour and texture, replicating the sublime intensity of colour-field painting.

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