Saturday, March 31, 2007

Blow Up (that elusive quality of the Real)

Antonioni’s film, based on Julio Cortazar, is in a way the quintessential portrait of the commonplace successful photographer, possibly accountable of having laid the foundation for the modern perception of the profession in the eyes of the public: from poor artisan to rich artist, the slightly ridiculous 19th century “look at the birdie” humble portraitist for the people turning into the present myth of the jet setter top photographer we all set out to become as we start in the profession. But having seen the film again, after many years, I am starting to think that all this is more than anything accidental, a set dressing, the backdrop to another story that the master film maker is trying to tell us. Photography can be a life style, but also a quest for reality, a phenomenological representation, the collection of proofs of authenticity and, especially in its failure to deliver – based on the false assumption of its objectivity, therefore inevitable - the perfect way to tell us that nothing is real but what we choose to believe in or can prove beyond reasonable doubt. Proofs are difficult to get by, though, and we are left in doubt more often than not.

As a movie it does have many funny elements to a modern photographer.
Imagine speaking to a model that way now? Call them Baby? Photo sex with Veruschka – or Kate, or Naomi - on the set?

The protagonist is horribly arrogant, absolutely politically incorrect, macho male chauvinist. Cynical, bored, totally obnoxious: utterly believable in fact. Based on the stories and accounts that I have happened to collect in my early years as an assistant, working for photographers that were active in that era, I am tented to believe that life was more or less like that, to a certain extent. You do lose the daily feel of the past, always in hindsight, but as a detailed sketch of a moment in the sixties it is fairly plausible. Is it David Bailey? Maybe.

This photographer is also an idealist. Regardless of his success in fashion photography and with women, his fancy car and money, he is still courting the friendship of a serious writer and working at a socially engaged photo book. Obviously hasn’t lost the sacred flame as he excitedly pursues the proof of a murder that he has inadvertently recorded with his camera while stalking a couple in a park, in an increasingly dangerous quest for reality that will lead him to finding the body of a dead man only to lose all evidence but one print with an almost indiscernible grainy abstraction on it.

Having it all and not giving a damn, then finding the spark and setting out in hot pursue of what we really care about.
Failing to do that, we might as well go through the motions of our life in mindless stupor, as a man playing tennis with an imaginary ball.

So let us redefine the very notion of top photographer in the process, shall we?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Viva Casasola!

Having shortly lost the will to live at viewing yet another gruesome book by Jürgen Teller I stumbled upon a volume of photographs titled: “ Mexico, the Revolution and Beyond” which immediately restored me to good spirits. Intrigued by a photograph on page 3 showing a photographer in his darkroom, the as yet unknown to me Miguel “Miqui” Casasola, holding a plate in his hands, wearing a stained white apron, high heeled cow boy boots and a large revolver (!), I was drawn into the fascinating world of the Casasola archive.

This is not a nostalgic sepia collection of romantic grandmothers and fathers in their youth, but a vibrant impressive miscellany of great photojournalism, actual and fresh as the day it was taken in his authenticity and intensity. You get to meet the gaze of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa as if you met them in person, ride with their fighters in a cloud of dust, stare down the barrel of an automatic pistol held by a federal army officer, stand between the firing line and the falling bodies of the executed as they fall in the dirt. As it happened, Miqui temporarily took to the other form of “shooting” as he joined one of the revolutionary armies as a soldier. Not exactly the impartial witness with a camera, more like very concerned with the issues at stake: Land and Freedom.
But there is more, as the collection consists of some 480.000 negatives, collected in a 40 year span, beginning from the birth of photojournalism in 1900 – the moment when halftone reproduction of photographs was possible in newspaper printing – to the forties.
It is the work of more than 400 photographers, besides the founder of the Casasola Agency, Augustín Víctor Casasola, his younger brother Miguel and his son Gustavo, who contributed to the news of their times and whose negatives were then preserved to form a collective historical memory of Mexico and a huge contribution to world photography. They have done it all, and earlier or at the same time as other better known European or North American photographers. Maybe it is the editor’s choice to cause this impression, but echo’s of other masters are found all over the publication, and in no way of lesser quality than the “originals”, by the way. Brassaï Paris night life work? They had done it before. Capa’s war? Done that too. August Sander? Yes! Weegee? Sure they have! And many many more. They did not set out to produce art, they were journalists during turbulent violent years of their modern history of which we Europeans seem to know far too little.
Fortunately their work has been preserved, a great legacy for the world of photography, and is to be found in the San Francisco convent, city of Pachuca, state of Hidalgo. Having been to Mexico, even if only for a few days, I strongly believe that it might be more than worth the trip.
As I go through the pages of this fine book I think about the title of a great photograph by the famous Mexican master Manuel Alvarez Bravo and repeat to myself, smiling in delight:
Qué chiquito es el mundo!