Saturday, April 28, 2007

Life after LIFE

By some coincidence the postman delivered at last a book I had ordered, a selection of LIFE photographers finest work edited by John Loengard, on the very day when I was to find out that LIFE magazine has at last and for good ceased publication.
Having spent many an afternoon as a boy during my summer holidays, sheltering in the shade from the midday Italian heat and going through my dad’s collection of old issues, he had been a faithful LIFE subscriber from the early fifties through to 1970, I had grown to love it. Apart from the Americana exoticism, inherent in the design of the magazine itself, the ads and the painstakingly slow deciphering of the English language and the captions, it was obviously the photographs that did it for me, as they were meant to do by the editors. Seeing some of them again, this time in a hardback book and separated from the story, brings about both the pang of recollection and a sense of loss, due to the fact that they have to live forth separated from the story and the format that they had once had. To me it is clear that a picture essay is a delicate thing, and needs its precise balance of pictures, captions and lay out to work its magic best. Still it is a pleasure to examine the photographs in their own right, and see how many stand the test of time and rightly qualify as icons.

It all works out as a powerful celebration of photography at its peak, evocative and nostalgic at times, but still stimulating and inspiring. It calls me - as a photographer - to do better, aim higher, try harder, not to give up on my youth’s dreams of excellence just yet. I really wanted to become a LIFE photographer. How about you?

It also made me think about photojournalism, and as coincidences seem to sum up in this unnatural premature summer of 2007, today I went to see the World Press Photo exhibition in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (old cathedral). It is the most beautiful church in town, and happens to be dead in the middle of the immensely tourists infested and popular Red Light District, but it is well worth the effort of dodging the cheap squalor in order to walk on the worn out gravestones that make up its flooring, and enjoy the light filtered through the stained glass windows on the sober and yet not too intimidating gothic interior. It isn’t Cologne nor Chartres but sized down a little, more human than divine: an impression of suggestive vanitas without the chill of high heavens and humbling vertiginous spires.

It is still quite a vast interior and the organizers seem to struggle in the shrinking amount of work on show, to fill the space at their disposal and satisfy the steady stream of visitors that flock to see the well advertised event. Arguably, with the Rijksmuseum (National Gallery) at half strength due to renovations and half the city gutted open by the new Metro line works, possibly the attractions for the visitor are at a historical low point and send even more people to this venue than they would normally do. But it is nice weather, so choosing for a church interior is by no means a natural choice.
The public, we must hence assume, has come for the sensation, and this they get mainly from violence. If we are to believe this selection, almost every striking editorial image last year has been produced in a conflict zone, with a few sporting events and natural disasters on the side, apart from a few nature and dramatic animal shots. Can this be true? Or is it the consequence of the choices made by the jury? I don’t know, and would like to find out.
Certainly LIFE photographers were perfectly able to make striking photographs from every aspect of “life” including the daily and ordinary. Have we lost that ability? Have we become insensitive to the values or simply saturated by more robust imagery that has burned our visual taste buds to the point of appreciating only the hottest spices?
Apart from a few photographs the general impression is not overwhelming: too little work, not that good really. Maybe photographers aren’t sending in enough worldwide, and the organizers should ask themselves why and do something about it quick or this manifestation will not last longer or shrink to a very low level.
If there is to be a life after LIFE for fine photojournalism, and this I do want to believe especially since LIFE has lost its leading positon decades ago, it is important not to slacken the standards of the profession – or of the public for that matter-. Let’s look back with pleasure at great work of the past, summon our strength, and leap to the future. There is no reason why at least some shouldn’t do better than ever before, and I look forward to seeing that.

To end on a foot note, yet another coincidence as it happens: Yesterday evening I was present at the opening of a small exhibition, more a presentation, of a recently formed company called SKOEP – it reads like “SCOOP” to the Dutch-. The idea is that any one who happens to witness some event and shoot it or film it with a mobile phone built in camera, can market the images by sending them to the site of the company. They will eventually sell it to newspaper and TV networks and share the profit 50/50 with the maker. Whether you feel this to be a good deal or not it depends, but it sounds like yet another doomsday bell for serious photography. It all boils down to being there and then, regardless of ones eye or equipment. As digital photography already has made significantly less demanding to produce sharp or reasonably well exposed images, making it easier for "buccaneers" to elbow their way into the profession with no serious preparation, now we are to lower the image specification to the level of a telephone generated file, and that of the photographer to the ability of the average person that simply happens to be there. We can stuff every newspaper with these degenerative images, as the concept doesn’t limit itself to mere sensational events – these I could understand – but stretches to include and indeed encourage the submission of more daily stories made by the general public. I call on you not to buy any paper that indulges or encourages such work in any significant way: it’s a con and it is demeaning, not only to the profession of photojournalist but also to your taste and rights as the public.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Frida, Francisco and Michelangelo on one Easter weekend.

Having bought a DVD of the film Frida on Easter eve, lured by one of those deals one can’t resist (2 DVD for 4.99 thing) and having been given a free ticket to the new “Goya’s Ghosts” at the cinema for Sunday morning, it only took the quick reading of Andrea Camilleri’s “Il colore del sole” to bring this uneasy combination of painters to crowd into my mind in the span of a few hours.

What do Frida Kahlo, Francisco Goya and Michelangelo Caravaggio have in common? Not an awful lot. More interesting than the impossible comparison between their paintings, it is the thought of how the art of painting has been depicted in the movies, or the mind of the painter described in Camilleri’s unconventional study of Caravaggio’s tortured last months, and what it reveals about the perils of investigating an art form through the language of another, that kept me busy. It invariably falls short of the mark, I think, although it can produce an interesting result on its own merit. Fact is that although tempting, the approach of explaining paintings with the life of the painter, or with arty montage of cinematography and original painted images, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the medium and leads to great loss of content and simplistic readings of the authors. If this could seem adequate to the literal autobiographic approach of Frida Kahlo, in which the images directly reflect her own painful experience of life in the aftermath of a tragic accident that left her almost crippled, it is obvious that it cannot even begin to fathom the depths of Goya and Caravaggio. Painting is not a reproduction of reality, paint on canvas, but the result of an immensely complex intellectual effort that combines observation, thought and hand, to produce a result that simply defies any possible description in words, film or other language but its own. It can be partly described, but never fully translated.

Frida (the movie) is a soft erotic Hollywood feuilleton, proof that even a strong cast of good actors cannot make up for poor text and filming. It focuses on love and passion, nudity, and gives a superficial and historically not accurate vision of the Mexican avant-garde based on common places and trite clichés on communism and sexual promiscuity.

Goya’s Ghosts is a much better effort. Well filmed to start with, it attempts at showing how the unforgettable and dark vision of Goya’s etchings was formed, on the background of his land and times, with a sequel of powerful reconstructions. From the inquisition to the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, we follow the misfortunes of young Inez, one of Goya’s models, unjustly accused and prosecuted by a hypocritical and corrupt system, and the painter who tries to help her, somewhat naively (unbelievably so, in fact). After the “caprichos” etchings, one would imagine Goya to be a highly perceptive and caustic witness, not as easily fooled by appearances and the proclamations of innocence and good will of a devious monk, as the chief character of the film is. The story doesn’t end well, befittingly: Inez loses her mind, and hangs on to a baby she has found on the street as a surrogate to the daughter that was snatched from her at birth, and the hand of her dead torturer: quite a grotesque final image. Goya in pursuit, trying to recall his protégé but incapable, as all artists are, of changing things and condemned to the role of impotent if wonderfully eloquent witness. It is as good a time as any to remind us of the excesses of bigotry, the hypocrisy of power, the risk of fundamentalist religion, the ignorance and horror of dogmatism. This is not a costume drama, but a very present warning in disguise.

Camilleri’s effort is literary, strange, fantastic but somewhat unconvincing. Do not expect to gain any insight in Caravaggio, but to take another “trip” into the writer’s very own universe. For those who know his work, and they have to be Italian or extremely proficient in the language to appreciate his style that defies any possible translation, the book will come both as a surprise and a confirmation. He reconstructs a plausible baroque Italian, instead of his usual half Sicilian, but reconfirms some of his robust and picaresque themes: a southern obsession with bombastic libidinous descriptions with unbelievable sketches, stronger even than Boccaccio’s. The writer his also a refined intellectual, but other than suggesting the use of a dark room and a mysterious visual ailment that would explain the mistery of Caravaggio’s shadowy style- allegedly it made him see the sun as black- he does little to shed light or give meaningful insight in the great master. Furthermore he seems to suggest that Caravaggio was incapable of writing well, and makes him express simple thoughts as if the man had been a simple spirit. Given that thought isn’t necessarily composed of words, and that painting is the very expression of thoughts in images, we must come to the conclusion that the author of work like Caravaggio’s is a genius regardless of his written or oral eloquence. I cannot decide though whether this level of visual depth can be combined with shallow writing and simple observations in the same person. Even so a writer should fight the pretension of being the depositary of intelligence and thoughts, if this is only based on their ability of dealing with words alone, as if these necessarily were thought and intellect itself. Much of value is not verbal, including music and paintings, and it seems a great pretension on the part of writers and critics to value only that which can be said in words to the exclusion of things that simply cannot. Camilleri escapes my criticism, because I strongly suspect him never to have had any pretension as far as understanding or explaining Caravaggio is concerned, other than making up one of his typical stories in a new setting. And this he has done.