Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Shape Of Things To Come

Maybe befittingly to a city that gave birth to a philosopher and scholar better known for his Praise of Folly, Rotterdam is a striking mix of rational and flamboyant modern architecture. Since its near total destruction in WWII, the stage was set for a number of experiments in design that ranged from the kubus houses, literally cube-shaped buildings that seem to defy gravity and, most of all, common sense by being tilted on one corner by 45 degrees, to much uneventful rationalistic suburbia. This attitude has most notably blossomed in recent years to produce many very exciting buildings and a centre that has been revived from catatonia into youthful vitality. Rotterdam is futuristic, especially so along the river Maas, next to the Erasmus Bridge, where among other things the Holland’s Fotomuseum is based in the charmingly named Las Palmas. Lured by possibly one of the last days of decent weather, my wife and I hit the road on a round trip to see the present exhibition on Brazil.

If your preconceived notion of the South American juggernaut state is that of a sex packed crazed metropolis, you’ll find confirmation in this multimediatic show of photos, graphic design and videos, plus one highly enjoyable interactive gimmick that allows one to be videoed in real time and instantly played back on a mural screen, combined with apparently random but very funny cartoonesque characters and elements. Maybe it defies description, but some kind of caption to the works could have helped our understanding of what otherwise is left as a chaotic symphony of tropicalistic nonsense. Vital and sexy, sensationalistic sensuous, vaguely titillating and intellectually void. It’s almost an amusement park in museum format, games included.

Interactive stimulation continues as we dive into an exhibition of young talent from some award or other: visitors are eagerly invited to judge the works and put their preferences either in a cardboard box (for the analogue minded) or patiently typing in a submission form designed to be possibly the slowest software of the world. Since almost nobody took the trouble of fine printing their work, many images are on plain inkjet paper and are pinned to the wall by long steel nails, providing a provisional and ephemeral impression far from that of fine art photography. Maybe this is for the better, because the level of the images is more often than not even lower than that of the self-evident explicatory captions by the authors. A few of them manage the arousal of a faintly benevolent smile from the discerning spectator, and would find one almost sympathetic were they not presented in such a presumptuous manner and a lofty – although in the basement, still a museum - location.

Two floors up more gimmicks: a thermic paper camera that doesn’t work – a combination of an overhead projector and a scanner, by the look of it. To paraphrase the old slogan, “you push the button and it doesn’t do anything“ but whirr and purr and emit some heat from the slot where the print should pop out, according to the instructions printed on the front of the box. Previous visitors had been both more lucky and less accommodating, judging by a stack of discarded prints left on top of the apparatus. I settle to pick up one of the most mysterious images of the stack as a souvenir. It’s a silhouette, a kind of digital silkscreen of a bold headed man: a black matted sheet of paper vaguely smelling of graphite that I immediately and unceremoniously fold down the middle to prevent it from taking on the aura of a print. Very comfortable chairs further on provide solace to the feet, as a joystick allows browsing some photographs accompanied by a sound system that whispers a testimonial on the images softly and almost confidentially right behind one’s ears, a feeling not altogether pleasant but vaguely threatening, as it is unfamiliar to most people.

I feel both excited about the potential of this museum and disappointed by its present exhibitions as we move towards the exit, past an impressive display of cakes at the shiny coffee counter. Manned by a slightly reluctant and absent minded bearded youth, it serves a cappuccino that is as pleasing to the eye as poor to the taste budds: almost an allegory of a place that seems so far to deliver more appearance than substance. Epiphany strikes as a bolt of lightning when I come across a book on Gerda Taro in the luscious museum bookstore. You may have encountered her name while reading about Robert Capa, and this book reveals a great talent and a very courageous person on her own right. As her premature tragic death proves, she took chances and real combat photographs in a conflict that may now look primitive and weirdly photogenic but was nevertheless crude and deadly for those directly involved.

A measure of this kind of dedication to photography and panache is needed here, I think, and taking some risks. The infrastructure seems absolutely fine.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Looking For Lost Instants, Polaroids Regained.

The genius of Mr Land, the founder of Polaroid Co and inventor of many things ranging from a sighting system for tank gunners to a system for producing good sun glasses but mainly known for his instant photography, lay in the understanding that the process and indeed the pleasure of remembering needed no delay to be savoured, nothing like a lifetime or the span of many years and not even the few days or hours needed to process a negative and make a print, but instants would suffice. Not only that, but that this pleasure would prove to be enough of a kick for many and almost an addition for some to support a huge worldwide industry, even though the price per print was quite steep and the cameras definitely not cheap. Filmpacks held 8 prints each, and produced an amazing amount of garbage as so much metal and plastic was thoughtlessly discarded with the packaging.

All this is history. Indulge if you will in the many pubblications and find more out. Polaroid has produced many booklets through the years, always keen to keep track and document its corporate history, if somewhat doctored to their PR needs. I have been a sucker for the rainbow boxes since I found out about them, advertised indirectly through a program on Andy Warhol, a prolific – almost compulsive - instant shooter. As soon as I could afford to I joined the number of those professional photographers that used instant films for proofs, shooting many as we zeroed in on the final lighting and composition, then to be sparingly exposed on a few Ektrachrome plates. Maybe a side effect of the inebriating fumes of the developing gel on the fragrant and shining prints that one confidently peeled apart from the sticky negative in one swift motion, many photographers ended up liking their looks on their own merit.

Polaroid produced many different kinds of film, and they all had their own distinct personality and a complement of sexy processing machines and gadgets to go with them. Color or black and white, different speed up to the then staggering 3000 ASA (!), formats from 35 mm all the way to 8x10 inch and larger – although limited to very few professional rental outlets - a 20 x 24 inch camera . Quick to spot commercial opportunities and lavish in the promotion of their material, they supported the concept of Polaroids as professional “final art” material, and published a beautiful P magazine devoted to showing the best of creative photography on their material complemented by a large own photography collection that could mount exhibitions. The one I saw was thrilling, by far better than any competitor.

Some films allowed for unorthodox procedures to obtain unusual results, an approach that came to be known as creative techniques. It involved anything from almost boiling the prints to detach the emulsion layer, to printing the peel apart negative on watercolor paper, wood, metal and anything else that could hold it, cutting SX 70’s open and inserting colors in the underlaying layers or pushing their dyes around with blunt instruments during development thus giving it a painterly effect or warped shapes. So on we played, pulling and peeling up to the day when digital photography put an end to it, almost overnight. Those like me who were not quick enough to see the end coming are stuck with the relics of that gone by era: the processors and holders for films that are no longer available. And boxes full of prints.

Recently I have been asked about creative techniques again. Much to my surprise there seems to be some slowly creeping interest in analog photography among the younger art directors, maybe a wish to find out what they may have missed out on. Oblargingly I embarked on the painstakingly Proustian effort of digging into the archive and produce some evidence of what we were up to in the nineties, when Polaroids were still all the rage if in decline. The common joke on the sixties applies to this later period as well as far as I am concerned: if you can remember them you weren’t there. As I flip through the tiny prints slowly memories and emotions pop up, not all bad actually. The gusto and playfulnes of those experiments with instant is something that digital photography somehow doesn’t stimulate. I think digital is brilliant, but always on the verge of being virtual and immaterial until robustly photoshopped upon, which is an act of sheer will power and comes from a conscious plan and the inner self of the maker. Playing with polaroid was a dialogue and often a debate with the material: one tried things and got results back, also surprising ones, within seconds. You could fool around and stumble on some great stuff, or be serious and dead boring. Part of the fun was taking chances, and it didn’t ever matter because it was “only” a Polaroid.

If we can’t revive the production lines, or stop history, maybe something of the spirit can be kept alive by different means. Either find ways of being playful and experimental with digital means – buy the way, cameras built in phones are becoming far too sharp and good to be interesting – or take a detour and find other avenues to explore. Sometimes I feel one possible way forward could be one giant step back to a time before polas: rewind and replay the analog tape, let’s say from 1950 on? This would be holding back in a way, some (Sally Mann) are actually starting over from 1850 and making great things. It will be hard though to find ways that are as effortless and fun as polaroid was, they really were the short cut to visual emotions.