Posts Tagged ‘photography’

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Postcultural Identity and the Fashion Photography of Lillian Bassman

June 10, 2011

Born in 1917, Lillian Bassman is most celebrated for her grainy, black and white photographic work. Featured in Harper’s Bazaar Magazine between 1950-1965, her work with models focused on high contrasts and form. Her creative objective focused on pure form. However, when popular tastes in fashion photography changed, Bassman discarded 40 years of negatives and prints. One misplaced bag of 100 images survived. Today, Bassman is recognized as one of the great women fashion photographers and is still working.

Throughout the 20th century, the world of fashion has had a contentious evolution. Both celebrated for it’s aesthetics and criticized for its bourgeoisie decadence, fashion remains one of the most popular and common forms of cultural representation. In this instance, culture is defined as the attitude and behavior characteristics of a particular social group. While it is easy to comment that the attitude reflected in fashion is the starvation of culture, this reduction is a bit too easy.

Existentialism rose from the ruins of two world wars and set the stage for surrealism, deconstruction, and post-modernism. Through the knowledge of mass destruction and global culpability, the question of meaning was desperately explored within the realms of art, religion, philosophy, and other representations of cultural identity. Deconstruction destabilized meaning, but also provided an almost religious assuredness that the center is never stable. As if this instability assured a conceptualization of existence beyond the ability of humans—the religious function of the psyche found an outlet through the labors of theory.

However, while existentialism, or the quest for meaning, has been simultaneously nihilistic and the origin of great creativity, there is another factor that has shaped the last 100 years—globalization. The great American experiment has now passed the two hundred year mark and cultures have now been, not only blended, but forgotten. The fusion of races, traditions, and languages have created a clean palate to adopt and discard the trappings of culture. Americans can be everything or nothing in a simple change of the wardrobe.

In this example, we are going to be looking at Postculturalism as a theory directly related to globalization. In a community set in a densely cultural environment the traditions, expectations, and socio-economic positions have been established over hundreds (if not thousands of years). An individual is not introduced as someone who has existed within one lifetime, rather they are recognized as the son, or daughter, of thus and thus person, who is in turn related to another individual. Everyone is family, the community dictates behavior, and history is remembered.

In Postculturalism, the socio-economic boundaries are broken enabling more opportunity. The lack of a genealogical introduction enables quick movement between economic classes. However, it also means the deterioration of expectations and lifestyle. The concept of the lifespan as shared within a community follows set rituals. Whether that knowing the time to eat during the day, the season to eat ice cream, or the rites of passage into different epochs, the expectations are clearly available. This availability serves a psychological objective in providing a known framework, a system of initiation, and a guide for interactions. In contrast, a Postcultural society must either cull customs from a variety of backgrounds, or, more like, is left to find a framework from a system unrelated to culture—which is usually nestled closely to capitalism.

Leading us back into the phenomenon of fashion photography. Photography has served many functions since it’s invention. Ranging from a bureaucratic tool to high art, photography is both a method and a form of expressionism. In the case of fashion photography, the line between commercialism and art is often blended. The goal of fashion is to sell clothes. To sell clothes, there must be a reason to buy clothes. Fashion is not utilitarian and is fueled by desire. Clothes are a traditional expression of culture and personal identity. Our industry within a community is recognized by what we wear (butcher, baker, candlestick maker), and likewise an individual with the finest clothes is more important than an individual with poorer accessories. We all desire quality in life, and clothes are symbolic of our goals and achievements.

However, in a Postcultural society identity is not established through a cultural history. Which makes fashion an extremely necessary outlet for defining individual identity. A person who is in fashion, has more economic resources, and is therefore identified as being more significant within the social hierarchy. However, fashion is not just branding, it is the artistic development of “looks.” Here is where photography becomes more than a tool for communicating merchandise. The creative aspects of fashion photography create a scene that the viewer desires to identify with. The reenactment, or interaction, with changing fashions is one method to create a persona where prior content does not limit possibilities.

In looking at the photography of Lillian Bassman, we must question the appeal, but also the challenges of her images. Her photography is intensely interested in form, geometry, and high-grainy contrast. When we look at her images, we are looking through a window into another world. The world is attractive, but deeply psychological. The narrative is complex and not always neat. The extreme black and white contrast does not compromise in communicating emotion, tension, and intrIgue. The content that Bassman conveys works within the forum of fashion photography, but the physical identities that she designs convey more about our interior landscapes. Her emphasis on form took her into creative realms that the fashion content was unable to follow. Leading her to find other forums of expression outside of the industry, but also establishing her legacy as a fashion photographer who had much to say to an audience unprepared to listen.

This is a link to Lillian Bassman’s photography as featured in the New York Times.

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La Luz y El Campanero: Symbolism in 1925 Burgos, Spain

June 7, 2011

 “ In the fields with which we are concerned,

knowledge comes only in lightning flashes.

The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.”

[On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress]

Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project

The above photograph was taken from the bell tower in Burgos, Spain in 1925. This photo was included in a photo retrospective on Castilla Leon, published in the Spanish periodical El Pais, June 7, 2011 . In Spanish the bell tower is called el campenar and the bell-ringer is el campanero. Throughout Spain, bell towers are found in the central part of each town and city. While graphically striking, this photo also has strong symbolic meaning.

In the picture you see the inside of the bell tower. A man is actively ringing one of the bells and gazing into what is being illuminated beyond the interior walls of the tower. An additional bell makes up part of the window frame directly facing the photographer. Through this window the outline of the grand gothic cathedral of Burgos is clearly visible.

Traditionally, a tower is a symbol of hope and freedom. Throughout history, the tallest building within a community is also the most important. Originally, the church, or spiritual house, held this position. Then the government, or political power, strategically moved higher. Now, the economic skyscrapers reign from on high. One can easily imagine how hope and freedom has been executed and disillusioned by each institution. Ranging from existentialism, to corruption, and the sustainability challenges of consumerism that now define capitalism.

However, in this photograph, we find that the church is still the central tower within the community. Symbolically a tower represents high hopes and aspiration. It strives to connect the earthly with the heavens. The individual who is looking out from the tower prevails over the environment below with a sense of superiority. However, in this image, the environment within the tower is dirty and broken, the face of El Campanero is not turned downward, rather outward, suggesting an alternative reading. To hear a bell, which is certainly a signified by the picture, represents a warning, or a call to order. It can also be the beginning of something new, both literally and figuratively as a method of the unconscious to prepare for the future. Finally, the symbolism of seeing the outside of a church denotes sacredness and spiritual nourishment. The church is equated with the things you revere and your value system.

While the initial instinctual response to viewing this photograph is positive, understanding the symbolic relationships reinforces this impression. Inside the tower of hope and freedom and man rings the bells as a call of attention to the future. El Campanero does not look downward in superiority, rather his face is fully illuminated and looks outward, slightly smiling into the intensity of the light. The church in the background reinforces the overwhelming feeling of optimism. However, the hope that is being discovered in the sound, light, and squalor of the bell tower is directly juxtaposition with the distanced splendor of the church. In this image, the light that captivates the ringer of the bells asserts a greater authority.

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Man Ray: Nude Dialectics

June 7, 2011

The Dada movement was founded on anti-war politics and was a direct response to the established standards and manifested these ideas by responding to accepted concepts of art with the creation of anti-art cultural works. The goal was to reveal meaning it what was being discarded as meaningless in the modern world.

Continuing after WWI, Surrealism evolved from original Dada manifestation. Defined by Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, Surrealism is:

Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

The concept of Surrealism was explored in photography, art, film, literature, music, and continually addressed the question of what is conscious and unconscious, often with strong socio-political themes. Deconstruction and Post-Modernism are descendents from Dada and Surrealist thought.

Writing in the 19th century, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a philosopher whose approach has been critical to the course of 20th century thought. Hegel asserted that there is an original argument, a Thesis. This Thesis automatically generates an opposing argument, the |Antithesis. The interaction between Thesis and Antithesis bring forth a third, and new idea called the Synthesis. Furthermore, the foundation for Hegelian Dialectics is developed from four concepts:

  1. Everything is transient and finite, existing in the medium of time.
  2. Everything is composed of contradictions (opposing forces).
  3. Gradual changes lead to crises, turning points when one overcomes its opponent force (quantitative change leads to qualitative change).
  4. Change is helical (spiral), not circular (negation of the negation).

Dialectical reasoning has been a central strategy for communicating philosophical challenges since it’s conception. As a written strategy, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis are a familiar framework for essays. Likewise, there are reverberations in art, literature, music, etc.

However, just as the structure of Dialectics argues for an antithesis, so is there a counter-response to this approach. Though acutely articulated in Derrida’s theory of Deconstruction and in the Post-Modern exploration of film and literature, there is a unique space in the early twentieth century where the conception of an antithesis to Dialectics is being visualized adjacent to it’s origin.

Photographer Man Ray was born in Philadelphia in 1890. Arriving in Paris between WWI and WWII, Man Ray was a central figure in the practice and philosophy of Surrealism. Central to the socio-political experience of Europe during this period is the question of how to live in a world after the devastation of war. Not only the destruction of infrastructures, but the knowledge that that destruction was generated and enabled by the continental communities. The horrors of war could not withstand cultural boundaries. All types of hell were made possible by the hands of man.

First Dada and then Surrealism emerged as expressionist responses to this new psychological realization. Dada is a Dialectical response to being the anti-war to war, and the anti-art to traditional art. The emphasis on automatism in Surrealism opens the discussion to both cultural and personal exploration. Automatism is defined as the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention. If war is the strategic plan to conquer, divide, and/or destroy, than surrealism is the unconscious response. But, unlike Dada, this response is not obviously anti-war (or peace). Though consciousness and unconsciousness are practically a dialectic opposition, their content does not necessarily follow the same rules. What is found in the unconscious may be better explored through the process of Dialectics, but it resists definition, categorization, or compartmentalization.

A visual example of this is seen in Man Ray’s photographs “Le nu en photographie,” or “Two Nudes” composed in 19 37. In this image we see two nudes, one facing the viewer the other with her back to the audience looking into the distance. The portraits are not mirror images, but the juxtaposition of a light and dark background establish that the images are linked, representing united, but contrasting concepts. Black is the antithesis to white and vice versa. Put them together and the visual contrast creates an experience that is not achieved when viewed separately.

Likewise, one nude faces forward, the other showing her back. This is another example inviting a Dialectic comparison. Though, here is where it becomes clear that this strategy is being intentionally broken. While the black-white backgrounds and poses lead the interpreter toward their familiar Thesis, there are several factors that disorient this process. Almost mirror images of each other, the differences in poses convey different messages. The lighted nude faces forward, intimately meeting the eyes of her audience; Her arm is raised to reveal her breasts and the curve of her figure. She is fully conscious of her physicality and allurement. The second nude shows her back to the viewer and looks into the darkness. Her figure is highlighted, but it is not being displayed for an audience. Both arms are lowered and her focus is unknown.

A simple interpretation would read this as the lighted nude represents what is conscious and the darkened nude is the unconscious. However, Man Ray’s technique of inducing photographic polarities deconstructs the obvious. The light nude is highlighted in black; the black nude is highlighted in white. Each nude displays characteristics of the unconscious and conscious. The direct sexuality of the first is generated in the primal ID, clearly nestled in the unconscious. The reflective gaze into darkness implies active cognition. Though the initial invitation is to define each woman as being black or white, conscious and unconscious, this Dialectic interpretation is destabilized the more one participates in the portraits as a conversation between opposites. The more one tries to define the images—both technically and symbolically, the more impossible it becomes to reduce the images to a single narrative.

Man Ray’s photograph, “Le nu en photographie” (“Two Nudes”), is an example of how Dada and Surrealism struggled with the strictures of Dialectic thought in the 20th century. It is an exemplification of an experience that is both defined by opposites and irreconcilable to being pruned into familiar and rational forms.