[24Jul22 p.177] This Part opens with an interestingly and encouragingly deconstructionist statement,
To attribute a single meaning to an image might seem simplistic to a student of photography or to those who have a special interest in the subject. LPE p.177
Wheatfield - A Confrontation: The Battery Park landfill,
Downtown Manhattan , 1982
image source: agnesdenesstudio.com
b: Budapest 1931
Site - Wikipedia
This segues clumsily to an examination of Agnes Denes' Wheatfield - A Confrontation: The Battery Park landfill, Downtown Manhattan (1982) in which Denes planted two acres of wheat in prime Manhattan real estate (worth, we are told, $4.5B, even in 1982), demonstrating "a powerful paradox. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns calling attention to our ‘ misplaced priorities" (LPE p.177). And, here's the point, it was "an early example of an artist where the photographic image was integral to the creative work" (ibid.). This point came up in the Asg.4 feedback where I referred to Andy Grundberg's How photography became contemporary art (2021).
The artist's own web site quotes, "the scholar and curator Jeffrey Weiss, [who] has called [Wheatfield] "perpetually astonishing . . . one of Land Art's great transgressive masterpieces" (Artforum, September 2008)" (Denes, 1982).
This is the most interesting piece I have encountered on the course and is worth the price of entry alone. The work was made 40 years ago and - here's the key - would not exist but for its reverberations in other forms - writing, still and film photographs, memories and, I'd guess, some people might still have wheat or flour or images of things they baked. (And if Manzoni had been in his canning phase at the time he could have made sandwiches and taken the work to another - not necessarily higher - level, fig. B5). Denes notes on her web site that,
seeds were carried away by people who planted them in many parts of the globe Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan,1982
Denes relies on photographs on a web site as the main point of entry. And - here's the second key - this applies to everything else too. Lives, lost lives, events, lost buildings and everything else: they only exist in memories and in art, and memories die. And all art is not equivalent; photography is sometimes more equivalent than others.
Goya's The Third of May, 1808 (fig. B1) is a remarkable painting, but no-one supposes that it is an accurate representation of events: it is a (literal) celebration of the event. By contrast, Eddie Adams' photograph of an execution (fig. B2) is viscerally real and still chilling more than 50 years later. Most courtroom artists' sketches of the accused could almost be a joke if the subject were not more serious, but photographs of criminals and their crimes are real and evidential (figs. B3 and B4).
Denes' piece still resonates today, particularly with the twin towers in the distance, included then for a reason - geographical confirmation - and now that reason has changed. It was an important piece 40 years ago for the truths of revealed about social and financial priorities and that is still valid, but the work now reveals an (in some ways) more important truth: the enduring vitality of the photograph.
What is there now? Continued in eval. and in various of the Part 5 exercises.
[27Jul, p.178] Denes Wheatfield … has become something of a distraction.
The cmat. poses a question,
How might photographers consider their responsibilities, risks, the effect of distance, or proper and fair representation? LPE, p.178
It goes on to suggest that imagery is often paired with text to clarify and emphasise the message and that there has been an increasing tendency to include a Call to Action, encouraging the audience to Do Something.
Examples cited are:
Chris Jordan's Intolerable Beauty depicting garbage;
Mitch Epstein’s American Power, dealing with fuel usage;
Vera Lutter's giant pinhole images illustrating mass industry;
Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo, "blur[ring] the lines between photojournalism and documentary" (LPE, p.178) in The Hell of Copper, extracting metals from obsolete technology.
We are told to examine the work of one of these for, but let's take a glimpse of them all, first.
b: 1963 Seattle
Site - Wikipedia
b: 1960 Kaiserslautern
Gagosian - Wikipedia
b: 1978 Burkina Faso
Guardian - Prix Pictet
In and interview with Jörg Colberg (n.d.), Jordan states, "Our culture is in deep denial about what we are doing to our planet, to the people of other nations, and the people of the future. And maybe the biggest tragedy of all is that we are in denial about how our consumer lifestyle is sapping our own spirits. We are slowly killing ourselves, and we all feel it."
Cotton (2020, p.80) describes Epstein's, "extensive photographic surveys that stand as deep, compelling essays about the state and decline of individual lives, communities, resources and landscapes in America".
Lutter's work is described in more detail below.
The Guardian (2014) describes the, "six-mile-wide cemetery for abandoned computers in Accra, Ghana. Ghana is one of the main recipients of the world's electrical waste. For Hell of Copper, [Ouedraogo] spent eight months on the perilous, toxic site where many children work.""
Frankfurt Airport V: April 19, 2001
image source: ncartmuseum.org
Bright and van Erp (2019, p.9) take a similar approach, stating,
Artists such as Vera Lutter, Meghann Riepenhoff and Adam Fuss breathe contemporary air into practices and sensibilities that might be deemed obsolete, but can in fact still be relevant and vital to our understanding of photography. Bright and van Erp, 2019, p.9)
Neither party seeks to understand or explain why Lutter has chosen to do what she does in this way.
In a 2003 interview with Peter Wollen for Bomb magazine, Lutter explained how it started. Having trained as a sculptor in Germany, she came to New York looking for a new direction, moved into a loft (rented illegally) and became overwhelmed by the pace and variety of life, "Through the windows, the outside world flooded the space inside and penetrated my body". She converted her room into a camera,
My intention was not to make a photograph as such but to make a conceptual piece that in its own way repeated and transformed what I had observed.
Anyway, I darkened the loft, placed the pinhole on the window’s surface and installed photographic paper on the wall opposite. It took me forever to get the traces of light onto the paper. Vera Lutter interviewed by Peter Wollen, 2003
I previously only knew of Abelardo Morell in this context, but, of course he projected onto walls and then photographed the walls conventionally. As regards subjects, Lutter favoured industrial sites, both in use and in decay, transport hubs and, more recently, museums, photographed during lockdown.
For her earlier work, Lutter often used shipping containers, but has also, for the museum work, used custom built large box (or sometimes "shed") cameras. Of the containers and processing,
I often use shipping containers now, which I rent
by changing the focal length, which in my case is the distance between the pinhole and the photographic paper, I can affect the image size. The photo industry delivers a certain width of paper on a roll, and I piece sheets together to make my images match my ideas
[the sheets] are 56 inches wide, and they vary between 90 and 110 inches in length. 56 times three makes almost 15 feet. It’s become a standard size of mine. The shipping container just barely accommodates such an image size.
Usually one uses a heavyweight paper because it resists the treatment in chemistry better, but I first used single-weight paper, which has a very thin paper body. When you process it in the chemicals, it tears and wrinkles easily. The paper was too big for the tray, so I just folded it up and stuffed it into the chemicals. The development was incredibly uneven, and of course photo dealers were horrified. (laughter) But over the years I’ve learned to appreciate the double-weight paper, and I’ve become good at rolling the paper through the chemicals. Now they’re archival and flat, not torn, not wrinkled.
I use a trough about 60 inches long, and approximately 10 by 10 inches deep and wide. You fill that up with five gallons of chemicals. Putting the paper in rolled up, you learn very quickly how to roll it from one end to the other. Then you pull it out and turn it around so the beginning is facing you and you roll again. It is anxiety driven: if you are too slow, you get developer marks. Knowing how long one turn takes helps you stop the process at the right moment. It’s choreography. Vera Lutter interviewed by Peter Wollen, 2003
and of the boxes in museums,
it’s a pinhole camera and the scale is architectural, like a small cabin, about nine feet tall with a ten-by-six-foot footprint. Of course it’s completely light tight and therefore dark inside. I usually sit with my back to the lens and look at the image projected on the screen. It takes about a half hour for the eye to adjust to the very little light that comes though the pinhole. At that point one can see the projected image clearly.
smaller box cameras of mine are roughly thirty by twenty by fifteen inches. I came up with that early on, when I started doing this work. It was hard for me to find locations that would accommodate my request to photograph using a room-size camera. In the museum it gave me the flexibility to move through the galleries and experiment with time and light and the great variety of art displayed.
Vera Lutter interviewed by Michael Govan, 2020
Zeppelin Friedrichshafen, III: August 17-20, 1999
image source: awarewomenartists.com
Lutter described the making of an early (1999) image
I photographed zeppelins inside a hangar where they had recently started to build them again. That was also my first use of a shipping container. I placed the container inside the hangar, ran tests inside it and understood that my exposure time for the image would be four days. The zeppelin was still being tested and corrected, and one day, during my exposure, the company decided to pull it out for a test flight. During the four days of exposure, the zeppelin was flying for two days and for two days it was parked in front of my camera. When the zeppelin was gone, whatever was behind and around it inscribed itself onto the photograph, but when it was placed inside the hangar, the outline of the zeppelin imprinted itself. It was rather dark inside the hangar, so things inscribed themselves very slowly. The result was this incredible image of a translucent zeppelin, which was half hangar and half zeppelin. Vera Lutter interviewed by Peter Wollen, 2003
Lutter's attitude and response to her subjects and her work seems to have changed little over the years: she remains excited by it. In the 2003 Wollen interview she describes "When I saw the first projection, it was an epiphany. It was probably one of the most overwhelming moments of my life" and speaking to Govan in 2020, "I learn every day, every hour I make work, but this has been an extraordinary opportunity to work in a way that I probably never will again".