Vittorio Mortarotti

The First Day of Good Weather

Book review by Natasha Christia

Vittorio Mortarotti’s The First Day of Good Weather feels like one of those books that asks you to go back to it again and again. It is multi-layered and cryptic in tenor, and its sequence is constructed with sophisticated albeit uncanny couplings of seemingly disparate elements. It is a style that can be seen in other Skinnerboox publications, such as Alessandro Calabrese’s superb Die Deutsche Punkinvasion, where the juxtaposition of close ups of junkyard cars with archival pictures of punk revolts produces a chain of striking and effective connotations.

Impelled by a similar penchant, Mortarotti’s narrative takes me through a misty topography of devastation, melancholy and resignation. There is a bluish undertone to the book, a sort of mute score reverberating in the depths of an ocean. Night and day alternate indifferently in perennial circles of rising tides; views of semi-demolished houses, cracked cement blocks and smashed cars are paired up with flashy portraits of drained individuals and tormented night bar affairs. And yet, I can tell that beneath this rough, silent mood is a winding stream of emotions, a lust to hang on to life. This collision of distinctive visual and emotional registers within a low-spirited, obscure and industrialised environment turns into both a graphic and literal incarnation of an attempt to get access to a secret, to recollect its traces, to grasp how life can be after everything has been smashed into a million pieces.

Then, all of a sudden, in the middle of the book, a text has been inserted, dating back to May 1999. It is a letter written in French by a Japanese woman named Kaori. It is addressed to a man. This letter complicates the story. It makes it clear that there is much more in here – something deep, personal and intimate.

In the pages that follow, the story recovers its visual pace. But while Mortarotti’s gaze keeps safeguarding its distance from dramatic exasperations, it unleashes an unsettlingly emotional, almost existential register that drives me away from the letter and away from words.

In the colophon I read that the book brings together three unconnected moments: the fall of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, the death of Mortarotti’s own father and teen-aged brother in a car accident on 8-9 July 1999, and the terrible earthquake and Tsunami that shook Japan in March 2011. All moments of historical relevancy; all massive, unexpected, unprecedented and utterly devastating in their after-effects.

In the wake of this data assemblage everything falls into place. Death appears here in capital letters and History intermingles with personal traumas. The locations shown in the book recover their names: Fukushima, Tokyo, Hiroshima … And as for the letter, it forms part of the correspondence between Mortarotti’s brother and Kaori, his Japanese girlfriend who kept on writing and sending postcards for months after the accident. Tracking this pack of letters and looking for Kaori fifteen years later became, for Mortarotti, a pretext to visit Fukushima and the area hit by the Tsunami in a cathartic search for what might have been in the aftermath of stories of loss other than his own.

I am aware now of many key elements of the story. Too many, perhaps, in the eyes of the purists still inhabiting our photographic community. Photographic purism would dismiss the book I hold in my hands as too dependent on words. It would dictate that sequence must speak for itself, that we do not need illuminating words; when these are needed, they say, it is because the images do not work for themselves.

But curiously, The First Day of Good Weather feels relevant precisely because it breaks these rules with its contaminated and versatile mood. Removing the limitations of visual storytelling or photobook-making is an option in its own right. But it cannot become axiomatic. It does not and should not exclude other options. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to”.

The First Day of Good Weather is a hybrid photobook in every sense of the word. By expanding its branches to apparently irrelevant storylines, its narrative adopts an elliptical style akin to cinema and literature. At the same time, it masterfully combines and balances the documentary, diaristic and conceptual modes with a marked preference for a “slow” inception of reality and its facts. The links between the photographer’s personal tragedy and Japan’s collective trauma play out the universal mechanisms of coping with grief and of moving on after experiencing a dramatic event. Mortarotti manages to tackle the delicate and private sphere of mourning without falling into cliché or an excess of autobiographical references. What’s more, he brings Japan to the foreground in an unpretentious and neutral way. It would have been easy to let it take up the entire frame for the umpteenth time, but he does not. He avoids temptation.

How can we approach an alien space? How can we cope with death and its remnants? How can we overcome it? The components of Mortarotti’s story are tied together by the intuitive assumption that the bits and pieces of our immense world are interconnected. During most of his journey around Japan, we feel attached to the ground. Then the bird’s-eye view in the small postcard pictures of skyscrapers and the portrait of a woman (Kaori, in the present) against the window and the blue sky introduce a soft, airy element – a parallel dimension to the journey. There is a climax of sensations that reinforces an awareness of the randomness of cosmic events – a volatile lightness, horrendous in many ways, as the title of the project suggests. The first day of good weather was the day life stopped in Hiroshima. “The first day of good weather” was the order issued by President Truman to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. On 6 August 1945, it was raining over the other targets. It was sunny over Hiroshima.

We are used to conceiving of books – not merely photobooks – as static objects, but perhaps it would be useful to consider that they might not be. Books, after all, are elastic condensers of time. They exist in time; they grow with us. They stand for a sort of synaesthetic experience where we, the reader, have to contribute our imagination and intuition to fill in the gaps.

So I let myself drift into The First Day of Good Weather. I let myself add to its sequenced layers of experience emanating from my personal debris. Experience that adds more lines to the story as if it were an unfinished novel. I catch myself going back and forth. Especially backwards in a futile hope that this movement could restore something of the past. Rather than revoking the trauma, I seek to accommodate it in the present. I catch myself returning to The First Day of Good Weather for there is something in it that persistently resonates in my mind: an intense, sustained and profound force that replenishes its argument and makes me see it anew.

All images courtesy of Skinnerboox. © Vittorio Mortarotti

Natasha Christia is an independent writer, curator and educator based in Barcelona. She was recently the guest editor at the Read or Die publishing fair in Barcelona during November 2015. She has also been appointed as curator of the upcoming edition of DocField Documentary Photography Festival, taking place during May and July 2016, entitled Europe: Lost in Translation.

David Fathi

Wolfgang (CERN archive)

Essay by Jeffrey Ladd

Science brought photography to life. And in turn, photography has served science in any manner of ways, giving visual documentation to experiment and reaction. Taken out of context, however, any photograph that depicts the pure visual ‘facts’ resulting from any given experiment easily slips from science fact into science fiction. Enter David Fathi, an artist whose background in mathematics and computer science has led him to sift through the photo archives of the CERN laboratory in Switzerland and explore the various intersections between art, photography, science, and history with his recent project Wolfgang.

Founded in the 1950s, the CERN laboratory is known for its groundbreaking work on particle theory and for probing the fundamental make-up of the universe. It houses the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest particle accelerator used to smash protons and discover new particles that have been cast-off from such collisions. Among hundreds of new discoveries, it found evidence of the elusive Higgs boson whose existence was, for half a century, the central unverified question relating to the Standard Model of particle physics. In 2014 the CERN organisation started uploading photographs from their archives in order to start crowdsourcing missing information. According to Fathi, “They were missing information about all these photos and needed the public to help them identify anything useful. Who are the people in the photos? What are these machines? What specific experiments are the photos describing? For what event were some of these photos taken? Through 60 years of life at CERN all this information had been lost. They are still in the process of scanning and uploading but currently there are around 120,000 photos available.”

The central nucleus and title of Fathi’s project is Wolfgang Pauli, one of the pioneers of quantum physics who was nominated for the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physics by none other than Albert Einstein. Apart from his brilliance in physics, Pauli was also infamous to his colleagues for having numerous unexplained accidents and unpredictable instances happen simply due to his presence in the room. Pauli, when entering a lab, was said to invite the ‘Pauli effect’, which was held responsible for a large number of unexplainable failures of equipment or experiments suddenly self-destructing or yielding different outcomes than before. At a ceremony at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zürich in 1948, where he was an honoured guest, as Pauli entered the room a flower vase crashed to the floor without any obvious reason.

“Wolfgang Pauli actually believed to some extent in this myth of the ‘Pauli effect,’ ” Fathi recalls, “he had a long correspondence with Carl Jung, and developed with him the theory of synchronicity – the idea that some events are linked by meaning and not causality. On one hand, this for me is kind of incomprehensible as to why some of the greatest minds can give in to superstition, or mystical beliefs. On the other, I believe that scientists who operate on this level of abstraction need to think so far out of the box that they entertain ideas and beliefs that waver between fact and fiction.”

Thus, many of the black and white images Fathi has culled from the vast CERN archive depict failures and unexpected surprises, searching for Pauli’s presence anywhere it might be suggested: a crane upends after trying to lift a shipping container; a car crashes through a metal retaining fence; a large silver sphere hovers in space before a worker; a lab technician standing before a large process camera disappears leaving only his shoes; a ladder accident leaves a man twisted among the rungs with a metal bucket on his head; in the last photograph, a man pulls back a stark white curtain attached to a wall revealing a portrait of Pauli peeking out from behind.

Using such archival material has a significant precedent, which should not be overlooked. Appropriation of this sort was shown most effectively in the mid-1970s when two graduate students from the San Francisco Art Institute, Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, used the funds from a National Endowment of the Arts grant to gain access to, and use, various photographs from the archives of government and scientific research laboratories. They published their ‘findings’ in their now legendary exhibition and book Evidence in 1977. The fifty-nine photographs, relieved of captions or additional information, each became an autonomous world of mysterious events and confounding relationships. The viewer was then left in a tug and pull between the strength that each image was known to be in service of an ‘official’ organisation and the weakness brought about by the uncertainty of what the data Evidence claimed to present even was.

A similar tension and humour is also at work in Fathi’s Wolfgang, although a notable difference is that Fathi has manipulated the images beyond their selection. “There are of course manipulations through editing and piecing together a fictitious narrative, but there are also digital manipulations. Some photos are left untouched, and depict a real event, while others are created by erasing, adding or compositing elements, creating ‘particle effects’ and corrupting the image. But the source material is always from the CERN archive.”

The vast majority of the images seem to be sourced from older archives, judging by signifiers such as the clothing style and technology, giving them the veil of early explorations into the unknown. In contrast to recent images from CERN that can be found online, the men in Fathi’s work can seem in over their heads and groping around in the dark – an apt metaphor for science even at its current level. “It’s only through time and experimentation,” Fathi says, “that their ideas are proven or not, but you have to be a bit mad to make a living out of demonstrating that the fabric of reality is totally different than what meets the eye.”

The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” In looking through projects like Wolfgang, one might extend that notion to apply to photography too.

All images courtesy of the artist. © David Fathi

Jeffrey Ladd is an American photographer born in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in 1968. From 2007 to 2012, he wrote over 450 articles for his website 5B4 – Photography and Books, a blog dedicated to discussing and reviewing photography and art-related publications. Ladd is one of the founders of Errata Editions, an independent publishing company whose Books on Books series has won many awards for their scholarship into rare and out of print photobooks. He is currently based in Koeln, Germany.

Stan Douglas

The Secret Agent

Exhibition review by Daniel C Blight

Victoria Miro
02.02.16 — 24.03.16

In Stan Douglas’ work history seldom gets an easy ride. Non-linear and chopped-up narratives respond to real political events or fictional ones, appropriated and reconfigured from novels and other works of canonical modern literature, themselves complex occurrences. “A rejection of easily consumable messages”, as the gallery puts it, for the artist’s exhibition, The Secret Agent, at Victoria Miro in London, who has also just been announced as the winner of the 2016 Hasselblad Award.

Douglas’ literary references include those writers the art world too often goes to for inspiration, such as Theodor Adorno, Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka – the climacteric orthodoxy referenced and regurgitated yet again. In this exhibition the artist turns to Joseph Conrad and his novella The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907) in order to produce a 6-channel film work based on the book, in terms of its characters and plot but not its original location. In the other gallery space a set of large, partly computer-generated photographic works line the walls of a dimly lit room. This sullen light just about sums up the exhibition’s atmospherics: CGI images appear as grey, spotlighted enumerations of urban city space, and the room in which the film is installed has that fall-asleep ambience – carpeted yet uncomfortable – as is so often the case with gallery film installation.

Running 53 minutes in length, and neck-achingly split over six projection screens situated in two facing rows, it’s a big ask to sit through the film in its near-feature length duration. I found sitting on the edge of one of the benches allowed me to easily spin around in order to catch new scenes emerging from opposite sides of the room, the transitions of the film aligning with the movement of my body left and right – one rear-end or over the shoulder locus dissolving into another. It is fun for the first few minutes, a bit less amusing after that.

My first thoughts involved the mediocrity of the acting, but one probably shouldn’t take Douglas’ selection of actors at face value. What feels like dramatic parody – as if the viewer is having some postmodern joke played upon them, in which they’re asked to read the deconstruction of linear narrative through the guise of perhaps deliberately unconvincing actorly pastiche – is performed ambiguously by the characters themselves. Or maybe the acting is just simply bad? This is the risk Douglas’ work presents to us as viewers: do we read it closely all the time, or are there moments where the whole thing is a big disguise for something else all together less serious? This is what makes it interesting. As Christine Rose says of Douglas’ study of narrative and temporality in her book The Past is the Present; It’s the Future Too (2012), “It declares its necessity and persistence while performing its crisis and near-exhaustion”. Is it then the case that The Secret Agent by Douglas tells us something about Conrad’s writing really, or about Douglas’ own practice, or perhaps both, or indeed about Portugal in the 1970s? This is both history and ambiguity in crisis, and its hard not to find it intriguing, even if it rubs up against itself in all sorts of awkward ways.

For Douglas’ film the novella is re-staged in 1970s Portugal as opposed to the 1880s London of Conrad’s original. In the book the government detective Mr. Verloc – who also leads a double life running a sex shop – is friends with, and a spying member of, a group of ineffective anarchists who plot, when not drinking and smoking, to execute a terrorist bomb attack, electing Verloc to carry out the deed. The bombing goes wrong of course – a reference to the actual attempted bombing of Greenwich Observatory by Martial Bourdin in 1894, which ended in not much other than him blowing his own body up unintentionally in Greenwich Park. In the film, Verloc’s partner’s son is involved, paying the explosive consequences of Verloc’s crazed mission himself. As Verloc’s colleague, Chief Inspector Heat, recalls of the son – in near proximity to the eavesdropping and henceforth catastrophically upset Mrs. Verloc – “I tell you they had to fetch a shovel to gather him up with,” his body having been inadvertently blown to fleshy pieces all over the ground of the Royal Park.

The humour of these somehow ridiculous characters is clear, and it is this element of the book that Douglas’ film excels at recreating. The dialogue offers yet more intellectual satire, evoking some of the profound and humorous turns of phrase one might associate with a certain side of the anarchist left. Conrad’s writing captures this affect well in describing the character Michaelis, purportedly based on the real life nineteenth-century Russian anarchists Peter Krupotkin and Mikhail Bakunin: “Michaelis by staring unwinkingly at the fire had regained that sentiment of isolation necessary for the continuity of his thought. His optimism had begun to flow from his lips. He saw Capitalism doomed in its cradle, born with the poison of the principle of competition in its system. The great capitalists devouring the little capitalists, concentrating the power and the tools of production in great masses, perfecting industrial processes, and in the madness of self-aggrandisement only preparing, organising, enriching, making ready the lawful inheritance of the suffering proletariat.”

The narrative of the book itself remains relatively straightforward, but where the film might follow suit, foregrounding character development, anarchist politics and well-executed, intellectually jocular dialogue as Conrad’s novella does, Douglas instead comes stylistically unstuck. His decision to locate the film in 1970s Portugal during the “Carnation Revolution” runs counter to Conrad’s Soho of 1880s London with its humorous sense of anarchistic impetuosity the characters portray in the book. While this sense of political hopelessness remains in the film, it is overshadowed by the “Hollywood thriller” aesthetic The Secret Agent depicts. Its embracing of a different kind of visual humour through the stylings of 1970s costume and set design leaves behind some important parts of contextual and comedic nuance the novella arouses, as it relates to London and its underground liberatory politics at the end of the nineteenth century.

With the partly computer-generated photographs, things become less colourful. These large, grey panoramic images are technically accomplished. Douglas wraps 2D digital images around 3D computer-rendered buildings, meticulously evoking a sense of film noir space in the dirty urban city. With titles such as Hogan’s Alley (2014), Lazy Bay and Burntown (both 2015), an empty night-time scene, reminiscent of a computer game, finds its strange image in a high art, white cube gallery space. The urban settings evoke the underbelly of a city complete with gamblers, musicians, alcohol and drugs, and were used in a simultaneous theatre production Douglas worked on with screenwriter Chris Haddock, named Helen Lawrence (2015).

The exhibition is complex yet underwhelming: the various senses of space, both physical and intellectual, it elicits don’t always sit comfortably side by side. This is Douglas’ postmodern pastiche at work and, despite its strengths, however celebrated but outdated, it is the gallery space that eventually lets it down. Why is this work in a gallery? The Secret Agent film might have been stripped down and built back up in single screen format for the cinema, with some more nuanced consideration of its historical context and Conrad’s novella. The photographs just make me want to see the theatre production, on their own reading like sketchbook objects for sale, clumsily framed and perhaps produced by the artist at the behest of the gallery’s commercial pressures. A rejection of easily consumable messages perhaps, but less conveniently this might well be rich and interesting work poorly executed.

All images courtesy of David Zwirner and Victoria Miro. © Stan Douglas

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is co-editor of Loose Associations, a periodical on image culture published by The Photographers’ Gallery; visiting tutor in the department of Critical & Historical Studies, Royal College of Art and lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton. 

Regina Anzenberger

Roots & Bonds

Book review by Gerry Badger

One subject that seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years – with professional photographers at least – is the natural landscape in the traditional sense, the Ansel Adams sense one might say. There seem to be two reasons for this. One is that it has become increasingly apparent that there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ landscape at all. As everything in the world, from the biosphere down to the tiniest microbe, has been affected by the hand – often the destructive hand – of man. As a result, much landscape photography today is ‘documentary’ in style – think of Edward Burtynsky, for instance – recording the devastation and framing an indictment. Being ultra positive and celebrating the landscape for its beauty – think of Sebastião Salgado – seems too operatic and redundant, almost hypocritical.

There is a formal redundancy at work, too. How do you photograph a rock or a tree or a sunset for the millionth time and find something fresh to say about it? But of course, there are exceptions, like the great Thomas Joshua Cooper, who has, almost single-handedly, preserved the tradition of the transcendental landscape photograph. He has done it in a postmodern way, but without neglecting the modernist approach, either. Cooper has added a conceptual approach, allied with contemporary cultural references, to make a landscape photography that extends the ‘grand’ tradition into the new millennium.

Now, Regina Anzenberger has done something different but equally interesting in her book Roots & Bonds. Anzenberger is the founder and director of the well-known Anzenberger Gallery and the force behind the Vienna Photobook Festival, which has rapidly become one of the better photo-festivals around. She is also a photographer in her own right as well as a painter, and Roots & Bonds combines photographs, paintings on photographs, and mixed media works – which, as those of you who know me know, I usually consider the first refuge of a scoundrel.

In her paintings-on-photographs and collages, however, Anzenbrger has found a language that is both true to, and compatible with the straight photographs in the book. The subject, or rather the subject-matter of her work is the woods near Vienna, not the Vienna Woods of Johann Strauss fame, which are a specific location, but woodland areas around the city. Most of the pictures were taken when she was out walking with her dog, Shakeera, near where she plays golf at Himberg.

Although Vienna is quite far south, forests, as they do in the culture of all German-speaking countries, hold a particular significance. In ancient times, much of northern Europe was covered in vast forests, home to the Teutonic tribes. It was in the Teutoburg forest, in AD 9, where the Romans suffered the most inglorious defeat in their history, when three whole legions, under the command of the Legate Varus, were annihilated, and, traumatically and symbolically, their eagle standards were taken. The Romans became entangled in the endless forests, and the German tribes were never conquered. So woodland represents a fortress and refuge for German speakers, a symbol of the Heimat (homeland). Anzenberger recounts that she began her project when she noticed a particular tree on one of her walks, a walk to which she returned again and again. “What especially fascinated me were the vines which elegantly wound themselves down to the ground from a branch, creating an image of endless bonds.”

Some fifteen or so pages into the book, this tree features in two single-image, double-page spreads. The first picture is a straight print in a sepia tone. In the second, featuring the same image, Anzenberger has delicately coloured the vines in reds and yellows, the whole tangle having the effect of a Jackson Pollock. This is the volume’s most overtly painted photograph. In others, the colouring or toning is much more subtle, sometimes even difficult to detect. And then there is a group of mixed media images where Anzenberger pastes a photograph on a page and extends the lines of the branches out with spidery drawn lines, often combined with collaged elements and handwritten texts.

If, in her mind, these bonds represent a comforting embrace, a sense of home, this is nevertheless not a cosy or comforting book. The vines are strangling the trees, and the forests, of course, are also the setting for all kinds of bad things, ranging from Grimm’s fairy tales to the lair of Fafner, the dragon in Wagner’s Ring. In Anzenberger’s distinctly spiky vision, there is a distinct air of nasty things lurking in the undergrowth. If she knocked her ball off the fairway into that, one suspects it would not be just the simple matter of a lost ball.

Her title, too, catches the distinctly double-edged feel of the work. Roots represent solidity, belonging, and continuity, the comforting sense of knowing where you have come from and where you are. Bonds – the ties that bind – potentially reflect the same idea, but can also mean constraint, suffocation, and restriction. As Robert Adams famously noted, landscape photography can reflect a number of things – place, the artist’s life, metaphor and symbol. In Roots & Bonds, Regina Anzenberger has given us what might be termed the psychological landscape – comfortingly familiar yet also edgy, distinctly uncomfortable but distinctly interesting.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Regina Anzenberger

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 30 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Rosângela Rennó


Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

The Photographers’ Gallery, London
22.01.16 — 03.04.16

As the philosopher Vilém Flusser is keen to remind us, we are often complacent about our images. “They have grown familiar to us,” he wrote. “We no longer take notice of most photographs, concealed as they are by habit: in the same way, we ignore everything familiar in our environment and only notice what has changed.” In a world where the throwaway image is ever more dominant – and the capacities of storage are always increasing – it is rare that we have to make choices about what we might preserve.

Rosângela Rennó’s installation Rio-Montevideo, currently on display at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, presents images from the photographic archive of El Popular, a Uruguayan daily newspaper active from 1957 until 1973. In July 1973, deep within the structure of the newspaper’s office building, staff photographer Aurelio González concealed a total of 48,626 negatives. Seeking to save a record of the nation that would soon be under threat from an impending military coup, he single-handedly set about to preserve the newspaper’s account of post-war Uruguayan identity. But while González rescued the entire archive, retrieving it in 2006, we will never see it as the totality it seems to be. How does one go about representing its contents, which are so vast and multiplicitous? And how can the singularity of any one person’s encounter with it be represented? Acknowledging our always subjective and tangential relationships to cultural memory, Rennó was invited to respond to the collection, and made a selection of images – 32 in all. By choosing sparingly, she has charged these images with a sense of purpose, one that many do not have.

Rio-Montevideo seeks not the defining image nor the metonymic symbols of Uruguay itself, but instead what appears to be three themes, moving from the universal to the particular. Most immediately, Rennó represents daily life: images of furniture removal and several family portraits assert a humanist language that draws quickly upon shared experience, rendering Uruguay as familiar. Secondly, she represents the political fight for equality, including the 1968 student protests against fascism. The murders of Susana Pintos and Hugo de los Santos are seen here – the image of a dead de los Santos echoes Jacques-Louis David’s revolutionary Marat Assassinated. The political protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s resonate globally, of course, but are especially acute in South America, where they are charged with the many subsequent dictatorships of the military right. Lastly, Rennó draws a little upon herself: as a Brazilian citizen, she draws interconnections between Brazil and Uruguay. And by moving from the shared to the personal, Rennó temporarily displaces the archive, drawing upon it a single continental axis, from Montevideo to her hometown of Rio de Janeiro. Her selection of subjects demonstrates her succinct critical and art historical way of seeing, and by building upon the two countries’ similar cultural histories, global struggles, and universal experiences, Rennó manages to weave a small selection of images into a complex web that mixes the specific and the general, prompting each viewer to see if they can establish a specific association with the archive as she has presented it.

Our typical experience of an image is rooted in its almost immediate redundancy: usually, photographs appear to us in quick succession, one after another. Flusser, who lived in Rio between 1950 and 1972 – when many of the images were taken – continuously urged his readers to slow their looking, and see images in their wider complexities. It is this that, in part, draws us to the otherwise unexamined acts of a photograph’s making, and its consequences as a quotidian or vernacular object. What is the significance of this image? What is its consequence? Who and what makes it? And at the end, what sustains our use of it? Such an expanded conception of the photograph provokes the realisation that no image is ever purely the result of an unmediated indexical effect, as a narrow view of photography is prone to claim. It is the product, as Flusser would go on to assert, of operators, apparatuses, and cultural conditions.

It could be argued that Rio-Montevideo takes viewing as its subject, attempting to slow it down. Its select images are presented as singular slides displayed on their own projectors. Not only do visitors see only one image at a time, they must switch the projector on by a button themselves, as if bringing each image to light. It is difficult to be passive in the face of images that are brought into being by our actions; in all but the busiest of moments, we must make the image visible. And we must also, vitally, come to terms with the root consequences of inaction: a quickly disappearing display threatens to vanish without our intervention, leaving a blank room behind.

Rennó came to international attention for her celebrated books on the archive and loss, but the familiar territory of the archival repository is not the limit of her concerns by any means, and indeed the projectors of Rio-Montevideo are significant. Her celebrated AO1[COD.] – A27 [S|COD.23], which received the Paris Photo – Aperture Foundation Photobook Award in 2013, does not simply present an archive, but rather it calls attention to the movement of images, and the human actors who illicitly withdraw pictures from circulation and shared cultural memory, and that images are themselves agents of memory. Each projector in her installation carries a specific register and a sense of time: some are domestic, others industrial. Throughout, each image appears through a projector that is contemporary with what it displays.

Rennó’s concerns frequently lay with objects she calls – echoing Flusser – part of the universe of photography: cameras, photographic albums, and miscellaneous photographic paraphernalia. In Private Eye (1995) Rennó cut away the space inside of two adjacent hardback books, leaving a carefully moulded cavity so that a camera could be hidden away on a shelf. Such potential concealment reveals the usual conditions of photography as something oscillating between the visible and the invisible, echoed in the on/off condition of the projected image.

Projection is both a technical function, and an act of association. The projected image invites us to project ourselves onto the images we witness, as voyeurs, witnesses or as potential actors. What is displayed in Rio-Montevideo calls on us to participate, as active guardians of cultural memory. As such, we find ourselves written into the image, responsible for its passage through culture.

All images courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery. © Aurelio González and Centro de Fotografía

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also course director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Saul Leiter


Essay by Francis Hodgson

The Photographers’ Gallery, London
22.01.16 — 03.04.16

Photographic history is pretty rum. It has become standard to read that William Eggleston was the first person to use colour as an ‘artistic choice’ and that his show at the MoMA in 1976 was the first show of colour at the museum. Both are nonsense. Alfred Stieglitz had of course made colour photographs by the Autochrome process and shown them at his 291 gallery as early as 1909. Edward Steichen worked in colour too, often brilliantly. And whether one considers such luminaries as Louise Dahl-Wolfe or Paul Outerbridge as ‘artists’ is a question for another place, but both certainly made work of high artistic intent to be distributed through commercial channels. And then there’s László Moholy-Nagy, of course, who was committed to working in colour after his arrival in the US in the late 1930s.

Eliot Porter showed colour photographs at MoMA, by the way, in 1943. Porter continues even now to be a photographer overlooked by fashion. It suits a certain number of people to overlook him, notably in the fine print market. Yet his commitment to environmental subjects much of interest today and his wonderful eye surely make him a candidate for a revival. And then there is Ernst Haas, who was a pioneer of another sort. That history is at long last beginning to be rewritten, as with Color Rush: American Photography from Stieglitz to Sherman, published by Aperture and the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2013, but it has been a long time coming.

Saul Leiter (1923-2013) almost vanished through this kind of sloppy thinking. Specialists knew he was included in Jane Livingston’s grouping of ‘New York School’ photographers in 1992. The great New York gallerist Howard Greenberg knew him from around that time. And there were others, too. Yet he only really took his place in public photographic history when the brilliant British historian Martin Harrison tracked him down for his monograph on Leiter’s Early Color in 2006. That book showed masterpiece after masterpiece – little views of New York, a miraculous combination of street photography and abstract art. Since then, many think they know Leiter. And a huge retrospective of some 400 pictures at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg in 2012 (with a tome of a catalogue) did the rest. Leiter was firmly inserted, only months before his death, into the canon of photo-history.

It is worth noting that Leiter’s father was a great Talmudic scholar and his family wanted him to be a rabbi. In Tomas Leach’s documentary film on the photographer, In No Great Hurry, Leiter is heard to say (his tones unmistakably rabbinical) “My father from time to time descended into unkindness. The Leiter family is not as familiar with the notion of kindness as I believe they might have been or should have been. Greatness was important. Great scholarship was important. Intellectual achievement was important. Knowing was important. Knowing a great deal was important. Kindness? Well, if kindness interfered with the pursuit of learning and greatness and scholarship – too bad. Get rid of it.” There’s sadness there, which might explain a lot. There is a loneliness about his photographs, which never quite disappears.

Born in Pittsburgh, Leiter arrived in New York with plans to become a painter; he knew already he would disappoint the expectations others had placed upon him. His standard view of life is from the outside of whatever he is looking at, shielded by multiple layers of glass (and that glass often steamed up or dripping condensation) or peeping between boards or blinds. It is here that he differs from other New Yorkers, the type of William Klein or Garry Winogrand, who were quite happy in the thickest press of the crowd. And he differs, too, from those, such as Helen Levitt, who made tableaux of the people she found on the streets, careful compositions with a story built into each. Leiter never did that. The word is overused, but nevertheless he is a kind of existentialist photographer, dealing in the lost moments between times. Leiter’s characters are almost never defined by the role they play or by their status in society. They simply are. They may be waiting for a bus or maybe a lover; they may be about to become bus riders or girlfriends; but Leiter finds them in between those roles.

He could be a marvellous painter. In one enormous respect he went against the grain of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries in the East Village. He never painted big. Painting at the edge of abstraction in gaudy colours that I’m tempted to call Fauvist, he layered thickly but on tiny supports. Whether from poverty or from a kind of consciousness of the weight of surfaces, he often used what he had to hand and painted on that – packaging, printed materials, and in one spectacular case, on photographs.

The story goes that he was invited to make a book of photographic nudes, a book, which never materialised. Then, ten years later, in his studio, surrounded by the stack of unused prints, he started to paint on them. In the best of them, the paint acts to clothe the figures, not covering them entirely, but adding something more. The painted surfaces act as a caress – one almost sees the brush as stroking the body – but once the caressing is done, the body is clothed. Not all of the images, it must be said, are good. Leiter was a hoarder and too many of his tests and mistakes survive. It’s not quite clear why he persuaded so many young women to pose for him nude. In the documentary, he talks self-effacingly about his “secret life as a creep”, but it may not entirely be a joke. The unpainted nudes are not particularly good at all; although it is noticeable how relaxed the sitters always are. Leiter was a gentle man, devoid of any great ambition or drive. “I aspire to be unimportant”, he said.

Yet for a number of years he earned his living in fashion, at Harper’s Bazaar, no less, before his name began to get him gigs elsewhere. He made no great bones about fashion. His fellow New Yorker, Louis Faurer, was rather ashamed of working in the industry. Robert Frank wasn’t especially cut out for it, but he saw no shame in it. Unlike the street views and indeed his paintings, the fashion pictures were made for other people, but he clearly only modified his way of seeing. At their best, Leiter’s fashion photographs have the same shyly voyeuristic sense as his own work. He’s never openly pervy – like, say, Miroslav Tichy – but even in the magazines the pictures are often a little off-key. This is man who always preferred to see than be seen. Kate Stevens (of the HackelBury gallery in London) told me a story that Faurer once kept a model waiting a terribly long time at a meeting place out in the open. When he finally showed up, he dismissed her. He had already done the pictures while she was waiting for him. Was that cruelty? Or shyness? Or a bit of both?

By the time you read this, it will be too late to see the glorious HackelBury exhibition of his paintings. The Photographers’ Gallery show, which is a boiled-down version of the Hamburg show of a few years ago, is still on. It gives a nice overview of his whole career. But what to make of Saul Leiter himself? The colour street views are certainly the highpoint. They have something of the almost mystical gentleness of colour from the mournful little Polaroids André Kertész made of the glass objects on his window-sill high above Washington Square, after the death of his wife, Elizabeth.

Leiter’s effects owe much to Kodachrome (which was a slide film) and it may be for that reason that they have such a strong appeal right now. It used to be that viewing photographs backlit was a rare privilege reserved for professionals equipped with light-boxes. Only slide shows gave any chance of seeing pictures backlit (or seemingly so). That’s partly why Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency was always originally shown as a slide show. Pictures just have much more intimacy that way – which obviously suits Goldin’s subject matter to perfection. But then along came digital, and almost all pictures were suddenly seen backlit on our screens. That may be why certain techniques that were hardly considered before now look so natural to us.

Leiter painted in mixed colours at the height of their brightness: turquoises, oranges, acid greens. But he photographed in primary colours, muted right down through misting and screens and that wonderful bloom of damped-down Kodachrome. His favourite colour was red. He returns to it again and again. These are Leiter’s colours: never shrill, never too loud. Once you recognise how he does it, there’s something about his manner, which lies well with his successors. It is hard, for example, to imagine that the influence of Saul Leiter is not lurking somewhere behind Paul Graham’s shift from clear factual seeing to his later, less overt manner.

Clearly, Leiter was a saddened man. He photographed mainly for himself and searched, through his pictures, for little bits of happiness where he could find them. He probably didn’t have the sheer bravura technical virtuosity and invention of an Erwin Blumenfeld (though, it would be interesting to show the two of them together), but he had absolute mastery of the emotional effects of colour. The splash of yellow, for example, of a passing taxi could be joy, if only for a moment. “There are,” he said, “the things that are out in the open and there are the things that are hidden; and life – the real world – has more to do with what is hidden.” That’s a subtle motto for a photographer; he was a subtle man, working brilliantly in colour, long before Eggleston.

All images courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery. © Saul Leiter

Francis Hodgson is Professor in the Culture of Photography at The University of Brighton. His former roles include photography critic for the Financial Times, and Head of Photographs at Sotheby’s, London. He is also a co-founder of the leading photography prize the Prix Pictet