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.126.96.36.199] – 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.