Omnis mundi creatura
Quasi liber et pictura
Nobis est et speculum
Alanus ab Insulis
It is difficult to write about photography; its essence is elusive, difficult to pinpoint and quite different from other media. Most frequently the discourse about photography has revolved around its documentary nature, that is, the fundamental question of the relationship between the object and its representation. However, other approaches are possible as well. One of them has been suggested by Vilem Flusser; photography and other "technical-images" are visualizations that have been created through the process of concretization (visualization is the ability to display raw data without compressing them into a generalized information). Thus, photography should be perceived as a projection rather than representation. The essence of photography lies in its ability to project a meaning or a context for creating a meaning out of seemingly discrete elements. It is the relation between the object, apparatus (lens), and operator that provides the epistemological key to photography. In other words, photography triggers an act of communication that is unlike any other cultural act. Since the invention of the photographic process, the linear, text-based narrative have been replaced gradually by technical images as the dominating cultural code. This is because photography, or digital processing in general, enabled mechanical reproduction as well as copying and distribution of the visual code. In this way, the medium of photography and the act of photographing overcome an artificial division between science and art. Visualization is the beginning of a new mode of interaction and communication. The debate about the documentary nature of photography comes to an end. Reality and fiction cannot be unequivocally distinguished from each other by a criterion of truth. The "truth" itself is a projection of our current knowledge and information.
The projects presented here are a result of long experimentation with and conceptualization of analogue/digital interface. The projected images have been manipulated digitally and used as a source of light/data to illuminate the surface of an improvised "screen" that itself represents knowledge and information. The final images visualize a multidimensional juxtaposition of information spaces where various sources of visual/factual information have been combined to achieve a conceptual and esthetic whole.
I attempted to strip these images of all extraneous elements in order to achieve some kind of balance between information and noise, colour and shape, meaning and randomness, significance and chaos, darkness and light. The aim was to remove from the figurative elements all obvious points of reference to scale, dimensions, or time.
There are at lest four layers of data in these images. First, the projected images which were usually softened to force the viewer to move away from the image. The projections are readable from a distance but on a closer inspection become abstract and blurry. Conversely, the "screen's" sharpness becomes more obvious at a much closer distance. There is a tension between the scales and visual properties of the two images. The third layer is constructed through digital processing of digital and analogue sources of data. Although the projected images are manipulated - and in some cases created digitally - they were photographed using conventional large-format camera and film and then printed using chromogenic process. Thus the final images are neither digital nor analogue. In fact, they are both simultaneously. The grid of the digital raster is clearly visible on the projected images. Finally, the fourth layer is the flat surface of the chromogenic print itself. The sense of space and depth are completely illusionary.
This complicated process attempts to construct its own version of truth - the truth bound by the knowledge and raw data contained in the image itself. Digital images are usually interpreted as completely artificial manipulations. There is no obvious way to determine the "documentary" versus "the fantastic" or "staged" elements. We have to trust the source. In fact, they are - like our own version of "truth" - simultaneously both, documentary and fantastic, meaningful interpretations and raw data or noise, true and manipulated.
Anatomy of Melancholy
Images, like books, are carriers of individual or collective memory. In this project I have used my personal photographic archive to create a visualization of my own past experiences. The resulting images do not refer to any particular time, geography, or events but rather my own subjective memories of the past constructed out of the shards of remaining information and data. My personal photographs have been used as a source of studio light projected onto a surface of an old, XIXc atlas. Maps used for each image have some sort of connection to the past events, but the nature of the relationship has not been made clear. The negatives and transparencies for this project were made using a large-format 4x5 camera. Selective focus has been applied to both projected and surface imagery.
The Book of John
The images presented in this series came independently of the text of the Apocalypse. They synthesize various sources of information such as old maps, satellite images used for intelligence gathering about the region, photographs taken while traveling throughout the Middle East and North Africa, or reconnaissance photographs. Although some of these sources have been transformed digitally, they are all "true" in the sense that none of the essential data have been altered. To preserve this sense of "objectivity" they have been combined together in an analogue fashion and printed in a conventional photographic darkroom on chromogenic paper. Nevertheless, the final outcome is highly subjective and personal. Only later, after the series has been, more or less, finished I came to call it "The Book of John".
Theory of Narrative
There is no doubt that invention of writing and books led to the replacement of imagery and poetry as the principal source of knowledge (recorded wisdom) - a time better known because of this as pre-history; a time before history could be written. Vilem Flusser argued that the linear narrative relegated imagery to a secondary role. It is the invention of a "mechanical reproduction of images" - photography - that reversed the decline of imagery as the source of collective experience and memory. Books are often more than just collections of texts - they can contain images, maps, tables, diagrams, etc. Nevertheless, whatever is contained between the covers assumes a new significance. The text or maps are unified by a common thread that runs through all the texts collected between these covers. The texts become not just a story or recorded knowledge; but also an object - "a book".
Vanitas: After Jan Davidz. de Heem
I experimented here with the dual nature of a book and an image; on the one hand, as an aesthetic object that can be admired, examined, studied, destroyed, etc; on the other, as the carrier of a collective memory - knowledge stored as a linear narrative unfolding on subsequent pages or a record of a world in a momentary state of suspense where everything is connected to everything else. One could photograph just one book, page after page, from cover to cover, to convert the linear narrative back to the visual sphere - the very world it came from in order to depict the "story" it contains. It is a risky proposition. How would a story like this compare to the original it came from? What would it document? The history? The world as it "really exists"? Perhaps just us. Printed books fascinated XVIIc Flemish and Dutch painters - for them they were a symbol of vanitas - passing time and the imperfection of the human interpretation of God's intention. Jan Davidz. de Heem was a master of this subject.
I have been investigating the relationship between traditional reverse photographic process and digital imaging. In some way, the nature of this relationship is a suitable metaphor for expressing a difference between an image and a narrative built from it. I minimalized all detail in order to emphasize significant content and meaning. The composition intentionally conceals any external point of reference. Thus, scale, object, or distance are difficult but not impossible to read. In this way, I have aimed to reach the point where form would become nearly abstract but not quite. Digitally manipulated images were used as a light source and another layer of information. Such combination of ways of creating images - analogue and digital - often produces unexpected results. It is difficult, or all but impossible, to determine with any certainty where digital imaging ends and analogue photography starts and vice versa.
Digital imaging or "technical images" are only the latest installment in a long tradition of human attempts to arrest entropy - the inevitable process of decay. We do not merely produce information, we attempt to preserve it and pass onto further generations. To act against nature is a fundamental property of human spirit - the very essence and, perhaps, purpose of broadly defined culture. At this point in time, pages of a book illuminated by a digital image are as far from nature as we can get.
Toronto, April, 2005