Read the essay ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ by Abigail Solomon-Godeau … Research the work of the surrealist photographers (Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, George Brassaï, Man Ray, Eugène Atget, Paolo Pellegrin, Tony Ray-Jones) and write a bullet list of key visual and conceptual characteristics that you think their work has in common.
(Open College of the Arts, 2014:48)
Solomon-Godeau’s essay is rather heavy reading so I’m jotting some brief notes and comments as I work my way through the work.
- Essay is about how an author is constructed; how canons are constructed; what interests are served. How Atget’s work is presented both historically and in the present and how cultural production is organized and perceived.
- Heterodox = not conforming to accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs.
- Solomon-Godeau refers to concept of authorship as developed by Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes.
- Some side research into Foucault’s concept of “author-function”:
- Discourses are objects of appropriation. The forms of ownership have been codified and historically this stems from the judicial systems. Originally a discourse was an action that was situated in the binary field of sacred/profane, lawful/unlawful, religious/blasphemous. Once a system of ownership was formulated (rules regarding copyright, author’s rights, publisher relations, reproduction rights), the possibility of transgression became attached to the text. (This seems a rather back-to-front way of establishing who the author is).
- The author-function is not universal in that it doesn’t affect all discourses in the same way or in all civilizations.
- The author-function doesn’t develop spontaneously. The reader (or viewer) tries to discern the author’s intentions by projecting their own comparisons, connections, perceived traits or exclusions to the work.
- The text always contains a number of signs that refer to the author. In written text this would be the author’s particular way of using personal pronouns, adverbs of time and place and verb conjugations. (I would put this forward as “style” in photography). Just as the author of a novel may write in the first person, the reader realises that this is not actually referring to the actual writer, but an alter-ego. The author-function “does not refer purely and simply to a real individual, since it can give rise simultaneously to several selves, to several subjects-positions that can be occupied by different classes of individuals” (Foucault, 1998: 216).
- Solomon-Godeau structures her essay around the perspectives of five other curators/critics. She (Solomon-Godeau, 1991:231) states that because “Atget, … [is] currently positioned as the exemplar, progenitor and patriarch of modern photography and celebrated unanimously by the photographic community” his work carries with it the notion of “investment” – both psychically and economically.
- Walter Benjamin described Atget’s work at the “forerunner of surrealist photography” (Solomon-Godeau, 1991:28), praising him for his ability to strip away any artifice (both of the photographer and of the reality before him).
- Berenice Abbott considered Atget’s work as “realism unadorned” (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 31), while using his work to validate the kind of work she wanted to do. Abbott though, seems to contradict herself by stating that Atget never worked on assignment and then listing his clients and this causes some confusion as to whether his work was commercial based or initiated on from a personal basis.
- Stuart Franklin provides one of the most descriptive and clearest descriptions I have come across in describing surrealism. He states: “Surrealism became something of a wild animal befriended by the art world. It grazed on the dialectical tension between dream and reality, between what is actually there and what we imagine” (Franklin, 2016:151).
- Solomon-Godeau also refers to Rosalind Krauss’s essay ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View‘ which goes into some depth on the cataloguing of Atget’s work and the vast number size of his archive (over 10,000 photographs). I wrote quite a lengthy review on this during the Landscape Module which can be found here.
- Much attention is given to John Szarkowski, curator at MOMA, who mounted four exhibitions of Atget’s work. Solomon-Godeau (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 39),criticizes Szarkowski for taking credit for canonising Atget’s work, using the power of his position at MOMA to “justify, promote and pedigree his preferences” at the cost of the feminine scholarship which had gone before.
Cartier-Bresson’s work was influenced by André Breton and the Cubist painter André Lhote who made him aware of geometric lines and shapes. According to Clément Chéroux in Franklin (2016: 155), “surrealism … made a deep impact” on Cartier-Bresson, “the subversive spirit, the taste for games, the scope given to the subconscious, the pleasure of strolling through the city, and the openness to the pleasures of chance”. His photographs depict not only a perceptive grasp on the human condition but also have a sense of ambiguity. Franklin goes on to say that it is essential to understand the documentary value of Cartier-Bresson’s work. Although his style may have conformed to Surrealism and formalism he photographed his subjects with sensitivity and respect. Another extremely interesting comment made by Franklin gives me a lot of food for thought: “It is important to understand that the style that a photographer adopts (type of camera, film, aesthetic) is not always the same as his or her approach as a human being towards life going on around him or her” (Franklin 2016: 157). Does this mean that we become our alter-egos when behind the camera? I know that I have photographed and approached people that I most probably would not normally have approached if I did not have a camera in my hand. Does the camera make us bolder? Please see https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=29YL53KGUTK&CT=Album for examples of Cartier-Bresson’s photographic development.
Interestingly the International Center of Photography does not regard Kertész’s work as belonging to the surrealism genre, nor does it classify him as a photojournalist, yet acknowledges that his work was a fusion of both genres. This was confirmed in Kertész’s own words as documented in an online exhibition overview of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO): “I am absolutely a realist” even though his brand of realism was often characterized by the abstraction of common objects through dramatic illumination and innovative framing devices” (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2000). He made use of geometric lines, patterns, deep space and juxtapositions in his photography, with the intention of complementing or altering the picture content. Just like Steve McCurry, Kertész also developed a passion for photographing people reading, especially in outdoor spaces.
Examples of Kertész’s work can be seen at: https://huxleyparlour.com/artists/andre-kertesz/ .
Man Ray was a central proponent to Surrealism. His contribution to Surrealism involved photograms (which he preferred to call rayographs by placing objects, various materials and parts of a model’s body or even his own hands on photo-sensitive paper, exposing them to light to create negative images), solarization (deliberately switching on the light while processing in the dark room). He liked to make use of negative space and shadows; the partial surrender of compositional decisions to accident; and, in its precise, hard-edged application of unmodulated color, the removal of traces of the artist’s hand. His images were often considered as the origin of Surrealism in photography.
“I deliberately dodged all the rules, … I mixed the most insane products together, I used film way past its use – by date, I committed heinous crimes against chemistry and photography, and you can’t see any of it”.
Man Ray, in collaboration with Marcel Duchamp. Dust Breeding, 1920.
I have always admired Brassaï’s work, but would never have considered them to be surrealist, although now looking at a few images on various websites, I can see some images that would fall into that category. Brassaï is well known for his night scenes in Paris. He often photographed the seedier side of the city, although he did photograph scenes from high society as well. His first book entitled Paris de nuit (Paris by night) was a stunning collection of black and white images that juxtaposed luminous, dreamlike nightscapes with contemporary documentary images of the Paris’s nighttime occupants. He made extensive use of light (reflected on the wet streets or diffused by the frequent fog) and as an extension of that, darkness and shadows featured prominently in his work. He used a fixed lens camera, mounted on a wooden tripod so unlike Cartier-Bresson, his subjects were always aware of him and collaborated with him.
Couple d’Amoureux dans un Petit Café, Quartier Italie, c.1932 by Brassai
Bullet List of Key Visual and Conceptual Characteristics
John Suler, photographer and Professor of Psychology at Rider University states that in order to understand surrealism we need to understand the psychoanalytic distinctions between primary and secondary process thinking. Our secondary process thinking is where our reason, rationality, practicality, and logic lies and is the mechanism of the conscious mind. We learn it as we grow up through means of education and adaption to the social world. Surreal photography, however, originates in our primary process thinking which is “our inborn, idiosyncratic, and more fundamental mode of experiencing the world, mostly relegated to the unconscious as we grow into civilized adult beings” (Suler, s.d.). The primary thinking process usually surfaces in our dreams and some of its characteristics are:
- it is primitive and primal
- involves intense emotions, instincts, and experiences
- defies reality, dwelling more on illogical, unusual, and bizarre imagery
- features distortions and even transcendence of time and space
- it is highly symbolic, richly imagistic, and sensation-oriented
- there are unusual associations between ideas and images
- it allows the experience of the physical and psychological self to be stretched, distorted, and merged with other things and other people
- it focuses on the experience of the self and one’s internal world
In some cases the surreal aspect is fairly subtle, at other times quite bizarre. Suler goes on to explain that in some cases it is the content that pushes the photograph into the surrealistic realm, while in others it is the visual style (like Man Ray’s work for example)
- Blur – associated with falling, disorientation, fainting, movement or even death (created by intentional camera movement (ICM), slowing down shutter speed; and bokeh)
- Intense sharpness, detail, and contrast (HDR)
- Intensified and unusual texture
- Intensified and unusual color (by changing the colour of something in post processing we can change or alter the emotions felt by the viewer)
- Composites and blendings (multiple exposures, layering, reflections. This in turn has the effect of merging time, places and objects — Freud’s ‘screen-memories is referred to here).
- Frozen movement (high speed photography, e.g. water droplet frozen in space)
- Perceptual distortions and illusions (lens distortion. I think of the many images of people holding up the leaning tower at Pisa, or people holding the moon in their hands)
- Strange juxtapositions (the placement of two unrelated things together – the more dissimilar they are, the more powerful and symbolic the connection between them will be – Graciela Iturbide’s photograph of the woman with the iguanas on her head come to mind).
- Primitive content (images showing various behaviours, instincts, sexual or aggressive scenes. Images that engender emotions of anger, fear, surprise, sadness, love, contempt etc., the blatancy of which might in turn shock, disgust, surprise or provoke anxiety or other emotions in the viewer).
All About Photo.com (s.d.) George Brassaï Photographer | All About Photo. At: https://www.all-about-photo.com/photographers/photographer/6/george-brassai (Accessed on 22 September 2019)
André Kertész | International Center of Photography (s.d.) At: https://www.icp.org/exhibitions/andr%C3%A9-kert%C3%A9sz (Accessed on 22 September 2019)
André Kertész | Photographer’s Biography & Art Works | Huxley-Parlour Gallery (s.d.) At: https://huxleyparlour.com/artists/andre-kertesz/ (Accessed on 22 September 2019)
Art Gallery of Ontario (2000) To Look Again: André Kertész. At: https://ago.ca/exhibitions/look-again-andre-kertesz (Accessed on 22 September 2019)
Cartier-Bresson, H. (s.d.) Magnum Photos. At: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=29YL53KGUTK&CT=Album (Accessed on 22 September 2019)
Foucault, M. (1998) ‘What is an Author?’ Translated by Hurley, R. et al In: Faubion, J.D. (ed.) Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. New York: The New Press. pp.205–222.
Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press Limited.
Iturbide, G. (s.d.) Graciela Iturbide » Juchitán. At: http://www.gracielaiturbide.org/en/category/juchitan/ (Accessed on 18 September 2019)
Kim, E. (s.d.) Henri Cartier-Bresson Was a Master Surrealist Street Photographer. At: https://erickimphotography.com/blog/2017/12/25/henri-cartier-bresson-was-a-master-surrealist-street-photographer/ (Accessed on 22 September 2019)
Kordic, A. (2015) The Emergence of Surrealism in Photography – How Creators of Surreal Photos Shaped the Past Century | Widewalls. At: https://www.widewalls.ch/surrealism-photography/ (Accessed on 22 September 2019)
Kuit, L. (2017) Exercise 1.2 Photography in the museum or in the gallery?. At: https://lyndakuitphotographylandscape.wordpress.com/2017/09/20/exercise-1-2-photography-in-the-museum-or-in-the-gallery/ (Accessed on 21 September 2019)
Meltzer, S. (2014) The piercing eye of Brassaï: the stunning work of a master French photographer. At: https://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2014/01/07/the-piercing-eye-of-brassai-a-brief-history-of-a-master-photographer (Accessed on 22 September 2019)
MOMA (s.d.) Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky). At: https://www.moma.org/artists/3716 (Accessed on 22 September 2019)
O’Hagan, S. (2014) ‘Comrade Cartier-Bresson: the great photographer revealed as a communist’ In: The Guardian 20 February 2014 [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/20/henri-cartier-bresson-exhibition-pompidou-centre-communist (Accessed on 22 September 2019)
Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.
Sanchez, G. (2014) Man Ray: Rayographs & Solarizations ⋆ In the In-Between. At: https://www.inthein-between.com/man-ray-before-digital/ (Accessed on 22 September 2019)
Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ In: Photography at the Dock | Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp.28–51.
Suler, J. (s.d.) Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche. At: http://users.rider.edu/~suler/photopsy/surreal.htm (Accessed on 22 September 2019)