Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Excerpt from a Lecture by Carl Chiarenza

This passage is an excerpt from a 2008 lecture by Carl Chiarenza, "Fifty Years of Thinking about and Making Pictures"

Representation, as I use the word, does not mean a documentary trace of the natural, social world; does not refer to specific times and places. Representation in my usage refers to how photographic syntax allows and restricts — how it delimits and frames the visual transformation of whatever is silenced and stilled, and seen, from the frozen single vantage point of the camera's lens. I'm interested in how, when what is in front of my lens comes together into a new object (the photographic print containing tones, shapes and edges) — how the photograph, as a new object, causes a genuinely real but fresh experience, one which did not exist before the photograph's appearance. The word "representation", for me, is, then, about the reality of photography's way of transforming things — as opposed to the idea of photography's way of reproducing, or tracing, the supposed reality of things.

A photograph presents the artist and the viewer with a challenge, because we always want to know what it is — as if the photograph was not there. For over 165 years, an extraordinary number of forces have made us instinctively believe that photographs are windows on reality — even when reason tells us otherwise. We share photos of our children and we say, "this is my daughter," as if the photograph was not there. Consequently, we tend to fail to consciously recognize that while a photograph is substantially different from other kinds of pictures, it is still a picture, and, therefore is characteristically, and importantly, different from whatever was in front of the lens. Instead of trying to hide photography's own special characteristics of transformation in an illusion of some material reality, I try to expose them, to exploit them, to underline the fact that the viewer is seeing an abstraction, a picture, not actual events, as in this picture from 1975. (Of course, individual picture makers and picture users have their own special ways of transformation as well; and today's digital tools just compound the possibilities.)

Even without considering the digital revolution, however, the difference between photography and reality is, and always was, central to my thinking and working. In the case of the media photograph, as in this widely published image issued by the Bolivian government as evidence of the capture and death of Che Guevera, the 1960s revolutionary, this difference can have serious consequences for our understanding of political and social events. How can we know the true relationship between this photograph and the actual facts about Che? Directly connected to this question, of course, is the ongoing debate over the facts and images of events in the Middle East. The issue of difference in the case of my work, while similar, has an additional wrinkle: how to hold the viewer's attention beyond the initial frustration of being unable to decipher "what it is"; — the problem is how to get the viewer to abandon the commonly held belief in the photograph as window; how to get the viewer to go through the window to a new and unique visual event, not to an illusion of one that already occurred.

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