Wednesday, September 3, 2008

photographic and literal mysticisms

last week, i touched on the topic of the 'new mysticism' in contemporary photography in a discussion of the Young Curators, New Ideas show. one of the artists in the show (and also alleged as a new mysticist), Noel Rodo-Vankeulen, emailed me a thoughtful response on photographic mysticism and his own work.

"Great Grandfather with Freemasons," above, is one of my favorite photos of his. i love the way it mixes family history, portrait-as-document, analog vs. digital, and pokes at the mystery and ritual of freemasonry with some freaky, postmodern special effects. it's from his series Nocturne.

Noel says:

"I can’t speak for the other photographers in the show but for me this tendency, to highlight and/or deconstruct the medium’s properties (photographic mysticism which we can be critical of, and photographic mysticism that is attached to all photography whether we like it or not), is heavily rooted within my upbringing. This is to say that, unlike previous generations who used photography as a crucial way to understand, confront and engage with social issues, political unrest, and war, my relationship to photography is related to my upbringing by the intrusive and numbing hand of media (news, movies, TV, computers, etc).

I know war and heroism through highly graphic movies, vehicles of unrealistic archetypes. The ways of the universe (both spiritually and spatially) have been prodded into my consciousness by robots streaming data back from the very edges of the solar system. God is no longer a viable entity and the psychotropic drugs don’t get her/it/him to speak - realistic computer generated pixies and dragons are far more telling.

With all of this in mind I refuse to buy into the medium’s influential ability to mean significantly (its importance as a vehicle for substantial change in an all but uninterested world), however, this doesn’t mean that photography being produced today is uninspired or vacant, it's just aware of its relative unimportance. So this may explain why there is an inherent “prettiness” in so much photography as well. I take this notion and make banal beauty to subvert the notion of having to live up to the medium’s past and present quality control. My photos are small, often single editions of minimal captured prints. I want people to consider how digital and analogue image-making co-exist now and forever, how our thirst for better, faster, stronger, shapes our understanding of value in a medium tied to craftsmanship.

A quote by Wolfgang Tillmans on The Sonic Blog sums our present relationship with photography perfectly:
“The initial question everybody asks when confronted with a photograph is, who is it? Where is it? When was it made? How it was taken? A photograph is always seen through its content and rarely through its presence as an object in itself.”
I take a photograph to show you an object, loving its business both in thought, tangibility and commerce."

thanks so much, Noel, for your thoughts—and for letting me post them. (and i think there are several topics here that are worth discussing in more depth, too, especially questions of beauty and questioning the photograph's referent.)

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