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The Uneasy Realisation of a Model. On Tom Callemin

In 2014 Tom Callemin published a book with the publisher Art Paper Editions, its cover plainly listing the titles of the twelve photographs it contains. All twelve are literally dark images, with pitch-black backgrounds from which emerge peoples and objects: Man with child, Two trees, Cage, Chapel, Room, House. The final title of the series, The performance, is descriptive on a less tautological level: a blond-haired girl with her eyes closed, her elbows being grabbed by the hands of a girl in the penumbra behind her. Everybody and everything in Callemin’s powerful photographs is enclosed, à huis clos in that beautiful French expression, by a darkness that is as inviting as it is disquieting in its theatrical isolation. Callemin says that he creates meaning by omission, by letting go of a detailed background. He finds a theatrical setting and and an ’empty’ background to be of crucial importance, as it opens ‘a reservoir of meaning’.

All the portraits Callemin makes, whether shooting still or moving images, are made inside, in a measured setting. Events underlying images don’t interest him so much, but rather the iconicity that certain images obtain by lingering on in our minds and memories. “When I’m fascinated by a photograph, I often encounter multiple images of similar situations shortly after. These images then melt into one, for which I make sketches as a model of an image I want to make.” Such an image may still have hints of the iconic, but minute changes in the way Callemin creates these photographs may result in enormous changes in how such an image will be read. “These are the balancing acts I perform. It’s about how much you, as photographer, want to show.”

The act of photography is performance in the work of Callemin, whether he works with people, animals or objects. Callemin’s own role is also brought into play, to an extent that the viewer of his work will be confronted with his own role vis-à-vis the model, but also the artist in whose place he has come to stand. “With photography a viewer in a certain way comes to replace the apparatus.” Furthermore, Callemin hopes that his careful and attractive compositions will create an experience within the viewer, but within that experience also a capsizing towards something more unsettling, perhaps through identification with the unease of the models, who usually are put to the test when collaborating with Callemin on the realisation of a photograph.

“I like to throw my models off balance,” says Callemin, “and search for something that otherwise wouldn’t come to the fore. A modelling session should be an intense experience demanding the utmost concentration from model and photographer alike.” This is akin to how filmmakers like Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson treated the actors they worked with and what they expected from them. During the filming of what later became his influential silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Dreyer was pushing his lead actress repeatedly to her knees for her to arrive at a more credible performance.

“How far may I go as a director of my photographs?” Callemin wonders and immediately responds to his own question: “Quite far, I think.” This may lead a viewer to being in disagreement with the photographer’s position, but because Callemin took that standpoint as the photographer, “the viewer of that image sees exactly what I saw and becomes a model too, in a certain way, a role he is invited to reflect upon.” But Callemin’s own role isn’t that well-defined either, it’s as insecure as the roles of the models and the audience. “One creates one’s own character, like the photographer who wants to show something different than the obvious. Therefore one needs to push through limits sometimes.”

Callemin says to seek ‘credibility through aesthetics’. What kind of lighting must he use to find that zone in which fiction enters the stage? “It all has to do with the nuances of careful lighting and I find it really exciting to create ambiguity that way.” How then, I wonder, do the plain titles relate to that ambiguity? When it comes to the use of text, Callemin wants to be as neutral as possible, avoiding the addition of new layers to the work. “I want to do a minimal suggestion, but I’m also interested in the hidden symbolism of the titles, for example House also comes to symbolise the generic notion of a house. It gains wider meaning through such dry naming, offering the viewer a screen for his own interpretation.”

The few photographs finally shown result from meticulous preparations and dozens, sometimes even hundreds of failed takes. “I attach so many conditions that it becomes almost impossible to realise a photograph as I had imagined it beforehand. It’s incredibly important that an image comes into being exactly as it should be and I sometimes go to great lengths, including detailed replicas of situations built in my studio, to arrive at that precise image. But in the end each image may prove to be a failure.”

This text was first published, in a slightly different version, in Foam Magazine #42 (Talent issue, 2015), pp. 255-256.

Images © Tom Callemin

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In between entering: a photo/graphic periphery of Paris. On Stephan Keppel’s ‘Entre Entree’ (Fw:Books, 2014)

There is a lot of doubling going on in Stephan Keppel’s 2014 photobook Entre Entree, beginning with its idiosyncratic title. Keppel took it from an entrance sign to a Parisian supermarket that said ‘entree’ (entrance) twice, but the last e of the first ‘entre/’ was erased.

Entre Entree results from a succession of two residencies, six months at Atelier Holsboer, close to the hustle and bustle of stereotypical Paris, and another half year at the former Parisian home of Dutch avant-garde artist Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), in Meudon Val Fleury in the southern periphery of the French metropolis. A short sequence in the book shows a recording of a performance inspired by Van Doesburg’s concept of the ‘dynamic diagonal’: a long stick falling down from a pedestal towards the residential bungalow.

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Keppel meandered through Paris’s spacious, anonymous outskirts, as well as his own studio, aiming his camera at doors, stairways, found objects, neon tubes, printers, façades of a variety of modernist high-rises flats, veins in marble, and scattered exotic planting. Keppel then reworked most of the black-and-white pictures—scanning, printing and reprinting them multiple times, thereby experimenting with contrast, color inversion, toners, inks, (halftone) screens and paper quality. Some of the more graphical images are all about line, texture and form.

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The Human Snapshot

Thomas Keenan and Tirdad Zolghadr (eds.): The Human Snapshot (2013)

Universal aspirations never cease to exist. It is as if we were condemned to universality, especially so since the photographic view of planet Earth from outside its biosphere was published. The networked society of wireless communication, in which many of us live today, brings together “our central nervous systems in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned”.1 Note the use of the possessive pronoun “our”, which already implies an understanding of the sphere that “we” inhabit as a shared property.

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Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life

International Center of Photography, New York City, 14. 9. 2012 – 6. 1. 2013

 

In anticipation of the publication of my review of Huis Marseille’s exhibition Apartheid & After – to be published in Camera Austria International No. 126 (June 2014) – I’m finally publishing here my review of Okwui Enwezor’s ambitious show at ICP in the fall of 2012.

 

Two important concepts in present-day anthropology are agency and voice, designating oppressed or marginalised people’s own views and understanding of their lives, rather than authorities speaking for them. While these concepts usually imply the written or spoken word, it is interesting to ask to what extent the mere act of being photographed is capable of giving subjects their own voice and agency. Ariella Azoulay, today’s foremost theorist of intricacies of photography in contexts of extreme political repression, wrote in The Civil Contract of Photography (2008) that people in disaster zones can make “emergency claims” by cooperating in the act of photography, thereby joining “the citizenry of photography” (where ultimately no sovereign power exists), simply by consciously staring back at the photographer. Yet much of the interpretation and reading of photographs showing people in conflict zones is guided by how these images are framed, captioned, and published—events these subjects usually have no say in.

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Re: view – Center for Historical Reenactments: After-after Tears

Museum as Hub – New Museum, New York City, 22.5. – 7.7.2013

The South African artist collective Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR) went back to being an entity they never were. After “staging” an “institutional suicide” in December 2012, they were able to hauntingly reconsider their previous two years of existence and venture into an unknown future as well. “Death” was not an end but an afterlife that quickly resulted in a reincarnation in the shape of an exhibition in New York City. “After-after Tears”, in reference to after-funeral gatherings in South Africa’s post-apartheid townships, is modelled after these events in an open sense. By going beyond the after-after, the post-event constitutes a repetition for a potential next kamikaze. Then there is the twofold meaning of the hyphenated afters: being late (in time) and as (free) adaptation from an original form, or modelling after. CHR spirals like a double helix into open pasts, while their actions and performances are like rehearsals for future historical events. Its attitude is one of re-questioning questions that, in Gabi Ngcobo’s words, “perhaps have been asked before, but we repose them to see if the current situation produces new answers, or new ways to pose [these] questions”.

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Photographic Night Songs in Los Angeles

On the L.A. subculture portraits of Monica Nouwens.

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Pessimists have been saying —especially since the fall of 2008— that we are witnessing the decline and fall of the American Empire (or the West in general). But whatever one may think of the current “crisis”, there is always room for optimism and creativity. One of the sunnier sides of economic catastrophe is that social interactions can develop some humanity outside of typical business conversation. Bicycles and public transportation may become popular again for cities that have bathed in gasoline for decades. “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles”, begins Brett Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Less Than Zero.[1] There might come a time in which people are afraid to use freeways altogether. They will free themselves from the concrete serpent, by choice or by force.

“Dragons of light in the dark
sweep going both ways
in the night city belly.” [2]

Monica Nouwens, a Dutch expatriate living in Los Angeles, makes photographic portraits of people living in the margins, in a parallel Los Angeles (under)world.[3] Mostly young people and mostly at night: in run-down bars, clubs, or at makeshift food pantries. Appearing in her gentle and dreamy photographs are Whites, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, American Indians[4] and everyone in-between. Many of them forced, due to the precarious economic situation, into alternative lifestyles. Counterculture, subculture, underground, bohemia — we could call it many things, but one thing is sure: their lives run counter to regular economic activities, in which they don’t participate much, if at all. They live on low-paying day jobs (some in the porn industry), food stamps, unemployment benefits, or money from their families, if they have that luxury. They get food from the soup kitchen or the dumpster.[5] They hop from couch to couch or they sleep in cars, or on the beach.

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The Fourth Wall. An interview with Max Pinckers

Belgian photographer Max Pinckers successfully published a crowd-funded photobook this year, which was selected Book of the Week in July by Martin Parr for Photo-Eye. Also on Photo-Eye is Colin Pantall‘s review of The Fourth Wall: Max Pinckers’ Masala Mix. Last winter I had a Skype-conversation with Max about his dummy version of The Fourth Wall, for an interview that was published in Foam Magazine’s spring 2013 issue on photobook dummies. The version posted here slightly differs from the printed one.

Could you tell something about the subject of your photobook dummy The Fourth Wall?

As a child I lived for many years in Asia, and for my previous work, called Lotus, from which I also made a photobook, I focused on transsexuals in Thailand. For my graduation work at the KASK (School of Arts) in Ghent (B), I went on to take photographs on the Bollywood film sets in Mumbai.

When I first came to Mumbai I thought I needed to see many Bollywood movies, so I could use scenes as source material for my photographs, but I quickly figured out that I didn’t need to. Ultimately, I left it to the characters to express some of their favorite scenes. On the film sets one could always find some corners left unused. I set up my lights and found people to pose for me. I used these backgrounds to create my own images – the pink cloud in the empty bedroom, for example. I asked the producer if I could let off a smoke bomb, and he gave me permission to do so.

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Encounters in Public. Photography and Politics

Encounters in Public. Photography and Politics in the Imagined Community of Civilised Spectator-Participants.

Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination. A Political Ontology of Photography (London: Verso Books, 2012)

Some of the most difficult questions pertaining to photographs are related to how we read, interpret, and ascribe meaning to them. This becomes all the more urgent in the case of photographs showing the effects of war and violence. So-called atrocity photographs—illustrating the horrors that people can inflict upon one another or upon each other’s (built) environment—elicit a wide range of responses, from disturbingly emotional to thoughtfully intellectual. One of the responsibilities we have is to sincerely scrutinize those responses, for one can never be sure of what photographs show or tell.

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Francesca Woodman at the Guggenheim

Though it has been nearly three decades now since Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) passed away, her photographic heritage continues to cast a spell on researchers, students of photography, and a general audience alike. Her youthful works (in retrospect made into an oeuvre) are subject to heady academic scrutiny, personal reflection, museum canonisation, and commodification (vintage prints from her student years change ownership for five-figure sums nowadays).

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How dare we be so beautiful?!

On the teenager portraits of Rico Scagliola & Michael Meier.

An androgynous character dressed in white shoes, jeans, and a nearly half-open black shirt sits relaxed and slightly leaning forward by a tiny pond in a garden, posing for a photograph. (S)he is looking downwards at his/her mirror image, reflected from the surface of the water. This image, in its general composition not quite unlike Caravaggio’s painting depicting an actively forward-leaning Narcissus, offers some clues about a giant photographic enterprise which resulted in a multimedia installation named Double Extension Beauty Tubes, combining still and moving images with a soundtrack, and a hefty paper volume called Neue Menschen (New People).

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