essay

Cenotaph for My Shadow

images and text by 2014 alum Jean Bettingen, from the 2015 issue of "All the Best, Alice"

Sometimes I get dizzy and feel overwhelmed. There are probably a lot of people in our globalized society burdened with an over-pronounced self-reflexivity, who feel similarly when it comes to defining themselves. I wonder how I would be able to pin down my essence in a world of flux, a world in which everything and everyone is defined as a project of perpetual reinvention.

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Cenotaph for My Shadow is a body of sculptural and photographic work that addresses and visualizes the prevailing sense of disconnection I feel towards my self and the world, my inability to grasp and comprehend the I, and at the same time, my fear of its loss. This project aims, through various strategies and in mixed media, at the depiction and manifestation of my Cartesian self despite the representational dilemmas of lens based media. I explore the need that drove Roland Barthes, amongst others, toward an ontological questioning of the photographic medium: “What Barthes wants is a rescue of his profound self through the solid evidence of photography.” So do I.

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The sculptural installation “Autopoiesis” suggests the nature and the spirit of my investigations: a 4x5" wet-plate collodion is placed between 8x10" two-way mirrors. The peculiarity of this old photographic medium is that it can be used as a negative to print a positive or as a unique positive. When light illuminates the plate, it glows and brings a positive portrait image to life. As viewers walk around the installation, they experience an infinite space in which the portrait image seems to disperse into nothingness.

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My questions of self-visualization in “Autopoiesis” began when I was 11 years old and my mother died. The only tangible thing remaining of my parent was a cardboard box half-filled with family pictures. Discomfort arose in me whenever I looked at them, not solely because of the pain and grief, but also the intrinsic suspicion that the person depicted in the photographs was no longer my mother; and yet there she was, smiling at me. This sense of disconnection made me question what was captured and embedded in those pieces of paper. It certainly was not my mother in person. I had witnessed her burial; at least that was a certainty. Were those photographs just an anchor to whatever was left of her in me?

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I still remember some of the moments shown in the photographs, moments that I spent in the presence of my mother. But the more time that goes by—the more distance accumulated between the depicted and remembered moments—the more I wonder about the chain of causality between memories and images. Do I genuinely remember these moments or were they incepted into my consciousness by these photographs? This uncertainty triggered the destabilization of my self-perception because I couldn’t comprehend the authorship of my self if I considered my past as its foundation. Did I build my history and identity narration not only on my own perception but also on the moments that another person judged important enough to capture? How is it possible to photographically capture the essence of a person? It seems that in every effort to freeze a person in an image, an unwanted distance to life is created.

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This project approaches its goal through various techniques, incorporating old alternative processes, video projection, 3D capture and 3D printing. This allows viewers to experience my represented self in various forms, and they can explore which media offer a deeper perception of my self. Following Barthes’s concept of air, which is somewhat similar to the description of the aura by Walter Benjamin, inherent in the photograph (Belting, 2013: 195 / Barthes, 1981), a lot of the works in this project abstract deliberately from showing facial details. The air, the essence of a person, does not lay in the detailed representation of the human face, but is or is not captured in the image and may or may not be perceivable by the viewer . It is more likely that the viewer will be able to grasp my air if the distraction of my face has already been subtracted from the viewing experience. Another approach is described by Hans Belting (2011) as he defines a picture as an image with a medium, meaning that the image of my self exists already in an intangible or liminal space and needs a manifestation through a medium to be turned into a perceivable picture. A good example of my investigation into these medial manifestations is the juxtaposition of the pieces “5 Hours” and “Negative Dimension”: they are both the same image, me, but diverging medial forms. “5 Hours” is a black box that contains an exposed but undeveloped film sheet containing a self-portrait and “Negative Dimension” is a 3D print generated through another self-portrait—or rather an image of my self?

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Each piece in this body of work can be considered an attempt to capture the process of self-reflection, an attempt to secure the feeling of constancy. Though the endeavor is also an interesting dilemma in itself: as Jorge Molder put it, photographing yourself creates a being in the between, a space between the self and someone else. Further, following Barthes’s reasoning, the very act of photographing myself transforms me into the eidos of death. This project does not solely try to capture and display my real essence but also investigates the stability of such and its representation as a visible manifestation of my presence just like my shadow on the ground. Is there a way to escape this mentioned in the between? All imagery in this project is in the en-face perspective: straight on, eyelevel, and limited to the bust. The focus on images of the upper body seems appropriate as I assume that my self is located in my mind. Much of my work is dominated by black—I like to consider black as the anti-photograph or a negative imprint as it is evidence of the absence of the constituting element of a photograph: light.

General Assembly

images and text by 2014 alum Yael Eban, from the 2015 issue of "All the Best, Alice."

In January 2013 I set up a Google alert for “Abba Eban,” who was my paternal grandfather. That winter, my parents and I began the laborious process of dismantling my grandparents’ home in Israel after the death of my grandmother Suzy in 2011. She was the archetypical diplomat’s wife and an avid art collector. On January 28th I received the first Google alert by email, informing me that there was new web content containing my grandfather’s name. It was as though my grandfather, though long gone, had an active presence on the Internet. Often referred to as the “Voice of Israel,” Abba Eban (1915-2002) was a diplomat and international public figure for many decades. In 1949 he made a seminal speech to the General Assembly that led to Israel’s admission to the United Nations.

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General Assembly is the examination of a space that exists between the public and private archives that represent my family history. The online presence of my late grandparents is the anchor for my research. I look for specific images and objects that relate to their lives, and follow this trajectory as it moves from the private sphere into the public, or vice-versa. In doing so, I am investigating the consolidation of various modes of representations, and the impact these different forms have on the historical narratives they describe. All types of images in this project are legitimate and of equal value: a snapshot, a press photograph, a fine art photograph, a newspaper clipping, a screenshot of an eBay receipt. Working with these varied layers of representation, I create visual collages of related imagery that trace photographic threads through space and time.

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I am fascinated by the dissemination of images of my grandparents and the objects they owned. I find representations of my family in a variety of contexts—on the Internet, in flea markets, or in my family’s collection. The urge to collect the images I stumble upon and to add them to the ongoing archive is always present. The consequence of this act is a questioning of my own duality as the mostly-American, somewhat-Israeli granddaughter who is expected to carry on an important legacy. As a result of feeling pulled between two places I am denied both identities, and my nostalgia is continuously displaced. This project is a journey of reconciliation between my private heritage and my public persona as artist.

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In the piece Jenkins, I begin with one of my original photographs of what is, for my family, an iconic painting by Paul Jenkins from my grandparents’ home. It is shown hanging above furniture and art that are wrapped or boxed with labels, waiting to be dispersed. Next I layer two family snapshots on top of this photograph, in which the same Jenkins piece appears, and use a graphic match to rebuild the forms of poured paint that define the painting. By only using photographs from my personal collection I assert that the value of the image in this assembly is determined by its nostalgic implications rather than its place in the art world; it is the last remaining link to the private family space that exists now only in photographs. Jenkins invites the viewer to question the provenance of the image and how objects are dispersed. It also functions as a portal between the recent past and the projected future; though it contains no web-based content, this piece points forward to other works in the project and to the theme of finding art objects on the Internet via auction.

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The experience of following the life of an object from domestic space to virtual space can be seen in Three Sisters. I combine a screenshot of a Sotheby’s auction showcasing a specific piece of art, and a photograph I took with the same piece of art when it was displayed in my grandparents’ home. In my photograph, the artwork later sold at auction is secondary to the main subject—the oil portrait of my grandmother and her two sisters. On the table below sits a small frame containing the same image of the young ladies, and a photograph taken decades later of the three sisters as elderly women. I create another repeated motif by merging the two images through use of the frame: I follow the virtual line used to frame the website and connect it to the frame of the drawing on the left wall. On the right side the white curtains bleed into the white space of the web browser, further emphasizing the paradoxical space between digital and analog realms. I have employed this white space as a visual tool in many of the pieces; as an image disappears into the white, it is unclear where the artwork ends and the virtual space begins. The online presence and the physical presence intersect, and the result is my construction of a liminal space.

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In this body of work I ask the viewer to reflect upon the new experience and parameters of the archive and the lives of photographs as objects in a digital age. I deliberately create and explore relationships between the public and the private for viewers, leading them both inside and outside of this construct. In a sense I am presenting visual puzzles; the viewer has to work to follow a thread of information and to put the pieces of presented evidence together. The viewer’s experience echoes my own search and process of discovery. Ultimately, this project acknowledges that I am a part of a family whose representation belongs neither to me, nor to the public. General Assembly is my attempt to comprehend where I sit in this cultural and photographic landscape, both as descendant and as artist.

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A History of Violence or: How I Learned to Stop Trusting Photography and Start Seeing

by alum Daniel Johnson, from the 2015 issue of "All the Best, Alice." All images by Daniel Johnson.

We’ve read over and over again about technology changing everything, the end of photography, and how the sky is falling. And it’s mostly true. Things have changed, and they will continue to change. But we have passed the time where you could have a conversation just about cameras and photographs. As photography becomes more and more a part of our daily language, there’s more of a need for us to really begin to question the power of photography.

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With distance no longer a limiting factor in the creation of communities, where an image lives digitally really changes how an image is digested. Context has now become one of the main catalysts in the democratization of content. What’s really changed is the way we look. And that we’re always looking. Yes, photographs are everywhere, but so is everything else. Instagram, for instance, started as a photo-sharing app, and now it’s hard to imagine the service without text posts or videos.

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Our digital lives are rich with content. We have tapped into a persistent rush. I think this makes it especially important to think about what photography is doing for us. The engagement that we have with a photograph is limited to a few seconds before we’re moving on to the next, liking, reblogging, or favoriting. The tricky part isn’t just that photography is constantly in transition, it’s that the platforms are too. The technologies that build contexts are in a constant state of flux with updates and upgrades and OS changes and new hardware, and on top of that most of us are still using outmoded systems to judge photographs like view cameras and 8x10” sheets of film are still relevant to photography today. We’re a part of an image-literate society with a value system that’s about as nuanced as the difference between a grunt and a groan. And somehow we still think it’s OK to rely on photography to relay the extremely delicate and complicated realities of people around the world.

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Let’s talk photography. While mostly recognized as immediate and technological, photography is a process that materializes in steps (especially today’s digital images); the photograph isn’t complete just because the shutter closes. Everything that happens after a photograph is made, the writing and rewriting of data, image manipulation, sequencing, printing and framing is just as important in the creation of the photograph as the technical process that actually made it. This is one of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school that really changed the way I thought about photography. My expectations changed, beauty and truth were decentered, and I became more interested in the why and how of a photograph than the what. Photographs were no longer just photographs but facades supported by systems like culture. They couldn’t be the autonomous images I once thought they were. They were markers of status, indicators of prejudice, manifestations of racism, reflections of narcissism, and symbols of sexism, among other things. Photography had lied to me. And now, I could see the seams, the pixels, the noise, the structures and patterns that held the images in place.

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I believe that there are times when photography, in spite of its failures, still really means something. The photographs coming out of Ferguson, MO, following the shooting of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown, for example, are one instance where a set of photographs was able to capture our attention in a way that really mattered. But even those images were subject to the limitations of photography. The same photographs, once placed into the world, were only a couple words away from portraying looters rather than nonviolent protesters. The narratives built by these images depended heavily on external information, information that could not be communicated through a photograph. The reality that the photograph projected was limited. It could not show the whole story. It did not show every angle. It was specific only in its lack of specificity. The cold war of image that played out on the national news front underlined the violence that is implicit in photography. This is a violence that is about control: a deep historical violence that privileges those in power and others everyone else. The subjects of the photographs are powerless to assert their personhood; they are subjugated. The real violence in these images was not what was shown but what was taken.

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“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” -Susan Sontag