Photomagic

Delivered at the exhibition opening at the Nyitott Műhely [Open Workshop] Gallery on 4 March 2002
Beszélő, April 2002

Gábor Kerekes does an extraordinary thing with photography. He doesn’t tell stories, he doesn’t cite dramatic events, and neither does he document his own emotions and moods – he philosophizes. He makes ontological and epistemological investigations; he probes the bounds of human cognition. He seeks our place in the universe. He researches the characteristics of the human sensory organs – in particular those that help us find our bearings: the eye, the ear and the brain. But, above all, he explores the interrelationships of science and art.

It is as if he was merely trying to recreate the cohesion of bygone times which in the 19th century, regrettably, disintegrated. Science fell apart into ever more specialised fields and at the same time became dehumanised, as even the need for an overall view was divorced from it. Art likewise became emptier and more self-centred, as it lost contact with all that can otherwise be known about the world – from the experiences of everyday life and the sciences.

Kerekes expresses from the side of art the rediscovery – also acknowledged by an increasing number of scientists – that intuition and reason hang together after all. And meanwhile he explores the question of questions: can the world be known? What can the arts, in this case photography, contribute to what we know about the world and humankind?

Here I’ll quit this high-brow philosophizing – after all, we’re only talking about a photographer, aren’t we?

Role play

This may seem to be a trivial approach but it is not self-evident as Kerekes doesn’t act like a photographer. He acts as if he were a 19th century naturalist who happened to take photographs in the course of his research. He uses the photograph as a scientist uses experimental equipment. An obvious indication of this is his penchant for photographing old paraphernalia such as test tubes, a lightning conductor, a dynamo, assorted measuring instruments and alike, and that he readily chooses the objectified results of the sciences from the past (human and animal anatomical specimens, and fine examples of insect and mineral collections) as his subjects.

But we should all be aware that this is simply play no matter how seriously its maker takes it or how successfully he has managed to construct a coherent, independent visual world through this role play. We shouldn’t be deceived by the subject matter of his photographs. Kerekes clearly deals with photography and not science.

This immediately becomes evident if we know that many of his pictures are in fact sleight of hand. What at first glance we think is a planet bearing the scars of cosmic impacts is, it transpires, a ball-shaped lightning conductor; the shot of a planet in space at sunrise is of a tennis ball taken in a studio; the small planet surrounded by stars is a Starking apple, and so on.

The illusion is perfect. These aren’t comparisons. Kerekes is not saying that a lightning conductor is like a planet, and that a rubber ball or apple shot with the right lighting are like celestial bodies. No, through the means of photography he creates these heavenly spheres. He imbues everyday objects with cosmic significance. This is not natural history, but the purest photography, indeed photomagic.

The rediscovery of photography

Kerekes goes back to the 19th century not just in his subject matter but also in the appearance and processing techniques of his pictures. In itself this is nothing special. Around the world – and here in Hungary, too – many people use the so-called historical, alternative, manual photographic techniques. Only Kerekes goes radically further than this: the whole point of his role play is that he did not stop at the pictorialist aesthetic that almost automatically follows from the use of manual techniques. At the same time he wasn’t swept away by shockingly upsetting taboos, nor has he been carried away by the intoxication of the digital manipulation of pictures. With his particular archaizing he has created for himself a very modern photographic language.

His images of antiquated effect not only evoke the 19th century but also the first half century of the history of photography, the age of the naïve and functional use of the photograph prior to pictorialism – the birth of art photography – when photography was a kind of discovery itself. And not only in the sense that it was used for geographical and scientific discoveries, as Kerekes reminds us with his subject matter, but also that photographers of that time had to discover the medium itself, its possibilities and limitations, and frequently even its fundamental techniques. No doubt, this is a kind of gesture of respect to our forefathers and foremothers – but it goes deeper than that.

For one thing, together with the maker of these images we can relive all the charm of the first, hesitant steps of the birth of photography. It is not by chance that the perfectionist Kerekes almost provocatively accepts the flaws of photography – the blistering of hand-coated emulsion, the broken glass of the specimen of frogs’ skeletons, a storage label spoiling a museum lithograph, the crookedness of the edges of the picture, and the streaking of astronomical images. These “imperfections” of his flawlessly executed photographs perfectly correspond to the form and content, the model and what you see in the photograph. Their role is to remind us of the fallibility of the world, of the medium of photography, of the artists creating it and of the viewer taking in the sight. Once again, leaving in the flaws is about visual philosophy and not pure aestheticizing.

The future of photography

Besides this, the radical step back in time has another consequence in terms of philosophy of art. Kerekes deliberately pushes aside the lot: today’s, yesterday’s and the day before yesterday’s art photography. He deliberately goes even further back exactly because he is seeking an idiom that he knows for sure will be valid tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. That’s why he doesn’t stop at the pictorialist aesthetic although this once produced excellent results with manual techniques, which he too has used. However, Kerekes does not wish to indulge in nostalgia. As we’ve seen, for him the role of the naturalist is not immersion in the past, but on the contrary an intellectual link to the most modern scientific endeavours. This is how the role play, the subject matter arising from it, the chosen techniques and the artistic self-reflection blend into a perfect whole.

At the same time, this creative gesture returning to the pre-artistic era of photography speaks of no less than the future of the medium. This is most simply expressed by a paradox: it is digital imagemaking that will truly turn traditional photography into art. And why? Because it will free it from a number of tasks foreign to art. Applied photography (the scientific, advertising and press photo) will sooner or later go over to digital techniques; digitization is also the future for snapshots, and the new techniques’ independent artistic use is also developing – in multimedia and computer graphics.

Thus the traditional, chemical-based, manual photographic techniques (including the nowadays already and still most accepted silver gelatin process) will become more valuable primarily because a photograph as a work of art can only be produced by them. And obviously, it is also because there will be fewer and fewer people who know how to produce it, and thus the photograph will acquire rarity value.

Alt-chemistry

Kerekes knows this very well, but he didn’t calculatingly set out to learn the old techniques from books at the price of many hundreds of hours of hard graft and experimentation. Most importantly, his already mentioned perfectionism and the aesthetic considerations closely connected with it led him to such obscure processes as salted paper, albumen, printing-out paper and alike.

This perfectionism consists of the fact that these old techniques are in numerous respects more nearly perfect than their more modern descendants in use today. Their resolution is higher, they render tones more subtly, and as they are contact rather than enlarging processes, that is the negative is as large as the finished photograph, they are sharper and somehow “more real” than the raw materials of today.

This in itself already has aesthetic consequences. In addition to this, salted paper – with only slight exaggeration – is like a living creature. As there is no binder, the picture develops on the paper’s diaphanous matt surface, and under it every fibre of the paper almost palpitates. Or if we look more closely at albumen, it is subtle in a different way: it has a lustrous, shiny surface. Silver chloride printing-out paper also surpasses the capabilities of silver bromide enlarging papers in many respects. Moreover, we should remember the wonderfully deep, brownish black tones of all three photographic papers. This phenomenon is produced by immersing the photograph in a bath of gold chloride, as Kerekes the Grand Master is apt to do with them.

Universe

So Kerekes does something exceptional: he philosophizes with pictures. He doesn’t use them to illustrate complete tenets of philosophy or religious philosophy, such as those of Zen, for instance, but through them evolves a personal visual philosophy. He examines the universe. He tries to make it talk. He looks at the world around him as if from above, but not as if he imagined himself as God. He wishes to separate the significant from the insignificant to create timeless works. This is why he doesn’t photograph people, as they would only disturb the clarity of his vision. Each person is too incidental. Minute. Fallible. Like this, this world is cosmically desolate. He reminds me of the poetry of János Pilinszky and the world of music of Laurie Anderson.

Will Kerekes ever reach the point where he communicates with the world, and about the world, through the human face, through portraits? I for one would be delighted if he did, as I would interpret this as the world at long last being ripe for Gábor Kerekes to forgive it. And who would not want to live in a world like that?

Note

Gábor Kerekes was born in 1945 in Oberhart in Germany, of Hungarian parents who had emigrated due to the war. The family returned to Hungary the same year. Between 196473 he was an apprentice in the catering trade, then became a waiter. His photographs were first exhibited at a group exhibition in Szentendre in 1973. Since then he has exhibited regularly. Between 19861991 he also worked as a photojournalist. But for eight years, from 1982, he took no art photographs at all. He taught himself astronomy, astrology and alchemy as well as the history of photography instead. Since 1990 he has made pictures of an entirely new kind: his changed style was characterised by large format images, and photographs processed at first by brown-toning and then by various historical processes. He destroyed his earlier prints and several thousand negatives. In all about 50 images and their negatives were spared. These he donated to the Hungarian Museum of Photography for safekeeping.

Kerekes’s works are represented by the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco, the Sarah Morthland Gallery in New York, the Zinc Gallery in Stockholm and the Csaba Morocz in Paris. Between 1993-1999 he was connected with the Bolt Gallery in Budapest. No book of his works has yet been published.

(Beszélő, April 2002)

 


NOTES
1   The proper form of appearance of multimedia and computer graphics is not the photograph as an object, the print, but a virtual picture displayed on a screen.
2   Salted paper is paper coated with common salt – natrium chloride – and then a solution of silver nitrate which produces a light-sensitive, silver chloride layer. Essentially, this is Talbot’s invention.
3   Salted paper coated with egg white.