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Exhibition

Eric Antoine
ensemble seul
At the Laurence Esnol Gallery
October 18 – November 30, 2013

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

All photos stop time, but it is true that some of them arrest its flow in a more profound way than others.

The photos of Eric Antoine, on exhibit at the Laurence Esnol Gallery until November 30, 2013 are images of this type. Produced through t the wet plate collodion process with vintage lenses, Antoine’s images bring us face to face with a haunting darkness. The frames on the wall contain ghosts and their shadows that have been pulled out of time. It is as if, forsaking reality, Antoine has managed to photograph memory itself.

Eric exhibit

Some of this effect is due to technique. The preparation of the plates by the artist’s own hand gives these photos a crafted, artisan quality. With the collodion process the photographer coats a glass plate with the light-sensitive emulsion. The plate must be exposed before it dries. The resulting negative, when viewed by reflected light against a black background, appears as a positive. Most of the works on exhibit are ambrotypes – made by coating the glass negative itself with a black varnish. Like a painter who has learned to grind his own pigments, Antoine has taken control of the entire mechanism of image-making. The results are a set of extraordinary, premeditated art objects.

His subject matter is as considered as his process. Most of the images have been taken in the bucolic setting of a single house in the French countryside. There are pure moments: a hand on a book, a woman on a swing, the same swing alone and vacant, two hands grasp the trunk of a tree covered by ivy. And yet, inexplicably, the images have something of the contemporary world about them. It could be that the artist is a modern man – and so even though the images are timeless, he himself is still present.

Eric Antoine from the exhibition at the Laurence Esnol Gallery

Ambrotype by Eric Antoine from the exhibition at the Laurence Esnol Gallery

Eric Antoine was born in 1974. For over fifteen years he worked as a professional photographer publishing in magazines and moving quickly through the vast centers of Europe’s capitals. His embrace of antiquarian processes is a very conscious decision both aesthetically and in terms of lifestyle. As he states in his biography:

The soft and unique aspect of the photographs shot with the 19th century lenses reinforce the romantic and mysterious atmosphere. These are just a few organic glass plates against an endless flow of digital images. Everything is shot as it was 150 years ago, in no rush, with long exposures but in a modern way, in a place just a little remote from the actual world.

It is now eleven years since Lyle Rexer’s anthology Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes. The same motivation for the photographers in Rexer’s anthology is present in Antoine. A concern with the history of the medium, a need to manipulate materials by hand, and a fascination with the qualities of images made through the photochemical process. Like Antoine, these photographers have used the process itself as a catalyst to access a new depth of personal connection to their work.

Comparisons will also be inevitable between Antoine and Ian Ruhter, the American photographer who converted a van into a very large format camera (mounting the lens in the back and making the entire compartment of the van the inside of the camera). Antoine and Ruhter have gone in opposite directions. Antoine residing in one place and exploring it intimately; Ruhter driving across the United States and working large format, both photographically and geographically.

The Antoine exhibit greatly rewards a visit. And the Laurence Esnol Gallery is the perfect space to mount this show. The gallery is best known for featuring the work of master portraitist H. Craig Hanna. In this exhibit Hanna also appears in the muted tones of one of Antoine’s images. For me, it is Antoine ‘s portraits that have the most vital force – and the pairing with Hanna is a complementary one as both artists reconfigure the individual through the genius of their work.

Ambrotype by Eric Antoine from the exhibition at the Laurence Esnol Gallery

Ambrotype by Eric Antoine from the exhibition at the Laurence Esnol Gallery

The Ambrotypes of Eric Antoine are also the subject of a short film by Willem Vleugels.

19th Century British Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada
On exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta
June 29 to October 6, 2013

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

But when he saw himself and his whole family fastened onto a sheet of iridescent metal for all eternity he was mute with stupefaction. That was the date of the oxidized daguerreotype in which José Arcadio Buendía appeared with his bristly and graying hair, his cardboard collar attached to his shirt by a copper button, and an expression of startled solemnity, whom Úrsula described, dying with laughter, as a “frightened general.” José Arcadio Buendía was, in fact, frightened on that clear December morning when the daguerreotype was made, for he was thinking that people were slowly wearing away while his image would endure on a metallic plaque.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

For the past several months I have been reading Beaumont Newall’s History of Photography. It does what any good history text should do – it locates the developments of photographic technology, personality, and style within a grand arching narrative that progresses through time. Innovation is tied to personality and the zeitgeist of the era. It is well illustrated with plates depicting what have become the essential hallmarks in the canon of photography.

The Haystack - Henry Fox Talbot

The Haystack – Henry Fox Talbot

If you wanted to see these very photographs, you could do no better than the current exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta: 19th Century British Photographs. The exhibition is selected from the collected photographic prints held by the National Gallery of Canada. Fox Talbot’s salted paper prints are here as are works by Julia Margaret Cameron, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, and many others. The draw of the show is not just the opportunity to see some of the first photographs ever made, but to see them in context and beside early examples that clearly demonstrate the beauty and power of the medium. Francis Meadow Sutcliff’s “Two Daughter’s of the Photographer” is a particularly striking example, as is John Benjamin Stone’s “Man at the Entrance to Houses of Parliament.”

Also present are works that were controversial in their day. Toward the close of the nineteenth century a hot debate emerged around the idea of the amount of sharpness that was proper in photography. Peter Henry Emerson, a champion of the photogravure printing process, reasoned that because human vision is only crisp at the centre of the field of perception (an area of the eye known as the fovea centralis) and is blurred (or at least less crisp) elsewhere, that photographers should make their exposures slightly out of focus. The argument seems to be not just an advocacy of shallow depth of field, but rather a more abstract notion:

Nothing in nature has a hard outline, but everything is seen against something else, and its outlines fade gently into that something else, often so subtly that you cannot distinguish where that something ends and the other begins. In this mingled decision and indecision, this lost and found, lies all the charm and mystery of nature.

Emerson’s most famous work, “Gathering Waterlilies” is present under glass as it appeared in his book Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. The print in the edition on display is a platinum print.

Ever since its inception photography has suffered from an identity crisis: not knowing if it was an art, and if it was an art, incapable of locating the nexus of artistic genius; is it in the camera operator, the choice of subject, the technique, the editing, the printing, the retouching … where? The problems of artistic intention are compounded through the multiplicity of objects that photography and film create. Walter Benjamin’s landmark essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction pointed out not just the fracture between earlier media and “modern” ones, but the increasingly problematic nature of defining just what qualified as an original and what was a reproduction when dealing with the new technology.

One photographic object that sits somewhat outside this distinction, however, is the daguerreotype. Its iridescence, how the image becomes clear and then vanishes as the plate is tilted in the light, the fine detail, and the mirrored finish, all make the daguerreotype nearly as miraculous as the invention of photography itself. There is no way to reproduce the specific nuance of such objects in a book or catalogue and so in this instance, the installation of the daguerreotypes in the Art Gallery of Albert are particularly worth seeing.

Outside the exhibition hall, I encountered this sign:

Entrance to 19th Century British Photography - Art Gallery of Alberta

Entrance to 19th Century British Photography – Art Gallery of Alberta

Setting aside for a moment the confusion the public must feel about what is and what is not appropriate to share on one’s instagram feed  (the gallery offers no reasoning in this regard, simply a “we’ll let you know when its OK.” position) the instagram signage seems like a last minute thought to make the show accessible to a wider audience. The notice has something of a ghee-whiz flavour.

It could be that the subtle distinctions between salted paper prints and those made with an albumen coating fade like a poorly fixed photograph when compared to the massive decentering brought about by instagram and its ilk. It could be that there is simply not enough room in any gallery to wade through the ramifications of such technologies. And yet I couldn’t help feeling that something could have been offered up – for or against – that would throw some light, however rarified, on the subject. Standing in a room with one of the first photographs ever made just inches from my nose, I felt that if I could just listen hard enough I could hear Henry Fox Talbot, and on the other wall Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, trying to whisper something over the desperate silence that filled the room.

 

Francis Meadow Sutcliff’s "Two Daughter’s of the Photographer"

Francis Meadow Sutcliff’s “Two Daughter’s of the Photographer.” Taken on my cell phone.

John Benjamin Stone’s "Man at the Entrance to Houses of Parliament."

John Benjamin Stone’s “Man at the Entrance to Houses of Parliament.” Taken on my cell phone.

Patrick Faigenbaum
Vancouver Art Gallery
March 9 – June 2, 2013
Co-curated by director Kathleen S. Bartels and artist Jeff Wall.

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

Patrick Faigenbaum, Famille Frescobaldi, Florence, 1984—2010 silver chlorobromide print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Famille Frescobaldi, Florence, 1984—2010
silver chlorobromide print

On a rainy evening half-way through May, I walked to the Vancouver Art Gallery and took in the exhibition of Parisian photographer Patrick Faigenbaum. As I entered the gallery, there was a portrait visible from the main floor rotunda of the gallery. I am unable to resist an exhibition that works with the human face, and portraits comprise a major portion of Faigenbaum’s photographic practice. He is perhaps best known for a series of black and white group photos of the Italian aristocracy. Some are nothing but shades of dark grey, as if the light of the modern world could not penetrate the dusk of generations of family affluence.

The exhibit is co-curated by Jeff Wall, most famous of the “Vancouver School” photographers. But Wall also has an academic background in the arts – as assistant professor (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), and associate professor (Simon Fraser University). His writing and teaching helped define the “Vancouver School” and positioned a number of his peers (Vikky Alexander, Roy Arden, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas and Rodney Graham) within it.

The works of Faigenbaum comprise the fourth exhibition in this series intended to introduce internationally acclaimed artists to a North American audience. The curatorial text positioned at the entrance to the exhibition said as much, and I would repeatedly encounter the term “international acclaim” in relation to these portraits of Italian bluebloods. What I would not encounter was the explanation of the acclaim. Was it just the difficulty in gaining access to them? What made these different from any other family portrait? The wealth that adorned the end tables? I found that the pictures had begun to be treated like the idea of aristocracy itself. It was all in the adjective: one should feel a certain privilege simply to be in their presence. However, many of these family group sittings have a casual, almost careless composition and I found neither narrative nor poignancy in them. Which is odd given the months of planning necessary to set up the shoots. It is also peculiar given the prominence of this series in Faigenbaum’s oeuvre.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Citrons, Santulussurgiu [Lemons, Santulussurgiu], 2006 silver chromogenic print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Citrons, Santulussurgiu [Lemons, Santulussurgiu], 2006
silver chromogenic print

Faigenbaum’s still life photographs recall his early ambitions as a painter. Curators and critics have also been quick to point out a painterly approach in his portraiture: “Faigenbaum’s use of chiaroscuro—strongly contrasting passages of light and dark—places him in a line of “old masters”, from Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio to Georges de La Tour to Rembrandt van Rijn.” (Robin Laurence, The Georgia Straight). As with a sitting in front of an artist working in traditional media, Faigenbaum likes to take an extended period of time in order to let a feeling of quiet and calm develop. This feeling is evident in his strongest works.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Dr. Karel Černý, Prague, 1994 silver chlorobromide print Collection of Marin Karmitz, Paris

Patrick Faigenbaum, Dr. Karel Černý, Prague, 1994
silver chlorobromide print

It is also the feeling that is conspicuously absent in Faigenbaum’s street scenes. The shift from portraiture is not just a shift in content, it is a disconcerting change in approach and style leaving one feeling that one has missed something. Indeed, we have missed something, the shift from the aesthetic-based portraits to the “conceptual art” basis of his other works. Yet this transition goes unannounced, despite the fact that co-curator Jeff Wall is arguably the best person to make such an announcement.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Avenue Vinohradská, Prague, 1994 silver chlorobromide print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Avenue Vinohradská, Prague, 1994
silver chlorobromide print

In the world of contemporary photography some images are so distinctive that only one person could have made them. The majority of Faigenbaum’s work seems almost unauthored, as if it could have been made by anyone. There is no signature lighting, no angle, no mood, no vision or subject matter to identify his genius.

I stood in an exhibition of photographs that were part quotidian street scenes and part formal sittings. I faced a large wall that held only one image. It depicted two people sitting at a restaurant table, their faces blackened by deep shadows, the table held general daily clutter, it could have been there, it could have not been there: a carton of cigarettes and a lighter; detritus. With the faces obscured and the visible content mundane, I asked myself why this image was hanging here.

The gallery copy tells me that “Patrick Faigenbaum creates a compelling ambience that isolates a moment outside the incessant flow of time, prompting the viewer to acknowledge the impossibility of fully understanding the complex narratives that extend beyond each image.” Yes, but what of the narrative within the image?

In a review by Shawn Connor of the Vancouver Sun, Faigenbaum mentions being drawn to photograph in Prague, citing an affinity for one of his favourite authors, Franz Kafka. “It’s this strangeness,” Faigenbaum said. “I always think about this when I look at my work: why is this going on?”

I could not reconcile the often beautifully still portraits with the other images in the exhibit. I could not answer “why is this going on?” And so I left the exhibit moved by the stillness of his portraits, and joyous before his lemons, but ultimately disappointed: with an inexplicable feeling that the artist’s best work (or some information vital to the understanding of his imagery) had been held back.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Hanane Ksouri, Saint-Raphaël, 1999 silver chromogenic print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Hanane Ksouri, Saint-Raphaël, 1999
silver chromogenic print

References:

An Interview with Jeff Wall on Patrick Faigenbaum
by Here and Elsewhere
March 5th, 2013

Patrick Faigenbaum brings the flavours of Europe to the Vancouver Art Gallery: Painter-turned-photographer captures stately portraits of aristocrats, lively street scenes
by Shawn Connor, The Vancouver Sun
March 8th, 2013

Patrick Faigenbaum’s photographs place him in line with “old masters”
by Robin Laurence, The Georgia Straight
March 12, 2013