The Wall As Photographic Surface

Tina Modotti, Diego Rivera: Festival of the Tractor, ca. 1927

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Paisaje Inventado, 1972

Manuel Alvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002) was born in Mexico City on and grew up in the midst of a violent and politically unstable Mexico in the first half of twentieth century. He came from an artistic home and in his youth met prominent Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and Tina Modotti, who encouraged his career. Paisaje Inventado (Invented Landscapes), from 1979 is a perfect example of the kind of photographic practice that makes his work associated with the surrealists, with whom he collaborated. The photographer’s agency through the title implies there’s a lot  more to this picture than just the documentation of some shadows’ projections on a white wall. Is he inventing a landscape himself or is he suggesting that we should imagine one?

Robert Capa, [Crowd in front of political posters the day of the election run-offs that would put into power the leftist-liberal Popular Front coalition government, Saint-Denis, France], May 3, 1936

Weegee, All Wimpy wanted from the volunteer fireman was some more mustard & hamburgers…, ca. 1945

Henry Ries, Brandenburg Gate, September 1989

Walls were probably the first display for visual art in the history of human culture. The earliest cave paintings date to Aurignacian, some 32,000 years ago. From pre-history to the nineteenth century, much had changed in terms of technique, material, and themes of representations, but one aspect remained the same: one could only experience the art in situ. Until the invention of photography in the 1830s, walking into the Sistine chapel was the only way to experience Michelangelo’s paintings on its ceiling. Mechanized reproducibility revolutionized the way images circulate in the world. The very concept of originality was shuddered and, in Walter Benjamin’s words, the “aura” of the work of art had been lost.

Is Tina Modotti’s photograph of Diego Rivera’s Festival of the tractor a mere reproduction of part of the mural? Whose piece are we looking at, Rivera’s or Modotti’s? If in Rivera’s mural the wall is a platform, display and matter of the work, in Modotti’s photograph the wall is a subject which materiality is constituted by chemicals on paper and you can hold in your hands.

In the surrealist Manuel Alvaro Bravo’s own inner rhetoric in Paisajes Inventados (1979), the wall is a symbol of some sort of topography or the negative space of an “imaginary landscape” outlined by the shadows.

In Robert Capa’s photograph from France, 1936, the wall displays its very captions: it tells the story and lends the picture space for political debate. Weegee’s photograph wouldn’t exist without this wall; it is the scenery and cast of a gag – and nothing conveys social critique better than humor. In Henry Ries’s Brandeburg Gate (1989), the wall itself is cause and consequence of political upheavals – besides the very reason that photograph was taken.

Rony Maltz, ICP-Mard MFA, 2012

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1 Response to The Wall As Photographic Surface

  1. Pingback: Photographer Larry Ferguson’s Work is a Meditation on the Nature of Views and Viewing, « Leo Adam Biga's Blog

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