Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Seeing Photographs

Last night, I was part of an informal panel at the Robert Tat Gallery in San Francisco - an event sponsored by SFMOMA’s Foto Forum. There were three of us - an artist, a collector, and myself playing the role of photo historian. Prior to the event, we had selected eleven images from Rob’s inventory to discuss, highlighting various aspects of his gallery’s specialties – pictorialism, classic modernism, vernacular, and contemporary.

The image here is a lovely photograph by Petr Helbich. The fact that he studied with Josef Sudek is apparent in his use of light and quiet subject matter. I was drawn to this photograph, because as a photo historian, my area of deep fascination is Surrealism. Although this is a contemporary Czech photograph, I couldn’t help but think of the French poet Lautreamont’s phrase so embraced by the Surrealists - “beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table." This scene is not quite that macabre, but the umbrella opened inside and infused with supernatural light lends this image an air of mystery akin to Surrealism. I read each element in the photograph as a clue in a puzzle that can never quite truly be deciphered. This sense of mystery thrills me.

In the end, what I took away from this evening was an affirmation that each of us as unique individuals bring a distinct set of knowledge and experience to looking at photographs. My co-panelists illustrated this well. The artist spoke of reading images by thinking about how she, as a photographer, might have approached this subject, and what she might learn about picture taking from the work. The collector was very open in his discussion of the importance of market value and seeing the photograph as a collectible object. I, as an artist/historian, respond emotionally and viscerally to photographs, but also simultaneously feel as if there is a sliding scale of history in my brain against which I measure the image – tracking its author, date, and location in order to place it within the larger framework of photographic history and practice. Each of the thirty or so audience members also had their own visions – one man spoke of always looking closely at the quality light in images. I love this sense that photographs are more than a record - they become a mirror of our own sensibilities and values.

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