2. Notes on Photography & Language

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The famous August Sander’s statement that surprised Susan Sontag about what he did not attempt while working on Antlitz der Zeit (The features of time, 1929) appears in my mind when someone argues about the portrait—as a genre or as an ambition—or about the tacit fidelity to reality of the photographic image or even about any other notion of objective memory: “It is not my intention either to criticize or describe these people”, said Sandler, to which Sontag answers: “Despite its class realism, it is one of the most truly abstract bodies of work in the history of photography” (On Photography, 1977). Here are already two important presumptions to point out: against what common sense might tell, photography does not necessarily describe the portrayed object or subject and, at the same time: it is not the camera what refuses either to judge or describe what it faces, but the photographer. It is a sight, a will and a style—in artistic terms, but not only—what determines if the image attacks or celebrates, distorts or describes, defines or eliminates or even creates. Again: our intentions overcome our very tools to capture reality—being the camera only one between many. It was enough for the first photographers to understand that nobody makes twice the same picture of the same object—Sontag dixit—to question the reality contained in every photograph; I must add that both the massive media and any personal Facebook profile have achieved to show, of different objects, the same images not twice but countless times.

Far from the portrait, the landscape: the unlimited variations in plastic arts of a horizontal line. A landscape is also memory, but most of the times an undefined one. My memory of being there—again, the key is not the object, but who glances at it—, but in a drowsy way, without a date and, many times, without a precise location, even without a persona. I mend what I said, then: more than of me being there, the landscape is an impersonal illusion of having being there. But this is only a convention; we have checkmated the glorious anonymity, the a-locality, and the a-temporality of the landscape. The best way of doing it is transforming the landscape into a document. A historic document: with cronos and topos, maybe even with characters.

The 2010 released Nagasaki Archive has precisely those characteristics of the photographic landscape. Nagasaki is a city we do not know—in opposition to New York or Paris—but between flames and ashes. Now that all the Hibakusha are about to vanish, but not the thousands of atomic bombs, the photographs of the unconceivable explosions both in Hiroshima and Nagasaki impose us all some odd eloquence. As a gloss I want to say that there are landscapes of disgrace that demand our immediate attention with the same urgency. In Mexico those landscapes appear in the media and normally are made with the dry dust of the desert, a pale sky and a corpse or several on the soil. Those dead people of ours have no name, not because we do not know it but because we do not care about it—or, worst, because their names fade in a long list of repetitions: they are too many, they are the common thing to expect and are anonymous. They have started losing the specificity of their time and their place. They are from everywhere, from always. Bolaño showed them effectively with words in 2666. Meanwhile, the portraits of those who share the responsibility to disarm the nuclear powers and of those who are supposed to guarantee the everyday security of the ordinary people represent a parody of the famous August Sander portrait Circus Artistes (1926-32).

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August 2010

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