Photography Will Eat Itself: some thoughts on Ben Cauchi

 

In the broad sweep of art history, photography is just a blip…1
What I’m interested in photographing is photography.2
The past is never dead. It’s not even past3

Punk (and post-punk) anthropologist and historian Simon Reynolds in his recent book Retromania proposes that contemporary culture is a series of re-makes in which culture is recycled closer and closer to an actual historical event—the avant-garde is now arriére-garde.4

In any discussion of photography, it soon becomes apparent that its history—medium, material and subject—is constantly being plundered: reworked, re-made, restructured. Photographers pre-empted remix culture almost at the point of the medium’s invention, and some of what is contemporary today is part of an ongoing re-enactment of photographic history.

This heightened sense of the past, and its depiction in the present, is paramount in the work of Ben Cauchi. He works very purposefully within a reconstructed material history rebooted for the present. Like his fellow travellers working with seemingly archaic print methods, or carving, or even painting, he has carefully rebuilt his skills base to reinvigorate a technique that technology had rendered obsolete. That is why photography’s past tends to dominate in any discussion of his work—it is one of its central distinctions, perhaps its most important thematic.

There is something inherently archival about the photographic process from its analogue origins—stored and filed in boxes and folders in photographers’ studios—through to digital files in computers and hard drives. The archival turn in contemporary art takes its cues from the photography archive. Indeed, it uses photographic media as its primary carrier of information.

Does this historical linearity—this sense of its visual lineage being so firmly embedded in the work as to be palpable, a living, breathing element—happen in the same way with other media? I don’t think so. Although all media have their distinctive narratives, photography in its coupling of technology and art brings on an archival and historical impulse that seems to create a moment of constant change, of re-invention and re-invigoration. If photography tells us anything, it tells us that history is not fixed: the future is the past and the past is the future—there is only a never-ending present.

We also need to consider Cauchi’s work within an age where, with the digital proliferation of images, photography as we have known it is undergoing a crisis similar to that which happened in broader fields of art, especially painting, during the 1970s. This is a ‘post-object’ phase that is both anxious and invigorating, where photography has dissolved into the digital ether to become truly a dematerialised object. If we have learnt anything from this phase, it is that artists—and audiences—still need objects, but objects that are radically reconsidered.

By choosing to eschew the digital, and instead to pursue an antiquated way of making images that has its foundations in the very beginning of photography, Cauchi has placed his faith in the medium’s traditions. This is not just an aesthetic strategy, but a way of fixing images to foreground the simple premise that photography is always about objects, things that are unique in the same way any object designated as art might be unique. His photographs are made at a certain time with certain materials to create an effect, even a physical sensation, that anchors them within the ‘real world’.

Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (c.1826) is considered to mark the very beginning of photography as we know it. What is paramount to viewing it, though, is its very physical presence. When the notable photographic historian and collector Helmut Gernsheim first saw the work, rediscovered in 1952, he thought he was looking at merely a piece of polished metal that reflected back at himself. It was only by handling the work, by changing his view, that the image actually appeared. You can almost see this ebullient collector grasping the photo, twisting it till it clicked into being. It ‘possess[es] obvious dimensionality and physicality, its presence calls into question the central conflict that all photographers have followed ever after—the fact that each image is simultaneously both image and object’.5

Cauchi himself has said, ‘I really like the object quality… the fact that the finished image is an object as much as it is an image.’6 Cauchi pursues the space between these two tenets—object and image—and the space in which he is working embodies an adaptation of William Carlos Williams’ modernist maxim ‘no ideas but in things’: no images but in things.

Importantly, Cauchi’s photos, like Niépce’s famous image, are hard to look at. They reflect you, the viewer, back at yourself, so you have to circle the work until you find the right angle with which to view it. The use of heavy dark framing and mounting counterpoints the photographic plate and heightens its chemical reality. This may be one of the reasons for the use of mirrors and glass in many of his images. They both draw in and repel—a kind of doubling effect that makes completely obvious the actual difficulty of pinning down the image. As Cauchi has said, ‘I’ve always been interested in things before and after an event rather than photographing the event itself. The non-decisive moment.’7

To a large extent Cauchi uses the collodion method to make his work. This is a chemical- and process-driven technique that requires him to be one part chemist, one part engineer, one part artist. It is important to add, though, that it is not overly complex or so totally dependent on science that it is beyond the grasp of the artist practitioner. It does not need a specialised lab and can be made in a fairly normal studio or even domestic space.

This so-called ‘wet-plate’ technique is both slow and quick, a seemingly contradictory combination. Cauchi has described it as ‘a nineteenth-century version of the polaroid… it’s a really quick direct positive which is at the same time incredibly slow and cumbersome.’8 Watching a photographer using the process, which demands that the plate be kept wet, you are struck by the speed of movement required. It is as if the photographer must hurriedly negotiate the studio space, yet is trying to remain nonchalant. It is photography as performance enacted by, for and in the camera, and it is little wonder that even viewing the works become a type of performance.

In Cauchi’s work, faces (usually the artist’s own), objects and apparitions emerge from the collodion process in a foggy rheumy soup that betrays its chemical origins. Cauchi’s colour, or more precisely a non-colour, reminds me of the opening scenes of the Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterful Stalker (1979), as described by Geoff Dyer:

… even to describe the black-and-white of Stalker as black-andwhite is to tint what we’re seeing with an inappropriate suggestion of the rainbow. Technically, this concentrated sepia was achieved by filming in colour and printing in black-and-white. The result is a kind of sub-monochrome in which the spectrum has been so compressed that it might turn out to be a source of energy like oil and almost as dark, but with a gold sheen too.9

Cauchi’s colour is a replay of this. It’s not ‘straight’ black-and-white photography that has its own fine art baggage. And in the same way that Cauchi has described the collodion process as slow but quick, his images are paradoxically foggy yet clear.

The smoky chemical shimmer of the picture surface gives an image of photography as a sleight of hand. With hindsight, this non-colour has become the tone by which we imagine and perceive the past and also the perfect light in which to reveal, or obscure, a parlour trick. The artist acts as conjuror—‘see nothing up the sleeve’.

This could be why so many of Cauchi’s images focus on hands—usually his hands, the source of all this magic. The hands are the image and the hands make the image. They are the loci that bring forth both the side-show and the photographer’s studio.

In the work Dead Arm (2006), the hand and forearm lies inactive. In Self-Portrait as Prophet (2005), one hand points to another. And in the telling To Play a Losing Game (2002) it is unclear whether the artist is playing against himself in rock, paper, scissors—in which case he has both won and lost. Or has he asked himself—remember they are his hands in the photo—to choose in which hand something has been secreted? Even then he has managed to lose.

We might look to an important moment in photography’s history to see where these images could find a correlation. Spirit photography is an obvious point of departure, but I am also reminded of the book The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite (1874) by James Nasmyth and James Carpenter. These two lunar pioneers understood that it was not possible for them to use a telescope to photograph the surface of the moon, so instead constructed a model of the moon which was then lit and shot in the studio.10 Once you realise that the whole thing is faked the photograph becomes not less wonderful but more so. It is the essence of the moon. It is moon travel way before Armstrong and co., and all the better for it—best not to be let down.

There is even a shot in Nasmyth and Carpenter’s book of a wrinkled hand next to a levitating dried apple to demonstrate the effects of age upon a lunar surface.11 The trickery is exposed—we can see the wires holding everything in place. The same thing occurs in an image I think is central to Cauchi’s work, Pseudo-Levitation (2003). Here a hand controls a book, lifting it up telekinetically. Cauchi is obviously working within the tradition of spirit photography. But we are all—artist and his audience—in on the joke. We can see these artifacts as so obviously fake, we wonder how they could ever have been considered real.

We like to think that we are not so gullible and that we won’t be fooled again, but of course aura photography, a contemporary version of spirit photography, and any number of internet memes show that we like to default to a sense of slavish belief and wonderment in the photographic image. This is doubly strange given that the magic of photography is now exposed through countless YouTube videos that show us the processes, that reveal what was once secret. The photographer is, like Oz, exposed, reduced to a mere technician, and photography is turning into some sort of hipster cult. In a world of instamatic and photo apps that turn any idiot with a camera into a specialist, it’s important—in fact imperative—to maintain that art still needs to be made, not designed.

The trickery of photography was always aided by the spirit of the alchemical. It drives the idea that photography is, or was, somehow ‘magical’. Alchemy is a kind of historical font of knowledge based on myth. Its primary concern is with transformation, particularly of base materials into gold. Magic’s claims are based in the irrational—on mystical beliefs and trickery centred around the idea of conjuring something from nothing.

Photography is actually neither of these things—it’s far too prosaic for that—yet like all art, and as Cauchi shows us so cleverly, when it’s good it’s both. His works exist in a cynical age. In a time of rapid change in the way photography is produced and practised, is it little wonder that Cauchi wishes to expose ‘the lie photography has always been’?12 In so doing, he places himself within photography’s ongoing historical arc.

 

Glenn Barkley, 2012

 

 

1Philip Gefter, Photography after Frank (New York: Aperture, 2009), 8.
2Interview with Ben Cauchi, 2009, The Gravy, Series 4, Episode 10 (Sticky Pictures).
3William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (New York: Random House, 1950).
4Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (London: Faber and Faber, 2011).
5The Gernsheim Collection (Harry Ronson Centre: University of Texas Press, 2010), 70. As noted by Greg Donson, Cauchi deliberately references this image in the photo View from the Studio Window (2005). See Greg Donson, ‘Viewing Absence in the Borderland of Light’, Lull (Whanganui: Sarjeant Gallery, 2009), 4.
6Interview with Ben Cauchi, 2009, The Gravy, Series 4, Episode 10 (Sticky Pictures).
7This is an interesting statement, quoting as it does Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the decisive moment—perhaps the defining idea of photography in the twentieth century. Cartier-Bresson’s statement can be made only in light of the technical nature of the medium—lightweight, easy to use, transportable discreet cameras. The earlier processes of photography that Cauchi uses run counter to this—large bulky equipment; chemicals that, to produce the plate in situ, often need a mobile darkroom and workshop; a big cumbersome camera. Laurence Aberhart also mentions something very similar in regard to his photos: ‘mine are the decisive twenty moments’ (www. youtube.com/watch?v=xVdgKLCX1DI).
8Interview with Ben Cauchi, 2009, The Gravy, Series 4, Episode 10 (Sticky Pictures).
9Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (Edinburgh: Canongate UK, 2012), 8. The actors in Stalker are also moving through a thick chemical soup—a sticky awful liquid world that some suspect may have been caused by filming downriver from a toxic chemical waste plant.
10I’m also struck by how some of the shots in the book closely resemble Man Ray’s Dust Breeding (1920), a photograph of a year’s worth of dust built up on Marcel Duchamp’s large glass—a further demonstration of photography’s endless historical looping.
11See www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/27/turner.php for Christopher Turner’s discussion of the book.
12Interview with Ben Cauchi, 2009, The Gravy, Series 4, Episode 10 (Sticky Pictures).