Prelude: Photography as Art (I)

It’s all about being a drifter and wanderer in order to get closer to answers, since I am first and foremost a vagabond who creates between the chasms of my joys and my suffering. So, I will simply try to transmit a little bit of this experience and perception of the world which I have received through these journeys.
Since this text concerns photography as art, I have not limited my references to photography, but I have opened them up to the vast field of art and artists. The dialogue between all works of art from all periods and from all countries feeds the creations of every creator and make up the foundation of our “musée imaginaire” .
It is quite ironic that I’m facing such a task, since I have devoted myself to photography precisely to share things that cannot be expressed by words. Because with art, we are talking about transition, sharing and communion, and only the finest works of art have to do with the inexpressible and ‘touch’ absolute mystery. “Touching” in every sense of the word is important for the topic we are dealing with. The artist’s “touch” (his way of seeing and doing, his way of using his paint brush or his eyes, his way of providing light but also shadow, and a particular depth to what he sees and what he shows) will determine the way in which he “touches” us, much more than the subject itself. “In one of his letters from Arles, Van Gogh talks about these moments when emotions are so powerful that one works without realizing it, when brush strokes coherently follow one another, like words in a sentence or a letter. At moments like that, Van Gogh painted like others write. Just like the gestures of a letter writer while writing can reveal the influence of strong emotions, Van Gogh’s brush strokes reveal something of his state of mind. It is the direct expression of the very exhilaration of the artist’s spirit” [1]. With the same intensity, the photographic image can also reveal the movements of the artist’s soul, through camera movements, through fractures of light they cause, and through many other means.
Today, almost everyone takes pictures. Everyone can easily press the shutter-release on a camera, much more easily extracting something that seems acceptable or even grandiose than banging on the keys of a piano, or splattering or smearing colours on a canvass… Thanks to photography, everyone can feel the desire to be an artist, and this is encouraging.
But thanks to photography, everyone can suddenly take himself or herself for an artist, and in that case, it’s troublesome. In any case, this is worth thinking about. The word “amateur” is a trap. Often, one opposes the amateur and the professional.

The amateur blushes while apologizing for his possible clumsiness, and utters the phrase that one hears a thousand times: “I am not a professional like you.” One has to put an end to this ambiguity right away: the value of a photograph as a work of art has only very little to do, if anything, with the fact that it sells or not, or whether the artist can live financially from his art or not. The fact that a photograph sells may have more to do with the recognition of the artist as an artist, since what he does pleases and someone is willing to sacrifice a part of what he possesses in order to acquire it and live with this work of art. But this does not define that particular work of art as a work of art.
Some of the most fascinating artists have always remained amateurs. Some had to work as teachers, park keepers or taxi drivers in order to maintain their independence and the right to bring into the world works they could admire with self-respect, and appreciation for the work accomplished. I will only take the example of the printer Mario Giacomelli, an extraordinary man.
However, one thing is sure: the artist gives his whole life to his art, he is entirely devoted to it, and undoubtedly doesn’t have a choice, because without this total gift, the artist cannot reach his goal, which is a quest for the absolute: oneself. The work of art is accomplished during this journey. But let us not be mistaken: the artist may be an amateur, but the harsh law of creation forbids him to be a dilettante. To the term professionalism, which contains the idea of livelihood, I prefer mastery which refers more to knowhow or a technical skill. In order to build his work, to give birth to his world, the artist is ceaselessly confronted with technical problems. It is the constant jostling between the abundance of his creative imagination on the one hand and the plethora of technical resources on the other hand, which will allow him to conceive a deeply original work of art. For this, one needs a great dose of patience, work and energy, a true boldness, not to mention the gifts of chance which sometimes lead to works of genius, because they are beyond any explanation. Sometimes, it is indeed the limits of this technical mastery, there, where we give up our will, there where the path of the brush strays, there where the unexpected arises, that the greatest surprises are suddenly revealed to us; these are the kind of surprises that never stop to amaze us and are the source of masterpieces. The painter Robert Motherwell pointed it out this way: the paintbrush, in doing what it does, will run into something one couldn’t find by oneself. If the Impressionists had tried to show every little detail, their paintings would have probably been dull and lifeless. What captivates us in the work of a Robert Franck or a William Klein is precisely this intended loss of control: the use of blurring, camera shake, night time, dark notes, extreme focal lengths, etc. Mario Giacomelli tells us: “I photographed water, at the seashore, thinking I would be able to represent its movement, the same way I would with brush strokes, but since the camera offers no possibility of showing movement, I moved the camera, and the sea became rough. I expressed it as if I had had a paint brush.” Other people use ‘cross treatment’, others, re-explore old techniques. As for me, I hit negatives with a hammer among other things, so as to expand my horizon of possibilities and open up windows onto the impossible. We should also be wary of too much know-how and too many displays of virtuosity. If we do this, we perhaps run the risk of being rightfully blamed: “you are an excellent professional”, which really means: “Your technique is flawless, you can certainly earn a living from your work, but it does not touch me, it is not art”.
The risk of professionalism is that artists might adapt themselves to the tastes of the time to better sell and, from there, lead their work astray. How many dull their works more or less consciously in order to please instead of daring to disturb? How many journalists who take themselves for authors would probably have been great authors had they taken the risk of displeasing? Like journalists, photographers run the same risk of dulling their work and having it compromised by the different places susceptible to receive what they produce. The risk is even greater because there is only a single word to cover fundamentally different realities. There is only one word to describe paparazzi and Caroline Feyt: both are photographers, both write with light, since that is the etymological meaning of the word. But the light of one and the light of the other are light years and chaos of stars apart. Often it is obvious; sometimes it is not. How do we rate the idols of the public? How do we rate the work of David Hamilton? Or Yann Arthus-Bertrand? How do we rate the idols of our art critics? How do we rate the chatter and the pitiful somersaults of most conceptual artists?

The artist is insubordinate to the accepted values of the society of his time. This insubordination and this liberation are built gradually, little by little along a history of art, where he has freed himself from constraining rules and the dictatorship of anything outside his purpose. In order to create, the artist must be absolutely sincere and free, at the risk of only being subjected to contempt for an indefinite period of time. The artist is impulsive, he scribbles, he dares, he explores and does not really worry about comforting people by creating reassuring works. Security, this sick preoccupation of our vulnerable times, is a feeling that is rarely in harmony with the searching and doubt that haunt artists. The greatest don’t worry about selling; at least it’s not their first concern. And they don’t want to sell just in any fashion. If they need to sell, it is in order to continue to create. In 1854, Gustave Courbet wrote in a letter that he hoped to always earn a living through his art, without ever “straying from his principles” , without ever “for an instant lie to his conscience” and never paint, “even the smallest work, for the sole purpose of pleasing someone or selling more easily” . And so, the amateur who has a different profession, who is not necessarily subject to the vagaries of sales or inadequate ones of his art, will sometimes be bolder than a professional whose future is subject to selling or not selling what he engenders. I use the word “engender” because I hesitate between two words which are opposed to each other; I mean the words “create” and “produce”. Creating engenders a creation, a dream come true, a; whereas producing engenders a product, a commodity subject to the laws of the market. The professional is at the heart of this dilemma. This is especially true in photography since a photograph can be used in countless ways: it can be used to promote a commercial to sell toothpaste, a car or a sausage, preferably using, in our pretty bizarre system of values, the charms of an unclothed woman, or other related foolishness. It illustrates merchandise. It is the commercial photo, which has to enhance this merchandise, and above all strive to sell to the largest public. The predominant goal will be how to make a photo strong enough to sell the maximum number of tubes of toothpaste, of cars, of packages of hotdogs.
It can be used, in somewhat the same way, to create the desire to buy the latest fashion, it illustrates a piece of clothing, and it is fashion photography. It can be used to communicate, to transmit the news, and convey information. It pictures an event and it is photojournalism.
It can be used to keep a trace of something, to keep memory alive, and it is a souvenir, a family picture, an historic photograph. Etc. Etc.

Sometimes, certain images go beyond what they are meant for, and their forms are so intense that they become works of art. This is particularly true for photojournalism, because it is much less a slave to its destination, than, let’s say, a photo for an advertisement. I‘m thinking about the fabulous images of a Michael Ackerman or a Paolo Pellegrin. Similarly, one should note the work of Didier Benloulou and Dolorès Marat, or the promising work of Flore-Aël Surun. These photographs don’t need captions at all, but it’s rarely these that get published. Indeed, the fundamental characteristic of photography as art, is that it is not intended to illustrate anything. It is true that it is sometimes co-opted, and businessmen have a particular talent for co-opting them. They have even dared to label a car that was a junk heap on wheels with the great name of Picasso. But let’s say that in so doing, advertisers and businessmen face ridicule, for art is beyond their attempts at commercialism. In any case, art, which includes art photography, is aimed at something entirely different: to give our soul the air it needs to breathe. The only purpose of photography as art is simply to be there, and its being there redoubles the mystery of the world. It is a world in itself. A mystery without end which moves and overwhelms us. A mystery that nourishes us. Someone once said that a work of art is something that is totally useless, but with which we cannot live without. Art transmits what is essential at the core of each of us, what makes us cry without being able to explain why, what elevates us and what fells us.

There is nothing closer to a work of art than this mystery which passes through the eyes of two lovers. Between them something happens that is indescribable, inexplicable, a kind of magic. We approach the secret of the soul deep inside each of them; it's very good, very strong, very gentle, very violent, but we are wordless in the face of it. It is beyond desire, seemingly even beyond life, although at the heart of life. And if we try to explain that, the answer will be: “because she was she… because I was I..” In these all too scarce moments, we befriend the sacred, we come close to the divine, to a certain form of perfection about which we know so little, about which we cannot speak - but a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music, a photograph, or any other medium, can, at certain privileged times, allow us to perceive and feel it. Simply by the intensity of their forms, their evocative power, imaginary worlds which these works evoke, the echo they provoke, they create a certain atmosphere in us, both out of this world and into the very core of it. Just like a great love story or a mystical ecstasy.
That is why we can assume that the artist, at his greatest heights, appears as if guided by an almost supernatural Invisible Presence: William Blake: “I don’t do anything. The Sacred Spirit does it all through me “. Piet Mondrian: “The artist’s position is humble. He is essentially a channel”. And Louis Armstrong: “What we play - is life“. What makes an artist an artist, is his ability to make himself available as this channel, because he demands a certain challenge of himself, a certain asceticism, and an extreme thirst to reach what is essential and remain there. Without this he could not live. In the least, if he betrays this extreme challenge to himself, he would have the impression of being among the living dead. The artist is the one who hounds himself to the very end, with utmost sincerity and without trying to please or sell. Thus, he offers us a distinctive universe, because we are all different and unique. It takes great courage to continually confront our true selves, with all our fears, our weaknesses, our demons, in order to know how to transform them into works of art, and not simply into grotesque and sensationalist illustrations of our egocentric fantasies. This is the difference between the artists who torture themselves from using their deepest sensitivities, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the ones whose necklines are cut down to their navels and who think themselves a cut above everyone else. Agathe Gaillard, the gallery owner, defines the task she had set for herself when she opened her gallery over thirty years ago: “first and foremost, to show that photographic artists exist, creators of worlds, and not just that photos are due to cameras and pure luck.” Yes indeed, what characterizes a photographer who is an artist is that he is a creator of worlds. In the world he creates, he shares himself in all his richness and uniqueness for us to see and appreciate. In order to taste this strength, we have to become spectators that face the artwork with the same demands, the same sincerity, and if possible the same lucidity as the artist. As I have said before, it is like lovers who gaze at each other. And love is not as blind as they say. Others, such as Saint-Exupéry, preferred to proclaim that the essential is invisible to the eyes: you can only see with the heart. It's an exquisite moment, which stabs us and makes us happy. In order to be able to experience it, we must also make ourselves available. This demands energy, real willpower, and time. No longer, or too rarely, do we know how to preserve this time. We are lost in this world of productivity which strangles and chokes us, promoting values diametrically opposed to the needs of human beings.
 Georgia O'Keefe complained about it : “No one sees flowers - really - they are too small and it takes time” “We do not have this time - and seeing takes time, in the same way as having a friend takes time.” Hence, art, and photography as art, as a poetic resource are an expression of public health and an essential form of resistance to oppression. It is a form of revolution - and a way of being in the world, for oneself and for others.
To conclude, I’d like to quote Jean-Claude Lemagny, long time curator of contemporary photography at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France: “ I don’t like to use words. They are scattered around everywhere. I don’t like to flaunt my ideas – it’s indecent. Ideas are only the dirty end product of thought. Words are only pure in poetry, and I don’t pretend to be a poet. Ideas are only an excuse to allow for thought – the embrace of reality – to catch its breath. What I love is the splendour of things. There are manmade things which are as highly indifferent to man as the things of nature: these are works of art. They teach me humility and pride.” Now, let’s look at a photograph and see if it makes us humble and proud at the same time. Let’s ask ourselves if it strips us bare, clothes us completely, and embraces us with all its heart. Let’s see if we are facing a love affair. Let’s see if it asks us questions and responds silently while it screams at us with all its forms. If we have reached this height, then we are in front of Art – to which our schools give only an hour or so per week… It is true that we live in a more or less barbarous society, dominated by finance, the economy and the concern for profit - where introduction to art means little. That is why this society should not last. It is only attached to having, to possessing, to accumulating, to appearances, all these flashy, ephemeral things. As for art, it will last. It liberates us and allows us to approach Being.

Xavier Zimbardo
This text is the slightly revised version of a lecture given at Rencontres photographiques de Rodez in October 2003.
All the photos of this text are by Xavier Zimbardo. All rights of reproduction and distribution reserved to the author.
[1] Ernst Gombrich, Histoire de l’art, Phaïdon, 1997, pp. 547-548

The spirit of places: Photography as an art form (II)

We must demystify contemporary art’s propensity to end up in deadlock. When the dada movement raised the banner of rebellion, when Marcel Duchamp exhibited his "Urinal", it was a reaction to the gigantic carnage and slaughter of World War One.
“Dada world war without end, dada revolution without beginning.” It was all about attacking anything representing Capital, the cause of so many wars and so much chaos, to do away with anything that could be considered bourgeois.
« Beautiful » and « decorative » were to be mistrusted. The function of art was essentially to give us food for thought; it could only exist by being assertively critical.
Therefore, it did not have to be bothered about making money, about being in the limelight: the best artists were outraged by what they were experiencing, and they tried to open doors, break down walls, build bridges for a world that seemed on the edge of the abyss.
The feeling of horror was at its tragic worst.

All the revolutionary aspects of this desire to shake dominant ideas with outrageous provocation have since been eroded, or rather have been squandered and instrumentalized.
Instead of the artwork, under the pretext of reflection, the critics exhibit themselves in place of the artists and their works. It is less a case of taking art to the streets than finding the open sesame to get into chic and moneyed circles.
It is less a case of burning all bridges than getting into galleries and museums by impressing the bourgeoisie, obtaining a moneymaking passport in the country of the doll’art market. As far as visual emotion is concerned, all these juggling stunts boil down to practically…nothing.
André Rouillé’s words of praise unfortunately sum up all too well the current climate: “One of the most interesting exhibitions in Paris just recently closed. (…) Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exhibition truly resists the present trend by designing an extremely rigorous and economical device: raw plywood walls, bare, empty of images or objects, only punctuated by the titles and dates of the artist’s past works, but without the presence of any of these works.
(…) What is this all about? (…) Rirkrit Tiravanija had built a vague replica in raw plywood of the layout of the ARC gallery rooms. And instead of exhibiting the body of his past works, as would be appropriate in a retrospective, he only listed their titles on the walls.
And so, there is nothing to see, or so little to be seen. But for the visitor, there is a lot to hear, to imagine and to do. (…) One goes from one title (of the absent work) to another, led by the guide/lecturer.
And each time the guide stops, she or he describes, in great detail, a piece of art for which the fictional narrative compensates for its very absence. Such a strange but powerful situation. We stand there like museum visitors while we stare at an empty wall. We are invited to imagine a piece of art from a detailed verbal description given by someone who has never even seen it!
“Une rétrospective inverse”

This might be a good idea, but art is not really made of “good ideas”: new for the sake of being new. Exhibitions of this kind should not be organized too often: once is more than enough. I won’t go back (to not see it) again. Instead of all this distinguished babble, I’d rather have a concert of silence. In any case, these brilliant reflections just lead to excesses and dead end.
The nature of the visual arts is precisely not to annotate, but to work on the evocative power of forms, bringing them to such a level of intensity, to such a heated glow, that we suddenly perceive the impalpable presence that runs through the work, beyond the very work itself.
A presence that is very difficult to explain, the climax of which is both as spiritual and as carnal as the maddest love. By leading us to what is fundamental, the best of ourselves, through the very core of Being versus the consumerism of the devotees of Having, works of art infuse our tepid and jaded times with this indisputable, thrilling aura of mystery that sparks hope, that arouses rightful anger or awakens pleasure and passion.
In this climate dominated by the primacy of concept, the risk for digital photography is that it prioritizes clever tinkering and subtle technological processes over the formal qualities of the work of art itself. The risk is to focus on the "How do you do it" rather than on the atmosphere that the work evokes.
In October 2000, the magazine Beaux-Arts marvelled at the prodigious work of the artist Wim Delvoye, who had just created a machine to manufacture human shit sold in plastic bags in the museum shop.
This is undoubtedly either an interesting provocation or a scientific discovery, but is art about finding good ideas, or is it about search, turmoil, confusion and wonders?
Beyond the current debate about traditional vs. digital photography that will be settled as the life of art moves on, we have to focus on photography itself. We have to concentrate on what photography reveals as obscure and luminous, on photography in whatever form it uses, but always as art and as a way to approach the numinous (from the latin ‘numen’: divinity, divine power), the sacred.
But what exactly is the sacred? It’s everything that I couldn’t tell you, but through a work of art one could perhaps feel. “I have kneaded mud and made it into gold”, Baudelaire wrote.
And of course, “gold” can only mean true wealth, our poetic truth, not gold bars which we pile up in order to utter, with our last breath and deepest regret, "Rosebud" . The task of the artist remains the same, that of an alchemist who reveals and transcends.
“It happened... it happened... in one moment... while the eyes of this five-year-old child sparkled with clear radiance… It happened… when this tree, laden heavy with foliage, was motionless in the midday sun, in the centre of the garden... It happened…. when the white rock sprang up in the middle of the brush at the top of the mountain... touching the sky and the clouds...
It happened… when the drop of water swelled at the edge of the chromed faucet… and then loosened… In the very instant when it was falling before it hit the white basin of the sink… all this happened… all this… and many other things… The infinite… Eternity, which exploded inside me… which swallowed the world holding them… swallowed the body carrying them…”
(Le Clézio)
For the Ancients, certain sites were sacred, haunted by beings or forces from somewhere else, from another world, from the unknown. Sometimes, these souls, beneficial or disquieting spirits, appeared to the living, like the genie released from Aladdin's lamp.
These sacred spaces have stayed in our collective imagination, in the dreams and nightmares of the children we were and have remained, deep inside ourselves. Everything is "inhabited". Secretly, each site in our modern world, so infatuated with rationalization, keeps a furtive soul, a barely noticeable spirit that suddenly springs up as light or chaos, and disappears.
Who has never experienced genuine dread about seeing high-rises crack and crumble? Who has never trembled at the roar of an approaching plane shaking the windows of the building? Who has never shuddered when thunder (or some other demon?) rumbles?
Who, in a silent abbey, has never thought they could sense an Invisible Presence slipping between the stones at the speed of light? At night, who has never seen the multi-coloured lights of cities begin to dance and rejoice? Who has never been troubled by the quivering of silver reflections swept away by dark rivers ready to soar?
Photography is at an enormous turning point. It retains its power of truth and conviction, since it is apparently tied to what is real, as its imprint, as its true trace of the world.
Many people are still strongly convinced that even if photography does not completely preserve its value as evidence, it retains, at least, its relative authenticity. In the same way our faith wavers over the truth of what happens to us, in our paradoxical sleep.
But doubt settles in, and doubt is fertile. It creates these flickering and dreamlike universes where creators, playing with these ambiguities, make their nests. Photographers keep on writing with light but, thanks to digital technology, they now paint impossible light and improbable worlds whose existence we just might believe in.
Thanks to the collapsing of these boundaries, the spirit of places gets the chance to come back, to reanimate the sacred spaces buried in our memories, and revive the fleeting echoes of the terrors and ecstasies of our childhood.

Cold statistics tell us that a child dies of starvation every seven seconds and someone becomes blind, due to a lack of vitamins, every four minutes. And yet, we should not despair, we should not commit suicide, we should do better than just survive, we must fight, we must love, we must show our righteous indignation and marvel, we must live. And the artist, as far as he deserves this title, is not there "to perform tricks" like a dog, in order to look clever.
In The Enchanted Wanderer, the Russian writer Leskov tells a fable about artists which I’m particularly fond of. Six lumberjacks are trying to lift a large Siberian tree they felled. The trunk is huge. They struggle, but they cannot budge it.
Suddenly, one of them climbs onto the trunk and begins to sing. And now, the five of them, as if strengthened by the singing of the sixth one, finally move the tree. Such is the condition of the artist. Artists add an extra weight to humanity, they produce nothing, and yet they provide strength.”
(Roberto Benigni)
In Benares, one intensely feels the spiritual density of a holy city. May this wandering, between the strange and the fantastic, between the certain and the uncertain, lead you, on an enchanted voyage to the spirit of places. Despite our fascinating digital tools, we should never forget that we are the brothers and sisters of the Lascaux and Fayoum cave painters. Tools are certainly not nothing, and the creator is not everything. What it is all about is to make “something” that can be called: splendour.

Xavier Zimbardo
Monday, April 24th 2006

Read the enlightening Sven Lindqvist: Exterminate all the brutes, translated from the Swedish by John Tate, Published 2007 by New Press.
© Text and photographs by: Xavier Zimbardo

Haut de page