THE QUESTION CONCERNING WHAT IS FLUID AND UNSTABLE
LAURA GONZÁLEZ FLORES
Laura González Flores is professor in the Institute for Aesthetic Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She heads the Seminar of Photographic Research and is a member of the Advisory Board of the National Photographic Archives. Her recent books include Edward Weston & Harry Callahan (PhotoEspaña, 2013) and Manuel Alvarez Bravo (Jeu de Paume, 2012).
There are two types of images that allow us to understand photography. For one, there are those whose characteristics clarify photography while defining it. The other type correspond to those found in Max de Esteban’s series Proposition Three, which seem to reject such a definition: the photographic condition appears as a doubt, or as an interrogative. Unstable in nature, these images challenge our held certainties concerning photography, calling on us to question their essence.
Are we looking at a photograph or a painting? Or is it perhaps a print? What is it that attracts or unsettles us in Max de Esteban’s images? Probably the simplest response to this question is this: Our incapacity to understand what is in front of us. As the offspring of the industrial revolution and the modern era, photography is a technique that finds its fundamental objective in the mimetic reproduction of visible reality. The difference is that it does not only imitate the visible appearance of things, as does painting and sculpture, but it does so with an unmatchable degree of perfection: rather than acting as copies, its images seem to be doubles of reality. Thus when viewing a photograph we do not speak of “an image of something,” but of that very thing itself: “Look, it’s my mother.” “Here’s my house.” The deictic quality of photography, its capacity to point to something, to make us come up with a “Look!” is as significant as its mimetic condition. Besides presenting us with something, photographs seem to ask us to look at them and recognize something in them.
Max de Esteban’s images frustrate this initial gesture of recognizing “something” distinct. They impede our understanding in two ways: we cannot identify what is represented in them; nor can we determine what kind of image that we are being confronted with. And if at first glance our reason is hindered (there is nothing clear or distinct in these images) our initial frustration will soon become a spur: we do not only want to see more, but to see better.
Thus our second movement in relation to the image is that of gazing at it with concentration, scanning its entire surface. In this process we begin to distinguish forms and things: relatively flat, abstract geometric surfaces, various shades of gray (or others with a slightly colored touch, in greens or magenta), and industrial objects like CDs, plastic boxes and cases, architectural drawings and, perhaps, circuit boards from inside a computer. In some of them we can even read something, like the word “menu.” It is extraordinarily complicated to determine what we are seeing, since the motifs represented do not only appear as juxtaposed, their tonal values are shuffled around, too. Some forms move on graphically to the adjacent form, but in negative.
Rather than images, the photographs in Proposition Three seem to be textures: for one, they are aesthetic surfaces created by means of the overlaying and repetition of shapes (texture as a visual structure, similar to a fabric with a grid pattern); and then again they are visual texts composed of a variety and multiplicity of smaller units. Given our incapacity to recognize a motif in the image (a form that might stand out from the ground, as occurs with conventional photographs) we gain a perspective by running over its texture, so as to cull a text: an encoded message, decipherable by reading.
By now it is clear that our first encounter differs radically from what we might normally experience with “photographs”: rather than finding ourselves before optical-mimetic images of material reality, we here are dealing with constructed surfaces whose primordial value is the density (and connotative value) of the texture. Like Robert Rauschenberg’s work made from image fragments, Max de Esteban’s images operate as a fabric of feelings. The images function as meaningful units whose sense lies in the structure, more than in the sum of the parts. In these works, it is not important to identify objects or motifs, but to read the visual textures as text. Its fundamental value is to refer to the photograph as a language built through the active mediation of the photographer. Abstract in nature, Max de Esteban’s images respond to precisely what the title suggests: they are propositions (in the Wittgensteinian sense) that break with the traditional schemes of representing time and space in photography, setting themselves up as affirmations (as statements) indicating a different notion of it.
Let us explain this previous point better, so as to comprehend its consequences. Based on the construction of the camera, photography produces images with geometric parameters that are consistent with our optical perception. If the workings of the camera are subverted (and if photography’s optical-geometric code is consequently challenged), as Max de Esteban has accomplished in multiplying, juxtaposing, and inverting his images’ characteristics, the result will be to escape from orthodox representation of three-dimensional space. Thus rather than a merely formal resource, the texture of the images in Proposition Three stands as a proposal for an alternative visual space.
How might we describe the notion of space in Max de Esteban’s images? What is the basis of their differentiation from works that could be associated with them, like the photograms of Christian Schad and Man Ray, the Constructivist photomontages of László Moholy-Nagy, as well as Raoul Hausmann and Alexander Rodchenko, or the Futurist Anton Bragaglia’s multiple exposures? With regards to the first of these (the nineteen-twenties photograms of Schad and Man Ray) the images Max de Esteban produces are considerably different: in the series Proposition Three it is clear that the lesson of minimalist essentialism in the photograms is not only assimilated but multiplied. The luminous print of the objects reproduced on the photosensitive support is here reiterated and juxtaposed, with further similar traits. Separated by means of a distinct tonal range, these features are overlaid, producing a sense of levity, of transparency in the shapes, which seem to float in a boundless space lacking points of reference. This is quite different from the three-dimensional space of conventional photography, and closer to the images produced by x-ray scanners at airport security controls.
This fluid, undetermined space in Max de Esteban’s images also differs from that found in Constructivist photomontage, in Moholy-Nagy, Haussman, or Rodchenko. In these latter the motifs are set out as fragmentary features, laid out one beside another, in continuity across the image plane. The discrepancy between the scale and the source of the subject matter used gives rise to a shared tension. This is from where, furthermore, the graphic, abstract space arises, comprised of the space between fragments. In Constructivist photomontage there is no fabric or surface like that found in the photographs created by Max de Esteban. His images seem to be closer to multiple exposure Futurist images, where spatial dimension seems to be linked to the dimension of time. This is because between one and another layer of the image our gaze seems to be submerged into its depth, as if traveling in time. Rather than reading a sequence, we read the virtual space of the image in depth. This is why Max de Esteban’s images give us the sense that the motifs are being shifted deeper into the image itself.
To speak of the time dimension in these images is pertinent in describing the sensitive experience of the contemporary viewer. Nowadays, perception of photography is tempered by our experience with the video screen, where an accumulation of highly diverse images—graphic forms, photography, typography—are intertwined by means of transparencies, transforming themselves and shifting back and forth within the virtual space of the screen. What is further off in the distance is seen as smaller, but within the picture, while with images that follow perspectival conventions the objects in the background are represented as smaller (and above or below) whatever is seen in the foreground.
The difference is substantial, since in conventional photography space has a virtual, airy quality; in contrast, in new video images (as well as those in Proposition Three, as seen here) space seems to have an indeterminate, unsubstantial quality contaminating represented objects as well. As a result, they become lighter, more transparent, and evanescent: fragile graphic forms that challenge our capacity to fix or detain them by means of the gaze.
In relationship to time, these images are different from conventional photographs as well (and different too, given the case, from avant-garde photomontage). While perception of time seems to be diachronic, like a route or narration set out in time, in the photographs in this series (as with Futurist multiple exposures) time is synchronic: perception of the details is simultaneous, occurring in a single moment. It is not time’s duration we perceive, but rather its depth.
All told, the only way to attain a perspective on Max de Esteban’s images in Proposition Three is to assume that they are holding us back from photography’s promise to emit a recognizable image of material reality. Here no defining markers or coordinates will do: the only way to understand these images is to lay aside our expectations with regards to their status as photographs, and so find enjoyment in the perceptive game they propose. As when before, in abstract painting, the best method is sensitive enjoyment: the free play of the imagination that Kant spoke of.
Inevitably then, these images leave the viewer with a doubt concerning their generic condition: although they are produced and presented as photographs, their operation is that of painting. This is not the “take” of the photographic realm, but rather painting’s “make.” Instead of making use of photography’s mechanical and automatic possibilities, Max de Esteban works as a painter, constructing images: he adds and subtracts content at will, organizing the components on the picture plane (which is not the frame), defining their tone and chromatic quality.
The images in Proposition Three refer to the constructive potential of photographic codes, instead of describing or pointing out something, as conventional photographs will do. And there is more: the deictic gesture of Max de Esteban’s images refers to the overall body of industrial and reproducible objects to which photography belongs as a technical medium. In tune with an authentically Benjaminian spirit, Esteban’s images are at once aesthetic judgments (disinterested propositions with autonomous value, in the Kantian sense) and language operations (logical propositions in the Wittgensteinian sense). If in avant-garde images the linguistic and conceptual potential of photography was made manifest, in these works the critical and referential capacity of the medium constitutes the images’ very subject. Their message is that in order to innovate with photography and redefine it, so as to charge it with mystery, speaking by means of it once again, we must first have the courage to question it.