Valentín Roma earned a PhD in art history and philosophy at Southampton University (Winchester School of Art) and is a professor at Pompeu Fabra University. Roma is currently Co-Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona (MACBA), and has curated among others, Manolo Laguillo (Museo ICO Madrid), Contra Tápies (Fundació Antoni Tápies), and the Catalan Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale.
When we look at a photograph two doubts suddenly arise: Where are we looking at it from? What discourses might enable us to read it?
By simply formulating these questions, our position as spectators of images is reaffirmed. That is, we ratify that we are outside of visuality, waiting for its apotheosis, decrying its drifts.
From the photographer’s perspective the same questions arise, as well. What is the adequate separation needed in order to represent? What narrative tools are needed to exhort and consolidate the image?
Space and discourse, words and distancing, here constitute the before, during, and after of photography, its ideological substance and its aesthetic condition. This is so because without this distancing from the visual it would still be hard for us to observe, while like unnamed orphans, the images would end up forgotten, and perhaps sterile. Yet we should recall that an erroneous administration of the separations before the world also burns through our experience of it, and, just the same, an excess of words asphyxiates photography, throwing it back and forth from mysticism to vulgarity.
The photographic work of Max de Esteban is dealt with by means of these two substantial elements, and in these two extremes. On the one hand, it shows us the importance of a constitutive position, a territory from where to rescue the image from the voraciousness of the real. On the other hand, through the words of the photographer himself, it shows us a certain discursive path, something that could be considered a kind of channel so as to continue looking.
The union between photography and the text is just one of the different guiding threads of the Propositions series (2011–14). This is so much the case that if we were to be precise, perhaps we would speak of a kind of verbal echo where these pictures reverberate.
From René Burri and his exceptional Blackout New York, to What Can We Believe Where? by Robert Adams, Martin Parr’s Sign of Times, or Robert Frank’s celebrated The Americans, the presence of a story that makes the visual gesture of showing the images to the spectator has been a way of understanding photography. At the same time it is a way of freeing it from its possibly obscene condition of truth, setting testimony into the document’s epicenter. Yet although Propositions participates in this vaguely narrative tone, if we can call it that, I believe that the textual presence does not refer to any sort of inherent literary qualities in the photographs that make up the series. Quite the contrary: it would seem to allude to the role of montage, and, more specifically, to a certain theatricality.
In relation to this latter question, it seems pertinent to relate Max de Esteban’s work to a book by Bertolt Brecht entitled War Primer, where the playwright “composes” (in the more scenographic sense of the term) a narrative from photojournalist images that have been distinguished, set aside, or intercepted by means of short image captions, launching what we see into an setting of unexpected associations. Drawing from this book, and from the essays of Walter Benjamin and the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, historian George Didi-Huberman has referred to how essential the technique of montage has been in the perception and interpretation of photography, pointing out how the image is not defined by framing or composition, but by the cuts and overlaps that give rise to it.
Max de Esteban’s photographs must be inscribed within this concern for montage as a mindset rather than as a form of narrative. Yet it seems to me that he even adds a new perspective to this process, since when we think of montage we tend to consider it in terms of sequence, a union of visual segments. In contrast, when looking at proposals such as Only the Ephemeral and Touch Me Not we see that the work dealing with the image also has depth, a deep ground.
In this sense there are very few photographers (outside of scientific disciplines) who have taken on the “existential weight” of images without having been trapped in the terms of the pictorial or in the world of simple visuality. In the same way, it is not frequent to observe the way photography (as seen with the series by Max de Esteban) penetrates into the interior of objects and, simultaneously, into the processes of their optical constitution, into their way of being within the visible while at the same time pulling back and away from it.
All of Max de Esteban’s photographic practice is structured around primordial arguments which turn the images into a burst of reality: the space that adds to or sequesters photography; the construction and destruction that all images need to set themselves up before us; the word that strikes against any picture taken from outside of it; the dramaturgy that places images on a stage or at the edge of some violent incident.
The popular essay by Jacques Rancière entitled “The Ignorant Schoolmaster” is upheld by two equally harsh theses: one is that lack of knowledge is the only subject that can be transmitted by the majority of pedagogical projects; the other is that ignorance has democratic attributes, since it unites those teaching with those learning.
So as to demonstrate both ideas, the French philosopher resorts to a metaphor that could seem to be unmanageable, according to which the whole world would not be all that different from a large classroom, a classroom expanding towards the real and reproducing the same hierarchies and slip-ups the real world features as well.
Proposition Two (The Collection) begins precisely where the text by Rancière leaves off. That is, it begins with a classroom bereft of people and activity, perhaps already turned into a casuistic self-portrait referencing the world. Yet the voyage Max de Esteban proposes with this first photograph has only just begun; and, what is more, it begins by alluding to a set of anti-photographic mechanisms—to a microphone that helps to expand speech, a blackboard where writing might take place, and to chairs and desks one might listen from.
We then see a classroom as if it were a type of still life, a place where objects appear to be deposited and where the architecture indicates to us the place of the photographer, his shadow, his silhouette, and (why not?) his very solitude.
This is where the series opens, with the exhortation “traduire en flamand” and with a camera looking perplexed at a lectern used by a teacher (who perhaps is an ignorant one). Max de Esteban then names this presence—“the power of the schoolmaster”—so as to immediately afterwards show us the following image of a solarized cranium turned backwards.
The voyage undertaken to obtain knowledge, the dramatic odyssey involved in understanding, is fixed by these three images and their respective aphorisms. In any case, the series then continues, touching upon both epic and elegy.
Earlier I wrote about the dramaturgic meaning of Max de Esteban’s photographs and texts. I consider this body of images entitled The Collection to be useful in expanding upon what I sought to say. This is because (though it may seem paradoxical), in this proposal there is an authentic promenade through the history of photography, an archive that is blasphemous to a certain degree—in spite of its formal pulchritude—in the way it moves through and subverts various representative paradigms.
Here we see Candida Höfer taken out on her own turf, or Man Ray responded to from an unfathomable and equally surreal object, the founding figures of photography continuing along that virgin path, precise and not at all innocent, and those new and old topographers, questioned regarding their fascination with the document. For all of them it seems that Max de Esteban has a response, to the degree that the series is “heard” as a type of photographic symphony, a polyphony of voices thundering out in every image, falling silent in the next.
Above all we must point to the vertiginous quality moving through these images, the temporary vertigo they have given themselves over to, shifting in this way from the word to the learning space and from that space to the brain.
Clément Rosset, one of the philosophers who has most dealt with the emotional side of thinking, the emotive rearguard where ideas are held, has written that the world pushes outwards, unexpectedly and in a whole new way, producing terror and jubilation at once. That is, it reminds us we are possessed by what is real and cannot escape, and are thus tragic and pleasure loving in our pure yet by no means simple ignorance.
This immaculate meaning, this singular objective makes up the dominant theme of The Collection series, its journey through the limits of the places where it is thought, transmitted, and denied. Thus, following Rosset, we might say that art should respond to the world with a gaze that is equally frightening and unequivocally daring. Yet the questions Max de Esteban’s photographs leave us with are much more incisive and less hypochondriac. Is the artist’s learning process a public spectacle? Is the agora a cage from where to market ignorance, where we’ve been exiled, from the street? And, finally: what is it bouncing around on the inside of an artist’s head?