A Photo-Graphic Essay
MEMORY’S BACK IS HISTORY. REMEMBERING ALONE IS NOT YET THE INVESTIGATIVE RECONSTRUCTION OF THE PAST; IT IS ONLY THROUGH THE JUXTAPOSITION OF BOTH MEMORY AND HISTORY THAT AN IMAGE EMERGES, A CONTRIBUTION TO THE WHOLE.
History usually belongs to the field of historiography. One might initially place memories of the Nazi regime in the context of archives and holocaust memorials. What, if anything, can the fine arts hope to achieve in this context? How can they assert themselves next to historical photographs which document the monstrous atrocities and depict the aura of the sites and relics in an authentic way?
In fact, many artistic attempts to approach particularly the genocide caused by German fascism have failed. The manifestation of historical reality has been too powerful. The challenge nests in the perception, as works of art have been known not to refer to the reality the artists intend to portray, but are rather anticipated as artifacts of their affiliation with the world of art. How can artists now introduce new perspectives on the way in which history is read despite this difficulty which art faces in addressing the Nazi era? When memory manifests itself and unfolds in the form of expanded photography and text as the result of an inquisitive eye, as in the case of Marko Lipuš, it requires protection through a space—and this in the sense of “letting go of what is unavailable by preserving it in what is available.”
Lipuš furnishes this protective space for his photo-graphic essay Babica between the covers of a book, in which memory unfolds in images and texts. The artistic texture of memory is consistently submitted to the heterotopy of the book and follows its own rules, organizing concepts, and ways of representation. Lipuš’s own personal memory is only a small building block in the whole structure. Thumbing through the book, one finds visual impressions overlapping each other and intensifying to become a milieu des mémoires. Not in any single image, but in the act of thumbing through—that is to say, between the pages—does that which Walter Benjamin calls the “tiger’s leap into the past,” capable of suspending the temporal distance of history, find expression. This jump opens up a liminal space which negotiates the political potential of aesthetics as well as the question of mediality and historiography.
Lipušʼs three-dimensional photo images bound together in the book Babica to become a series can therefore be termed imagines agentes, acting images, within a memory art conceptualized as an instrumental technique. In photo-graphs structured in two or three layers Lipuš spurs the transgression of imposed borders and conventional frames in the deconstruction of the photographic source material in order to foray into realms of direct reality construction. The act of getting hold of the image space and occupying it is homologous to a constant presence of the body, indeed a symbolic penetration of his own body; this process addressed at the outset is to give art a conduit to “reality”—a reality, incidentally, which Antonin Artaud reifies as an “excrement of the mind.” In this double-coded process, the work of art defines a space and receptional approach in which information flows and is not determined. It marks a situation which the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica has termed “critical ambivalence.”
It is precisely in the density and exposure of the work complex Babica in which the perforation of the surface, the wall, the membrane is a metaphor of resistance where it must have become almost impossible for Lipuš to distinguish between his own and others’ inner experience and outer impulse. This may have brought about his decision for the protective space at hand. Guided by intensities, Lipuš’s eye, it seems, attempts in this hardbound hybrid to come into contact with the geographic and imaginary traces of his babica in virtually all the places inscribed in the stories he has been told—but always tactful, touching without touching, which navigates towards a vigilant visualization.
In doing so, Lipušʼs cartographic eye moves beyond the simple acceptance and adoption of ostensibly predetermined notions, and refuses to simply continue adjacent to subjective and passed-down memories. His eye wanders along the surfaces, the walls, the floors, the geographic and organic skin in search of a place where seeing and touching coincide. The search of a soul “striving alternately towards the internal and external, and vibrating at the limits of each.”
If one cannot remember, then one can at least penetrate, intervene, burn something into the memory storage as a means of haptic self-insurance. In an intimate auto-poetic pact with the all-too smooth surface of prints, Lipuš engraves himself into the picture, tears it open, erodes it, and adds to the photograph by subtracting from it in order to at once replenish and mark it.
Without the suspicion of a deeper truth of touching, the privilege of seeing is unthinkable, after all. Therefore, Babica is the artistic space of action which practices to what it refers: It touches the viewer. And in an expanded way, it touches history beyond what Babica is. Babica embodies the triad of memory, remembrance, and oblivion—and the success and failure involved in it. But most of all the memory of oblivion.
Marko Lipuš and his approach of Art-Photography
A person vanishes. She is robbed of her visibility, has no image of herself any longer. The Viennese photo artist Marko Lipuš owns a single photograph of his grandmother, dating from the 1930s. In it, she is seated on a bench next to her husband, Franz Lipuš; the young couple looks at the unknown photographer with a proud, confident expression; Maria faintly smiling, mild and soft. A few years later, this woman vanishes in the Ravensbrück concentration camp; her life ends there, without image, without comment in the darkness of the brutal death machinery.
The photo from the early days of her marriage conserves the image of a woman whose life can be traced only in a very tentative manner. The starting point for her grandson’s research is a war letter from the camp that is owed to the martial rage of an exterminatory logic, curtly informing her widower of her death. Her journey to the concentration camp, her two years in the barracks, the reason for her deportation remain obscure. Much like the preserved image bears the small glimmer of a short life and may convey it to the descendants as a vague idea, the grandson entrusts his quest for what has remained in the dark to the medium of photography. For him, the picture is a storage of memory, a preservative for unseen things, and an instrument to carve into untouched layers of sediment. For the purposes of a documentary visual language, photographs can be seen as evidence and testimony of real events. Lipuš, however, expands the possibilities of the photographic image to include an additional, interpretive component; his iconic rhetoric is that of diction and contradiction, of image and meta-image, of aspect and insight. This is why he does not create photographs which convey visibility and reality in an image, but adaptations and interventions which transform and unsettle the original image. Marko Lipuš regards his photographic images as prima materia, based on which he appropriates the motifs through manipulation and direct intervention by his own hand.
The Scars of Images
The picture of the artist’s babica, the grandmother to whom the artist lovingly refers with the Slovenian word, displays a soft intimacy and composed serenity. A silent double portrait, sealed like many images in the safe of temporality and sacrosanct in the unshakable endurance of its testimony. The pictures Marko Lipuš brought from his various journeys on the trails of his lost grandmother tell a different story. The photographs themselves already bear witness to the passing of time, to the crumbling buildings, to the disastrous essence of a place which nature is slowly taking back in order to help liquidate an owed debt. Then the images change. The countless documents of the views of this place of terror are compressed into a mere handful of images. They bear witness to the roads walked by the doomed inmates, to the cobblestones they stepped on, to the surfaces of the walls they touched, to the cracks that promised them a glimpse outside. The artist consults these enlarged views; they serve not only to examine and reflect, but also to penetrate and process. The pretty, abstract color compositions of wall structures and tile patterns, of monochrome floors and graphic lineaments are torn open and scratched; particles are dissected from them and strokes cauterized into them. Marko Lipuš can only confront the ostensible innocence of the ruin aesthetics with his own fervid activity: He covers the authentic testimonies of these monstrous places with a net of cuts and lacerations. The images remain, covered with scars and lesions.
His Father’s Skin
Memory and the conservation of what has been remembered are underlying themes in the literary works of Florjan Lipuš. He uses the character of Young Tjaž to trace his own youth and powerlessness in the face of authority, be it in the family, in school, or in the Catholic Church. The young boarding student counters violence with a means of his own: scratching. At first it is an act of defense and protest against corporal punishment, but then it becomes a means of appropriation: The scratches are tags. Carving symbols, which his own actions leave behind, into an object or body is a mode of identity formation. Even if they signalize rebellion and defense—as is the case with young Tjaž—the scratch subjects these objects to its direct adaptation, and with their injury imposes on them the unmistakable mark of its intervention.
Marko Lipuš explores a similar appropriation strategy in the first chapter of his photo series Babica. Large color photo boards show skin patches of his father’s arms, hands and other body parts. Florjan Lipuš, one of Maria Lipuš’s two sons—he was six years old at the time of her deportation to the concentration camp—is the witness and keeper of his mother’s heritage, which he, in turn, has passed on to his son. And Marko continues this link by touching the surface of his father’s skin: He covers the skin close-ups with a crisscross of scratches and scores. He opens the enclosure of the epidermis with sandpaper, and roughens, injures, disturbs it. Pores, tiny hairs, liver spots, light rashes are amalgamated into a visual whole; a human being’s topmost, outermost, most sensitive layer is shown as vulnerable and sore.
Places Beyond Perception
Ever deeper, ever further into the depths of the interior—that is where the photographer’s path leads in search of what is hidden, in search of the ways, relics, and signs of the disappeared. A chapter of his multifaceted photo essay is dedicated to objects that were found in the camp. Tin cups, brushes and combs are isolated from their environment by the photographer and presented like New Objectivity still lifes. Since they, too, exhibit signs of the extinction, they are also intimate bearers of messages from the disappeared, like the cobblestones that still contain the echo of their footsteps. With his drawings Marko Lipuš stretches the sobering presence of these objects into meaningfulness: The objects vibrate and change in their being-as-such; they are banal objects and at once relics charged with references. They have left their location, their places of discovery, in order to speak of past conditions in a different context. And the territory of the camp complex becomes a long shot, in which the topography of death entirely eludes our perception. The means of image alteration and image alienation—like the manipulations and the scratching interventions—are synonyms for the identification marks of Marko Lipuš’s own presence; only by looking at the camp buildings and the surrounding landscape in person was he able to ascertain the vision disorder which occurs when something belonging to the sphere of the unviewable becomes viewable. His blinding white views are images the subjects of which appear submerged. The rare, vague silhouettes rising from the fog of the glaring white hue are barely recognizable, gently making connections, visual guesses, afterimages of a retinal overstimulation that approaches blindness. Vanishing is not just a process of blacking out, of no-longer-seeing, but also a phenomenon of being-left-with-merely-suspecting, of vague assumptions, of image residues which appear as silhouettes while everything around them seems to be immersed in blazing backlight.
With his group of works Babica, Marko Lipuš, in remembrance of his grandmother, has gone on a quest for the things that are hidden within an image. The tale of her fate is presented in a complex visual language that—by means of his oft-applied technique of scratching—has found an equivalence of content and form and, on the other hand, explores the farthest possible distance between the photographic representation of reality and its iconic reference character.
A scratch proceeds from the top to the bottom of the image across its entire height. Not a small scratch, but a veritable laceration. One can still almost hear the crunching sound the tool must have made in the process. It did not glide easily across the photograph; this is no clean cut. The force that was used is visible. The tool must have bounced off the surface multiple times, leaving a quick succession of deep notches, which now dominate the image scarred over in a rusty brown. Only by moving close enough to the image does one feel somewhat comforted, as one discovers with a relieved sigh that it was not the photograph that was perforated, but that the scratch is contained within the image and the unspoiled surface of the photographic paper is still stretched over it.
According to tradition, a photograph’s surface is sacrosanct. When I looked through our vacation photos as a child, my father would warn me to only hold the photos at their edges and not to grab them with my greasy fingers. Of course, my father had not come up with these rules on his own just to annoy me; it was rather a sort of inherited wisdom. The inviolability of the photographic surface has a tradition that spans from the beginnings of the medium to the present: from the brightly polished copper plate of the daguerreotype to the velvety shimmer of the albumen print, the subtle gloss of baryta-coated paper to the cheap gloss of resin-coated paper, the immaculate surfaces of Diasec to the slick finish of the Retina Display. With the invention of photography, the traceless application of paint was passé in painting; artists were suddenly able to use their palette knives and spatulas to their hearts’ delight, torturing their canvases with painting knives and icepicks—although, of course, it had taken a few years before word got around about this new freedom. In photography, then, the dictate of the physical integrity of the surface was all the more applicable, particularly in connection with the kind of usages which emphasize their ability to exactly represent and faithfully document, and which become more effective the more transparent the medium appears. If one wishes to use photography as a window to the world and enjoy the view uninterrupted, the screen better not be cracked. A photograph’s illusionary space, constructed by every trick in the book on perspectival art, can be traversed with little difficulty if no fingerprint obstructs one’s entrance. A photo can provide the world with continuity, coherence, and seamlessness, which, in actuality, it never possesses. Additionally, in the undamaged surface, remnants of the belief in a quasi-automatic emergence of the photographic image are conserved, which has in fact always been a relatively manual process, but to the image-retentive layperson its dirtiest stages have always remained hidden beneath the dark cloth, in the darkroom, or in the photo lab, from whence, as if untouched by the human hand, a flawless picture emerged.
The inviolability of surfaces is not really Marko Lipuš’s thing. In his previous series, he treated image carriers with an angle grinder, cut up and reassembled negatives, sanded photographic paper with different grits of sandpaper, and scratched the emulsion layer with needles. To date, he has mostly reintegrated these interventions in the final order of the image. What he is after, then, is not so much a declamatory gesture of iconoclastic fury. For the moment, breaking open the surface remains merely a sign, but a thoroughly programmatic one at that. By tearing the surface open, Lipuš exemplarily retraces from analog to digital the opening of a medium that has long been negotiated in absolute categories. A hybrid creative process is moved into focus in which the traditional end-products of photography—negative and print—serve primarily as raw material for further processing. With this, the artist also emphasizes the act of subjective arrangement, both on the side of the producer and the viewer, with all its fractures, constructs, and idiosyncrasies.
The series “Scratchings blue” consists of sixteen large-format C-prints whose subjects oscillate between abstraction and surreal landscapes. The jumping-off point for these works is a series of details Lipuš photographed as part of a residency on the premises of the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei (a cotton mill)—a prime example of rezoning a former industrial location for cultural purposes. The original space only figures as a distant reference in the final version of the series. The transformation of raw material is too radical; analog and digital processes and mechanical interventions intertwine. Lipuš juxtaposes the traces recorded on site with the traces of his working process, putting both on equal footing.
The individual images of the series are presented as variations of one subject. In each instance, the viewer looks at a karstic plane which seems to stretch out to the horizon, but its actual extent remains unclear due to a lack of objects which might help to compare scale. Despite the intrinsically planar composition, the images develop a veritable maelstrom of depth; the dominant shades of blue in combination with the shallow depth of field and the brownish surfaces occasionally have a similar effect as spatial illusions in the old masters’ landscape paintings. A jagged gap—in some works also a straight line—guides the viewer’s eye into the expanse of the pictorial space until it gets lost in the hazy blue of the horizon, as if it had to penetrate the atmosphere for the length of several miles. In one work of the series, a rusty brown monolith rises at the outermost edge of the visual field; a colossal slab which could not even have been rendered more powerfully by Richard Serra himself. The coloration of the surface is reminiscent of oxidized steel and evokes the industrial element of the series’ place of origin, not so much as a trace, however, than as a symbol.
Lipuš’s scratchings foray into the sublime peace of the blue surface like fireworks. Thin hairline cracks extend across the entire image, at times chaotic, at times concentrated, and reconverge in reticular plexuses only to spray apart again; they hover in the sky like rosy-fingered, shimmering northern lights or pour into the image like a shower of sparks. Occasionally, the scratches expand to become deep furrows and black abrasions whose edges are smoldering yellow and red, as if substances were still reacting and further eroding the surface of the image. As a matter of fact, one does look at the result of a chemical reaction here, a chemical reaction with which the light-sensitive layer of the scraped negative replies to its wound, displaying the scab of the analog material, as it were.
With his scratchings, Lipuš inserts additional layers into the photograph, which on the one hand place themselves like barrage in front of the pictorial space, but with which they, on the other, also interact from time to time. A dark scar, for instance, continues a crack in the floor with an elegant line; sometimes the fine scratches follow the vectors of the room only to suddenly break away from the direction they were headed. What is thus created is a pictorial space which no longer has anything to do with the static linear perspective of traditional photography, but in which individual image and reality layers intertwine.
The blue color of the works provides the perfect stage for this process. The color itself is a hybrid creation. In these images, the blue that confronts us is a color of distance, of the expanse which makes us appear small in comparison, the cracked ice of an arctic sea in which the light is reflected in blinding white. Blue—perhaps the most poetic of all colors and the subject of many a verse, from Novalis and Oskar Loerke to Konrad Bayer—is no longer a local color in Lipuš’s series, but is generated in a digital whim, a scanner’s twitch, which, overwhelmed by the hues of the original material, has made sense of it all by itself. Moving close enough to the image, one can make out the irregularities in the blue surfaces, a suppressed storm of red and green dots, marks from the digital processing.
In the noise of the surfaces the lines blur between the digital traces, the traces of mechanical intervention, and the remnants of the photographic documentarian forensics on location that Lipuš used as source material. Apart from experimenting with the potential of contemporary art photography, the series is also a poignant appreciation of the series’ provenance: on a factory floor, on which people toiled for decades under strict regulations, punching time clocks and burning away years of their lives, Lipuš constructs a blue space of possibilities.
Prima la musica, poi le parole, we say glibly, and as long as we’re not talking about Schubert’s Erlkönig, we tend to believe it. Forget about the Ode to Joy, but the overall question remains: How does it work when words are set to music? The expression itself implies that the text is there first and the musica comes later. Well, perhaps chronologically. But is chronology relevant to a work of art? Now that even plagiarism has been elevated to an art form that meets with almost hysterical acclaim, earning good money for today’s publishers and Hegemanns, who still cares about that old-fashioned question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?
However, in places other than Berlin they may be less desperate to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and perhaps we can put aside our flippant indifference for a moment while we take a look at Marko Lipuš’s photo cartoons, which are the actual subject of this discussion, as I may have forgotten to mention at the beginning (but so what?).
Between March and October 2007, these photo cartoons – there are something like a considerable number of them – appeared week by week in “Album,” the weekend supplement of the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. They originated when the author approached a string of writers with the idea that each of them should formulate a “thought,” based on which he would then create some images. Logically enough, the resulting intervention was surtitled The Thought. In the singular, mind you. Now this in itself is highly intriguing given that writers produce stories (or poems and the like) rather than thoughts, which are the prerogative of armchair politicians and philosophers, and it wouldn’t be fair to deprive those occupational groups of their livelihood.
Nevertheless – but just this once, because it’s for a good cause – the keepers of the narrative were permitted to encroach on the territory of abstraction. Take, for example, Thomas Glavinic’s thought, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Clearly a very subtle distinction is being made here, which in itself is perfectly legitimate and no problem at all. But when it comes to the visual interpretation – and that is, after all, the self-imposed task of Lipuš’s intervention – things start to get dicey. You have to wonder why there are no illustrated editions of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and so on. Does the thing-in-itself defy representability? What does the “in and for itself” look like? Does it have a beauty mark? Does it smile? With his thought Arno Geiger gives us another chunk of Hegel: “This is how history is crawling towards its end.” Kant, on the other hand, resonates in Sabine Scholl’s thought, “Reason belongs to the house.” Or has Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking” sneaked in here?
Whatever – the source material for Lipuš’s cartoons is anything but concrete. And this is exactly where he begins his clever game in which irony, a dash of sarcasm and the possibilities offered by photomontage are used to concretize the abstract, inevitably supplying a definition and an interpretation in the process. For example, Scholl’s thought is transformed into the Austrian parliament – so much for reason! – and the building’s median risalit takes the shape of a doghouse, in front of which is a dog on a chain. Over on the left is a pedestal bearing a bone instead of a column. Once again we have Hegel, who wrote aptly and apodictically that “the spirit is a bone.” (Honorable gentlemen in parliament, take note.) Geiger’s thought is concretized into a car with an oversized exhaust pipe, followed by a variation on Munch’s The Scream on a country road, and finally a vintage alarm clock with missing hands. What do they tell us? By evoking the thrill of speed, the car challenges the word “crawling.” The scream recalls Schiller’s dictum that “the history of the world is the world’s court of justice,” and ends up as a dysfunctional alarm clock in Hegel’s notion of bad infinity. What makes this cartoon so engaging is that Lipuš refuses to clothe his rejection of the idea of a meaningful thrust of human history in the pathos of disillusionment.
The illustrations could have turned out differently, of course. That distinguishes them from cartoons derived from fiction, such as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or a comic book series based on Léo Malet’s detective novels. These random examples, whose Parisian setting may also be simply coincidental, show that Lipuš’s photo cartoons are not necessarily aimed at creating clarity.
We can see just how differently his images function if we conduct the following experiment: Instead of looking at the images as illustrations, we understand the individual thoughts as ekphrastic descriptions of the images. Let’s go back to the concretization of Scholl’s thought and reverse the chronology. The statement for Lipus’s image could just as easily have been “And the spirit protects us all.” Or, as Foucault wrote somewhere, “Critique is the art of how not to be governed like that.” A thousand other phrases would be just as acceptable and convincing once a relationship is established between image and text.
Yet the concrete image suddenly becomes abstract (or generalized), in the same way as the abstract thought becomes concrete. And it would be wrong to assume that this thought experiment in viewing the image and text as a whole would not be present just as the reverse. The constant redefinition of the roles creates a construct in flux.
Lipuš takes this interplay further, extending it to the idea of authorship: In each of his photo cartoons, there is a field on the left that includes the name of the writer and that of the cartoonist. From both of these names arrows point to a figure who is waving. The figure is made up of a coat, a hat, and a raised hand. Who is depicted in this montage, the author of the image or the author of the text? Now the former, now the latter? Neither one? Or are the two of them in cahoots?
Once again we abruptly find ourselves in the realm of that undecidability which Derrida needed thousands of pages to explain, and which goes all the way back to epoché (the suspension of judgment) in Pyrrhonian skepticism.
The photographic artist Marko Lipuš can seek consolation in Derrida’s assertion, “Images still have the last word.” But that too is just another statement.
[Project: 31 SCRATCHINGS]
Marko Lipuš is quite merciless with his pictures. He cuts, breaks and scratches the negatives of the photos he has taken of writers with needles, knives and sand-paper. On top of all that, in the present work he confronts them with only one page taken from one of their texts, no more than an extract, a snippet, a snapshot – which is another act of mercilessness.
Peter Wollen writes: “The lover of photography is fascinated not only by the moment, but also by the past. The moment captured in a picture lasts an almost negligible amount of time and is located in the eternally fleeting ‘then’. At the same time also the viewer’s ‘now’ – the moment in which he looks at the picture – has no defined length. It can be stretched as long as it holds the viewer’s fascination, and be endlessly repeated as long as curiosity returns.” This, continues Wollen, is the essential difference between photography and film. Pictures, like literature, do not dictate us the length of time we dedicate to them. In contrast to painting, photography always captures an extract of a time line, an extract of the world as it surrounds us. If Lipuš chooses only one single page of an author’s work to place it opposite his photograph, he then parallelises the photographical act of fragmentation. At the same time, the viewer/reader is asked to perceive the text differently – the fragment gains more meaning, it joins the other fragments in the book. Thus, the viewer/reader is tempted to make connections between the text and the picture, to fill the space between the two art forms.
Lipuš does not limit himself to comparing text with photography by means of basically using a montage – in this case quite a simple one. His scratched photographs are also montages: he first separates the negatives, then joins them together again, consciously leaving gaps and breaks, which can either be considered wounds or, on the contrary, islands, which seem to swim toward each other, reminding us of a continental drift. However, Lipuš’s work has little to do with montage in the classical sense. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh ascribes to it the “acquisition and depletion of meaning, the fragmentation and dialectic comparison of individual snapshots” as well as the “systematic division of the signifier and the signified”. Usually created from separate elements to make new configurations, here the opposite is the case: Lipuš uses only one photograph. The act of cutting is somewhat violent. The reconstruction, on the other hand, seems like a reconciliation; his works thus look like picture puzzles. They are reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s classic book (“On Photography”), where she wrote amongst other things: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
It is also worth noting how Lipuš works on his negatives aside from the montage: he scratches them, carves tiny symbols and drawings into them. He uses antiquated techniques, in some places the scratches are reminiscent of etchings, the delicate images of early graffito art which were found on walls and memorials long before the time of the tags and stencils of today’s graffiti sprayers. Although the photographs taken by Lipuš are relatively recent, they therefore seem much older; as if a disassociated patina overshadowed them. They elude the viewer on various levels, also through the black missing parts in their bodies. For example, Friederike Mayröcker is missing one half of her face, Peter Turrini has to manage with only one eye and Feridun Zaimoglu has been forbidden to speak (he has no mouth), whilst Markus Werner’s shoulder, part of his jaw and neck have been removed. Walter Kappacher’s face has been split into three parts, whilst Marica Bodrožić and Gerhild Steinbuch are allowed to stay more or less complete. The more scratched a negative is, the more the portrayed people withdraw into the impenetrable depth of the picture: Drago Jančar, for example, seems to be partly concealed by a veil; Kathrin Röggla is hiding behind streaks. As far away as they seem to be from us, they are still close to us. The staring eyes of Walter Kappacher, Robert Menasse’s frown and Gerhild Steinbuch’s slightly bored look bring them back to us into the here and now. A fundamental factor in photography – the dichotomy between presence and absence – is thereby underlined. It’s not difficult to think of those “scratches” and “dephotographisations” as archaeological finds. Only Lipuš does not excavate any objects; instead he tries to find a person out, to reveal their character layer by layer.
Lipuš’s attitude towards his subjects changes: sometimes affectionate, sometimes ironic, sometimes both. Robert Menasse is given a funky haircut – or is it perhaps genius thoughts emanating from his head? – moreover, there is a knife, a trident and a flower in his jacket pocket. The young Steinbuch gets a small flower on her hat; Zaimoglu, on the contrary, gets a whole bouquet put in front of his chest. Markus Werner gets a replacement for his cut off shoulder, and he is allowed to smoke, too. Maja Haderlap’s hair seems to have grown, or perhaps she has grown a halo. Who knows? Out of Peter Handke’s shoulder grows a little heart. A tiny train, a wheel and a figure bustle around in Gert Jonke’s picture.
These are symbols that are as small as those on search pictures; one literally has to look for them with a magnifying glass. Only the very observant viewer can detect these icons which hide in the texture of the picture although they are so obviously there. They form opposites to the often fairly serious looking authors – tiny commentaries speaking with the wink of an eye of the easiness of life, writing and art-making.
[Project: 26 SCRATCHINGS]
In the beginning there is rebellion. Everything, which has been accepted as normal, triggers doubt. All that has prevailed as the given standard has to be questioned. “My starting point is not to agree to the established norms without probing them,” states Marko Lipuš. On the other hand, what is the alternative? “There isn’t anything new that’s for sure too.”
This is at least at the first sight the inherent problem of the photography. By adding millions of millions of examples every day, everything under the sun and also everything beyond its reach has been photographed by now.
Yes and no. One may well take issues with that proclamation since, at least on a formal level, the position is valid too. Every moment in a child’s life, every moment of a solder in combat, of a pet, or each day of a vacation, even all sunsets and flowers are unique. The eternal sameness can lead to something new. Whoever takes a picture might have something specific on his mind; whoever looks at it might see something else. Even though there are billions of photos it is still possible to see new pictures. Like those created by Lipuš, although he seems to be suspicious of this possibility.
Let me elaborate further. Beside the inquiry about the uniqueness or repetitiousness of photography there is an additional area of tension. Even if the result might not need a spokesperson there is also a context outside the picture. Whether this is just a trivial, explanatory signature or whether this means the embedding of a moment into time as required and executed by historians of photography.
Marko Lipuš is not a historian of photography. He defines photography as a creative act that is essential and exceptionally straightforward without any diversions and deviations. In his opinion “The image alone shall communicate, stir and address”. My uncle Leo would have been delighted to hear that. His entire life he had to deal with people who, to his great chagrin, were adorning their art work with a lot of mumbo-jumbo. Once, as he was listening to an artist on a TV show who called attention to the explanatory texts below her art work, he grumbled “Art that comes with operating instructions gives me the willies.”
Lipuš too dislikes prescription leaflets. Very often indeed their purpose is to sell (in literal sense) a “great picture”. They opportune purpose is to illustrate a picture, to advertise a product or to prove a certain set of technical skills. They are more or less a display of good craftsmanship. Marko Lipuš does not have any of those intentions. He is interested in aesthetical particulars and how they can be changed. Anything else might sound very good but has nothing to do with art. “Would you invite”, he rhetorically inquires, “a writer of manuals to give a public reading at a writer’s event”? (However, I do recall one incident that raises some objections: Enzensberger advised to read train schedules since they are more reliable than poetry. Arrival times, advertisement for deodorants or leaflets written by spiritists – why not? But this is an entire different chapter. Let us stay with the pictures).
Lipuš studied the aesthetical criteria’s of photography in Vienna, in Prague, and has since done so in his everyday work. He does master these very well since just recently a major German newspaper published three of his portraits of Robert Menasse. But “good photos” were never his intention. “Beauty is not enough”. He requires more than the simple correlation of “taking a picture here and exhibiting the results elsewhere.“
Searching for examples that go beyond the straightforward and quick reception, we might turn to the Cameraworks by David Hockney. The painter worked during the eighties with Polaroid and 35 mm film. He made dozens of photo synthesis of one subject such as people, apartments, and landscapes; he arranged them as patchworks to make a composite image. This procedure allowed him to bring the aspect of time back into the photo, a dimension that disappears in a single take. “The viewer”, so Lipuš, “does not observe everything at once but rather examines step by step until he assembles gradually the entire picture, since we also don’t see “in actuality” everything at one glance.”
However, Lipuš takes a crucial step beyond that. The rebellion with which he challenges the conventional norms begins with the negative. He employs the negative as a raw material for various manipulations and not as a sacred foundation that proofs the authenticity. He paints over, scratches, and makes collages out the starting material. He zooms up for further processing. He plays with emulsion, segmented faces, and undermines clichés (such as family). Due to this process a photo usually viewed in a naturalistic fashion becomes a medium itself that according to Stefan Gműnder “is capable of doing things which others are not able to”.
The creator of these manipulations calls them “Verfotografierungen / re-photographs”. This echoes in a way Brecht, it sounds as if the technique arrived through this detour at its original purpose. (Since we have mentioned Hockney: In the meantime he has found another approach to challenge the established norms of his art. Recently the academically trained painter started to produce pictures with the software “Brushes” on his IPhone…).
Lipuš wants to express more than the camera is capable of recapturing. The photography has been taken over by technical standards and by cultural expectations. As a result, the world of images appears to be in a haze. But sometimes it is possible to see the world as a newborn does who, according to scientists, sees the world brighter, sharper. Maybe Lipuš does see more.
[Project: SCRATCHINGS – REAL MODEL FIGURES]
If photos are not understood only as a document and documentation tool, but rather as a creative medium, we can look in the iconography of Marko Lipuš quite heterogeneous bits. However, this variety of particular series of his photographic oeuvre does not mean wandering through the expression and finding the right, corresponding and appropriate framework, which would in a direct approach replace the content, but the joy of browsing – joie de bricoler – through drawers of his own interests and transferring of the outside world into the space of intimacy. In this is a catch of his performance that extends from the personal, which is of course in the first place, and playful to a critical and social, as well as indignantly sharp to soft lyrical.
In any case, Lipuš’s photos that connects the individual elements into a coherent artistic confession, set a realistic reminiscence of our world, even if he’s often layering other visual elements into them, when he paints, collages, montages them. Some he even lets to share their stories alone through a game of light and shadows, which actors are either living people or processed, repainted pseudo-comic figures, and sometimes even dolls and models, toys that in their severity express truly haunting image through the amazing photographic print and creepy point out what the toys stores offer to our children. With this work acquires attribute of a conductor, which tension shakes us and not releases, and translator, which exposes our sloppiness to us, of course, if we also acknowledge it to ourselves.
By looking at the Marko’s pictures we consequently discern their message and fine artistry, their formal and compositional aspect and content and their materiality and metaphoricality. By looking into their world, we instantly ask ourselves about our reality in the world of virtuality, or perhaps we even become aware of our virtuality in one’s reality, helplessness of individual, who is first individually locked into something called social links, and then delusions of wider society that is as haunted hanging on threads and can not see or just refuses to see are shown , since with each new jitter marionette puppeteers are only further tightening it since the show must continue, whether it is called in any way and whether it bears any title.
Because, names, definitions, declarations that makers always come up with at the daily treadmill are precisely the cage in which we are locked when they are constantly changing subject and at the same time object of the discussion. We must be kept in virtual reality, as opposability, real virtuality would be too dangerous for the ruling and for anyone who would let it, could be fatal. But then, Marko Lipuš is walking on this terrain, he walks along the path of real virtuality within which he reveals delusions of the civilisation today. These delusions are not innocent processes of creating some kind of objects for common use or just toys for young, from which grows big, but the operating principles, which clearly uncovers constellation of social relationships, relations between puppeteers and puppets.
When we try to understand the narration of Lipuš’s photos, we need to look beyond their form and external dimension. The diversity of his terminology can be comprehended in understanding of their internal relationships, in the feeling of their dynamics. Even, perhaps after a speech on the engagement of these works is to write about feelings for someone even questionable, it is necessary to emphasize this aspect of his work. Intimacy is through moments all time crawling at the pictures, it is present everywhere: in the choice of motifs, the use of light, color entry, the decision of the themes , pledge for a cycle or series, and even in the selected scope – portrait, figure, collage etc. – and on the ground – in the studio, inside, outside – from which arise single images and draw after our perceptions to the basis of our feelings.
Right in the integration of diverse worlds, the diversity of procedures disclosed in uniform and unique creation of imagery. However, there is also a catch that can be called “Lipuš’s turn”, when we realize that the proverbial diversity is actually mask clamped to us by “puppeteers” while they’re making and selling always the same thing. Therefore is art and therefore we can understand creative processes of Marko Lipuš as detaching these masks, what is even more clear when he actually covers photographed face with it and sets a figure into the world of animation, he hides it among equals, among its similars. In this is something tribal, like only covered, obscured face is the one which gives the right image, which allows human to be, to show up, to express, to feel and sympathize, to exist.
When we catch an eye on such photo, which is sometimes chipped, sliced, to be able to demonstrate in the nakedness of its own media its players to their flesh, their bloody torn, that does not detract them from themselves, and secondly it occurs with grotesque, drawn facial mimics, in the same way frozen in time like a photograph without any intervention, we first ask ourselves what we see, an image of the photographed or a photograph of an image. And if we – past consideration of the aestheticisation of form and reflection of symbolisation of content – are flashed by such doubt, we are on the good track, especially when we realize that we have stepped onto it completely accidentally and unintentionally, in short, instantaneously and intuitively: in this character Marko will be subtly spotted.
[Project: 31 SCRATCHINGS]
Marko Lipuš demonstrates how he furnishes photographic portraits of authors with increasing artistic value.
“I think photo art should be concerned exclusively with the aesthetics. The visual is the origin of the picture. The visual part alone is to express, move, respond, to please or also not too. The work of the artist must speak; be able to speak. It must stand for itself – without explanation, without enclosing an instruction manual of the creator.”
Who is stating these words is not a pictorialist at the turn of the 20th century, but the young photographer and photo artist Marko Lipuš in his manifesto on artistic photography. 100 years ago everything still was focused around the question of integration of photography into the art system; to release her from the duties that painting brought up and to establish photography as independent artistic medium (which should finally succeed only much later, in the suction of conceptual beginnings). Lipuš is concerned to turn back and to select from the start. Because in his eyes meanwhile not everything that pretends to be photo art, really is such. Thus he separates strictly between photo handicraft and photo work of art.
The author portraits from the series of scratches re-photographs follow a direct, but nevertheless rational relation to the observer in a first rather conventional representation logic comparable to the book cover. In order to make art from them, Lipuš follows an old prescription. In 1927 the art historian Ernst Kallai (1890-1954) pointed out, what was necessarily missing to photography at its time compared with really artistic media: the facture as “optically perceptible tension between visual material and picture”. To compensate this deficiency, the level drawn in between portrayed and recipient must be focused and the alleged transparency of the medium must be broken. Somehow it must be scratched at the photographic smooth surface to show the same one. This can be taken literally. Lipuš plans his negatives, cuts them, adds scratching wounds to them, and in addition brings a kind of symbolism to the large sized exposures on noble barite paper. He adds on graphics: constructively in continuity or additionally on shifted contours, others like abrasions. Appropriately, this in the long run literary method produces quite poetic results, because the vulnerability of the surface drops back onto the illustrated and enables a deeper view. The once dead mirror of nature seems anyhow broken thereby.
Via handicraft photo work of handicraft is to become a photo art. About risks and side effects history of art will inform you.
[Project: 31 SCRATCHINGS]
Life is not round, life is a broken bottle, the actor Omar Sharif once mentioned in an interview. I don’t know why this sentence came to me and then sustained in my mind while regarding Marko Lipuš ‘ scratches -. Perhaps it suits Omar Sharif so well because he after all burned himself into the non-removable disk of our minds – not as a human being, but as a melancholic, passionate doctor Schiwago. Maybe because this short sentence tells a life history with breaks and psychic trauma, possibly even similar to those of poor Schiwago. Perhaps also, because life stories and all stories deal with memory. Memory is connected with literature and the same is connected again with images. With subjective images from inside, which develop while reading. Furthermore, literature is related with outside images, because who isn’t interested in how the person looks like who wrote the book, how Gert Jonke looks, the face of Friederike Mayröcker or Markus Werner.
“The work of the artist must speak, be able to speak. The work must stand for itself – without explanation, without enclosing an instruction manual” writes Marko Lipuš, born in Eisenkappel / Železna Kapla in 1974, grew up bi-lingual (German and Slovenian), in his manifesto “General text on artistic photography”. And: “Today’s artistic photography is thoughtless, far off the medium, without ideas, elitist, visually insignificant, content wise unconvincing, exaggerated conceptually and aesthetically undemanding.” A manifesto presupposes a clear attitude, rage over circumstances, alert view and knowledge about handicraft and traditions. H. C Artmann, another manifesto writer, postulated in his poetic manifesto: “One can be a poet, without ever having written a single word.” His concern was not to dedicate life completely to artistic production however, but around a certain view of the world; an attitude facing life. The German word “attitude” describes not only the attitude which one has towards things, but also signifies a term in the sense of setting for photography, standing for light, time and perspective. Each photographic setting shows the position of the one who took the picture. Many have thought about this point before. Walter Benjamin in his small history of photography, or Susan Sontag in her essay “On photography”, in which she notes: “while taking photographs one learns why the camera at the same time identifies and isolates” Roland Barthes writes in “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography” that everyone must read ones´ own literature in photography, to confess ones´ own subjectivity.
All this captures rather small interest of Lipuš who educated himself first at the Academy for photography in Prague and at the Viennese school for artistic photography and as well at the Viennese graphic school while living in Milan and London. – Although his, in stating lines “normal” photos of authors are published in the FAZ, the NZZ, the ZEIT, and in various German-language printed media. Nevertheless for him photography does not stand for a technically optimized form of naturalistic representation or a decrease stage of film. He wants to show it more radically, with more power, as his scratches demonstrate he takes of Austrian, German, Swiss´ and Slovenian writers. For Lipuš photography is a medium, which is able, to fulfil things, which remain refused to others. He is concerned to understand the nature of photography and to use it accordingly. Likewise to make literary thoughts visible with words as documented in the scratches. Lipuš integrates a text passage comparable to a text snapshot; from a work of the portrayed author into the momentary photography. He cuts the picture which we get of the author, the authoress, scratches and sticks, overlaps it and uploads it depending upon selected passage, topic or action with symbols. Suddenly cracks but also connecting lines become visible, and if one knows the book; perhaps has had “seen” completely different things. One is irritated – and looks even closer. In the scratches, which give the possibility of reproduction, contrary to conventional collages; Lipuš works directly onto the 13×18 cm large negative; the text is connected with the visual image. The text becomes – as Lipuš calls it: “verfotografiert” – which can be expressed in English at the closest as “re-photographed”.
You shall make yourself an image… the scratches hide and reveal at the same time. They explain, they lightly touch, point into a direction, interpret and describe a possible reading form. The quality of good books can be approved by the formula that they “hold”: One can read them over and over again and to be surprised, to discover certain things which are obvious, but nevertheless not to have “seen” them within the last reading. That has to do with complexity, with compression and as well with blank spots and secrets which the text retains. The scratching are pictures, which remain, because they leave the secrets to image and text and the liberty to the viewers own gaze. I like them because they have something compact despite all breaks. They do not show a person or a work, do not illustrate a superficial feature, but outline a shape. And what about life? – Of course, we experienced it with our entire body. These experiences are not round; they are multi-dimensional and splintered. But the fragment; the piece of broken glass can be the stronger picture of a lost glass than its complete copy. And it is the privilege of art, to hold to the illusion of the indivisible; to the moment and to the subjective view.
[Project: 31 SCRATCHINGS]
Someone once remarked to me that photographs steal the soul, but observing the photos by Marko Lipuš I am bound to dispute that statement. His subjects, including writers, have enigmatic and silent faces charged with an intrinsic poetic quality; their apparently still gazes appear to establish a dialogue with the observer. The artist-photographer “smashes” his images as if to underline a hidden personality within each subject. Hence the idea of Kratzungen, i.e. of critically analyzing the characteristics of immanent forms, to change the point of view (photo) and signs (text), to enable a merging of signs and images, where a form takes on the traits of other forms. The page of a book written by an author whose work has already been published is compared to the person (author) portrayed photographically.
The pages of texts express a representative view in the poetics of the author portrayed. The text creates a brief and “instantaneous” contact with the writer’s artistic output. The pages of the book, extracted from the context of the entire novel, offer a snap shot (a characteristic inherent to photography).
Going on to define how photographic images can characterise both the subject in the portrait and his or her literary works. Through a long, complex process (Kratzungen/Scratches), the meaning of a photo which goes far beyond a snapshot is reinforced. This ingenious process succeeds in providing an accurate description, sketch and interpretation, thus assuming a “literary” characteristic. Texts and passages by the subjects portrayed are displayed within the portrait and are transposed from a content, thematic, interpretative or literal point of view in an experimental manner (“Scratches”) in a photographic-visual portrait. The fil rouge is that the works are all rooted in painting, since imaginary figures and text are “photographically altered”. The images which the reader has already created are extended to the visual representation. The reader/observer is thus offered another key for interpretation.
Every print is taken from a negative, from where it is then placed on photo paper (silver gelatine). This “collage” is created on a negative and can therefore be reproduced, something that has never been possible with traditional collages. This photographic characteristic of reproducibility is an essential requisite, fulfilling an important photographic characteristic. Another important aspect for me is the possibility to interpret the text in the portrait through symbols. As a result of this, I can maintain the relative textual characteristics, that is to say the multiple possibilities of interpretation. In the portrait (original 150 x 110 cm) there are what we might term explorative images that allude to the texts/works of art of the subject portrayed and through these they interpret the latter.
[Project: 31 SCRATCHINGS]
Along all the landscapes bordering to our country, the Austrian “Carinthia” has a very special meaning. These special features in our neighbourhood are based on historical nature which developed over the centuries. It concerns a very traditional starting point, which includes not always such characteristics which one can find in a European aligned Vienna, neither the liberalism; we are trying to develop on this side of the border. Especially those authors are even more interesting, which succeed to overcome the narrowness caused by general conditions and include cultural, artistic and civilization achievements, summaries of common components of all of us into their works.
In the photographic series of Marko Lipuš one can recognize several different conceptual proceedings that are very often expressed differently. If one compares them among each other, one finds some of stressed lyrically content, others again express tunes, contrasts and forms. Besides he proceeds from different categories which contain the documentation of individual situations; for instance perfect directed photographs, in particular if they are portraits. Such pluralism is frequently encountered with recent photographic schools. The author inherits the rich visual tradition; includes this knowledge into the work and at the same time tries to give the work an individual character. If one tries to categorize the style of Lipuš photographs, one finds within them the presence of modernism, in particular its´ directions, which regarded figurative works from the point of view of a researcher. Therefore the photography as such is not a perfectly determined unit, which has all rules set up already and which cannot be changed. With his technique he continues these chapters of modernism, which have looked over and over again for a change in the scheme of visual organization by investigating and developing new innovative proceedings. Especially in such a system one can find progress.
The Portraits incorporate into the series are particularly outstanding along his oeuvre. He uses a very unconventional technique, although so much heterogeneity is to be found in nowadays in visual production that one can ask oneself, whether the use of such expression stands at all in place. However his photographic portraits differ by the fact that his works enter a field where they come into contact with procedures, which one knows from painting or even from graphics. A classical portrait serves as the working basis which is proceeded by the artist techniques, substantially changed and this way receives a new character. It still remains a portrait, containing the most important characteristics of the portrayed, but however now this work inherits still numerous other meanings which possess their own narration completely on the photographic surface, layered one above the other. If one has the feeling that these additives in the form of different layers, lines and abstract components are understood with difficulty, it can be explained by the fact that the structure meaning of Lipuš photographs is arranged in multiple ways. With this visual expression the artist underlines the diversity of the persons presented by him. The portrayed are intellectuals who set important accents with their public work in our recent time. It concerns persons who are mentioned also in this opening text passage broadly representing a society in its cheerful, but also in less pleasant nuances. And this is what these photographs tell us about.
[Project: 31 SCRATCHINGS]
In art history the portrait occasionally reveals more about the portraitist than about the portrayed subject. The portrait can sometimes be timeless or it is looking back to the past, it might emulate the requirements of a particular moment in art history but above all things it discloses the relationship between the painter and the portrayed subject.
However, in traditional photography the subject is mostly characterized by a snapshot, by a fraction of its individuality frozen in time, by just a fragment of its presence and appearances in the world. The photographer stays in the background even though there is a dialog between them. Removed, behind the stage, he becomes and stays the narrator, the observer, and the record keeper of the reflection of reality. Consequently, Marko Lipuš‘s crossing of the border of photography into the field of painting is even more noticeable. The photographical images from the series “Scratchings ” are altered on the negative. They are recreated to constitute portraits of subjects as they have been perceived by the author. Later, in the seclusion of his creative surroundings, they are carried out in a more intimate understanding. Lipuš does not stage their surroundings to represent them in their individuality. He does not place them into artificial conceived sets or costumes which would relate the story of the depicted subjects. Also, he isn’t testing the composition, lighting or physical appearances; he treats and presents subjects through the prism of his own visualization. These are people trapped in his world that defies the medium for he encroaches upon the negative; scratching its surface with a sharp physical (external) impact. He cuts its structure, he paints/draws and glues the fragments made from this process on the negative. The severe interference that appears almost violent, brutal, is continued by constructing a collage and then completed by exposing the finished negative. This treatment shows that the author is primarily interested in exploring the possibilities of photographic expression. The goal of the entire process is to go beyond the technical procedure and to deliberately interfere with the conventional role and function of this medium. Photography becomes only a device manipulated by the inventiveness and individuality of creative reflection. Like most other artists, Lipuš aspires to the departure, the disconnection from the “apparatus” and retracts to the level of creation that is marked by originality and dissimilarity. This takes one back to the remarks by Arnold Newman “Photography, as we all know, is not real at all. It is an illusion of reality with which we create our own private world.”
We could also draw a parallel to the great David Hockney and his famous series “Joiners” since Lipuš employs photography with the intention to create, to make a painting. His “photography – paintings” are not and cannot be recognized as photography only. These “photographic collages” are the result of critical assessments of the medium; they are a manifestation of personal expression to that extent that the presence of the author can be sensed to a degree larger than that of the person portrayed.
In a broader perspective the “Scratchings” of Lipuš can be also tied to the photographic work of Deborah Turbeville, one of the “enfants terrible” of the world of fashion photography. She plays with the negative by tearing and scratching it and by conveying an image of vulnerability by photographing through broken glass. In spite of their very different art concepts there are similarities in artistic methods and techniques. Both artists are exploring the boundaries of this medium by very unique methods. Turbeville staged her portrayed subjects in an ambience tinged with romanticism, saturated with the tension of expectations and with the anxieties of the anticipated; while Lipuš, with his intellectually retained expression, reaches into the darker, unarticulated corners of the private.
Because the photographic work “animates” the precise deducing of an idea and the perfect shaping of content in recreating the previously seen and recognized, it seems that the persons portrayed by Lipuš have found themselves in a dimension reaching beyond reality…
About Marko Lipuš’s Dephotographisations
[Project: 31 SCRATCHINGS]
Beside a spell of bad luck, at least for the superstitious, the breaking of a mirror also marks the beginning of Viennese Actionism in Austria or rather the “Festival of Psycho-Physical Naturalism”, the first public action by Otto Mühl and Hermann Nitsch in 1963, during which numerous other things also got broken and went “muddy”. And so – reflecting on a metaphor already applied to photographic realism in the 19th century – the symbol of an art was found, an art that was no longer concerned with the reflection of superficialities, but with the laying bare per se.
The wild game is now over. When the young photographer and photo-artist Marko Lipuš violently attacks the negatives of his author portraits, the cracks, grooves, and scratches he applies to the photographs appear far too thoughtful, too composed, to have been inflicted to release pent up aggression or to reveal his own desires. He scratches the medial surfaces of his photographs rather purposefully. Analysing the core of the image, he makes a concept of the image come alive that is rarely associated with photographic portraits.
If you consider the development of the image as a concept, you will quickly notice (perhaps with surprise) that while photography involved a revolution in the practicalities of image production, it left the theoretical foundation of the nature of an image at first untouched. It rather drew a strict conclusion from a fully developed idea that, at that time (in 1839), had been around for more than 400 years. In 1435 Leon Battista Alberti set to work to translate into Latin Brunelleschi’s experiments on creating a linear perspective image, which could match the natural perception of space. He presents the image as a result of quite complicated, but essentially mechanical calculations. To explain these also metaphorically, he uses a comparison, which was to become very famous very soon: as a cut made through the pyramid of sight the image was like a window. Thus, the core concept of a realistic image had been conceptualised paradoxically, as it were: a surface itself, an image shows something else, as if it were made of glass and transparent, as Alberti explains further. Therefore, it represents something qualitatively unrelated, something that obviously lays behind it. Although at first, probably to match the surface texture of the daguerreotype, Alberti’s window or rather glass metaphor, shifted towards that of the (silver) mirror, the theorisation of the photographic image can be seamlessly linked hereto. “Imagine that the mirror retained an impression of the objects it mirrored and you have a pretty complete introduction to the daguerreotype,” explains art critic Jules Janin in the arguably first ever text to describe the photographic medium. Similarly, Oliver Wendell Holmes speaks about the daguerreotype as a fixed mirror image. Even though now, thanks to the new comparative possibilities, the image’s surface is described in a material way, this does not much affect Alberti’s concept. Photography becomes the prototype of the realistic image, as Alberti envisioned. It captures nature – at the least in the eyes of its first advocates – in a nearly perfect way.
For a pictorial medium this can also result in negative conclusions and very soon did. After all, the surface of a perfect realistic image itself does not depict anything, but instead carries the image of something completely different. The more realistic an image is, the more it must effectively deny its own graphic quality to become a transparent foil behind which something is displayed. The more realistic an image, the less it can show the artist’s style. The mirror metaphor can be directly linked to the verdict of pretence, or the mirror is described as dead to begin with: as a medium for reflecting illusions devoid of ideas, which has qualitatively nothing to do with an artistically authentic image because while it fulfils the criteria of materialistic objectivity, it is also immune to any trace of subjectivity. For example, as much as Charles Baudelaire appreciates the imaging quality of photography when the subject is his mother’s realistic portrait, he takes a very critical stand towards the photography’s mechanical behaviour when an artistic image is required. He establishes a connection between photography and what he calls the “industrial delusion” of his time. To him, photography is like a machine that destroys artistic imagination, satisfying the bourgeoisie’s understanding of reality based purely on consumption and self-sufficiency, and providing everything but the truth.
In the 20th century the discussion was not over by a long shot. In 1927 Ernst Kallai defined what, in his eyes, the photography was lacking to be considered an artistic medium: the factor of an “optically perceivable tension between the image material and the image”. Therefore, to him, photography is also incapable of truly objectifying: “Certainly, it creates copies of reality that can be brilliantly clear and precise. But the perception substrate of these rich illusions, conditional upon actual material, is extremely poor, almost insubstantial.” He too falls back on the traditional metaphor: “The photographic level of composition is a spotless, pervious mirror surface.”
In 1945 André Bazin finally compared the two types of realism with each other: the non-pictorial, psychologically acting, illusionistic and the far more profound, aesthetic one, capable of showing not only the objects’ physical appearance in space, but also their spiritual reality. To him, by inventing perspective, the art of painting had, in a way, sinned and had, in this fall from grace, sacrificed the “symbolism of form” (something the art of the Middle Ages concerned itself with) on the altar of purely copying the outside world. He considers photography a New Testament-like revelation, as it were, capable of freeing the picture from this original sin because it could take upon itself to and actually satisfy the desire (which has its origins in magic) for the relic-like exact conservation of an image. Photography finally embodied the technique for the creation of a true-to-life image of the reality as an image generating apparatus. As such – in contrast to a realistically painted picture, which was affected by the certainty of its manufactured creation – a photograph was beyond the shadow of a doubt. In fact, photography possessed our belief in the reality of that which is depicted by it, and could therefore truly represent, thus finally allowing modern painting to reclaim its aesthetic-stylistic qualities.
Already in their time Kallai and Bazin have admittedly been contradicted by the photographic practice. The Picturalists were probably the first who dared to question the transparency of the photographic medium as such. They employed blurring, pictorially looking duplicating techniques, re-touching – everything to unmask the surface of a photographic image and thus to defend its pictorial qualities from depiction paradigms rigidly attributed to photography at that time.
“I think photo art should simply be concerned with aesthetics. The visual is the origin of the image. The visual alone is to express, move, appeal, and please or not. An artist’s work must speak, be able to speak. The work must stand for itself – without explanation, without an instructions leaflet from the artist.”
These were not the words of a Pictorialist from the turn of the second-last century, but those of Marko Lipuš in his manifest on artistic photography. If only 100 years ago the issue was still whether to integrate photography into the art world at all, to free it from painters’ official duties, and to establish it as an independent artistic medium in its own right (which was to succeed only much later, in the wake of conceptual approaches), today Lipuš is concerned with bestowing the portrait – especially that of the photographic genre, which is the only type likely to be used as a relic in a Bazinian sense – with artistic qualities, or rather, tying it back to its pictorial qualities. The immediate, but still mostly soberly composed reference to the observer of the portrayed could be congruent with the reality-preserving realism Bazin considered to be truly photographical. To compensate for the flaws described by Kallai though, Lipuš then focuses on the conveyance level that appears between the portrayed and the recipient, breaks the perceived transparency of the photographic medium. Somehow, the photographic smooth surface must be scratched in order to be visualised. After all, the medium itself becomes perceivable only by being wounded.
Lipuš takes his negatives, cuts them, inflicts wounds by scratching them and bestows the large-format prints laid out on precious baryte paper with a certain symbolism, works graphisms into them: some of them constructively redrawing or completing the shifted outlines and others appearing as wear and tear.
What happens then is perhaps best described semiologically: the continual message without a code, in a Barthian sense – which indeed reduced reality, but could not transform it because that would contradict the divide between the signifié (the signified) and the signifiant (the signifier) – is broken into pieces to instead bring about that same effect of reality before (in the appearance of the principles by which it is defined) an additional connoted message would catch up with it anyway. Barthes stays loyal to the mirror metaphor, as the creation of a photographic image initially remains for him a quasi-natural event: “During the transition from reality to its photocopy it is by no means necessary to divide this reality into units and to constitute these units as signs, which differ substantially from the presented object; it is by no means necessary to create a relay, a code that is, between this object and the image.”
This is precisely what Lipuš does not follow. Being the artist’s direct influence on the image, the revisions of the photograph contradict the basic principle of photography. What otherwise initially could have been accepted as the analogue of reality, before it would have been recognised by its rather conventional representational logic, is now being firmly furnished with “style”; in other words, with what Barthes’ additional message amends the analogue reproduction of reality. Overwriting the image, they highlight the stylistic ambitions of the photographs and shorten the development of a connoted (and encoded) message.
Does this mean that the artistic imagination Baudelaire was missing will once more invade the photograph? After all, the traces deliberately worked into the photos unearth an ultimately literary moment and thus fit in with the images’ theme. This may result in breakthroughs, insights into a secondary, deeper background reality and in the best possible case, into what constitutes the essence of an author’s work. Perhaps the form thus becomes symbolic, as what fascinated Bazin about the art of the Middle Ages. At any rate, the vulnerability of the surface put on display reflects on the portrayed, and also allows for a deeper insight. The rest is, without a doubt, poetry.