Un-Postmodern Photography

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Lyle Rexer recently gave a lecture at the Scandinavian House on a group of photographers only now starting to be exhibited here in the States, the Helsinki School, whose characteristics include a propensity for abstract experimentation and an ambition to determine how art relates to the rest of the world. Aligning them with the Bauhaus, Rexer contrasts their efforts with the depictive deadpan of notables from Düsseldorf Art Academy, i.e. Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, and the Bechers, as well as the representational proficiency of the F/64ers and Edward Weston. The “denotative” or “expressive” approach intended as “an examination of reality and its forms,” he points out, “is the default setting for contemporary photography.”

Rexer describes the aesthetic of the Helsinki School as maintaining a one-to-one relationship between photography and the real world.

“There are not many artists in the Helsinki School who have simply dispensed with the camera. And are appropriating images, are manipulating images, are fabricating other realities out of images. There is still a continuing commitment to the camera as a tool of expression and as a tool of knowledge—a way of knowing yourself and the world. And in that sense, you might say that the Helsinki School is conservative, not postmodern at all, and very much in the line with earlier photographic traditions, and in that sense a kind of ballast, or a kind of counterweight, to the sort of programs you see that are usually called conceptual.

So I’m thinking about something called the ‘physcho-allegorical’ which is the way I think a lot of Helsinki photographers deal with the person. Not so much as a social being, but as a psychological and expressive being. And the kind of images you tend to get are ones that approach dreams, psychological states, allegories, telling a story about one thing by using images of something else.”

One of the Helsinki artists, Niko Luoma, who just a few weeks ago had a solo show at Bryce Wolkowitz called And Time Is Longer An Obstacle, enumerably aggregates a sliver of exposed light over a long period. This process creates nest-like intersections that appear as illuminated geometric contours. Rexer refers to Luoma’s creative process as a “harvesting of time” and contrasts such an approach, which is in line with previous investigators into the visual capacities of media like László Moholy-Nagy and Gottfried Jäger, with Henri-Cartier Bresson’s temporally charged decisive moment.

For the Q&A I posed a question about the Pictures Generation and how their theories compare to those of the Helsinki School. Rexer’s response distinguishes between concepts affecting a photograph’s meaning and meanings derived from conceptualizations rooted in photographic form:

“They all question the status of the photograph in terms of the culture more broadly, they are interested in its transmission, its consumption, its distribution—all those things that lie outside the image—the desire that’s provoked by photographs, what is it that people bring to photography that makes them want those images—that’s their stock in trade. And it turns out they don’t all share the same attitudes toward photography, and their attitudes have changed over time.

I don’t see any of that in, or, very little of that in, the Helsinki School. There is still a commitment and an interest in the image as a cognitive experience, something you can learn from, that you can appreciate, that you can desire, that can tell you something about yourself and the world around you. And that kind of communicative photography—as a communicative and expressive form—strikes me as very much un-conceptual, very much un-postmodern. Where the concepts come in has to do with things like examining the nature and character of photography, how the processes work, what kind of impact do they have, how are photographs fabricated, what kind of philosophical issues are brought up when you’re making and look at a photograph—that’s the conceptual parts. And I think that’s very compelling.”

Then, when another attendee’s question led him again to the Pictures Generation, Rexer adds nuance to what the Hielsinki School omits, namely digital distribution, and predicts a resurgence of analog techniques.

“It seems to me even the most conservative photographic practices are coming to us now with quotation marks around them. There’s a kind of intense self-awareness in all of photography. So when I talk about the Helsinki School being conservative, that doesn’t mean that we’re talking about artists who are at all naive about the situation of photography. There are things we know about the world, and relationships with photographs of that world that we can’t unlearn. The Pictures Generation’s had a lot to do with that. They have acquainted us, just as Andy Warhol did, with the ‘scene’ underbelly of image culture.

And that’s not going to go away, we can’t will that away. You can’t pretend because you spend all your time in the darkroom that digital imaging is not going on constantly, sampling is not going on constantly, people are manipulating everything—and that’s ultimately got to have an impact. That will change what we desire about photographs and what we expect from them. My sense is that we’re going to see the desire for the analog image—that is, the thing that somehow relates to reality beyond it in some more intimate way, like skin—become more intensely desired. At the same time we’ll see the most extravagant deconstructions of precisely that kind of experience.”