Every Photograph is an Enigma

NYT Photo Wind Tunnel in Chalais Meudon, 1935 Silver gelatin print, 18 x 24 cm

NYT Photo Wind Tunnel in Chalais Meudon, 1935.

Photo exhibition: Every Photograph is an Enigma
Venue: Fotomuseum Winterthur, Gruezenstrasse 44+45, Winterthur, 8400, Switzerland
from 24-10-2015 to 14-02-2016, Tue-Sun: 11-18 hrs, Wed: 11-20 hrs, Mon: closed
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Photographs often seem familiar and understandable, a visual common sense intimately related to our daily lives. But they can also provoke a spark of amazement or generate a more sustained perplexity and inquiry. Curated by the renowned French photo historian, Michel Frizot, Every Photograph is an Enigma interrogates this paradox. Drawing exclusively from photographs in his private collection, many of them anonymous, he presents a selection of photographic moments at once ordinary and marvellous. Frizot develops a system of classification that explores the strangeness generated by the camera lens. Taken by family members, lovers, or unheralded professional and amateur photographers, the assembled images amount to nothing less than a phenomenology of photography.

Immediately a photograph is taken it generates a distance between what the image reveals and what we have seen for ourselves only seconds before. This observation of disparity is central to the phenomenon of photography, creating a sense of indeterminacy that we might describe as the singularity of the photographic. As Frizot himself puts it, “the photograph is not in its essence a transparency through which we gain access to a known reality but, on the contrary, a source of ambiguity and often, perplexity. The photographic image is a constellation of questions for the eye because it offers viewers forms and signs they have never perceived as such and which conflict with their natural vision”. Every Photograph is an Enigma draws out the full implications of this disparity, everything which constitutes the singularity of the photographic process. This begins with the selection procedure itself: Frizot has collected the photographs over many years, with no predetermined objective, finding scraps and castoffs at flea markets and jumble sales. Abandoned photographs escape traditional standards of classification and judgement and are often the work of anonymous photographers. For Frizot, this artlessness offers ‘an extra touch of photographic naturalness which is not shrouded in conventions’. It is the work of the exhibition to reveal, and the role of the visitor to discover, this photographic supplement.

The exhibition explores the modalities of photographic capture and the out-distancing of the senses that results, above all in the relationship between photographer, subject photographed and the operations of the camera, a technical device. Recording different intensities of light on a photosensitive surface, photography is an index of states of light rather than the reality perceived by the eye. The formal consequences of photographic technique are considerable, whether determined by exposure time, framing, exhaustive detail, or the projection of three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional surface. At the same time, what are fundamentally physical processes are also determined by the split-second decisions taken by the camera operator. It is precisely this that gives rise to the puzzle of photography: the contradictions between the precision of a physical world and the decision-making of the photographer.

Every Photograph is an Enigma explores other aspects of the riddle of photography, including the complexity of the exchange with the subject of the photograph, embodied by a reciprocal glance. The ability of the camera to record human form and gesture is what lends it its quasi-magical vocation. However, that act of recording is dependent on a vast array of potentialities and constraints, including perhaps the demeanour of the participants. The photographic act transforms emotionally-charged, interpersonal experience into uncertain, interpretable signs, a distillation of affect. At the same time, those signs are also dependent on the astuteness of the eyes that scrutinize the photograph, igniting, perhaps, an empathy with others. A photograph is a fragmentary capture and the gaze of the viewer operates in similarly fragmentary bursts. A viewer’s optical capacities are decisive, interpreting, for example, the photograph’s excess of data. The enigma of photography also emerges from the inadequacies and impasses of the energetic viewer’s scrutiny. These, and many other riddles, are explored across eleven separate chapters in the exhibition, which together provide a method for specifically photographic viewing. They probe the way the photographic device is used to celebrate the subject, or the way that processes unique to photography and the photographer’s command of his or her equipment help determine the final image. A further theme investigates the way that viewers are involved in a perceptual relationship which ordinary vision has not accustomed them to, including a display of stereo images. We encounter the myriad ways that photography overwhelms our senses and the many puzzles it presents.

Every Photograph is an Enigma brings together a remarkable selection of everyday photographs, selected over many years by one of the sharpest eyes in the history photography. It offers us the opportunity of a liberated escape into a ‘pure’ photographic act stripped of artistic pretension or historical portent. As Frizot proposes, there are no hierarchies in photography – it is the activity of the gaze that reveals the richness of the image. For the eye, every photograph is an enigma.

The exhibition is accompanied by the fully-illustrated catalogue Toute photographie fait énigme/Every photography is an enigma, by Michel Frizot, in collaboration with Cédric de Veigy. Published by Éditions Hazan. English/French with a German translation of the main texts. Price 45 CHF.

The exhibition is curated by Michel Frizot and organised by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris and the Musée Nicéphore Niépce, Chalon-sur-Saône in collaboration with Fotomuseum Winterthur.

Submitted by Daniela Schwendimann


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