|Paul Citroen, Im Theater/In Theatre, c. 1930|
Qu’est-ce que la photographie is the inaugural exhibition of the new downstairs space devoted to photography at the Centre Pompidou. It was only when the space opened last month that I stopped to think how long awaited it has been: that the national museum for modern art opens its first ever photography space in 2015 is difficult to believe.
|Man Ray, Boite d'allumettes fermée, vers 1960|
The small exhibition asks the question that has pursued photography more than any other medium across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Why photography and not other media? Why not painting? sculpture? The exhibition answers that question as well as asking it: namely, because the photographic medium is delineated by its material like no other in the twentieth century. Immediately, we might think of the cinema. However, though the question is asked of cinema, it is nowhere near to the same extent, probably because the cinema is defined by paying audiences and industrial modes of production from its beginnings.
|James Welling, Gelatin Photograph, 1984|
What is unique about the Pompidou’s introduction to the question of photography’s identity is that the curators have selected some gems, all from their own collection, some of which will be very familiar, others not at all. The curators use the photographs themselves, not the texts about photography to explore the question. Thus, visitors are made aware that the exhibition is not a history of photography and neither does it claim to trace the answering of this question through the history of photography as it has changed and mutated across the centuries. Rather, it’s a selection of works that all engage the question, predominantly at some kind of reflexive level, between the period of the 1930 and 1970, that is, the period when the question was addressed directly by photography itself.
|Denis Roche, Gizeh, 1981|
The exhibition is divided into eight sections that give eight different responses — desires, material, principles, praxis, alchemy, distance, resource, verifications. Some of the images are exquisite, like Paul Citroen’s breathtaking, Im Theater (1930) with its gentle and almost impossible lighting. While others, such as Denis Roche’s Gizeh 1981 is curious and keeps us looking to see if we can determine what is actually in the image, how it is done. James Welling's Gelatin Photograph, 1984 with the substance of photography made sensuous and tactile is compelling.
|Timm Rautert, The Sun and the Moon from the same Negative, 1972|
The photographs that I enjoyed the most were by Ugo Mulas when he completely undoes the illusion of photography, its contradictions, his examination of the impossibility of finding a truth through photography. In a series titled Verifications each piece is invariably doubled, a positive and a negative, a double portrait on the same negative, photographs of the strip of negative image. Mulas interrogates the question of what is photography through representing the nature, ontology and processes of photography itself, within the image. Through Mulas’ work, we come away believing that photography is in its material.
|Ugo Mulas, Verification 7, 1972|
There is a lot of other works worth stopping at, and lots to learn from seeing these unlikely photographers’ work together. The fascination for boxes, the constant exploration of opposites and contradictions in a repetition of the positive/negative instantiation of the image. Indeed, many ideas and realizations are generated by the selection of images from the Pompidou’s own collection. To give one example, the juxtaposition of James Welling's photographs with Man Ray's boxes created interesting connections between to artists' who strip the medium to a fundamental material, at different ends of the twentieth century.
My one criticism of the exhibition relates to the wall texts – the interpretations are forced and often too literal, too unimaginative, giving a straightforward interpretation to works that are often more poetic, thus tending to close down the otherwise very imaginative use of the medium found in the works.