FOR THE ARCHIVES OF GOD
By Armando Silva
It was not until the last century that the British learned from the Hindus that all human beings have an indelible mark on their index finger that makes every single one of us different from the rest of the world. Around the same time the French discovered that an object captured by a camera obscura could be fixed on a highly sensitive plate. With the help of mercury they managed to obtain an image resembling the original model. Photography was discovered, a trigger for what was probably the greatest revolution in the history of the representation of human beings. Photography became the symbol of visual modernism.
Taking photos of faces started to replace the painting of portraits, a custom cultivated primarily by last century's wealthy people. Little by little all social classes were beginnng to have access to being happy targets of a photographic camera. First, fingerprints had made it possible to distinguish individual identities; soon photography was to take their place in this delicate existential compromise and become the most reasonable method for differentiating each individual of the human species. Since those times, still recent and fresh in our memory, the fingerprint has been strongly associated with the image of the human face seen through photography, both, fingerprint and photo show us the differences between people represented in apparent homogeneity, since from the distance - by simple observation - a finger seems to be identical to its peer and a face always seems to be like somebody else's. Let us just think about that stereotype, widely spread throughout the Occident, according to which all Chinese look alike. They could say the same about Hindus, Europeans, Latin Americans and North Americans.
Hence, speaking in modern terms, photography more than any other means of expression represents and talks of identities. For many years at the beginning of this century the idea was postulated that a person is just like his or her photograph. Distinguishing one face from another became the main objective in the creation of police files in an urge to keep identification indexes to tell bandits from good people. Gradually all the countries started to use portrait photographs as the key sign of identification which gave way to the practice of placing a person's photograph at the top of an Identity Card together with an assigned number. This created an equivalence between the person and his or her visual code. The world started to be full of photographic cameras. All over the world they became very popular not only for ceremonial purposes like studio photos or later on photos of family ceremonies, but any motive was important enough to be captured by a camera. This is why nowadays at the end of the Twentieth Century everybody - or nearly everybody - has at least one photographic camera. Solemn studio photo motives, weddings, christenings, confirmations as well as picnics, simple scenes on the street, cars, houses and animals are being delivered to the photographic lens. Nothing escapes its imperial record. Later on, the whole world got invaded by tourists who, cameras in their hands, captured every single geographical corner in search of exquisite and exotic souvenirs. But in one way or another, we have all become tourists and are defined as travellers because we take photographs. Being an international citizen somehow means that we photograph the most trivial things. Many fragments of the world, an infinity of landscapes, light effects and all kinds of objects that no other visual register has been able to capture, are to be found in private and public collections that are enjoyed by their owners and serve as a historical legacy of this period of time tormented by the search of one's self-image. Drawing a parallel to the words of the philosopher Heidegger, one could say that modern times find resonance in photographs: a period of the world's time captured in a picture.
Nevertheless, all human inventions are subject to historical judgement. During the last years of this century a countless number of events and discoveries of new technologies based on the computer have raised doubts regarding the realistic or unrealistic character of a photographic picture. We can no longer go on postulating, as Benjamin did, a time of technical reproducibility (inspired by the photographic copy) where an original is repeated as many times as desired, to the detriment of the seriousness and the uniqueness of a piece of work. The copy turns into the expression of a moment in history in which everything is reproduced in series - not only images but also fashion, food, houses and all kinds of solutions for a most diverse public where one copies the other. Towards the new millenium we are being touched by several facts that indicate an overall transformation of the comprehension of the photographic image. We would not talk anymore about the copy of an original but instead of the existence of many originals.The Photoshop programme allows us to repeat an original in many others because each one of them complies with the condition of being unique. A photographic image submitted to the above mentioned programme may produce as many variations as desired and release each one of them with a new and minimum feature that transforms the previous one. Each photo becomes the matrix of many others that in turn may serve as matrices for some new ones, allowing for an infinite duplication (not copying) process. Simultaneously, another dimension of memory is becoming apparent since both, photograph and memory, as visions of the past, are facing a serious crisis.
Parallel to technological innovations that have ended up defeating the model of an original and many copies, studies within logic, mainly those carried out since the times of the philosopher Charles Pierce, have led to the conviction that the visual nature of the photograph was never that of an icon of the object it represents. Rather than being an analogy of likeness it has the capacity to indicate that the only thing to be testified is that there, in the represented object, there has been an object which was giving out light that then impregnated the film with silver bromide and therefore produced an image. On the basis of this contemporary logic, the photograph is not a substitute of something real it captures but a newly built reality. Certainty is standing back, and all that remains in a photograph are signals that demand that each figure must be interpreted and deduced. Therefore, through photography, modernity which is being represented by photography, is entering into a state of crisis.
In this light of a loss of certainties and new evidences regarding the use and function of contemporary photography, what does Alexander Honory pretend to do by going back to the early times of photography, enclosing models in a container (remembrance of a circus big top) and asking them to look into the lens in order to obtain a souvenir photograph of his visit to different cities in the world? I have seen long queues of people waiting for their turn to sit down in front of the photographer and deliver nothing but their faces. I have found citizens who were fascinated by the experience of posing for a strange foreigner. I have seen what the first explorers of the street photograph must have seen who used to go from one port to another encouraging passers-by to become their clients for a marvellous picture. But why? That is the main mystery. A century after those first urban and globetrotting photographers, we may still witness similar emotions in cities of very different culture and development levels such as Vienna, Bogota, Panama, Buenos Aires or other cities in Africa and Asia. Why is this so, I ask again? At a time when the conviction of the credibility of photography is fading away and new technologies have shattered to pieces the conviction that the image represents the truth, why is the passion reviving to offer one's face to someone we do not know, so that this stranger then returns our faces in a simple, unsophisticated book that doesn't have any text and the importance of which lies in the fact that it is a collection of photographs placed in the book without any specific order, except the random way in which the people showed up when their photograph was taken? Something mysterious is happening with Alexander's apparently simple project. He himself is revealing the mystery to us by placing himself on a border line: that of the photograph between identification and aesthetic gesture.
The artist has told me that he does not seek anything different when capturing faces of various cultures exposed under the same angle of vision and equal light and distance. But such an elementary - and barely conclusive - statement only helps to increase the mystery. Because what really matters is the other aspect of it: why do people participate this spontaneously and even gratefully (without receiving any retribution) in a global project which exists only in the mind of its creator? There must be very profound reasons for such a wish for collective participation. At least, I will leave two concerns to those who read this essay. One is of individual, the other one of social nature.
First, I would hasten to prove that photography continues to be the magic of identification and each individual dreams about seeing his face projected (complex psychological mechanisms are present). It was not merely by chance that the photograph preceded the discovery of the unconscious in psychoanalysis, and definitely more than once observers of the subject have applied the method of showing family resemblances. As if the unconscious was being related to the camera's dark room or the conscious was being compared to the developing process and the printed paper, or as if the model was projecting his own fantasies of how he wishes to be seen by others into the photograph. Therefore, in times when photographic certainty is facing a crisis, the imagination-related assumption that the photograph helps to show us as we would like to be, is still alive. On the other hand, I also find powerful reasons from a social point of view. Looking at Alexander Honory's pieces of work - his books-, I have been able to verify that the people, the citizens of Vienna or Bogota, enjoy knowing that besides their face there will be many other faces (719) from their own city and environment. A strange feeling of obtaining pleasure from knowing that your face will be shown together with others from your group. I do not deny that those ties of feeling oneself a citizen of a nation or similar macro-identifications are facing a great crisis within the development towards global societies that tend instead to consolidate group, neighborhood or territorial union feelings, so that globalisation somehow is also a way of locating oneself: maybe we are going through the first non-territorial civilization in which the place itself becomes more a product of our imagination than a geographical space and no longer, as in the past, relates the individual to his or her unique culture. But there is something left of that in Honory's and Engelbert Theuretzbacher's - Alexander's sensitive and charismatic producer - game. From the moment their announcement was made on arrival in Bogota, they achieved as a result of that secret skill of encouraging and seducing citizens to go to their mobile studio and leave their printed trace. The photographer, the artist Ewa Kulasek - Alexander's wife - and their vital producers Engel and Pablo Burgos posted themselves in a central place in Bogota, the Bolivar Square, a sacred place where Colombia's independence took its first steps many years ago. Right there the citizens walked into the container to leave the trace of their faces, but on this occasion it was not to obtain an identity card but a photograph and it was of their own free will.
Therefore, I believe that Honory's contribution responds to the urge to create the illusion of a temporary and occasional urban territory, such as the fact of appearing in a book that shows only faces from Vienna, Bogota or Buenos Aires. This is one of the main suggestions it makes and it is an expression of the power of the visual image in the process of building modern urban personalities. This project, which its creator defines as a mere attempt to capture faces and place them in a memory-book of each city, turns out to be something more than plain aesthetics. It begins to look like a very original project that evokes a certain cultural order in which creating faces is the basis of a planetary society that is not only different (and the difference must be proven) because of races, ethnic groups, sexes, generations or social groups, but that also reveals such a diversity of expressions that the book becomes a visual paradigm of a "world of persons" posing in different ways to have their photograph taken. We find ourselves in front of the photographic world and its visual culture.
That is the wonderful thing about it: that even under the same circumstances (same container, same light and distance, same kind but brief statements by the photographer), different citizens of the world pose differently to draw a picture of how they see themselves. And if we follow the models' distinguishing features, their look or their mouth, their scars, their tattoos, their cheekbones or gestures, we may discover a city and a culture behind those impassive faces. If only we could make the impossible wish come true of having the photographs of all the citizens of the world in one single place in order to keep, just as God would do, a universal archive of the faces of all the inhabitants of the planet. Given that such a divine desire is inconceivable in human beings, with his original proposal Alexander Honory leaves our future memory with a testimony of a rather large microcosmos of the still-modern world in which the photo has served to see ourselves as a transitory unity of each city visited. The photograph not only turns us into protagonists and bearers of the beauty of the faces of different peoples, it also allows us to see each city through the appearance of its citizens because the city has our gestures and shows certain particular poses. For example, upon reviewing the expressions, we discover peaceful Vienna with its obvious uniformity and its discrete charm and compare it with restless Bogota, with faces marked by the hardships of poverty or the glimmer of hope, with the Andean beauty of women and men and their fabulous mixtures of races, or with the old people who made a typical gesture of their trade for the photographer, or with so many street workers who interrupted work in order to get lost for one moment in the fantasy of the spectacle that duplicates their face, and much other evidence like this that has been documented in the book that I am now presenting. We show dismay when appreciating that profound and undecipherable human nature registered by photography. But at the same time it encourages us to wish we were able to examine the spirit of that people in greater detail who with magnanimity and a lot of feeling allowed Alexander and Engel to take with them the trace of their faces so that some day in some future which is not in our memory other explorers of human nature, in another millenium and space, will be able to witness the visual emancipation of a people that had their photograph taken.
And in this mundane exercise the photographer has contributed a suggestion of fictional space, in the book and the subsequent exhibition of the photographs, in which Bogota vibrates and shows itself as a city united by such a transitory territory. If in addition to that we compare the book of faces from Bogota and from Vienna with those of the other 10 cities included in the project, then the field of vision is expanded and we will all be able to see ourselves just as a part of the planetary society, during the last remnants of expression at the end of a millenium, when classic photography is handing over its power of identifying faces to other techniques that may be more accurate but without a doubt less exciting for us, the old modern people on this planet that still want to have their photograph taken. For a few moments, Honory has stopped the world.
Bogota, 19 August 1997
Armando Silva is Professor at "Universidad Nacional de Colombia" (National University of Colombia)
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