The Alchemy of Shadows

——Problem Vision Field of LIPF 2007

By Gao Shiming

As photography widely involved into our daily life, it greatly changes and reshapes our perception and experience. It helps us retain numerous instants in the flow of time by projecting history and revealing memory. Via the system of media, it can lead all peoples of the world to a focused event; it can bring us many expectations and predictions beyond the reality. It is an everyday experience for everyone. Meanwhile, based on its great social mobilization power, a self-regulated visual regime is constructed. In this sense, to today’s world, photography becomes a “super art” the same as calligraphy to ancient China. 

On the other hand, in the recent half century, photography as an important medium for the contemporary artistic practice has fulfilled rich visual accumulation. Its significance in artistic experiment has long crossed its conventional boundary. As a replicable visual field, it turns out to be a flat “occur – display” scene. The recent decades demonstrate that photography has approached the heartland of the contemporary art as more and more photographers walk into this area. During this process, we find an apparent fact -- the closer photography is to the stage center, the farther it is to the social criticism and political practice. How can it reach a balance? Is it possible or necessary? How to establish an experimental castle for itself? These are the questions that LIPF 2007 wishes to discuss. 

For this reason, LIPF 2007 delivered a three-part exhibition: Thematic, Experimental and Open Space, to build a visual platform for the above questions. The thematic exhibition consists of two sections: Theater of Light and Narrative Photography, with the focus on the inherent nature of time and event by observing the narrative capacity and mode; the experimental show invited 17 active contemporary artists, in the name of photography but in the forms of device, video, painting and multimedia interaction, to demonstrate the multiple possibilities of photography in the contemporary art, which is, full of thoughts, an exploration and display of “photography after photography”; the open space, in the form of invited group and solo shows, demonstrates the documentary power within photography through some pioneer practice. These three parts have attracted over 2,000 pieces of work by 158 photographers from 20 nations and regions. Due to their generous support, the Alchemy of Shadows, as an academic theme of LIPF 2007, started to play.

The Alchemy of Shadows

“Alchemy”, the medieval philosophical inquiry into the nature of things and the forerunner of modern chemistry, is a term used today to suggest any process through which the ordinary is transformed into something extraordinary. The Alchemy of Shadows takes us back to the 1830s, to the birth of photography, when photographers first used chemicals to develop images to preserve them for the renewed amazement of the viewer. Today, in the image-saturated era we live in, such an innocent bewilderment in front of an image, to be amazed by an entire world emerging out of the instant convergence of space and time, is forever lost.

However, here comes a serious problem: on the one hand, digital imaging technology and various media experiments fully feed the desire of creating pictures; on the other hand, the instant digital visualization takes away the mysterious darkroom expectation and digital print pushed photograph into a pure presswork. Image itself is gradually losing its significance and dignity. When photography declines to be a picture which can be altered and modified at will, artists will lose their appetite of encountering realities and their capacity to change the ordinary into something extraordinary. 

Digital imaging has caused a revolution over the entire process of image production and form. In comparison with the traditional image, digital image has the following four characteristics: A. Instantaneity. Digital imaging with a possibility of deletion directly results in the disappearance of darkroom experience and development magic. All excitement and expectation in darkroom operation are gone. The long process of development is replaced just by a button. B. Cost free. For individuals, digital imaging is the most economical way to produce image. Its extremely low cost results in fast proliferation and depreciation of photograph. What is the significance of photography if images can be found everywhere, if everything can be recorded? Then what is worth recording and remembering? As a result, the tie between recording and memory is cut off. C. Alterability. Digital images can be altered at will because they are anyway a set of invisible codes, a series of numbers in the intangible dark box of cyberspace. Due to this nature, however, each picture can be used as an original model for further modification. Photoshop, as a substitute for darkroom, makes its commitment for free drawing. -- Modification and overlapping become a common way for image creation. Consequently, the witness and evidence function has lost its way in this one time imaging era. D. Spreading. It as the inherent function of digital image has the greatest impact upon photographical culture. Image can find a new carrier and possibility via mobile phone’s camera heads and DV’s. With slight finger press, image has been shot and on the way to spread. The snapshot behavior itself contains sending and spreading movement. Besides, through upload and download, Internet becomes the key venue for image communication, providing an operating platform which changes our media life and image perception. Exposure and pornography become the most common things for spreading. The desire to watch and political appetite are fully satisfied through the infinite spreading of images. 

It is important that what photography encounters in this digital era is not simply a type of imaging technology or medium. Instead, it is a production - spreading reality of image and media proliferating. It is the “alchemy of media” that dominates the world. Everyday experience is woven into a variety of media experience. The boundaries of news, shows and games are getting indistinct. Realities are evolving to be one of the numerous images which constantly give us impacts. They are vying for people’s attention in the same world. They are so vivid and tangible that the distance between image and the original object becomes unclear. What we may ask is not how media gets into our life but how construct our life? In what way our life can be possible and fulfilled via media? Media has overstepped its function of communication and spreading. It is no longer a tool or a carrier because it makes all the realities and truths of history and politics unreliable. 

Media is our lost home and land without which we can hardly live an ordinary life. What we see is what we believe. Reality turns to rely on visibility. The reality is the visible. The relation between actualization and visualization is always a key proposition in modern science and philosophy. Today, through mass media, the proposition has already penetrated into our daily life as a common thing. As media skillfully handling the two games of message spreading and scene setting, events and life are easily created as part of show. The dual identity of witness and producer helps them make a perfect conspiracy to puppet the reality. -- Events are triggered by media, delivered by media and in the end even judged by media. The way of presentation and spreading of what happens before us has been plotted ahead of time. In this sense, we have no choice but to act as a viewer, or as one of in the mass which are tortured by media and symbols. With that identity, we are ushered into an infinitely expanding and endlessly proliferating live show site to play our own part in its lengthy ceremony. Consequently, we are not only forced to be a performer but also a viewer. The mass media is shifting the world where we live and wraps us up in a viewable, image production and consumption world, or a stage and audience seat confusedly overlapped theater. It makes everything viewable to us as realities constantly duplicating. At this point, media not only present realities but also influence it. It makes up a new reality and struggles and competes with it. Hence, there comes what Baudrillard reflected “the alchemy of media”. In the context where media becomes the primary scene and reality, how photography itself can find its identity? This touches on another topic of this exhibition: Photography as Experience

Photography as experience

 “Most of the debate lies in the aesthetic argument of ‘photography as art’, while the sociological thesis of ‘art as photography’ receives little attention.” Neither the art world nor photography circle has yet convincingly replied to this proposition of Walter Benjamin’s. Naturally, our relationship to photography cannot be summarized in one sentence. Ordinary experience shows photography to be a substitute for reality; it is as a ‘substitute-reality’ that photography helps us to retrieve knowledge and control reality. Photography documents memorable events and serves as a memento of daily life; it represents modern man’s collective image-making. It is a witness, and a molding force, of family history and of personal and public memory. Ever since it was invented, photography’s uses have spilled beyond the boundaries of its definition as art. LIPF 2007 will examine the significance of photography beyond the aesthetic, focusing on the topic of ‘photography as experience’. Photography will not be regarded solely from the point of view of the ‘art of photography’ or ‘art photography’, nor will it be analyzed from the perspective of fine art or medium. We will explore how photography as a visual imaging mechanism alters our experience of reality. In this way, the experience of photography will demonstrate the concept of ‘the photography we live by’, which regards photography as the expression of the quotidian, and tries to understand the ideology behind photography, the existential dimension of photography and its anthropological implications.

It is necessary to make the definition of “experience” clear before we begin to talk about “Experience-photography”(Photographie als Erfahrung/Erlebnis). In the language of everyday life, “experience” has the meaning of “feeling” in some cases but the meaning of “ undergoing” in other, therefore, we can take this word either as “knowledge and skills from practice undergoing” or as “feeling and suffering”. In German the word of “Erlebnis” can be translated into “experience” or “feeling”, while the word of “Erfahrung” can be translated into “experience” or “undergoing”. Nevertheless, there are some differences between the word of “experience” and the words of “undergoing” and “feeling”--- “feeling” mainly emphasizes the internal standpoint whereas “undergoing” mainly emphasizes the external standpoint; but “experience”, by contrast, emphasizes neither, it is a word of undifferentiation. So both the meaning of “undergoing, going through” and the meaning of “feeling, suffering” are inclusive in the word of “experience”. Above all, “to experience” is “to participate personally and observe personally”. In addition, “to experience” is also “to undergo, to involve into true life” and to “live through”.

Things in reality can be experienced by us in their diversity, first of all,experiential diversity and variety means that we are confronted only with various surface phenomena. We can get the impression of a complicate world with characters diverse from each other just because what we can get is not the accurate reality behind various phenomena. Our experience on image is the same, image provide us with a “plural” reality, which frightened Borges with a horror of mysterious re-presentation of a countless-times-replicated reality,and the root of the horror is that image can “multiply and proliferate our world”.

However, the plurality provided by image contradicts our original expectation for camera. It was the common knowledge of 19th century that visual sense is mechanical and objective. The invention and technology of photography then provided a firm foundation for this knowledge. So people at that time believed that an unbiased visual sense can be achieved via the mechanization of optesthesia, as a result, the subjectivism in “old images of the world” can be counteracted and then a “single reality” can be achieved. Along with the process of optesthesia’s mechanization, some unbiased images come out, which will bring about a “realm of reality” 1 other than “realm of subjective representation”, it is a new version of reality.

In the system of reappearance – representation theories dating from the time of Renaissance, reality, as a thing-in-itself, is taken as unvarying and actual being ,but image, by contrast, is taken as changeable and insubstantial. In 19th century, the relationship between reality and image changed. On one hand, reality is then censured by realists as “surface appearance” that can make reality be experienced in some sense as appearance-image; on the other hand, with its automaticity and unbiasedness, image can create a new relativity. The realness of photography relays on the fact that it not only developed a new “realm of reality” outside the reappearance - representation system but a unprecedented principle about “showing truth”.

The relationship between image and thing-in-itself, and between presentation and actual being is not suitable for quotation in the discussion of photography. Besides being an art never affiliated with the producer of image, photography firstly is a process of optical chemical reaction. A new relationship has been established in virtue of mechanical ness of photographic image production. The unbiasedness of photography endows image with realism in all verity and makes it no longer affiliated with the one who makes the presentation, as a result image neither be a reconstruction of reality nor reappearance – representation. Reality can be arrogated by photo-image because photo is more than an image for representation, interpretation or display, it is a kind of trace- a rubbing directly made from reality, just like footprint or death mask. Therefore, “owning a photo of Shakespeare (if possible) is owning a nail piece of Christ”2, its value is more greater than finding a Shakespeare’s portrait drawn by Holbein. A photo is a part of its subject, further more, is the extension of its subject, and to some extent is a manner to occupy and control the subject being shot. Just as Susan Sontag said “a photo itself is a subject matter too”, so that “photo collection is to collect the world”3. 

The most important character of photo is neither as work of art nor as information, but as proof. Photo owns the ability to prove,its target is not matter, but time. The ability to prove overcomes photo’s ability to present. Photography can testify on itself because essentially there is no imagination in it; imaginary skills are needed only when photography resorts to deception. In photography, not “disappeared matters” are presented, but “once truly existent matters” are presented; this difference is of vital importance. Looking at a photo, we might not cherish the memory of the past day at once; however, the matter being presented exhibits itself in the photo and can testify the “on-site” of the absentee. Therefore, as Barthes declared: there is nothing of Proust's style. Photo interrupts the mournful memory, because existence is the one and the only to be confirmed in it, even it is merely past-existence. On this point, the existence of me (photo-looker) is waken up and the photo asks me-------why am I here, at this time? Of course, no other art can put such an kind of existence---a co-existence---before us, which is the photography’s contribution to the development human experience.

Any invention, including the invention of photography, can be regarded as a turning point to divide human history into two stages. How had human experience and human history changed from the era of pre-photography to the era of post-photography? How had the offwhite, fast moving image-record changed and reshaped our perception and knowledge? In the era of pre-photography, people’ s memory of the past days is only a series of impression, which deeply hiding in one’s consciousness, waiting to be wakened up by retrospection, just like in night the figure of building waiting to be illuminated by lightening. At that time, memory can be frozen and shaped through writing; vanished past events can be re-imaged by historian’s writing talent. In those days, representation of history-image is nothing less than a miracle, and visual experience of a moment hasn’t established yet, photography, or the writing of light, only present itself in the heart of some individuals. However, today, reality has been constructed into a display screen, the world around us seems to be a lengthy, limitless and endless old film without any theme, so in such a situation why our bodies not a machine keeping shooting and broadcasting?

The secret of image is that the vision of image is what we desire to get, it is able to break away from the duration of ourselves, so that it can be grasped as a whole. Obediently and comfortably, we look at such a world, which has been represented with the aid of another pair of eyes; therefore, it is a “visible world”. The direction of projection in darkroom is the same as the direction of looking in light room, but in a photo, the image being projected-looked came from another looking-projection process. To look at a photo just like to restitute the shooting scene, and to translate the image being shot-projected into reality once again. That is to say, photo-looker always thinks the photo in sight as the image projected in the glass cutting the visual cone, and the world is hiding behind the transparent sliced sheet. Of course we know, the world is not hiding behind the photo, but is behind the photo-looker, and going through the light-projecting point, returning to the world being shot before lens.

Time Theater 

Photography (Photo shooting) is a synchronous event in the progress of the world. However, we often neglect photography’s nature as an event, which is not an objective process of recording from outside of the world, but an activity with a time point established by itself(the spatial point can be established by itself too). Photography is a process of “Becoming” within our world. “Time Theater”, the thematic exhibition of LIPE, will alternately emphasize the internal time of photography and its nature as an event in the world. Additionally, it will reaffirm the inherent time-space of photography. The thematic exhibition consists of two sections: 1. Theater of Light: the aim of this section is to fully develop the photographic potential provided by long exposure. Light’ s writing trail can develop into image in the delay time of camera’ s memorization process, it is an unique act of play jointly performed by the writing of light and the memorization of camera, herein darkness is the container of light and the theater for light and shadow’s performance. 2.Narrative Photography, mainly exhibits how photographer to expend the narrative capacity of photography, and how narrative photography to deal with the challenges in the era of motion picture and DV, where it is abundant with the image narrative based on a serial of montage and disordered time-venue.

If we can say that scenography helps us to establish a fixed spatial point, certainly it is photography that helps us to establish a fixed time point. Our watching behaviors are assembled and set at a point in the duration of time, as if only the effective time point of final exposure would make sense. The invention of instant camera made photography change into a “Snap”, a “hit and capture” on the condition of time-interruption. Therefore, a moment can be truly represented and enter into the range of our daily experience. Due to photography, time can be cut into pieces and slices of time turn “visible” to us. Thanks to the medium function of lenses, the world can be captured in a moment, and freeze into sections of image—today that begins to be a normal status of our visual experience.

Today, people of different cultures share the same concept of time. On one hand, time is simplified to an abstract yet absolute digital sequence. The meaning of life used to be encompassed by time but this approach has now disappeared, and the intimate connection between time and human beings is slowly fading away. On the other hand, the linearity of digital timeline intertwines with the concept of continuous moments. According to this concept, time is numerous slices of moments, Thus photography becomes a splice, a portrait of a moment in time, rendering the moment visible and bringing it into the range of our experience. At the same time, the proliferation of these ‘snap’ instants also gradually conceals the understanding of photography as a ‘time-based medium’. 

The process of photography is the process of denomination for event and moment; thanks for the interference of camera, our experiences feelings on event and scene have been connected. However, photography itself is an event too. In our experience, photography’s nature of event, and its internal time, has been canceled and cleared by the experience in a “moment”. What photographer should do, to a great extent is to resist such a time experience’s influence. Amongst many photographers, Bresson had a well-known talk about “moment”; his “decisive moment” is grasped by a glimpse, not a watch, to the world (such a glimpse would surpass traditional subjectivism vision mode)through lens。Via the camera’s ‘view and watch”, the event in process freezes at a point. However, this freezing is not only taking a slice from continuous time line. There is more than a “current” in its narrowest sense in Bresson’s “decisive moment”, which is far beyond a “glimpse”. It is close to the pleasure of listening to music, and the “extension of moment” is a “perception span”. In this span, direct memory and expectation integrate with each other in a fantastic style. That is how photography to be an art for Bresson, it is not only beyond moment, but also beyond the functions of recording and reflecting. It is not only a freeze but also a display. It keeps the world in itself, so the world seems to be presenting itself and taking place on itself. Therefore, it seems that Bresson was in pursuit of Constable’s “ideal of real drawing”----“take a moment from the time flying by, and endow it with clear and eternal existence”4.

However, Benjamin so keenly found------- “camera can furnish a moment with a ‘shock force’ ”5.The experience of “shock” in current moment comes from the existence of another previous moment. In the current moment of photo-looking, the previous moment faded away with the elapsed time can be called back and reappear, which is achieved with the help of the auto-generated image .With the aid of such image, disappeared reality reappears. As Susan Sontag said, “photo is a measure to freeze and detain unruly reality; in other words, photography can expand a faded, transient reality aloof from us. We cannot own reality, but we can own image----as Proust said, people being the most courageous prisoner with free will, though it is impossible for them to possess the present, it is possible for them to possess the previous.” 6 Nevertheless, for Proust, the elapsed time of our lives hides in many unattractive matters and occasions, which will lead us to meet the elapsed time once again. All the displayed matters are only the properties for the revival of memory, here and now, memory is image. Reality only can be found in the distance of past but photography can provide us with an approach to reality for now.  However, such an approach will bring about another distance------to possess the world with image, is only to re-experience unreality or estrangement of reality. On this point, being the substitute for past-reality at present, would photo interrupt retrospection and then shield the image-memory?

For Puoust, memory is image; in memory, reality becomes the space for truth due to the fact that reality is far from the present. 7 In contrast, photo is not the image of real-time, it has the very time of negative exposure imprinted before subject matter disappear, so it is the time when reality disappears and image comes into being. Between the time and the present (when we gazing at the photo), there is only a little time difference. A segment of time between the previous gazing and the present gazing is isolated, becoming the memory of the photo itself, which is the suspense of negative in the dark. Photography is not only a matter of watching, more important, it is a matter of memorization, on which a new object to be watch is created. The memory being called back and the elapsed time of Puoust condensed into a image, as a material evidence, but our memories were blocked behind the hard, cold evidence. About that, Barthes declared radically: in photo, time is blocked out.

However, photography is an event in the duration of the world, not just a glimpse for nothing; it is more than a freeze of a decisive moment because it is not the slice to display linear time for us; the role of it is not just as a connection in timeline. Photo is the container of time; a glimpse by accident, a lost instant hiding in it. Photography is to seal numerous moments up, and then represent it with the aid of developing solution so as to attain eternity ----- from a moment to eternity, it is a dramatic transfer that can make the time delay of mechanical memorization/sensitization/development be neglected by people------ that is the(differànce) between the two parallel worlds of image and reality. During the interval of time delay, a moment is unknowingly isolated and sealed up in the world of photography.

Paul Valry had found quite early that in fact, Plato’s Cave actually is a huge camera obscura, and our world outside of it is only a negative in the eyes of God. Thus, photographer is the developer of this potential negative;in such an inconceivable situation,the work should be done in dark room is advanced and development is replaced by gazing and traveling. In the context of “Time theatre”, photo is more than a record of a moment and the process of photography is like the process of seeking and searching as if the photographer is one who got lost; in other words, it is like to draw a picture, to portray the figure and muscle of reality. That is a “Light Theatre” which has been carefully constructed in the dark to represent the shadow of “light’s writing trail”. In this theatre, all things are hidden in the dark, and subject matters display themselves in the light of lamp gazing, bits and pieces, like lost memories reappear little by little. At this time, photo is not image of real-time; before the matter disappears in the image, the very time of negative exposure imprinted, so it is the time when reality disappears, and image comes into being. Therefore, photography is more than watching, more important, it is a matter of memorization to create objects to be watched. In light’s gazing, memory being miraculously called back freezes into a image, which is like a performance in the container of time; at the same time, outside of the bright light, in the more deeper dark, everything of the world is turning more mysterious and gloomier.