Shared Reality: What a Concept.

The Photography of Lorant Szathmary.

Text: Russell Radzinski

 

 

The more things change, the more they stay the same …

 

Even a fleeting glance at history might lead to the melancholy conclusion that for all its horrific upheaval, the twentieth-century led to little substantive change. Particularly aesthetically, one might conclude that we have gone full circle, arriving back to the very place which was our point of departure.

 

At the beginning of the twentieth century according to pundits such as Futurists and Constructivist artists, new photographic, print and broadcast media would lead to a complete revolution in the arts. “Constructivist artists and critics believed that new media and technologies would displace not only traditional artistic practices but art itself …”[1] Practitioners of more traditional art forms and their supports responded with a haughty dismissal of the new media. As a result, for decades now – at least since the post-war discrediting of high modernist excesses like Futurism – photography compared to painting has been treated by many as an aesthetically ugly step-sister, more craftsmanship than art.

 

And now in turn with the advent of new, digital media, for some analogue photography has ironically taken on the role of the fussy old spinster. Just as the rise of photography presumably relegated painting to the annals of the past, digital media now seem to consign analogue photography to the status of an aesthetic has-been. Where once we could have read of the “death of painting” now we might read of the “death of film.” The demise of the iconic film company Eastman Kodak serves as a milestone to buttress the point.

 

These shifting sensibilities no doubt have as much to do with our attitudes toward technology as they do with our attitudes toward art. At the crossroads, if we bother to consider, we can detect changes in our perceptions of nature and reality, and this intersection is exactly where we might place the photographic art of Lorant Szathmary.

 

Lorant Szathmary works with traditional plate cameras. The artist himself claims that the tedious process involved gives him the freedom to meditate as a course of his work. That is, plate camera work gives him time to think, freeing him from the contemporary tyranny of what John Updike calls our “acute aesthetic impatience.”[2] A painstaking process forces the photographer to concentrate and allows the natural composition of the world around us to unfold.

 

This effect is carried over to the viewer of the photographs. At first glance of a photo in the series “Silent Mobility” (Stille Mobilität), for example, we are intrinsically aware of the sharp contrasts between light and darkness which overcome any tendency to dismiss the image before us as a well-known urban lonliness scene. With time, we recognize a similar tension between the compositional elements of form and line. A series of strictly horizontal and strictly vertical lines reverberate in sprawling architectural and reflected planes of light and dark and all this is in turn punctuated by the glowing orb of an electric light in a pitch black sky devoid of any traces of the moon. The fact that these contrasts are presented whole cloth without the least bit of montage or other manipulation is perhaps the most significant aspect of the viewing experience, which overcomes what would otherwise be the commonplace banality of the image. As painting, this picture would not work, inviting to its disadvantage comparisons to a host of artists from Edward Hopper to Ed Ruscha. As an unretouched photograph, the effect is radical, the equivalent of a paraphrase of the modernist admonition: not “make it new,” but “see it new.” With the immediacy of the image, if only for one fleeting moment while viewing, we are aware of an experience in which “the only thing that really matters … [is] that the subject be allowed to reveal itself.”[3]

 

Lorant Szathmary shuns Photoshop, hyperlinks, bits and bytes, the way by-gone photographers once rejected oil paint and a brush. With this very direct approach the underpinnings of creating and experiencing his work are placed firmly on given circumstances (what most of us call “reality”) rather than on the artistic liberty of creative imagination. In her still extremely influential treatise On Photography, Susan Sontag claims “Photography has the unappealing reputation of being the most realistic, therefore facile, of the mimetic arts.”[4] With his ostensibly realist aesthetics, Szathmary effectively makes a strength of a potential weakness.

 

Another series, “Christmas” (Weihnachten) is a case in point here. The series presents several urban night scenes of anonymous apartment building fronts. Darkness shown in broad swaths of rich black in the background overtakes most of the image. This monochrome plane is interrupted by the shimmer of lit Christmas decorations adorning the apartment windows of the buildings captured on film. Once again, the black-and-white photographs are the very essence of simplicity and strong formal contrasts provide a certain tension in the viewing experience. Once again, light and dark are starkly juxtaposed with the forms and patterns formed by the Christmas lights. These lights not only clash with the darkness, they also give form to and disrupt the frames of the unseen windows on display. Mention of the “unseen” is a significant aspect of these works which defines their reception, for we do in fact “see” what is not there. We are, for instance, subliminally aware of the colorful array that these windows must represent, even though they are presented in black and white. Moreover, although the subject of the pictures are the very paradigm of stasis, they also encourage an exercise in movement, as our eyes wander and flit from one window to the next, literally dancing across the scene before us. This dance corresponds to the most significant – and magical – moment of the photographs.

 

I have read descriptions of precisely these pictures in which the darkness presented is misconstrued as a subdued expression of melancholy and loneliness. Continuing with our look at the images reveals just how far this is off the mark. What we have instead is what Theodor Adorno calls “products of communal effort.”[5] That is to say that the composition before us only truly unfolds, the subject is only allowed to reveal itself in the process of our viewing. As our eye dances from window to window, we form a link among them. Of course, anyone hidden behind the exposed window frames cannot clearly see his neighbors and their abundant decorations. The link, the common experience only comes to fruition through our glance. What we have then, is an experience and expression of shared traditions, aesthetics and images. We celebrate the holidays with our eyes.

 

With his rejection of creative manipulation – be it digital or otherwise – Szathmary acts as the conduit of a shared experience based on the common circumstances we all encounter and are in fact led to through his work. It is interesting to consider in this context, how non-liberating the products of willful poetic license or artistic imagination truly are. The photographer denies himself the “assertion of originality.” He plays a decidedly modest role in the artistic experience in order to allow us as viewers to actively participate in the creation of not only his, but rather our art work. [6]

 

Such theoretical readings may seem to be a great burden for apparently simple black-and-white photographs, which brings us to one last series of Szathmary’s work as well as some closing consdierations.

 

With „The Golden Age“ (Goldenes Zeitalter) we encounter the host of elements that should be familiar to us by now: light and dark, contrasts and a restraint which allows the viewer the tranquility to ruminate. The most striking difference here is the subject matter of the photographs: portraits of mundane isolated Porta Potties in their urban environment. The light-hearted, albeit perhaps unfortunate, title of the series acts as a reproach to keep both feet firmly on the ground when considering art. There is no doubt that we may consider Szathmary’s work as “an epistemological puzzle”[7] but the photographer reminds us to look at this puzzle playfully and avoid the pretentions that its seriousness may invite. This playfulness also goes a long way to explain another significant aspect of Szathmary’s method. The photographer most commonly works in series.The repetitive nature of this approach is both restive and again jocular. According to the seminal advice of Andreas Feininger “If a short cut to success in photography exists, it is through experiment.”[8] Like the good empiricist any photographer should be, working in a series is Szathmary’s method for experiment. The capriciousness of nature is the photographer’s alternative to digital acrobatics as a source of experiment and as the photographer’s tendency toward punning titles of his work should remind us, this confrontation with nature is a playful one.

 

This essay began with the assertion that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And so, it should come as no surprise that the concluding words to  Lorant Szathmary’s work harken back to an idea even older than the initial reference here to early twentieth century modernist movements, an idea, however, whose relevance remains powerful in our times: “True wit is nature to advantage dressed, what oft was thought, but never so well expressed.”[9] This might serve as the motto to the photographers work. All too often today, the true meaning of wit gets lost in a reference to humor. True wit, humorous or not, is an expression of cleverness, astuity. This photographer commands the wit, takes the time and makes the effort to modestly present unadultered images of nature, leaving room to the viewer to make connections and compose with him. Child-like, good-natured and playful, he shares what he encounters and sees with us. In the process, we can all take part in the shared rite of realism.

 

 

[1]  Jaroslav Andĕl, “Between Architecture and Photography: A Constructivist Exchange in Czechoslovakia 1920 – 1940” in Künstlerischer Austausch Vol. 1 (Ed.: Thomas W. Gaehtgens), 1993

[2] John Updike, “Bridges to the Invisible” in his Always Looking, 2012.

[3] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed, 1971

[4]  Susan Sontag “Melancholy Objects” in her On Photography,  1977.

[5] „Produkte gesellschaftlicher Arbeit“ transl. RR. Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 1970

[6] Creighton E. Gilbert, “Grapes, Curtains, Human Beings: The Theory of Missed Mimesis” in Gaehtgens’ Künstlerischer Austausch Vol. 2, 1993. Gilbert’s essay on mimesis holds a great deal of significance to the ideas only touched upon here due to the limited scope of this text. It merits mention, however, that all of the authors cited, to a greater or lesser extent, bemoan the atomizing effect that blatant artistic so-called freedom, that is individualism, inevitable gives way to.

[7] John Updike, “Magritte the Great” in his Always Looking, 2012.

[8] Andrea Feininger, Successful Photography, 1954.

[9] Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 1711

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