On the Conditions of Production of Pictures Made by My Hand with The Assistance of Light (2005–)
The titles of these works refer to a series of unmade or lost works by László Moholy-Nagy. In early 2005 during a conversation with Moholy-Nagy’s grandson, the absence of the crumpled paper photogram in the productions of the avant-gardes was speculated upon, a curiosity because it was a period marked by both a suspicion of figuration in artwork and the investigation of the materialist approaches to the production of the work of art. The grandson believed that Moholy-Nagy had in fact created a series of works using nothing more than crumpled photographic paper. Through the course of our discussion of these works, a title was hypothesized, “Abstraction Made by My Hand with the Assistance of Light.” The works were logically deduced to have most likely been made in 1921, just after Nagy arrived in Berlin from Hungary and changed his name from László Weisz to László Moholy-Nagy. After checking the archive and major collections of Nagy’s work, it seemed that these works had, in all likelihood, never existed, and if they had they were lost without a trace or mention. Notably, Moholy-Nagy (the extensive self-documenter) never mentioned this type of photogram in his writings or diary entries (including his detailed accounts of all of his works), which led to the conclusion that the works never actually existed. Moholy-Nagy’s grandson later said he thought there might be some reference in an unpublished letter or note, but that the works most likely were never made, but simply speculated upon. He remained uncertain whether such a document existed or if he was misremembering. Still, it seemed important to pursue this line of inquiry as it represented what seemed a missing link in the history of photographic production, in short, it seemed like it should have taken place. In reference to these discussions and our thinking about Moholy-Nagy, a form of the fictional Moholy-Nagy title was kept, replacing the word “Abstraction” with “Picture” (the reason for which is expanded upon in “General Issues Pertaining to the Production of Photogram works” under the heading “abstraction”). I began to make this work in the fall of 2005. In the works made in 2006, frames were built from scratch. The design of the frames was reverse engineered from a museum standard picture frame, except that the frames were made such that all hardware was exposed, no element of the frame invisible from the outside. Also, the frames were made according to the limitations of my skills and understanding of woodworking. Again, the idea of a compromise with surrounding conditions was key to the work.
In 2008, the grandson called me and said he had a surprise. On our next meeting, he presented me with a Xerox of a small crumpled photogram made by Moholy-Nagy, and inscribed on the back were instructions on how the photogram was made in Moholy-Nagy’s own hand. The process was identical to the one I had used in my first experiments. Moholy-Nagy’s inscription read, “A light sensitive paper was made wet, squashed and exposed to light. The result is a ‘diagram of forces’ projected on the flat sheet.” The paper was 8 x 10 in. (19.7 x 25.4 cm), and was later assessed to have been made between 1938 and 1942 while Moholy-Nagy was in Chicago. The object was found by Moholy-Nagy’s daughter (my friend’s mother) in an old filing cabinet in her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while culling material for a catalogue raisonné of Moholy-Nagy’s photograms, which was published by Hatje Cantz in 2009. The work was reproduced on page 241 and appears to be the only example of such a work in Moholy-Nagy’s oeuvre. I took the phrase, “A diagram of forces” for the title of my 2011 exhibition at the Malmö Konsthall, which was mounted in conjunction with a small exhibition of Moholy-Nagy’s photographic works.
These works are titled according to this convention:
Pictures Made by My Hand with the Assistance of Light, 2006, gelatin silver photographic paper, oak planks, screws, and plexiglas, N x N in. With the dimensions varied according to the part of the body used to scale the sheet of paper.
From 2007 forward, these works were titled with the following convention:
Pictures Made by My Hand with the Assistance of Light (with my arms fully extended, and feet outstretched), Ilford Multigrade IV Fiber-based Photographic Paper, Valencia, California, December 19, 2007), 2006, gelatin silver photographic paper, N x N in. Again, the size of the paper and the notation on the body varies according to the work.
—Walead Beshty, 2008*Amended in 2011
See “General Issues Pertaining to the Production of Photogram works ” for more information
General Issues Pertaining to the Production of the Photogram works
On the Use of the Terms “Image” and “Picture”:
“Images” have no sides, nor dimensionality. They have no back or front. “Image” (imago) means “likeness,” thus it is a relational term defining a relationship between two things. There is no such thing as an image on its own; it carries with it, in some form, that which it is meant to be a likeness of. The term is conceptual; it is an abstract idea that describes a provisional understanding of two objects’ abstract relationship to one another, and this duality is always present whether it is explicit or implied, as in “this is an image of…” or “this image…” (the latter relying on tacitly asserted previous comparisons of image to referent, i.e. when there is no qualification, the use of the term assumes the obviousness of what it is a likeness of). In other words, images are immaterial or rather, relational, they are not a class of things but a provisional assertion about a thing. The one thing one can say for sure about an image is that it explicitly is not what it is a likeness of. The term “image” refers to a concept; it refers to a relation between things and is not a thing itself. Images have no size or shape. They are theoretical objects, not material ones. The term “picture” refers to a subset of “images” and only describes representational qualities, not the material existence of an object in the real world. A “picture” is an organizational logic used to produce a likeness, or image; it is a form, or convention for producing a likeness, and it is always synthetic, whereas an image can be made by chance (as in a fossil, or other impression or likeness made by natural means). Thus, “pictures” have no specific scale; they can be any size, exist in any material, and still be the same picture as long as they have the same pictorial form. A photograph reproduced on a billboard and as an ad in a magazine would be called the same “image/picture” despite the fact that the way they are produced, the way they are trafficked, the relationship to a viewer, their context, and the materials the “image/picture” is contained within are completely different. Despite this, photographs are often treated simply as “images” or “pictures”, and the terms are used interchangeably to detrimental effect.
The result of using the terms “image,” “picture,” and “photograph” interchangeably is that the material of the photograph is ignored. The photogram works began out of an attempt to integrate these dual understandings of photographic depictions—by using the paper itself to define the forms—and to ignore the division between “image” and material so as to open up other options for the making of photographs. Depending on the size of the paper, the forms on its surface will be different (whether they are curled, folded, or crumpled), because each piece of paper will be manipulatable only in ways that are specific to it. The weight, tooth, and scale of the paper directly impact the forms that appear on the surface of the paper. Unlike the “picture” that adheres to Renaissance perspectival rules (based on the construct of homogeneous and infinite Cartesian space), these pictures—because the medium that receives the images is bent—are anisotropic. Anisotropic images are irregular in every direction, unlike the homogeneous space of Renaissance perspectival form, and they do not indicate stable relations of scale or position because they assert a logic that is specific to their confines, thus they cannot be used to indicate an order to be applied to the circumstances outside of their own production, i.e., they cannot propose to “map” or “order” the world outside of their boundaries. Thus, the difference between what is represented on the surface of the photograph and the photographic material is removed (unlike a normal photograph, where the picture is inscribed on the surface of the paper, each component kept conceptually separate). Furthermore, the paper acts like a conventional negative (incidentally, the first negatives were paper-based), casting an image of itself onto itself; the negative and the photographic paper are one and the same. This causes some instances where a literal fold or curl in the paper is echoed by a form describing that fold or curl, while in other instances, this produces shapes that are not directly manifest in the topography of the paper. In the instances where the form shown on the surface is discontinuous with the surface the form is on, the paper has served as a “negative” that produces an image of itself on its surface. It could be said that the paper cast a shadow of itself onto itself, and because the paper is photographic, the shadow could be fixed in place.
On Composition, Uniqueness, and Difference:
The exposure process for the photogram works must either occur within total darkness (in the case of the color photograms) or under red light (in the case of the black and white works), but regardless, in both instances the producer of the work (the artist) cannot see what is being made as it is being made. That is to say, the producer/artist is working blind within the parameters set up before hand. The producer/artist therefore becomes another instrument in the process (reduced to labor, to a body, to a unit of measure, equivalent to the paper or print processor) and not a conscious creator of the work while the work is being physically produced. This contrasts with the normal way that works are produced: for example in the production of a painting, the artist/producer is consciously constructing the work—thinking conceptually—at the same time she/he applies the paint—laboring—hence the artist/producer is making informed choices during the production of the work and is changing the rules as she/he works. In the case of these works, composition in the classical sense is impossible. Once exposed to light, the paper is processed in a RA4 wide format color photographic processor (in the case of color works) or in baths of chemistry (in the case of black-and-white works). Since there is no negative and no projected image, the works are unique, and because of this and the chance operations imbedded within the process, they are completely impossible to reproduce in any other circumstance. At the same time, because the paper is a standardized readymade object and operates both as a thing being imaged and the material that is receiving the image, each work is ostensibly (by the conventions of photographic image production) a photograph of the same thing—the paper itself. In other words, it is a “print” of a standardized object, and thus all of the photograms are prints of nearly identical negatives (or negatives whose differences would be quite difficult to argue is significant). It is only the minor variations in conditions—rather than the “original” (the photographic paper) that is being “represented”—that account for the differences between prints of the same series. The difference between works is constituted in the incidental shifts between moments of production, not in the uniqueness of the object being imaged or the means of that imaging. In conventional photographs, such differences between prints would be considered at best issues of connoisseurship, but unimportant in assessing the meaning or historical import of a photograph i.e. it is common to assess the quality of a photograph independent of the quality of a print. These variations in circumstance are not “significant,” meaning they do not “signify” in any specific way. They do not indicate a meaningful distinction between the circumstances or objects they represent. The photogram works are unique, but essentially equivalent to one another, much as every industrial object produced in series (from a run of photographic prints to cereal boxes) is unique as an object and different from all other objects, even if this difference is insignificant or deemphasized by the way that object is conventionally used.
The term “abstraction” is generally misused in art to refer to non-figurative work; this is a careless application of the term, one which is patently misleading and causes a great deal of confusion. Any work referred to as “abstract” is, by the application of that term alone, set apart from the world, isolated from the world of objects, and construed as having a “meta” relationship to the objects around it. The term “abstraction” names an interpretation of the object, not a characteristic of the object. In other words, one can claim an object is “abstracted” from some external circumstance, but the object on its own cannot make such a claim. Thus, the problem with the term is two-fold: it is first misapplied within an art context to describe works that are non-figurative and, more insidiously, it ascribes an aspect of interpretation to the object, turning an application of the work into an ontological characteristic of the work. In this, the problems associated with the conventional use of the term abstraction are similar to those described above for the terms “image” and “picture.” In each case, the term describes a relationship between objects, and in the misuse of each, a relational term becomes a definitive term, i.e. the thing the object is related to is either assumed or completely ignored.
Despite the photograms being non-figurative, they are not abstractions, because they are not a schematization of some aspect of the world that surrounds them, but rather are defined by their concrete existence. They are not “of” or “about” some other thing, rather they are connected to the world by being one thing in the world, not by depicting the world. There is no source material that is being “referred” to in the production of the work. These are not reformations of some original object or phenomena, but rather are a part of the phenomena they themselves describe. Pictorial photographs are abstractions (because pictures are images, and images imply a relation of one object to another in a form of significatory dependence). They are “abstracted” from some element of the world and turned into a two-dimensional form. They obey an arbitrary set of conventions for the translation of the three-dimensional to the two-dimensional (since we do not really see in Renaissance perspective, but in a curved hermetic space). In a normal pictorial photograph, the referent of the image is missing. For example, if someone takes a photograph of a clock, the exact moment and object referred to in the image will always be absent, never to be reclaimed. Even if the object is present, the moment the photograph was made is missing, thus the photograph serves as evidence of something absent. This is the problem in the widespread application of the terms “picture” and “image;” they emphasize what they are not and deemphasize the conditions of reception of the work. These works do not refer to something that is absent; they do not “represent” some place or moment. They are dependent on an infinite procession of moments, when production is material (as when the work was generated in the darkroom) and immaterial (through the succession of uses the work is put to, in its exhibition, display, and distribution). Any standard, lens-based, figurative photograph is necessarily “abstract” in the technical sense of the term if we describe it based on what it carries a likeness of. Since this separation of sign from signified does not exist in the photogram works, they are never true abstractions, regardless of their appearance. This type of art object should be referred to as “concrete” and “literal,” as the viewer is always presented with the referent and the image at the same time. They are concrete photographs (with a lower case “c”), not abstract or pictorial photographs.
—Walead Beshty, 2008/2010