Wednesday, May 26, 2021

How to Throw Your Voice Visually: Becoming Photography

Chuck Samuels: Becoming Photography (Kerber Verlag, 2021).
“From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” – Michel Foucault

Much of what we now define as the poetics of images, the aesthetics of the camera, and the politics of photography comes to us from the thoughtful pens of cultural theorists such as the German critic Walter Benjamin, the French philosopher Roland Barthes, the American polemicist Susan Sontag, and the British art historian John Berger. Their speculations on what makes photography not only an art form but a special and privileged form of modernist consciousness have paved the way for a deep appreciation of both the magic potential and the seductive powers of technological reproduction. Our ways of seeing and thinking about seeing have often been guided by their ruminations on what happens when we photograph something or someone, and their penetrating analysis of the photographic arts has inspired and influenced generations of image-makers. 

Benjamin’s The Arcade Project, Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Sontag’s On Photography and Berger’s Ways of Seeing each opened new avenues for appreciating that the camera did not replace painting but rather contributed in a major way to its evolution in the fabric of art history. Especially vital has been its exponential growth into the far reaches of cinema and video, with the moving image as a logical extension of our appetite for looking at ourselves looking. Equally illuminating, though less wordy, have been the experiments of many photographers themselves, the ones who have chosen to take photography itself as their principal subject and theme. John Baldessari, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and other postmodern artists have mined the image archive of our cultural memory in order to produce meditations on mediation.

Among such artists, the Montreal-born camera artist Chuck Samuels has excavated a particularly distinctive site of fetishistic image production that takes Foucault’s selfless admonition for turning ourselves into works of art quite literally. He inserts himself, or perhaps insinuates himself would be more accurate, onto and into the iconic images of many of the giants of classical and contemporary photography. He impersonates, occupies, haunts and inhabits famous portraits by remaking the setting and scene into an exotic kind of autobiography that builds an exceptional vibrational force when one views the succession of self-less portraits in his rogues gallery of image history. It’s a magnificent obsession, and one celebrated magnificently in the new book from Kerber, Chuck Samuels: Becoming Photography. In its pages, the self-reflexive impulse at the heart of almost all photographs is allowed to amplify itself to Olympian proportions via the deft Samuels skill at thematic projection and stylistic echo.  

               After Hujar-Sontag (2020) (Samuels/Kerber)

Portrait of American author Susan Sontag, Peter Hujar 1975 (Hujar Archive)

Lovingly assembled, almost curated along the lines of a mobile museum of Samuels’ shared dreams, this major publication is the result of a close collaboration among the artist himself; two contemporary centres in Quebec, Expression Centre d’exposition de Saint-Hyacinthe and Plein sud, centre d’exposition en ert actuel in Longueuil; and the independent German art book publisher Kerber Verlag. The collaboration has also resulted in two excellent major monographs on the artist and his work: The Hidden Face of the Photographer by Mona Hakim, a frequent and valued interpreter of the Samuels ethos, and Histories and Counterhistories by Joan Fontcuberta. Both provide an exhaustive exploration of the meaning and motivation behind this enigmatic artist’s often cheeky and playful visual artifacts.

Both the texts themselves, penetrating glimpses into the optical unconscious, and the image selection, an exploding archive of arresting icons which have almost become cultural memes in themselves, even before Samuels superimposes himself onto the starring roles, succeed in unearthing the questions that he has asked from the earliest days of his career. He questions how photography functions, and the nearly mystical manner in which emblems from the history of photography articulate themselves within a narrative that is at once professional and personal. By recreating many cult-like photographs in his own image, he travels far beyond mere solipsism or narcissistic misadventure, however, and stealthily invades all our own collective cultural dreams, or at least the dreams of those of us familiar with the history of photography (a useful prerequisite for optimum viewing pleasure).

Samuels literally embodies the above Susan Sontag notion that images confirm and seal legends, but he does so by actually becoming an icon of himself in an astonishingly recursive manner: through brilliantly compulsive series renditions of historically important images suddenly featuring himself as an actor of sorts, and through perpetually questioning the documentary truth and speculative fiction question that has haunted photography from its inception in about 1840. Such issues are indeed inherent to photography as a medium of expression, especially in the generation of postmodern photo-artists, but the Samuels approach is quite different from the Cindy Sherman re-enactment approach. He often feels more like the main character in Woody Allen’s least understood film, Zelig, about a nebishy chameleon who shadow-stalks almost every historic event.

Samuels is more of an echo than a mere imitator. He is also much more than a mere mimic. He seems to be sharing a personal compulsion with the camera that did in fact originate in a childhood saturated with memories of his photo-loving father, while also merging it with a communal love affair we all have with celebrity, especially when it is embedded in the magic of memorable movies. As such, he feels more like a conceptual ventriloquist than a mimic, a very gifted one who is able to throw his voice visually in a most compelling, captivating and entertaining manner. The artist expresses it most clearly in an introductory note:

Photography is my medium. It is also my subject. I have been questioning how photography (and to a lesser extent, cinema) works and doesn’t work. I have photographed and filmed myself to examine these issues. In fact, performing for the camera has become a central element in my practice. In some ways I use myself as a surrogate for photography; by focusing the camera on myself I am actually turning the spectator’s gaze upon the very nature of photography, thus sharing my love for, fascination with and suspicion of the medium. In an absurd but rigorous manner, I’m trying to become photography. 

Samuels: After Morimura (2020) (Samuels/Kerber)

Irony runs deep through his works, a prime example being his 2020 piece After Morimura, which evokes another two artists who were masters of appropriation, Japanese photographer Yasumasa Morimura, whose 1998 work, To My Little Sister (For Cindy Sherman), itself paid homage to Cindy Sherman’s 1981 piece, Untitled #96

To My Little Sister: for Cindy Sherman, Yasumasa Morimura, 1998 (Art Blart)

Untitled #96, Cindy Sherman, 1981.

This is, of course, iteration and reiteration writ large, and it only comes into focus properly when we view all three colour portraits almost simultaneously. In the case of each artist, culminating with the Samuel interloper finding his way to Cindy’s and Yasumasa’s tiled floor, we are confronted, albeit somewhat passively, by the essence of what each imagines images to be. Or what they might be. Indeed, it was the erstwhile Roland Barthes (in Camera Lucida) who accidentally, or maybe prophetically, encapsulated the Samuels mission with his usual poetic aplomb: “For the Photograph is the advent of myself as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity. Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes. I constitute myself in the process of posing. I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.”

And again, the sardonic Samuels sums up the game afoot most succinctly:

Using this approach, I have commented on the futility of the documentary impulse in The Mission of Photography (1985); examined the history of photographic representation of the female nude and its largely uncritical acceptance in Before the Camera (1991); mediated, with Bill Parsons, on how cinema presents the Other in Psychoanalysis (1996); explored the figure of the photographer in popular cinema and television of my father’s era in Before Photography (2015); looked, with Gabor Szilasi, at the environmental portrait from the camera’s point of view in Dans l’oeil de l’autre (2013) and pondered my own place within the history of photographic self-portraiture in The Photographer (2015). More recently, in After (2020) making ‘remakes of remakes’, I revisited appropriation art; in On Photography (2020) I reconsidered the role of the critic and challenged the authority of the critical text; and, in a particularly unbridled frenzy, I probed the historical function of the photography magazine in The Complete Photographer (2020).

John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, situated this same photographic urge and visual impulse in a similar manner: “Every photograph presents us with two messages: a message concerning the event photographed and another message concerning the shock of discontinuity.” The same multiplicity and layering of diverse embodied meanings was captured by Peter Bunnell, a famous curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in a way which also applies perfectly to the ironic and often tongue in cheek work of Samuels: “There is no single form or style of portraiture. Portraiture means individualism and as such means diversity, self-expression private point of view. The most successful images seem to be those which exist on several planes at once and which reflect the fantasy and understanding of many.”

Most crucially, given the weighty nature of most philosophical speculation on the aesthetics and poetics of photography as an art form, Samuels still manages to inject considerable charm and a lighthearted attitude into his own musings on such heavy subject matter: “Even though I employ absurdity, humour and irony rather generously, I regard my work to be a very serious endeavor – I aim to disarm the viewer and invite him or her to reconsider photography and cinema and their own histories. In our current post-truth era, fraught with real ‘fake news’ and fake ‘fake news’, my work, which calls into question the verisimilitude and reliability of photography and film, is becoming increasingly pertinent.”

That verisimilitude, the truth factor of images, is at the heart of some keen observations by one of the monograph authors in this book, Joan Fontcuberta, who remarked that in the light of many tumultuous events at the dawn of the final decade of the 20th century, among them the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square debacle, another seismic change was afoot on the technological front, one that would impact artists, photographers and film makers with particular force. “On the fringe of all this turmoil two brothers, Thomas and John Kroll, were busy creating innovative graphics editing software for processing and retouching digital images. The young entrepreneurs sold the license to Adobe Systems in early 1989 and after ten months of intense programming, the company launched the first version of the software in 1990 as Photoshop. Thanks to the new tool, photographers would never again have any difficulty pulling rabbits out of a hat, though this was certainly not the first time that the camera had demonstrated its capability for conjuring tricks.”

At that same time, 1989 marked the 150th-year celebration of the existence of photography per se, despite the evolutionary shifts still underway: the harbingers of a post-photographic epoch. That same year marked the point of departure for an artist named Chuck Samuels to launch his project called Before the Camera, the first time he began photographing himself within the frames of pre-existing images. Like many other photographers during that period, Samuels also turned his attention back to an earlier formative stage in image making history, and he commenced what Fontcubera called “bringing out the present in the past . . . appropriating a string of iconic images and masterpieces, superimposing his own face on the faces of great photographers and authoritative critics and theorists, infiltrating films and ultimately installing himself in all the vernacular forms of photography, from mass advertising to the family album. If the history of photography were a ship, Chuck Samuels would be a stowaway, but one who had boarded the vessel not for a free ride but in order to start a mutiny.” 

Untitled 15A (2010) (Samuels/Kerber)

Likewise, Mona Hakim’s fine essay on Samuels is one of the most clear- headed expositions of the beating heart of what art after modernism has as its vital and valid mandate. Anyone who has ever been perplexed by the postmodern ethos or puzzled by the dynamics of deconstruction would benefit from absorbing her wonderful evocation of Samuels’ homage-like evocation echoes: “This self-portrait within a self-portrait is part of a cunning game that invalidates both the cult to which these models are subjected and the very model of the self-portrait, here depersonalized, even de-portraitured.” The cult she references here, by the way, is the original magical cult status of primitive images as explored by Benjamin, the very atavistic origin of all images and ritual art, not the other kind of cult.

And the anti-portrait is never more prevalent than when Samuels appropriates the work of other artists who are themselves masters of appropriation. The best example of this pun within a pun is probably his visual remake of Gus Van Sant’s meticulous shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, as well as his remake of Douglas Gordon’s own remake of a drastically slowed-down version of John Ford’s The Searchers. Hakim’s examination of the Samuels fixation on performance and deviation, narratives embedded within narratives, and his use of what she calls humour as a ‘critical apparatus’ also enliven this marvelous book of often maniacally charming and carefully crafted conceptual images. For instance:

The goal is to quite literally penetrate the structure of cinematic language, but also and above all, that of photographic language itself. Not only does Samuels embody the likes of Barthes, Foucault, Sontag, Benjamin, Freud, Arendt and Szarkowksi, but also, he infiltrates the core of their language, quoting some of their legendary phrases presented out of context. Once more, Samuels works through deviation and subversion, he questions the medium’s history from within, challenges its narratives and representations and upsets the very notion of authenticity.

In fact, his 1991 image of himself, nude and languidly lounging with a long boa constrictor coiling around his figure, mirroring the famous Richard Avedon 1981 portrait of actress Nastassja Kinski in the exact same pose . . . now that one alone is almost worth the price of admission to this artist’s enticing museum of dreams. In the end, Chuck Samuels succeeded in his mutinous mission as a photographer: he became photography.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020. His latest work in progress is a new book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, due out in early 2022.

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