Monday, September 5, 2011

Nature Morte with Mixed Messages?


III. Still Life Images with Obvious Associations
If you look in the Album assembled to support these essays, you will see in the sequence nos. 52–64, images that are the least unsuccessful (i.e., not moved) recording the accumulation of souvenirs little changed in the four years since the grayscale images of nos. 1–2 at the beginning of the Album, when the Christmas card with a Fra Angelico angel was recently received.
The mantelpiece which faces north is not well lit, but it had inspired this Game of Nature Morte, so finally I put the tiny camera on a big tripod and struggled to get it both near enough and high enough, tilted up, to get what I wanted to see: the semi-circles of the basket and half of the angel's halo as my principal motifs.  I barely got all of the Scribe's head, and I cropped excess off the bottom and managed to include the angel's profile.  The pin from the Egyptian exhibit at New Orleans raised its wings, and a king-cake baby that had escaped the transfer of the rest of them to the kitchen window sill raised its hands (from so close and at this angle).  A student who had been to Delphi brought me the sphinx, and another brought me the Discus Thrower fixed to be a Christmas tree ornament by the addition of an eyelet screwed into its head.  But they don't belong to this image.
In other words, to avoid breaking my own rules (beyond removing the hurricane candle left over from Gustave), I struggled mightily to get from it the formal organization of the above image.  Since this is in a dark-pink room, with black mini-blinds and sofas (and a red and gold painting off camera to the right), the receipt of that fine card with the Fra Angelico angel, over half a decade, was determinative to the requisite accumulation.
It must be understood that, whereas families stereotypically put lots of framed photos and snapshots of their own all over their living and working spaces, a number of us, usually single, make accumulations like this one, adding as whim governs.  For example, I put the Lenten New Orleans baby in the Scribe's lap because of the Dynasty XVIII statues of Senmut holding the infant princess Nefrure (the only Egyptian statues where Scribes hold babies); besides, that plastic baby is so pink.
But, of all the mantelpiece photos that I took with the new Nikon S9100, only this one has the purely visual compositional and coloristic integrity to qualify as a true Nature Morte.  Any importance it has is formal, viz, abstracted from the mundane stuff that the camera was made to register.
VISION creates the image, and lenses and focal planes and apertures are the brushes, pencils, etc., the graphic tools that vision has to work with, since PHOS, light, is what they all, severally, record.  That is why, with new kinds of cameras today, I made a photographic game precluding processes that Strand used.
Anyone can see that my mantelpiece stuff is just souvenirs (though the originals weren't).
Now let's consider my favorite image with mixed messages.
First, the British Museum terracotta plaque card (which when shifted changes from monochrome to color, based on such works as the Mari frescoes and probably correct) is always called "Lilith", because of the fearsome 'screech-owl' in the King James translation.  I have discussed her elsewhere:, under Figure A.  Behind her is a box of science fiction dvd's (but also at far left a Rigoletto which I take for the delightful one directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle).  Similarly, the classic film of Orphée by Jean Cocteau suggests no more than that the shelf photographed here belongs to someone whose idea of an old movie is not one from the early 1990s.  But the statuette of the woman (it would be about 20" tall if it stood) is, in my opinion, powerful and not like a goddess or even a royal ancestress, nor yet, despite her slender nudity, an adolescent girl just through a rite of passage (I have tried to imagine everything I can), as her crossed arms with large, expressive hands (and also bashfully or anxiously crossed feet, visible in another photo several years ago) might suggest.  Her face resembles one on a Shang Dynasty square ding, but also that of the Turkana boy, a homo erectus who died young, as reconstituted by the skillful Victor Deak.  At that time she already sat in this bookcase, though apparently on the next shelf up, since the wooden seat that she came with was impermanent, degradable.  It is a most likable statuette, and it sits where its owner can look at it, but its associations (unless with the "Lilith", temperamentally quite unlike) are accidental.
Now, I insist this is a true Nature Morte, though it defies being looked at like some Pipe or Apple or Bottle.  It is in strict perpendiculars, with significant coincidences, at several scales and like receding planes; depth is given by darkness, too, though the red and blue at left pop out; the pale reflections in the lucite case of the Orphée respond to the similar tints of the woman's headdress.  The image, even the iconic seeming statuette itself, would not be so powerful if otherwise seen and framed.  In this respect it is like my mantelpiece still life.  The bw image is (take your choice) either a work of art parallel to but independent of the statuette, or the statuette is above all a constiuent part of his photographic image.  Neither would be the same without the other.
It is so much the easier therefore to enjoy looking at the sci-fi still life as such.  The style of lettering and the titles will give real pleasure to all who have loved them, and the containers formed from slabs of china clay (I think) with the similarly fabricated YES in one of them, do show that this shelf belongs to them, whether or not I am right in reading our moon on the one at left.  I don't even know whether they are explicitly meaningful, but like Galactica's letter forms they have formal meaning—and I may be right in reading the IS in a circle as corresponding to that moon.  No matter, chiastic warm and cool colors make this a delightful still life.
The line dividing a photograph for a museum catalogue, scrupulously recording the profiles of these Late Classical cups, a skyphos and a kylix, one in the Gnathia style and the other plain black glaze-paint (the most waterproof and durable), and a Still Life, is very fine indeed.  An art museum might be especially concerned with the aesthetics and to show the three-dimensional objects in real, directional light (not too strong, of course) to give them a sense of atmosphere and space.   I think these are privately owned,  but the style of photography would do equally well for the V&A.
When I saw this image about a centimeter wide as a 'thumbnail' on a friend's cell-phone screen I asked to have it for this blog post.  When it came, the EXIF had hardly any metadata, so I asked whether it really was taken with a phone camera or perhaps with a film camera.  In fact, it was taken with a cell phone.  It proves that this Game could be played with cell phones alone, if it had to be.  She saw the light, she aligned the chopsticks, she got the essential combination of diagonal and foreshortened circle full of round toppings on the ramen; the camera was capable of recording the weave of the cloth and the stoneware glaze of the bowl.  Of course, it won't enlarge so far as some of the others (but neither will most photos taken on film).  The yellows and reds in and out of the bowl echo each other.
But would this photo also serve a cook book, just as the black-glazed cups also would serve a museum catalogue?  Of course.  But a lot of museum and culinary images lack their artistic properties.

I intend to write one more blog post in this series, considering some images alone, rather than as representatives of categories.