Sensitive photography

Last time I came to the V&A, I spent my time playing in the John Madejski Garden, paddling in the water, passing through bamboo-tunnels and chatting away, comfortably sitting on one of the sombrero-mushroom tools designed by the Campana brothers. When I decided to make my way to the pictures of Curtis Moffat, it was too late: the photography gallery assistant was turning off the lights in an attempt to get rid of the last visitors.

Library of DustOn my return this week, I arrived early and went straight to the photography gallery. The first picture to greet me proved to be the best one on display. At first sight, it looked like a can of acid-coloured paint, most of which had overflown and formed a cylinder-shaped abstract painting. Seemingly floating on a black background, the pot of paint now reminded me of our blue planet photographed from space, our oceans and continents enveloped in the bright, atmospheric glow that makes Earth look so unconditionally beautiful from up there. In grim reality, David Maisel’s can, from his Library of Dust series (2006), contained human remains, which chemical composition had caused the copper container to corrode in such a painterly fashion. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, earth to Earth…

Masao Yamamoto’s lyrical tableau Nakazora was a pure photographic jewel. Made of fragmented black and white photographs, printed and assembled within a long and narrow frame, Nakazora had the elegant and swift characteristics of oriental drawings. A tiny flying ballerina on a vast and dark background, a bird landing on water whose reflection made it look like a blossoming flower, the silhouette of a monkey leaving traces on a snowy landscape, Yamamoto uses pictures like calligraphy, assembling them into a poem, transporting his reader above the mundane and the temporal. Nakazora is Buddhist for ‘the space between sky and earth’, ‘the place where birds fly’. To me, it spoke of inattentiveness, of daydreaming, of the things people do in between the things they do. I was naturally switching into contemplative mood when I suddenly remembered my agenda for the day.

DragonflyWhich brought me to the back of the gallery where Curtis Moffat’s photograms were hanging. Born in New York, little-known Moffat trained as a painter and became an ultra modernist interior decorator when he settled in England in the early 20th century. However, he devoted his art to photography in the thirties and was influenced, among others, by Man Ray and his rayographs. His own experimentation with the no-camera technique produced stylish abstract photographs that transform recognisable objects into enigmatic shapes and signs. My favourite was his close-up picture of a dragonfly, reminding me of a disney-like fairy passing momentarily through our world, caught by a ray of sun.

In more recent history, Gary Fabien Miller has taken up the craft of the photogram, being referred by the V&A as ‘the pioneer of contemporary cameraless photographic images’. For Breathing in the Beech, Homeland, Dartmoor, Twenty four days of Sunlight, May 2004, he gathered 81 leaves from several trees and exposed them to the sun for a period of 24 days. The graduation in colour, from pale yellow to deep green, referring to the natural process involved in photosynthesis, produced an odd kind of photographic still life. Autumn under close scrutiny? I know where I’d rather be: walking in the woods, thrashing into the humus, searching for mushrooms and piece of mind in the dim and warm September afternoon’s sunlight.

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~ by lavivette on September 15, 2007.

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