Europe, Asia, Brazil, Congo. For eight years, across continents and countries, Alex Majoli has photographed events and non-events. Political demonstrations, humanitarian emergencies and quiet moments of daily life. What holds all these disparate images together, at first glance at least, is the quality of light and the sense of human theatre. A sense that we are all actors attempting, failing and resisting the playing of parts that history and circumstance demand; and a sense that we are all interconnected. Somehow.
Majoli’s photographs result from his own performance. Entering a situation, he and his assistants slowly go about setting up a camera and lights. This activity is a kind of spectacle in itself, observed by those who may eventually be photographed. Majoli begins to shoot, offering no direction to people who happen to be in their own lives before his camera. This might last twenty minutes, or even an hour or more. Sometimes the people adjust their actions in anticipation of an image to come, refining their gestures in self-consciousness. Sometimes they are too preoccupied with the intensity of their own lives to even notice. Either way, the representation of drama and the drama of representation become one.
Let us begin with light, for without it there is barely a world and certainly no photography. Indeed, photography gives us the world as light and only light. Rays bouncing off the world pass through a lens to register on a light-sensitive surface. The resulting image, often highly illusionistic, is at once its own pictorial entity (autonomous and discrete) and a reference to something that preceded it, something that occurred before the camera. We cannot know exactly what that something was, how it looked, or felt, or what it meant. Light and photography can show, but they cannot explain. They give us the what, but little of the how or the why.
In daily life, and in images, we never really see people or situations ‘in themselves’; we see only the light they reflect, and the character of that light affects how we respond, interpret and understand. In itself, light has no meaning, and yet it is a source of endless meanings. Light comes to signify through the slow evolution and mutation of pictorial conventions. These conventions are present in everything from reportage and advertising to cinema, painting and theatre. We learn what kind of light is ‘appropriate’ for a passport photo, a wedding photo, a crime scene photo, a news photo, a war photo, a royal portrait, and so on. Moreover, it is because light has no intrinsic meaning that these pictorial conventions are so strong. They repeat through our visual culture ad infinitum, giving the impression that there is a natural correspondence between any given subject matter and the way it is represented. To bend or break these conventions, to experience a situation or a photograph of it in unexpected light can be disturbing and revelatory. Disturbing because it can betray expectation; revelatory because it may force new and often unresolved thoughts about the world, about its representation and about the essential condition of light.
Alex Majoli uses very strong flash lighting. It is instantaneous and much brighter than daylight. It illuminates what is near but plunges the surroundings into darkness, or something resembling moonlight. Spaces appear as dimly lit stages and, regardless of the ambient light that exists, everything seems to be happening at the sunless end of the day. Just when the world should be preparing to sleep, it offers a heightened performance of itself.
Flash lighting illuminates in ways the eyes of the photographer and those before the camera can barely register. It cannot be experienced or understood, because it is over too quickly. It can transform a scene profoundly but only for a fraction of a second. Unable to see its effects, the photographer must either make a test on instant film, or look at the camera screen if shooting digitally, or trust their expertise. Thus, flash is a kind of light that belongs only to the image it helps to form and to those who will eventually view it. This is why there is always something a little illicit and even transgressive about flash.
Flash photography came into existence around 1862 as a compensation or substitute: a sudden blast of light upon an under-illuminated scene could provide the rays necessary to register an image. But it soon became apparent that the effect of flash was more than practical. It was also pictorially transformative. It made the world look different and opened up new subjects to picturing. Eventually flash units were incorporated into cameras. This produced what is known as direct flash, which seemed to catch subjects: a politician’s telling gesture, a celebrity’s awkward glance, the partygoer’s revelry, a fugitive’s haste. Most flash photographs are made this way. The camera appears to throw light forward and to receive it as it bounces back. Off-camera flash, of the kind Majoli uses, is very different. Immediately the photographic procedure is more elaborate, the aesthetic and communicative possibilities are widened, and it becomes much more explicitly about the three separate positions: camera, light source, and subject (that’s if there is just one light source; Majoli often uses two or more). These positions demarcate a potential theatre of light.
The term ‘theatre’ implies a stage; a stage implies an audience; an audience implies performance; and performance implies artifice. Photography has always had fraught relations with all these concepts. This is because it is a medium that can be used with minimal preparation or intervention. It can set itself apart from the world it depicts, or at least fool itself it can, and this was for a long time enshrined as the protocol for realist reportage photography. In order to be true and authentic, a reportage photographer had to be present in the world but without interference. In the world; but not of it. It was an aspiration at once noble and impossible, of course. Even the photographic essentials of point of view, framing and timing are transformative acts. Nevertheless, photographs can be made with little intervention, and they can be made with full intervention, and each approach has its own version of truth telling and its own version of deception.
Photography’s relation to theatre is made complicated by its relation to documentary actuality, but this is in many ways an extension of the complication inherent in any theatrical performance. Even when theatre attempts to suspend disbelief, to immerse the audience in the illusion of the drama, the immersion can never be total. The intellectual pleasure of theatre hinges on the tension between immersion and contemplation of the immersion, between identifying with the fictional characters and watching the real actors playing those characters. In being still and silent, photographs invite exactly this kind of double identification. People in photographs strike us as both actual and fictional at the same time. Actual in that their presence before the camera has been recorded; fictional in that the camera has created a scenic extract from an unknowable drama.
The illusionism of photography is inseparable from the contemplation of its illusion, but all photography performs the world it depicts. It points at it and turns what it points at into signs of itself. Those signs may not have definite meaning but they signify nonetheless. Photograph your morning coffee cup and you have turned it into a performative version of itself, and the table has become its primitive stage. Drawing and painting do this too, but photographic depiction does it more explicitly, because the cup at which the camera points helps the image to come into existence in a direct way. ‘The magic of photography,’ suggested the philosopher and photographer Jean Baudrillard, ‘is that it is the object which does all the work.’1 Perhaps it is not even the object but the act of pointing that does the work. Point to your cup and see, or sense, how this pointing has transformed it. The cup appears to be doing all the work but it is the act of pointing that suddenly produces concentrated attention where before there was none.
It is with concentrated attention upon a space or object that theatre begins. This principle preoccupied many modernist theatre directors and writers as they attempted to explore, like modernists in all fields, the essential condition of their particular art form. The fundamental questions of what is theatre and what is a stage were at the centre of the work of figures as diverse as Bertolt Brecht, Hallie Flanagan, Samuel Beckett, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook. Indeed, it was Brook who, with his 1968 publication The Empty Space, made the clearest definition: ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.’ It is the act of naming that makes the space a stage, in the same way that Marcel Du-champ could nominate a commonplace mass-produced object as an artwork. Naming is akin to pointing, and it produces a theatrical attention, a heightened sense of anticipation and possibility, and a suspended sense of time and place. Whatever else they are, stages are spaces set apart, and theatre is what follows. A camera can point at a space and transform it into a stage. Light can do the same thing. A trained actor might take to the stage. Equally, a person may walk across it and not even know that others perceive it as a stage.
Alex Majoli’s approach to image making constitutes a profound reflection upon the conditions of theatricality that are implicit in both photography and a world we have come to understand as something that is always potentially photographable. If the world is expecting to be photographed, it exists in a perpetual state of potential theatre. Whether it is a surveillance camera, a smart phone camera, or a photojournalist’s lens, the omnipresence of photography has created a heightened state of camera-consciousness. Even when this consciousness does not affect those in front of the camera, it affects those looking at the resulting images. In photographs we do not see people, we see people who have fulfilled their potential to be photographed, to become light, with all the inevitable theatrical transformations this can entail. This does not negate the documentary potential of the image although it does imply that documentary itself ought to accept the theatricality of its own premise.
Majoli accepts this newly complex condition, responds to it and reflects upon it. And from this perspective it is perfectly understandable that the points of departure for his project come from experimental theatre, and in particular Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, first performed in 1921. Its ‘plot’ concerns a theatre director and actors who, while rehearsing their play, are interrupted by strangers. The presence of these strangers, with their complicated relationships and difficult histories, forces the director to rewrite the play in order to accommodate them. The layers of theatricality build up, and the audience has to adjust constantly. But the play would be little more than an empty game about theatre, were it not for the fact that Pirandello has deep moral questions to pose to the audience. What is our relation to the demands of strangers? What adjustments are we obliged to make? How do we reset the ‘plot’ of our life, our society?
The arrival of strangers is always theatrical, not least because it throws into question our presumptions and aspirations. As Georg Simmel puts it in his remarkable essay from 1908, ‘The Stranger’:
If wandering is the liberation from every given point in space, and thus the conceptional opposite to fixation at such a point, the sociological form of the “stranger” presents the unity, as it were, of these two characteristics. This phenomenon too, however, reveals that spatial relations are only the condition, on the one hand, and the symbol, on the other, of human relations. The stranger is thus being discussed here, not in the sense often touched upon in the past, as the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather as the person who comes today and stays tomorrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.
Between Simmel’s prescient essay and Pirandello’s urgent play, came the First World War, with its mass human traumas and dis-placements. What also came was the modern idea of the photographer as wanderer, the photographer who goes into the world as a stranger in order to encounter, and be encountered by, strangers. Majoli arrives, not just as a stranger with a camera, but with an emphatically strange performance, erecting tripods and lights, hanging around, waiting. What results from these theatricalised encounters between strangers are suitably strange pictures that allude to the very questions raised by Simmel and Pirandello.
LIGHT, THEATRE, HYBRIDITY
For all that photography might be regarded as a distinct medium, its borders with the other arts have never been, and can never be, clearly defined or policed. This can be confusing or liberating, but it is inevitable. Moreover, the same permeability exists within photography, between the various social functions it has been given since its invention. Just as there will be overlaps between, for example, photography, painting, literature and performance, there will be overlaps between documentary photography, cinematography, topographic photography, anthropological photography, fashion photography, advertising photography, and so on. Photography in and as art retains its relation to all its other non-art manifestations, if not in the minds of its makers then in the minds of its viewers who must move in their daily life between many different types and registers of image. Hybridity is not only a condition of photography; it is a condition of our experience of it.
Despite all this, documentary photography and photojournalism have presented the greatest challenges in relation to hybridity. While some practitioners and outlets have been quite hybrid and open to experimentation, in the written histories and in contemporary discussion much of this is repressed by the wish for a purity of form and function. There is a strong desire, however misplaced, to protect documentary and photojournalism from straying and overlapping with other kinds of photography. This is because of the inherent tensions between what an artwork is and what a document is. These tensions are in part institutional (art demands authorship and expression while documentary and photo-journalism demand records and reports) but the tensions are also internal to the medium. Each and every photograph is both an artwork and a document, and making sense of them often involves negotiating our conflicted responses.
In 1964, the photojournalist Don McCullin took a shot of a Turkish gunman running down a street in Cyprus. The light, gestures, setting and composition were all so ‘right’, so pictorially precise and formally harmonious that they worried McCullin. He felt the photograph was too much like a film still – staged, theatrical, artificial. (By coincidence, the image’s caption tells us the gunman has just left the side entrance of a cinema).2 What does McCullin’s apprehension suggest? That photojournalism needs to signify urgency through formal imperfection? That it cannot risk association with fiction, even though the world sometimes looks that way in photographs? That photojournalism should follow conventions that distinguish it from all other kinds of pictures? That a photojournalist must not confuse the audience by appearing to mix crisis with pictorial contemplation, thus betraying the sense of worldly urgency? Did McCullin feel his photograph accidentally broke a rule, a preference or a convention?
In recent years, the rules, preferences and conventions of nearly all kinds of photography have become less emphatic. They have been challenged both by pioneering photographers in search of new ways of picturing and communicating, and by the decreasing power of the institutions of photography that once upheld the ‘rules’. As I see it, Alex Majoli’s proposition is that, quite literally, putting a ‘new light’ on the world and on photography might shed new light on both our aesthetic experience and our ways of knowing the world as pictures. His images do this not by resolving the tensions between artwork and document (they cannot be resolved) but by dramatizing them, making them think-able in the midst of our pictorial and documentary encounter with the contemporary world. While his approach is distinctive, it is nonetheless useful to place it in the important lineage of experimental realist practices that extends back through the history of photography, and beyond.
Consider a photograph by Bill Brandt, from his book A Night in London, 1938. It shows a man, perhaps homeless, looking through the trash behind a restaurant while a waiter looks on. It’s clearly a highly charged and political scene, one of those moments of British class tension that Brandt was so attuned to notice. Beyond the lighting (he was one of the earliest adopters of portable electronic flash) we cannot tell from the image exactly how it was made. Brandt may have chanced upon this scene, although with 1938 equipment it would have been difficult to shoot it quickly. He may have noticed the situation and asked the men for their collaboration. He may have even cast two players and worked out in advance how he wanted to make this image. He may, like Majoli, have simply gone about setting up his equipment with barely any communication with the men.
Brandt worked in many different ways, adhering less to some ‘verité’ notion of reportage than to a much older idea of the image as illustration. Books of drawn illustrations of contemporary life had preceded photography, and newspapers carried them before they carried photographic images.3 The skill of the illustrator was to observe scenes from life and make decisions as to how best to represent them. The process was artificial, certainly, but it was still motivated by the desire to report. The key discussion of this practice is, of course, Charles Baudelaire’s celebrated essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, 1863. It is helpful to recall that Baudelaire’s primary example was not exactly a painter. Constantin Guys was an illustrator or chronicler, making drawings and graphic watercolours of daily events to be reproduced in the popular press. Such a marriage of crafted, responsive expression with wide dissemination was what seemed so worldly and modern to Baudelaire. Guys was light on his feet, sharp and alert to the small details of dress, gesture and place that were the essence of modern life. His fluid and informal sketches were hybrids of fine art and applied art, and this, too, Baudelaire thought modern. Four years earlier Baudelaire had voiced his suspicions about photography being pursued too self-consciously as an art, but we can see now that Guys was a kind of proto-photojournalist, noticing and reporting in reactive pictorial form.4
Drawing and painting are, like theatre in the traditional sense, additive procedures. One starts with a blank page or stage, making marks or gestures until the work is finished. Observational photography is subtractive. From the incalculable flow of life, the photographer must choose where to stand, what to frame, where to focus and when to make an exposure. The photographer may also need to choose what to light and how. Looking again at Brandt’s photograph we can see that flash plays more than a practical role in illuminating the scene. Flash helps to pick out the relevant details: the trashcans, the bodies and clothes of the two men, and just enough of the street setting. The rest slips into darkness. The same is true of Majoli’s photographs.
Photography, of course, begins with darkness. Develop an un-exposed sheet of photographic film and it will give you a clear negative that will print as pure black. For this reason, if a photographer is to assume the role of an illustrator, it is easier to use lights than accept the given light of a situation. Most of Alex Majoli’s photographs were made during daylight, and he could have easily photographed his scenes with no additional illumination. Flash was not a matter of necessity; it was a choice, an interpretive, responsive choice. Despite the long-standing use of lighting in documentary photography it is still regarded with suspicion in some circles, as if it were a kind of betrayal. For the reasons I have outlined, this suspicion is in many ways perfectly legitimate, but it cannot be the whole story. There can be good reasons to betray, good reasons to transgress, good reasons to break with expectations. The year Bill Brandt published A Night in London, Bertolt Brecht published his urgent essay ‘Popularity and Realism’. It was a call to keep open the door of realism and to avoid falling into habit or style or presumption about how to picture the world:
With the people struggling and changing reality before our eyes, we must not cling to ‘tried’ rules of narrative, venerable literary models, eternal aesthetic laws. We must not derive realism as such from particular existing works, but we shall use every means, old and new, tried and untried, derived from art and derived from other sources, to render reality to men in a form they can master… Our concept of realism must be wide and political, sovereign over all conventions.
For Brecht, convention – the unquestioning use of a form or protocol – is the most dangerous trap, for it does not keep pace with changes in the world. The moment when realism assumes it can achieve transparency, assumes that its form can disappear into ‘content’, is a moment of complacency. The forms and protocols of realism must respond to change and keep responding, knowing that no reliable formula can ever be achieved. One must not defer unthinkingly to received ideas about how the world is to be understood or represented. Brecht continued:
Whether a work is realistic or not cannot be determined merely by checking whether or not it is like existing works which are said to be realistic, or were realistic in their time. In each case, one must compare the depiction of life in a work of art with the life itself that is being depicted, instead of comparing it with another depiction.
Brecht is not suggesting any particular method as to how one might arrive at an appropriate approach in the midst of a change. On the contrary, his position accepts the necessity of risk and experimentation, and thus the possibility of failure.
Is there a correct position from which to grasp Alex Majoli’s proposition? Are we to suspend any documentary claim and engage with these pictures as fictions, like film stills or theatre publicity photographs? Are we to understand these images as psychological portraits of people and circumstances, made by a photographer concerned with some higher truth relating to the contradictory promise of a new global consciousness? Would this global consciousness be the ghostly return of the humanist promise of universal rights and values, asserted in the face of shameful and catastrophic inequality? Perhaps these are not so much ways to read Majoli’s photographs as questions to think about while looking at them.
If experimentation is necessary, then form must remain active, graspable and thinkable. It is in this sense that realism is inevitably artistic. We live in strange, precarious, unpredictable times, and there is no consensus as to how we are to present our experiences of the world. Neither is there any fixed position of judgment that can be taken, no established criteria. For our own benefit let us assume that Alex Majoli has at least intuited something of all this. Let us enter his photographs as experimental subjects.
1. Jean Baudrillard, ‘For Illusion Is Not the Opposite of Reality…’, in Jean Baudrillard, Photographies 1985–1998 (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 1999).
2. Harold Evans discusses McCullin’s misgivings in Pictures on a Page: Photojournalism, Graphics and Picture Editing (London: William Heinemann, 1978).
3. And here too there was an important hybridity. Photo-mechanical reproduction for the printed page came about only in the 1880s. Before then photographs had first to be translated into engravings or woodblocks.
4. Baudelaire’s distaste for photography was most evident in ‘The Salon of 1859’, published over four instalments in the Révue Française, 10 June–20 July 1859, reprinted in Classic Essays on Photography, edited by Alan Trachtenberg (Sedgwick ME: Leete’s Island Books, 1980).