Pt. 2 of my thesis.
by Ivan Riascos
Continuation from last post.
I use photography in this project to establish a tangible connection to my corporeal existence. My problem with paintings and drawings is that they are not realistic, by which I mean they do not represent something I have personally witnessed, touched, or captured, which a camera has the ability to document. Yes, a photograph “can lie” with the use of darkroom and Photoshop techniques, but photography still has the power to make the viewer question reality in a way that no other visual mediums can, except for video. Another aspect about photography that made it viable for my intentions is that I was interpreting my beliefs, after all “interpretive photographs make no claims to truth or that they do not have truth value. Fiction can offer truths about the world” (Barrett 78).
For the past several years I have two criteria for taking photographs that invoke my spiritual side and seem to reflect a biblical scripture, namely that: (1.) I must shoot instinctively, and (2.) I must only use found scenery. The reason for this is because I am approaching my subject matter as a documentarian, capturing God’s hand at work. My photographsof the soap, which is part of the triptych En El Nombre de…(In Thy Name of…), and Blessed (Bendecido), were the only exceptions to these criteria (Figs. 4, 6).
I understand that the images are open to interpretation, but I needed to keep the images consistent in reflecting my understanding of the scriptures. I titled the work to inform the viewer of my intentions. One example is in the triptych, El Frutos de Nuestro… (The Fruits of Our…), in which I leave the title vague enough for the viewer to complete the title with such words as: labor, love, loins, the Holy Spirit, etc. (Fig. 5). The three images in the triptych address the elements of the Adam and Eve story that most strongly resonate with me. It is most significant that Eve was created from Adam’s rib, that the pair lived in Paradise, and that we are their descendants. I envisioned the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in a contemporary setting, and I used imagery arising from my interpretation of the scripture. The first photo documents the bruised ribcage of my friend, whose name is Adam. The second photo employs an idealized setting to represent Paradise, which is inhabited by a couple scanning the landscape. The third image contains a pole with nametags. All three images direct the viewer to provide the titles based on their own interpretations.
An artist, who works with the theme of religion, using primarily the medium of photography, is Duane Michals. He was raised Catholic, as was I, and has made photographs that dealt with his struggles and understanding of religion. “Michals used three to fifteen shots to compose picture stories which, however, were not usually complete narrations, but mysterious events meant to raise questions and to entice the viewer into further contemplation” (Bieger-Thielemann 433). In the piece titled Paradise Regained, Duane Michals made a series of six images that show one male and one female in their apartment, and as the series progresses the two slowly lose their clothing as the apartment becomes more like a garden. The sequence of the photographs suggests that we should consider letting go of our worldly possessions, to regain the paradise we have lost. Unlike his suggestions, my version is a re-visioning of the story of Adam and Eve of the parts that made me question its validity.
My use of personal imagery was vital to ending the religious confusion that I had experienced, because it required me to engage my notions of my culture, my race, my beliefs, and the time period that I live in. Although many of the images are serious, such as El Frutos de Nuestro…, others allow me to poke fun at myself. En El Nombre de…(In Thy Name of…) is an example of the latter (Fig. 6). As a child I had difficulty grasping the concept of the Holy Trinity for two reasons: (1.) the Holy Trinity consists of three beings, namely the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, though it is regarded as a single entity, and (2.) the distinction between the two Fathers of Jesus Christ. How can Jesus have two fathers? I had always incorrectly assumed that Joseph is the father of Jesus. Joseph was the father of Jesus only on earth, and is not the Almighty Father. I incorporate my own symbolism to artistically share my confusion. I photographed a clipboard that had the name, Jose, written in graffiti style – as if my discovery of the name itself were a miracle. José is the Spanish language equivalent for Joseph, which is significant because Spanish is my first language. The Holy Spirit is often symbolized as a white dove, which – also by coincidence – is the trademark of my mother’s favorite brand of soap. The triptych uses cryptic symbolism to embody the things that define me: family, language, and beliefs.
Christmas contributed to my confusion about what to believe. Under my Christmas tree the presents were labeled from “Niño (Baby) Jesus,” and not Santa Claus. At home I was being exposed to one ideology, and at school, another. In the triptych, Noche de Paz (Silent Night),I address this apparent contradiction (Fig. 7). The first image is that of a family of snow people, the second is a fence, but in the distance are Christmas lights forming a star with the moon in view. The final image is a Nativity scene. I illustrate the cultural dichotomy juxtaposing Christian and secular North American icons, the family of Jesus beside the snow family. My comparison is obvious, but I do not indicate which, if either, iconography better represents Christmas.
The images titled Cuarenta (Forty) and Tercer Dia (Third Day) satisfied the two criteria mentioned in this paper, and they were the only two taken with a pinhole camera (Figs. 8, 9). The 4” X 5” Leonard pinhole camera that I used lacks a viewfinder, which forced me to guess at the pictures’ composition. Another procedural element that I left to fate in these two images was their long exposure times.
The idea for Cuarenta was to make a symbolic 40-day exposure of my bedroom to reference Lent, which commemorates the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Catholics fast and sacrifice a token during this period. I decided to photograph my bedroom, because the camera needed a secure and steady location to record me, the subject, during the exposure.
Cuarenta and Tercer Dia were influenced by the works of photographer Michael Wesely, who uses long time exposures of days to years. I employed Michael Wesely’s formula, in which he places heavy density filters over the pinhole so as not to expose the film too quickly during long exposures. I attempted to develop an image on film, but failed. The reason for the failure was that I used too many red filters to cover the pinhole. In my final attempt I exposed the film during the 40 days of Lent without filters. The result is a wide-angled image of my bedroom, with certain objects appearing as ghostly material, and in others a bright white light. Wesely stated, “The framework is an architectural view, but it’s only the frame. Time itself is the subject, manifesting itself in many details. The details are the essential things that tell the story, and for that reason it is important to look closely” (Meister 13). Time is the main concept in both of my images. During the forty days the shutter was open it recorded me sleeping, getting dressed, having sex, having conversations, making decisions, making sacrifices, etc. It became a photo diary of my life. Wesely is more interested in documenting the activities around him, instead of documenting himself. In his early work he experimented with long exposures at train stations across Europe, by positioning his camera on the platforms of trains heading to Munich. He would then expose the film for the duration of a trip, starting with the train’s departure until it reached Munich, his birthplace. His first successful one yearlong exposure made was titled 29.7.1996-29.7.1997, Office of Helmut Friedel (Fig. 10). Wesely concluded that if he could make a yearlong exposure, why not undertake a two or three-year exposure, which he then embarked on.
My work and Michael Wesely’s employ long exposures and share a concept of time, although our subject differs. Instead of documenting the activity of the world myself, as Michael Wesely does, I choose to document my own bedroom, a private space that only a few people see.
Cuarenta and Tercer Dia also differ from the other photographs in that I did not know what would be captured on film; I was working with faith in hopes that a wonderful image would be the result, distinguishing it from the other images, which imply how I view the scriptures. If I were to try and retake these images their results would be different.